Thursday, April 12, 2007

Input sought for new chapters

The first nine chapters of this blog-story (which follow below) were written in the months immediately after my departure from the National Park Service some years ago. I resurrected the manuscript from obscurity because the format of a blog seemed like a good place to display it and maybe would re-ignite a passion in me to finish it.

I have received some wonderful input from friends in the agency, both current and former rangers, about the direction of this storyline but am interested in gathering a wider scope of ideas and suggestions from other rangers out there that have read this blog novelette and may have things to contribute. I am particularly interested in the latest acronyms, initiatives and "visioning sessions" that might make this a more realistic and hilarious narrative. "Truth is stranger than fiction" was never more true than as it applies to the bureaucrats in the green and gray.

Thanks in advance.

Friday, January 5, 2007

The Beginning Of Our Tale

Conscience is the inner voice that warns us somebody may be looking.
---H.L. Mencken

It was a cloudless sky that dawned upon the mighty cliffs of Zenith National Park. The golden morning rays revealed an awesome majesty of crimson, orange and buff on the stark walls of towering sandstone.

In the campground below a large raven squawked as a pair of German men tossed it a Twinkie from behind their rented motor home. The children watching from inside the vehicle squealed with delight as the large black bird tore into the golden sponge cake with vigor and wild abandon.

Generators began to sputter awake. The familiar sound of the Today Show and the gentle smell of canned coffee permeated the air, as a briskly swirling canyon breeze wafted through fluttering cottonwoods.

The elderly campground host began his inspection tour of the loops. Wheeling his Cushman electric pickup through the slumbering nylon tent city, he sensed the beauty of the morning and was grateful to be where he was. The staccato clatter of radio traffic sputtered forth loudly from his walkie-talkie causing the awakening campers to look in his direction as he passed slowly by.

Zenith National Park was coming alive but the real fun was just getting underway at the Administrative Headquarters a few miles down the road. It is here that we more properly begin our tale.

Say It Ain't So

Ted Sanders, the Assistant Chief Naturalist, could hardly make his hands keep still as he and Bob Priestly, his boss the Chief Naturalist, slowly trundled along the dreary carpeted hallway. He had not foreseen the negative reaction and potentially career-impacting rebuke he had received so soon upon returning from two weeks of Design Element Training at the Harper's Ferry Center near Washington, DC.

His mind again revisited yesterday's closed-door meeting with Chief Priestly and the sharp voice of his superior raging to him that, “The erosion of inter-divisional partnership opportunities can have a calamitous effect on the entire structure of the park work team!”

Ted could only sit and stare back in utter disbelief. His defense had been half-hearted and shallow with that old coot Bob buying none of it. Ted had been totally unprepared for this sudden assault. “If only I’d had an inkling that this was coming I could’ve easily mounted a more credible defense”, he angrily pondered.

Who was going behind his back to Bob? The possibilities were endless.

Silently he prayed that nobody would try to chat with him in the hall this morning. At this moment in time he was heeling his master obediently, and it would be such a shame to cut short a question someone might ask him concerning his recent work on roadside exhibits or sustainable forms of energy efficient architecture. He imagined such a conversation in his mind, “Why yes Stan, the design element training I just completed gives this park a cutting edge skill. Unique in the whole region really.”

Looking up from the floor a nervous titter escaped from his mouth as Ted Sanders suddenly saw Superintendent Stan Nobright nodding faint recognition towards him on his way to the men's lavatory.

Making a sharp left they descended a set of stairs. Alma Matthews, a maintenance worker, absently sprayed a heavy mist of cleaning solution into the air as she languidly shined the steel handrail. The strong astringent smell of ammonia invigorated Ted for the first time all morning.

Chief Naturalist Priestly dreaded all of this interaction very much. Each hour that passed in these airless quarters made his last remaining year before retirement seem like a gaping infinity of mind numbing tedium. This business with Sanders was not pretty or edifying. “Why can’t he just learn to stay away from anything that’s got to do with other human beings?”, he disgustedly brooded.

Looking at Sanders again he no longer felt pity for him. Chief Priestly knew this deficiency of character in Ted was linked to a deep down stubborn meanness. His arrogance, originally a mask for self-doubt and inner failings, had gradually hardened into something ugly and misanthropic. It was not coming off without radical possibly fatal surgery. “I’m no miracle worker,” Bob glumly surmised, “what else can I say or do short of putting him on a PIP (Performance Improvement Plan)?”

Ted glanced back at his boss, “Does he actually think that I respect or care about HIS interpretation of official WASO (Washington Administrative Support Office) sanctioned printing protocol or HIS familiarity with the details of font and design element consistency?”

Adjusting his wire rim glasses he sized up Bob Priestly from the side and silently sneered “What exactly does HE know about Harper's Ferry design elements?”

It hardly seemed fair that his judgment was even being called into question in such a trivial matter and now he was being marched down the hall to grovel before some GS/5 first-year nobody. In his estimation this was going way too far!

“I do not deserve these indignities and blots upon my legacy” he bitterly reflected while looking down at a worn and pale tan carpet.

For a moment Ted flashed back to the previous day, when he had been the guest of honor at the town library, reading aloud to all the boys and girls. How long ago it all now seemed. It was Dr. Suess’s birthday and Ted had been asked by the Superintendent to do this very important outreach with the nearby gateway community.

“I do not like them in a box.

I do not like them with a fox.
I do not like them in a house.
I do not like them with a mouse.
I do not like them here or there.
I do not like them anywhere.
I do not like green eggs and ham.
I do not like them, Sam-I-am.”

These giddy memories of the children laughing at his witty recital made his hands begin to flutter and shake uncontrollably again. He stumbled slightly towards Bob, who turned and fired a sharp scowl at his nerve-wracked underling. Sanders struggled to calm his jittery fingers and contorted face by biting down hard on his lead pen and pretending to go over some imaginary notes. How he dreaded telling anyone he was wrong and sincerely sorry, especially someone so much lower down on the government service pay scale. This all seemed like a terrible ambush following a string of triumphs. This was surely no way to build a legacy.

The Interpretive Chief cleared his throat and rapped lightly on the door of the Backcountry office. Andy Hale glanced up from his desk and shot back a look of pure disdain towards them both. "Come on in" he said disinterestedly.

Andy Hale, Backcountry Supervisor, began to arrange some chairs and clear the room for this, hopefully, very short meeting. He stared at this sorry pair of geeks as they took their seats in the middle of the room. Andy wondered again, for the thousandth time that morning, "what in the hell am I actually doing here?”

Bob began, “Andy, I’ve brought Ted down to apologize and make good on the action items that you and I outlined in our informal discussion yesterday.”

