End of yet another era

By John Ford Sr. | Apr 29, 2010
Photo by: John Ford Sr. John Ford Sr., right, roasts his partner, Norm Gilbert.

Health-wise, 1982 began on a sour note. A valuable lesson had hit home that none of us are immune to a medical crisis.

I had a series of medical tests for chronic coughing and fatigue and tested positive for tuberculosis. Thus, I was required to begin a regimen of popping pills every day for a year. Not to mention the weekly nuisance of sending a saliva specimen to the state health lab so my treatment could be monitored.

Although this procedure was an inconvenience, it would be nothing like the situation I'd face a few years later, when I was dealt a real life-threatening disease. I then wondered if, perhaps, my time had come.

It forced a break in my regular routine of casually taking my life and health for granted. Not until a life-threatening prognosis was placed solidly on my lap, with the future looking very bleak, did I realize how complacent I had been regarding my very existence. But that's a story for future articles.

So I faithfully popped my pills, spit into a vile to be shipped off to the state lab and hoped that life would again return to normal.

Not only was health a concern but so too the career I'd enjoyed the previous 12 years. As I stated in my last article, times were drastically changing. We were being closely monitored by our bosses for hours we worked and mileage we drove any given day. Micro-management from higher-ups was much more stringent than ever before.

The freedom to perform the people's work and protect our natural resources as we had in the past was being handicapped by a constant barrage of criticism and budget restraints from those in command.

Some of these changes may have been justified because of budgets. But higher-ups seemed to be personally micromanaging our daily efforts. Never before had our work habits been so restricted.

Morale in the field was plummeting, especially that of the old diehards who resisted changes. My working partner, Norm Gilbert, was one of them.

It came as no surprise when, earlier in the year, Norm decided he'd had enough of the new rules of play. He abruptly announced his retirement, effective Feb. 26.

This was going to be the end of an era, for sure. Norman was a district warden when I was only a twinkle in my folks' eyes. When he officially called it quits, he had 33 dedicated years of service under his belt.

I'm sure, like so many others who had retired before him, he found the rapid changes in operations and the breaking of old habits too difficult to overcome.

I knew exactly how Norm felt, but I had another eight years to go before I could consider making such a move. I just hoped I could survive the onslaught of changes that were coming quicker than a howling wind in a heavy thunderstorm.

Personally, I wondered whether the sacrifices were worth the hassle that suddenly accompanied the tasks. Perhaps I should simply sit back and reap the financial rewards  the government offered and consider myself fortunate, while ignoring the oath of office I took for the career I'd dreamed about so many years before.

Norman's farewell roast was scheduled for April 16. I seriously wanted to join him after receiving another butt-chewing from the boss the day before the party.

They had complained that I was putting too many miles on the cruiser, working way more hours than I should and spending too much time hanging around with my state police buddies.

It seemed like the nitpicking was an attempt to purposely destroy morale. But for the time being, there was no other choice but to suck it up and play by the rules the best I could.

One thing was for sure — my career would never be as enjoyable as it once was, especially since my working partner would no longer be there. The laughs we shared and the spur-of-the-moment fiascoes in which we found ourselves would, from that day forward, be nothing more than pleasant memories.

At least the memories couldn't be taken away, as it seemed everything else had been.

Norm was given a great sendoff April 26. Several of his brother wardens, friends, dignitaries and their spouses, all gathered for the festivity in Pittsfield. During the wild roast, many attendees humorously relived Norman's great attributes and a fair share of his embarrassing moments.

Story after story was told — some true and some inflated a bit, but most brought a night of laughter to his audience and to his family. All in all, it was a great tribute for his long and prosperous career.

Utilizing my somewhat obscure artistic talents, I shared a few of our experiences, illustrated in cartoon form on a large notepad placed on an easel at the front of the hall for everyone to view.

I required Norman to sit directly in front of the crowd. I began recounting several of the more humorous and bazaar episodes we shared the previous 12 years while flipping the chart to display caricatures of the old boy.

One such illustration was Norm in uniform climbing out of a trash can at the I-95 rest area in Pittsfield, firmly holding a fistful of pornographic magazines. Norman had found this spot from which to gather material for a hidden collection of pornographic trash he secretly squirreled away at home.

