Watching time fly by

By John Ford Sr. | Apr 14, 2010

The year 1982 was off and running. I was recording life's many challenges and encounters while corralling those who disobeyed society's rules in one form or another.

As I scanned through the diaries, I realized how quickly time was flying by. It seemed like only the previous day I had embarked upon my new duties as a district game warden. But in 1982, I was better than halfway to completing my rewarding career.

There had been changes within the department the previous few years. Some were for the good, while others I viewed as a real hindrance to the profession.

One of the most detrimental changes was a concern by the labor unions and government that wardens were working way too many hours without the proper compensation of overtime as required by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

Prior to the issue being raised by the department, wardens enjoyed the freedom of working whenever activity required it. The freedom of choosing what hours to work and where to go were vital to the agency and in the best interest of protecting our natural resources.

For example, it was a given fact that from September through November, most of us would spend countless hours working night hunters. For the most part, we were never told what hours we had to work or where we had to go. We already knew.

We were responsible for our own districts and expected to curtail illegal activity within them. Sometimes it required a nighttime patrol, other times a daytime excursion. On many occasions, especially in the fall, it required both day and night operations, which resulted in an excessive number of hours worked by dedicated wardens across the state. Wardens who took their jobs seriously.

The department was placed in a no-win situation when the government, through the FLSA, demanded all employees be compensated for the number of hours they worked.

This was to be done either through overtime pay, which the agency could ill afford, or by giving employees compensating time off for the hours they had incurred at a rate of time and a half over 43 hours per week.

In the past, those of us who had pursued this type of a career never expected or asked for such a reward. We knew the long hours required when we took the oath of office. And we took that oath quite seriously.

But the tide was turning. Records had to be maintained of exact hours worked, as required by state and federal statutes and the government that demanded we be compensated.

Suddenly, a few of us die-hard old-timers found ourselves being disciplined for performing the very duties expected of us in the past. I never thought I'd see the day when I'd catch hell for working too much, but that day had arrived.

Warden Service managers were directed to enforce these standards and document the hours an employee worked in a given period of time. They were to calculate the number of hours of comp. time accrued, as payment for the number of hours worked. That comp. time was forced time off after a certain amount of time had been built up.

The agency could hardly afford to pay overtime rates to its wardens, especially given the high cost of operations. Not to mention very little money came from the state to fund the agency or to support such a drastic move.

The department's funding depended mostly on the sales of hunting and fishing license fees, which were rising at a rate quicker than a tomato plant heavily doused in rapid grow.

It was a Catch-22 situation for the department. Some members welcomed the new change. But several of us old-timers resisted its implementation. No one ever liked radical change that sprung out of the normal routine, and I admittedly was one of them.

Placing restrictions on when and where a warden could work, in my view, was the beginning of the end for all of law enforcement. This FLSA rule applied to all agencies and wasn't simply directed at the warden service. The Maine State Police experienced the same issues.

Without authorization, wardens would no longer be able to randomly work on matters that required a lot of patience and more so, time. Those days of sitting underneath a tree in the middle of the woods hour after hour waiting for an illegal trapper to check his traps, or sitting night after night in a remote area waiting for a deer poacher to come along, were rapidly becoming a thing of the past.

The traditional public conception that a warden had the patience of a priest when it came to working on specific cases could become nothing more than a distant memory. In the end, natural resources and the sportsmen of Maine would be the real losers.

At the time, many of us who were so used to the old way of performing our duties simply didn't record the actual hours we worked. We continued on with business as usual, hoping upon hope that we would be left alone.

The bosses suspected some of us might be fudging our reports, but for the moment they were rather lenient enforcing the rule. They assumed it was our choice whether we wanted to be compensated, and if the real hours worked weren't listed in our reports, they cautiously overlooked the matter.

But in time, even this oversight became more difficult to escape as the rules of play tightened.

The good old days of working a district, covering complaints and catching the bad guys were quickly disappearing. The personal contact between the public and its warden was also beginning to drastically erode.

After all, a warden could no longer simply stop and chat with folks while the clock ticked away. He would be wasting precious work time, even though the public was so valuable in providing us with information.

As more officers began taking their mandated comp. time, wardens patrolling surrounding districts covered for them. Often, wardens were called to areas they knew very little about. They also didn't know the people they were dealing with or the habits of the local so-called bad guys. The professionalism and public's expectations were sharply declining.

Simply put, the job wasn't the fun it once had been. Not only did we have to watch over our shoulder for devious individuals who might be holding a grudge against us for one reason or another, but now we had to watch for a boss who was ready to discipline us for working too much.

What a sad state of affairs. But it was the trend of the time. As the years progressed, it continually got worse — as you'll read in future articles.

In my opinion, I was witnessing the prestige and integrity of an agency to which I was highly dedicated deteriorating before my eyes. Sadly, the people of Maine, who expected the best of services when they called, would eventually become the real losers. Not to mention the threat to the natural resources of our great state.

Some might read this article and simply infer this is nothing more than sour grapes on my part and a refusal to catch up with the ever-changing times. Maybe it is.

Nonetheless, having the freedom to put forth the best effort possible was no longer the option it once had been. We were being micro-managed to the point of where I wondered if the job would carry me through to the retirement for which I had planned.

There was a time or two in the days ahead when it almost didn't. But those are stories for later on, when the changes become even more drastic.

At any rate, as I scanned the diary for 1982, I found an unusual incident that, at the time, was a bit hectic and scary, but today it brings a smile to my face.

My ride-along companion Scott Sienkiewicz and I were cruising the Swanville/ Belfast area Jan. 23, 1982, during a heavy snowstorm. We were on a mission to find those pesky snowmobilers illegally riding up and down the roads playing Russian roulette with the snowplow drivers and any motorists trying to stay ahead of the storm.

As we approached a four-way intersection on a back road in Swanville, during what could be described as a near-blizzard, I pulled up to the stop sign and came to a complete stop.

Much to my dismay, I observed a small pickup truck pulling a 45-foot house trailer heading my way through the blanket of falling snow. The front wheels of the truck were nearly off the ground as it swung directly into my path. It was straining for all it was worth to keep moving up the hill in the inclement weather.

I desperately tried to put my cruiser into reverse, hoping to escape the wrath of the metal house trailer. But it was a little too late. The sharp turn taken by the driver forced the trailer into the front end of my cruiser. We were dragged backward and across the slippery terrain.

Once the operator realized what was happening, he came to sudden stop. My cruiser was firmly wedged up against the side of the mobile home. I had visions of becoming a living room guest of this house on wheels. We ground to a sudden and rather abrupt stop, blocking the entire highway in the process.

Immediately, I transmitted a request to Maine State Police in Augusta for a trooper to be dispatched to the scene to cover the accident.

“2159, Augusta – I've just been run into by a house trailer," I anxiously blurted out over the airwaves while advising of my exact location. "Can you have a trooper come my way to cover the damage?”

There was along pause, followed by the dispatcher's quizzical but calm inquiry, “2159, did you say you just went off the road and struck a house trailer?”

“No Augusta, the house trailer just came off the road and hit me,” I impatiently yelled.

In the end, Trooper Greg Myers arrived, filled out the necessary paperwork for the accident and summoned the truck operator for towing a mobile home without proper authorization and safety precautions.

It just goes to show that whenever an officer goes on patrol, he never knows what kind of fiasco the day might bring. When I left home that morning I never dreamed before day's end I'd be in a collision with a mobile home during a near-blizzard on a back road in Swanville, Maine. But then again, none of us ever knows what the day ahead has in store.

As my pal Mark Nickerson would say, it was “just another day on patrol.”

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