Andy suddenly sensed blood. He perked up just a little. Oh how he despised Sanders. This might actually be good.

Sanders said nothing while Chief Priestly did the talking for them both. “I discussed with Ted the importance of inter-divisional cooperation, and the need for integrated approaches in problem solving. He’s in full agreement with all of our suggested guidelines for future divisional interaction."

Sanders figured the longer he let his boss speak the less he would probably have to say when his time finally came to grovel. Lightly drumming his fingers he stared vacantly at a spiraling screen saver, awaiting his ultimate humiliation quietly. He might not even have to apologize verbally. That would certainly be a bonus in a morning, that was so far, quite devoid of them.

Andy smiled; politely watching Sanders play the humble ventriloquist dummy sitting on his bosses lap waiting to say his regurgitated lines. This spectacle was one Andy wished he could have recorded, to relish again and again. He thought, “This isn’t going to be such a crappy day after all.”

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Splendor In A Glass

It was a warm and sunny day that Michelle Christian, Interpretive Specialist, emerged into from the darkened depths of the headquarters building. Making her way across the parking lot, a stiff canyon wind blew swirls of orange red sand across the tarmac.

In one swift motion she unlocked her 2-door Honda Accord and quickly reached under the front seat and plucked out her quarry, a half empty fifth of bourbon. The glistening brown liquid swirled in the bottom of the bottle as she held it up into the bright desert sun. Looking around the lot for any sign of people, she quickly poured a snootful into a slightly dirty travel mug. Gulping quickly, a soothing and sudden wave of heat hit her stomach. A second swig caused her body to shudder with relief and liberation. For a moment the reality of the surrounding cliffs and stark red rock were new and amazing again, as if encountered for the very first time. This fleeting appreciation of her geographical setting brought a keen sense of satisfaction and momentary peace.

Michelle had never been especially fond of this park. Its overpowering and glaring red sandstone, gloomy canyons and sparse collection of fauna was not her cup of tea aesthetically. Coming here to work meant a permanent job in the government; which was nothing to sneeze at. A life of predictable comfort in a cordoned sanctuary dedicated to the beauty and sterility of unadorned nature. A taxpayer funded monastery for timid souls afraid of a real world full of degrading demands and rituals. “Not a bad trade when you really think about it”, Michelle mused, as she poured a second jolt into the mug.

Reaching into the back seat she gathered up her most recently completed batch of Ted Sanders paper dolls. She had been cutting them out and coloring them in as a way to relieve the stress and strain of working under his micromanaging oppression. Devising new ways of torture and defacement on these intricately cut facsimiles was becoming quite amusing to her.

She had kept this occupational voodoo therapy secret from all of her co-workers, even her boyfriend Bart. The main reason for such secrecy was her fear that Sanders might somehow find out about it! She could vividly see the scene in her mind; the dolls would be confiscated and immediately placed into her personnel file, to be pulled out every six months at evaluation time. “So tell me how’s our creative level these days Ms. Christian?” her evil boss would sadistically intone as he playfully toyed with one of her caricatures in his immaculately manicured hands.

The mere thought of this scenario caused a shudder of revulsion to wrack her frame. It was dangerous just having them on the premises even though they were all constructed on work time, which was a key ingredient of their therapeutic value.

From a worn manila envelope she began pulling out a long string of identical little paper dolls, all colored green and gray and cut into the shape of a ranger with their silly looking mountie hat on. She took especial pride in her rendering of his glasses and moustache.

Michelle fell into hysterical laughter as she began burning a hole in the green leg of one the dolls, using a freshly lit Marlboro. Rolling down the window, with the burning edge finally engulfing the head of the Sanders doll, she quickly flicked it out of the car. Fluttering towards the ground the spent cinder swiftly skittered off in the brisk morning wind. Another totem had been sacrificed at the altar of momentary salvation, a miniscule reprieve from the stress of compromise, under-achievement and micro-management. Straightening her uniform tie and gulping a few mints, she took a quick look at herself in the rear-view mirror. “Good enough for government work" she clucked to herself.

Across the lot Dena Bother, Education Specialist, began descending the exit stairs on her way to an outreach program in Santjarge. Spying Michelle heading across the parking lot Dena made a beeline towards her. Michelle attempted to avoid all eye contact, but finally couldn’t pretend any longer and strode towards Dena. “I hope these mints are working", she thought, as they got closer.

“Michelle, are you all right?”

“I’m fine.”

“You look sort of sad or something.”

“I do?” Michelle said a little panic stricken.

“I remember being sad, before I moved here, just before I got my permanent.”

“At the beauty parlor?” Michelle asked mirthfully.

“You’re bad. Of course not, my permanent job with the park service.”

“Oh. So what was it that made you sad?”

“I accidentally let my indoor cat get outside and it ran away. Later I found out that it was living happily across the road with some other family.”

“Did you tell them it was yours?”

“No, it seemed to like living on the outside. I would never let her out of the house, because I worried that she might get run over by a car or into fights with other cats. I didn’t want to deal with a dead cat on my hands.”

Michelle felt a bourbon burp welling up in her stomach. “I gotta go Dena. Good luck with the second grade.”

“Thanks, but it’s actually pre-schoolers, part of a new partnership initiative through the regional office for locally focused special emphasis programs…”

As Dena vacantly chattered on Michelle mounted the stairs which led back to the quiet desperation of unventilated bureaucracy. Inserting her special employee key into the door she felt slightly faint. “I better eat something soon or this stuff is liable to rot my guts away.”

Monday, January 1, 2007

To Sleep Perchance To Dream

The meeting in the small conference room was hot and low in relative oxygen content as Superintendent Stan Nobright assumed a patient pose. As the team leader he needed to convey to whomever was speaking that he was faithfully listening to what they were saying, while at the same time settling in for some somnolently restful snooze time with his eyes fully opened.

He drowsily began thinking of a favorite subject, his fast approaching retirement, as Jay Everboar, Chief of Resource Management, began to explain an interagency cooperation-planning timetable. The slow reedy whine of his sleep-inducing voice sent Stan into a helpless torpor of weariness. His thoughts drifted off into a pleasant dream…it was the first day after his retirement party; his wife was poolside bringing him a frosty summer cocktail with a brightly colored umbrella sticking out of the straw. Taking a long cool sip he impulsively dove into the water staying under for as long as possible. Finally he made it to the other end of the pool and came up for air.

“Stan, we’re looking for your buy-in on this phase of implementation”, Everboar insistently droned into his face.

Stan shot back, “It has been my understanding that we already were implementing these parallel enhancements.”

