Currently blogging at http://www.KayakDov.com
The night of the festival of Shavuot I was a guest in a joyful home. I ate until I was stuffed. I drank a quarter glass of good wine. I stayed up late with friends. I was twice happy, once for the holiday and again for my impending graduation.
I had a block to walk home along a busy street at 11:30 pm. I sang loudly and stumbled awkwardly embracing the festive cheer.
That’s probably why the police officer pulled over beside me and asked me to stop. Someone had called to report a fellow so drunk he could walk into the street and get hit by a car at any moment.
“How much have you had to drink?” I had learned in Ranger Academy that drunks always answer “Two bears” and I thought about saying that myself. But I wasn’t drunk, and if I was a smart ass the situation would go from bad to worse very quickly. I really wanted to graduate. So I threw the word “sir” in at every opportunity and explained.
I had only had a quarter glass of wine, and I had eaten a lot. I was simply embracing the Sabbath mood since it was Friday night, and we Jews celebrate Friday nights. Wait a second. It wasn’t a Friday night, was it. That’s right, it’s a special festival. It was the holiday of, … I wanted to say the name of the festival in English, but couldn’t remember what it was “Penta – something.” Oh well. I stood up straight and spoke clearly so as not to seem drunk.
“Can I see some ID?” He asked.
“I don’t have any. We don’t carry things on festivals.”
He went back to his vehicle for a moment. Then came and and asked me for my name. “Dov Neimand – ‘N’, ‘E’, ‘I’, …”
“M or N?” he asked me.
“M, as in …” I had just learned the phonetic alphabet. ‘A’ for alpha. ‘B’ for Bravo. What was ‘M’. I wanted to impress him by using police words, show him that I was one of the good guys.
But I was thinking too long, so he interrupted with “ ‘M’ as in Mike?”
“Yes, that’s exactly what I was going to say.”
He questioned me some more and I assured him that I never stumbled into the street and was perfectly capable of walking the remaining half block to get to my home.
So he told me I was free to go, and I did, without stumbling once and only singing a little.
The next day was graduation. The keynote speaker was changed at the last minute to someone who told us about how Chinese companies were buying American car companies and how sad the tragedy at Little Bighorn was. “We lost some good men that day.” He told us.
Then Random Guy was done speaking. We were called up and handed our certificates. Ranger Hunt spoke about us kids and almost cried. There was a picture montage. And then we were done. I wasn’t really sure that I would graduate until I was holding the certificate, expecting some last minute divine prank. But I did it. I made it. I was done with Ranger Academy.
Afterwards I went up to Ranger Hunt.
“I probably caused you more headaches than any other student. I appreciate all the effort you made to get me through.
“Stay true.” He told me.
We had two days of sample exercise scenarios, law enforcement confrontations between us and actors. After that, we’d have a written test, two hours in an arcade, then finish with two last days of scenarios. I had to pass the scenarios. I had the exercises ahead to prepare me.
It seemed that my biggest problem with the exercises was that I wasn’t aggressive enough.
On one exercise we were responding to a burglar alarm. My partner and I approached. I was supposed to take the lead. I asked my partner if we were going to go in guns blazing. I thought she shook her head “no”.
I called out to the building “Come outside. Now!” A woman exited the building. “Put your hands in the air.” She did.
She told us she had locked her keys inside. My partner had her gun drawn and was pointing it at the the woman. I did not.
It occurred to me that I had been locked out of my own home time and again. I regularly broke into it. I’m glad I never had to look down the barrel of a gun while a zealous police officer put me in handcuffs.
“Is there anybody else in the building?” I asked the potential burglar.
“No.” She told me. I believed her.
“Do you have any ID?” I saw she did in her back pocket and with her permission removed it.
My partner began handcuffing her while I checked the ID on an imaginary radio.
At this point Commander Hug ended the drill because we had failed miserably. Why didn’t I have my gun out! Why was I using the radio while my partner was handcuffing the suspect. What was the matter with me?
In one scenario we drove up to a scene in response to an emergency request for assistance. I was using another student’s car, and not being an experienced driver, took some time to get it into park and turn it off.
As I stepped out the actor officer appeared to be in an intense argument with someone. I began walking towards them intending to call out “Back off!” Before I could, there was a shove, then a fake gun, “Bang! Bang!” and the actor officer was down.
