Monday, March 23, 2015

23 Hours after Your Day Sweety and Deja Harrassment

Feed Me!

I came around a bend heading north and immediately noticed the white SUV parked high above the highway on a fire control path.  Could this be officer D. Olenko?

Of course it was. And I could so easily imagine him hunched over his radar gun hoping  to nab scores of unsuspecting speeders. I shook my head, feeling bad for him. Again, flawed technique. After placing himself 150 feet above the highway, no easy feat by the way, and backing up on high and narrow fire control road, he was probably wondering why he hadn't written more tickets. Well first of all, his "set-up" and that's what speed cops call it, was an obvious 12x6 buzzard so high above the highway that only a double cataraced Mr.Magoo could miss it. Secondly the precarious dirt he chose had a downward slope which made his rack of overhead lights stand out like Rudolph's red nose, multiplied by eight.

Better would've been to park down on the flat below where my friends and I do when visiting the area we refer to as "The Lagoon".  Just a white SUV, then, no need to hit the brakes. At this rate he was never going impress his supervisor, much less gain the attention of state level people I had offered to put him in touch with the day before (previous blog entry). But in the course of my educational career, I've worked with many special needs individuals and realized you have to let them find their own way.

I gave an affectionate wave as I passed though he was apparently too absorbed with his radar gun to acknowledge me.

I passed him and made a decision not be distracted by his deficiencies, instead focusing on the green and blue beauty of this wonderful spring day. I romped on the gas anxious to visit another beach today, happy that Officer Olenko had found a way to occupy himself while I pursued my own interests.

Roping myself down a steeper descent than yesterday, I bounced around, got a little roughed up. A reminder, I thought, there was no guarantee of balance and coordination at my age. 

But the beach was good. The beach is always good. If you think otherwise, then you're not paying attention to the beach.

I sat down, observing the waves  trying to mentally sync with their rhythm. I closed my eyes and enjoyed the warmth of a soon to be setting sun. Sadly, a part of my mind was listening for the errant walkie-talkie sounds l heard yesterday. Hearing none, I focused instead on the screeching interplay of gulls hovering above me.

In time, I forgot all about Officer Olenko, and got up to collect some geologic samples, always hopeful that these little rocks might be transformed into jewelry. Then I returned to my backpack, sat down and pulled out a tin of sardines. Just a weird ritual I enjoy when sitting on a deserted beach, not sure why. I was down to my last sardine and two more crackers when I detected significant movement off to my right.

Fully expecting to see the khaki outline of a uniformed officer (and thinking No F-ing way), it took a second or two for me to remember the rules bifocals. Up for distance, down for close up shit. Upon further inspection, I determined the object in question in this case about 25 yards away, was a tawny-coated juvenile sea lion. Did this wondrous creature beach because he/she smelled my fish? Possibly.

And, oh man!
This sea lion was looking at me with same laser intensity as my dog Stewart when I'm eating a snack. It's a telepathic thing, I've decided, and he makes the message clear, "Don't be a jerk, John, share with the family dog!"

For a moment, I actually considered forking over that last sardine. But my aged and chemically compromised brain still managed to remember some training from my late-life ranger days.

First of all by providing the sardine I would be placing myself in danger. The sea lion would undoubtedly enjoy it. Afterwards, though, he might turn on me and think, "Hey Fat Man, is that all you got, one lousy sardine? Open up another of those containers or I'll chew you ankles off."
Now I'm not sure sea lions actually get that aggressive, having never been a beach ranger, but who wants to find out?

But secondly, by feeding this animal I could create a chain of events, an expectation of highly caloric foods associated with humans. And this could ultimately make me an accessory in the death of a higher order mammal. Unintentional, of course, but throwing out that sardine might be the first step, I told myself, in creating a "problem" sea lion. 

Not absolutely sure this works with the otariidae family (seals and sea lions), but I know it holds true in the ursus family (bears). "Feed a bear, kill a bear" was a statement I remember from a poster at the Ash Mountain visitor center where I was briefly employed as a seasonal ranger at SEKI (Sequoia Kings Canyon National Park).

Simplistic phrasing, typical of most posters I thought , beginning my employment there, but I came to know its truth. It happens slowly. You report to the station, one day, and a supervisor casually says, bear #232 is now yellow tagged. You understand that bear technicians have probably captured #232 in their tube traps, sedated her with a tranquilizer dart and changed out the color of a plastic tag stapled into one of  the bear's ears. No one pays much attention, you've got a lot of work to do and little sympathy for the person who initiated this event, another dumb-assed "guest" who left his food out and somehow had the temerity to complain, despite all signs and warnings, that it was missing.

