There is that other place, that other realm, that inside curve on the edge of a hidden thought in a different something where the conscious mind travels to and from, migrating there and back as moments allow, as lucid instances of concentration escape their purposeful attachment to what is at hand and demanding a sorted and sort of focus and attention. Imagination and day dreams intersperse the required attentions and monotonous happenings between the wonderings of either and when, running clock and otherwise in free-falling moments of risk and fantasy and desire and what-ifs and then. The phone rings or a person is suddenly there, materializing out of their own thoughts, instantly demanding something of a mind and consciousness that is traveling on another plane, living and wandering in a place that is unattached to the present, existing in a future that is unknown and daunting and hopeful and defined in a dreamscape of glowing mountains and rippling streams and greens that exist in the artist-philosopher’s imagination as possibilities in another world, or a perfect one, or in another dimension in his thought or mine. To exist in that other place and time, to live within or among those other boundless boundaries that define what isn’t yet, but longed-for…this is what fulfills and informs the moment…this is the spirit or soul that treads the paths of the wandering mind…maybe….
I wonder what kind of day it would have been if it didn’t start with reading about a five year-old who died in her sleep…if I didn’t have to wonder if it was just a biological failing of her body, given that she was on a feeding-tube and had serious medical issues to begin with…or if maybe the caretaker, parent, mom, or whomever, had used a pillow during the child’s sleep to make sure she didn’t wake again. The fire department transported her, with a police car following…and then the officer stood-by to relay the status update to his sergeant…so we would know if they needed to roll homicide detectives…just in case. I wonder what kind of day it would have been if the next notification I received wasn’t that some adult child found their parent dead in their bedroom with their body wedged between the bed and the night-stand…or if another message that I received hadn’t told me about the dead body that the city’s building inspector found when he was making a visit to one of the apartment complexes in town…or that one of the fire department’s truck-crews was on its way to the grocery store to buy their shift’s food for the day and found a dead body laying somewhere…just laying there, out in the freaking middle of the day on a sidewalk or in the greenbelt between the lanes of traffic…or if the dispatcher hadn’t needed to tell me that an officer was assaulted by some guy he had pulled-over for blowing through a school zone….
I wonder what kind of day it would have been if another dispatcher hadn’t told me that there was a “real” unknown-trouble hot call being worked on the central tactical frequency…the caller, of which, had reported that he found a Navigator in the parking lot that had blood all over the driver-side door and steering wheel and seat. Oh yeah, and about an hour ago he had seen a 50-some year-old white guy walking behind the buildings carrying a bloody bed comforter. What kind of day would it have been if we didn’t end-up finding that 50-some year-old white guy with seven bullet holes in his chest…and then sent officers to the Navigator’s registered-owner’s house in another city to talk with the man’s wife…to check on her and then ask about her shot husband…. “He left for work a couple hours ago…maybe a little later than usual…yeah, he works around such-and-such an area.” The officers thanked her for her time and then made some phone calls back to our dispatcher and patrol supervisors. A little while later, the officers went back to the man’s house and asked his wife if they could come in and take a look around. “Sure…come on in.” They found blood and…. What kind of day would it have been, if when the medical center called the woman to come down to identify her husband’s body…it hadn’t taken her two hours to get down there…to learn that her husband had been shot seven times and taken two bullets directly in the heart…and then managed to drive from his home in that other city to his work-place in the middle of our city…what kind of day would it have been?
When a different neighboring city’s dispatchers called us and asked that we check a certain vehicle leaving their city and coming into our city with four or five people inside who didn’t want to be inside, but were being driven against their will out and around and wherever…and we broadcast the information and an officer thought he was behind the vehicle and many more officers arrived to watch and follow and help when and how they could…and somehow that vehicle turned in front of or behind and into an alley or neighborhood and parked in some dark invisible place and we lost them and didn’t know where they could be…but those four or five people had dark skin and said they had been kidnapped…what kind of day would it have been if that hadn’t happened?
Later that afternoon, what kind of day would it have been if we hadn’t come across a drop-house, a den or lair of human coyotes who steal and smuggle and rape and kill and extort and abuse people who trusted them to bring them to a better life across a river and imaginary boundary that exists on maps and in minds…and officers set an inner and outer perimeter to catch all of the fleeing coyotes when they ran…and we caught four bad-guys and rescued four good guys and gals and called ICE to come and get “their” people….
And what kind of day would it have been if a caller hadn’t found that little two year-old wandering the street in his diaper and striped tennis-shoes…hadn’t called us and said “Please come get this baby…yes, I’ll stay here until you get here, I couldn’t just drive by and not stop”…like so many people do sometimes.
