As part of our anniversary celebration throughout 2017, we will re-print some of our favorite photos and stories from the past 25 years. These specials are identified with our “25th Anniversary Feature” banner at the top of the page.
This “SUWAT” was originally published in August, 2007.
For a while there, I was only known as “13.” Oh, sure, they all knew my actual name, but it was way more fun to mess with the newbie and call me by number. Plus, it freed them from any internal restrictions they may have had about abusing people, since I was, after all, only a number. This was my first real job out of college and I was determined to put the brain cargo I had amassed to work. It was time for me to start a long and glorious career as a Park Ranger. My first assignment: Patagonia Lake State Park in southern Arizona, just 15 minutes from the Mexico border.
I was certain that I would be the fine example that all other rangers would be judged against. I was going to blaze a trail and show the visitors of the park the splendid beauty and intriguing history of their protected treasure, all while gently reminding them of the rules and responsibilities that come with such a perfect paradise. I would be the modern-day version of Teddy Roosevelt; a conservationist and a pioneer in the field. Someday they would build a monument of me at the park entrance. People might name a college after me, or at the very least, a library wing.
I lasted four months.
It was August when I realized I was hired only because I looked hardy enough to dig ditches in the blazing heat of the southern Arizona summer. I recall being asked in my interview – in March – about working in the heat. As a cool, lake breeze wafted through the head ranger’s office, I proudly told him about my experience laboring in the fierce Arizona summer. I regaled him with the story about working outside as a landscaper (fancy word for grass cutter) in the summer of 1990 – when the temperature climbed to a brain-swelling 122 degrees. Our employer’s truck had died – so we had to walk two miles to get back to the office. This seemed to impress him and in a couple days, I received the phone call confirming that I was hired.
When I showed up at the park on my first day, I was given my badge and walkie-talkie. Whoa – no one said anything about a badge. The shiny shield on my puffed chest meant I had – nay, commanded –authority! Respect! Dignity! Honor! Code of the gladiator!
“What kind of weapon will I carry?” I asked, pinning the badge on my uniform, my eyes tearing up a bit at the responsibility – the sober faith – that was being instilled in me.
“If you mean your shovel,” I was informed, “well, you can pick that up at the work shed.”
I then spent over an hour learning proper walkie-talkie etiquette. Seems there are an awful lot of retired people who visit the park, and they all have scanners. We were to assume that our mothers were listening at all times. There would be no broadcasting first or last names or any other identifying characteristic – only the ranger number. And that’s how I became 13.
The first couple months weren’t too horrible, although I was cleaning toilets more than anything else. I noticed that I wasn’t the only ranger participating in this humbling activity – everyone did potty duty. Even the guy who had been there 12 years was scraping kidney juice off the urinals. I figured he must be an ex-convict or just amazingly stupid. As it turned out, he had a degree in Environmental Science from Clark University – one of the best “earth schools” in the country. Hey – wait a minute – I’ve got a degree in earth sciences too… as I was mulling around the word prognostication, the water main on the east side of the park broke and spouted a geyser in the middle of the road that was just skimming the troposphere.
The whole park went berserk. My radio was squawking. Park dwellers were howling about the sudden lack of water pressure. And just like that, “13” was suddenly the only one around. It was August, it was hot and humid, and apparently I was the only ranger who was stupid enough not to find a reason to get in a truck and bail to Nogales for “supplies.” All five of the other rangers on duty were smoking tires toward the border in a King Cab Chevy before I even got to my weapon of choice, which would turn out to be a blue trenching shovel.
Three record-temperature days, ten bloody blisters, and six feet of caliche soil later, I found the main water pipe. I had dug a huge trench on one side of the road where the water had surfaced. I was still the only one up there digging, and the other rangers were marveling at the red-faced 13, who was unable to lift a canteen of water to his lips without crouching, due to the muscle failure in my arms. Once I found the main line, I enthusiastically radioed down to the base to let them know.
“That’s good,” said ‘One’ (the lead ranger), “now we need to dig out the other side of the road to isolate the pipe.”
I wiped the salt crystals from my face (heat exhaustion had set in) and laughed. We? What WE are WE talking about? My limit had been reached and whether they were testing me or abusing me, I wasn’t going to take it anymore. Like a Harlem fire hydrant wrenched open on a hot summer day, a series of obscenities and expletives burst forth.
I started the transmission by using the word “mother” in conjunction with another word and rattled off a tirade that lasted a good 30 seconds. Then I held down the transmit button, jamming the entire channel. I held that puppy down until “One” came barreling around the corner in his truck, at a rather astounding rate of speed.
As he skidded up to my location, I could see the radio in his hand and the fury in his scowl. He started to say something, but I had no intention of listening to anything but the sound of my car throttling into passing gear as I screamed up the highway back to Phoenix.
Then I delivered what would be my final transmission: “Thirteen, out.”
— Greg can be reached via e-mail: email@example.com.