I am 60 years old today. It didn’t seem so long ago that I believed 60 was impossibly, one-foot-in-the-grave-and-the-other-on-a-banana-peel old. I’m feeling reflective today.
- At every stage of life, I’ve looked back on who I was and what I believed earlier, and marveled at what I didn’t know then. I’m wondering if there ever comes a time in one’s life when you really do have it figured out.
- I have a lot of difficulty with holding onto the bad, rather than the good things. Sometimes I wish I had that machine in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” where entire chunks of memory could be deleted. What and who I am consists of both things, the bad and the good.
- My birthday is offset one day from The Worst Day of My Life, my patrol car accident in 1989. I can’t think of one thing without recalling the other.
- Among many regrets I have is that I didn’t show the proper respect that past teachers and mentors deserved. I didn’t thank people for what they had done for me, or at least I didn’t thank them well or sincerely enough. That they didn’t do it to receive appreciation or recognition makes we wish even more I had shown both. I recently discovered that one of my high school teachers was still alive, and wrote him a letter telling him how much I admired him. That was a gift. To me.
- Likewise, I wish I had been more polite to people, especially people to whom I had no obligation to be polite. At one time, I had the idea that being a wiseass made me look smart and superior. It was just the opposite.
- A friend’s daughter, a beautiful girl, just celebrated her high school graduation by having a large treble clef tattooed between her shoulder blades. Of the decisions I made at age 19, I’m glad most of them weren’t indelible like that. Maybe our culture has changed to be more appreciative and accepting of body art, but I’ve never understood the fascination. There just aren’t that many things that have held my attention through my lifetime so much that I wanted to advertise them for the rest of my days.
- You’re never too old to begin something you’re doing for yourself. I never learned to play a musical instrument. I may still try that.
- I’ve suffered and been disadvantaged when I’ve done things on principle, rather than for what was most advantageous to me at the time. I have absolutely no regrets about those moments, but lots of regrets of the times I compromised or abandoned those principles completely.
- I think everyone has a picture in their head of what they look like, and it’s seldom accurate. Mine is fixed at about 20 years and 80 lbs. ago, when I still had brown hair. I’m often shocked at the guy I find looking back at me from the bathroom mirror.
- There is a generational moment that occurs roughly every 20 years. It’s usually something bad. Everyone remembers where they were when they heard it happened. For my cohort, it was hearing that President Kennedy had been assassinated. For the next, it was when the Challenger blew up. Most recently, it was the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. I wonder what the next one will be?
- I’ve kept journals at different times in my life, but haven’t been faithful to the task. When I go back and read those, I’m amazed at the details I’ve forgotten, things that were highly significant at the time. Some entries were intended just to fix the date of something I was sure I’d never forget. They say something like, “The whatever-it-is happened today.” I was wrong. I have no idea what many of those entries refer to.
- The journals do provide remarkable insight into who I was then. The ones from the police days are especially telling. I’ve told several cops who were beginning their careers, “Keeping a daily journal is a wonderful idea. Telling someone you’re keeping a daily journal is a terrible idea.” Wait until you retire, and the statutes of limitations have expired.
- When I took the job with the police department in 1979, I thought, “This is the last job I’ll ever have.” I figured to die or retire there. Since then, I’ve been a college professor, a training coordinator, a full-time writer, a professional editor, and a medical assistant. How many more times will I change my answer to “What kind of work do you do?”
- While I’ve come to appreciate the wisdom of much of the guidance I received throughout life (much of which I ignored), one of the things I was told repeatedly was that I would regret my decision not to have children. Parenting may be the most important thing anyone does. If I wasn’t certain I could it right, I didn’t want to do it at all.
- I was also told I would regret divorcing myself from my blood relations when I came to the conclusion that those relationships were toxic. It wasn’t a decision I made causally, but it was liberating. I was told, “You’ll regret that when they’re gone.” They’re gone now, and the regret has yet to surface. Family is important, but no one is entitled to suck the life out of you because you share some DNA.
- Thanks to those of you who have been and remain my friends. I don’t know why or how you have put up with me for so long, but I’m glad you did. You are among my greatest gifts.
