“Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?”

So, I have a question. What scares you more than anything else? What makes your skin crawl, the hair on your arms and neck stand straight up, and your heart race? I’m with Indiana Jones, the lead character in Raiders of the Lost Arc, a great film released in 1981. “Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?”

I had a close encounter of the slithering kind this week, and it hit too close to home. Rachel and I had encountered snakes around our property in St. Louis. Our house was surrounded by woods and open spaces on three sides, and we shared the environment with a variety of critters. We saw snakes from time to time sunning themselves on the lower patio or on the walkways. I had a terrifying adventure with a large black snake in our garage. When we decided to move to Sarasota, we knew that snakes were part of the ecosystem. I had commented to a neighbor recently that after six months I had yet to see a snake, even though I had spent considerable time outdoors working on our landscaping. The neighbor counseled me to not let my guard down and reminded me that encounters with dangerous snakes were commonplace and usually did not end well.

During our first month in Sarasota, a small alligator took up residence for a week or so, in the lake adjoining our back yard. We would see him floating in the lake and sometimes sunning himself on the bank in our yard. I watched the hunter from the Fish and Game Department capture him one Saturday morning. I remember feeling more curious than afraid as I watched him, and he was five or six feet long. Maybe it was the screen door that separated us that made me feel only a bit uneasy.

Gator 2-24-2018

Back to snakes! On Tuesday morning I spent about three hours working on the landscaping. I spread mulch, trimmed bushes, and pulled weeds. I spent time standing, sitting, squatting, and kneeling. I saw several small lizards, a few squirrels, and a variety of birds. By the time I was finished, my clothes were filthy and soaked with sweat. I kicked off my garden shoes in the garage, walked through the house to the master bedroom and undressed, leaving my wet clothes in my walk-in closet. I’d wash them later in the morning. I walked back to our lanai (pool enclosure) and took a refreshing dip in the pool. Nothing feels better after exertion in the hot Florida sun.

After the swim I returned to the master bedroom to take a shower. As I was entering the bathroom, I caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned and looked down at the brown laminate floor. The lighting was not very good at this spot. A small, dark brown snake was moving slowly out of my closet and into the entryway shared with the bathroom. He was about the same shade of brown as the floor. I likely would not have noticed him if he had not been moving. He was pencil-thin and about eight inches long. But even a small, slithering snake scares the crap out of me, especially when taken by surprise.

My response was sheer terror. I could sense changes in my heart-rate and breathing. I had worked with patients at Sarasota Memorial Hospital who had suffered heart attacks while trying to capture snakes in their homes. Now I understood how that could happen! I stood still, staring at him. He looked like he was doing the same to me. Time sort of froze. I was naked. I had minimal tools at my disposal. I had no plan. I could run to the garage to find something to help corral him or whack him. But what if he disappeared while I was gone? That could drag this nightmare out for hours. I imagined calling Rachel. “Oh hi, Sweetie. I thought I’d mention that there is a snake loose somewhere in the house. He’s either somewhere in the bedroom, or maybe in your closet. Have a nice day!” Not seeing anything else to grab, I picked up a medium-sized bath towel and threw it on top of him. I tried to pick it and him up, but he slithered out onto the floor. I needed a better plan.

The snake made his way to a corner, under a vanity and stayed still for a minute. I needed some kind of better tool, so I took a risk. I ran to the kitchen and pulled two large plastic glasses from the cupboard. I ran back to the bedroom and was relieved to see that he was still where I left him. Without hesitation, I knelt down in front of the beast and scooped him into one of the plastic cups. I felt quite brave. I used the second cup to cover the first. It was a challenge to keep the edges sealed. I ran to the front door which was the closest point of egress. With careful effort I disengaged the deadbolt and opened one of the front doors. I ran out on the front sidewalk and tossed him into the front lawn. As I look back on it, it did not even cross my mind that I was naked. I don’t think any of the neighbors were outside to witness my crazy antics.

Before I did anything else, I did a quick inspection of the bedroom, bathroom, and closets. I did not find any other intruders. Later, I settled down at the computer and did a search for, “What do you do if you find a snake in your home?” The first piece of advice from the experts was that it was critical to determine whether the intruder was a poisonous snake. If it was, you were advised to leave it alone, close the door to the room to contain it, and call a professional. If you were unsure, the advice was to treat it as if it was poisonous. Even bites by little poisonous snakes were possibly dangerous.

