A Reality Day
I stand in front of my closet looking in. Uniforms hang in a line like soldiers on a firing squad. Polo style shirts to the left, short sleeves in the middle, and the long sleeves, rarely worn, to the rear. I move to the right and thumb through the long sleeves looking for the one in the best shape. I wish now I would have held one back just for these special occasions. I find my best pair of pants hanging toward the front. The tie hangs on the tie rack directly behind them and the shoes are still in the box yet to be worn. The light cover of dust on them will be removed with one pull on the trigger of Windex. Chlorofram shoes is a cop's best friend.
I move to the iron board and stretch the shirt tightly across the width. The steam removes the wrinkles that time and a hangar caused. I pay meticulous attention to the sleeves making the creases as sharp as possible. Its a special day for a brother officer and I want to look my best.
The shirt neatly pressed, I turn the top of the hanger so it will catch the top of my closet door allowing it to hang in front of me. I've polished and shined all the gold buttons and trinkets that will adorn the shirt. In accordance with department policy, the name tag sits flush across the top of the right pocket. I push the stems in and out twice before I get it completely straight and flush. The department brass angles on the collar and the whistle chain runs from the right shoulder down and into the right shirt pocket. Each of the points of the gold star touch the circle it sets in. I hold it in my hand and ponder just a moment. Every day I go to work, I pin that star to my chest and don't really think about it anymore. I just do it. It's part of the daily ritual; just part of getting ready to go. I reflect on it for a minute, on its meaning, why I wear it. The representation that it carries for me and for the community I, and all officers, serve. The badge feels heavy in my hands. Today, it is.
I hold it up in my left hand as my right hand slides the elastic black band across the center. The band is the universal symbol of mourning for those who wear the badge. It seems we wear it to much and to often now.
One last look in the mirror. The gig-line is straight, the creases are crisp and distinct, the metal on my chest shines as much as the shoes on my feet. For a second, I can see the fallen officer standing behind me, nodding, approving. He would have done no less.
I walk out to my car. The night before spent washing and polishing every surface knowing it is part of the image. It sets, like a proud steed waiting to carry its rider into battle or wherever asked. I put it in gear and pull onto the road. Within seconds, my mind wonders. Why? Every officer knows that its a possiblity he won't come home one night. We all know its part of the job, yet we do it. Why? For years we reflect on that question. There are a lot of bravado answers young officers give, "For my community; To Protect and Serve, To help others" and to them initially its what they believe, but its not the truth. The truth is simple human nature ... "it won't happen to me." That's what we believe and its what we tell ourselves at the beginning of every shift. Its always going to be the other guy, not me. I mean think about it, reality is that every time any one of us gets behind the wheel of a car, an accident could happen and we could be killed. Thousands of people die every year in car crashes yet we drive every where several times a day without a thought about it. Why? Because its not going to happen to us! I mean, if we knew on a given day we were going to get into a car and be killed, we wouldn't get in, agree? That mindset is the same for officers. In training, they start from day one telling us that it could happen, that its part of the job. And we all sit there and think, "Wow, gonna hate it for the person that happens to ... glad it won't be me."
Officer's from all over the country will show to pay their respects when a brother officer falls. The fact that the officer was not known personally is not important. It's the understanding of what that officer stood for, what that officer was defending, and surrendered his life for. We believe we are there to represent that officer. The reality is we are there to honor that fallen officer, the truth is ... that fallen officer is representing us.
The church won't hold the amount of people who have come to pay homage to this hero today. The city lends its largest buidling hoping it will suffice. I turn the corner on the street and see the traffic detail officers giving directions, restricting cars from gaining access to certain areas, yet allowing others forward. I am in a marked unit and am waved into the line. A rainbow of colors as far as the eye can see of patrol cars. Officers are in every uniform associated with the job. This officer was a street cop who wore a deputies uniform; a SWAT team member who wore BDU's; and a narcotics officer who wore regular street clothes. I see all those uniforms worn by officers, each knowing they are representing a different place in that fallen officer's career.
At the door, I signed the guest book and walked into the auditorium. Soft music greets me and echoes throughout. Directly in front was the casket, which was open. I knew this officer, but not well. He worked an undercover buy for us during an investigation we did. He posed as a UPS driver delivering a box of narcotics. Nice guy. He had light green eyes that you rarely see in people but they immediately grab your attention. The kinds of eyes that you never forget.
We are all in our seats now. I look around and can see every seat is full and many stand around the perimeter of the room. From outside somewhere, the distinct sound of bagpipes start. As the people begin to recognize it, a quiet comes into and over the room and we listen. At the casket, the Honor Guard that stands at the corners are still. Their white gloved hands hold the rifle in front of them, the butt of the weapon on the ground. As we watch, the blue campaign hats lower as their eyes slowly find the floor until finally all we see is the top of the hat encircled with snow white braid. The bagpipes have grown until you can feel the notes bouncing off the bare wall striking you, practically peircing you with the sound. Nearly all heads are bowed now. A man in full kilt and Scottish attire enters through the door and into the room. Slowly he paces forward.
