Of my three careers, motherhood gave me the most grey hair. It was, of course, all worth it. The kids turned out well. And as they were growing up, I developed my career as a freelance writer. It’s the perfect line of work; I could do it at home, although I was no super mom with cookies and milk waiting for the little sweeties as they clambered off the bus; they baked their own darn cookies. More importantly, I was not tied to a locale. Bill was a national park ranger-naturalist, and advancement required moving to a new venue. Simple. Unplug the computer in Maine and plug it in at Yosemite.
The National Park Service was a good fit for both of us. I was ADHD in the 40s, when nobody knew what it was. My mom had no idea how to channel me, so she turned me loose. I spent my childhood in the woods and meadows of rural Ohio, learning about myself and about nature. I had never been west of Chicago, but I found I always loved deserts (and so did Mom, but that’s another story). Weird. I graduated from college (B.S. at Bowling Green SU) a semester early, took a bus to West Texas, rented a horse, and spent two weeks in the backcountry of the Big Bend. I got fried, frozen, and lost. It was absolutely wonderful.
That fall I entered Arizona State University’s graduate program in desert ecology. Mom took one breath of Arizona air, ran home and packed up her ironing board, moved to Phoenix, and never looked back. I think my love of deserts is genetic.
As a freelance writer I enjoyed thirty-five years of success. If writing paid well, why did I not keep writing? When Bill retired and we lived in Oklahoma, I helped build the Ancient Life gallery displays in the brand new Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, working with paleontologists. One thing led to another and I put aside my writing career to earn a doctorate in paleontology, completing my writing contracts to tackle study full time. I became a PhD the same month I signed up for social security.
Then I crossed over to the Dark Side. I became (gasp!) an editor, the publication editor for the Journal of Paleontology, a peer-reviewed journal for–you guessed it—paleontologists. The editors and I worked some minor miracles, bringing the Grand Old Lady of Fossil Study back into her position as the premier international systematics reference. In April 2010 I retired from the journal, for we had met the goals we set out to achieve. I am continuing research in paleontology, but now it is a good time to get back into writing.
Before Bill died, we volunteered our brains out. We were involved with the Marine Science Center, the local senior center, and the schooner Adventuress. We walked an assigned beach monthly for the COASST Survey, responded to marine mammal strandings (usually dead seal pups), and were active in the church, although in different capacities. Not totally different; we’re both gadflies, each in his or her own way.
I have maintained my church jobs; this is for Jesus, after all; and still walk the COASST survey mostly for the exercise and the $1.50 polish at Costco following. IU will pick up the others as I feel better.
For relaxation I sip a glass of port in the evening and do needlework. I crochet, knit, quilt, sew, and embroider (mostly crewel and cross-stitch). I enjoy making miniatures and my office wall holds twenty-six ship models of various sorts. Bill called it Port Plastic but don’t believe it; some of them are wood. The other wall sports dozens of framed frog pictures, mostly 4×6 cards, to accompany several hundred frog/turtle/other herps figurines.
My life could not be richer.
On 8 December of 2014, Bill Dengler lost his fifteen-year battle with congestive heart failure. To the very last moment, he was an amazing man.
He grew up in Lititz PA in the rich Pennsylvania Dutch culture. His mom made the most wonderful shoo-fly pie, pig’s stomach, and other regional delights. For forty years after he left home, he would take an empty suitcase when he visited Mom and Dad. It would come back filled with Wilbur chocolate, local potato chips and pretzels, and the area’s Lebanon and sweet balognas. Oh, and don’t forget the cup cheese and scrapple.
His high school grades were far from stellar, but his principal got him into Elizabethtown College. The first semester he earned Ds. He sat himself down and made some heavy decisions, foremost: do I want to do this? I do. He turned himself around and graduated with honors.
We met and married at Arizona State University in graduate school, he in Range Management, I in Zoology (desert ecology). Our honeymoon consisted of camping somewhere in Arizona each weekend and getting back to work on Monday. Arizona is full of national park areas. He had equated “national park” with Gettysburg, the only one he knew. When he discovered the real park service, he made it his career. He was for thirty-four years a ranger and naturalist in the Grand Canyon, Saguaro, Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Acadia, Yosemite, and Mount Rainier.