The articles listed a variety of household tools that could prove helpful if you were planning to go on a game hunt in your home. The first suggestion was to simply sweep it out the nearest door with a regular broom. Another idea was to sweep the snake into a plastic bin and place the top on during transport. An even simpler strategy was to just place the bin on top of the snake and weigh it down with a heavy object. That way the varmint is secured while you call for help.

I did a search through our closets and garage and identified several tools for future snake roundups. I pulled out a large plastic bin and a sturdy paper box, both with tight-fitting lids. I found brooms of different lengths, including a pool broom that extended to 20 feet or more, in case I wanted to keep my distance. To add to my arsenal I did a search on amazon.com for sturdy nets, designed to catch insects, birds, and fish. The one I selected said that it was good for garter snakes as well.

One of the internet articles discussed how snakes sneak into your house. The author shared his opinion that they rarely come in the house, hiding in packages, clothing, or grocery bags. He said that most of the time they are quite small and come in through holes and cracks in the foundation or around windows and doors. Even with that information, my best guess is still that I brought my unwanted guest in myself. I had spent several hours working outside in his habitat. I bet he fell from a branch or crawled in a pocket. From now on I’ll be more observant when coming in from working in the yard. Maybe I’ll strip naked and shake out my clothes before entering the house. That should make me popular with the Home Owner’s Association! As an extra precaution I carefully examined every window and door and put duct tape over any suspicious cracks and openings.

As I am writing this story, I find my pulse is still racing, just telling about the snake in our house. I really hate snakes! For a minute, I wished that I had taken his picture to share. I think I’m just as glad that my mind was somewhere else. Instead, here is a calming picture of this morning’s sunrise over our back yard and lake. Deep breaths… calming peaceful thoughts…

sunrise Sept 12

A hurricane might be just what the doctor ordered!

When Rachel and I were deciding about our move to Sarasota, Florida, one of our anxieties had to do with “hurricane season”. The season runs from June through November, covering half of the year. Climate change is reported to be causing increased water temperature in the Gulf of Mexico, a rise in sea level, and increased frequency of damaging storms. In 2017, Hurricane Irma just missed making landfall in Sarasota, and the area is still recovering. Ultimately, Rachel and I decided that the rewards were worth the risks. We would prepare the best we could for anything Mother Nature would send our way. We’d also get lots of insurance!

The house that we purchased was equipped with hurricane shutters. They were to be put up, covering every window and patio door, to protect the house from flying debris. Rachel and I laughed when we read a recommendation in the paper to put outdoor items like lawn furniture underwater in the swimming pool so that they would not fly around. We purchased a battery-powered lantern and phone charger that has a hand crank to generate its own power. We bought a portable camping stove, a variety of freeze dried meals guaranteed to not expire for 300 years, and lots of bottled water. We usually have a small stockpile of wine in the cupboard. We’d be ready for a few days without power. We designed an evacuation plan and placed important papers in a portable lock box, ready to be tossed in the car.

It turned out that during the first half of the 2018 hurricane season there was an environmental disaster of a different type that devastated parts of Sarasota and surrounding counties. As I write this story, there is no end in sight to the toxic “red tide” that is poisoning the waters and beaches up and down the southwest coast of Florida.

Red tide refers to a higher than normal concentration of microscopic algae called “Karenia brevis”. Large blooms of this toxic algae form and grow miles off shore in the Gulf of Mexico in the Fall and Winter months. Winds blow the algae towards shore and sometimes it reaches the coastal beaches. The Gulf water turns a color often referred to as “soft-drink brown”. The algae is toxic to marine life and kills fish in huge numbers. It also kills dolphins, sharks, manatees, and sea turtles. Particles of red tide become airborne and winds can carry them up to two-and-a-half miles inland. People exposed to red tide experience eye irritation and respiratory problems.