He was damn proud of that one; half-asleep he was still smarter than the whole lot of these dim bulbs and much closer to retirement as well. Unhurriedly he returned to his umbrella drink and settled back into the recliner, catching the warm rays of sun on his tanned skin after his little dip in the pool. He could hear the ice cubes in his tall glass tinkling as they slowly melted.

Beau Tom Barrell, Facilities Manager, decided that this would be a good time to go on record as having said something during the meeting. “Has anyone cleared this with the folks at NIFC?” (National Interagency Fire Center)

A numb silence followed this query. No one present wanted to admit that they didn’t know the meaning of this particular acronym. Sylvia Nowerz, meeting secretary, snapped her gum loudly as she transcribed yet another meaningless artifact into the minutes of a conclave already two vacuum packed hours too long.

The late afternoon sun began slanting directly into the meeting room, glaring into the faces of those sitting wedged against the back wall away from the main meeting table. It was as if someone had turned on a bright interrogation lamp, illuminating innocent suspects with no alibi. Stu Grackel, Buildings & Utilities Foreman, stifled a Rip Van Winkle sized yawn and pretending to scratch his arm, gently nudged Roads & Trails Foreman, Lamar Folland awake. Stu had noticed that he was starting to drool.

Everboar continued by emphasizing the urgent need for everyone to get all of their “ducks in a row” when Helva Kurse, Chief Botanical Officer, asked to be recognized. Those still awake stirred in her direction. “We all know that time is short and something needs to be done while the regional office is still giving the thumbs up on the initial phase. I don’t know about the rest of you but I’m sure we’ll need more field comprehensive testing as a catalyst for this emerging process.”

Rudd Conner, Assistant Superintendent, leaned over and said with a smile, “These things take time and we’re on a long list with everyone else. Stan’s going to Washington next month, and this may be something he could bring up when he meets with the Deputy Associate Under-Secretary.”

Everyone looked in the superintendent’s direction.

“Uh…right Stan?”

Stan was still deeply poolside, “Yes, I’d like another cocktail Eleanor, but this time hold the salt.”

Everboar then piped up, “Exactly! Salinity studies still need to be done on the border zones before the folks from DSC (Denver Service Center) can assess the long term impact!”

Beatrice Stern, from Human Resources, craned her neck to see if Stan was still with the living and began talking in his direction. “All of you must realize that we’re struggling to comply with strengthened CTAP (Career Transition Assistance Program) enforcement service wide. Currently the two target populations are Samoan Gulf War veterans with reproductive problems and recently laid-off inspectors from the DSM (Division of Surface Mining). We still haven’t received any guidelines yet on how these hiring registers are going to be set up. It’s utter chaos in the regional office, with no one able to say with any certainty when we’ll be able to resume normal operations. Who knows, it could even block our base funding if non-compliance is found to exist in our program through an OPM (Office of Personnel Management) audit.”

“Why is that?” Helva Kurse asked testily.

“How many of these targeted CTAP candidates do you think actually exist? They're damn tough to come by, but we still have to slow down the process and give them first crack at everything. Word out of Denver is that a major RIF (Reduction in Force) is planned for the Intermountain Support Services office. We’ll probably be asked to absorb them next. It could be quite awhile before the secretary lifts this lid. There is even some discussion in Washington of maybe helping Hurricane Katrina refugees with maintenance and fire jobs this summer.”

Helva exploded “Look here Bea, I have plants to protect from the unyielding course of planetary evolution and you’re talking to me about the need to comply with some WASO mandate!”

Beatrice Stern composed herself and then politely but firmly unleashed, “This service wide initiative is coming down from way higher than that Helva! CTAP goes all the way to the top and I’m here to tell everyone that this particular park WILL hire according to this directive, regardless if anyone we offer a job to is actually qualified or not!”

Helva, self-righteously energized, volleyed back, “I’ve got someone who is volunteering for housing, living on food stamps and about to crack up. I promised this person, 9 months ago, a chance to apply to a GS-3/4 register for career conditional status. What do I say to her now? That a hurricane has blown her career off course? She has a doctorate degree in mushroom fungus analysis and is probably the third or fourth best worker I supervise.”

This last sentence was delivered with a glower towards her unsympathetic boss, J. Everboar and his loyal minion Bill Lord. They stared blankly back.

The Asst. Superintendent sensed that things were getting a little too heated around the table and he quickly tried to calm the waters by offering, “It’s a long time until we’re mandated to leverage existing resources on the administrative end. I suggest that we all wait until the draft impact study is finalized.”

At this point Sylvia reminded superintendent Nobright that his meeting with the Interagency Task Force was less than twenty minutes away. “Thank you for reminding me. If everyone is done I move that we table this discussion until after my retirement..uh…ha-ha..I mean until Rudd gets a look at the finalized drafts of the preliminary impact study.”

Some of the people who had been totally asleep began to stir, attempting to re-animate inert appendages. The gathering emptied slowly. Stan, rising up, smiled around the room, “Good stuff folks. Good stuff.”


Through the tall windows of the meeting hall, distant mountain peaks could be faintly observed. The National Park Service training conference was coming to an end after two weeks and the closing address was being delivered to the gathered multitude. The featured speaker was moving in for the kill with all the vigor he could muster. “Now listen up fellow rangers and resource professionals, we didn’t wrack our brains and tear out our souls to come up with the Vail Agenda, Ranger Futures, Ranger Careers, VERP (Visitor Experience & Resource Protection), Mission Renewal, the IDP (Interpretive Development Plan), the Interpretive Renaissance and most recently the Reorganization of the Associateship just to simply amuse ourselves! No brothers and sisters, these are the intricately planned stepping-stones that will take us into a new century of resource protection. Confident of a thankful nation’s mandate, we must continue to be stewards of excellence by engaging people in building enduring connections with America’s special places!”

The gathered assemblage of rangers, agency wonks, and training junkies immediately stood and roared back a deafening wave of applause. On the podium the deputy assistant undersecretary bowed in earnest gratitude at this spontaneous display of unbridled enthusiasm by such a large gathering of agency professionals. He needed to say more.
“Let me conclude, that each of us must take back to our units the igniting spark of support for this exciting new initiative. Let us each together move forward in support of this necessary move towards a more nationally monitored field-based approach to problem solving. This latest WASO program, Hands Inside The Pocket (HITP), spells out how to come up with solutions at the grass roots level. The dictates of the plan will facilitate more independent action as oversight from WASO increases with concomitant reductions in monetary support. It’s all so very simple folks! Now let’s go back to our home parks and light some fires for HITP!”

