Spring 2002
Cover Story: We don't Shhhh anymore
After the fall
Alma Matters
Memīries Sweet
Riff Ram
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TCU Magazine "Purpectives"

Other articles:
My window of opportunity

In the footsteps of Captain Filth

By Steve Sherwood
English professor

I brought our pastel green pickup to an abrupt stop, causing the load of trash in the bed to shift forward. Fifty feet back, partially hidden in the grass along the road, something white had caught my partner Gus' eye, and he jumped out and ran back to retrieve it. When he reappeared, he held a Pampers disposable diaper between two gloved fingers.

In a mournful voice, Gus said, "How could anyone drive through the most beautiful place in the world, roll down the window and toss out a Pampers?"

It was a question we asked ourselves often during stints as trashmen for Rocky Mountain National Park's west unit -- almost as often as we asked why we had ever taken the jobs.

Becoming a park garbage man had never been my ambition. I loved the outdoors and had no desire to see its seedy side, naively assuming when chosen from among thousands of applicants for a National Park Service position that I would spend my time building trails or giving campfire talks. I wanted to be a Park Ranger, that best-loved of public officials, Boy Scout and Canadian Mounty rolled up in one. I was sure that someone had made a mistake when, on arrival at park headquarters, I was directed to the maintenance shop and issued a large box of trash can liners.

There I learned I was replacing a man nicknamed Captain Filth. Though we never met, I soon discovered this bearded figure was the Paul Bunyan of garbage, a maintenance man extraordinaire, who hauled more trash and dug more interesting artifacts out of the garbage than anyone in park history. Clearly, we were told, Gus and I could never hope to fill Captain Filth's shoes.

Nevertheless, for three summers beginning in 1976, we roamed the park roads, emptying trash barrels, picking up beer cans and disposing of unsightly roadkills in a territory that stretched from the banks of the Colorado River's north fork to the high mountain tundra at Fall River Pass.

For the first few weeks we played at being rangers, going out of our way to help stranded motorists and referring to the garbage run as patrol. Then we realized we were fooling no one -- our lack of gold badges and Smokey Bear hats was painfully obvious. The same people who worshiped the rangers, begging them to stand still for photographs, despised us when they noticed us at all.

Gus and I were apprised of this one morning at a scenic viewpoint overlooking the park's Kawuneeche Valley. A toddler standing a few feet away pointed at us and asked his mother who we were. "Nobody," she said. "Just the mongoloids who haul the trash."

Gus, well on his way to a master's degree in international economics, took exception to this. I got him back to the truck peaceably by giving him an Oreo cookie, but the incident left scars.

For a time, we withdrew into ourselves, seeking comfort in the occasional love letter that came to us through the trash. And there was some satisfaction in knowing we were paid $2 an hour more than the regular park rangers. Then it dawned on us that there really were other advantages to being trashmen.

As drones, we were free of the sterling image that rangers were forced to carry around. We had no dignity to maintain and, as long as the park was kept clean, and we looked busy, we were left alone. Though seldom intentionally rude to park visitors, we could be flexible in responding to their questions. If a tourist asked, as one once did, "You keep the tundra looking so nice and neat -- how often do you mow it?" a ranger would stifle his smile and explain that tundra grows this way in its natural state. We, on the other hand, said, "Once a week."

Gus approached a woman whose children were feeding peanuts to the fat chipmunks gathered at a viewpoint and told her, "Wouldn't let your kids get too close, lady. We've had reports that some of the rodents here carry the bubonic plague."

She panicked, herding her children to the family camper and shouting orders to wash their hands.

"Won't help to wash," Gus said, following along. "Plague's carried by fleas. Either they have it or they don't."

Ironically, Gus was a bit of a hypochondriac, spending several hundred dollars on lab tests that summer to be sure he didn't have plague himself. His fears stemmed from our constant contact with roadkills -- the hundreds of chipmunks, marmots, weasels and snowshoe hares crushed under auto tires each summer. Their disposal was written into our job description, and in order to bear up under the hideous task, we were forced to turn it into a ritualized sport.