A week ago Rachel and I drove to Lido Beach, one of Sarasota’s natural treasures. We wanted to get a first-hand view of red tide and its impact. I covered my nose and mouth with a bandana. We arrived at 8:00 on a sunny Saturday morning. There was one car in the expansive parking lot. The beach was deserted. We were glad to see that the beach was not covered with dead fish. But we had to walk carefully to dodge the rotting fish scattered around the sandy beach. We observed a wide variety of fish of various sizes and several large horseshoe crabs. All were dead. Flies were buzzing around everywhere, and the smell was strong. We left after a few minutes.

red tide 2

Most years, red tide is gone by the end of March. The current exposure began in October, 2017, and there is no projected timeframe for an ending. In 2004 a red tide bloom lasted for 18 months, continuing through 2005 and part of 2006. The current bloom is over 150 miles long and between 10 and 20 miles deep. It extends from Collier County on the south through Manatee County on the north. Sarasota is located somewhere in the middle. The Sarasota papers update the fish kill every week. A recent report stated that over 200 tons of dead fish have been removed from beaches in Sarasota and Manatee Counties. That is a lot of fish!

Red tide has been recorded in Florida since the 1800’s. There has never been a successful intervention to eliminate it. Many scientists believe that worsening red tide in recent years is being caused by climate change, rising water temperature, and man-made pollution flowing into the Gulf. It happens that tomorrow is a state-wide, primary election in Florida. Political candidates for national and state offices have struggled to identify policies and strategies to address the red tide crisis. In a recent debate, a candidate for Governor expressed frustration, telling the audience if they would just tell him what to do to eliminate red tide, he would happily do it.

Scientists at Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota have been studying red tide for decades. One of the lead scientists is Dr. Rich Pierce. Rich was our next-door neighbor when we lived in Sarasota in the 1980’s. Articles in the Sarasota paper have described two different strategies outlined by Mote scientists. The first idea is to bombard the toxic algae with ozone. The ozone kills the algae and its toxins and restores oxygen that is depleted by the red tide. The problem is that the technology can only treat small bodies of water, and is not practical to be used in the Gulf or in larger bays or estuaries. Ozone treatment is being tested in one small canal in Sarasota.

A second idea proposed by scientists at Mote was that we just wait for a major weather event like a hurricane to blow the toxic algae bloom out of the area. That sounds simple enough. It doesn’t require extensive technology. Both algae and hurricanes are part of the natural cycle of nature. Let them run their course. I bet some of the confused politicians will jump on that bandwagon. It sounds kind of like debates about climate change.

Wait a minute! A hurricane? Are you kidding me? That’s the best they can do?

Here’s hoping that our elected officials will find ways to curb the pollutants flowing into our waters and into the air to mitigate man-made contributors to Red Tide outbreaks. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that more and better technologies will be developed to combat red tide when it approaches our shores. Until then, Rachel and I have the emergency supplies handy and the evacuation bag packed.

A Very Merry Jerry Day

Rachel and I moved into our new home in Sarasota, Florida in February. We have been enjoying the experience of learning about our new community, as well as checking out restaurants, movie theatres, and the arts scene. On Sunday evening we joined an eclectic group of people to celebrate a special birthday.

Jerry Garcia was born on August 1st, 1942. He would have been 76 years old this year. For the tenth consecutive year, the Fogartyville Community, Media, and Arts Center celebrated Jerry’s life with an event they call the Very Merry Jerry Day. Fogartyville is affiliated with WSLR Radio in Sarasota, a community FM radio station. The center is located downtown on Kumquat Court. Rachel and I loved the name of the street. Parking was anywhere you could find it in the neighborhood, and we walked past a line of folks waiting to enter a homeless shelter, located in the building next door.

The large room was set up with a small stage at one end, a simple bar at the other end, and mismatched tables and chairs covering the floor. There were a few leather booths along a side wall, and Rachel and I snagged one of those. A table was set up next to our booth with a large display of vintage vinyl records. The wall across the room from us had two large doors that opened to a large outdoor patio. There were food vendors and tables around the outside of the patio where people were selling arts and crafts or handing out literature about community happenings. White plastic chairs were scattered around the patio, offering more seating for guests. The walls were decorated with 60’s-themed wall hangings and posters, giving the place a funky vibe. Small sparkling lights lit much of the outdoor space.

The line-up for the evening included three local bands. One was a Grateful Dead cover band called Ship of Fools. The other bands were Stumble Creek and Al Fuller and Friends. The latter two usually played a variety of music, but were limiting their set lists to songs by Jerry Garcia.

