Thursday, September 18, 2014

Mr. Big Stuff

Today I succumbed to that Facebook Throwback Thursday nonsense and posted the above picture of me the day in 1980 that I graduated from the Phoenix Police Academy. It did remind me of a few things, some I'd rather forget, one of which was an essay I wrote some years back at my wife's instigation. It involves a few "war stories" that I used to tell and was, of course, never published. Rereading it today, I realize why. Originally, I wanted so badly for this to be good but have never been satisfied with the way it turned out. It was rewritten so many times and I tried too hard to be funny that finally I just gave up on it. So here it is, a bit lengthy but I just can't make myself rewrite it anymore. It also occurs to me that this is the first time I've ever shared anything of length on my career, such as it was. I hope you make it to the end.

 Roughly 25% of American police officers now have four-year degrees.  When this college boy graduated in 1980 near the top of Phoenix Police Academy Class 157, the figure was closer to 5%.  This had me feeling pretty cocky and sure of myself - it didn't last long.

The dangers of police work were something you accepted and tried to live with from the very beginning. We had spent so much time learning how to defend ourselves and seen so many gory training films that most of us felt pretty well prepared, at least I did.  Plus the odds were in our favor so the chance of something bad happening seemed pretty remote. But there are a million ways to screw up,  most of which don’t physically hurt and it was inevitable that your turn would come.

The effects of errors could be mitigated somewhat if the only witnesses were civilians. Someone might laugh or make fun of you but even if they told the whole neighborhood the crisis passed as soon as you left for the next call. But the absolute worst thing, short of death, that could happen and what everyone learned to fear above all else was that when your time to be humiliated came, please don’t let it happen in front of another cop.

A spectacular illustration of why occurred when Fred and Jack, a young rookie and his training officer, were sent to see a homeowner who had come home from work to find his back door slightly ajar. Burglars don’t usually stick around, especially when they know the cops are coming, but this guy was convinced someone was still in his house. The only way to reassure him was to search the place, plus it was a good training exercise since the chances of encountered a crook were slim, so Fred was sent off by himself.  A house search is one of the most dangerous and nerve-wracking things a police officer can face; there are a thousand places to hide and even if he didn’t bring a gun, the burglar can always use yours. So the rookie could be excused for being a little nervous as he set off, revolver in hand, not knowing what he’d find. Creeping warily from room to room, thinking every second could be his last, he came up empty until he reached a bedroom closet.  As he tried to open the door, something pulled back. Shouting, "I got someone in the closet,"  Fred gave the knob a healthy yank. A white blur lunged for the young officer who displayed the effectiveness of his training by reflexively blasting it with a single well-placed shot. The bullet passed through the closet wall and the next room, narrowly missing both Jack and the homeowner.  When the smoke cleared, literally, mounted inside the door had been a metal rack, so loaded with clothes that when Fred tried to open the door it caught on the jamb. When the rack broke loose it acted like a spring and shot out a full-length terry-cloth bathrobe that fell lifeless at the young officer’s feet.

Next morning, a white robe adorned with a black funeral wreath hung at the front of the district briefing room. Nobody, especially Fred, could miss it.  As if this wasn’t bad enough, what the department called the “Daily Exceptional Incident Report”, and we called the “Big Deal” book, was read during every squad briefing in the city. Along with the usual murders and mayhem, the details of Fred’s use of deadly force were also recounted, making his humiliation official and complete.  Before this, Fred had been pretty overbearing but it was a difficult posture to maintain when he was forever after known as the murderer of innocent laundry.

My initial on-duty humiliations was, mercifully, unwitnessed and came during the seemingly benign task of attending to nature. Although not generally thought of as dangerous, relieving oneself nonetheless can place a male officer in an especially vulnerable position. Your hands and attention are occupied and your weapon is exposed and unprotected  (yes, I know), so you try to take care of these things privately and securely. Not surprisingly, most convenience stores encouraged officers to visit by offering free coffee plus, hidden in the back of the store, a place to get rid the last few cups.

One my first night out of the academy, I strode confidently into a Circle K to relieve myself where inside the employee's toilet, I wrestled with my ungainly city issued Sam Brown belt. On the right front of this belt, not far from the top of my fly, were two drop-pouches - rectangular leather containers that held spare ammunition.  They were held shut by a brass snap at the top and hinged at the bottom to allow the bullets to pour into your hand. In my haste I accidentally unsnapped one of these contraptions and six brand new City of Phoenix .38 caliber cartridges majestically cascaded straight into the center of the toilet bowl. 
A whole tableful of drop pouches like mine

At first, I just stared as my ammo settled into the bottom of the bowl. "What the fuck am I going to do now?" They’d never flush and I couldn't just leave them.  Born with an inability to lie convincingly, I’d never be able to ask for replacements without coming clean. Whether these things would now be any good occurred to me only in passing as being caught short in a gunfight could be only marginally worse than what I already knew I'd face if word got out. Therefore, acting swiftly and decisively, with no regard for my own personal safety, I rolled up my sleeve, retrieved my ammo, scrubbed the skin off my hands and arms, got back into character and kept my mouth shut.
          However, the incident that might best capture the essence of my career, though by no means the most embarrassing, occurred on a beautiful Sunday morning in the Phoenix winter. I happened upon a car carrying four snowbirds from "Friendly Manitoba" stopped dead in the middle of the one of the city’s busiest intersections. Every marked car came equipped with a set of two rubber bars mounted to the front for pushing disabled vehicles and I pulled in behind them and turned on all the emergency warning lights. I got out and walked toward their vehicle, eager to be helpful to our Canadian guests. Before I could say a word these goddamned foreigners, who had stopped smack-dab in the middle of the road for God knows what, roared off leaving me standing there all by myself.
Phoenix Police car from my era - note push bars. (You can find everything you need on the web.)

I shook my head and walked away, only to discover that now blocking the intersection of Central Avenue and McDowell Road was an unoccupied marked Phoenix police car, engine running, all lights flashing and all four doors securely locked.

This wasn’t the first time I’d locked myself out and it happened to most cops often enough that it was not considered sufficient cause for anything more than petty, on-the-spot, needling. This, however, was life or death.

Once it was possible to unlock most automobiles, including police cars, by lassoing the inside lock button with a coat hanger and every pre-duty check- list included a look inside the hollow push bars to make sure one of these face-savers was hidden there. A brief near-panic came when I couldn’t recall checking but there it was, right where it was supposed to be. Working fast, I nonchalantly moseyed back to the door and, summoning all powers of manual dexterity and concentration, deftly snagged the button and got away. 
             And that’s the way it went for me for over 25 years. Whenever it was necessary, and even when it wasn’t, sometimes just in case, some embarrassing affair would slap the swagger out of me.  It was like having invisible nuns around all the time - the Sisters of Humility - always ready with a nice thick ruler.

         I picked the title for this post almost so I could attach this video. I dig this tune and Jean Knight's wig.

1 comment:

  1. It's funny just as written...I can see your expression in my head!