by WCO Vance Dunbar
My work day will begin in a few minutes, but for now I sit. I sit along the banks of Spring Creek at Fisherman's Paradise in Centre County and I watch. I watch the wild brown and brook trout rise to the hatch of cahills under the veil of a late-spring fog. I take in the canyons that rise sharply to the north and west. I view myself, my image reflected in the dew on my polished boots. I see tan and green and a badge--the badge of a conservation officer. I stand and face south and walk toward the H.R. Stackhouse School. As I approach its double doors I remember the events of the past year and the training that brought me to where I am now--two days from graduation.
The testing process began with some 1,200 applicants. By August of 1995 there would be 18 of us and we would all graduate. Our ages ranged from 47 to 25 and our backgrounds included a former U.S. Army Special Forces soldier, a pre-school teacher, a coffin builder, an air traffic controller, several correction officers, a couple of ex-cops, teachers and park rangers. The only common denominator appeared to be a love for and commitment to nature. Our training consisted of two phases, Act 120 and conservation officer school, which lasted 10 months.
The setting for the police academy (Act 120) was a rural town named Herman in the county of Butler. The building was an 1800s-era seminary named Ciotti Manor, and our living quarters were old monastic cells. At Ciotti we had a resident training coordinator named Dale Paglia. Dale is reminiscent of a troll in the story of the three billy goats' gruff. He stands about five foot-eight and is a bit hefty. He dresses in shorts and an old t-shirt and is probably one of the greatest men I have ever had the pleasure of encountering.
Dale is a seasoned officer who specializes in committing mental health cases. He was our mentor and is one of those rare men whose stories could make a rock smile. Question: How do you take 18 total strangers and make a team out of them? Answer: Lock them up in close quarters for four months and make them miserable.
One particularly effective method of making us miserable was our daily dose of sweat and pain. Physical training (PT) lasted 2 1/2 hours on Tuesday and Thursday and one hour on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I believe that the amount of support we gave each other during PT was the glue that bound us. A central part of our daily sessions consisted of formation runs while sounding off to cadence. I remember our favorite cadence :
Up jumped a monkey from the coconut grove,
He was a mean mammer-jammer you could tell by his clothes,
He wore tan and green with a Stetson hat,
He was a WCO. He was all of that.
He lined a hundred poachers up against the wall,
He bet twenty bucks he could cite them all,
Well he did 98 'till his face turned blue then he backed off,
Slacked off and did the other two.
Our schedules were hectic. After our 6 am PT we had a quick shower, ate and rushed for the classroom. Then we sat. We sat for eight hours and listened to lectures on law. Our instructors were some of the best in the state. They were chiefs of police, state troopers and agents of the Attorney General's Office, but we were tired and looked for distractions.
Maybe it was due to our fatigue or maybe the heat of the classroom or perhaps just the hour of the day. Maybe all these factors were responsible for the trouble hours. The trouble hours fell between 2 pm and 5 pm and claimed many casualties. We were seated two at a table with two parallel rows of four tables and one table at the rear of the classroom directly between the rows. On the right seat of the last table sat Clyde Warner and to his left sat Erick Shellgren, and they were the generals of the right and left armies, respectively. During the trouble hours designated lookouts would spy on the opposing army, and whenever a chin would drop to a chest for more than a three-second count, a casualty was recorded. Three incidents in one day was considered a fatality.
Perhaps the armies were also employing laughing gas because giddiness was a recurring problem. For example, we had one instructor who insisted on pronouncing misdemeanor as "Mr. Meanor," and although it may not appear funny now it was hilarious then. The trouble hours also produced such nicknames as "Patches," "Bucky," "Yetti," "Uncle Fester" and the "Prozac Kid."
In retrospect I believe our antics were a great stress reliever and did not hinder our performance. Our class grade point average was 95 percent, and qualified as the highest ever in Pennsylvania. In November we received our comeupins and transferred to the conservation officer school.