Rachel and I settled into our old leather booth with glasses of wine and watched the crowd filing in. Our booth could accommodate four or more people, and we had decided that we would be happy to share the space. A few minutes later a guy approached us, holding a huge plate of Mexican food from one of the food stands. He asked if he could join us while he ate his dinner. His name was Peter and it turned out that he was in charge of the table with all of the records. As he ate, he told us about his business, Rocket Star Records. The store was on Washington Avenue in Sarasota and was only a few months old. Over the last few years, all of the record stores in Sarasota had gone out of business. Peter had worked at the last one to close. For two years he had worked out of his car, driving around to customer’s homes with his car loaded with boxes of records. Peter said that his personal collection had been more than 6,000 records. Eventually he saved up enough money to rent a retail space, and he and one employee were doing their best to make a go of it. Peter had been surprised that many of his customers were teens and young adults, buying recordings that were made before they were even born. We laughed when he shared his observation that Sarasota was great for old people like us, but not enough was happening for younger folks like him. And he was 50! After Peter finished his meal he gave Rachel a Rocket Star pen, complete with flashing lights that could be turned on and off.

The room was beginning to fill and most tables were now occupied. The crowd was made up of a surprising variety of ages. There were several family groups that appeared to include grandparents, their kids, and their grandkids. I guess Grateful Dead music crosses generations. A couple approached our booth and gestured toward the open space. We told them that we had been saving the seats just for them, and they looked happy to join us. Roger and Julie were around our age, Roger a little older and Julie a little younger. When I asked about their history in Sarasota, Julie emphasized that they were not a couple, just friends. She was a massage therapist and yoga instructor and had moved to Sarasota a few years ago from Iowa. Rachel was born in Iowa and we had both attended the University of Iowa, so we had some things in common. Roger was from upstate New York and now lived in Nokomis, a beach-front community just south of Sarasota. He told us how he had been in business selling clothing to the rich and famous. Roger showed us several pictures on his phone of him posing with various celebrities. I didn’t recognize all of them, but liked the picture of him with a very young Mick Jagger.

Roger was quite gregarious and kept standing to call out to people he recognized and frequently left the booth to greet friends. On one of these trips he returned escorting a guy with another plate of Mexican food. Once seated, he introduced his friend as Al Fuller. His band would be the third act of the night. As he ate, Al told us about his band, which was different than usual that night. He also reviewed his regular gigs around Sarasota, which included a “blues jam” at a restaurant/bar called the Blue Rooster on Wednesday nights.

We stayed to watch all three bands. Each put their own spin on Jerry Garcia’s music. Stumble Creek had a distinctive country style, with mandolin and upright bass blending in with the guitars. Ship of Fools was a traditional cover band, playing familiar Dead songs just as I remembered them. Al Fuller and Friends played some less well-known Jerry Garcia songs with a real bluesy flavor. Al had a strong voice and his guitar playing reminded me of Eric Clapton’s blues songs. Lots of people got up to dance in front of the stage. Rachel and I enjoyed watching a pair of dancers who looked to be a grandpa dancing next to his adolescent grandson. That’s something you don’t see every day.

As the evening was winding down, a distinctive fellow walked up to our booth. He was small in stature and his bright green trousers, hiked up well above his waist, made a real impression. He was carrying a clipboard and introduced himself as Francis, the Ambassador for WSLR Radio. I asked him what an Ambassador did. He responded that his job was to welcome new guests, answer their questions about Fogartyville and the radio station, and give them his card. Francis produced a business card with a flourish and then wrote our information on his clipboard so that we could receive information about future events.

Rachel and I agreed that we had discovered a special gem in the Sarasota art’s community. We will look forward to getting notices about future happenings.

Happy birthday, Jerry!