I took cover behind the actor officer’s car and returned fire. “Kapow! Kapow!”
There was a little more shooting, and then the exercise was over.
Afterwards, in class Ranger Hunt asked us “If you were an officer in distress, how would you want backup to come?”
Everybody in the class answered “quickly” except for me.
When I was in the military, there were three other medics in my battalion who were killed or wounded by enemy sniper fire because they went to rescue without first looking at the situation. Sometimes, as a ranger, backup can be over an hour away, we were taught.
“If backup couldn’t make it in time to save me” I began, “I would want them to be careful.”
Ranger Hunt, standing just a few feet from me, picked up a foam baton off of his desk and slammed it down yelling at me “WRONG! You are Wrong. Take your head out of you ass! When an officer is down you haul ass!” He went on a little bit longer. I don’t remember exactly what else he said, but I’m sure it wasn’t complimentary. Apparently, I was the villain who wouldn’t hand a fellow officer a glass of water in the desert. Ranger Hunt finished with “Break for lunch, one hour!”
After lunch I got called aside. Commander Hug and Ranger Hunt were concerned that if I continued making the same mistakes, I would fail. Nobody else was making these sorts of mistakes What didn’t I understand. How could they help me. They wanted me to succeed. They talked to me about use of force and officer safety. I told them I would try my best to get it. For the remaining exercises I would amp it up and use more force.
In the very next exercise I thought, it doesn’t make sense to draw my gun here, but they want me to draw my gun (a fake plastic one) even when it didn’t make sense to me. So I drew my gun and pointed it to someone who had potentially overdosed on drugs while my partner handcuffed her. Commander Hug had told me that drugs were associated with violent crime so we should always be on extra alert when drugs are involved. After we had finished handcuffing I put my gun back in the holster.
I was wrong, Ranger Hunt told me. Sure, drugs are associated with violent crime, but these were pills, which were not. It seemed like I couldn’t get it right, not when I went with what made sense to me and not when I tried to guess what made sense to them.
Then there was an exercise where one woman was assaulting another. After the suspect and the victim were separated, I saw the suspect try to grab for something from the back of her waistband.
“Put your hands in the air!” I yelled, quick drawing my side arm and pointing. My partner hadn’t seen what had happened. I asked her to cover me while I handcuffed since “I saw her reach for something. I think she’s armed.”
My partner thought I was imagining it. She didn’t want to draw her weapon. I went to handcuff without cover, and as I did so the suspect went for her gun again. I manhandled and cuffed. The actress suspect told me that my arm bar was sufficient and no additional pressure was necessary.
At the end of the scenario we were reviewed again. This time I got it right and my partner blew it. Maybe I was making progress.
The last scenario we both got right, or at least, we did better than everybody else. Somehow, it still seemed like we got yelled at more.
The next day was my last written exam. I passed.
The day after that we played a giant video game. We had a different instructor for it, so I thought I could go with what I thought was right, instead of trying to do what I thought the instructors thought was right. In the game there was this woman who was yelling at me and waiving a glass bottle. I was the only one who didn’t shoot her. The arcade instructor said I was the only one who got that right.
Then I was up to the last two days of test scenarios. There were eight scenarios, if I failed any I would get one chance to retake them. If I failed the second time, I would not graduate.
I failed the first one for not worrying enough about my safety while helping a mentally challenged individual get home. Among other mistakes, I was supposed to write him a ticket for being in a closed section of the park.
I also failed my 2nd test and the last one.
That evening we would celebrate the Jewish Festival of Shavuote. I had to leave school by 7:00pm to be home by Sundown at 7:45.
Ranger Hunt knew this. He also knew that I would now have to stay late to retake the three scenarios.
“What if you have to stay past when your festival starts?” He asked me.
“I guess I could always walk home. But I wouldn’t be able to drive or shoot.”
We were using paint guns, driving really old police cars, and talking on imaginary radios.
“What would you do then if you needed to do that in a scenario?”
“Well, I could walk and pretend that I was in car, and say ‘Bang’ instead of pulling a trigger.” As we had done on previous occasions.
“We’re trying to make the scenarios as real as possible.” He told me. “I don’t know if that would be good enough. Can you call your rabbi?”
