“May you live in interesting times”, it is both a blessing and a curse according to the Mandarin Chinese. The intended implication was that life is better when “uninteresting”. That seems apropos in this age of this latest virus, everyone now hoping for a return to some level of normalcy.
As a former police officer of a little over three decades, I have now reached a stage where one seems to be spend an inordinate amount of time in introspection. And as one navel gazes, there is a realization that in this quick changing world, you are more than likely to live through some “interesting times” regardless of what decades you examine. If one is fortunate to lead a sustained career, there actually may be more than a few moments where you will pine for the dull and the routine.
Each and every generation will have points of reference, points of time where the ordinary became the extraordinary. My run was during the late 1970’s into 2011. Of course, everyone marvels at the speed of the passage of time, a year easily blending and blurring into other years. Significant moments are easily recalled and many are common to all of us who went down this career path. Arriving at a new detachment, being in a high speed pursuit, or walking into a robbery in progress. In particular vicious and violent cases seem always to be in a special memory file. The very nature of “police“work means that “our” moments are intrinsically more dramatic and often outside the purview of the general public. Our thoughts and moments were often shielded behind “the blue wall”. The vagaries of the mind let us remember oddities such as file numbers, or peoples names, often because of the oddest of circumstances.
Then there are those moments that change us. They are often unpredictable. Those pieces of time where events collide, where up seems like down, where right can not be told from wrong. Where pre-held opinions and beliefs get questioned, striking and shaking you at your core. It is during these moments that one almost always seems find themselves questionning the basic tenets of life.
The generation that succeeded me, the ones now driving the streets and dusty rural roadways are in one of those moments today. The virus of 2020 will mark their personal journey through policing. In later years and beyond, they will be the greying veterans telling stories over bad coffee at a disinterested coffee shop. Sombre stories often interwoven with dark laughter.
For my generation, we remember mortgage interest rates in the teens, seeing our fellow officers turning over their keys to the family home to the uncaring faceless bank, unable to meet that payment on the three bedroom 1500 square foot bungalow. There were no tears outside the house, just a grim smile at the troubled economic times, after all you were not the only one. In 2008 the economic crisis would visit once again.
But there was a very dramatic moment which was to come to us on September 11, 2001. Our world caved, turned wrong way up, the enemy was everywhere.
As a child I had remembered when John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy were all assassinated in seemingly quick succession. Those deaths played heavily on those small, often black and white 20” screens, but we were children and we rapidly moved on. It was a story in a different country, near but far away to a child. We were moved but we didn’t know why really.
But September 11 happened while I was working as a police officer. It was a moment for my generation.
On that day, I was driving to work in the usual way, coffee in hand, driving Hwy 1 in those early hours, prepared for a full day which was to involve executing a warrant on a house in Surrey which the local press had come to call “The house of Horrors”. Arrangements had already been made for a command vehicle to be present, and ground radar was going to be brought into the backyard of the now empty, dilapidated crack house. Our investigation had led us to believe that this house had been the scene of multiple assaults and murders and it was rumoured that bodies were buried in the backyard. We were going to try and find them. It was a clear and sunny Tuesday morning. A dark task lay ahead in the brilliant sunshine.
A friend called while I was still enroute, their voice was quavering slightly, in a way that you know something is wrong. They told me to stop over before getting to work and began telling me I had to come see what was going on—a plane had hit the World Trade Centre in New York. A second one followed shortly thereafter as I sat on the friend’s couch transfixed. My world completely changed in a matter of minutes. Images of people covered in grey ash running from the centre of the carnage. The second plane confirmed the enormity of what we were witnessing. Two thousand and nine hundred and seventy-seven people would die that day, and over twenty-five thousand would be injured.
After watching for a few minutes though, the policing tasks for the day were still in front of me. I had to move on, work was calling, the warrant needed to be executed. So as I completed the drive to the site, my thoughts were frenetic, bouncing around from the job at hand to a world on the precipice. The a.m. Radio was acting as background, the announcers seemingly more alarmed as the weight of the “moment” began to be fully realized.
