Christmas With a Cop (retired)

Around the time the chain department stores start advertising Christmas decorations and presents; the tension in my house begins to mount. As the weather gets colder and the songs get more festive, a sense of dread fills the air. There are sleepless nights, nightmares, and the sound of pacing bare feet on hardwood floors late into the night. Tempers flare and emotions run hot. There is no Christmas tree until the very last second and even then it is merely tolerated for the sake of others.

Let me explain.

My dad was a police officer in an urban city for 25 years. He was on gang, human trafficking and drug trafficking task forces with the entire alphabet soup of federal agencies many times over. He’s saved lives. He’s been in shoot outs. He’s been shot. He’s been stabbed. He’s been run over. He’s pulled people out of burning buildings with little to no protective gear and sustained 3rd burns on 25% of his body. He’s risked his life to save children from shootouts and domestic violence incidents. He’s done CPR on babies, children, elderly people and everyone else in between. He has stood up for prostitutes and sex workers when no one else would at the risk of his own career and reputation. He has had friends and strangers alike die in his arms. He has given the hat off his head and the shirt off his back many times over to people who didn’t have anything else. He has solved murders, rapes and robberies.

A lot of these things happened between Thanksgiving and Valentines Day. That’s the ‘busy season’. Tune into the news. Abductions, Murders, suicides, robberies, rapes, domestic violence, drug overdoses abound this time of the year and the police have to respond to each call. Even stretched out over 25 years that’s a lot of trauma to process. Each time he responded to one of those calls it might be his last. There might be a shootout, or a fight; serious injuries were bound to happen. Throw in inadequate mental health care in general but especially for men and even more so for men (and women) that are first responders (not just police officers- Firefighters and EMTs too).

He’ll never admit it but I see the look in his eyes. I see how he instinctively steels himself against this holiday seasons horrors even though he has not worn a badge in almost 21 years. I see the blazing look in his blue eyes that say it only happened yesterday.

In a rare moment of vulnerability he told me about how he was assigned to the gang unit task force in the late 80s- early 90s with multiple federal agencies and police departments represented in the Tri-State area. They went up to a city (in a different state than the one he is from) to conduct a raid. The site was an average middle class suburban neighborhood with unassuming minivans in the driveway and white picket fences in surrounding the backyards. Dozens of law enforcement officials and federal agents swarm the area, clad in helmets and SWAT gear they prepared to barge into a raised ranch, warrant in hand. But, they were spotted and the occupants of the house opened fire. My dad and the other law enforcement officials were forced to take cover behind their cars. They returned fire. All of a sudden a neighboring side door swung open. A three year old boy, disorientated by the noise, ran out of the door and directly into a hail of bullets. They tore his abdomen apart and he fell whimpering in pain and fear. My dad struggled with this sight for a little while and finally his emotions won out. He broke cover and ran out into the firestorm to retrieve the boy. Once he picked him he ran back behind the armored cars. He began putting pressure on the wounds but there were too many, he could tell that the boy was bleeding out too fast to be saved. The boy was scared and crying, so my dad decided to take the pressure off the wounds and pick up the dying boy. He cradled him close and hugged him so that the boy’s last experience on Earth would be of kindness and comfort. That boy died in his arms. He then had to pick his gun back up and continue the firefight.

He wouldn’t allow himself to process that event until many many years later. I am almost positive that every December he is transported back to that suburban minivan lined street from 30 years ago. What I don’t know is how many more people like that boy come to visit my dad every year. Its no wonder he has a hard time looking forward to the Holiday season.

Every year when I can see the pain grow in his eyes I try to be a little more understanding, a little more gentle, and a little kinder to not just him but to everyone that may be fighting a battle I know nothing about.)

Baby Boy

I come home from the gym on a Tuesday afternoon. The air is thick with pain. The TV is on but no one is watching. The news anchor is deploring the fate of something or another. In the kitchen my father is pacing. Pacing in tight circles around our small table. Softly I ask, “what’s wrong?”. He doesn’t hear my words, eyes are open but unseeing. I can tell he is lost in his thoughts. Confused, I attempt to figure out the cause of his odd behavior. Then the new anchor comes back from a commercial break and recaps all the day’s breaking news. One headline grabs my attention and shakes me. A baby boy was found in a recycling center. Instantly I know the reason for my dad’s strange actions.

Suddenly I’m 15 and my dad is driving with me riding shotgun. Somehow our conversation turns to sewage plants. He begins to tell me about the first and only time he ever went into a sewage treatment facility. He was a rookie cop, he had been on the job less than a month. He was 23 years old and still living at home. In many ways he was still a kid. Dispatch radioed him that they wanted him to go to a call at a sewage plant in town. They told him that he would have to go there alone because it was a low risk situation and they needed other officers in the field for more dangerous situations that might arise. He asked what the situation entailed, and dispatch just said he should ask the foreman when he arrived. He asked again, and they just reiterated that statement. He gave up.

Once at the sewage treatment plant the foreman is waiting outside for him. The foreman is jumpy and nervous, he waves for my dad to follow him into the building and they go to the first stage of the sewage treatment. The way it worked was raw sewage would be funneled onto a conveyor belt and water would be sprayed on top. The conveyor belt is a metal mesh so the sewage liquefies and drops below into a vat for the second stage of treatment. Anything that stays solid is usually some kind of other material metal, plastic, wood etc. The police get called to sewage treatment plants often, people flush (or toss down a sewer) guns, and knives all the time, so this what my dad thought he was walking into. The conveyor belt is stopped and the water off. There’s more literal shit than he’s ever seen in his life. The uneasy foreman points to the middle of the conveyor belt and says “there, look right there”. My dad must refocus his eyes before he even realizes what he’s looking at. Then in one awful second, he figures it out, there is the body of a one-month old baby boy laying there among all that filth. He immediately threw up and started to cry right there in front of the foreman. Eventually he composed himself enough and got the job done.

When he told me all those years ago in as we were driving around town, he had to pull over because he had begun to cry, and I had begun to throw up on the side of the road. Once we had composed ourselves he looked at me and said, “That baby boy has stayed with me all these years, I have never forgotten him.”

Today with the news screaming about this baby boy, I wonder if there will be a rookie cop to mourn him, every day for the next 45 years.