All of it was free of charge, thanks to the cross-country truckers who pulled into the rest stop to ditch their trashy magazines from their big-rigs before heading back home to momma.

I still recall Norman's rather red face as I divulged his little secret to the crowd. I wouldn't dare print the snide comments he sternly directed my way as I told the story.

Another sketch depicted a warm fall night when Norm was half-asleep in the cruiser. His window was down with his arm rested comfortably outside. His head was leaned back against the window post so he could drift off into la-la-land.

We had no idea a barn cat had climbed on the roof of the cruiser and was quietly padding along checking things out. When the cat decided to clamber back to the ground, it took hold of Norman's outstretched arm — which scared the living bejesus out of the both of us.

In a haste to protect himself from the sudden intrusion, Norman flung his arm back in the open window. The cat's claws were dug into Norman's uniform shirt so the movement propelled the wild critter onto the back seat of the cruiser like an apple being tossed from a wiry stick.

The startled beast scurried about the inside of the cruiser like a wild animal with a spray of turpentine dabbed on its butt. Neither of us knew what the hell it was until Norman managed to turn on the dome light, exposing the frightened critter.

That cat shot out through the open window like a rocket fired from a launcher, never to be seen again. It was several minutes before the old boy calmed down and we returned to normal. Needless to say, there were no more catnaps that night for either of us, no pun intended.

I related another time when I innocently managed to wreck Norm's brand new cruiser. First, I drove across a country road completely covered with cow manure that had fallen from a manure spreader as a farmer had scurried from field to field.

The stinky cargo splattered on the hot engine compartment, making it almost impossible to remain inside the cruiser with the windows rolled up. Norm grumpily accused me of driving through it on purpose.

As if the manure episode wasn't bad enough, before night's end, as we traveled down a dirt road in Knox, a large buck bolted out of the brush and smacked the front end of his new ride, severely damaging the front door and forcing Norman to ride in the backseat the remainder of the evening.

Needless to say, if looks could've killed, that night I'd have been dead a thousand times over.

A classic story took place one Sunday morning. A distraught motorist skidded in Norm's yard and claimed he'd just hit and severely injured a moose a short distance from Norman's home. The moose reportedly had a broken leg and had been hobbling along a nearby snowmobile trail.

Norm, still dressed in his Sunday go-to-church garb, grabbed his rifle and headed for the scene. He intended to dispose of the injured moose before it got too far from the highway, and much more difficult to retrieve.

As Norman slowly hiked along the bushy snowmobile trail, he said the "severely limping" moose stepped in front of him.

Seizing advantage of the situation, Norman quickly fired his high-powered rifle, fatally downing the moose in the middle of the snowmobile trail. The animal fell in a perfect place. It would be easy to remove the carcass when I arrived to assist with the chore.

As Norm hurried over to the large beast to make sure it was dead, to his right he heard a loud rustling noise. It was then he saw the injured moose hightailing it through the thick woods, well out of sight. Mistakenly, Norman had shot the wrong moose.

He didn't dare shoot again, especially since the complainant was still parked by the roadside and had overheard Norman yell back to him that he had taken care of it.

That particular cartoon caricature drew a great roar of laughter from Norman's many cronies in the room.

Several folks in attendance related gut-wrenching tales, much to the delight of Norman and his family. It was a great tribute for a job well done. People took turns roasting the old boy and giving him a farewell that he'd remember forever. It was a proud and happy evening for Norman.

But also one filled with sadness as the end of an era had arrived.

The countless hours working with the man I respected and admired would no longer be. Norman had made it to his well-deserved retirement. I only hoped in the years ahead that one day I, too, would be able to have a moment in the sun, knowing that I'd given my best to the profession I enjoyed ... while making my own share of mistakes along the way.

Norman had earned his friends' respect and walked away with his head held high, knowing full well he'd left his mark in history while working in a career that he loved.

Grampy and the kid, as we were labeled, were no longer a team. Grampy had moved along, leaving this kid out on his own.

I went home that evening wondering if I'd be fortunate enough to make it to my own retirement. Times were certainly changing and only time would tell what the future might be – I had eight years to go to reach that goal. At that time, it appeared it was going to be a long and tough eight years.

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