After retirement, he didn’t quit working. He worked as a camp assistant at Camp Mishawaka in northern Minnesota (Uncle Bill Danger; yet another story for sometime). Voyageur country. Muskegs. Cold lakes with walleye. For decades, he’d subscribed to the Hudson’s Bay Company house organ, Beaver. He always loved the northwoods. Here he was in the middle of it.
He also had a very strong interest in Indians. After retirement, we lived in Oklahoma for eleven years. Oklahoma is Indian country, with dozens of tribes and nations removed from their ancestral lands and given “worthless” land in Oklahoma territory. Bill again found himself in the midst of what he had always loved. A Comanche friend helped him become active in gourd dances and pow wows. His grandson now has the regalia.
He made and collected Native American flutes and played well. He enjoyed beading and was an excellent woodcarver. He did decorative knot-tying (The house organ of the International Guild of Knot-Tyers is—ready for this?—Knotting Matters) and attended their annual meeting when we visited England one summer.
The purpose of the England trip was to visit the historic ships you have to go there to see—the Victory, the Mary Rose, the Trincomalee… Decades before, we got a model kit of the Cutty Sark with S&H Green Stamps. The first vessel we stepped aboard was the Cutty Sark (two years before she partially burned). In Port Townsend, our latest home, he eagerly became involved in historic maritime pursuits, helping out aboard the Adventuress (google Adventuress Sound Experience) and working the Wooden Boat Festival each September. He was a founding member of the northwest chapter of the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association.
He loved canoeing and as a kid would camp with buddies each September in Algonquin Park, basic getting lost while in canoes. When we moved to Maine, our first purchase was an Old Town canoe (that’s a story for sometime). We still have it.
He really enjoyed helping out with the Tribal Canoe Journey here in the Pacific Northwest. Each year, Indians from Oregon, Washington, and Canada paddle their long canoes to a host village for a week of cultural sharing. Not too many centuries ago, these same tribes would canoe from village to village to pillage and murder. Now they sing and dance for each other. This, Bill would say proudly, is a REAL peace process.
In the early sixties I was a grad assistant in Dr. Herbert L. Stahnke’s Poisonous Animals Research Lab at Arizona State University. This was heady stuff; the whole second floor of the PARL facility was locked down with tightly controlled access, not a bad idea since we had these rooms full of rattlesnakes, scorpions, and Gila Monsters (my job was mostly milking the scorpions of their venom). A major function of the lab was to determine effective antidotes and contra-indications in the treatment of poisonous bites and stings. Bill was a teaching assistant to Dr. Stahnke and therefore had a key to the PARL sanctum, and the elevator opened right outside my office. We met. Ten weeks later, we married. You realize such whirlwind romances never last, right?
Forty-seven years later, during a visit with my sister in Scottsdale, Bill and I stopped by ASU. The Life Sciences building is still there, but it is now Building A, and there are B, C, and D out there. Any Tom Dick and Harry can walk up through the second-floor sanctum; it’s not limited access anymore, although the secondary hall doors are still there, and people probably wonder why.
When we worked there, terraria in the main floor hallway housed a variety of hot and not-hot reptiles, everything from bull snakes to Mexican beaded lizards. In fact, Dr. Stahnke’s minions (that’s us) often fed them. The terraria are still there, and while we visited, a grad student with a ladder was dropping the food (mostly dead mice) into the enclosures.
Because we were healthy and fully mobile, we decided to take our fiftieth-anniversary cruise on our forty-ninth. Wonderful, wonderful cruise from Lauderdale to Seattle aboard Holland America’s Amsterdam. So for our fiftieth, the kids and grandkids took us over Christmas to a lovely rental on the cusp of Mesa, Arizona, and Tonto National Forest. All ten of us.
And that is pretty much a thumbnail of our marriage. Life has been weird, very often exciting and stimulating, never the way “everybody else” lives, and extremely satisfying. The basics, the good things, the neat things have persisted for over half a century. We were blessed with excellent health, excellent kids, and excellent opportunities, most of which we seized.
And if you ever find yourself in the position of having to milk scorpions, I’ll be happy to show you how it’s done.