Maybe it's just a month or two later when your supervisor says, "Bear #232 has been red tagged." Everybody gets quiet. If you've done patrol lately, in my case just a short stretch along the Kaweah River and up to the Potwisha campground, you pause. Normally, I make every effort to keep healthy distance between myself and bears. But if things are slow at the visitor center and your supervisor tired of looking at you, he will entrust you with keys and send you out on missions where you are guaranteed to have close encounters of the bear kind.  
Now I was 15 years younger then, just getting used to wearing my glasses on a regular basis, but when I came around a sharp turn and braked hard for a surprise bear, I'm pretty sure I saw a green ear tag labeled #232.  And I'm just as certain that it was bear #232 I shot with paintballs while sitting in a white SUV cruiser. After all, there she was standing on a campground table scarfing KFC because some of our "guests" decided hiking was more important than clean-up. What I did that day, is called "bear harassment," an officially sanctioned method in the hope of modifying bear behavior. Still, I bet it hurts and in the safety of my government issue SUV, and I noticed she had now been accessorized with a yellow tag. I also remembered that several months ago my wife and I were walking along a meadow in the vicinity of Morrow Rock. We  saw a bear and two cubs playing in a meadow. I'd forgotten my binoculars, couldn't see a number but the bear and her the yellow tag was unmistakable.

All memories, moot points after my supervisor announced the red tagging. She's displayed aggressive behavior, maybe despite loud shouting from outraged guests, she'd refused to put down the ice chest they'd left out. Mybe she initiated a bluff charge or punched through a car window because a guests decided to store food inside his car rather than use the provided our bear locker storage.compartments That's all and seldom are our guests physically harmed except in cases of astonishing stupidity.

And just forget about relocating "problem" bears. It never works. Drop them in the remotest section of back country and one of two things happen.  They find their way back to familiar campgrounds (sometimes traveling a hundred miles to do so) and resume those fatal habits learned through negligent human contact. Or they die violently, usually in less than a week's time, torn apart by local bears in the drop off area who decide to defend their territory.

And the day comes, all to often, when you enter the visitor center after some mundane task, maybe you've flipped over the closed sign or raised the flag, and your supervisor says, "Bear #232 has been put down." It's sad. Few in the station have ever heard the gunshot, fewer still have ever watched it happen, but many of us have assisted bear techs in  the field, attaching tracking devices to these noble creatures in the hope that this research will promote a better interspecies understanding. And it's very hard to do this kind of work, working hand in hand with the bear techs, without being infected by a reverence for these fellow travelers.
We talked less on the days when a bear had been put down and in quieter tones. 

I can't speak for the thoughts of my coworkers during those days. But I remember being angry at  homo sapiens, crappy conservators of this magnificent earth and pitifully unable to coexist with species that mean us no harm.

If anyone is still with me at this point, you're probably wondering what all this had to do with the sudden appearance of a sea lion--and whether I should share that last sardine. Guest what? So am I. But I need to reveal the final event that led to the execution of #232.

I know I should've use the word "execution" in the previous sentence but considering the freak circumstances, the term seems too mild. Ironically it was not a thoughtless guest, but one of our own that brought about this tragedy. An employee parked his vehicle at the day-use are adjacent to the Potwisha campground. He wanted to use the restroom and was in a hurry. He did not see the bear behind a nearby car, and he did not register the unsupervised child standing on the sidewalk with a tuna fish sandwich in her hand. But he did manage to walk right between bear and child. Except for a huffing sound to his left, that's all he remembered. The ambulance took him out the park with a forehead laceration. Just four or five stitches. Bears sometimes just cuff as when reprimanding their offspring, but when really pissed or threatened, they extend those enormous claws. The man in the middle was lucky to have received only one swipe of that extended cuff. Two cubs were shipped to appropriate agencies.

A summer later I found myself maneuvered into an overnight inservice for seasonal rangers, a group of 20-24 year olds along with a supervisor who was easily half my age. As is the custom (and fun) of telling strange tales around a campfire, one of the young'ns retold an exaggerated account of the ranger stood bravely between the bear and little girl with the tuna fish sandwich. After the telling, it was quiet and I realized everyone was looking at me. Don't be paranoid. I'm an old guy, I said to myself, it's natural that people focus the extreme differences. I was doing my best to be calm.
"You're him aren't you?" A question was spoken by someone so young she could have been in my senior English class three weeks ago.
"You're the one who stood between the bear and a little girl, weren't you?"
Everyone was looking straight at me, expecting something. My supervisor who had been around long enough know it wasn't me, was disguising a quiet belly laugh. Yet he was the one who had hand repeatedly asked me, "So how did you get that scar?" 
"Eric," I told him on those occasions, "it's not a scar, nothing happened. Just some kind of hereditary wrinkle kind of like you might get yourself--should you get lucky and live that long."

