Flat Hat and Badge

6/19/11

At different times during my childhood I aspired to be a princess, a bus driver, a dancer, an actress, a veterinarian, a diplomat, a director, and many, many other things. A park ranger was never among them. It wasn’t until this past year that I dreamed that up. And there are days that I still surprise myself when I realize how quickly it went from dream to reality. But for me, because the job was only of recent acquaintance, I didn’t see it with the romantic nostalgia that so many do. I never realized how iconic the flat hat and badge really are.

There are some people I have known during my short year (and 1 month) of service that do this job for the hat and badge. I always thought that was silly. Even before I got to wear it, I knew the flat hat was really a torture device made to suffocate the head. I knew the green and grey uniform was just a way to make the wool-polyester sweatbox seem bearable. And as for badges? Out of all the things I ever wanted to be, policeman/fireman/insert federal-governmentally-badged employee here, was never one of them. I simply never cared for that type of authority.

The uniform for me was just something that came with having the best job ever, with getting paid to do something I love. But in the few months since I’ve switched uniforms, I’ve learned to see the drama in it all.

Wearing the flat hat and badge changes things, no doubt about it. Every person you run into acknowledges you – most with a smile. Respect is automatic. Children stare at you wide-eyed. Foreigners beg for pictures. It’s as close to a celebrity as I’ll ever be. My experience is likely compounded by the fact that I’m not what most people expect in that uniform. There aren’t many young female role-models in the parks these days, and I can’t count the number little girls that have come up to me bursting with excitement, asking how to become a ranger-lady like me; or how many times a day an older gentleman comments with a wink that I’m the ‘prettiest little ranger’ he’s ever seen; or how many middle-aged women have tried to set me up with their grown single sons; or how many excited young boys have declared me ‘the coolest ranger ever.’ None of that stuff happened when I was an intern.

There’s power that comes with putting on that flat hat and badge – and to be honest it’s a little intimidating. There’s a lot of responsibility in taking a front-page role within a historic organization. Yes, many good things are automatically projected on you for wearing that uniform, but people also expect to have those good things proven to them. They have expectations that need to be reached, and it’s not just your own reputation on the line, but that of every person in green and grey. An interaction with one of us can make or break a park experience, or be totally neutral. And so you have to be constantly on your toes. I’ve noticed recently that every time I put on the hat I repeat the line ‘it’s showtime’ in my head before stepping into the public. It can suck all the energy out of you, but it can also leave you bursting with it.

To let someone down is our biggest fear. But to see their heads turn at new piece of information, to see their eyes light up with understanding, to help a person to a place where the only reaction they can muster is a silent ‘wow’ – that, that is a victory. It’s a victory achieved every day. And when all is said and done, badge or none, that is why we do it.

My attempt at an artistic shot. See all the things that can be accomplished without television and internet?

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