Tilden Goodstuv, Assistant Chief Naturalist, began leaping up and down as every pair of clapping hands stood to give a second demonstration of enthusiasm for this captivating and inspirational leader. It was as if a Pentecostal auctioneer of God had just thundered a sermon to the faithful. Tilden was so charged up that he started giving high fives to all those seated around him. Their befuddlement and sudden fear at this overt display of personal zeal was hardly noticed by youthful Tilden. He was swimming in the moment, almost speaking and thinking in tongues, profoundly moved by the meaning of what had just taken place.

While gathering up his things he noticed that the departing speaker was walking up the aisle of chairs Tilden was sitting in. Hastily reaching out his hand toward the departing hero he said, “You were really great. I can’t wait to meet with my staff next week and rev them up on this new phase in their careers.”

A beaming Mr. Deputy Undersecretary replied, “Thanks, I’m sure that we in WASO are going to need all the field level support we can get in this initial phase of implementation.”

“I’m so glad that I taped it. Now my wife Penny can get a chance to hear it too.”

Looking at Tilden’s conference badge the deputy under secretary asked, “Where do you work Mr. Goodstuv?”

“I’m Assistant Chief Naturalist at Grand Milkbags.”

“Ah yes, in Nevada?”

“Wyoming. We’re near Jellystone Park. You know, like in Yogi Bear?”

“Oh yes, do you know Herb Wormley, Deputy Assistant Administrative Officer for Yellowstone?”

“I met him briefly at the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem Interagency Regional Impact Study Conference (GYEIRISC) back in 1999”, Tilden eagerly replied.

“Great guy. We used to be good friends when we both worked in the old Mid-Atlantic Regional Office in Philadelphia. Tell him I said hi the next time you see him.”

“You bet I will. Take care!” Tilden exclaimed as he began vigorously shaking the under secretary’s arm like he was pumping a well.

Backing away from Tilden, the under secretary said, “It was nice meeting you Mr. Goodstuv” and headed out the door.

Tilden stood for a silent moment glowing in a sort of sacred reverie.

Later in the lobby, his hand cupped over the mouthpiece to keep out the noise, he phoned Penny, “you’ll never guess who I met today honey.”

It's a joke, right?

“HITP. It sounds like an abbreviated hiccup when you pronounce it phonetically”, Bart Crivelloni muttered to himself while reading the minutes of the latest interpretive staff meeting. His job as Interpretive Supervisor required that he read, digest and initial all manner of interesting documents such as this.

“It also sounds like the name of an Egyptian pharaoh, such as Hitp the Great from the 4th dynasty, whose tomb still lies hidden beneath the sandy wastes of the Nubian Desert.”

Continuing on in the meeting notes he read more about the just concluded training conference in Montana, where the intermountain working groups had drawn up the visioning documents on this bold new imitative called HITP.

Bart sighed with relief that he was elevated in status just enough to schedule himself other duties during staff meetings. For him it was just so damn hard to stay awake, much less contribute anything constructive. Lilith Karee, the meeting secretary, wrote in the notes, “that there had been great excitement among the attendees about this visionary blueprint for the future. The deputy under secretary got the troops fired up for yet another great new initiative."

Bart yawned and scratched his head. This HITP business was still new enough to be ridiculously funny but he also knew that it would eventually torture his existence with its requirements and bureaucratic dictates. The concluding section of the notes on this subject read, “that full implementation of HITP is tentatively scheduled for the following calendar year. WASO is now at this very moment developing a training seminar where key people in each park will be immersed into the full scope of this program. Nominations for this three-week training should be submitted to the superintendent no later than two months from today.”

Bart wondered what city it would be held in. If it were somewhere fun like Las Vegas or San Francisco he would probably nominate himself. He had snoozed through many other much worse sounding training sessions.

“Better find out about the per diem too. They can send Ted Sanders to Denver or Phoenix. Been there done that. Well Phoenix isn't too bad if it's the dead of winter.”

But that was all in the future. The only thing to do now was laugh and hope that Michelle would find this HITP business as much of a scream as well. Lately she was beginning to show signs of distress. It was exactly fifty more weeks until their next furlough break. He wondered if she would make it until then.

“HITP, HITP, HITP----HITP” he said in a quick burst of sarcastic staccato. In Bart’s mind it began to sound like he was suffering from a chronic bout of gastric indigestion. He started to laugh deeply and hard. The strain of his convulsive heaving became so violent that his back started to go out on him, leaving him hunched over in his chair helpless and alone.

Go Tell It On the Mountain

Dena Bother, National Park Service Education Specialist, surveyed the group before her and absently looked at her watch. It was 9:30 in the morning at the Angel Moroni Elementary School in Santjarge, Utah. The classroom was brightly lit and the children had been told to be quiet for their guest of honor. Miraculously these second graders had obeyed and the only sound was the sizzle of fluorescent bulbs overhead which began to buzz uneasily in Dena’s brain.

“My name is Dena Bother and I’m a ranger here at Zenith National Park. I’d like to welcome you to our nature center. Uh…er…I mean thank you for inviting me to come and give a talk at you at your…uh…school.”

Dena had misplaced her prepared remarks and for the last five minutes had been trying to keep her composure while nervously glancing about the room desperately searching for the missing script someone else had prepared for her.

The children’s teacher, Mrs. Purgatory, stood in the back of the classroom clucking to herself because she had been unable to schedule a district school bus for the one-hour trip to Zenith’s Park. Instead she had been forced to settle for this little talk from Ranger Bother. The classroom next door had gotten the last bus request granted for the semester and was at this very moment watching the wide screen movie “Pleasure of the Clods” in the park gateway town of Springaleak. She painfully realized that this stout, nerdy woman in her ill fitting green & gray polyester uniform was no substitute for a giant screen movie and a picnic lunch at the Grotto.

Dena continued, “Has anyone here ever been to Zenith National Park?” A forest of hands and arms quickly arose.

Without even being called upon little Jared Howitzer excitedly replied, “my dad likes to shoot deers up in Zenith’s. I went with him and my uncle last year and we shined a light in its eyes and my mom made chili from it. Do you make deer chili up in Zenith’s?”

Little Eva Towhead then remarked, “we went to Zenith’s and saw the rangers carrying a man who fell off a cliff and my dad said he was dead. He told me that he died from fright before he ever hit the ground. Is that true?”

Their teacher asked for the children to be quiet and not to interrupt their special guest. Dena continued to stare blankly out into the sea of blond heads looking hither and yon for her long lost script. If only she could remember what it was she was supposed to be talking about! Panicking she tried to cover her confusion by asking the class “to guess how many national parks there are in the national park system?”

Mrs. Purgatory seemed a bit dumbfounded at this line of questioning to second graders, but attempted to be helpful by asking the children to put on their thinking caps. She also made a mental note to request a district bus much earlier next semester.

Dena’ s confused and unscripted state of mind struggled to bring into focus the one and only thing she had ever actually memorized. It was something about snails.