Friends, who in the same breath told us Captain Filth's record for throwing roadkills would never be broken, insisted that our Roadkill Olympics, a series of contests to see which of us could fling a particular species the highest, farthest and most accurately using a short stick, was aimed at concealing our disgust from ourselves and each other. They compared it to the pump truck operator's habit of eating chocolate pudding on the days he pumped out the pump's pit toilets.

Our friends seemed right one morning when we saw what first appeared to be a medium-sized animal lying dead in the road. On closer inspection, we learned that in fact it was a number of smaller ones together in a single heap.

It appeared that a Richardson's ground squirrel had been run over while crossing the highway. Another had evidently gone out to feed on it and also been killed. Half a dozen more had done so likewise.

"Here's your chance to catch up," Gus said, checking the statistics kept on a pad in the glove box. A well-thrown roadkill normally brought three points, with three more granted for style if the carcass passed within inches of a moving car. Gus, whose deft flicks of the wrist could send a chipmunk spinning 60 feet off the road, was ahead by almost 40 points and smug in his lead.

I found a stick at the roadside and approached the carcasses, surprised by a faint nausea. Having sent hundreds of little animals through make-believe goal posts over the year, I should have been desensitized.

"These are worth at least six points apiece," I told Gus. "I think I'm going to be sick."

"How many are there?"

I counted eight at first, then nine. With eyes averted, using the stick as a catapult, I began launching the ground squirrels off the road, going for speed and distance rather than style. Seven vanished over Trail Ridge Road's embankment before my technique gave out. I had overlooked a small spur at the end of my stick, and as I flicked my wrist an eighth time, the ground squirrel snagged on it and arched high above my head. I glanced quickly around, unsure where it had gone, and was about to look up when, with a dull splat, it bounced off my hard hat and landed on the paving at my feet. Gus said, "That one's worth 10 points."

Deep down, we took our work seriously, always looking for ways to make it easier. At Timber Lake trailhead we expected each morning to find the contents of eight 50-gallon trash barrels scattered by hungry elk. At our urging, a wooden corral was built around the barrels, but the elk pushed it down within days. Two large wooden boxes with heavy plywood lids were next. With barrels placed inside they succeeded in keeping the elk away, but they had the same effect on picnickers, who took to leaving dirty paper plates and chili cans in tidy piles under the tables. Our suggestion that the park buy the type of barrels used in Yellowstone to keep out bears, with locking lids and doors like mailbox slots, was squelched. So we made do with standard lids, dome-shaped with hinged doors, picking them up each day along with the trash and wiring them back on the barrels.

Our lesser efforts at keeping the park clean were more successful. One day, seeing a man throw a lighted cigarette out of his car, Gus slammed on our brakes, retrieved it and chased him down. Pulling the man over, Gus went over to his window, handed him his smoldering butt and said, "I think this belongs to you."

I think it was then that we began seeing ourselves not as simple trashmen but as conservation officers. We picked up where the rangers left off in their frustrating efforts to educate an environmentally unconscious public. While they talked ecology, we actually got our hands dirty with it.

The debate about which department -- ranger or maintenance -- was most vital to the park, cropped up at employee taco parties and could take a physical turn during west unit volleyball games. It centered on the rangers' resentment of our higher pay and ours of their authority and holier-than-thou attitudes. As professionals, they were sometimes called upon to risk their lives and demanded to know what we maintenance workers did to compare with that. In reply, the pump truck operator once remarked, "Any of you ever stuck your arm up the honey wagon hose to get a pop can that some turkey threw in a pit toilet?"

Gus and I, hard as we tried, were never given the chance to match such selflessness.

An old Park Service buddy called recently to say that some of our exploits, like the Roadkill Olympics, had become part of park lore. This seemed impressive until he added that we would never be as big as the legendary Captain Filth.

Gus, who went on to a successful career in the State Department, seems to have managed to put his trashman days behind him. As for me, wherever I go, the passing whiff of a back-alley Dumpster actually smells pretty good. Rocky Mountain National Park's scenic beauty and the smell of garbage are firmly wedded in my mind.

Steve Sherwood teaches composition and creative writing courses at TCU, and still takes out the garbage at his place. E-mail him at s.sherwood@tcu.edu.