One of the things I ran across in the files was a short story I wrote, a part of the legendary collection titled The Park Circus, which was churned out in the months after leaving the National Park Service in early 1999.
This story is called Go Tell It on the Mountain and still makes me laugh out loud. Hope ya'll like it too. Maybe I'll print the entire collection one of these days, just for kicks and giggles.
Go Tell It On the Mountain
Dena Bother, National Park Service Education Specialist, surveyed the group before her and absently looked at her watch. It was 9:30 in the morning at the Angel Moroni Elementary School in Saint George, Utah.
The classroom was brightly lit and the children had been told to be quiet for their special guest of honor. Miraculously these second graders had dutifully obeyed and the only sound was the sizzling tingle of fluorescent bulbs, which began to buzz uneasily in Dena’s head.
“My name is Dena Bother and I’m a ranger here at Zion National Park. I’d like to welcome you to our nature center. Uh…er…I mean thank you for inviting me to come and give a talk at you at your…uh…school.”
Dena had misplaced her prepared remarks, and for the last five minutes had been trying to keep her composure while nervously glancing about the room desperately searching for the missing script her supervisor had prepared for her.
The children’s teacher, Mrs. Purgatory, stood in the back of the classroom clucking to herself, angry that she had been unable to schedule a district school bus for the one-hour trip to Zion’s Park. Instead she had been forced to settle for this irksome talk from Ranger Bother.
The classroom next door had gotten the last bus request granted for the semester and was at this very moment watching the wide screen movie in the park gateway town of Spring-a-leak.
She painfully realized that this stout, nerdy woman in her ill fitting green & gray polyester uniform was no substitute for a giant screen movie and a picnic lunch in the April sun.
Dena continued, “Has anyone here ever been to Zion National Park?”
A forest of hands and arms quickly arose.
Without even being called upon little Jared Howitzer excitedly replied, “my dad likes to shoot deers up in Zion’s. I went with him and my uncle last year and we shined a light in their eyes and my mom made chili out of ‘em. Do you make deer chili up in Zion’s?”
Little Eva Towhead then remarked, “we went to Zion’s and saw the rangers carrying a man who fell off a cliff and my dad said he was dead. He told me that man died from fright before he ever hit the ground. Is that true?”
Their teacher asked for the children to be quiet and not to interrupt their special guest. Dena continued to stare blankly out into the sea of blond heads looking hither and yon for her long lost script. If only she could remember what it was she was supposed to be talking about! Panicking, she tried to cover her confusion by asking the class “to guess how many national parks there are in the national park system?”
Mrs. Purgatory seemed a bit dumbfounded at this line of questioning to second graders, but attempted to be helpful by asking the children to put on their thinking caps. She also made a mental note to request a district bus much earlier next semester.
Dena’ s confused and unscripted state of mind struggled to bring into focus the one and only thing she had ever actually memorized. It was something about snails.
“Yes” she remembered to herself “gastropoda bumfungus”!
This was the predominate species in the last park she had worked in before coming to Zion. At the Onion Blossom State Weed Preserve she had done a short program called “Snails on Damp Wood”. It was a talk that came with a written script that she had inherited from a departed colleague and was truly the only thing she knew by heart. Dena decided she would have to adapt it to this current assemblage of students come Hell or high water.
“All snails must be about the same,” she hopefully reflected.
Clearing her throat Dena began, “snails are slow-moving mollusks that usually have a spiral shell and a broad flat foot.”
Mrs. Purgatory stared back in disbelief. Weren’t the children still supposed to be trying to figure out how many national parks there were?
“Some snails are only as large as a pinhead, while others can grow to a length of 2 feet. They are found all over the world and in Zion National Park. Has anyone ever seen a snail in Zion?”
The children began to look for guidance from Mrs. Purgatory who now cut in with “your boss Chief Naturalist Nutley told me that you were only going to talk about fun animals like bobcats and coyotes.”
Jared Howitzer took this opportunity to jump in again, “my dad killed a coyote and hung it up on my granddads barn. We dragged it with our truck first to make sure it was dead. That was really fun.”
The other children giggled at this welcome off-ramp from the strange and boring ranger lady talking about snails. Some of them began flinging the Junior Ranger patches Dena had given out earlier. These little cloth flying saucers zinged past her face and thudded against the unrolled map of North America draped behind her.
Undaunted Dena droned on, “snails walk slowly. The body is extended forward, and the frontal tip anchors to the ground. The shell is then drawn forward and the process is repeated. Snails provide food for many kinds of fish and can be used as a scavenger in your aquarium. Have any of you ever seen an aquarium in Zion National Park?”
Mrs. Purgatory, having to nearly shout above the growing disinterested ruckus beneath her asked, “weren’t you supposed to talk about pretty animals in Zion’s?”
Dena retorted in a superior tone “as I said earlier, some snails can grow to be 2 feet in length, the important thing to remember is that we need all of your support in keeping the national parks a place where all of the animals, including snails, can live together in harmony. You can help us in that effort by staying on paved trails and roadways and visiting only if you absolutely have to. NEVER go where you might disturb any of the animals! Humans make it hard on all other living creatures! We are very, very bad neighbors to the rest of nature, so please let’s try and be good little stewards by staying far, far away.”
A din of voices now permeated the classroom as the children had long ago lost any interest in Dena, snails or their personal role in the destruction of a planet. A cacophony of giggles and chatter now filled the air in a relieved air of merriment. Mrs. Purgatory, exasperated and desperate, motioned to Dena that she was stepping outside the classroom door into the hallway for a moment.
Dena now fully charged, wound up her final point to her young audience “the national parks are for all of us to avoid so that they can be preserved for future generations of the hopefully unborn.”
The restless activity was sharply and shockingly broken when the fire alarm began to bray loudly throughout the long hallways of the building. Mrs. Purgatory swept the door open and shouted, “all right class let’s move outside quickly to our appointed fire drill spot, where we can say goodbye to our guest Ranger Bother. Bring your jackets because we’ll be staying outside for extended recess.” The class gave a loud hurrah and sped out into the clanging hallway.
The raucous tumult had barely fazed Dena who happily spied her lost script sitting right under the teacher’s desk.
“Well at least tomorrow I’ll be ready for Hurricane Elementary.”