But people don't want truth, they want romance.
So I looked back at the expectant sets of eyes around the campfire and told them what they wanted to hear.
"Hell no! This scar didn't come from standing between a bear and a tuna fish sandwich!  I was attacked by an eagle. And I'm too tired to tell that story right now. Goodnight everyone. This old boy is tired."

And so I left them, staggering two or three trees into the underbrush because I really needed to pee.

My family knows the truth. If there truly is a scar on the left side of my forehead--and I'm not sure since looking at myself in the mirror this morning, a practice I abandoned in my teens. I have a vague memory of climbing the steps up to the Big Meadow Lookout and failing to duck below a barrier of jagged wire. My family members were sympathetic and helped me invent the more heroic eagle story just so I wouldn't be embarrassed by my innate clumsiness. Nice people, my family.

I'd really like to end this digression, right now, a story about a sea lion on the beach several days ago but there's one more event I have to reveal. Now or never a voice says to me. You see, after taking care of my business behind that tree, I found the way to my tent and collapsed. And awoke to a slippery sensation on my pillow. Sweat I told myself until I could no longer ignore the oppery odor. I touched my forehead and held out my fingers, blurry having not yet located my glasses. Looking a lot like blood. Yep.

I made my way to the campground restroom and looked into a wavy mirror. Blood had at some at time pored down the left side of my forehead. I was being watched by several college kids/wannabe rangers at the time. They said nothing, neither did I.

During the rest of the day, I was grateful for once about the ridiculous flat that rangers are forced to wear. Making every effort to achieve invisibility, I said nothing (though I knew most of the answers to our leader's questions). All the while, I was very aware that everyone was looking at me, studying the gash on my forehead. And I'm thinking, too many beers, must have fallen against some branch, clumsy old fart that I am. A likely explanation but I had no memory of such events (weak proof indeed after a bunch of beers). Stigmata, maybe, a wound so intently felt in your mind that your body creates it. An explanation not likely to be well received by my young atheistic supervisor.
Must have been about then that I realized that my khaki wearing days were numbered. Certainly other events occurred that insured my departure from federal employment, but those will have to wait.

I guess the point of this enormous intersection of "All Creatures Great and Small" and how I parted ways with the national parks system must return once again to my food-begging dog and how the sea lion to my right reminded me of him. It really comes down to this: there was no way that sea lion would get my last sardine .

And wow, didn't see those last 20 paragraphs coming!

So I slid the last sardine down my throat, after which I put the tin can in my backpack, zipped it shut, and got out my camera. Approaching my target indirectly, I was hoping the sea lion wouldn't bolt leaving me without any proof of his visitation. After only a few frames he returned to the water, clearly not appreciating my proximity. And this was good. Despite his surprise visit, he had demonstrated a healthy threat level. Any wild animal should be shy of humans and rightly so. If they're not, watch out. Things are wrong:

     1. The has animal has become accustomed to humans, having received food                            from them indirectly or directly. Not a problem if you're talking cute little squirrels.                  They seldom have attitudes. Larger animals like coyotes, cougars, and bears are                  unpredictable. They have bad days, behaving erratically and will attack their    
         own species. In this they just like us, humans, so watch out for them.
    2. Animals may also reduce their proximity levels because of disease, like rabies, which           can so erode their central nervous systems that Skippy the family dog becomes Cujo.           Consider also the cuddly campground squirrels who allow you to feed them, offering             no aggression but all the while harboring black death infested fleas happy to         
        desert a cooling squirrel body and jump right on to you.
    3. A older animal or one so injured that it can no longer acquire food through normal                 methods. You are its prey. This is bad, very bad. Do the usual posturing to      
        demonstrate width and size, but do not look directly at its eyes, a sign                       
        of imminent attack in both the animal and human world. And only when well out of   
        sight, run like hell, which your body had pleading for you to do all along.

These photos aren't very good--not because I'm lousy photographer--but because the sea lion moved away before I could get close enough. Again, threat level, a signature of a healthy organism.

He's quickly off, not wishing to dick with an untrustworthy species.

So stay away from animals who do not display an expected threat level. 

And after all of these mammal hugging thoughts, I am lead me to consider my behavior yesterday. Seriously, talking near smack to a law enforcement officer, someone able to incarcerate me or, if really pissed off in this remote location, make me disappear?  How wise was that and what was it all about? 

