Police officers have to be stoic, in control of their emotions. I didn’t realize how hard I worked at this–and how successful I was–until I left police work. Since then, I’ve been far more emotional that I can ever remember being. Music, for example, moves me to tears, and I can’t always predict when or how. I routinely perform some of the most beautiful and inspiring music composed, but now I find I must I must work very hard to think of it technically, not emotionally, while still performing with emotion and beauty. It’s not always easy.
This is a story of one of the losses I, like all cops, endured on a regular basis. It happened when I was a young officer, only a few years into my first civilian police job.
That’s When The Tears Came
The old juvenile officer left town. A decent chap, he made a life-changing mistake. Hunting elk in a nearby mountain range, he succumbed to that most unforgivable of tenderfoot failings: buck fever–a bit of temporary blindness that overtakes some hunters.
Most of us no longer need to hunt for survival. There is, to be sure, value in the hunt and in its intimate connection with a natural world now foreign to so many. But once in the field, trying to recapture a racial memory of the hunter, some men–buck fever is a primarily male affliction–lose their way. Perhaps it’s a matter of pride. Failing to bring home the bacon reflects on manhood, doesn’t it? Isn’t freshly slain game indisputable proof of woodsman-like accomplishment? Isn’t the failed hunter smaller, somehow less virile?
To forestall failure, some shoot at movement. They don’t wait to absolutely identify their target, to ensure a safe backstop for their bullets, or even for a clear sight picture. It moves; they shoot: buck fever. Thank goodness many miss. Bill didn’t. He saw an “elk” and fired, nearly severing the arm of a very stunned female hunter who, according to reliable accounts, looked nothing like an elk.
Bill told me, over and over, his voice tinged with embarrassment and horror, “I thought she was an elk.” I didn’t have to tell him that his explanation wouldn’t hold water in the civil trial that was sure to come. Cops can’t afford to make mistakes with firearms. He left town. I never heard from him again.
Nobody else wanted Bill’s job. For most cops, juvenile work isn’t “real” police work, but I was glad to get it. Where past juvenile officers waited for kids and cases to come to them, I went out and found them. My caseload immediately jumped hundreds of percentage points. It seemed obvious that the work with kids was out there among the kids. I never could figure out why that concept seemed lost on so many people. I spent most of every day in the schools, building relationships with administrators and teachers, and most importantly, with kids.
Kim and Susan were best friends. They weren’t the most popular kids in high school, but they moved easily among all the cliques. They were the kind of kids a national newsmagazine might use to illustrate a cover story on teenagers. Fresh faced, cute, happy, average. They were the kind of kids that everybody knew, and so I did.
I met them one Friday night when I was playing Batman and Robin in the parking spots on the main drag. The fender lizards were out in force. The kids would drive back and forth on the L-shaped main drag, yelling and laughing with abandon, and when they tired of that–the main drag was only about two miles long–they would park in one of several parking lots on the drag and sit on the fenders of their cars, watching their pals drive by, their heads turning lazily like lizards watching a passing meal. Fender lizards. Of course, they would drink, and occasionally, smoke a little weed. The smarter lizards–relatively speaking–would pour their booze into plastic pop bottles thinking they were sooooo cool. The cops would never figure that one out!
My partner, John, and I were having a great time. John was one of the newer guys, and had never played Batman and Robin before. He was primed and excited. I explained the rules.
“First,” I said, “nobody ever looks up.” He looked at me strangely, trying to make sense of what I was saying. “Really. Nobody ever looks up. Just watch people walking down the street. When someone approaches them, they look no higher than eye level. They might glance up to see if the person approaching is a threat or if they need to greet them, but that’s about it. All you have to do is be slightly above eye level and they’ll never see you. Then you swoop down on them like Batman and Robin. Easy.”
“Cool! Where do we do it?” he asked, practically drooling in anticipation.
“Watch and learn, Grasshopper; watch and learn,” I replied.
Ten minutes later, we were sitting on the top of an abandoned motel. In full uniform, our legs were hanging over the ledge, only about a foot over the heads of the fender lizards merrily boozing it up below. John was giddy with delight. He couldn’t believe that we were sitting there in plain sight and nobody was seeing us. Of course, we couldn’t pull it off forever. Eventually someone might spot us. So we waited for a few more minutes, watching the beer being passed back and forth and guzzled.
When the group of five kids just below us moved into just the right position, beers in hand, I nodded to John–he was just about to fall off the roof suppressing laughter anyway–and we jumped down–WHAP!–landing right beside them. Da da da da da da da da: BATMAN!
All of them screamed, two of them dropped their beers, and two more threw them all over everyone else. It took another few seconds before they realized that we were the Police, and then their fright turned to genuine panic. They had that “It’s Godzirra! Run for youl rife!” look that policemen everywhere know and love.
We quickly herded them against the wall of the motel and got ID. As we worked, the rest of the fender lizards left the lot with unaccustomed, blinding speed. We ended up taking the whole crew to the station and called their parents to pick them up. Kim and Susan were genuinely scared, and very, very sorry. We found out that the guys bought the beer with a bogus ID. They met the girls out on the main drag, and the girls only had a few sips to be sociable when we arrived. Kim and Susan thought that our Batman and Robin act was just about the slickest thing they ever saw. The guys kept shaking their heads and muttering “that ain’t fair.” We wrote citations for the guys and let the girls slide. That was the start of, as Humphrey Bogart said at the end of Casa Blanca, a beautiful friendship.
