The head of Louie the Otter was in good hands.
The noggin of the mascot of the New York State Zoo at Thompson Park was clutched Oct. 4 by recently retired Army Staff Sgt. Paul D. Vollmer. He had just taken up position in front of the zoos mountain lion exhibit.
Mr. Vollmer has completed three tours of Iraq and spent three years in South Korea, but on this day, that pressure had no comparison.
The anticipation is killing me, he said.
The mountain lion looked curiously out of its enclosure, eyeing the costumed, pleasantly stuffed and potential but out-of-bounds target. Portable radios carried by nearby zoo staff crackled with chatter.
Operation Otter was about to begin.
For Mr. Vollmer, who retired from the Army on Sept. 27, dressing as an otter is all part of being a dad. And as for any deployed parent, he has lots of catching up to do. To kickstart that, Mr. Vollmers mom worked with zoo officials to hatch a surprise reunion with his children, Christa, 5, and Paul Jr., 6, both students at Knickerbocker Elementary School in the city.
His mother, Diane A. Coates, said she wanted to do something special for her son, who retired from duty at Fort Bragg, N.C., last month. He spent 20 years in the service, mainly as a cook. He also was an Army Ranger for awhile. Most of his duty was spent at Fort Drum, from where he was sent overseas on his deployments.
Its something he deserves and I think any soldier deserves it, said Mrs. Coates, of Theresa. What they have to go through over there and seeing buddies getting killed, being away from their families and everything else, they deserve some sort of homecoming something to make it really special, especially for the kids.
Mr. Vollmer, who will take up residence in Watertown and begin classes next semester at Jefferson Commuinity College, had not seen his children since January.
They actually dont think Im coming home for another week, Mr. Vollmer said before donning the costume.
This was the first time the zoo hosted such a surprise reunion, said Kurt T. Hunt, zoo spokesman.
Mr. Hunt is president of the Thousand Islands chapter of the New York State Archaeology Association. Mrs. Coates and her husband, Jack, are also members of the association. So Mrs. Coates asked Mr. Hunt if a surprise reunion could be arranged at the zoo. Officials there were happy to cooperate.
Christa and Paul were brought to the zoo after school by their mom, Christina Vollmer, who is separated from Mr. Vollmer. The children were told they would be meeting their grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Coates.
Once at the zoo, the children, who dashed from exhibit to exhibit like pinballs, finally made it to the mountain lion exhibit. Thats where zoo executive director John T. Wright strolled over and asked the children if they wanted to meet Louie the Otter, who he had in tow.
The otter introduced himself. But after a few words, the attention of the children turned from the costumed character back to the mountain lion exhibit. Then Louie the Otter told the kids that he was a special otter and he asked Christa and Paul if they knew why. The children turned back to Louie.
Mr. Vollmer took off the head, which was followed by exclamations of Daddy!, wide eyes, wider smiles, and from Mr. Vollmer tears.
I missed you so much! he said, hugging his children.
A few seconds after the reunion, Paul told his dad there was something he should know.
Theres a dead rat in there! he said, pointing through the glass of the exhibit.
His dad laughed at the cold fact, which was softened considerably by another fact: it was time to be a dad again.