Yesterday afternoon my family and I visited Fort McHenry National Monument, where the U.S. national anthem “The Star Spangled Banner” was born in 1814.
Our visit that day started wonderfully but ended unpleasantly when a National Park Service ranger aimed his taser at my father over… (drum roll) …an alleged dog-off-leash violation.
<Insert ironic statement about the location and nature of this incident. E.g. “So much for the ‘land of the free.’”>
At right is a picture of the vicious, nasty, terrifying, 14-pound and taser-worthy hell hound named Mac.
Mac tried to befriend the offending park ranger and his backup during the incident. After they ignored him, he eventually got bored and took a nap in the grass of the monument’s spacious east lawn.
Did the park ranger abuse his authority? That’s not my decision to make — I’ll leave that to his superiors and the courts. But the fact is he aimed a weapon at an unarmed person — aka my father — and shamed his family in broad daylight in a public park jam-packed with other families.
Make no mistake, this could have been a lethal confrontation. My father is not young, and even the low-amperage jolt of a taser can spur cardiac events.
I might take some heat for this post because, after having a weapon aimed at him, my dad lost his cool. He never threatened or attacked, but at the end of the incident he did yell at the rangers over their frightening and unwarranted use of force.
The rest of us didn’t fare much better in our adrenaline rush. Someone was threatening our family member and human instincts in moments of danger run deep. Until you’re in the thick of it, it’s impossible to know what angry or weird or silly things you’ll say or do.
Here’s what happened.
My parents drove from Ohio, and my fiance and I from New York, to visit my brother and his fiance in Baltimore. My brother was on leave from work in the Middle East.
He’s a history buff, so we decided to make our way to nearby Fort McHenry. It’s a patriotic place where 1,000 soldiers thwarted the British navy’s invasion during the War of 1812. We had a great time crawling into the guts of the fort, watching period actors marching around and enjoyed being around one another.
On our way out my parents took Mac for a walk in the public section of the park. Mac loves to play fetch. Because he was getting tangled up in his leash, I grabbed it from my dad, unclipped the leash and started to play a jubilant game of fetch with a tennis ball.
Out of nowhere a National Park Service ranger strolled from behind some trees. He asked us in a stern voice whose dog it was.
“It’s our dog. It’s the family’s dog,” I said, taken aback by the accosting tone of the man.
He proceeded to tell us having a dog off the leash was against the law. I hadn’t seen any posted signs about this and, up until this point, no park official of any kind had ever said anything to me about it. Plus, I thought I saw other dog owners in the park with their animals off-leash.
Looking to diffuse the situation and get on with our day, I blurted out submissive kindnesses like “I’m sorry” and “I didn’t know that” and “We’ll keep him on his leash from now on.” My dad put Mac back on his leash, keeping perfectly silent the whole time.
This is how the story should have ended: A family playing with their harmless, small dog being gently warned to keep it on a leash.
But that’s not how it played out.
The park ranger escalated. He demanded our licenses. And while the ranger almost certainly saw me take possession of Mac and unleash him from his tree-lined hiding spot, he handed my license back and kept my father‘s.
We stood quietly while the ranger phoned a colleague, trying to read back — letter by letter — my dad’s name and license number. Farva must have been on the other end because it was approaching 10 minutes of waiting around.
Meanwhile, another ranger appeared on a bicycle and joined us on the grass.
My brother, father and I continued to putz around. I played with my phone. My dad looked up at the sky. We made small talk about how cold it had gotten, seeing condensation puffing out of Mac’s nostrils.
Now, the thing you must know about my dad is that he can have a short fuse. He’ll never throw or attack or doing anything physical, but he does get loud and cranky. So he was doing really, really well. (My mom remarked afterward how well he had done, given the circumstances, and that’s saying a lot.)
My father is also a joker. To break the growing tension and outlandishness of what was happening, he turned to my baffled mother and began a brief comedy routine. “Sorry, honey, they’re going to arrest me. I’ll see you at the jail,” he said, chuckling while turning back to the park rangers.
They were stone-faced.
At this point the officer began writing a ticket while speaking with the person on his phone. Minutes later my dad courteously asked the ranger if he could have his license back, take his ticket and get on with his day because this was getting silly and he wanted to spend time with his family.
In a sort of harrumph, my dad stuck his now-freezing hands in his jacket pockets.
The ranger completely lost his shit. He screamed at my dad to pull his hands out of his pockets and stand back, all the while fingering what looked like a gun in a holster. My dad said something like, “I have nothing in my pockets, my hands are cold,” and took them out as he stepped back.
I began fumbling with my phone to get its camera up and running. My brother — always the diplomat — walked toward my dad, grasped his arm and began pulling him away from the ranger. With their backs partially turned, the male ranger pulled out his taser and aimed it at my father.
I understand law enforcement agents just want to make it home at the end of their shift each day, and you never know what someone might do in the face of oppressive authority.
But context is critical.
We were nice. We didn’t know about the law, and clipped the leash back on right away. We were then patient and courteous while waiting to get my father’s license back. Right up to the point that the ranger screamed at us and drew his weapon.
I’m sorry, but an older man walking a small dog, cracking dorky jokes with his family and sticking his freezing hands in his pockets is not an invitation for potentially deadly force.*
To the National Park Service and Fort McHenry:
- There was absolutely no place for this behavior here.
- Please don’t hire aggressive, antisocial and reckless people who are prone to abuse their authority.
- Please train the rangers you do hire adequately before sending them into the public with weapons.
- You’ll be hearing from us soon.
Images: 1) Armed and dangerous with a 14-pound dog on a leash and a fold-up stool. (Copyright of Dave Mosher) 2) Mac the Destroyer. (Copyright of Dave Mosher) 3) My dad and a famous Middle Eastern political figure. (left: Copyright of Dave Mosher; right: Wikipedia)