“I can, but I know what he would say.” There is no breaking the rules, except to save a life. Training doesn’t count.
Ranger Hunt seemed to think that I wasn’t even willing to compromise to graduate. That becoming a park ranger wasn’t that important to me. That I wasn’t taking it seriously. On retrospect, I don’t know what he was thinking, but at the time I got a little angry. “If I have to go home in shame because I failed out on account of my religious customs, then so be it. I can’t compromise them. What I can do is walk 29 miles home so that I can retake this test.”
That was the end of the conversation.
When I retook the first test I didn’t give the mentally handicapped person a ticket the second time either. Ranger Hunt, testing me instead of Commander Hug, asked me about it. I told him I thought it was a little cruel to give a handicapped person a ticket. He agreed, though he thought cruel was too strong a word.
The other two scenarios I had to retake, I passed the second time also. Ranger Hunt and Commander Hug walked me through them and told me how to pass. They wanted me to graduate, and they made sure it happened.
At the end of the day I went home feeling wonderful. I finished school. I got home in plenty of time before the festival. I would rejoice and attend graduation the day after. The only thing that could keep me from getting my park ranger certification would be if I got arrested on my day off.
So I’m nearing the end of my course. Smiley and Big are friends of mine now, and while I don’t get along with everybody as well as I
might, I think I’ve left my goof reputation behind. I’ve eaten a lot more loquats, even climbing a few trees, but keeping an eye on my things so no thefts.
In order to help keep the peace with Bud, and get more out of life, I’ve been biking 28 miles home from school as often as possible. On Monday it rained hard I even got hailed on a little when I biked uphill into a river that was once a street. I sang into the torrents and declared that the best way to love life, is to embrace every rain drop.
Every thing in my water resistant saddlebag was soaked There are now colorful Rorschach water spots on my computer screen.
I took some pictures of my ride on a sunny day, so here they are.
Every Monday at the military hospital in San Antonio there is a game of kayak polo. For those of you who don’t know what kayak polo is, imagine rugby in a pool in a prison being played by the roughest toughest inmates, and you’ll get an idea of the excitement and fun involved.
The game is played as part of a therapy program for wounded warriors and when I got out of school early, I was delighted to have the opportunity to go there as a kayak instructor. I met up with my new friends Ben and David and began to teach.
I worked with a fellow who had three tours in Iraq. I was teaching him how to roll. We stopped to bail the water out of his boat, and when he got out I noticed he was missing one of his feet. I like that kayaking is a way for some wounded people play as hard, if not harder, than the rest of us.
Then we played kayak polo. I took a paddle to the face. I also had a lot of trouble keeping track of who was on my team, a couple of times racing against my own teammates for the ball. I scored, and at the end of the game I doubt anyone knew what the score was.
After the game, we all got out of our boats, and most of us put on prosthetic legs. Ben invited me to go kayaking with him through downtown San Antonio on the San Antonio River. I paddled a sprinting kayak for the first time. Sprinting kayaks are less stable than most sea kayaks; you can’t use your thighs to control the boat and they don’t roll. You have to control the boat with your butt muscles.
I did a small loop on the river, almost avoiding scraping the boat on the river’s concrete basin. I was nervous about flipping over. I did a couple more, thinking I would get the hang of it, and my butt got tired fast. I decided I had had enough. I went up to put my boat back on the truck only to find that the truck had moved some unknown distance down river.
I would have to paddle there. The stop would be just before the next waterfall. I didn’t feel I had solid control over the boat. I hoped I wouldn’t go over the waterfall.
I put my butt muscles back to work, paddling hard and trying to keep the boat stable. I went through rather than around some hanging branches, under a bridge, past happy pedestrians exercising along river, and made it, a little desperately, to the take out.
I liked the challenge. I liked working different muscles than I was used to. Next week I’m going to try again. I hope that by getting to be solid in a sprinting kayak I’ll improve my sea kayak skills.
I was walking home from the synagogue in the evening.
I was carrying a book, Born to Run. I was enjoying it. I was also taking care of it, since I had borrowed it from a friend who had it as a gift from his daughter and stressed the importance that I eventually give it back.
