Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Quaker And The Gun

"I found a back pack lying on the ground, just lying there, and then I saw it was covered in maggots." The younger of my sister-in-law's sons was telling me of an experience he had working with YoSAR, the elite Yosemite National Park Search and Rescue team. "So I looked at the pack for a while, asking myself what are maggots doing at 10,000 feet?" It was a moment worthy of a novel of crime detection. Our hero pauses and sees something incongruous and while we shudder at the thought of a pile of writhing maggots, he is simply intrigued by insect life thriving far above the tree line. "We had been called out to help locate a climber lost somewhere in King's Canyon National Park and we had only been on the mountain an hour or so, dropped there by helicopter." He got a dreamy look in his eyes, thinking back to the sweet taste of success. " I realised that there are flies at 10,000 feet and they lay eggs," he went on. "There was stuff on the pack that flies had laid their eggs in," he said and it was obvious this was not a story with a happy ending. Looking over the rim Nephew Number 2 saw a pile of rags flopped on the rocks, the owner of the pack and home to the flies' eggs. It was a struggle to get the body out and return it to his family, gruesome details I need not repeat. All in a day's work for a Yosemite Park Ranger, a job I would never have thought would suit Nephew # 2. How wrong I was.It took a long time for Nephew #2 to find his calling. He drifted, in the style of a hobo, into a job in California, far from his family's home in North Carolina. It was his ideal job, in many respects, greeting drivers arriving at Yosemite National Park ("Welcome to Yosemite Park, three thousand times a day for months," he said wearily), then taking the winters off, traveling in warmer climes, getting by on a financial shoestring and his immense charm. It worked well for some time, and then things got serious. He met a woman, as one does.And married her. And at work they got to insisting he take a promotion. Which was all very well as he was offered the very best job a park service employee could have, if he were also a climber. His bosses wanted him to take the Climbing Ranger position at Yosemite National Park, a unique job that pays the ranger to be a climber on some of the most sought after rock faces in the world. There was a hitch. There always is.The thoughtful young man, seen here taking a reflective moment in his older brother's Asheville home, is a Quaker, raised as a pacifist from childhood and not someone who rejoiced in guns, or shooting or violent pursuits of any kind. The fly in the ointment of his promotion was that if he wanted to be the Park's Service sole climbing ranger he had to go to the law enforcement academy. And carry a gun at work. This proposal required some thought and family discussion and in the end pragmatism won out. He went to the Academy for three months, spitted and polished and marched and took time to qualify on the range. In the fullness of time he became the armed climbing ranger at Yosemite.This elevation has given rise to endless questioning from family members not used to having a law enforcement officer in their midst. And furthermore, has created a new bond between myself, the dispatcher, and himself, gun toting lawman. He talks about traffic stops and citations, about the more bizarre aspects of ending up in Law Enforcement. His wife finds it onerous sometimes, "We had a mizzy thing in the closet for the longest time," she said with disdain oozing from her lips, "but finally he got a gun safe at the office." He lit up "It was an M-16, a veteran of the Vietnam War," he said reverently and it was in his closet paired with a Park Service issued shotgun. "The M-16 had a strong spring in the magazine, and all you had to do was touch it and it would release with a loud bang." He laughed at the memory of his wife leaping like a startled gazelle. Nephew #1, his older brother is by contrast a house husband, married to a nurse and raising two small children with all the humor of a man at peace with himself. Where his brother fools with guns, he messes with diapers (Clean, unused ones I might add):It has been no secret Nephew #1 wanted all his life to have a family and home and a future in Asheville. It's where he grew up and where he mountain bikes and worked for years as a valued employee of a major bicycle manufacturer, Trek. He achieved his goals in linear fashion, never wanting to trot the globe or wander far from his home, though he did live in California with my wife and I for a few short months before giving it up as a bad job . His younger brother wants a home in Santa Cruz, our old home town, to live in when he retires from his Park Service subsidized home in Yosemite. Two worlds far apart, two Quaker brothers different in so many respects yet closer than one might think. How odd it is to see the same kids become men and on such different paths, which is I suppose the story of growing old. Both gun less, and child free, in my case, thankfully on both counts.