“Yes” she remembered to herself “gastropoda bumfungus”!

This was the predominate species of the last park she had worked in before coming to Zenith. At the Onion Blossom State Weed Preserve she had done a short program called “Snails on Damp Wood”. It was a talk she had inherited from a departed colleague and was truly the only thing she knew by heart. Dena decided that she would have to adapt it to this current assemblage of students. “All snails must be about the same,” she hopefully reflected.

Clearing her throat Dena began, “Snails are slow-moving mollusks that usually have a spiral shell and a broad flat foot.”

Mrs. Purgatory stared back in disbelief. Weren’t the children still supposed to be trying to figure out how many national parks there were?

“Some snails are only as large as a pinhead, while others can grow to a length of 2 feet. They are found all over the world and in Zenith National Park. Has anyone ever seen a snail in Zenith?”

The children began to look for guidance from Mrs. Purgatory, who now cut in “Your boss Chief Naturalist Preistly told me that you were going to talk about fun animals like bobcats and coyotes.”

Jared Howitzer took this opportunity to jump in, “My dad killed a coyote and hung it up on my granddads barn. We dragged it with our truck first. That was really fun.”

The other children giggled at this welcome off-ramp from the strange and boring ranger lady talking about snails. Some of them began flinging the Junior Ranger patches Dena had given out earlier. The cloth flying saucers zinged past her face and thudded against the unrolled map of North America behind her.

Undaunted Dena droned on, “The snail walks slowly. The body is extended forward, and the frontal tip anchors to the ground. The shell is then drawn forward and the process is repeated. Snails provide food for many kinds of fish and can be used as a scavenger in your aquarium. Have any of you ever seen an aquarium in Zenith National Park?”

Mrs. Purgatory, having to nearly shout above the growing disinterested ruckus beneath her, asked, “Weren’t you supposed to talk about pretty animals in Zenith’s?”

Dena retorted in a superior tone “As I said earlier, some snails can grow to be 2 feet in length, the important thing to remember is that we need all of your support in keeping the national parks a place where all of the animals, including snails, can live together in harmony. You can help us in that effort by staying on paved trails and roadways and visiting only if you absolutely have to. NEVER go where you might disturb any of the animals! Humans make it hard on all other living creatures. We are very, very bad neighbors to the rest of nature, so please let’s try and be good by staying far, far away.”

A din of voices now permeated the large room as the children had long ago lost any interest in Dena, snails or their personal role in the destruction of a planet. A cacophony of giggles and chatter now drowned the air in a dirge of merriment. Mrs. Purgatory, exasperated and desperate, motioned to Dena that she was stepping outside the classroom door into the hallway for a moment.

Dena now fully charged, wound up her final point to the young audience “the national parks are for all of us to avoid, so that they can be preserved for future generations of the hopefully unborn.”

The restless activity was sharply and shockingly broken when the fire alarm began to bray loudly throughout the building. Mrs. Purgatory swept the door open and shouted, “all right class let’s move outside quickly to our appointed fire drill spot, where we can say goodbye to our guest Ranger Bother. Bring your jackets because we’ll be staying outside for extended recess.” The class gave a loud hurrah and sped out into the clanging hallway.

The raucous tumult had barely fazed Dena who happily spied her lost script under the teacher’s desk. “Well at least tomorrow I’ll be ready for Hurricane Elementary.”

Visitor Centered

It was a windy and cloudy morning in the depths of Zenith Canyon. The field behind the visitor’s center teemed with cliff swallows careening around in the wet billowy luxuriousness of damp sodden air. The usually dry rocks rubbed their muzzles into the smoke-like fog. A wet and soggy postcard sent by the Pacific to a distant desert cousin.

On the back patio of the visitor’s center stood Fanny Buckner, seasonal naturalist, giving a nature talk to a group of tourists. A small group of Israelis, two snowbirds from Alberta and a nouveau riche Chinese family from Pasadena sat staring back at Fanny in a sort of blank trance. Gradually, as she continued her presentation, the redwood benches would creak, ever so slightly, as members of the audience, one by one, began to leave for more interesting diversions. “I thoughta she was gwan talk aboutta Blyce A Kenyon”, the disgruntled patriarch of the Chinese group said to his mother-in-law as they piled back into their Lexus.

Fanny, who had her ranger hat covered in the requisite clear nylon cover (aka: a hat condom) for inclement weather, could feel her momentum plummeting when a large party of Malaysians from three tour buses disgorged onto the patio. The leader shouted, “take yewra pickchares and use the bathroom now! We leave here ina ten minute.” The sounds and smells of a distant alien culture spilled out madly across the pavement of the patio. Video cameras whirred like hummingbirds and Olympus and Nikon cameras snapped steadily at massive sandstone. “This might be a good time to abort this particular mission”, Fanny thought to herself as the swell of people began posing in a multitude of groupings all around her.

Lee Dungone, a retired salesman who was a park volunteer and worked the information desk, had built up her program in his announcement of it over the public address system. He had ladled it on so thick that it had sounded more like an inducement from a carnival barker than the respectful and conservative tones that Ted Sanders deemed appropriate for national park program announcements. But it was Saturday and Sanders was off, so his pious whims were deliberately ignored, much to the delight of the entire staff.

Fanny was in no mood to take her program or what remained of her time in this job seriously, now that she was going to work at the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) for a permanent job. It was much more important to start figuring out how she was going to pay for all the gasoline she was going to need to commute to her new office in an unheated trailer on the edge of the Bottomless Basin Wilderness Area. Why did Lee have to be such a knucklehead? Her anger began to mute into annoyance. Lee had correctly suspected that Fanny enjoyed his pitiless banter and extravagant program announcements. She was easy enough to see through.

Lee, a happy healthy gregarious man, who had been a very successful businessman, was here working the desk to get out of the house and to ogle at younger women. Volunteering his time at the desk was a hilarious diversion from his usual pursuits of golf and horse handicapping. Between the government and the tourists it was a non-stop romp. His doctor had told him that laughter would keep him healthy, which definitely made this job Lee’s health spa.

Fanny’s patio talk was titled “The Full Benefits of Geologic Time”. It dealt with the correlation between geologic time and getting a permanent job in the government. Thematically she used her seasonal career as the basis of the geologic time line and then adding her personal frustration and disappointment, along with a splash of natural history, to flesh it out. A misanthrope at heart she didn't really care what the public thought about it. Almost laughing out loud at the absurdity of it actually meaning anything purposeful she was startled back into reality by the sound of Lee’s loud chortling through the open door of the visitor’s center.