I climbed the cliff and took one last photo. It would be several weeks before I could return. 

And my during my return to San Simeon, the weird circularity of my life asserted itself again. Coming at me was the white SUV of Officer Olenko. At 5:00 pm, he was likely returning from a dinner at one of Cambria's fine eateries. I waved furiously at him as we passed each other, but he never responded. Maybe he'd read some rules forbidding a lawman like himself to take his hand off the wheel. Or maybe he just thought that's what he read, confused by too many big words.

I've decided to close this weird blog entry by taking the high road. I will never again use the "D" word to describe Officer Olenko.

Still I doubt he'll ever receive an award for being the sharpest tool in any law-enforcement shed...

And, seriously, who am I to criticize a well meaning public servant?  I count myself lucky to know one man who is willing to camp with me and endure this kind of drivel and more fortunate to have married a woman who listens to it all--but still insists she loves me. 

Friday, March 20, 2015

So How Was Your Day Sweety?

(My wife has been out of town for a day and I've already had a close brush with the law)

Secondary Title: Deja Harrasment, All Over Again

There I was, enjoying a glorious day along the almost north coast. My treasures (15 to 20 small rocks and shells) were arrayed on the boulder to my left. Peacefully enjoying the warm sun, most of my clothes on, and sipping a beer.

And the moment was good. I had happily squandered the afternoon tracking a retreating tide, occasionally getting up to check newly exposed sections of shoreline for collectibles.

The beer was good and purchased for a ridiculously low price at Trader Joe’s the day before. Four hours on the beach and I was still on my second brew, all part of my new regime to live healthy, eat organic, and consume moderately.

I leaned back against a warm rock, the beer casually wedged between my knees, and heard a disconcerting sound. The unmistakable squawk of radio response, female in this case, coming from somewhere up on the cliff. Oh dear! Someone had just 10-20’d into dispatch but forgotten to turn down the response volume. Even a lowly interpretive ranger like myself, not likely to encounter any real crimes, had been cautioned during inservice to report misdeeds discretely.

Whoever had allowed the noise from above, I decided, was definitely not “A” team law enforcement. I settled back and waited calmly for what was about to happen. In my backpack I had maps, printouts of all applicable rules and regulations, and a secret weapon.

During the time it took Johnny Law to find my rope and descend, I nearly dozed. Truly an extraordinarily afternoon at the beach, one not to ruined by bureaucratic stupidity.

My thoughts were soon interrupted a clumsy crunch, crunch, crunch. I turned and immediately recognized the source of this noise. I was facing the man who had subjected me to my first “interview,” an experience that inspired a blog entry several years ago. And, yes, this was the very same dumb-ass who allowed me to stand above him while he knelt down and pawed through my backpack.

I considered a lecture on the inherent danger of  his shakedown techniques, how anybody with an ounce of military/prison training (maybe just someone who’d read a Jack Reacher novel) could kick his brains out, drive off in his government SUV, ditch it at some public location, and proceed merrily on to further mayhem.

But something told me he might not be receptive to healthy criticism. So what did I do?  I began to say things that were much, much worse.

“Not again!" and lifted my hands in frustration,  "I’m telling you, this is a waste of your time.” 

“Listen,” he said walking forward and responding quickly, and I could hear the tension of his voice ramp up: “I came down here from above, maybe you heard my radio (duh!), and find you with rocks.” I'm initially processing the "I came down here from above" statement. Who the Hell did he think he was, Zeus? Were it not for MY rope, he could have never gotten his fat ass down here. And had I just heard him say "and find you with rocks" likely I was playing with my balls or something?

I interrupted him, the tension now ramping up in my voice. “Stop talking, it is absolutely legal for me to collect my 45 plus one pounds of rocks here.”

"You’re wrong, it's actually 15 plus one. I’m a state park’s ranger. I know and study the laws. This is a protected marine sanctuary and part of my jurisdiction.”

Okay, so this ape can read, I thought, it's at least 25 lbs but I didn't want to push this particular point since my command of numbers and fear of people with carrying guns run at inverse proportions.

“Nonetheless," I said (even though this is the kind of word that only to be used when trying to further piss someone off), "What little you see on this boulder is certainly less than 15 lbs, right? And as for this being a protected marine sanctuary, I've made some calls and discovered that the term refers OBVIOUSLY only to marine LIFE and, OF COURSE, rocks and uninhabited shells don’t fall into that category, DO THEY?”

Okay I'm a little out of hand here and I know it's stupid to talk patronizingly to a law enforcement officer. But after 10 or more shakedowns I was feeling a little cranky.