This is what community looks like…

Artists painting plywood covering broken windows, Delmar Blvd., St. Louis
Artists painting plywood covering broken windows, Delmar Blvd., St. Louis

Rachel and I enjoyed our first date thirteen years ago at a special restaurant on the Delmar Loop in St. Louis named Riddles. Today, the place is named Three Kings. It’s still good. We visit the Loop almost every weekend for a quirky movie at the Tivoli, a visit to Plow Sharing Crafts, and lunch at one of the locally owned restaurants. We don’t have tattoos, but if we did, I’m sure they would come from the Iron Age tattoo studio. The Delmar Loop has been recognized as one of the top ten streets in America. We were saddened to hear the news this past Sunday that a small group of late-night protestors/vandals had chosen to break the windows of several store fronts along the Loop. I guess they figured that vandalizing a tattoo studio, bookstore, free-trade gift store, and frozen yogurt shop would make a poignant political statement. The mostly peaceful protests around the city had been in response to a white police officer being acquitted of a murder charge in the shooting of an African American man.

As we talked about it Sunday morning, Rachel and I decided that it was an important time to support the businesses that we had been frequenting for more than a decade. All are locally-owned and employ a very diverse group of people. We weren’t sure what would be open, but our plan was to walk up and down the Loop and offer our patronage. The trip turned out to be a wonderful surprise.

The first sight that we encountered was a reporter and camera crew set up near the statue of Chuck Berry. This is across the street from the Blueberry Hill restaurant. The reporter was interviewing a handsome young man dressed in a white dress shirt. There were lots of people on the sidewalk, but no one seemed to be paying attention to the interview. The young man was Missouri’s Governor, Eric Greitens. He had been on the news during the week trying to balance support for peaceful demonstrators and for law enforcement personnel, trying to maintain safety on the streets.

Rachel and I had seen photos on the internet of broken windows in front of many businesses that we knew. News reports said that there were more than twenty businesses that were damaged. As I looked around, I did not see any broken windows. The stores and restaurants all looked open and most looked busy. The entire scene felt energetic. When I commented that I was surprised how quickly everything had been fixed, Rachel pointed out the plywood covering parts of most storefronts. The plywood was painted white and blended in with each building’s façade. Filling the sidewalk in front of almost every piece of white plywood were people with paint brushes and containers of colorful paint, creating beauty where there had been destruction just a few hours earlier. Like the Delmar Loop itself, the artists were a diverse group of characters. There were kids, teens, young adults, and older folks. We saw African American, Caucasian, and Asian artists. There was an even split between men and women. The paintings were big and colorful. They captured the emotions of the day, reflecting themes of peace, harmony, and diversity. We stopped to talk with a few of the artists. Two women shared with us that they were a mom and daughter from the neighborhood. They had seen a post asking artists to come down and help transform the Loop.

I’d like to say thanks to the thousands of individuals who made their voices heard this week in peaceful ways. Thanks to the Loop business owners and workers who showed resiliency during an unusual time. And especially, thanks to the men, women, and kids who picked up a broom or brush and transformed a special neighborhood.

This is what community looks like!

Happy Journeys, Old Friend

Hanging out with my buddy, Linus
Hanging out with my buddy, Linus

This past weekend Rachel and I visited our son, Dan and his wife, Susie in Nashville. When we entered the living room of their beautiful home, I nudged Rachel and nodded toward the far end of the fluffy area rug. Stretched out and sound asleep, was an old friend, Linus. We were happy and a bit surprised to see him. We knew that his time was growing short. As we approached, he awoke, stood, stretched, and looked toward us. Because of his blindness, he more sensed us than looked at us. As I patted his side and greeted my “buddy”, Linus leaned against me and wagged his tail in his happy way. Susie and Dan smiled and said that he hadn’t been wagging his tail often these days.

I would describe Linus as a medium-sized dog. Susie said he was a cockapoo. That must mean part cocker spaniel and part poodle. He had a shaggy, light colored coat, and hair hung over his eyes. When Linus looked up at you, you could see large white cataracts, covering both eyes. He was fourteen years old. Linus had been hit by a car a few years ago and been badly injured. It might have slowed him down, but in the years that we knew him, he seemed pretty mobile. Watching Linus walk around his large home was always amazing to observe. He had his routes memorized, and while he would bump into things gently with his nose, he was efficient at finding his food and water, bed, and especially, his people. Linus had a very comfortable relationship with his partner in crime, Butters, a small chocolate-colored chihuahua.

