Monday, March 20, 2006

THE LAST RUN

"The Last Run" is a short story about the last day on the job working for Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, (TWRA). That day was one of the most depressing days of my life. I loved that agency and every individual I ever met that worked for it. They were hearty, robust people dedicated to the stewardship of things natural. They maintain a balance between all things nature and the human use of Tennessee's resources. They also are the governing body for Tennessee's river systems and lakes. I felt a passion for the very, very small part I played in the scheme of things with this agency. But, I was a part of it and I was proud to wear the uniform and contribute to their needs through my assigned tasks. So, the stage is set for the Last Run. It was a sad day and a day I will never forget as long as I live. It is a noisy morning at the dock area of Melton Hill Lake. The early morning darkness emits sounds of the secret inhabitants of the lake, woods and shore. Somewhere along the bank off to the right a Great Blue Heron croaks his displeasure at all the sounds his wild neighbors are making. Much like a cranky old man who was rudely awakened far too early in the morning by children screaming too near his bedroom window. But his croaks grow farther apart and he has accepted the fact that another day is about to start and he must prepare to play out his roll in it. The Peeper frogs are quieting as are the chorus of crickets that hold concert nightly. A loud splash is heard as the golden dog plunges into the water to swim after the white duck that taunts him with each visit to the lake. He will not catch the duck for it will keep a safe distance in front of the dog, swimming ever farther away from the banks of the river. Although it is dark, the imagination can see the dog close the gap between itself and the duck only to have the duck expend a sudden burst of energy that will broaden the span between itself and the dog. This taunting exercise has been played out each time the golden dog has visited the lake. It puts a smile on the uniform's face to see the determination his golden friend displays with each visit to this beautiful place. The coffee is still warm and tastes good as the uniform sits down on a log as he usually does at the start of each day. It's a time to allow the sun to rise and the fog to lift and a time for reflection. Today the uniform and his golden companion will step onto the boat for the last time. For at the end of this day the uniform will exist no more. This is the last run on the lake. The last chance for adventure. For at the end of the day the uniform will no longer be an official presence on the lake. He will no longer be the one to answer the many questions posed to him by fishermen and boaters. They chase him down and seek him out for the latest information and official news for he represents authority and knowledge about water things. They know him by name and even the golden dog has become a celebrity on the lake. The many friends made will drift into memory and a new authority will present himself in due time. But for now the day lies ahead and the uniform forces the inevitable from his mind. "Get in the boat" he says, and the golden dog trots down the pier and hops onto the deck of the boat and sits in his usual place at the bow. The uniform follows and falls unceremoniously in the pilots chair behind the steering wheel. Switches are depressed and the key is turned and the big engine ignites and they are on their way upstream slowly. As they pull away from the dock the uniform glances over his shoulder to watch the dock slowly recede farther and farther away. This is the last time he will look over and around the big Mercury engine in the rear of the boat and he absorbs the moment. A sadness starts to come over him and he pushes the throttle full forward in an attempt to create some situation that will require full attention in order to avoid the oncoming depression. The big boat races along at speeds of fifty miles per hour and the wind is exhilerating. He removes his hat to allow the warm morning wind to ruffle and toss his hair. There is no one to be neat for out here. They pass Granite Bluff and race on upstream toward the great granite wall. This is the place where once they drifted very close to the vertical granite wall and the golden dog stepped off onto a rock ledge and the boat drifted on past stranding him where he stood. The uniform was filling out forms at the time and the move went unnoticed until the boat drifted past. How lonesome the little golden dog appeared standing there alone against such a massive backdrop! He was only six months old at the time of the occurrence. If the same situation should repeat itself today the golden dog would surely plunge into the water and swim the width of the lake to the far shore. He was one year old now and powerful. Solid muscle and in his prime. He had never known weakness and his spirit is wild and untamed. Yes, he certainly would not tolerate the loneliness of that ledge today for long. A boat lies ahead with a man wildly waving his hands. The uniform throttles back and the big boat glides slowly and settles down into the water and moves forward at idle speed as it pulls alongside. There is always a situation to deal with on the lake. Always someone who needs assistance. They know he will be by at some point in the day. All they have to do is be patient and they will see the golden beacon on the bow of a boat in the distance and they will know who it is---,,The gentleman has run out of gas. Normally the uniform would tow the boat to the nearest dock but today he will use the siphon to transfer gas from his tank into the tank of the broken boat. He knows the owner. It is Clearance Moss. Clearance has fished on Melton Hill for thirty years. He was retired and exists on practically nothing. He is one of the unfortunates that was released from his job after forty years of faithful service. Downsized is the word that seems politically correct. He acquired a chip on his shoulder from that point on and decided to spend the rest of his life doing as little as possible. And the lake was just the place to realize his ambitions. Nothing was said to Clearance about the "Last Run" on the lake by the uniform. A conversation with this man about it would prove to be too emotional. Both men waved as the TWRA boat pulled away. At a reasonaable distance from