Without being told, the mass stands in respect and faces the aisle as the family makes that sad slow walk. A wife, having lost her friend, her mate, her world as she knows it, gathers in her young like a possessive lioness and protects them as they continue to move forward. My mind races and tries to take me to another place, but it can't. It comes to me as I stand there, and the reality sets in. Officers in the room can talk about dedication to duty. We can talk about our experiences and things we've seen. We can whine about weekends and holidays missed, but this woman taking this walk understands sacrifice. Her husband gave it all. He's gone. But that woman with her arms around those kids ... she's not. that woman who loved someone with all she had, she has to continue to move through life. She has to get up tomorrow morning and she has to function. She'll have support from family and friends ... for a while. But life moves on and so will they and there she is left to do it alone. That is sacrifice because wives know its going to be that way. They know in the end its them, and them alone, that carries on. I bow my head and for just a moment I thank God for what I have and for the woman who waits at home for me. When I look up, the family is seated, her arms still around her children as they look around and take it in. They probably didn't realize until this moment, looking around at the thousands of people there, what a great man her husband, their father, was.
Through the ceremony, words were spoken though I doubt many people would know what was said. The sounds of grieving will be remembered most. As it came to an end, the Honor Guard moved forward with true military precision. In silence, the American Flag was raised from the draped position it had been in. It was so quiet now that you could hear the snap of the flag as it was tri-folded, first to the left, then back to the right. With four stars in the upright position, it was brought close to the chest and cradled by the leader. As the rest of the members drew rank onto the Stars and Stripes, it was marched forward. We again stood as the casket passed by followed by the family and the parade of colors.
I found my car in line. Starting the engine, I waited as the procession was formed. The cemetary was just a few miles away and I wondered if the head of the line would arrive before the tail could get started. I detail officer waved me forward. Not even a few hundred yards up the road, I saw a construction crew. They had stopped their work and were standing above the sidewalk on a knoll. Their hard hats tucked under their arms, some with heads down, others staring apologetically as we passed. As I followed the parade of cars in front of me, I swelled with pride. It seemed that every business, every person who could, had left their place of employment or their house, and now stood solemnly along the route in tribute, no ... in appreciation for what this man stood for; for what he had taken that bullet for; for the understanding that he had given his life on that fateful night for them to have just a little safer community to live in.
The lump entered my throat as the miles began to pass. The tears that fell were lost unashamedly. We all have our beliefs about the afterlife, but if it is was possible that that officer could look down and see ... I know he would have been in awe. My third reality came to me as I watched the community continue to come out in support of our fallen hero. Every officer knows that if he falls in the line of duty, other officers will be there for him. It goes without saying because we get it, we've been there and understand it. So often the part of the community we deal with is so anti law enforcment, that we forget its not always "us against them"To have a community show that kind of love and support, THAT is what makes the job worth doing. Knowing that in their hearts, they know and it made me proud to know I was part of that.
The hearse sat on the gravel road off on its own and waited. After everyone arrived, the uniformed officers formed two lines starting from the hearse and ending at the gravesite. Somewhere off behind us the bagpipes again sang thier lonesome song. There were no walls to reverberate off of and the notes travleled past us never to return, it seemed fitting.
The casket was carried through the line past the the hand salutes to the final resting spot. The family followed slowly, shock still registering as the realization of the next fifteen minutes was looming in their minds. Some of the family members looked at us as they passed and gave a slight nod of appreciation. I nodded in return ... it was them that were appreciated.
The pastor spoke, though I couldn't tell you what he said. There were no microphones this time. His words were meant for the family and it was the family that needed to hear them. The Honor Guard again performed flawlessly and as they carried the flag this time, it was passed to the Sheriff. He in turn made that slow about face and approached the widow, leaned down and spoke the words every spouse is proud to hear, yet hopes to never hear them, "This flag is a symbol of the service your husband performed valiantly. Please except it on behalf of a grateful community and a country, for his loss was not in vain."
I stand erect, hands stiffly at my side, eyes straight foward as my militay background taught me. I know what's coming next, yet when it comes, I still flinch. The first volley of rounds seems to catch everyone by surpirse. There are sharp gasps from people who had never before heard the twenty-one gun salute. Sobs escape from family and friends as the second, then third, volleys fire off. Once the final rounds have echoed and died, there is an unnatural stillness in the air. From the top of a hill, just over our shoulder, a lone figure appears. The trumpet raised to his lips and the saddest sound any warrior ever hears begins to play. Taps is a short song, yet once heard, you never forget it.
As with all fallen heros, he is graced with one final salute. Officers begin the line and it stretches back it seems forever. Then one by one, a step forward is taken, the right hand is raised in a crisp salute then lowered slowly until it reaches the seam of the pants. Its over, there is nothing that can be done except to leave so the family can have their last moments to say good-bye. As I walk up the hill, I think .... there is no difference in this officer and me, or any other officer who serves their community, except it was his time. It brings us all back to reality though. On our shifts now we will bring that caution into our mind because we know it could have been any one of us. But tonight, I'm glad it wasn't me.
This story was written after one of our drug officers was shot in the face and killed serving a narcotics search warrant. Its dedicated to all those who have given the ultimate sacrifice for their communities and their loved one who are still sacrificing. Stay safe and God bless.