I continued to watch what was transpiring, on the small television from inside the motorhome “command centre” now parked in the driveway of the Whalley residence. It truly was “breaking news”. They were now diverting flights to Gander.
Of course, the work did go on, and as we came and went from the motorhome, hurried glances at the ever-playing drama of the news, replaying sequence after sequence of the horror of planes hitting the inanimate object which had become the symbol of New York. A call part way through our day informed me that the command centre had to be re-deployed to Vancouver airport for use with processing the grounded aircraft from around the world.
By three in the afternoon, I found myself alone, the job complete, as I sat on the curb finishing my notes. An eerie silence surrounded me. The people and usual activities of that rough and tumble neighbourhood in East Whalley, the normally busy drug chaotic humans, usually interspersed with screeching cars, horns, distant curses, homeless pushing grocery carts, all now seemingly frozen in time.
Our generation of police officers had been through HIV in the 1980’s, and we were still destined to go through SARS in 2003, and the H1N1 in 2010. But 9/11 was different in scope, it was intentional, and we needed our government leaders to remain calm and clear in their thinking. We trusted that they would make the right call.
The individual stories of our generation live on. Those times of being threatened by HIV blood filled needles now being used as weapons, of terror related files now being more than an abstract. If the Air India bombing in 1985 did not bring terrorism home, this event seemed to. An abandoned knapsack in an airport would take on new meaning for the rest of our lives.
Ours was a generation marked by heavy drinking, sky-rocketing divorce, rollicking office affairs and parties. It was acceptable, a rite of passage, part of being one of the group. Not always admirable to be sure, but there was a sense of camaraderie brought about by hardship and often personal stupidity. There was no such thing or more accurately did not recognize someone suffering from depression, suffering from PTSD; no police officer being charged with assault. There was no group of non- officers questioning and second guessing every decision which had been taken in a micro-second. There were no cellphones recording your every move, there was no Twitter or Facebook in those early chapters of our generation. No one really wanted our jobs at the time. Salaries were solidly lower middle class.
This current generation will have your stories too. You will be threatened by those claiming to have the virus in futile attempts to avoid going to jail or being handcuffed. Stories will abound of toilet paper filled houses. The clinically depressed calls for help and the domestic disputes will grow in numbers and swarm the dispatch centre. There will be anguish and concern over returning to your families after a day or a night of dealing with the 8% of society that are your “clients”. Ridiculous edicts will come down from your superiors about social distancing and being safe while doing your job—impossible to enforce or comply.
You will be somewhat alone in your tasks.
The parades will continue for the medical staff, gowned and masked as they enter their wards, as will the paramedics who wheel the stretchers. Some firefighters have even chosen to opt out of “medical“calls now. But you will march on.
You will not likely be protected in the same way or have the ability to refuse attending a call. You will live “herd” immunity. You will continue to deal with the dispossessed, the downtrodden, the ignorant and the violent. You will hopefully keep a clear head; hopefully you will not succumb to the depression of incessant threats and you will be continually surprised by the ignorance of many of the general public.
You will carry on, because there is no other way. You have no choice. Of course you will take precautions when you are able, but that will not always be the case. You will have some fellow officers who will find excuses not to be coming to work, some legitimate, some not so legitimate. You will have officer friends, in different jobs, who sit at home throughout this time, laptops at the ready, answering emails. Even they may not understand.
Your group remaining on the 12 hour shift, will likely be under staffed, often tired, not really seeing the point of writing up that break and enter report. You will be spraying and cleansing your hands until raw. But there will be comfort in being in your group, you will laugh and point to the often ridiculous, helping to relieve the numbing reality. You will try and not touch your face, but at 3 in the morning, when fatigue begins to settle, that may be overlooked.
Like all moments, it too will come to an eventual end. Sometime in the future, you will be looking back, proud of your singular efforts when the rest of the world seemed out of control and was not making much sense. Proud of being out there, when all the rest huddled inside.
You may not get a parade, but inhale deeply and take it all in, as this is your moment.
Photo courtesy of Raymond Wambsgan via Flickr Commons – Some Rights Reserved