For the next year, whenever I saw the girls out on the street, I always stopped and chatted with them. They were really sweet kids and were always happy to see me. They wouldn’t graduate at the top of their class, but they were the kind of kids who are our heart and soul. I saw in them the kindness, optimism, and decency that make America what it is. We became friends and always expected to see each other, if not today, then tomorrow or the next day. When I became the juvenile officer, I saw them more often in school. Their friendship translated to friendships with other kids and made my job easier.
One fall morning I was called to the hospital. There had been a fatal accident on one of the county roads into town. A light frosting of frozen dew had been enough to cause a full sized Wagoneer to lose control, clip an oncoming car and roll, ejecting the driver and passenger. When it was obvious they wouldn’t make it, I got the call.
I was also the department’s crime scene photographer. Wearing many hats is common in small law enforcement agencies. I loaded my gear into my car. It was slightly overcast and cool. Not quite freezing, but the kind of gray, biting cold that makes people think of unpacking their winter coats.
Car accidents usually meant serious, bloody injuries. Massive tissue damage and closed caskets were the rule. But sometimes the injuries were mostly internal. The victims looked like they were asleep. Lacerated arteries and organs and pulped bones did the damage, but externally, they were peaceful and looked as though they could wake up and talk any second.
One of the E.R. nurses told me that the victims had already been moved to the funeral home. They were DOA–never had a chance. I pulled out my notebook to take down the bare bones of evidence and their names. Susan and Kim?!
I wasn’t immune to feeling, but I had to compartmentalize it, put it aside so I could do my job. No one is served–not the dead, not the living–if the police can’t function. But this time was different. My stomach immediately took a hit. It was hollow, aching. “Have the parents been told? Officially?” I asked.
“No. They just got here. They’re in waiting,” the nurse told me, shaking her head sadly and nodding toward the waiting room down the hall. “Dr. McCasker was going to let them know when he finished with the fracture in exam three.”
I sighed, trying to chase the emptiness away. It didn’t work. “I knew these kids. I know their parents. I’ll do it.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said. “Are you sure?”
I nodded and headed down the hallway to the waiting room. When I turned the corner, both sets of parents took one look at me and their faces–changed. God knows what they saw in my face. There really aren’t words to accurately describe what I saw. It was a mixture of understanding, resignation, shock, horror, and utter, irreconcilable despair. Both mothers immediately began to cry. Both fathers sat, immobile, not knowing how to feel, how to respond. Parents aren’t supposed to survive their children. The kids drove to and from school every day, safely, but not today. How could that be?
They knew–they always know–but I had to say the words. No matter how many times you deliver death messages, it never becomes easier. There is no way to soften the blow. “Susan and Kim’s injuries were too severe; they died. I’m so sorry.”
The mother’s wails of anguish expanded and filled every millimeter of the room, every millimeter of me. Fathers, siblings, friends, everyone began to cry. I thought about offering my assistance, but if they heard, they wouldn’t remember. They were consumed in another, unimaginable world, and though we knew each other, I could do absolutely nothing to help; not then. I still had a duty to perform. I mumbled apologies and offers of help and withdrew.
I turned off the ignition and looked at the closed door of the preparation room through the open garage doors of the funeral parlor. I thought about all the times I had been in that room and others like it, all of the bodies I had seen, all the results of stupidity, rage, negligence, and emotionless, unavoidable fate. I’d never been so numb before. It had never been so hard to compartmentalize my feelings. I grabbed my camera bags. The metallic clunk of the car door was loud, sharp, painful. I went inside.
The mortician greeted me and we shook hands, as always. Both girls were on their backs on tilted exam tables. Their skin had the distinctive pallor of death: Pale, bloodless, uniform, without variation, change or animation. No glow. From where I stood, there appeared to be no external damage.
I turned my back and put together the appropriate camera body, lens and flash. This was the days before digital photography had sufficiently developed to replace film. I began the slow, careful dance of evidence preservation, shooting every angle. I looked closely at their bodies, at their injuries, but I didn’t look at them. The girls I knew, the kids I cared about, just weren’t there anymore. If there is such a thing as a spirit, an animating, vital force that makes us who and what we are, it was absolutely, irrevocably gone. They were empty, voiceless, elsewhere, their eyes closed.
Apart from some mild tissue damage on her forearms and lower legs, Susan looked like Susan. The autopsy eventually revealed that she died from massive chest trauma that literally burst her heart. Her blood stopped circulating–she died–before it could form bruises. Kim had no apparent external damage, but I would not need an autopsy to tell me what caused her death. The top of her skull had been sheared off; her brain wasn’t there.
As I finished shooting, I consoled myself with the thought that they died so quickly that they felt little, if any, pain. I closed my camera bags and turned to look at them one last time. They looked so small, somehow less than life size, less than they were. The dead often look that way, particularly if you know them in life. Anne Sexton’s poem, “The Truth the Dead Know” came to mind:
. . . And what of the dead? They lie without shoes
in their stone boats. They are more like stone
than the sea would be if it stopped. They refuse
to be blessed, throat, eye and knucklebone.
Two days later I pulled into the parking lot of the high school, I parked in my usual, reserved spot. Something made me stop and stare at the front doors. Susan and Kim wouldn’t be inside. That’s when the tears came.
It was a long, long time before I allowed then to come again.