Thursday, December 17, 2009

Epiphany

This is another theological term like reincarnation, resurrecton, and immaculate conception hijacked by literature and modern culture. Epiphany was originally the divine manifestation of Christ to the gentiles, but has come to represent any new understanding or "aha" moment. Misuse of the term in some eras might have been a capital offense, but today it's just another word. Each of us has epiphanies large and small when in a single moment, things become clear and life changes for the better. One epiphany for me was both a personal and a professional and I can mark.

When I was 21 and medicaled out of my military obligation (my paperwork certifying me as "unfit for enlistment or induction" lives in a fire-proof safe), I got a full-time job as a campus policeman. I had been a part time student dispatcher for over a year and the unsolicited offer was a pleasant surprise. Besides, I made $582 a month!.

As I am wont to do, I really got into the new profession. I memorized the police phonetic alphabet (Adam, Boy, Charles, David...) and bought my own copy of state criminal laws. I volunteered for overtime just to be there in case there was some opportunity to get real law enforcement experience. I was a hot dog. The University of Washington in 1969 was a lively place and the magnet for Seattle's hippie culture. The anti-war protests produced demonstrations (unusual occurrences or UOs), nickel-dime vandalism and even terrorism in for form of firebombings and explosions.

Until 1968, the campus cops -- called the Safety Division lest some professor or alum be offended -- were a grandfatherly collection of about fifteen men one would expect to police parking and lock buildings on an urban college campus. The year before they made one arrest. Then came a sit-in in the president's office. At the time there was a Democrat in the mayor's office, a conservative Republican in the prosecutor's office, and his enemy, a liberal Republican in the governor's office. When the University sought police assistance with the protest the mayor said, "Gee, this sounds like a state problem."

So, the campus cops began to grow. The chief of police, who had been in office about fifteen years, went to the personnel office for candidates. The personnel officer handled all the physical plant openings such as truck driver and carpenter. The first list of names came from the applicants for janitor. The numbers grew from fifteen to thirty almost overnight. Officers who ranked low on the sergeant list got their promotions. The University kept showering the chief with positions and money. Within three years there were seventy-five. Alas, the chief and most of his supervisors did not seem to know what they were doing, assuming they wanted to be there at all. Several supervisors found other jobs.

The chief originally came from eastern Washington where he was captain of the guard at a prison and later a chief of police. He was an intensely shy man and very soft spoken given to sucking on his pipe. Even when angry he could barely manage a squeak. When I was still a student and working there evenings one of my ROTC instructors commented that his wife's uncle worked for my chief. The instructor declined to relate what he had heard about my chief lest I be disappointed. I never did find out the story.

One of the chief's bugaboos was about firearms. We were police officers of the state and carried guns. The original fifteen carried the time-tested model dating from the turn of the century. As the chief hired more officer he needed more guns. Instead of buying more of the standard revolver with a four-inch barrel he opted for one with a two-inch barrel, much less offensive to University community. This was maddening for us new hires since the shorter barreled guns made us seem like less-than-police officers. Not the least of the issues was the difficulty in being accurate with the snub-noses. The chief hated light bars on top of the police cars, but eventually relented. He hated sergeant's strips on the sleeves of the supervisors, but relented. Sirens were slow in coming (I think I was the first one to use one on campus). He made us carry the shotguns in the trunks of the cars instead of in racks in the front seat (today Seattle PD carries their shotguns and rifles in the trunks). There were other things that told us he didn't trust us. We could do anything except make someone angry.

As a young, hot dog police officer hyper-sensitive about being regarded as a security guard, the chief made me nuts. I helped organize a union for the officers and we tried to affiliate with the Teamsters. There was a lot of rancor towards the chief who was unskilled at convincing his people of the wisdom of his actions. Only because I did a very good job at parking tickets and filling out forms did I avoid serious trouble with the chief.

After a year on the job I got to attend the police academy run by the Seattle PD. Our class of fifty consisted of men from six different police departments, something of an experiment. The training was excellent, even better than I received from the U.S. Government. I wanted to be a Seattle cop, but couldn't get past the physical. If I couldn't do that, I would be the best campus cop I could. I could also still be pissed off at the chief and made no secret of it.

I learned that the officers from Kent and Bellevue and King County all had enormous respect for the campus cops who had to deal with bombings, angry students, and arrogant professors. The cops all commented how hard police work was in other jurisdictions. The Bellevue guys could not countenance working alone and far from help in unincorporated King County. The King County guys expressed horror at dealing with the affluent citizens of Bellevue. The deputies on a certain island were said to carry silver bullets. The grass was always browner on the other side of the fence.

Then one morning during the break I stood around listening to my classmates from other departments complain about their chiefs. In fact, they all complained about their chiefs, all of them. What? You mean I'm not the only one who is unhappy about his chief of police? All cops are unhappy with their chief of police? Epiphany: Being unhappy with the boss was perfectly normal and nothing to be concerned about. [see graphic]

At that point life became much easier. A great burden lifted from my shoulders. I returned from the academy and cheerfully embraced my duties leaving the bosses with the impression that the training experience had been transformative. Even if I was writing parking tickets I took care to ensure there were no errors while hanging as many citations as I could. I knew that my classmates granted me respect for the job I did despite my aluminum gun. I grew comfortable with the idea that this could be a decent career. They chose me to fill in for a sergeant for six weeks. When I took the sergeants test, they arranged a special interview panel for me so that I could leave town to get married.

