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Saturday, January 8, 2011

From the Archives: Fugitives in the Valley…

Brisk winter Day

Years ago the Valley had a much larger population than it does today. The missing demographic consisted mainly of low-risk ne’er-do-wells, rapscallions, and assorted felonious scalawags and was concentrated at the Washington State (Correctional Facility) Honor Farm, a time-honored institution bent on rehabilitating the aforementioned outlaws by redirecting their anti-social behavior into some productive, civic-minded enterprise. The method used was a more structured application of my dad’s old maxim: “Idle hands make the Devil’s Workshop”--the reason we kids had household chores; the difference, though: we didn’t have Corrections officers always at our elbows, overseeing our labors. But neither did we need ‘em; without fail, Dad, the foreman in absentia of our sweat labor, would show up sooner or later to monitor our efforts and judge whether or not they passed muster.

The rehab model of the Department of Corrections was to turn larcenous and idle hands into farmhands. Their rationale was that a pair of hands hanging onto a couple of cow’s teats, manipulating a milking machine, or wrestling bales of hay into feed bunkers, couldn’t very well jimmy locks, hotwire ignitions, pilfer store merchandise, or lift citizens’ property from their premises at the same time. And working around a herd of benign bovines would give the incarcerated a sense of purpose, engender responsibility, a work ethic, perhaps, and thus take their minds (and keep their hands) off other people’s stuff. Tending a dairy herd meant they’d have to watch their step rather than plan an underhanded one. Nothing like the country life, good hard work, and a little honest manure to turn a bad apple into a productive pippin.

Of course this “born again” approach worked well in theory. But often an inmate would get milkmaid hands or yearn for female companionship, a good home-cooked meal--perhaps get a hankering, so to speak, to keep his “hand in,”whatever business it was sent him to the Farm in the first place. But whatever the stimulus, come bed count he was a no show. Then the hunt would be on for the fugitive until he was apprehended, returned to the barn, and incarcerated again. All these unauthorized comings and goings by the sometime recalcitrant farmhands made the Valley neighbors edgy and concerned about their own property. The evening news would report another fugitive on the loose from the Honor Farm and folks in the Valley would spend a nervous night or two until the escapee was returned to the herd.

Once the Department of Corrections held a public meeting at the Grange to allow folks to share their concerns about the adjacent commune for the felonious. The host officials asked those in attendance if they would like to be notified whenever an inmate flew the coop. Valley folk had the chance to speak their minds about the Farm and respond to the notification issue. Did they want to be warned whenever the bed count came up shy? If memory serves me, people expressed the attitude that “No news is good news,” felt they’d choose the element of surprise over knowing for hours on end that yet another inmate was at large and lurking somewhere in the Valley. There was a sharing of thoughts and opinions, a “working together” between the Valley and “Them.” The blue-ribbon testimonial at that meeting, in my opinion, came from Walt de Jong. Walt shared a personal experience he’d had with one of the AWOL residents of the Farm.

Early one morning Walt strolled by his pick-up, happened to peer in the rear canopy and noticed a pair of legs reclining inside. Walt didn’t recognize the legs. Those legs were trespassing in the back of his rig. Walt considered the nearby loosely structured penal colony and deduced the legs’ origin.The owner was either passed out or sleeping, so Walt thought he would perform his civic duty and return the legs and all other attachments to their proprietor, the Washington State Department of Corrections, Monroe detachment. En route to the Honor Farm, Walt suddenly remembered he had been duck hunting the day before, and his shotgun was still in the back keeping company with the legs. Hmmm…armed legs…, he thought and drove a little faster. Fortunately, Walt arrived at the Farm without incident and informed one of the guards: “I think I have something in the back that belongs to you”and pointed to the rear of the truck where the owner of the legs still lay fast asleep. Apparently hours of wandering in circles in the dark through the fields and pastures of the Valley, tripping over mole mounds, had exhausted the poor fellow. I bet he was the first at bed count that evening.

I suppose the main reason residents turned down the early warning system was they knew from experience that most fugitives fled the Valley as fast as they could, headed for the nearest town or Seattle, determined to put as much distance as possible between them and the dairy herd. These days the Valley breathes easier because years ago the facility closed its loosely monitored doors. But I do know of one instance when a fugitive fled an urban institution and sought refuge right here in our own little Valley.

One pleasant day in late spring I headed for the Valley on my routine walkabout. Just beyond the corner east of Swiss Hall a small station wagon eased by. There was something official looking about the vehicle, and as it passed, I noticed a sign on its side. “Woodland Park Zoo” the sign read. “What does the Zoo want with our Valley?”I wondered. The car eased to a stop a few yards away, and a fellow stepped out from the passenger’s side. He was holding an odd contraption that looked like an elaborate wire sculpture—if the medium were baling wire. In a slow, sweeping motion he moved the device from west to east like some death ray you’d see in a “B” sci-fi film. Then he returned to the station wagon. The car rolled slowly on down the road to the parking lot behind Swiss Hall. Out comes the fellow again, instrument in hand and sweeps the Valley back and forth, south-west to south-east. Back  he goes into the vehicle. The wagon turns around and creeps up the road toward me. I gesture it to a stop, and the driver, a young woman, rolls down the window. I asked her, “Something absent without leave from the zoo?”  “If it’s a big cat or something with a mouthful of sharp teeth, I want to know.”

Something, the young lady informed me, had escaped from the zoo, a gyrfalcon, an uncommon non-indigenous bird of prey. The little fugitive thought it would do a bit of sight seeing, had fled its handler, and had chosen our picturesque Valley for her scenic tour. The strange sculpture—not a fazer at all--but a GPS system homing in on the monitoring tag the rare raptor wore.  “She’s changed perches two or three times, but we know where she is now,” the young man said. And off they went back up Tualco. I watched the little station wagon turn into Gramma Snow’s driveway and continue slowly on past her barn where it stopped.

When I returned from my walk, I gave Gramma a call. “Did they retrieve that bird?” I asked and told her about meeting the two zookeepers during my walk. “Yes, they did!”an excited Gramma said. She had watched the entire retrieval. The “falcon-gentle,” (a female falcon) was perched in a tree near the barn. One of the zookeepers waved a feathered lure and the falcon immediately flew down to it. They loaded up the wayward bird and headed back to Seattle. The scenic tour over. The fugitive returned.

And what of that old institution, the Honor Farm? The only thing that escapes from there these days is an occasional fugitive burst of methane gas from the Qualco Energy anaerobic digester, but before it travels very far, it’s incinerated.

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