Rest in Peace, New Jersey Ranger of Monmouth County

Holmdel Park

“You will see people die here,” Drew told the young ranger in Holmdel Park, the flagship recreation area and forest of the Monmouth County Park System, to this day revered all over the state because of how well run it is, from the lake, to the bowl, to the pine part of the forest, to the big sledding hill and the trails in between.

Drew was at the top of the food chain back then. This was 30 years ago.

The kid remembered that later, what his super had said about death, when a high school girl fainted at the end of a grueling run and lay in the grass near the finish line and other girls on her cross country team stood nearby, some of them crying in fear for her life.

She made it.

Drew was there.

He calmly worked with the coaches to make sure she recovered.

He was the guy on the crew you would have wanted there that day, or any day when someone else might have panicked or not known how to handle a sweet and gentle young life suddenly threatened as the young girl’s appeared to be simply because she had run so hard on a course made to put people on the ground.

A few of those guys would have done fine, though.

The crew of EMS volunteers, firefighters and hunters and dried-up fishing hole wanderers and seashore pickup truck drivers had too many divisions to recount, but two of them stood out vividly, even after all these years. The principal park ranger and one of the regular rangers had both been in Vietnam, and they hated each other. So, on one level the daily grind included unresolved spillover agony from that war in a 600-acre suburban wilderness. Each man tried to ignore the other, tried to find something to immerse himself in to avoid having to stand face to face, but inevitably came to a point where he would have to interact.

The atmosphere always hovered at the edge of a conflagration.

The two never quite came to blows.

Then there was another rivalry.

One of the young senior rangers “the original last of the white blue collar workers” was how another guy once described his lovable idiosyncracies, routinely fought with the principal ranger, and that divide created a second, daily dramatic flashpoint. The boss would tell the senior to do something and the senior, all brawny young swaggering confidence and rebellion, sensing he was being punished, would push back, and on occasion a fight would ensue.

It all underscored the obvious: even when trying to hide in the woods, or hold onto them, men still have to face each other, or themselves.

The supervisor of this bunch, these “green machines,” as they called themselves, and the others in it, including a kid who wanted out of greens for good to be a cop, a veteran who wanted back to the family farm market that was no more, another one who just cared about screech owls left for dead on the roads, and a tree surgeon who only wanted the company of his trade in the arboretum, Drew had to hold all of that together, and he did.

A Perth Amboy native who grew up in Bridgeton, he was a gentle person, maybe the most gentle of the crew, whose soulful connection with nature and the job itself transcended the myriad and inevitable personality disorders of the work place. He was always searching for something, in his own quiet way, some sort of peace, which the rest of us, would-be rough riders, without malice, seemed intent on undermining with personal unspent passion. But we all liked one another enough, or sufficiently thrived on madness, to socialize after hours in the roadside bars that dot the highways like so many boarded mobster hovels. On one of those occasions, Drew in half-darkness told me about a trip he had taken to Spain, and how much he loved it over there, and how it had so inspired him that he even might consider retiring in Europe. I remember that, because stark Spain seemed so distant, so completely different, from the world we were all burrowed into there in Holmdel, kicking and elbowing on top of one another in the deer tick-infested woods. It was also as far away as possible from O.J. Simpson going AWOL in a van, which was playing out on the big screen TV in that bar while we talked.

Despite the core differences among the strongest, on the job it was a good working crew of veteran guys, very competent, very committed, each of whom, in his own way – just like the local fire chief who on one call went into a burning building with a garden hose before the rig got there, and didn’t get inside in time to save someone but survived –  tried to rise above his own pain to give something of value to the next generation of young men coming up behind him.

I remember the principal ranger, only when incessantly prodded, finally telling a story about Vietnam, which would make you never want to be there, or close to anything resembling war. It stood out, because he took the time out of our various chainsaw-bucking ways and self-abrogating emotion, to relate something truly horrific, not to make himself look good or well-traveled or experienced, but the opposite: to show some sense of true, unwelcome and never-to-be shaken suffering. It was a lesson – a lesson about death. The other Vietnam vet too never tried to glamorize what he had been through, merely saying the only reason he was over there was because he had to go, and if those two men shared anything it was apparently the same terrible conclusion about what had been.

