Book Excerpt: TRUE BLUE: “Happy Thanksgiving”
Ed. Note: The following selection is from the book TRUE BLUE: To Protect and Serve by Lt. Randy Sutton, Copyright 2008 and is reprinted by permission of the author and St. Martin's Press. Purchase your copy of Randy Sutton's book by clicking here.
By Randy Sutton, Lieutenant, Las Vegas Metropolitan PD, twenty-two years; Princeton Borough PD, New Jersey, ten years
The screeching of the alarm clock pierced my brain like an ice pick. Nine p.m. A graveyard cop’s morning wake-up. I had to get my ass in gear if I was going to make it to a ten p.m. briefing. I hurried through the rituals of shaving and a hot shower, threw on some jeans, stuck my pistol into the leather holster at my waist, and grabbed my jacket as I jogged down the stairs. I heard my mother rustling around in her room getting ready for bed and stopped at her doorway to say good night. “I’m headed off to work, Mom,” I said as I popped my head into her room. She was turning down the bedcovers and dropped them as I spoke. She shook her head and got a look on her face that might as well have been in screaming neon, “Why can’t you work normal hours!” but she said softly, “I left a plate for you since you missed the meal.”
It was then that her words mixed with the aroma of roast turkey that lingered in the kitchen, reminding me that I had missed yet another holiday dinner. For an instant I tried to remember the last holiday meal I had actually sat down to, but gave up as I walked into the kitchen and grabbed a drumstick sticking out from under a foil-covered plate. My mother was standing in her doorway watching, and I turned toward her, brought the turkey leg up to my forehead in mock salute, and mumbled yet another apology. She got that funny smile and said, “Be careful tonight, Randy.” I hesitated for a moment. She didn’t usually say that, and I wondered briefly if she sensed something. But, in truth, I really didn’t want to know. I glanced at her one more time as I opened the door to the biting November wind. She was staring at me sadly as I stepped into the wind’s blast to begin another shift.
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2300 Hours: On Duty. The officer didn’t realize that the searing pain he felt in his thigh was caused by a knife that had just been plunged into him. He thought that perhaps he had pulled a muscle as he rolled around on the frozen dirt fighting off the man who had, moments ago, been just someone he had approached to ask if he had heard gunshots in the area. The officer was responding to a call that had come in to 911, a routine call for a graveyard patrol cop humping a “black and white” in the Vegas barrio. The young cop had no way of knowing that the man standing in the littered yard had minutes before filled his lungs with PCP-laden marijuana and that the sight of the officer’s uniform would ignite his addled rage. Backup arrived as he managed to thrust his attacker away for a moment and the backup cop’s TASER prongs, carrying 50,000 volts of stunning electricity, short-circuited the doped-up gang punk long enough to get him cuffed.
I knelt down by the ashen-faced young man as he sat shivering on the crumbling cement curb, his disbelieving eyes staring at the slash in his thigh that was oozing rivulets of rose-colored blood, his blood. I wrapped a blanket around the trembling cop’s shoulders while the paramedic cut open the pants to expose the wound and slapped a bandage against it. As the cop gathered the blanket tighter around himself, his eyes took in the gleaming bars on my collar and I saw his sudden recognition that the watch commander was squatting next to him. He had probably never even spoken to a lieutenant before now.
“A few stitches, a few beers, and you’ll be good as new,” I told him, trying to make myself smile.
“I never even saw the knife,” he mumbled, as much to himself as to me. His eyes blinked back tears and he turned his head.
I glanced up as his sergeant strode up to us. We’d known each other for years, more as colleagues than friends, but he wore his stripes well. His face showed concern for his young trooper. He squatted down by the young man. “You did just fine,” he told him. “This asshole was born with a blade in his hand and, hell, now you’ve got a damn good war story to tell the girls at the pool when they ask about your scar.” He grinned at the young cop, who did his best to smile back through the pain that was ratcheting up as the shock wore off.
The medical crew helped him up and eased him onto the bright yellow stretcher. They wheeled him over to the waiting ambulance, and as they lifted him into the rig, I couldn’t help but wonder if he would survive. Not physically, his injury wasn’t life threatening, but emotionally. Coming to terms with your own mortality and second-guessing your combat responses is part of the seasoning of a cop. But if he stopped believing in his own abilities, the cost could be staggering, ranging from withering courage to turning in his badge. During the last thirty years I had watched many a badge get pushed across the desk, and I felt another surge of sadness well up within me. Their frequency was disturbing and had me questioning my own continuing tenure in a job that served up tragedy like a diner’s soup du jour. The ability to retire was rocketing toward me. In a few short months the brass ring would be within reach and decisions would need to be made, because I knew I would not remain if I could not believe in my effectiveness as a cop and a leader.