Sadly the old chief died within six months, his heart giving out under the stress of doing his job during a tumultuous time. His name is inscribed on the state memorial with the other fallen peace officers.

One of the first things the new chief did was buy proper guns.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Luck


The loss of five police officers in a little more than a week here in the Puget Sound region made me remember how lucky I am to having completed almost thirty years of sworn service. It was close a couple of times. I observed over the years that my success relied upon two things, my own skill and luck. The more skill and preparation you bring to the table, the less that luck has to do with it.

So the loss of these five fine people was all about luck, bad luck. There was no defense for Seattle Officer Brenton as he sat in his car talking to his partner. Her own quick reaction to the attack and her skill saved her from a similar fate. One of the Lakewood officers fought with the assassin and the officer got a shot into him. There had to be considerable skill in that along with enough luck to have not been the first to die. but the bad luck won out.

I know about luck first hand. In 1974, I was pursuing a cocaine smuggler not far from the Canadian border. The car started fishtailing and I ended up hanging upside down from my seat and shoulder belts at the bottom of an embankment. In those days, the shoulder belt in the Plymouth Fury II was optional requiring a second step to hook it up. As I went out that night I thought it might be a good idea to take that second step. Skill on my part. In the car behind me as I entered that curve, did a 180, and rolled down the hill, was a constable of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (it was their crook). Mounties start their careers on the road and this was undoubted not his first serious traffic accident. He was first down the slope and he crawled in through the shattered window to unhook me. I dropped like a sack of potatoes to the crushed roof of the car and he pulled me out. Had I gone over with no one behind me it might be hours or days before someone missed me. Luck. I had six broken ribs, a collapsed lung, and a paracardial contusion.

There were other incidents, none as close as that, that I have apparently suppressed, a natural defense mechanism I suppose to what might have happened. It serves no purpose to recall them at this point in life. I don't propose throwing down on any miscreants anytime soon.

Civilans never hear about when skill and luck add up, when officers survive potentially fatal encounters. These incidents end up as a few lines in a report or even a charging document. An officer might speak of the situation to his peers or to a class of recruits, but there won't be a celebration of skill and luck. The matter will slide into police oral tradition which is a major teaching tool in the profession.

The FBI keeps the stats on officers killed feloniously and by accident, and those who are are assaulted. Each number is a story and probably a lesson of some kind. All involve skill losing out to bad luck. Arnold Palmer is said to have remarked, "Golf is all about luck. The more I practice, the luckier I get."

What is true about golf is true about police work, even life in general.

Christmas 2009


It’s been a year of premiers, the big events that mark chapters in life. Where to start? We all strolled the red carpet to meet Kellen Richard Wilma on August 29 (don’t ask what we wore). He is our first grandchild and he continues to enrich all our lives. He even has his own Facebook page. One forgets how, with an infant around, the conversation changes to erp rags, oneseys, and the contents of diapers. Lorraine and I have signed up to watch him one day a week when his mom goes back to work in January.

I had my first book come out in print this year, Historic Photos of Puget Sound a visual romp in grayscale through our maritime and environmental heritage. Sales are good and the publisher needs to print more. I’m still shopping my historical novel (manuscript under review at one publisher) and the publishers of my local histories continue to promise soon, soon. There was also the movie, but not of Photos. I scripted a documentary about the hydroelectric plant under Snoqualmie Falls. The film debuted on a hot day in July in historic North Bend, Washington (don’t ask what we wore). I had a bit part in another documentary as an historical talking head. I didn’t say “ah” once.


An island entered our lives too. We became part-time residents of Whidbey Island when we bought a home in Freeland right on the water. For Lorraine and me the house hunting trip was really just an excuse to spend the day with Matt and Tiffany as well as to humor my sister Patti. We all walked into this place and everything changed. The Wilma kids formed a LLC and closed the deal in five weeks. When it came time to pick a name for the corporation we chose the first thing said when we walked in: Oh S[ally] What a View! It’s now the OSWAV Family LLC. The house has five bedrooms and a huge kitchen, and it sits across the street from a public park. The best part is a double garage with a smooth floor and a high ceiling where I moved my wood shop. We are now part of our region’s ferry culture and are learning to adjust to island time. Our neighbors include as many as four bald eagles, herons, Mr. Seal, and voracious bunny rabbits. We pledged to eschew telephones, computers, and televisions, and to devote ourselves to a slower pace of life. That didn’t last long. We now have a hard-line phone, DSL, and a fifty-inch plasma with a Blu-Ray player.

Lorraine received the Headliner Award from the Association of Women in Communications. The award is handed out only every two years and recognizes an AWC member who has recent national accomplishments, as well as consistent communications excellence. She now has a handsome crystal trophy to go with her other acknowledgements.

Life is good here. Keep saving these Christmas letters.

And naturally there is Lorraine’s quote of the year. This one reflects her tentative embrace of social networking: “There’s drivel in my Twitter.”