"We should come home from adventures, and perils, and discoveries with new experience and character." -Henry David Thoreau
I came home last Friday.
If you hadn't heard through the grapevine, I had been out of town since December of 2009. Four and a half months I was away from home. Granted I was able to come home on Saturdays, but I spent my weeks, Sunday through Friday, away at training to become a bona-fide Park Ranger.
Medical Training, Search and Rescue, Naturalist Training, and the last 10 weeks have been the Police Academy to become a Law Enforcement Officer. Quite a bit of information to shove into this now 30 year old head after being out of school for some 7 years.
I was part of a group of 19 "pre-pubescent" Park Rangers back in December of '09. And I don't mean "pre-pubescent" because their voices hadn't started crackling or their bodies started changing. I mean that all 19 of us had been working in the parks in some fashion, we just were not fully commissioned Park Rangers. Some of our predecessors called us "baby rangers". But that was back in December.
We spent two months at Henry Horton State Park doing medical training, search and rescue, and some naturalist training. We also got issued uniforms and all the fancy domaflichers that Rangers get to have. The other Rangers and our instructors told us that with this many of us being together for this amount of time, that we would all hate each other by the time it was over. See, this group of "baby rangers" was the largest group of Rangers they had ever sent through the Police Academy, and this was the first time they had ever done this much training of this type before sending a group to the Police Academy. So we were sort of "experimental" in a way. The thing I have found out about Rangers, though, is that they are tough and at the same time make really good friends. This was a fact I found more about when we left for the Police Academy in Cleveland, TN in February.
We joined the Academy with 17 other Police Officers from around the state. We made up Class #49. I can't imagine how the other officers must have felt seeing 19 Park Rangers strut their stuff into their classroom. "Oh Great!, Park Rangers" is probably the thoughts that were rolling around in their heads. At least that's what we all thought. Turns out the class had a fair amount of respect for what we do as Rangers. The cops deal with the bad stuff day in and day out, which for most Rangers, is not an ideal situation. But when we get into a hairy situation, we are almost always by our lonesome to deal with it, where cops normally have backup to assist them. The other officers revealed they would rather deal with the gritty stuff all day long than have to deal with it once by themselves.
The Academy is 10 weeks of training to prepare you to be a Law Enforcement Officer with the basic skills to keep you alive and well on the "streets" as the instructors called it. The Rangers would always talk more about the "trails" than the "streets", but it is all the same in context. On a normal class day we would wake up at 4am every morning and drive 40 minutes to the Academy for PT (physical training). After PT we would go to class and spend the rest of the day learning any of what seemed like a million subjects. Then we had larger focused subjects that would change our schedules up a bit and get us out of the classroom.
PPCT is Pressure Point Control Tactics. It's the new version of the old Martial Arts classes they used to teach to the military and police. It is more about "compliance" than punching someones lights out. Whatever it is, it hurts. We got to spend a whole week trying the different techniques on each other.
Firearms week was a doozy. We stayed at a military base in North Georgia. I feel like their whole purpose was to stress us out and keep us awake for as long as possible and then stress us out some more and then say, "shoot this target while we are yelling at you." We did 600 push ups in the first two days. Over 850 pushups were done by the time the week was over. I learned I could do alot more pushups that I thought I could by the time the academy was over, that's for sure! Our second night there, the instructors woke us up at midnight running through the halls and yelling for us to get into PT formation. It was really cold outside and they made us run the mile to the shooting range, do PT for what seemed like forever, and then made us crawl through a muddy field. And just as we were finishing the crawl, it started snowing, almost like we were in a movie...except this movie was real. We had to run the mile back, get in bed, and wake up almost instantly for class the next day.
We did what is called a "stress test" where you have to run through this fake building scenario and shoot the bad guys but not shoot the good guys, all the while the instructors are all yelling at you and trying to confuse you and one of them is shooting what is called "boom shells" next to your head. Boom shells remind me of the fireworks that don't make any sparkles, they just flash and boom really really loud. They are basically just a shotgun shell filled with black powder instead of bb's. It is quite dis-shoveling when it surprises you for the first time you are trying to shoot a target at 25 yards away in the dark. Oh yeah, and did I mention they make us do this in both the day time and the night time. It was fun...
Driving week was the next big activity week. We met every morning before sunup at a local high school parking lot. (Don't worry, the kids were on spring break.) We would set up different driving obstacles with orange cones and would all get a chance to test our skills. Again, it seemed like the point was to stress us out because one of the nights (which happened to be my 30th birthday) we only got two hours of sleep before having to be back on the course the next day. The final test was a large course of those orange cones with all the different obstacles we had been practicing and we had to run the course during the day and night while being timed. Needless to say, every time I see an orange cone on the side of the road now, I have dangerous flashbacks!
There was a section of training called simmunitions. They put us in realistic situations and give us guns that shoot wax bullets. The casing is the same as a regular bullet, but the projectile is wax. Trust me, I got shot in the upper leg near the groin, and it hurts! It left a nice 6 inch diameter bruise. Don't worry, my partner and I shot the instructors back!
We got to do what is called a "wet lab" where the instructors get a group of volunteers different levels of drunk and we got to do sobriety tests on them. That was quite interesting. We got sprayed with pepper spray to show us what it was like. By the way, if you were wondering...it hurts alot! And we had to do an obstacle course where you run and jump over things and climb through windows and climb over walls and through tunnels and drag a 165 lb. dummy 15 yards. That was really hard!
It was quite the experience. And it seemed like April 16th would never come. But last Friday it came and we graduated as Law Enforcement Officers. I ended up winning the "top cop" award because of my grades. And we made friendships that will last a lifetime. But that is not the moral of this long, drawn out story.
We were told that we would go home as different people, but I am still the same guy I was when I left last December. I am a guy with a much wider set of knowledge and skills though. Some of it useful and good, and some of it I wish I could give back (we saw way too many things that were meant to desensitize us!). Nonetheless, I am home. It is hard to express what it feels like to leave your 11 month old and your wife of 6.5 years. I cannot imagine what it would be like to join the army or be deployed under those circumstances because it was not fun. Every Saturday I would come back home and River would be a little more grown up, and be doing a bit more than when I last saw him. My biggest fear was that I would come home one day and he wouldn't remember me. Luckily, that never happened and I am glad. I was gone so long, Kari almost got used to me being away. It took a couple of nights for Kari to get used to me being back in the bed after she had it to herself for that long. (I may be a bit of a bed hog!) Something I did learn while I was gone was the meaningfulness of what it was like coming home. The feeling of walking back into my house Friday night after driving home from graduation was something very special. Home is very important and family even more important, and I learned that these last 5 months on top of all the Ranger schooling. Through all the adventures I had, coming home was my favorite.