September 23, 2011

The Literature Corner: Attack Of The Tree Cop

Local and Federal law enforcers are supposed to be on the same side, but they virtually always have an uneasy relationship at best. On one hand the Feds, particularly the FBI, tend to look down on locals, considering them to be barely capable of coherent speech without drooling, particularly when compared with their buttoned down preppy magnificence. On the other, if they overplay their hand, locals can make things difficult.

Sometimes they even have some fun at the expense of the Feds, like the time a local skateboarder skated up to several cops carrying a loaded H&K MP5 submachine gun he found sitting unattended on the roof of an unmarked FBI car in the local Federal Building parking garage. The fun we had with that one is another story.

This story is about the time I found myself in the sights of Smokey The Bear-Like park ranger.

Attack of the Tree Cop

“They what?!” I said.

“The tree cops wanted to arrest us,” Andrews replied, a sly grin on his face.

“You’re kidding? For what?”

Andrews broke up: "for running a parade without a permit in a national park!"

"What?!" I said in amazement. "You're kidding, right?"

“Nope,” he replied, struggling to get his laughter under control.

“Where did they get the idea that we ran a parade without a permit? We didn’t do a parade.”

“I know. Apparently the federal law he’s talking about refers to parades and any other kind of un-permitted activity in the park. I don’t have any idea where he got the idea. The tree cop wouldn’t tell me.”

“Incredible!” I said, amazed. “You told him it was just two sweaty cops, right?”

“Yeah, I had a hell of a time convincing him that we didn’t do a parade. I’m still not sure he’s convinced, but he went away,” Andrews said, shaking his head.

“When did this happen?” I asked, and he launched into the story.

“Sgt. Andrews, there’s a park ranger at the front desk to see you,” the chief’s secretary said, her voice tinny over the intercom.

“A park ranger? Do you know what he wants?” Andrews asked, confused.

“Something about staging an event without a permit I think,” she replied.

“OK, send him down and I’ll meet him at the elevator.”


Staging an event without a permit? Oh well; I better see what he wants.

Andrews left the Patrol Division’s secure office suite and was waiting in the hallway when the elevator opened. The ranger was wearing his green and gray ranger outfit replete with a Smokey Bear hat. Only the rangers who took themselves really seriously regularly wore Smokey Bear hats. Most of them were more concerned with function than appearance--baseball caps did the trick--but not this guy; he didn’t look happy.

“Sgt. Andrews?” He asked.

“That’s me,” Andrews replied.

“Tom Andrews?” He asked again. The guy was suspicious about everything.

What’s this guy after? “That’s still me.”

“Is there some place we can talk,” the ranger asked. He furrowed his brow and ominously intoned, “privately?”

“Sure. C’mon back to my office,” Andrews replied, gesturing toward the secure door down the hall. Hmmm. Maybe he wants to talk about some national forest secrets. They sat down and Andrews closed the door. “What can I do for you?”

“Sgt. Andrews, it has come to the attention of the United States Park Service that on or about August 4th of this year, you conducted a race without permit in Custer State Park,” the Tree Cop said, obviously hoping that his brilliantly worded, unexpected accusation would immediately force Andrews to confess.

“I what?” Andrews stuttered, completely confused.

“On or about August 4th of this year, you conducted a parade without permit in Custer State Park,” Tree Cop repeated, slightly grinning this time; he thought he had Andrews. A tearful CSI-quality confession was surely only moments away.

“When did you say this happened?” Andrews asked.

“On or about August 4th!”

“Of this year? A parade?”

“Yes. It happened this year,” Tree Cop said, losing a little of his grin and trying to look authoritative and imposing despite being dressed like Smokey Bear.

“Custer State Park? Wait a minute, let me look at my calendar. . . “ Andrews said and began to page backward through his desk calendar. “September, August--here it is, the 4th. . .the 4th?! But that was when we... " Andrews began to laugh out loud. Tree Cop was stunned. The rampant lawbreaker, the desecrator of the sanctity of the parks he had come to collar, was laughing at him--out loud!