What kind of day would it have been if the young man hadn’t called to tell us that his friend was going to kill himself…had a gun and was going to do it…and was going to leave the apartment door unlocked for us…what kind of day would it have been if he hadn’t refused to come out of the apartment when we got there…if he would have just come out on his own…but no, we had to call it a barricade and call-out the dogs and the SWAT guys and restrict the channel so the dispatcher didn’t have to work any other traffic…just listen to me…to us, as we work this mess…all for a guy who wanted to die, but was too chicken or too undecided to do it after telling everyone that he was going to…and we set-up our police camp and command-post outside his door and around the corner and pretended that there was a real boogey-man inside who was a threat to himself and others and we were coming to protect the “others” from him in case he decided not to hurt himself, but them. What kind of day would it have been if we had packed our shit and just walked and driven away from that guy who didn’t want to come out…?
What kind of day would it have been if the mom or dad or aunt or grown cousin of that little diaper and tennis-shoe clad two year-old had come looking for him so we didn’t have to place him with Child Protective Services…if they had even noticed he was gone?
What kind of day would it have been if that other neighbor hadn’t called us to tell us that a woman was chasing her eight year-old son through the apartment complex holding a knife in one hand and a belt in the other…running and yelling “Get back here, you little shit-head…I’m gonna beat yo ass!” What kind of day would it have been? “I don’t think she’s right in the head,” the caller told the 9-1-1 operator. She had left her one year-old and six year-old kids in the apartment as she ran and chased her older son. An officer cleared after a bit and asked that we roll the counselor/crisis-team van from the fire department to take care of the other kids.
And what kind of day would it have been if there weren’t constant and insistent messages flashing on my computer screen all fucking day long about police needing to come to this school and that, this hospital and that hospital or this aunt’s house or grandmother’s house or CPS worker’s office to take this report and that report about some loved one or trusted one or some stranger or some assistant coach hitting or bruising or fondling or fucking some child who was just going about their days and lives trying to be a kid over the weekend or last week and he’s still got bruises…and the 16 year-old girl woke-up this morning and she was naked and groggy and it was burning and hurting between her legs and she doesn’t know what happened or how she got where she was and she just called her mom and she called us…and the Spanish-speaking father called us to say that his 14 year-old son was walking home from the store and a truck full of Mexicans had pulled-over and grabbed him into the truck and then stole his cell phone and wallet and had beat him and touched him “down there” and…what kind of day would it have been if another dad hadn’t called to report that he found text-messages on his 17 year-old son’s cell phone talking about how he was having sex with the dad’s 26 year-old girlfriend…what kind of day would it have been?
And those were just some of the things that happened in only eight hours of a single Monday at 9-1-1 and police dispatch…just one shift…in the fifth or sixth largest city in the country….
My name is Josef Müeller and I can remember when I was a child and used to run the path behind the town where I lived in Germany. The town was called “Bischofsdhron” and was named such because it was located near the ruin of a castle that had, in centuries passed, been occupied by a bishop of some renown. I can’t speak to the town’s acreage or square-kilometer coverage, but I know we entered the town after crossing a stream at the bottom of a hill and proceeded up the hill, taking the main road, to an intersection of sorts where we could proceed or turn one of three different directions and exit the town into the various meadows and hillsides or forests that were found along the town’s borders.
If one were to continue in the direction of the main road, which my memory of the various awakenings and settings of the sun would indicate to be southward, one would take a lesser-used road, Idarwaldstrasse, past the sportsplatz and into the forest where one would encounter even less-traveled logging trails that led to only god-knows-where. I do know that my friends and I found a set of railroad tracks and more forest in that southern direction during our several wanderings, but we never came upon another town or settlement of any sort.
Proceeding westward from that particular intersection, we would pass what my parents and other adults referred to as “knob hill.” I don’t know that I was ever made privy to the reasoning behind the rubric, and it doesn’t make any more sense to me now than it did then…unless the people who lived up there were a bunch of dick-heads…but, I don’t know. The road or street we lived on, Sonnenstrasse, which led to a neighboring town named “Morbach,” passed several other homes where the Americans lived. It also passed the house of the Burgermeister, or mayor, of the town. If I remember correctly, the man was rather old and stooped and gray-haired. He was also something more of a symbol than an actual participating entity in the town’s affairs. I was told that his daughter did more governing or directing than he did.