“Coffee, Lieutenant?” The sergeant’s words brought my eyes around and I saw him extending a dimpled Styrofoam cup with steam rising into the winter air, whipping away with the icy winds. He’d been a cop for many years and a sergeant for a few, choosing to spend a lot of his time working criminal investigations. He’d been around, and the lines carved into his craggy face were exaggerated in the dim glow of the few streetlights that survived the nightly drug-fueled gangster target practice. I gratefully accepted the carry-out cup and felt the warmth seep into my hand. We each took a sip and mumbled our approval and watched in silence as the ambulance drove away.
“The kid’s freaking lucky,” he told me. “Another inch or so and the knife could have hit the femoral artery and we would be going to another freaking funeral.”
I heard the anger edge into his voice and knew we both had the images of the all-too-recent burial of Sergeant Henry Prendes flashing around inside our memories. “I don’t know if I can stand another one,” I murmured, and realized he was staring at me.
He quickly glanced away. “Does it seem to you like this shit is getting worse every day?” he said. “When we were young cops we had our share of fights, I know, but the assholes aren’t afraid of us anymore. Pulling a knife on a cop used to mean an instant death sentence. Now, I bet you the DA pleads this down to a goddamn misdemeanor.” He spat the words as he looked at me and fired out, “Why do we do this shit anymore, Randy? Why do any of us do it?”
There was a silence broken only by the angry desert winds. I wished I had the answer, but in truth, I had the same questions. “I don’t know, Gary,” I said impotently. “I really don’t.” I raised my cup to him in silent goodbye. He raised his and said, “Happy freaking Thanksgiving,” sarcasm dripping from the phrase. I walked slowly back to my patrol car to call the sheriff and let him know another one of our guys was on his way to the trauma center.
The long night’s parade of mayhem continued into the early morning hours. A domestic violence call where a thirteen-year-old had beaten his mother with a tire iron. An armed robbery of a convenience store that left the sixty-three-year-old clerk with multiple gunshot wounds. The two punks were heard laughing as they ran away with the $60 that was in the cash register. And the sexual assault of an eleven-year-old girl by the mother’s live-in boyfriend. By 3:00AM I felt the fatigue creep its way not just into my body, but into my heart as well. The sergeant’s words echoed around in my brain.
“Yeah,” I said out loud. “Happy freaking Thanksgiving.” I had completely forgotten it was Thanksgiving night, but the holiday spirit, had it ever been present, wafted away the instant I had put my uniform on.
I aimed the patrol car toward my area command headquarters. It was time to take care of the mountain of paperwork that went along with the lieutenant bars. I figured that I had seen my daily recommended dose of misery, and the paperwork I usually dreaded seemed somehow appealing. I had just punched in the code to the electronic security gate guarding the parking lot when the emergency tone alert blasted out of the radio. “All units, 911 emergency reports a medical emergency. Ann Road and Rampart Boulevard. A woman reportedly having a baby on the side of the road. Any unit in the area that can respond. Medical units are en route.”
The gate opened, but I slammed the car into reverse, reached down to activate my overhead lights and siren, and punched the gas. I was only a couple of miles from this call and had quite a bit of medical training and experience. “What the hell,” I thought. Paramedics will probably already be there, but this was unusual enough to have piqued my interest. The paperwork would still be there waiting for me. A couple of patrol units covering that sector radioed that they were on the way. I yanked my mike out of its bracket and told dispatch that I was also en route. I felt the almost comforting drip of adrenaline begin its flow as I rocketed my police interceptor into the frozen night.
The dispatcher, whose voice usually never deviated from a professional monotone, seemed animated as she radioed that the woman was parked on the side of the road; her water had broken, and the contractions were increasing. I pushed the black and white even harder and felt a sudden need to be a part of this, even if it meant just playing witness to the paramedics taking care of business. My searchlight captured the woman’s SUV parked on the side of the road, a rumpled and frantic young man and an older woman danced in the harsh light, waving their arms and motioning me to hurry.
Two other units, their red and blue lights cutting through the darkness, were arriving from the other direction. I radioed, “Unit 360 arrived,” and threw the mike down as I jumped out of the car. The rear passenger door of the SUV was open, and I could hear the agonized screams as I jogged up to it.
The young man was screaming, “It’s okay now, Baby! They’re here!” The relief he evidently felt was quite the opposite of what ran through my mind as I got to the open door and saw the sweating woman writhing in pain, screaming, “Oh God, Oh God, Oh God!” One of the young patrolmen ran up a t the same time, and he turned a bloodless face toward me. “This baby ain’t waitin’, Lieutenant.”