I was also carrying my beat up laptop, my tefillin bag, and a phone cord when I passed the loquat tree. I passed the tree every day, and I usually stopped to help myself to a tasty treat. For the last couple of weeks I enjoyed a bunch of ripe loquats every day, but today it looked as though I had finally exhausted the supply.
I could see, up in the higher reaches of the tree, an abundance of juicy fruit. But they were well above jumping height. I put my things down next to the sidewalk and climbed the tree. In its upper reaches, I was hidden from the world by a thick canopy and surrounded by bunches of fruity tastiness. I hung there and gorged myself, each loquat bursting with goodness.
Someone might have passed by underneath the tree, but I couldn’t see and I didn’t care. “This is the life,” I told myself, juices running down my chin.
And then I was full. So I climbed back down, picked up my things, and went home. Or at least, that’s what was supposed to happen. I looked to the spot where I had though I left my things, and didn’t see them. I began searching, maybe I had placed them farther away from the base of the tree than I thought.
About 15 feet away I found my phone cord. It was alone, strewn across the sidewalk. My preciously borrowed book, ramshackle computer, and tefillin had been stolen!
But the thief had dropped the phone cord, and I knew what direction he had gone. I pursued. About 200 yards along, my things were lying a few feet off the sidewalk. My tefillin were spread out on the grass. I kissed them, wrapped them preciously, and put them back in their bag.
On the way home, I grabbed a loquat.
Friday was a day off. I had signed up for a swift water rescue class and was going to travel to San Marcos. I would catch a bus at the Randolph Park and Ride at the edge of San Antonio. It would take about one hour of predawn biking to get there.
I decided to take the Wurzbach Highway. It was still under construction. I pedaled past a bright orange barrier onto a closed bridge. In the dark I wondered if it was completed, or I would I stop short* to see an empty expanse ahead of me.
Suddenly the asphalt was invisible. Had I gotten to the end of the road? The bridge beneath me was black in the night and I continued on. I cruised down the other side of the empty highway and onto a long open section under bright stars.
An uncompleted bridge, just the columns, crossed over a small intersecting road. I walked my bike across the road and picked up a dirt road on the other side. I followed it to the next intersection. This time my path was interrupted by a roaring highway. In the center there were columns for the bridge that would one day be built. In the dark, I couldn’t see a way around.
I took an access road to a gas station and asked for directions. The woman behind the counter told me “Oh, you want to go to the park and ride? That’s right near where I live. I get off in five minutes, I’ll give you a lift.”
So we threw my bike in the back of her car and were off. On the way she told me about the upcoming Fiesta and Poteet Strawberry Festival.
The bus driver said he’d tell me when we got to my stop in San Marcos. He didn’t. I biked through San Marcos, passed the kayaking place I was headed for, then doubled back and found it.
Ben, a former olympian, would be teaching me. Another fellow, named David, would also join us. I was a little confused. David only had one arm. With it, he picked up a kayak and a paddle and threw then the back of a van. He was going to kayak with us. Ben was training David for the Paralympics. There are some kayak tricks I know how to do with only one hand, but it seemed to me that paddling would be hard.
It turned out he had a prosthetic arm that attached to his paddle. When we were on the water Ben playfully flipped David over, and David rolled back up beautifully. Later, in rapids, Ben capsized and made a wet exit. He proudly held up his paddle showing that his arm was still attached to it though not the rest of him.
I learned how to surf standing river waves. I learned some exciting swift water rescue techniques, like a zip line, and had an all in all good time. Ben invited me to hang around for the weekend to have fun paddling with him. Sadly, I declined. I don’t paddle on Saturdays and had plans for Sunday.
Biking back, in the light of day, I was able to take the abandoned highway almost the whole way back. The intersection I had gotten thrown off at earlier had a tunnel underneath it that I had missed. I had an entire highway surrounded by woods to myself.
I arrived home feeling great. I had finally gotten out on the water, for the first time in months. I felt cleaned of all my troubles. I was walking on water. Or at least, I had been paddling.
I had earned the reputation of a goof off and lost the respect of my peers. It seemed that, at any given time, I could count on the sympathy of at least one other person. Sometimes it was Big, others it was Olive, or Bud. But it was never more than one or two people who were nice at a time, and the job seemed to rotate.
People were being mean to me, not bullying so much as finding fault where none was do and jumping to assume that I was wrong in what ever I was doing. It wasn’t fun, but I had faith that it would resolve itself because my fellow students were good people and, surely, I couldn’t go on making an ass of myself forever.
