By Grant McClure | South Carolina Wildlife magazine intern
My game warden uncle, Cpt. Ken Simmons, once lived in a single bedroom house next to the railroad tracks in Hampton County. He kept a fish tank in the living room stocked with a four-pound bass. Above the tank, a pair of stuffed mallards cupped their wings, forever frozen in the space between flight and pond water. During one visit, I remember helping Sadie, my uncle’s yellow lab, take care of her new litter of puppies. Eyes swollen shut, the pups squeezed in close to their mother in a new, dark world.
Those are my earliest memories of Uncle Ken. Today, fifteen years later, he lives in Chapin with his wife (my aunt) and family. Gone are the largemouth and stuffed mallards. When he gets off work with the SCDNR Law Enforcement, he tends to a dove field near Orangeburg. He tills the loamy soil, plants rows of sorghum and sunflower and wires an electric fence to keep deer out. Despite his best efforts, the deer are undeterred. Come fall friends will gather. Bird dogs will scan the field, waiting to make a retrieve. The squeezing of a trigger. The sound of a shotgun. But now there is only heat and cicadas matching the steady hum of the tractor dragging the till.
When he returns from the dove field on a Friday night, we set out to patrol on Lake Murray. The sun sets. A pink hue illuminates the clouds like giant paper lanterns. Swarms of purple martins fly toward their roost on Bomb Island. Boats gather to the watch the birds gyrate in the evening light.
As darkness sets in, my uncle spots a boat moored without an anchor light. It’s a ski boat surrounded with cushioned seats. My uncle issues a warning on a yellow sheet of paper and hands it over to the middle-aged couple. They turn on their anchor light. We move on. Uncle Ken says, “That’s ninety percent of the people out here. Just nice people who forgot to flip on a switch.”
Later that night he pulls over a group of high school kids without a stern light on their way back from striped bass fishing. It’s an aluminum bass fishing boat, about eighteen feet long. Uncle Ken writes another warning. The kids manufacture a temporary stern light out of duct tape and a glow stick, then continue on their way.
Dark now. Lightning flashes over the lake. A storm billows on the horizon, and the wind begins to pick up. The crackle of a radio. Through the static comes the voices of officers discussing the best course of action. It’s decided that it’s time to go home.
The next morning my uncle wakes up and puts on his dark green uniform adorned with a star-shaped badge. He brews a cup of coffee which he pours into his favorite Denver Broncos thermos. He tells his wife and kids that he loves them, then hops in his truck. Like everyone else, he sits in traffic on I-26. He starts his morning listening to bands like Creed or Pearl Jam. Brake lights. Coffee steaming. Guitar riffs.
I find comfort in knowing that Uncle Ken is protecting the people and natural resources of South Carolina. He works hard, sometimes missing holiday dinners and family celebrations. He attends his daughters’ dance recitals and goes to church on Sunday. Most of all, he is human — a family man. He is compelled by a clear sense of justice, a complex understanding of right and wrong that extends beyond his work with the SCDNR Law Enforcement.
After work one day, he cranks up the tractor and heads to the dove field. The engine roars. He knows with enough sweat, love and hope the birds will flock this way. I watch the tracks leave behind their impression in the soil — progress being made. The brownish blur of a dove in flight flickers in my peripheral.
Grant McClure is a senior at Wofford College and writes for South Carolina Wildlife magazine.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed on South Carolina Wild are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect official policies, positions, or endorsements of activity or products by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.