I left off last week describing my shocking Memorial Day during the peace and love hippy era. Neither peacefully nor loving, I had just been punched in the stomach by a camper, a burly forklift operator to whom I issued a ticket for failing to pay campground fees. I hadn’t been really hurt, other than my pride, so I was glad it was over and that was that. Not quite.
The next day I was asked to write a report by the young and seemingly ambitious head Ranger, Karl, who was on the cold, bureaucratic side. Being a writer of sorts, I was undaunted by the task and turned it in the next day. And that was that. Again, not quite.
Soon I was summoned for a face to face with Karl. Now I was daunted. I was worried I had done something wrong when dealing with the camper. Instead, Karl explained that on Memorial Day I was not the only Forest Service employee in the district to have been attacked. A joke immediately came to my mind, “Maybe it’s the uniforms?” Fortunately I only thought it.
Karl stressed that something had to be done. “These crimes must be punished so the public will be reminded our campgrounds are to be safe for visitors and employees.” Who could argue with that? Actually, me. That is, when I found out he was asking if I would be willing to testify at a trial. Only it was the kind of asking by a boss where it’s obvious you don’t have a choice. Meekly, I said, “Sure.”
As time passed, I was holding out hope that the parties had worked out a plea agreement. By then I was of the view it was no big deal. But to the brass it was a big deal and they wanted a trial to get the word out to the public.
Finally, a trial date was set in the Federal Court House in Riverside, “The U.S. Government v/ Forklift Man” (I’ve long ago forgotten his name, if not his punch.) The charge was “Assault and Battery of a Federal Officer.” As a rapper might say, “The sh*t just got real.”
Cut to the court room. Dressed in a suit that hid his tattoos, Forklift Man showed up with his equally dressed up girlfriend and their pit bull-looking attorney. Forklift Man looked stressed but so was I after he glared at me.
I was the only witness for the prosecution and everything seemed fine until cross examination, when you would have thought I was the one on trial. One question I recall vividly, “Tell the court, Mr. Neworth, given you are a graduate from a prestige university, what psychological problems do you have that explain why you drive a garbage truck.” I looked over at the government’s attorney waiting for an objection, but he looked curious like, “Yeah, what problems do you have?” Suddenly it felt like the a/c went off in the room.
Despite feeling myself perspire, my answer seemed to go over well. “I get to work outdoors in a beautiful forest where campers, except in rare occasions, are always friendly and happy to be out of the city, so, frankly, this is the best job I’ve ever had.”
Forklift Man’s defense was that he had merely tripped and the punch to my midsection was only to regain his balance. Before finding him guilty the judge said rather sarcastically, “According to your story, you ‘tripped’ three times. You must certainly have balance problems.” That said, he allowed the defendant to keep his job as the sentence was 8 weekends in a local jail and a $2,000 fine. And that was that. Not quite.
Six months later, I was in Riverside again at the Unemployment Office. (My Forest Service job was seasonal.) Suddenly, two lines over I see Forklift Man looking as surly as I remembered. Thankfully, he didn’t see me. Given what he did over $2, I could only imagine what he’d do over $2,000. (Not counting attorney fees and 8 weekends in jail.)
Weighing my options, I quickly slipped out the exit door. I saw a phone booth nearby and called Unemployment. “You’re right across the street?” the confused female case worker asked. I hurriedly explained the circumstances so she had me read the names, addresses and dates of where I had looked for work and said I could go back to Idyllwild. However, she cautioned “Be careful,” which was a bit ominous.
When I returned to the U.S.F.S. next spring, things were great and the “incident” had seemingly been totally forgotten. Except, on the first day back, Karl stared at me inquisitively like, “You have a college degree and you drive a garbage truck?” Now, however, I can finally say that was that.
Jack is at: facebook.com/jackneworth, twitter.com/jackneworth and email@example.com
Suggested photo caption: U.S. Federal Court House, Riverside, California