“Are you saying you know the law better than me?”

When he said that I realized the situation had become tenuous; his tone hinted at reprisal.

“No, officer, and I’m sorry if we got off to a wrong start. I was undoubtedly disrespectful." And even as I said this, I remembered my secret weapon. If you will allow me to pull out my phone, I could play you a recording of an official saying, “Mr. Richardson, you are fully within your rights to collect rocks along that area of the coast…”
“Who was it, my supervisor?”
(I’m running a bluff here, the recording probably erased after Verizon’s 21 day limit)
“Well, no, I don't think so. And I can't remember the name but the voice was female. Probably two or three levels above your supervisor, state level actually."

This significance of this penetrates him and he pauses moment. 
But just like the last time we met, he did not give up easily, and pointed to the hammer nestled among my treasures.
“You are also in state park jurisdiction and not allowed to collect anything with tools.”
“Well you know, I've read that section of state code about tools and can quote it by section and subcategory. I can even pull out a copy of it from my backpack and we can look over it (here I am not bluffing).  But that would be a waste of your time and mine, don't you think? Pretty sure that passage refers to mechanically operated devices, jackhammers, and other things like pneumatically driven sluices, you know?”
“A tool is a tool.”
Oh you got that right, Officer Olenko!  
And for the first time in my recount of these shakedown narratives, I've used a real name. I’m angry and tired of this shit.

“You might be right about that Officer Olenko,” I said realizing the full extent of his immunity to reason, “and I admit those rock chips you see to be the result of using my hammer. You see, thee was this rock with small geodes.” Here, I held out my hands to indicate an oval object 10 inches in diameter.
“Yeah, I know what geodes are.”
“Of course you do. But the rock was heavy, and I’m getting older. Not sure I could haul it up the cliff put it in my car, you know? So I broke it into smaller pieces hoping to take just the geodes.”

At about this moment he too embarked on a more conciliatory tone.
“Okay, I get that. And I want you to know that I didn't just come down here to hassle a guy who’s trying to collect a few rocks, relax and enjoy a beer.”
(Could’ve fooled me)

“I appreciate that officer and, again, I apologize for my initially rude response to your contact. It’s just that I've been interviewed (and I say this word with some delicacy) by the highway patrol, sheriffs, game wardens and, of course, state park rangers—hey, you don’t remember me?”
“Well, yes, your car did look familiar.” My bulllshit radar went overload, but I continued, “And I was also detained by some mysterious people who were pretending to be game wardens.”
“Yeah, two guys well trained, professional. I wrote down their names and mentioned them later when interviewed (again spoken with delicacy) by yet another game warden. You know what he said? 'Never heard of them--and I'm the only warden in this region.'”

Silence from Officer Olenko.  
I continued, “So I guess these guys were Home Land Security or DEA?”
“I can’t talk about that, of course” he said pompously, “and, of course, you know this is a corridor for drug smuggling, with all those panga boats carrying marijuana up from Mexico.”
"Uh, huh. I've heard about that but, honestly, I haven’t seen a panga boat all day. Wish I had.”
Again he didn't respond, apparently unable to detect my facetiousness. I waited a beat and explained, “You know, maritime law?  Yah, find an abandoned boat, claim it and after a certain time it’s yours. But I guess that law doesn't work with drug smuggling, eh?”
Again a pause--guess he also couldn't to detect my dead-on Canadian accent.

Finally I got a response, “Well, I don’t know anything about that, and I just want to say again that it was not my intent to come down here and hassle someone who’s just trying to relax. But I have to make sure nobody is poaching abalones or defacing the place. It’s a beautiful area and I've enjoyed fishing here.”
An opening, I sense--and also a potential ending.
“Really? I fish, too. So it’s legal to fish on this section of the beach then, with a license of course. Have you ever caught a ling cod?”
The rest of our conversation was fish talk. Eventually he left. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Wreck of the Fun Train from Reno

(With utmost respect for a Canadian: Gordon Lightfoot, composer/singer and author of the best modern day ballad ever written, The Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald)

Down the aisle a guitar man was taking requests.
I'd heard this song outbound and was taking inventory.

The ship was the pride of the American side
Coming back from some mill in Wisconsin
As the big freighters go, it was bigger than most
With a crew and good captain well-seasoned.

This train was our ride on the California side
Coming back from casinos in Reno
As big freight trains go, it was shorter than most
With a crew and conductors ill-mannered.

Concluding some terms with a couple steel firms
When they left fully loaded for Cleveland
And later that night when the ship's bell rang
Could it be the north wind they'd been feelin'?