“This is no laughing matter!” Tree Cop said, the back of his neck reddening. “This is a serious violation of federal law, and I...”

“No, no, I’m not laughing at you, you don’t understand; I just...” Andrews said, trying desperately to control himself.

“Well? What about the parade?” Tree Cop demanded, drawing himself up in his chair and summoning every ounce of stalwart authority he could muster. He was amazed when Andrews broke up again.

“Wait a minute,” Andrews wheezed, trying to gain control of himself, “I’ll explain.”

It started at the beginning of the summer when I discovered that Andrews was a runner. The Black Hills was a runner’s paradise. Rolling hills, mountains 6000+ feet high, beautiful scenery, a miles long concrete bike path that paralleled the creek that ran through the center of town, even a nearby desert made it a great place to run. The town of 50,000 even had a specialized runner’s shop--called, surprisingly enough, “The Runner’s Shop”--that sponsored a yearly marathon as well as many shorter races throughout the year.

One of the first things I did after coming to town was map out several courses through the community with known mileages, all beginning and ending at the Police Department. I put together a three mile out and back course for the occasions when I had little time, and a very nice four mile circular course that wound through an expensive area of town with a wide, grassy central island, almost like a park; it was pretty easy on the feet. But the most challenging course was a seven mile route over Skyline Drive.

Skyline Drive was a small, ridge-like mountain that divided the center of town. A winding, scenic road twisted along its spine and had since the early days of the community. The view from the road was spectacular and only within the last few decades had pricey homes begun to creep toward the top of the ridge on the east side (the west side was mostly too steep). Skyline was great for the serious runner. It offered ridiculously steep climbs in lengths ranging from several hundred yards to a mile or more. My seven-mile course ran up the east side to the south end and northbound all along the spine, eventually descending back on the north end.

I introduced Tom to each of the routes and we ran them regularly. It always helps to run with someone of similar ability. On the days when you don’t feel like running at all, you can encourage each other. Some days you can easily conquer any run, but your partner lags and vice versa. And some days, the run just kicks your butt, but it's always more fun with a little friendly support and competition.

Eventually, our in town runs weren’t enough. We wanted to come up with something more challenging, something to help promote fitness in the force. That is always a problem in police work. The hours are long and irregular and the work, while not usually physically demanding, is emotionally exhausting. When they’re done with their shifts, most cops just want to go home and crash. The idea of going for a run, particularly in bad weather, isn’t high on the list of things to do. As a result, too many cops jump on the excess cholesterol bandwagon. They end up overweight, suffering from hypertension, high blood pressure, and any number of stress related illnesses. That’s what really is hard on cops, not chases, fights or the sundry ailments that afflict fictional cops. The cop/donut stereotype has some basis in fact, but that’s mostly because donut shops--unlike most other eateries--tend to be open for business 24/7, just like cops.

Many law enforcement agencies establish semi annual or annual physical fitness testing. Officers have to pass minimum standards to be fit for duty. In reality, these things usually apply only to the patrol force. Detectives, administrators and support people have more “juice” and find ways to avoid it. Our department was reasonably serious about it.
We came up with the idea of the Triple Peaks Club. We’d choose three mountains in the Hills and run up and down them. We put up a classy plaque with the names of everyone who joined (Andrews and I were the charter members), and we established rules. To gain membership, one had to run up and down each of the three mountains during the course of a single summer. Each candidate had to be accompanied on each run by a current member, and had to actually run at least 80% of the way up and down.

We chose Crow Peak near Spearfish, Bear Butte outside Sturgis (yes, that Sturgis--where all the bikers come every August) and Harney Peak in Custer State Park, the highest point in South Dakota. Each run followed an established hiking trail, but each had unique challenges.