But Bud’s turn at being nice was over. The last three days he had been silent on our ride to school together, then he said some things that were mean.
“Why the personal assault?” I asked. Until then, we had always been civil, even friendly.
He told me, over the next 20 minutes, as I sat a passenger in his car, what he thought was wrong with me. He hoped that by the time he was 29, he’d have accomplished a lot more than I had. I was wasting my life. I wasn’t contributing to society. I felt an undue sense of entitlement. We had political disagreements, I thought they were small, and he didn’t want to spend so much time every day with someone so different from him. We weren’t friends. He had no respect for me. I owed him gas money.
He was glad he got that off his chest. It would have been bad for him to keep that bottled up he told me. He would still give me a ride to and from school.
I decided we needed space. I would still ride with him in the mornings, but I would try to get a ride with someone else in the afternoons and bike the hour difference instead of my evening runs in the woods.
The next morning I got hit by a car while biking to Bud’s. I was on the sidewalk heading against traffic and an older fellow pulled out of a gas station and made a right turn into me. I fell and my front wheel got crushed under the car. He stopped, then backed up a little. I lay on the concrete in the street and wondered how bad I was hurt. The old man got out of his car wondering the same thing.
My legs hurt. The rest of me seemed fine. I tried standing. It worked out, so I hobbled a little. I seemed to have suffered no great injuries.
“Are you okay?” The man asked me. He was scared and worried.
“I think so.” I did my best to reassure him. I felt bad for him and my mind identified him as a victim of fate and a society that encouraged people to drive around a couple of tons of planet destroying bicycle crushing metal as though that were a perfectly reasonable way to go to the convenience store.
I told him it would be okay. There was nothing to worry about. My legs hurt, but I was probably just bruised. I didn’t need a ride to the hospital I didn’t need anything at all. Don’t worry about it.
I then noticed my front wheel was crushed. If he really wanted to do something, he could pay for it.
I tried to guess. I figured, better to low ball it then steal from an old man. “Maybe eighty dollars?”
He took out his wallet, forked over the cash, and was off. I looked at my broken bike, took out my phone, and asked Bud to drive 30 minutes out of his way to please pick me up. I was not off to a good start. It would be a week before my bike was fixed and my plan of spending less time with Bud was gone.
The next few days I got to the usual pick up spot, and home from it in the evening with an hour’s walk. I didn’t want to ask him to pick me up and drop me off at home. I didn’t need to reinforce his impression that I felt entitled. I was thankful that he was still giving me a ride at all.
My bike was fixed. I celebrated by biking the 28 miles to school. Bud told me that he appreciated all the space that I had given him, especially under the circumstances. I don’t know if we’re back to being friends, but we are back to being friendly, and that’s a good start.
Things were going well. I had gone almost a week without getting in trouble. I was more than halfway through the course, and maybe by some miracle I would make it to the end.
I got called out of class. I sat down in a small chair in front of another administrative triumvirate. “How did I end up here again?” echoed through my thoughts. What had I done this time. I soon found out.
The National Park Service had read my blog about the first two weeks of school. I had, at that time, tried desperately to avoid writing anything that would offend anyone, but someone was offended. Apparently there had been some discussion at the highest echelons of NPS brass about whether or not, especially with my history, I should be allowed to continue in the program.
I was ecstatic. Not only had somebody finally read my blog besides my mother, but it was the NPS, and they were talking about it! Nothing could make me happier. I was finally feeling success as a writer, and it was sweet.
As I walked out, officially on academic probation, having been told that cooler heads prevailed, I was happy.
If you have a secret, don’t tell anyone in the men’s room. No secret is safe there. So it got back to me that it was Smiles who told on me and my blog. It was too bad, I had kind of hoped the NPS had found it on their own. Still, it seemed like a step in the right direction. Of course, I had to take my blog down, but that was only a temporary setback.
The NPS had read my blog.
We were training with Commander Hug and Chief Ranger Skywalker for close quarters combat. The Chief came in from Highest Crime National Park where, together with a few brave men, he battled the forces of evil on a regular basis.