Neither Rachel or I had ever owned a dog, or had a personal relationship with one. My mom always told us that some of my siblings had allergies. I’m not sure if that was true, or whether it was more that seven kids in a small house was crazy enough. In any case, we were a little nervous when Dan asked us to dog sit Linus a few years ago, when both he and Susie were going to be traveling for several days, visiting friends and family to announce their engagement. Because of his special needs, they were not comfortable leaving Linus in a kennel, and since I had recently retired, I would be able to offer more care and attention. Honestly, we didn’t know quite what to expect, but we were game to give it a go.

Dan and Susie provided us with all of the important supplies and comfort items. We learned that Linus would be our house guest for almost two weeks. That was a little longer than we had expected, but that was okay. At first I thought we would have Linus stay in our finished basement. It is comfortable and compact, and he could have his own space. Dan just smiled and said that the basement idea would not be the best. So we put up a baby gate at the top of the basement stairs. That way he wouldn’t have an unexpected tumble.

The days went quickly and we enjoyed our furry houseguest. We laugh, looking back on the experience, at the closeness of our new friendship, especially for Linus and me. Dan had warned us that Linus was most comfortable when he was close to his people. It probably had to do with not being able to see the people in his environment. What that meant was that wherever you were in the room and whatever you were doing, it was likely that Linus would be there at your feet. If you look at the picture at the top of this story, you will notice my feet in the picture of Linus. We spent a lot of time that week like that. Our sleeping arrangements turned out to be the funniest. The first night, we tried to have Linus sleep on the floor, near the foot of our bed. We carefully scrunched up his sleeping blanket and arranged it in the perfect spot. Nope, that was not going to meet his needs. Linus communicated very clearly that he needed a lift up onto the bed. He wasn’t able to make the jump on or off the bed on his own. He spent that first night sleeping diagonally on the bed, between Rachel and me. He seemed very comfortable and slept soundly. In the morning Rachel grabbed her pillow and a few odds and ends and let me know that she would be moving to the guest bedroom in the basement. She would let “the boys” share the bed in the master bedroom. Needless to say, Linus and I spent a lot of time together, both night and day. He put up with me, and I got to know him pretty well too.

Linus passed away early yesterday morning. While a sad event, Rachel and I were glad that we happened to be visiting and got to see our friend one last time. Our memories are happy ones and still make us laugh aloud.

Farewell, buddy. Keep that tail wagging!

All the Way… To the FBI

Quantico 3

On Mother’s Day Rachel and I visited Laurel, Matt, and the grandkids in Manassas, Virginia. We always enjoyed our visits with them. Emma and Ian would get some quality play-time with Grandpa and Mimi. Laurel and Matt would get some rare alone-time to do errands and have a date night. We had planned on going to their cabin in the mountains of West Virginia, but the weather did not cooperate. As an alternate plan, Matt arranged a very special tour of the FBI Training Academy in Quantico, Virginia.

Matt has been an FBI agent for several years. He was a computer scientist at Microsoft in Seattle before hearing the call to service following the terrorist attacks on 9-11. These days, Matt works as a squad leader in an FBI office that specializes in cyber-crime. He was the perfect guide for our private tour, since Matt went through the grueling, five-month training program a few years ago.

The New Agent Training Program includes classroom instruction on topics like investigative techniques, law, behavioral science, forensics, and interrogation methods. New agents must pass rigorous physical fitness tests and demonstrate proficiency with a number of different firearms. Trainees are placed in real-life situations in a simulated town, where actors play criminals, and trainees are required to think on their feet as they respond to the scenarios.

The FBI Training Academy is located on the sprawling Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Virginia, about 40 miles from Washington, D.C. The Academy takes up 547 acres. To enter we passed through a security gate manned by Marines and a second gate manned by FBI personnel. I was struck by the scenic forest that we drove through and the beautiful landscaping of the grounds. We drove around the campus, as Matt gave us descriptions of the various facilities. These included dormitories, classrooms, physical fitness gyms and tracks, firing ranges, and a large forensics laboratory building. We passed an entire area of the campus dedicated to Hostage Rescue Training, an important sub-specialty within the FBI.