Staring through the tall picture glass of the building, towards the desk where he was stationed, she spied Lee ogling a buxom fortyish blonde from Las Vegas who was leaning over the information counter somewhat suggestively. Fanny heard him say, “that’s right doll we’ve got some stone cold monoliths here in Zenith Park and I’d say that there’s quite a nice pair sitting right here on the front of my desk!”

At this he and the blonde collapsed into paroxysms of doubled over horse laughter. Visitors nearby started to laugh only because it so infectiously cascaded over them from the loudspeaker of his mouth. Lee was wide with thick white hair and his garrulousness would have been more fittingly employed tending a bar in south Boston or Belfast than here among befuddled tourists looking for a tip on clean restrooms and free camping.

On the back patio, unfortunately, some consciousness still lingered among the dwindling masses. “Miss I have a question”, aimed an elderly man in light blue coveralls.

“Yes sir, what is it?”

“I was wondering what God’s got to do with it.”

“With what?” Fanny replied somewhat off guard.

“Your talk.”

“Sir, I don’t know much about God.”, she smiled.

“Well you was talking about all them millions a years it takes to get a government job, well like you said, at least a permanent one; I can’t see no reason why God didn’t take less time creating the earth than one of them job registers you was talking about?”

“I don’t think I ever mentioned a definite time line for register creation because no one knows for sure how they are supposed to be formed. Many theories abound about the true nature of federal job registers but it is mostly shrouded in mystery. I think we know a lot more about comets. Yeah, definitely more.”

The old man sat perplexed and focused, thoroughly engrossed in contemplative thought at this reply.

What remained of the group turned towards the door at the appearance of Lee and the woman from Las Vegas as they both spilled out onto the patio.

“Hey Fanny, this nice lady missed your talk. Can you answer some of her questions? I'm getting a little busy at the desk.”

“Uh, sure Lee.”

“Thanks sweetie pie.”

Before Fanny could stick her tongue out at Lee the Las Vegas bunny began to ask where she could buy some good Indian jewelry. “You know, some high quality turquoise made by real Indians.”

The wife of the man in light blue coveralls said, “Well we found some real nice stuff at the rest stop, I think it was mile marker 47 on Interstate 15. There was a bunch of squaws selling some right nice stuff. We found some good deals right in front of the ladies room. Right Abner?”

“Yup, we did Betty.”

As the three traveling strangers began talking amongst themselves Fanny felt that it was probably time to leave the patio area and head indoors to slug Lee in the arm. She looked at her watch and couldn’t believe it was only 10:40 AM. She wondered why she felt so exhausted?
Approaching the desk she tried to motion to Lee that she wanted to talk to him, but he abruptly handed her the phone. He said the call was for uniformed personnel only and that it was the Park Dispatch Office on the line.

They wanted to inform the park staff working the information desk to know what to tell the many visitors who would soon be asking about all of the police cars and military equipment that was currently surrounding the park on the south and west boundary.

She was told unofficially (i.e. the skinny) that the Nevada State Prison Tamarisk Removal Crew had made an escape attempt in Peach Pits Wash and had possibly taken a park employee hostage. The main highway was being closed at Virginal and a command post was being set up at the park nature center.

Official line of the park: Tell visitor’s there’s a skinhead wedding in the canyon and extra security was on hand to deal with any eventuality. Also, “please don’t call us about anything! We’re very busy!”

Hanging up the phone Fanny pondered who the hostage might be. Lee asked if anything was wrong.

“No Lee. It’s just about some people. That’s all.”

“Oh yeah kiddo, you’re right. It might have been about something real important like…whoa baby! Check out that double-breasted mattress thrasher that just walked in! Hoooo-doggee, I wish Barney were here to get both eyeballs full of that!”

Dream A Little Dream For Me

“Dispatch, 209.”


“Dispatch, I think I can see some dust trails being made by a large vehicle south of Lunar Hill just inside the park boundary, down towards Peach Pit Wash.”

“We copy that 209. Can you make out any positive I.D. on this vehicle?”

“It seems to be a truck, sort of looks like a hot shot crew truck. Metallic blue is best I can do on color. It keeps moving in and out of the trees.”

“We copy that 209. What is your present location?”

“Top of Lunar Hill.”

“Be advised that all personnel at this time are being asked to return park vehicles back to HQ immediately. We are now in Incident Command Status pending a developing LE (Law Enforcement) situation.”

“I’m on my way down.”

“Copy that 209. 13:48.”

Barney Headlong, seasonal naturalist, was now a little peeved about calling in this possibly unauthorized vehicle. He had fully planned to spend three more hours of special projects time enjoying the view here atop Lunar Hill. As he clambered down the steeply sloped lava cone, he fumed about having to return the pick-up truck to headquarters.

“This is what happens when you start sticking your nose in, trying to do the right thing. Being a good little ranger wasn’t I? What the hell am I going to do back at the office? Should’ve never turned the damned radio on in the first place!”

How was he going to avoid Ted Sanders, that insufferably snooping micro-anal supervisor of his? Then he remembered that it was Saturday and Sanders was off and a flood of happiness flushed through his body.

Maybe a trip up to the Maintenance Yard might result in a positive inter-divisional partnership opportunity. He could help spray a hose on some old some dump trucks or maybe bear witness to the spell binding yarns spun in the always occupied break room. “We-uns went down to Meskeet and won a hole buncha dough on our way to that Air Force base to pick up surplus equipment. Them trucks and refrigerators they give us wern’t no good, though.”

A trip up to Maintenance was not meant for such a pretty afternoon though, especially since he had just found the perfect nap spot near a cluster of pines. Bushwhacking through juniper and sage and stumbling and skidding down the loose and slippery volcano, he seriously considered destroying his radio. The folded Wall Street Journal in his daypack would never be brought out and read atop the glorious summit of Lunar Hill. It would never drape across his face as a gentle breeze rustled in the late afternoon sun. There would be no contented slumber for this tired man in the green and gray uniform. He always said that he’d rather sleep in the field than doze in a meeting room.

Twenty minutes later he had almost reached the fence, which formed the southern boundary of Zenith National Park. On the other side of the fence was a faint two-rut track that paralleled it. A loud grinding sound like shifting gears drifted in from the southeast. Maybe it was the truck he called in earlier. Barney stopped to take a drink of water and eat his last banana. Plopping down on the ground next to the fence and leaning back against a large boulder he smiled greedily at his tasty repast. The deep and vast silence of this particular spot made him wish once again that he could now sleep, perchance to dream. “Ah there’s the rub”, he drowsily sniffed as he threw banana peel over his shoulder and yawned indifferently.