In an abandoned building with our fake rubber guns we saved hostages, slew terrorists, and made the world a safer place under the Chief’s tutelage. We were sent to search the junk spread throughout the building to find cover for our villains. Walking through the building I found an almost empty kitchen. I have a knack for finding food. cinnamon flavored apple sauce and popcorn. The popcorn had no expiration date. The apple sauce expired in March 2005.
I didn’t think I would eat it. I wasn’t sure, but I thought I had better sense than that. Either way, I would take them and show off my treasure to my friends.
In the hallway I ran into Smiles. We grabbed some rubble together that would make good cover for bad guys. He noticed my applesauce and popcorn. “Where’d you get that?”
“I found this old kitchen.”
“That’s stolen.” He said strongly. “People use this building, you have to put it back.”
“I don’t think it is …” I was cut off.
“You got to be thinking about ethics. That’s stolen. Put it back!”
“It expired in 2005.”
But Smiles wasn’t interested, “I don’t care. Put it back! It’s stolen. You’re stealing. You’ve got to do ethics.”
I was a little scared. I had recently promised I would follow all instructions given to me. Here I was getting an instruction to put the apple sauce and popcorn antiques back, and I was ignoring them and being yelled at. I would not be bullied though.
“Please don’t talk to me that way. It’s not okay.”
“I talk to you this way ‘cause it’s the only way you listen.” He yelled.
I don’t remember ever doing anything, in my entire life, to give anyone the impression that I responded well to be yelled at.
But I didn’t want to get in trouble again, it would probably mean the door for me. Maybe I had a solution. “Let’s go ask Commander Hug.”
“No! You don’t need to ask Commander Hug because I’m telling you.”
Commander Hug was on the way back to the kitchen anyways, and as we walked back I tried to tune out the barrage on my ethics and personality.
Commander Hug was in the hallway outside the room we had been using as a classroom.
“Sir,” I began to ask.
“You have to put it back!” Smiles shoved in.
“Excuse me Smiles, I’m talking to Commander Hug.”
“You don’t need to talk to commander Hug, you need to put it back. Ethics!”
Commander Hug looked as though he wanted to be somewhere else.
“I found this in the kitchen …”
“I’M YELLING AT YOU BECAUSE I HAVE ISSUES!” Smiles went on.
“It expired in 2005. Should I put it back?”
Commander Hug: “I guess so.”
I went and put it back.
“See, I told you. It’s ethics.” Smiles was pleased, and I was worried I hadn’t followed and order.
Walking through the hallway sometime later I was telling myself “That’s it Dov. You blew it. Park Ranger school was fun while it lasted, but it’ll soon be time to pack your bags and go home.” Surely Smiles would go straight to Ranger Hunt and wreak havoc on my rangering plans. A fellow cadet, Olive, caught me moping. She kindly asked me if I was okay.
Going to Ranger Hunt myself seemed like a tremendous risk. If Smiles hadn’t gone to him, then I would essentially be showing up to say, I just got my 3rd strike. If Smiles had then it might be my only opportunity to defend myself before a decision was made about whether or not I could continue at the school. I knew that I had been told on the past, but I didn’t know if it was by Smiles. After school I went into Ranger Hunts office. I decided that being open and honest with the administration was the right thing to do, strategic or not.
I stepped in and sat down. I began to talk. I was looking for guidance concerning a recent event, I told Ranger Hunt. I was shaking in my seat, thinking that this could be the end. As I recounted the events it became clear to me that I had not been told on. More, I was right not to follow the order, because it was silly. It would be my responsibility as a park ranger to think.
Smiles, assuming I hadn’t left anything out of my story, was wrong. Ranger Hunt would speak with him about what happened and get to the bottom of things. Justice.
“No thank you sir.” I did not want Smiles to get in trouble from up above. I did not need the administration to step in between me and another student on my behalf. I would resolve it myself, now having my shattered confidence restored.
And then I was brought down a notch. Ranger Hunt encouraged me not to go into law enforcement. He encouraged me to be an interpretive ranger, the sort that spend most of their time educating the public. Law Enforcement rangers also educate, but mostly write tickets.
I like the idea of never being the bad guy and always having a smile for the public. But I also like the idea of going after poachers in Alaska.
I hear the moose calling me. I hear the mountain lion and the seal. There’s work that needs doing, and I want to be the guy who does it.