But Drew – Drew was always in a world completely separate from that part of it, nestled, it seemed, in a New Jersey world, rooted and still uncontaminated, pure with the intention of someone unchanging even as everything just beyond the park’s gates seemed to be collapsing, or at the edge of collapse. He was – regardless of what happened to dangerously infringe on it – the shore, and fishing and training, and moving equipment from one park to another, and new acquisitions of land, and the woods and enjoying others, taking time to talk at the end of day with the shadows coming, and looking you dead in the eye when he had something to say to you. He was the home town Jersey boy – the guy from North and South Jersey who was Monmouth County – who was going to stand guard over something that maybe even then didn’t exist anymore; but who you know wouldn’t let it ever intrude on his mood of generous calm and abiding goodwill. And when one is young, he gravitates sometimes to the horrors of older men out of fascination, and he can miss the wisdom of someone quiet and almost still.

Drew was also reaching, though, under his placid demeanor, that’s what his story about Spain told me. He was holding us together even as he knew our world couldn’t hold on too many decades more, if even only into the next year. When the acceleration of luxury development started truly crushing the place, turning it inside out and making us all even more agitated than usual, I used to drive from Monmouth west to the border and walk along the Delaware River and look across the water at Pennsylvania and wonder about the great sprawling wildness over there and beyond, and it was around that time I remember wrecking a piece of machinery on the job, a real dumb piece of work. I saw Drew in his impeccable green pants and white supervisor’s shirt with the gold ornaments on it and he didn’t say anything but gave me a look of real disappointment and I felt so bad. Like I had let him down. We always talked about getting out of Jersey, Drew included, as I said, and one day, around then, I just ran for the border and went out west, never looked back, or so I thought, too much of the world had changed for any of the rest of it to be any good.

Years later, with the real western realized after the fact when most of those Jersey cowboys had either scattered or uncomfortably adjusted to new habitat, and some of them gone, like the wild man from the overnight ambulance shift beaten to death in his driveway, here and there I reconnected with some of the old guys, the ones still standing. I went to Shark River to see my old boss, the one who worked directly under Drew, and he showed my daughter where to find shark’s teeth buried in the creek banks. When she had found a few, he went and retrieved a jar and let her pick out some real good ones. And just a few days ago, I went up to High Point, still remembering those times when I went up there to see Danny, who had left what to him was the hell of Monmouth County in part on account of his collision with his fellow Vietnam vet. He had found Valhalla finally up in Stokes, or so it seemed, when I would talk to him around Sunset Lake. I don’t know how many times the sun has gone down over that forest, but he is long retired now, his days as a county and state ranger long gone, and he and so many of the others just can’t be tracked, maybe by design.

And a few days later, just yesterday, still thinking about those guys, reaching back now with the same fervor I once thought was best placed reaching west, out of their midst, anywhere but impossible-to-live-in New Jersey, remembering those wonderful old guys fighting each other for their last man’s strand of green earth, I heard about Drew.

He succumbed late last month while in the hospital in his hometown of Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania at the age of 58 “after a hard-fought two-week battle against the COVID-19 virus,” his obituary read.

I had a premonition, a couple weeks ago.

“You will see people die here.” I can hear his voice now in that beautiful place, Holmdel Park, with the din of bulldozers just on the other side of the gates grinding in my memory with the words.

Yeah, Drew.

Death is all around us, even over the border in the promised land, and sometimes no less painful, for befalling someone you knew a long time ago, another lifetime ago, in fact, in a place that doesn’t exist anymore, not the same way, or if it does it’s because you stayed and prolonged the best of it; but I suspect it’s too different now, because the Jersey guys who populated it, like you, were finally just too much man for the world to contain.

Rest in peace, Drew, protector, friend and ranger.

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