Friday, February 28, 2014

RANGERING: October 2004 (3)

Dear Reader: The truth is never an absolute; it is subjective and it changes over time. So I do not claim that any of what I write is the truth. It is only my perception and recollection of events as they happened many years ago. In some situations I have changed names and details to protect the privacy of people involved, but I do my best to maintain the underlying substance of events and their impact on me.

CAUTION: This post discusses suicide in some detail. 

It was a beautiful day, and I was cleaning restrooms in the campground. It was a couple days after chasing the guys from Seattle through the woods. As I started to wheel the mop bucket from the women’s side to the men’s, Joseph walked up.

“Beautiful day,” he said.

“Indeed. Makes this job easy!”

“Hey, I wanted to say I got another camper compliment on the restrooms. You’re doing a thorough job on them, and people are noticing.”

“Thanks. Eva trained me, and I like to do it to her standards.”

A few hours later I heard Eva and Steve on the radio. It was dark, and the campground was being put to bed.

Steve said, “I’m at the jetty road parking lot, and there’s still a car here.”

“Did you look around for the owner?” Eva asked.

“I’m walking around now, but I don’t see anyone. I guess I’ll have to leave the gate open tonight.” 

The next night at about the same time, I again heard Steve and Eva on the radio.

“Eva, I’m out at the jetty road parking lot again, and the same car is still parked here.”

“That’s not good.”

“I’m going to take a closer look.”

I continued my work, listening carefully.

“The car seems to be completely empty inside. In fact it’s immaculate, it looks like it’s been vacuumed out. I’m going to find out who the registered owner is through dispatch.” 

Over the next couple days, the story continued to unfold. The owner was from Eastern Oregon. Police there were asked to do a welfare check on the registered owner of the vehicle. The man was not home, and had informed neighbors that he would be on vacation for several days; he’d said to one he was going camping. We all wondered about our mystery man, but no one turned up. 

Beautiful but invasive Scotch Broom
About a week later as I was starting my shift, I heard the news from Bob. A hiker had come upon a body in a remote part of the park; our mystery man had shot himself in the head. It was a painful reminder that sometimes life is so difficult, a person cannot bear to be a part of it anymore.

I asked Bob about it. “I went out with the county sheriff to recover the body,” he said. “Since he’d been there for a while, his body was bloated on the side on the ground, where the blood had pooled. His skin was completely black on that side.”  Bob seemed to have a bad taste in his mouth.

“What was it like seeing him?”

“Kind of disturbing,” he said with a laugh. “Articles of clothing were on the ground in a circle around him, some a couple hundred feet away. They think he probably was walking around, working himself up into a rage so that he would be able to pull the trigger. He would have thrown off some of his clothes, maybe was arguing with himself. Most likely he shot himself that first night he was in the park.”

“Was this your first dead person, I mean at work?”

“Yeah. Yeah,” he said soberly.

He probably shot and killed himself that night during my shift. I waited for that to sink in; I waited to feel horrified. I didn’t, but I felt the need to talk about it, to try to understand what had happened. It seemed strange to me that a man had killed himself on my shift, in my park, and it didn’t bother me more.

“It’s sad to think of people getting to that point,” Bob said. “I just thank God for my religion. It helps keep me grounded through the tough times.”

Bob was Christian, wore a cross to work despite uniform regulations, and occasional spouted scripture to me. I wondered if Bob talking God to me opened the door to me talking homosexuality to him.

I heard that Joseph was going to take the tractor out, and went to the maintenance shop hoping he would train me. He was cleaning the tractor. I asked him about the suicide, and if it had a big impact on him.

“No, not really. I find it more interesting than upsetting.”

“Have other people died while you’ve been a ranger?”

“Two. I worked at Deception Pass for a while. Have you been there?”

“Not yet, I heard it’s beautiful.”

Deception Pass
“It has this absolutely amazing bridge that’s extremely high. It’s a beautiful place, and known as a place for people to come who want to end their lives.”

“They jump off?”

“Yeah, pretty much every year.”

“Do they ever survive?”

“No. It’s too high. A lot of times they crash into the rocks. That how the first person was. A woman. We had to go by boat to get to her, where she’d smashed up on the rocks. Her face was gone from the impact. I think that’s maybe why it didn’t bother me too much. Because I couldn’t see her face.”

I wondered about that. Was it the personalization of the death that made it harder to bear?  Somehow it stopped being random, and became a real person?

“Her body was kind of scattered. It was pretty gross. You know, some of those images stay in your mind forever.”

Joseph didn’t seem terribly upset by any of it.

“The other was the same way. This was a guy who’d been in the water so long, you know, his features were pretty much gone. He was completely bloated and sort of saturated.”

It sounded horrible to me. I wondered if I would have been more upset if I’d seen our guy who killed himself. I was certain of it; it would have been more real, less analytical.

I was disappointed that Joseph did not have time to show me how to drive the tractor.

Later when Eva came on shift, after she had gotten the updates from the other rangers, I had a chance to talk to her as well. She was cleaning her gun in the maintenance shop.

“Is it OK that I’m here while you’re doing that?” I asked.

“It’s fine. I unloaded all the ammunition in my truck.”

“Do you clean that pretty often?”

“We’re supposed to, especially on the beach with all the wind and sand – it can really jam things up. I don’t very often outside of our quarterly trainings.”

“Pretty sad about that guy, huh?”

Eva nodded.

“You had a feeling about it, didn’t you?  When Steve told you about his car.”

“Not the first night. But it was strange that it was still there the second night. And when Steve said it was so clean inside…  People do strange things when they’re preparing to die. Almost a ritual or something.”

“Does it bother you a lot?  Him dying on your shift?”

The North Jetty
Eva paused with a piece of gun in one hand, and a greasy rag in the other. “No, not really. Maybe it’s because I didn’t see him. Hard for it to become real when you don’t see the victim. In fact that’s always been the case. We lose people off the jetty here. They’ll be fishing, or just trying to climb the rocks, and a wave will sweep them off into the ocean. Their bodies often aren’t ever found. And if they do wash up, the currents have usually taken their bodies down south on the beach in Oregon somewhere. That’s happened a couple times since I’ve been here. Last summer a family was fishing off the jetty. The dad and a son got swept off.”

“Their bodies weren’t found?”

“No. Not yet. So no victim to see. But sometimes little things will get to me, make it real. Like in that case, the person who had the car keys was the one who drowned. They didn’t have any way to drive home. Things like that.”

I wondered about what they had said. For Eva, not seeing the victims allowed her to stay emotionally detached. Joseph saw the victims, but not their faces; for him that made it easier. I wondered if I would respond to any deaths as a ranger. Certainly it was possible, and more so in some parks than others. Would it be like this time, theoretically upsetting but not impacting me that much?  Or would it depend on the circumstances?  I felt badly for Bob, who had to see the body in its state of decomposition, all bloated and distorted, not the way a human body is supposed to look. Would those images be seared in his memory forever?  Undoubtedly.

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  1. Thanks, Kjerstin. This was very affecting. This is not a new idea, but especially when you were wondering about the difference between those that saw the body and those that did not, I thought about how natural it was even a hundred years ago for most of us to encounter the dead least various points in our lives. I don't know that historically this meant those deaths were less traumatic for us. But there is a way that perhaps death was simply more a part of the fabric of life and thus less exceptional to us. Thanks for this story and your thoughts with it.

  2. Katrina, absolutely. Death and other painful aspects of life today seem to be feared and ignored. Today when we face difficulties, we are facing them far more alone than we ever had to before. Yet another way that we are not walking in step with the natural world. Thank you for reading, and for sharing that perspective.