I only hope your Memorial Day holiday this Monday is more “peaceful” than the one I had more years ago that I care to admit. During this bygone “hippy era,” I lived in Idyllwild, a small town nestled a high in the San Jacinto Mountains above Palm Springs, where I worked for the U.S. Forest Service.
Four days a week, I drove a sanitation truck collecting campground trash. Though not exactly a traditional job for a college graduate, I loved driving the 2 ½ ton International Harvester truck. For a sheltered Jewish kid from west Los Angeles, it was a kick.
On the fifth day, however, my duties were to patrol the campgrounds in a USFS pickup looking for violations, like building fires outside the fire pits. I also had to collect campground fees of $2 a day which were deposited by campers in a steel Forest Service green collection box. It was this aspect of my job that would land me flat on my back.
As I reminisce, under the heading “power corrupts,” I think being in authority can go one’s head. At least, it did mine. (The other 4 days, given the culture of the time, you could say it was pot going to my head.)
While the vast majority of campground visitors happily deposited their $2 per day, once in a while some didn’t. In those cases I would go to the campsite and tell the campers that I didn’t see an envelope in the box from them. However, I would always leave an out by saying maybe I missed it.
I would explain that I had to patrol further, “But afterwards I’ll look again for the envelope as sometimes they get stuck.” Ninety-nine times out of 100, the campers would rush to the collection box and pay their fees, so no harm, no foul. Apparently, this was the 100th time and some harm was done. (Apparently enough that I’m still writing about it decades later.)
The male camper, whom I would learn was a forklift operator, was burly, tattooed and rude. Especially to his attractive girlfriend. She also had a tattoo, a “tramp stamp” on her lower back, that revealed itself above her jeans. (FYI, tattoos on women were fairly rare in those days.)
The girlfriend seemed genuinely perplexed about the missing envelope. But, when I checked the box a second time, as I feared, it wasn’t there. Now my bluff had been called and I had no choice but to write a ticket. This would be no fun.
As the girlfriend’s protests were shushed by her boyfriend, I politely informed him I would have to give him a ticket and asked to see his driver’s license. Everything seemed peaceful enough as he silently handed me his license and I began writing the ticket.
Moments later, however, he asked, “How much is this going to cost?” And here’s where everything went south, including me. Instead of saying, “I have no idea, sir,” I foolishly told the truth, “$50.” And then…pow!
Instantaneously, I received a solid punch to the mid-section. The next thing I remember is my ticket book flying in the air and I was on my back wondering where the wind was that used to be in my lungs. Spoiler alert: the girlfriend had given him the campground fees and he’d pocketed it, so I suppose punched me to distract from that fact. It distracted, all right.
As I scrambled to my feet, he tackled me. Desperate, I managed to wrap my arms around him in a bear hug as we rolled in the dirt. Meanwhile, his girlfriend was screaming at him, “Have you lost your mind?! You’re going to go to jail.” (I felt like chiming in, “She has a point, you know.”)
It’s possible the word “jail” registered as I would learn that was a place he wasn’t totally unfamiliar with. Thankfully, he curtailed the fisticuffs. I dusted myself off, made my way to my truck and got on the CB radio to headquarters. A fire patrol vehicle in the area was dispatched immediately.
The girlfriend continued chastising her boyfriend, “You’re such an a**hole!” (Put it this way, she got no argument from me.) Actually I felt myself trembling as though I was in some kind of shock. A few campers who had witnessed what happened, asked if I was okay and I non-nonchalantly brushed it off. Truthfully, I was just glad I didn’t burst out in tears. So what ultimately happened?
Sorry but I’ve run out of room. As a preview of next week’s conclusion, against my wishes, I had to testify in U.S. Federal Court as my forklift operator foe was charged with “assaulting a federal officer” … yours truly!
So, until next Friday, have a happy and peaceful Memorial Day!
Jack is at: facebook.com/jackneworth, twitter.com/jackneworth and email@example.com