I worked for San Diego County Parks and Recreation for ten years as a Senior Park Ranger. My first assignment was at Flinn Springs County Park, near Lakeside in East County. Flinn Springs is a small oak-filled park with a stream running it’s length. My year there was interesting and quite a learning curve. I was lucky enough to meet some very wonderful people. One such person was Mel. Mel and his wife, both in their early 80’s, were seasonal volunteers at the park. The volunteer program with the County is a good one for the right people. In exchange for free utilities and a place to park a motorhome or trailer, the volunteer must perform twenty hours a week of service to the park. Some volunteers stay at a park for years. Others, like Mel and his wife, spend six months in our mild winter climate, then head to colder states where their home or family is for the summer and Fall.
Mel was tall and thin in his khaki volunteer uniform. His job was to clean the restrooms in the park every day. That entailed removing all the toilet paper, hosing down the inside (called ‘field day’), scrubbing toilets, and emptying the large aluminum trash cans that stood outside the doors.
Mel and I were talking once, not long before he and his wife would be driving North. He was telling me that at the first restroom that morning, which stood just above the streambed and foot bridge, there had been a young skunk in the trash can. Mel said that he’d looked down into the trash can to see if it needed emptying, and there was this young skunk looking up at him. It gave him a start, but he figured that he’d given the skunk a start, too. He thought that the skunk had been searching for food and had become stuck in the can. Mel addressed him kindly, then very gently tipped over the trash can. The skunk waddled out obligingly and without a backward look or spray, disappered under the footbridge where Mel thought might be the den.
Mel came up to me about a week later and, shaking his head, said that I wouldn’t believe it but every morning he’d look in that same trashcan and the skunk would look up at him. He’d say a few words of greeting to the little fellow then gently tip the can over and the skunk would waddle off. Mel said that he’d enjoyed his morning ritual with the skunk, but since during the week in the off-season there wasn’t anything in the trash can, he wondered why the skunk would get himself trapped into the can like that, morning after morning.
That weekend was the last for Mel and his wife, who were driving up to Minnisota for six months to be with their children. In fact, Mel didn’t even own a house anymore, but the two of them lived in the mobile home and had their furniture in storage. Up in Minnisota they volunteered at another park for the other six months, and this life suited them both just fine. I really liked the pair, who were very lively for octigenarians.
With no volunteers in their space, and being the newest Ranger at the park, I took over Mel’s routine. The morning after they’d left I headed down the hill to the restroom. Not thinking about much, I glanced into the trash can to see if it needed emtying and, lo-and-behold, there was a half-grown skunk at the bottom, pointy nose raised and beady eyes looking at me. I froze and looked at him, and he froze and looked at me. Then I remembered what Mel had told me and I greeted the little fellow. Examining me with his beady black eyes, he appeared to become agitated. Gently I tipped over the trash can and the skunk waddled out and down the embankment to under the footbridge and at a quick rate.
The next morning I smiled to myself as I went down to the restroom to clean, thinking about seeing the skunk again. I looked into the trashcan and… no skunk. I never saw that skunk again.
I guess the game wasn’t any fun without Mel.