In the nearer distance to his left he could hear the crunching sound of truck tires grinding along the rock-strewn road. Somewhat alarmed he got up and crouched down behind a bush near the fence. Who might these folks be? You never knew around here. When you wore the uniform of a federal agency out in these parts it was all the more important to cover your rear and be alert. Barney knew that in his present duds he might be just as fun to shoot as a coyote or a jackrabbit to any number of folks, maybe a lot more fun.

The road was on the other side of the boundary fence and hence legal to drive on but he had never seen a vehicle on this particular track in all the years of special project work he had conducted here in the remote southwest corner of Zenith. He was crouched out of sight when the loud trundling mystery vehicle abruptly crested the hill and came into view.

It was a light blue government rig with a Nevada State Prisons insignia on the side. This was the dust raiser all right and it did look like a wild land fire truck except that it had bars on the windows. The driver didn’t look like a prison guard though. He was a white male in his thirties with long blond hair who appeared dirty and a bit sunburned. He drove slowly almost tentatively as if he was feeling his way across an alien and menacing landscape with great trepidation.

As the prison truck continued to pass his vantage point Barney could make out five other men squatting on the back of the truck. They had on no uniforms either and were surrounding and securely restraining someone whom looked exactly like…Ted Sanders! It had to be Sanders! Barney could not believe it!

“My God, it's that annoying jerk-off Sanders!” he beamed with joy.

The captive ranger wore a glum expression and seemed to be slightly bleeding from somewhere on the front of his head. The truck jostled out of view and made its way over the next rise towards the main dirt road where Barney's truck was parked.

He hesitated for several minutes as to whether or not to call in what he had just witnessed to Dispatch. “If they find Sanders soon, he could possibly be back at the office for the rest of my special projects time today. I should at least wait until I get back to the truck. That’ll give those guys more time to take him further away from my afternoon shift.”

Barney had nearly made it back to his truck when a pounding measured thump moved closer making the dusty ground shake. Immediately above a helicopter, flying low, made a pass over Barney and continued in the general direction of where he supposed Sanders and his captors were headed.

He reluctantly turned his radio back on.

“Dispatch, 209.”

“209 please standby. We are currently involved in a full blown SAR (Search and Rescue) and have cleared the airways for emergency traffic only.”

“My apologies. This can definitely wait till I get back.”

“Copy 209. 15:05.”

Starting the engine of his ranger truck he shifted into reverse and backed onto the dirt road that would lead him back to Zenith HQ. Turning and shifting forward he coaxed the truck into a slow gait down the deeply rutted road. “I guess even if they did rescue him now he’d be gone the rest of the afternoon in de-briefings and what not. Hells bells, he might even be put on administrative leave for tomorrow!”

This thought gave him great joy and comfort as the old Dodge Ram swung down the crumbling mesa towards pavement.

Break On Through To The Other Side

Yet another meeting was being assembled in the large conference room at park headquarters. This gathering was convened to go over the compliance codes required for the Resource Management division as it related to implementation of HITP (Hands Inside the Pocket, see chapter 4). Superintendent Stan Nobright's HITP Impact Assessment period for all of Zenith Park’s various divisions had ended and this would to be the first of seven meetings which would culminate in a HITP retreat, at the park’s mountain chalet, where the preliminary strategic plans would be formulated for submission to WASO.

Beau Tom Barrel, Facilities Manager, had been placed in charge of the entire campaign and would act as chief facilitator in the plan-generating phase as well as act as a liaison to the regional HITP Coordinator in Denver.

As a show of solidarity and cohesion the superintendent had insisted that members of all seven divisions attend each other’s Impact Assessment meetings. Bart Crivelleni was present as the sacrificial lamb for the Resource Management meeting representing Interpretation. He had told Bob Priestly that he didn’t want to go but was soundly rebuked.

“You need to start showing more support for management directives and service-wide program implementation. These meetings can only enhance your career as an agency professional Bart. It will also look good on your SF-171 and will boost your KSA's. Believe me now because you’ll thank me later.”

Bill Lord, Assistant Chief of Resource Management, surveyed around the meeting table checking to see who was present and from what division and GS level they represented. He sighed while disgustedly noticing that only five divisions were represented and no one was higher than a GS/11. “We get little respect and even smaller recognition from these people as it is. Now with HITP looming we’re going to get raked good” he gritted to himself.

Standing to bring the meeting to order Bill was about to formally begin the presentation when Chief Botanical Officer Helva Kurse hastily cut in ahead of him. “We are so glad at least some of our professional brethren could make it. I presume we can close the door now” she disdainfully sneered.

Bill sat down and motioned for the doors to be closed. “I’m very pleased to hand the floor over to our dedicated and creative boss, J. Everboar the current Chief of Resource Management, who will bring us up to date on the current state of HITP as it relates to our mission statement and the preservation of park resources.”

Bart imagined that the steel lid of a large coffin was about to be permanently sealed upon the entire room. When the door closed the air immediately formed an unhealthy texture and density that he was intimately familiar with. The more he breathed it in the less able he was to focus his consciousness on anything concrete or stable. The effect was similar to the anesthesia he got at the dentist. He did have the presence of mind to sit where he could at least stare out the large picture window towards the ragged cliffs of the Western Altar. Bart immediately noticed a pair of large turkey vultures slowly circling above the rocky terrain on a thermal.

J. Everboar started to speak in his slow droning monotone “Thank you Bill. I’m glad to see so many people from other divisions here today. Well folks, first the good news: the proposals generated from HITP's initial draft documents, now widely becoming known as the Butte Agenda, outline the beginnings of a dramatic new process. This could however become a double-edged sword, coming at a time of growing concern for fiscal priorities.”

Bart’s focus on the circling raptors along with Everboar’s trance inducing voice led him into a semi-comatose state of consciousness. His eyes remained transfixed upon the two raptors gently floating above the sage and juniper covered flats of Zenith Canyon.

Helva Kurse followed Everboar with a prepared issue paper about the perceived threats that HITP posed to her holy war on exotic plants and animals.

Bart’s view of the birds gradually started to take on a wholly new perspective. He imagined himself lying prostrate upon the ground, paralyzed and motionless, looking upward at the pair of vultures who were now making a slow circling descent towards him. He was not fearful only cognizant of his total impotence to do anything to affect movement.

Vaguely in the near distance he heard the echoing locutions of Everboar mixed in with the dulcet tones of Kurse which floated through his ears in a singsong fashion like Gregorian chants chirped by mockingbirds. Bart imagined a pagan high priest delivering a lilting liturgy during a ritual offering to a large and hungry avian scavenger god. As the birds got nearer he could begin to make out faces on the heads of the two vultures. One appeared to look like Helluva Kurse while the other looked like a dark haired Hispanic male in his forties that Bart didn't recognize. “Probably that veteran I got around having to hire from the new seasonal register last week” he buzzed to himself. "Name was Perez I think. Been on parole awhile and driving a school bus. It turned out that because he served his sentence in a military prison he gets a five-point veterans preference for time served. Human Resources told me I shouldn't be 'so judgmental when it comes down from way higher than any of us can even begin to question'. Who gives a damn? Luckily he won't be released in time for seasonal training and that was the real problem in getting him hired."