Concluding some tabs at a couple of bars
We left fully loaded from fun land.
And later that night, with Visalia in sight
We wondered what the hell we'd been smokin'?

A north wind blew, my jacket collar was up, and we raced down the railway platform. The impatient conductor waved us off, indicating the car for Hanford was some vague distance ahead. Eventually, we joined an equally winded group all of us looking as hopeful and spiffy as your average passengers waiting for the Greyhound. Off the "Snow Train" and transferred to Amtrak, the whistle blew loudly for Hanford.

I felt lower than the concrete platform on which we stood, weighed down by blackjack loses. Despite "two-to-one" and "ace-in-the hole" comps, I had dropped an entire $15 at the casinos of Reno.  For me, that's manic-depressive devastation, the exact polar opposite of the godlike ecstasy I usually feel when leaving Nevada just $5 dollars to the good.

Trying to undo my inner funk, I replayed the free drinks won the night before, the game where my friend blacked out, not from drinking, but after marking every spot on his bingo card. And I recalled how he won us more free drinks, a couple of dinners for himself and his beautiful wife Jill Maurer and believe it or not, a gigantic big-assed Miller High Life bar mirror. Wow. 

In the words of Joe Walsh, "Life's been good to me so far..."

My mental massage was waylaid, however, by two of my fellow boarders. A late 20's male, average height with sandy blond hair wearing an inappropriate-for-the-weather orange T-shirt. Guess he just didn't have time to change clothes after his prison release. And a darker man who stood apart, covered with more tattoos than Ray Bradbury's Illustrated Man.

The train doors opened and everyone boarded, still clueless whether this was the right car for Hanford or the last train to Clarksville.  But before long we were underway to... somewhere. Time and Amtrak wait for no man, woman, or criminal. Certainly, our car was spacious (or would have been if single passengers hadn't commandeered all the four person booths because they needed room to play with their I-Phones). So much for a little game of cards with friends. This train don't carry no gamblers, this train...

Deprived of sport and restless by nature I wandered back to the food car to scout out my options. Three and a half hours is a long time without burgers or beer.  But thank the good lord, both were on the menu. I continued to study this menu while another customer stood before me at the counter.
"I'd like the combo, please."
"The combo"
The customer was a middle-aged black man, cardigan sweater, neat slacks. The "food conductor" was white, rotund and definitely not smiling.
"What combo? We have a lot of combos." I was looking at the menu myself and saw only one combo: drink, chips and sad photo of a chicken burrito, beans and rice included.
"I'm sorry," the man before me said and pointed to the photo, "This one."
"Well, what do you want for a drink?" the white man said briskly.
"Uh...coke, I guess."
"Well, we only have Pepsi."
"Oh say, I'm sorry, yes Pepsi would be fine."
Without another word the white food conductor microwaved his order and the black man paid and thanked him graciously. It was not so much what the conductor said as the tone he used to say it. I loitered around the posted menu hoping he would turn to me and say politely, "And how can I help you sir?"

He never did, so I didn't have a chance to say, "What do I want? I want all the racist bastards to take a flying leap off this train." I took my time before ordering something. He was brisk but not so much that I could ascertain rudeness or deference.
My snack in hand I walked back toward my seat and saw the black man bent over the tiny fold down tray, eating his combo while highlighting a thick book. Passing him again on my way to the restroom, I saw the title: The Differentiations of God. A minister probably or maybe a late life seminary student. And I wanted to sit down and say, "That guy was really an asshole, you know?" But he did know and had probably endured more of that kind of rudeness than I could imagine. Maybe not every time he tried to buy something but enough to know what it's all about. Perhaps that's why he was pursuing theology, I thought, and why others just get Ferguson angry. I walked on. There was nothing I could say to this man.

Stop thinking and relax said my voice of mental preservation. So, despite lurching surprises and inexplicable decelerations, I got back to my seat without falling. And choosing to ignore a few stains when I sat down, I decided the upholstery and chair was relatively comfortable. Seeing a huge red knob to my left, I decided to close my eyes and recline, nobody behind us. I leaned back and pulled the knob, nothing. I pushed it forward backward left and right, nothing, nothing, nothing. I asked my wife if she had a knob. She smiled coyly, "Not on my seat."
So I pulled up on the knob and then smashed it down, all the while pushing hard against my seat.
I could hear my wife giggling during these efforts.
"Maybe it's just a joy stick."
"Well if it is, I'm not getting much joy!"
In an effort to avoid grumpiness, I turned to our friends across the aisle.
"Hey, Ken, pull up on your knob"
"Pull up on your stick and see what happens."
Ken and his wife looked at each other, then gave me the "look".
I don't get it. Why am I always getting that LOOK?