This article first appeared in the November 1988 issue of POLICE Magazine
You arrive at the station feeling a little less than real–no one is altogether alive at a time when everyone else is going to bed. Depending on the part of the country you’re in, it’s called midwatch, first watch, last out, night shift, nightwork, dog watch, graveyard, or simply, “the yard.”
You have enough seniority to get on one of the other shifts, but you stay here anyway. There is less traffic, fewer brass, and a greater share of hot calls that keep you interested.
You also get to go to court in (what is for you) the middle of the night, almost never get more than four consecutive hours of sleep, and live in a perpetual Twilight Zone that only experienced nocturnals can understand. You are pale from seeing the sun for only an hour or so before going home, droopy-eyed from fatigue, and malnourished from trying to subsist on a steady diet of coffee and breakfast food.
Opening your locker, you begin to assemble the array of clothing and tools of the trade that it contains:
- Polypropylene thermal underwear–tops and bottoms
- Wraparound Kevlar body armor
- .38 Special five-shot revolver and holster, sewn into the body armor under your left armpit
- Turtleneck shirt
- Wool uniform trousers and shirt with shoulder patches
- Weapons qualification badge
- Notebook, three pens, traffic template, Miranda warning, implied consent and field interview cards in your shirt pockets
- High-top work shoes with steel-toe inserts
- Black leather trouser belt
- Black leather Sam Browne belt with holster, key ring and keys, two handcuff cases and handcuffs (one standard size, one extra-large hinged Peerless), portable radio case, flashlight holder, baton ring, and two magazine pouches.
- Four belt keepers
- .45 ACP double-action pistol, with rubber grips and three magazines, each loaded with eight Silvertip hollow-point rounds, plus one more in the chamber of the gun
- Uniform cap and cap badge
- Straight wooden baton (the chief thinks that sidehandle batons look offensive)
- Halogen-bulb rechargeable flashlight with aluminum case
- Winter uniform parka with shoulder patches
Only astronauts and deep-sea divers take longer to get ready for work. By the time you finish dressing, you weigh 27 pounds more than when you started. The building is overheated to keep the day shift secretaries content, and you begin to sweat underneath all of the clothing and equipment. When you go outside into the Arctic air, the moisture chills you.
You remove the seven-point insignia of office from your wallet and thread its pin through the badge holder tab on your parka. You lock the pin into place and note the numerals on the bottom that change you from a private citizen to a soldier of the law. People never seem interested in your name, they only rasp “What’s your badge number?” when you do them some real or imagined wrong.
You get a cup of coffee from the vending machine and are thankful that you aren’t completely awake, because then you would be able to taste it. By the time you get to the bottom of the cup you wonder why you pay a quarter for the privilege of drinking something that would gag a hungry dog. Still, the coffee is warm, its caffeine stimulating, and you have grown accustomed to using it as a surrogate for sleep.
You walk into the briefing room and sit among other dressed as you are. Some are close friends, most are merely acquaintances, and there are a few that you dislike intensely. But, no matter how you feel about them personally, you would crawl a mile over broken glass, if necessary, to get to them if they needed help. Such is the Blue Creed.
The sergeant drones out the night’s assignments and items of special interest. You ignore the bulletin from the Podunk Police Department, half a continent away, describing their first vehicle theft in three years, and try to note the ones that are headed “officer safety information.” Briefing closes with a cheery note from the FBI about some poor bastard that got blown up last week while doing exactly what you will be doing for the next ten hours. You remember that those bulletins seem to come far too often. You pick up a portable radio and shotgun from the armory, gather up your notebooks and report forms, and go outside to check out a car.
The car is filthy, and the floor is cluttered with candy wrappers, soda bottles and coffee cups left from its previous occupant, who eats approximately every fifteen minutes. You wearily dredge out the debris, check between the seat cushions for knives, narcotics, and dead pygmies, and lock the loaded shotgun into the dashboard rack. You automatically drive toward the gas pumps because cops that don’t clean out their cars don’t fill them with gas, either.
Picking up the radio microphone, you log on and hear the only friendly voice that you are likely to encounter all night. End of watch, and sleep, are a hundred slow miles and too many reports away. You put the car in gear and drive off to seek the perils of the night. There are calls to answer.