Sure enough, the crown was already visible.
“You ever done this before?” I asked him.
“Well, I was in the room when mine was born,” he said sheepishly.
Another scream ripped out of the woman, spurring us into action. “Glove up,” I told the young cop. “You’re catching.” He turned a bit pale, as he slipped on surgical gloves that are part of every cop’s uniform nowadays. I grabbed on to the woman’s hands and looked into her face. Despite the freezing winds, her long brown hair was dripping with sweat, and strands of it draped themselves around her forehead and cheeks. She was a plump and pretty girl, maybe twenty-five years old, with pale blue eyes that searched mine frantically for some sign of . . . what? Experience in childbirth? Confidence? I had neither. But she would never know that. And the words of an old academy instructor came ringing back, “Whatever you do, do it with authority and nobody will ever know you’re full of shit.”
I took hold of both of her hands and looked into her eyes. “It’s okay now. We’re going to get you through this. What’s your name?” I asked.
She grimaced and through clenched teeth whispered, “Darcy. It’s Darcy. Oh my God, it hurts!”
“I know it does, Darcy, but the baby is almost here. You’re doing just fine. We’re going to get through this together, okay?”
She nodded her head, the fear and pain evident on her face.
“Please,” she whispered. “Please make my baby be okay.” Her eyes locked onto mine and in that moment, streaks of emotions welled up in silent conflict. I was afraid that something would go bad, that I would let this woman and her unborn child down. Yet I felt an amazing sense of excitement. The pumping adrenaline that I thought had become rare after thirty years peaked and spread through me, isolating me in the moment and locking me into a bond with this woman, this stranger.
“Here it comes, Lieu tenant I’ve got the head!” the young cop yelled.
“Just guide it out and support the head and neck,” I told him. And then to Darcy, “Another push, Darcy, just another push.” Her face was flame red and drenched as she gave one final bellow.
“I’ve got it, Lieutenant I’ve got it!” my cop excitedly announced. “It’s a boy!” I heard a whoop of glee from the father and looked down into Darcy’s sweat-soaked face. “You’ve got yourself a son, Darcy,” I told her softly. Her tears began to flow in earnest, this time from relief and joy. She squeezed my hands and whispered, “Thank you.”
“Where the hell are those paramedics,” I wondered. Donnie, my young cop, was holding the wailing infant, who was slick with blood and fluid and attached to the twisted umbilical cord. He looked up at me with a quizzical expression on his face. “Should we do something with the cord, Lieutenant?” I didn’t want to push our luck and knew that the pros would soon arrive.
“No, let’s wait for the paramedics, but we need a blanket for the baby. It’s freezing out here.” The other cop, who was on the scene, ran to the patrol cars, but came back in moments empty-handed.
“They’re covered in grease and dirt, Lieutenant. We can’t use them.”
I looked into the SUV and asked the frantic father if they had a blanket or a jacket, but he told me that they had just run out to the car when the baby was coming. I looked at the baby, who was making little squeaking cries as his miniature arms and legs pumped in the frigid air. I knew what had to be done and quickly stripped off my uniform shirt and carefully wrapped it around the infant. The bundle squirmed beneath the rough fabric. Seeing his little face surrounded by the badge and insignia of a Metro cop caused me to smile broadly as I placed him in his mother’s arms. She clutched him to her, and her husband stroked her hair and murmured how beautiful she and the baby were. We heard the siren of the approaching ambulance in the distance, but for a moment this image was frozen in time, and I knew I would carry it with me forever.
The other two cops stood shoulder to shoulder with me, gazing down at the mother and father and a baby swaddled in Metro green.
“That is the coolest thing I ever saw,” Donnie said softly. The other cop nodded his head silently in agreement. The ambulance crew poured out of the rig and the paramedics came running up. “All done, fellows,” Donnie told them, and we all stepped back to give them room.
Among them was a crusty veteran fireman I had seen at many incidents of violence and accidents. He smiled wryly as he looked at me standing there in nothing but uniform pants and gun belt. “Is that the new Metro uniform?” he asked innocently. He and the two cops started chuckling, which grew into laughter as I joined them.
One of the paramedics handed me a blanket and I wrapped it around myself just as I had done for the injured cop a lifetime ago on the dirty barrio street. The incredible contrast of those moments washed over me. As Darcy and her family welcomed a new life into the world, the bitter question that the sergeant asked earlier came flooding back. “Why do we do this, Randy? Why do any of us do it?” As I studied the faced of my two young cops with their broad smiles etched on their faces, I knew the answer.
“Happy Thanksgiving,” I said to myself, and headed back to my patrol car.
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