Clearance the throttle was once again thrust forward to maximum accceleration in hopes that the speed would belay the undesirable emotion that was welling up in the uniform. Directly ahead a telephone pole size timber appeared and the steering wheel was quickly turned to starboard and the large boat rolled over onto her side as the timber passed on by. The golden dog's legs flexed with the maneuver and he never moved from his place on the bow. He was used to such flamboyant changes in direction by the boat and instinctively reacted to them. The wheel turned back to port and the boat stabilized level on plane. Debris appeared everywhere and for safety sake the throttle was pulled back and the boat held plane at forty miles per hour. Ahead lay Douglas Island. It was aptly named for the golden dog. When the dog was five months old the uniform sought a place where he could let his friend roam and not worry about keeping a constant vigilance. The uniform beached the boat on the island back in November when no one was using the lake due to inclement weather. It was beautiful place covered with trees and shade and the beaches were of sand not mud. The golden dog would run up and down the sandy beach, back and forth at full speed loosing the energy pent up in his large puppy body. They would not stop today. It would be too sad to leave that place. Better to have the memories. Memories are in the past. Better to avoid creating new ones this day. For this was the "Last Run" and cheerfulness was elusive today. So on they went re-enacting the ritual of patrol as they have on countless days. Waving to friends and stopping to converse with known fishermen. The sky was becoming dark toward the end of the shift. A storm was brewing and the uniform didn't want to deal with it this time. He and the golden dog had withstood many blows on these huge lakes and had come through them all. "Ya gotta learn ta read the water", his friend told him. "Take cover in a cove if ya can", he would say. The uniform always paid strict attention to his friend's words because he respected him. His friend had served the agency for many years and spent them all on the great Tennessee lakes. He knew the business of navigation through storms. The uniform learned from this intelligent, practical person - his best friend in the agency. A gentle drizzle fell as the big boat was pointed downstream and home. He had wished the water would fall in torrents to busy his mind. But the drizzle fell and a hazy fog appeared. A miserable situation for most lake travelers but a welcome event to the uniform The air changed from hot, humid and stagnant to refreshing, cool and invigorating. He stood up in the boat to see over the windshield that became opaque with moisture and rain drops. The dock was just ahead and he was glad it was raining for the moisture falling from the sky onto his cheeks began to have a salty taste. The golden dog paced about the deck in anticipation of disembarking onto the dock. The boat bumped the dock plate and Douglas bounded out onto the dock and instantly ran up the shore line in search of the little white duck. The uniform tied the bow line to the docking cleat and stood as straight as he could. The weight of the emotional circumstance was heavy on his shoulders. He looked longingly out across the lake and let his gaze linger here and there on the far bank. He watched the golden dog tossing a stick into the air and catching it as it fell, only to throw it back up and repeat the movements. "What will it be like for him?" he thought----The golden dog was raised on the deck of that boat and the shorelines have been his habitat. He has known nothing else. Such a spirit could not be forced to exist between walls. It would take effort but the uniform would not let that happen. The uniform was a steward to the dog and he was dedicated to treating his friend with dignity and respect. It was his job to establish a happy environment for his innocent friend. And he would make every effort. Well, its time to go. He backed the boat trailer into the water and set the brake on the truck. That brake never did work correctly. The boat slid up onto the trailer bunks and rested perfectly against the bow stop. He set the hook and applied the rear trailer straps. The truck groaned as it pulled the boat and trailer out onto the parking area. Its was over. The shift was ended and so was ended the best picnic he had ever had. He had roamed these lakes with the golden dog on a magnificent escape mechanism with a powerful engine that would thrust him and the golden dog into adventure after adventure. A time machine that would take them to any point in time the imagination wanted. Usually it was backward in time before our country was tamed. They had braved enormous storms that would blow up from nowhere with lightning and thunder that would test their resolve. Winds that would whip the water into huge whitecaps and toss their craft about on the lake as if it were insignificant. He opened the door and yelled "get in the truck". The golden dog trotted to the passenger side of the truck and jumped onto the seat. He closed the door behind the dog and walked down to the waters edge. Looking up to the tree line on the far shore through tears he could not suppress, he spoke softly with a wavering voice--------"I am part of you now. Even though I must leave, I will always respect and protect you. I will guard your sanctity and forever be amazed by you. My heart has become filled by you and I am thankful for your tolerance of me. I have discovered where I belong thanks to you but can not stay. It has been a privilege to serve your waters. When again I walk your shores and touch your watery face, I hope you look upon me with kindness and welcome me back." He unbuttoned his shirt and removed it. The hat came off and a comb drawn through his thinning hair. As he sat behind the wheel he turned his head one more time toward the lake and uttered a last farewell to the natural place he had become absorbed in. They drove off toward the highway through the park. He did not look at the outflow from the dam. It was over. All of it. Gone. The experiences placed on a shelf in his mind labeled memories. But these memories were clear and crisp. And they would never dull. They were memories a man could step back into and relive while sitting on a porch rubbing aching limbs that pain with age. I was that uniform. And I am proud to have worn it. Very proud!