After a lengthy discussion, we established that Ken's knob was no more effectual than mine and I decided not to prolong the discussion.
Strike two against Amtrak.
So I closed my eyes and imagined I was reclining. It worked, too, until thundering hooves came from behind. A  conductor so corpulent that I couldn't imagine how he was squeezing between the seats roared past us as if outlaws and Indians were on the attack.

Then the train stopped abruptly, right out in the vast agricultural wilderness of Stockton.
It was dark.

And we waited.
And waited.
I leaned across to Ken and whispered, "We're lucky. Just look out your window and enjoy the sparklers--not fireworks but gun fire. This is Stockton, the murder capital of the world, one homicide per hour--guaranteed!"

I'd had some bad experiences in this city, proof that the wild west was still wild, more wild than your average NHL hockey game.

Which gave me time to notice that the ex-convicts who boarded with us were now sitting together engaging in an animated conversation, probably one-upping each other on the easiest way to make a shiv out of corn flakes or bragging about how many innocent bystanders they'd shot due to shitty marksmanship. Nothing good would come from this.

Eventually (and by this I mean a short millennium) a few more people straggled on board and a frazzled lady collapsed into the seat behind me. The train resumed its slow southern roll. I looked across the aisle and telepathically asked my friend Ken, "What was that all about?"
He shrugged his shoulders. Enough said.

Or so I thought. But the frazzled lady behind us had other plans.

"You were on the train before me, right?"
"We were on the train, yeah," Ken answers (Thank God, she wasn't talking to me).
"And you saw the car on the tracks?"
"Well, there was a train on the left and on the right."
"I was just getting on at Stockton. I was on the outside."
"Uh huh, how'd they do that?"
"What's that?"
"How did they manage to stall a car on the tracks? (Ken pays attention to what people say)
"What?  Elderly lady... guess she didn't realize where she was, guess she thought she was on the street, going really fast. Could you see out the window?"
"No." (Wrong answer, Ken, and the frazzled lady took a deep breath)

"There were these guys, they tried to lift the car off the tracks. They couldn't do it. They couldn't get it up that high. Guess she was on medication."
"Probably she didn't know how to react," Ken said.
At this point I had to interrupt, "How DID they get the car off?" I mean really, tell me this train didn't just plow through a car with some old lady inside!
"A flat bed tow truck came and uh..."
"Winched her off?" Ken suggested.
" they hooked her up. They lifted it off over the track as if they were going to put it on the truck. But I guess there wasn't enough damage to it so they went ahead and left it on the ground. But then they had her get back in it. They were telling her to do something.  You could see they were pointing. The police... but first a white man shows up, then the crime scene techs and, um, the tow truck shows up, then the regular police officers. And they were all pointing for her to get in the car--they were trying to get her to back it up or move it over. She got in the car and just sat there with her hands on the wheel..." 

We were ducking our heads back and forth during this extended narrative so the convicts could pass by and purchase beers in the car behind us. And I had no problem with this except the last time I looked forward I saw them holding their bottles high above the seats slamming them together, no doubt celebrating their unholy alliance or toasting some nefarious plan.

I tried to ignore it all by closing my eyes, pretending my seat was settling back while inserting imaginary ear buds.
But wait, there's more!
The frazzled lady behind me wasn't ready to shut her pie-hole.

"And there was this big to-do. These other guys that were hanging around there. There was this guy that worked for Amtrak, this white guy and some gal, for a while. There were also these hoodlums from Stockton and they were like trying to conduct some kind of drug deal. And I don't know if they thought they could deal something out of their car... Anyway they're running. And there's like this father figure, I mean an adult male, and these kids were running across the tracks, just kids right? So the guy says, "You know, it's a felony to be running on the tracks...and there's like chaos going on. And he turned around and they're still running. So I think wait a minute, you just told them not to do that and I guess, they have no fear--and all these guys they just live out there dealing drugs... But then these four guys were all standing right there with this one woman, and they're all leaning in and I'm thinking I'd be so scared of this..."
At this point the frazzled lady begins a near hysterical giggle.

Oh, Stockton! You never cease to fulfill my expectations for mindless brutality, aimless violence, and absolute anarchy.

Finally Penny, Ken's wife and ever the one to console and be calm in face of insanity says, "Ahhh, a lot was going on out there..."

And Penny has a way of saying "ahhh" drawing it out sweetly so that we all relaxed and enjoyed several minutes of relative quiet, sitting (not quite back) but soothed by the rails that went "clickety-clack, clickety-clack". 