Bear Butte was the shortest run, but in some ways, the toughest. It had the least elevation of the three peaks, but had many sharp switchbacks, a trail that was dangerously narrow in many places, and was very steep. There was nowhere to catch your breath. From the moment you began, it was steeply uphill virtually all the way. It took less than an hour from top to bottom, but that was an hour of near sprinting intensity effort.

Crow Peak was the next most difficult. Unlike Bear Butte, which was within easy sight of Crow Peak, it was a genuine mountain and quite a bit taller than the Butte. The trail was wider, the drop-offs not as sharp, and there were even some slightly downhill sections in the continual climb to the top. It was almost possible to catch your breath here and there. It took just under an hour to make the assent.

It was Harney Peak that nearly sent us to a federal country club prison. It is an ancient, rugged granite mountain in Custer State Park in the southern Black Hills and is the highest point in South Dakota at 7,242 feet, which is actually higher than any of the Appalachians. Perched atop its windy summit is a rough rock ranger station built during the days of the Works Project Administration. It hasn’t been occupied by rangers for decades, but the view remains thrilling. On a clear day, six states are visible. The ascent is relatively easy in the early stages, with very wide, groomed trails, but as the summit looms closer, the going is much like Bear Butte and requires a virtual sprint for the last half-mile.

Harney Peak takes as much as three hours round trip. The Lakota Sioux consider the peak to be the center of the universe. In fact, the final, touching and mystical scene in "Black Elk Speaks" by John G. Neihardt, the story of Sioux medicine man Black Elk, takes place on the summit. A sandy area near the summit is still used for Sioux ceremonies. Similar ceremonies regularly take place at Bear Butte. We even came up with an idea for a “Moon Dance,” which was sort of like the Sioux Sun Dance immortalized in the film “A Man Called Horse.” We’d attach old tires to our Gluteus Maximus with Eagle claws at the end of leather thongs and drag them along on our runs. Even though Tom was Sioux, we wimped out on that one--just not manly enough, I guess.

And so it was that on August 4, Tom and I began our assent of Harney Peak, the final jewel in the crown of the Triple Peaks club. The trailhead is at the north side of Sylvan Lake, which is aptly named. If you've seen "National Treasure 2: Book Of Secrets," you've seen Sylvan Lake. That's where Nicholas Cage ends up when he finds another treasure. And oh yes, it's not near Mt. Rushmore as the movie leads one to believe.

It was a demanding but fun run. On the way down, we were pelted with a hard rain, and we had to resist the almost overwhelming temptation to shout “Bear! Run for your lives!” to tourists ascending the trail as we barreled headlong downhill past them. But we made it and the Triple Peaks Club became a reality. Not many others eventually joined the club, but those who did had a real sense of accomplishment gained while seeing some of the best scenery in the Black Hills up close and personal (particularly if they, like I did, tripped and plowed a bit of that scenery with their faces while descending Harney Peak), and of course, anyone who could make the trip could easily pass the physical fitness exam.

“So this tree cop wouldn’t tell you where he got the idea?” I asked.

“No. He was really closed mouthed about that,” Tom said, shaking his head.

“That’s odd,” I said. “Only people at the PD and our families knew what we were doing. Do you suppose someone was trying to play a practical joke?”

“Who knows?” Tom replied.

“Another mystery of the universe I guess,” I said.

“Right. You up for Skyline today?”

“No sweat. After shift?”

“You’re on," Tom said. “Just remember to get your parade permit before we go.”

“And remember: only you can prevent tree cops," I added.

Posted by MikeM at September 23, 2011 09:57 PM

Several years ago, an F-- agent who lived near where I was workin' as a copper had his vehicle broken into...the burglars got radios, raid vest, ammo, and all kinds of toys (did I mention the radio were encrypted?)
We had one local puke in for some minor crime and offered to give up his buddy and the F-- toys if we let him go....
Got all the toys back (did I mention encrypted radios?) and the F-- agent was very happy.

Posted by: danny at September 23, 2011 10:49 PM

What was this that I just read?

Posted by: Kevin at September 24, 2011 02:02 PM