Friday, July 28, 2017

Thank You For Your Service

File under: Learning How to Live

Due to the fact I live in the middle of nowhere, no internet service providers offer a reliable broadband service where I live. Therefore, you will often find me sitting in my car in a random parking lot, catching up on social media, whenever I travel into the city. Yesterday evening, I was sitting in the CVS Pharmacy parking lot, as I am wont to do. It was after dark, approaching closing time for most stores in the plaza. I was sitting some distance away from the store away from all the other cars. Having just finished an emotionally difficult telephone call, I began to draft an even more emotionally difficult text message. Peripherally, I notice a car pass in front of me turn and travel on around the lot. Being distracted, as I was, I did not notice this vehicle had circled back and pulled up on my rear.  Startled, I get a knock on the window and look up to find a county sheriff standing outside my door.

My immediate reaction was anger. All I could wonder is what yokel called the cops on me for sitting here, minding my business--not bothering anyone. I go on the defensive and a flood of legal knowledge and situational drills rush to the forefront of my brain. What seems to be the problem officer? Was there a complaint? Is there a reason you approached my vehicle? Do you have some reason to believe some sort of crime is occurring? Has the owner asked that I leave the premises?
Much to my consternation, the officer was not being confrontational, aggressive, authoritarian, demeaning or disrespectful in any way. This threw a wet blanket on my fiery libertarian zeal. It is much less vindicating to rage against the machine when the machine is not being a tool. I realized…this guy is just doing his job…we both just want to get through this and go home. I reminded myself that I do not have the right NOT to identify myself when operating a motor vehicle.  Being a jerk can only make things worse, so just shut up and go along with it.

With my hands on the steering wheel of the car, I informed the officer that I have no weapons in the cabin of the vehicle, but there is ammunition in the glove compartment and an unloaded firearm in the trunk. I ask if it is all right to turn the dome light on so that he can see into the vehicle. When he says it is ok, I do so…slowly. Now that he can see into the vehicle, I ask if it is ok that I retrieve my wallet from my left side front pocket. When he says it is ok, I do so…slowly.  While he is communicating with dispatch, I keep my hands on the steering wheel. He encourages me to “relax,” and states that it will not take long. My record is spotless, so I am not worried I will not be driving home soon. However, as I am sitting there, something I did not expect occurred: he struck up a conversation.

He remarks that I am very familiar with the regulations for carrying firearms and asks why I do not apply for a permit so that I can carry mine in the car with me. I remark that this situation would be much tenser if there was a firearm in here with me (the real reason is I am a notorious procrastinator). He quips, if I need it in an emergency I cannot ask the attacker to “hold on” while I retrieve it from the trunk and load it. We both laugh at that. We talk about our common interest, firearms, for a while: favorite carry options, EDC, favorite caliber, ranges to go to… Turns out we both favor the same round, for the same reason (although he is a Glock fanatic, sigh). He talked about the time while on vacation an officer stopped him after he fell asleep in his civilian vehicle in a hotel parking lot. We talked…lightly…about the subject of our tension: bad cops and bad interactions between them and the public. He professed that bad cops make his job harder and those like him want them gone. He admitted in a number of high profile cases that many of the shooters “got away with murder.” He states that is a pleasure to be able to talk with a member of the public about common interests and concerns, without animosity or distrust. I agreed and explained to him that my grandfather, a retired deputy sheriff, and father were both involved in law enforcement at one time, so I understood “both sides” of the issue.

He concluded the stop by shaking my hand and thanking me for the service of my father and grandfather. This heart-felt gesture touched me in a very profound way. For the first time in a long time, I felt a feeling of deep pride and connectedness to my father and grandfather. I let go of what was dogging me, and a sense of the peace and calm came over me. I finished writing the missive I was having difficulty writing and went home feeling unexpectedly inspired.

What I said about my father and grandfather was only mostly true and only in an esoteric sense. It was an olive branch—a peace offering—to build trust and extend empathy. The truth is I never knew my grandfather, as him and the family had estranged since before I was born. Further, I did not know much about his or my father’s experiences in law enforcement.  My father was not fond of talking talk about his former life, or overmuch about his father in more than a general way. Many of the stories from that time in his life seemed to take my father to a bad place; so, as I became wiser, I stopped asking about them.  I gathered that, ultimately, it was that life—law enforcement—that wedged into the cracks of my father and grandfather’s relationship.

I have only ever seen my grandfather in pictures. He was an imposing man with a genial smile, the spitting image of my father, save my grandfather’s rusty hair had not darkened with age the way my father’s hair had. I knew he did dote on his grandchildren. Much of what I knew about him when I was a child I learned from my eldest siblings and cousins; at one time, he was a constant fixture in their lives. I never heard my grandmother so much as speak his name in all the years she lived.
I did speak to him once, over the telephone. I was maybe eight or nine years old at the time. All these years later, I do not remember the sound of his voice, but I remember every word he spoke and how I felt, finally, to talk to my grandfather.  He introduced himself, “Grandpa Bane,” and asked me who I was. We spoke very briefly. He told me that he wanted to see me, gave me his number and told me to call him. Few times can I remember being as happy as I was that day. As I often did, I waited impatiently and excitedly for my father to get home from work; I liked to be the first person to greet him when he came through the door.  I wanted to tell him my grandfather wanted to see ME. Over the turbulent years, my father and I have had some tense, heated and emotional conversations. None, however, was as heart-rending and agonizing, for both of us, as when he had to tell me I would not be seeing my grandfather after all. I never did.  He passed away a short while later.

I thought about my grandfather for the first time in a long time on the drive home—whimsical things, not sad things.  Like, did he have a disarming demeanor and a strong handshake like the deputy? What would be his choice in firearm or caliber today? What would an old-timer like him think of mine? What would he have to say about the state of law enforcement today? Would he have wanted me to continue in my pursuit of a career in criminal justice? I thought about all the conversations we never had and, for the first time, thinking of them did not make me angry or bitter—it made me smile.

Now that I have forced upon you a boring story, a sad story and a sob story, what is your reward for all that? What is the lesson in all of this? One thing about law enforcement that my father did share with me was the importance of the beat cop. Officers in the community patrolling the streets, interacting with business owners and homeowners, being a visible deterrent to criminals are vital to strong, safe communities. A couple years ago in my hometown, my cousin—a bailiff himself—was waiting in the parent line to pick up his daughter from elementary school when a criminal shot him in the back during an attempted robbery. In the world we live, a criminal will shoot a father in front of his wife at his daughter’s elementary school over a cellular phone.  If not for the efforts of dedicated law enforcement officers—officers like the deputy, my father and my grandfather—I would not have felt comfortable sitting in my car, in that neighborhood without my firearm within reach. Police are not the enemy; evil people and the hatred in all of us is. Catharsis is hard to come by in the world in which we live, where not much ever makes sense and true closure is rare. I narrowly almost prevented myself from making peace with a demon that has plagued me all my life. Closed minds and closed hearts stubbornly clinging to principle and jaded perceptions prevent us as a society from embracing one another, healing our wounds and moving beyond the hurts of the past. If humankind is ever to reach its moment of catharsis, it has to click in each of us that we are all just people, people doing our jobs—if imperfectly—and we all want to get through this life to find our way home.