I suppose if someone wanted to get anal about onomatopoeia it was more of a "thumpity-WHUMP, thumpity-WHUMP" interspersed with an occasional "Lurchity-JERK, Lurchity-JERK". But however one might scan the poetry of that moment, it was soon interrupted by a dire intercom announcement--from the engineer, master conductor--or maybe God himself!

Ladies and gentlemen, as you know, someone is smoking on this train. If you are caught smoking, your ride will end abruptly."

I looked forward and--what a surprise--the prison-perps were nowhere to be seen! Meanwhile I considered the various implications of an abrupt ending--divine bolts of lightening, forced ejection from a moving train, or quick suffocation under the weight of an enormous conductor. But before long the jail weasels popped back up and right before sitting back down managed to throw everyone in the car a shit-eating grin.

After which we worked our way south through the "M" towns--Modesto, Merced, Madera during which the graduates of correctional universities actually demonstrated a learning curve: they got off the train and smoked furiously at every bean town between Sacramento and Hanford. The conductor/god's voice came on again to caution us all that we had only two minutes to smoke and were not allowed to be more than 25 feet away from the train. I turned to Ken and winked, hoping our friends hadn't spent enough time in public school time to understand the difference between feet and yards. He acknowledged my wink with yet another wise shrug of his shoulders.

And in between these stops our felonious fellows continued their back and forth movements expending their hard earned jail money to purchase more beers. Then something happened. The one attired in prison orange plopped himself down next to a woman just a few seats ahead of me. I couldn't hear what he said to her but she suddenly went rigid as if touched by a cattle prod. And I continued my observation of this situation until Mr. Orange returned to his own seat, next to the man with the marvelous tattoos. Some vague prompting caused me to get up at this point, time to stretch my legs and relieve my bladder.

I found the nearby restroom occupied and the food station beyond it unmanned. Descending steps to the lower level, I came upon crew quarters, apparently deserted. Books and magazines were open, a dinner left to cool. Remembering my original objective, I found the large door of a restroom with a hastily scribbled note on the handle: "Out of Order".  What had happened to the crew? Were they inside? Unlike the restrooms topside, four or five people or, uh, corpses, could easily fit in this ominous large enclosure.

And so with a definite tightness in my throat, I pulled up on the latch, hoping to God that I was not about to see something that would flash upon my mind every time I tried to piss in the future. But the latch didn't move, tight as can be.

Then I pulled down. No give.

Locked, that's all, our of order. No need to go Stephen King on myself. Still, killers have been known to jamb locks--first lesson in Prison 101 right?

I moved through the empty cabin until I reached the juncture of the next car all the while wishing I'd remembered to bring the machete my wife keeps under her bed. Beyond a glass window, I could see two conductor type persons engaged in heated conversation. After a bit of hesitation, I hit the "Push" button and they both stopped talking, turning to look directly at me. Seriously, why do all these guys look like walruses? And so there we were in an open space, at a precarious joint between two moving boxes of steel hurtling God knows where at 70 miles per hour. A huge crack opened and occasionally presented itself beneath us. I considered how this might be an easy target for urination. But I might miss and wet the shoes of the walrus, or an eggplant, coo-coo-kuh-choo?

This flashback reverie was violently interrupted by the whiplash voice of the food-walrus.

"If you need something, sir, I'll see you upstairs!"

I turned to the other walrus-conductor and said, calmly as I could with a bladder about to go coo-coo-kuh-choo, "Uh, a couple of guys in the car above are getting a little out of control. They haven't done anything serious yet, but--"

"Listen, we're all over the situation. It's already taken care of, okay?"

I ignored this statement from the rude food dude and instead nodded to the superior walrus while proceeding  to make my way upstairs where I was pleased to find an unoccupied restroom. Ahhhh.
Afterwards, I returned to my seat and tried to forget the drama below.
Then the "F" word happened.

The Folsom Twosome had gotten off for their usual smokefest..  
I felt my wife tapping my shoulder, "Look, there's a couple of railroad officials talking to the cons..."

We watched.
Both bad boys returned to retrieve their belongings. They had been forced to leave earlier than expected. And so the train moved forward leaving us with a parting image of the tattooed man shedding his wife beater, revealing dramatic skin art and, I suppose, showing us his disrespect.

Hanford arrived. We found our parked car.

Does any one know where the love of God goes
When the waves turn the minutes to hours?
The searchers all say they'd have made Whitefish Bay

If they'd put fifteen more miles behind her.

Does any one know where the love of God goes
When the rails turn the minutes to hours?
All could be avoided as everyone knows
Had we driven from Sac like the Maurer's.