The setting is a place called Fishermans Paradise in the town of Bellefonte just north of State College. We are located at the base of a canyon rim and a wild trout stream named Spring Creek separates us from one of the Commission's largest trout hatcheries. The building is made of brown stone and wood and has a large, open front porch. Inside the main building is the classroom and the dining hall. There is a monstrous mounted brown trout in the lobby and a fireplace at the western end of the room. The eastern end of the complex contains four wooden cottages divided in half with each living quarter designated by the name of a particular species of fish. I lived in the Muskellunge Room and shared it with two roommates (Rob Croll and Terry Diebler). On day one our training coordinator, Jeff Bridi, informed us that we could fly fish on our lunch breaks if we were so inclined--Life was good!
Life at Stackhouse was more communal than dictatorial: We took weekly turns at leadership positions, we had flag ceremonies, and every evening we completed chores around the complex and typed our daily notes. Upon graduation I had filled eight 2 1/2-inch binders with typed notes and handouts--the contents of which I will use as a reference library for years to come. The highlights for me were water rescue, public speaking and field training.
Water rescue was divided into two segments--ice and moving water. Ice rescue training occurred in February at a pond that had holes cut into it. After a few hours of classroom preparation we were issued wet suits and instructed to jump into the water. The instructors took pictures of us and coached us through self-rescue and buddy-assisted rescue.
My wet suit had a hole in it. During moving-water training the Army Corps of Engineers almost doubled the discharge into the effluent of Foster Joseph Sayers Dam. We put on life preservers and plunged, one at a time, into the fast-moving 40-degree water while our classmates attempted to rescue us with throw ropes. This time we had no wet suits and were informed that we would all experience hypothermia first hand because it helps us better relate to those we are trying to rescue. Communications skills and public education were condensed into a marathon week of nightly cram sessions culminating in each of us assigned to an elementary school for one day. During our day we averaged three to four half-hour presentations to various grades of students.
Perhaps the former teachers encountered less difficulty than I did, but they wouldn't admit to it. How difficult can it be to teach elementary school students? Boy, was I naive. It was my last presentation of the day when I entered the second grade room of a small school in Happy Valley.
Under one arm I held a mounted musky and under the other I had various pieces of a snapping turtle. Out of nowhere came a child I refer to as "little Johnny, the poacher's boy." Little Johnny ran straight at me and immediately thrust his hands into the mouth and onto the teeth of the musky while asking if the teeth were real. Johnny quickly answered his own question.
As I was setting up it appeared as if the other children were staging a war party and all the while Johnny continued with his banter, "Are you a game guy? My daddy kills deer. My daddy kills deer all the time. We always eat deer." I finally managed to capture the class's attention by moving them from their chairs to the floor. I had them sit cross-legged in a semicircle around me and totally gave up my prepared lecture. I allowed them to pick the topic and I would expound on it.
We were on the topic of amphibians when I noticed a little girl that I refer to as "Suzy Salamander." Her hand was straining skyward and as she squirmed impatiently before me she made funny noises with her mouth. She stopped me dead in my tracks when she blurted, " My brother and me found salamanders under a board under the trailer once and we, we, we..... took 'em to Suzy's house cause Suzy has an, an, an.... Easy Bake Oven." Such were my experiences with education.
We were afforded seven weeks of field training of which roughly half would be fish law enforcement and the other would be boat law enforcement. As rookie officers we collectively could write a book on our experiences. For instance, on my first day in Lancaster County my field training officer, WCO Derek Pritts, and I were serving a search warrant on a trailer in a rural location. Derek and I entered a cramped room and he proceeded to open the door of the room's only closet while I observed.
Some people believe that life occurs in spots of time that are vivid memories captured in slow motion to be played over again between spots. This was one of those times. From the top of the closet came the head of a snake bigger around than my fist, and it was suspended inches away from Derek's face. He took several steps back, bumped into a terrarium and ordered, "Vance, search that closet." Our eyes locked for a moment before training in on the terrarium he so rudely disturbed and the northern copperhead staring at us from inside it.
I snap back to the present as the schoolhouse doors close behind me. I turn left into the classroom and pass under a sign that reads, "Through these portals pass the men among fishermen." I take my seat and again I think. I think about how fortunate I am to be a member of the "thin green line," soon to be entrusted guardianship of the waterways and all things wild that reside therein.
The thirteenth class of waterways conservation officers extends its sincere gratitude to all those who made our training possible and pledge to respect you, the anglers and boaters of the Commonwealth, to which we have so recently been sworn to serve.
Copyright 1996. Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. Used with permission. All rights reserved.