My childhood friend Billy Banks posted the following video to his Facebook timeline:
I confess to being moved by the content of the video. Here is the response I posted:
Wow, Billy. It’s not often one can find such a compact package of misinformation, self-righteousness, hypocrisy and hatemongering, “Wild Bill” ought to go to work for Fox News.
“Wild Bill” reports the case of Church of the Holy Trinity v. the United States as if it were something new. The citation for that case is 143 U.S. 457 (1892). That last number is the year the decision was published. Yes, the Holy Trinity case is 120 years old, decided about the time our great-grandparents were getting out of diapers.
The law of the case had little to do with religion. The central issue was one of labor law. An English Anglican priest named E. Walpole Warren was hired by the Church of the Holy Trinity in New York City to be their pastor. The church paid for Warren’s passage and other costs of emigration to the United States. The federal government said this action was in violation of an 1885 act of Congress called the Alien Contract Labor Law, which forbade U.S. entities from hiring foreigners to come to work in the U.S. The legislative intent was to protect U.S. jobs and labor. The Church of the Holy Trinity argued that the law was not applicable to a religious society. The U.S. Supreme Court decision was in favor of the church, ruling that a minister was not considered to be a foreign laborer.
The flowery language about the United States being a Christian nation was included for political reasons, and has been condemned many times since as one of the earliest examples of judicial activism, a doctrine usually criticized by conservatives. Associate Justice David Brewer, who was one of those sitting on the court when the opinion was issued, later published a book called ”The United States: A Christian Nation.” The following passage was included in the book:
But in what sense can [the United States] be called a Christian nation? Not in the sense that Christianity is the established religion or the people are compelled in any manner to support it. On the contrary, the Constitution specifically provides that ‘congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’ Neither is it Christian in the sense that all its citizens are either in fact or in name Christians. On the contrary, all religions have free scope within its borders. Numbers of our people profess other religions, and many reject all. [...] Nor is it Christian in the sense that a profession of Christianity is a condition of holding office or otherwise engaging in public service, or essential to recognition either politically or socially. In fact, the government as a legal organization is independent of all religions.
“Wild Bill” goes on to compare atheists to criminals, claiming that atheists have no moral compass, and then extends the analogy to all Democrats, apparently ignoring the millions of registered Democrats who also claim to be people of faith. I am an atheist, and yet I believe I have a moral compass. I’ll even acknowledge that the forging of that compass had some roots in the fundamentalist church I attended as a child, although I think I got just as much out of the Boy Scouts and other life experiences. However it was created, my sense of morality is unique to me. It was not set down by an elder and hung about my neck to be carried to the grave. It’s certainly not going to be dictated to me by some wannabee cowboy on YouTube.
Bill’s rant then asserts that “the argument’s over, [atheists] lose today and when Judgment Day is over, you will lose permanently.” I never saw it as a competition. As an American, I have always understood I had the right to believe (or not believe) as I chose, and no one had the authority to tell me differently. Except “Wild Bill,” apparently.
I’ve never been a militant atheist. I can’t prove there is no God. There might be one, or several. As noted atheist Steven Roberts is fond of saying, “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you.” Anyone who chooses to believe in God is welcome to do so as far as I am concerned. My lack of belief should in no way affect how you see the world, or how you conduct your life. If I am a guest in your house or attending one of your family ceremonies, I will bow my head as you pray, even though I am just waiting for you to finish. It’s the courteous and respectful thing to do, and the way people should make some small effort to accommodate the beliefs and customs of others.
I don’t have any real fear that someone like “Wild Bill” will take over the country, but people like him encourage others to ignore the rights of anyone who doesn’t believe as they do. In “Wild Bill’s” world, a failure to subscribe to whatever religious doctrine he holds amount to being a criminal, someone to be purged from society and reviled. I’m guessing that applies not only to atheists, but also to homosexuals, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and anyone else he doesn’t happen to like. What does bother me is his apparent intent to incorporate what he believes to be Christian principles and values into our law and government. There are governments that incorporate religion into their laws. You can experience them in Saudi Arabia and Iran, and see the effects of religious militancy in any country where the Taliban has significant influence. I don’t care to live in those countries, and I will oppose any efforts to make this one into something like them. Oppression by religion is pretty much the same when you’re one of the oppressed, no matter what the religion might be called or who or what it worships.