The parking area in front of the main administration building was crowded, and there seemed to be quite a bit of activity for a Sunday afternoon. Several young men and a few young women were unloading suitcases and garment bags from their cars. All of the men were dressed in coats and ties. We would see many more well-coiffed, young people when we went inside the building. Matt told us that this was a special day at the Academy. These were members of a new trainee class, arriving for the start of their five month program. Most of the trainees looked like they already were in pretty good physical shape. Some looked like they might have played college sports. As I watched their faces, I saw both excitement and some nervous expressions. I wondered what part of the training would create the most anxiety for the new agents. I noticed one trainee who didn’t quite fit the mold. He looked like he had never worn a suit before and had borrowed one for the occasion from someone who wore a larger size. He had longer hair and a few days growth of beard. I thought he looked like a young, absent-minded professor. Later, I asked Matt about the diversity of his class from a few years earlier. He said that there were thirty trainees in his class. Ages ranged from mid-twenties to mid-thirties. Most were men. Matt shared that they came from a variety of backgrounds. A few had law enforcement and military experience. But there were also teachers, accountants, lawyers, and even computer scientists!

We spent the next few hours touring several buildings and walking around the campus. Along the way, we passed lots of different trainees and instructors, some walking alone and some in groups. Different categories could be identified by the color of their shirts. For example, the dark green polo-shirts belonged to trainees and instructors in the National Academy. This special program provides advanced law enforcement training to experienced personnel from agencies across the US and from over 150 different countries. Almost everyone we passed would greet us with a very formal, “Good afternoon, Sir” or “Happy Mother’s Day, Mam.” When I passed one young Asian gentleman with a green shirt, he put his hands together in front of his chest and bowed to me. Matt pointed out that the regular trainees carried blue plastic guns on their belts. This was designed to help them get used to the feeling of being armed at all times.

One of my favorite movies is Silence of the Lambs. Jodie Foster plays Clarice Starling, an FBI Academy trainee. Matt said that this was the first time that the FBI had participated in the filming of a major motion picture. Most of the training scenes were shot around the campus. Walking around, I recognized the setting for several scenes from the movie. We saw the gymnasium where Clarice practiced hand-to-hand combat skills. We walked through Hogan’s Alley, where she walked through a car chase scenario on her way to meet with Agent Crawford, the head of the Behavioral Science Unit. We saw the wooden signs nailed to a tree near the end of the obstacle course that weaves through the woods around the Academy. In the movie the signs spelled out these words:  Hurt, Agony, Pain, and Love It. The actual group of signs included a few more:  Family, Pride, Attitude, Respect, and Loyalty. I wondered how recently those signs had been added. Matt reported that the obstacle course was affectionately referred to as the Yellow Brick Road. Trainees were awarded an actual yellow brick when they completed this challenge. I thought that was fun, as The Wizard of Oz is one of my other favorite movies.

We walked through Hogan’s Alley, the small town built for training simulations. It included a bank, post office, pharmacy, motel, small office building, bar, and even a working Subway restaurant. I wondered what nefarious criminal activities took place in these innocent looking buildings. Most were unlocked and we enjoyed checking a few of them out. Matt described one of the simulations he did in the office building, serving a subpoena to a disturbed businessman. I found two metal shell casings on the ground in front of a building used to practice forced entries into buildings. What better souvenirs of our visit.

Near the end of our walking tour, we entered the main gymnasium. Again, there seemed to be a lot of activity going on. Along one wall were tables of food. In another area were a variety of games that one might find at an amusement park or carnival. A gregarious National Academy instructor waived us over and insisted that we help ourselves to pizza, popcorn, and cookies. He explained that the Academy was hosting a special group of kids for the day. The kids came from all over the country, and each of them had lost a parent in the line of duty. The day combined lots of fun activities for the kids, along with classes and counseling. The kids had already eaten, and there was a ton of food left over. Emma and Ian were more than happy to comply, and we enjoyed our feast, sitting in the grass outside of the building.

All in all, it was a fascinating and thought provoking day. The trainees and instructors who we encountered were bright, professional, and dignified. The sacrifices that they are making are significant. The risks that they are willing to take for their country are substantial. Their motivations come from somewhere beyond personal recognition and reward. Like my son-in-law, Matt, they have found a calling to serve. At a time when leadership from some of our highest elected officials is suspect and lacks even a semblance of dignity, it was reassuring to see that some institutions have maintained their integrity. I am very proud of Matt and thankful to the men and women who work to keep us safe.