When I was a soldier back in the dark ages of the Vietnam War, there was a whole generation of American veterans from World War II and Korea. And they all wanted to talk to me, or so it seemed, whenever I was in uniform. At almost every bus station, airport and train depot I passed through during my time in the military, a veteran of the Second World War or Korea -- they were my father's age or older -- would walk up and began a conversation with, "I used to be in the Army," or whatever the branch in which he had served.
To me, WW II and Korea were ancient history, just like the Vietnam War is now history to the young soldiers of today. I had not the slightest interest in wars that took place before I was born or when I was a toddler, but I always listened. Once, I missed a bus leaving Baltimore because I couldn't away from an old soldier without being rude.
It was not simple courtesy that caused me to listen to stories of bygone eras, though I had been brought up to be courteous to my elders. To be truthful, at the time, I really didn't know why I stood and listened to the old veterans. But I always did. Years later, when I was a uniformed cop working the streets of Knox County, Tennessee, my meals would often be interrupted with the opening sentence, "I used to be a cop." I listened politely to stories that held absolutely no interest to me, just as I had listened to the war veterans who once approached me while I was in the military.
Sometimes my meal would go cold while I nodded and listened to old cops as they looked back on a career they loved. Even when my meals got cold, however, I listened politely until the old guys were finished, until their wives came to get them, or until the dispatcher called me.
In 1993, when I was told that my police career was over because my heart had gone bad on the job, I told myself that I would never be like those old guys who had interrupted my meals. For a long time, I stayed away from the department because there was too much emotional pain involved in seeing my friends at work. Knox County isn't a big place, maybe 400 thousand people, so it was inevitable that I would run into officers I knew from the sheriff''s and the city police departments. Also, my face had been appearing over my column in the local paper for years and a lot of officers were familiar with my books.
On fairly frequent occasions, I would be recognized in a restaurant or the grocery store by a young cop and he or she would stop to speak. I made a point of being polite but kept the promise I had made to myself that I wouldn't bore young cops with stories that meant nothing to them. I'd chat a while, wish them well, then go back to my meal or my shopping.
After a couple of years had passed, I began to occasionally drop in at a roll call or go by headquarters to chat with old friends. I didn't do it often, not even as often as I would have liked but I finally stopped avoiding my old haunts altogether. It's been almost eight years now since I left and I make fairly frequent visits to the department. A couple of weeks ago, I stopped to chat with two young detectives who recognized me. They mentioned my latest book and one thing led to another.
About three minutes into the conversation, I realized that I was rambling on about a case
that happened before either of the young officers had started high school. I knew that I was doing what I had promised myself I never would do, which was to dwell on the past. Both the young detectives were listening attentively but there was no doubt in my mind that I was keeping them from their work. I very quickly made my departure and smiled to myself as I left the building. After all those years, I finally understood why I used to stand and listen to the old soldiers and why I would sit while my food grew cold and listen to old cops -- and I knew why the young officers had listened to my story so attentively.
It's called respect.
David Hunter is a retired detective and the author of several books. His e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org