By their sly cunning smiles Bart knew that the descending raptors meant to do him harm and this suddenly filled him with a stark cold terror. With all his might he attempted to emit a cry or shriek but to no avail. His vocal cords had been silenced for all time. He could now hear the Helva bird starting to cackle and caw while the Hispanic male headed bird slowed for a final landing on the ground near Bart’s lifeless form. He awaited his fate like a fox in a leg trap.

Helva testily asked “Is it true Bart, that your division has already submitted a proposal to link HITP to your workforce diversity improvement plan while simultaneously ignoring the plight of plants in an increasingly oppressive world of Caucasian….er, I mean Eurasian exotics which now invade daily?”

She felt confident that this overhand serve at Bart's head had won match point and looked around the room for approval.

Bart continued to stare vacantly in the direction of the imposing heights of the Western Altar.

Helva screeched “Have you heard a single word I’ve said Mr. Crivellini?”

Bart turned towards her slowly and said “Did someone suck all of the oxygen out of this room?”

Assistant Superintendent Rudd Conner began to guffaw loudly at this comment and interjected good naturedly “Maybe we do need to take a short break, huh Bart?”

“Okay by me.”

Rudd dismissed the group for a ten minute break which sent a simmering, smoldering rage through many on the Resource Management work team who felt that a critical juncture had been reached and this interruption could only stagger the momentum. Bart looked at his watch and could not believe that the meeting had already gone on for three hours. Making his way back to his own office he fished through his desk for change to buy a soda.

“I don’t think I can stay awake much longer” he panicked while looking at the limited choices remaining in the soda machine. “Why do they send me to any of these meetings?”

Rudd Conner came up to Bart in the breakroom and smiled. “I know how you feel Bart. Ain’t this some crap?”

“You’ve put it mildly Rudd.”

“Well we’ve got to play the game, you know how it is. We’ll probably have some new bullcrap acronym foisted on us next year. Seen ‘em come and go for a long time now. You play golf?”

“Uh, no. I don’t.”

“Too bad, I need a partner for a foursome tomorrow” Rudd said as he put his hand on Bart’s shoulder. “Now let’s both try and stay awake for the rest of this meeting. Okay Bart?” he said winking.

Resuming his former seat Bart once again looked back out upon the ramparts and crags of the Western Altar. He sincerely hoped that Helva Kurse had forgotten her former tirade against him and that he could proceed unmolested for the rest of the meeting. The others returned to their places and the door was again securely sealed.

Bart’s wish was granted, because Honey Maris, Chief of Animal Life Processes, opened the second half of the meeting.

“We have a long list of creatures here in Zenith that deserve the same degree of protection and understanding that many targeted human populations have recently received. We need to now look carefully at HITP and see what it does for frogs, squirrels and minnows. No, we need to demand it! I say crickets need the same respect as Kosovar Albanians!!!”

To Bart Honey was not nearly as self-righteously cloying as Helva or as sleep inducing as J. Everboar so he was content to listen passively while drawing a doodle on his outline sheet that showed two vultures eating the bloody flesh off a newly dead ranger carcass. “Can’t have the wildlife eating exotics” he chuckled while quietly shading in the background.

Looking up he stared outside again, longing for the stimulation of a wider more oxygen rich world when he suddenly became very excited by a bird which was perched in a hedge of rabbit brush. What he saw barely seemed believable.

“It’s a Vermilion flycatcher!” he blurted out pointing towards the window. “That’s a very rare bird in these parts!”

The meeting room froze for a second and then absently scanned the window in a cursory fashion. Honey Maris folded her arms and stared with a pained expression. “Are we finished yet Bart?” she asked sarcastically.

“No I’m not. This beautiful and rare bird is just not something you see everyday. Michelle and I have been looking for quite some time.”

Helva jumped in “and what pray tell does this have to do with the role of resource management for a new millennium Mr. Crivellini? Does this in some way dove tail with our HITP strategic goals or bring us some degree of closure on the issue of base funding requirements; much less the deeper meanings of full GPRA compliance for this current fiscal year?”

Bart stood up all at once. His legs, which had fallen asleep, tingled painfully as he attempted to move them in the direction of the door. “The sight of this bird is a lot more important and meaningful than any of the things you’ve just mentioned Helva! If you’ll excuse me I’m going to attempt to get a closer look and take some field notes. Oh and by the way, a Vermilion flycatcher sounds slightly phoebe-like. It goes p-p-pit-zeee or pit-a-zee” he chirped loudly and forcefully. “You got that? It’s p-p-pit-zee or pit-a-zee!” he whistled again unsteadily making his way towards the door.

The whole room looked back at him in mild shock.

Not waiting for a reply he pushed open the coffin lid and escaped into the hallway. He half expected the whole meeting room to come after him waving flaming torches, like some cheap vampire movie where he would eventually end up cornered in his own castle with the early morning sun rising up into his bleary eyeballs.

Rudd Conner spoke apologetically “Bart’s been under some strain lately, which is why he’s not as focused on the resource issues facing this working group as he probably should be.”

Sylvia Nowerz, meeting secretary, looked down at the drawing Bart had left behind with mild amusement.

Helva lamented loudly “Rudd, these naturalists need to get more focused on what needs to be done for park resources. We can’t keep being the only ones left who care.”

Outside the darkly silhouetted turkey vultures maintained their circling pattern to the roar of Harley Davidson choppers pumping out waves of reverberating sound through the still canyon air. The main park road was busy and loud as the late afternoon sun sent heat waves up from the baked red pavement.

Bart could see the bird clearly through his high powered binoculars. A large wriggling bee in its beak made a violent struggle as the elegant phoebe gulped it down effortlessly. Bart’s slowly adjusting irises squinted at a now perfectly still Vermilion flycatcher. After a few moments of repose, it flew hurriedly away and Bart watched it disappear behind a motor home.

“Wonder what kind of crap Bob is going to dish to me over this little escapade?” he wondered while walking back to his office.

“I hope it means NO MORE meetings with the living dead. Oh yeah that’s close. Who else is there? It's only a paycheck. It's only a paycheck. It's only a paycheck." This mantra caused a small glimmer of happiness to grow across his face. His formerly leaden legs were now producing a lively gait across the freshly chip-sealed tarmac. Passing the door of the large conference room he noted that the mausoleum was still sealed shut. He made no attempt to try the door.