I have wondered how strange I might have appeared, as a German nine year-old, wearing my cut-off blue-jean shorts and a yellow t-shirt, pulling an American G.I. Joe jeep and trailer by a string, as I headed out of Bischofsdhron one summer morning, walking the Morbach road. I think I may have seemed a bit odd. I might have looked rather “American” in my German-ness…or maybe it looked like my mother was German and my father was in the American military, stationed at the base nearby…whatever it was or appeared to be, it was just me wearing American clothes that I had gotten from the charity box at church and playing with American toys that I had received at the German-American community’s friendship toy-drive Christmas party a few months earlier. Anyway, the G.I. Joe was dressed in full camouflage gear with his black combat boots, shiny green helmet and plastic brown rifle, sitting behind the steering wheel, and appeared to be driving the WWII jeep that was pulling a trailer that contained a tripod-mounted rocket or bomb launcher. I don’t remember if there was another G.I. Joe in the passenger seat or not, but we were going to Morbach. I don’t know why I chose to make the journey, either, but it was summer and there was little else to do. Another little tidbit is that the road to Morbach passed through a forest where rabid bats were known to live. Whether that was a rumor supported by truth or entirely fabricated is unknown to me. What I do know, however, is that I spent several long minutes looking skyward, craning my neck and squinting my eyes to see if I could find any bat-like creatures hanging in the branches of the oh-so-tall pine trees that lined the Morbach road.
Anyway, again, I’m telling a story here, or making a confession, really, and it has nothing to do with the Morbach road or my pulling a jeep anywhere with a little string. It also has nothing to do with that time my friends and I stole two kilos of bratwursts from the metzgerei, or butcher-shop, and ran off into the woods to roast them wonderfully and deliciously over a fire made of pine branches…. Ahh…we stood there watching their skins split and turn dark brown and then black as the juices dripped into the fire and made that greasy smoke that clings to your hair and clothes for hours afterward, telling the world and our parents and the metzler’s son what we professed we didn’t do on a certain springtime Saturday afternoon. That’s another story and one that doesn’t deserve much in the way of confessing. Not today, anyway. I’m just giving you the setting, that’s all, so you can understand or see where I was, maybe.
So, there was a path that ran the length of what I understand to be the western edge of Bischofsdhron. In some places it was cobbled, but mostly it was a white-ish crushed rocky kind of sandy stuff that had broken slate and shale mixed in with the dirt. Maybe it was decades-old construction detritus that had been swept in between the buildings and crushed and worn into a walkway over the years…I don’t know…but it started as something like an walkway or narrow alley behind or near the town’s primary school and led to the bottom of the hill, again appearing as an alley or pathway that came out from between two buildings that fronted another road that also led to Morbach. This road took a course at a lower elevation and entered the town from the northeastern to slightly northern border. The majority of the path skirted our town, having the backyards and gardens or backs of houses to the right (east) and empty fields or rolling hills on the left, or western side. As the path re-entered the town proper, it passed between a couple houses and a rickety, aged storage-shed that resembled more of an out-building from a no-longer existent barn or farm complex.
I had passed the houses and shed dozens of times on my way to and from the bus stop on schooldays and during the innumerable weekend and summer-time forays throughout the town and its surrounding countryside and hills and forests. The wooden planks that comprised the sides and door of the shed had been bleached gray by the elements and were barely held in place by a remnant of rusted nails and twisted wire. The bottom edges of the planks had been gnawed by rodents or had otherwise been chipped and were rotting away and any passerby could see some rags or old clothes or other manner of fabric material that was being stored or had been discarded in the shed.
On this particular day, as I was hiking up the path, I turned and looked into the window of the house on my left and saw an older man in a faded and dingy whitish gray tank-type t-shirt holding-on to a little boy’s arm with one hand and hitting him with the other, bashing him in the head and shoulder and arm as the kid ducked and thrashed and squirmed and tried to block the assault. The man’s free hand wasn’t open…the fingers were curled into a fist and his arm was cocked-back as his eye caught my movement through the window. He lowered his arm and turned to face me full-on…watery, red-rimmed eyes swimming in their hate and rage, glaring at me now, forgetting for an instant the little boy in his other hand. He yelled through the window at me – “What are you looking at, arshloch?!” The boy turned, as well, and I saw his crying and pleading eyes and reddened cheeks and bloodied nose. I felt his heart pounding in mine and could smell the old man’s rage and sweat and filthy breath filling the tiny room, suffocating the little one’s desires to do anything but survive the moment. In that instant of wondering why the man had called me an ass-hole, I kept my eyes fixed on his and started to turn my body to walk away, but my foot slipped on the slate and sandy dirt of the slanted and sloping pathway and I lost my balance. I fell sideways and back and crashed into the ancient shack on the other side of the narrow track. A board broke and my hand slid along the rough surface, picking-up splinters and scraping the skin from my palm and forearm as I tried to keep myself from falling full-length onto the slate and other rocks in the pathway. I regained my balance and looked back into the window as I reached blindly for my school bag. All I could see was the boy’s back as the man dragged him through the doorway and out of my view. There were muffled shouts that came out from the other room and back into the little kitchen where I had first seen the man and boy. As I stood there and looked through the window at the remnants of sausage and potato on their dinner plates, I couldn’t understand anything that was being said, but I heard the boy cry-out a couple times after particular shouts from the man and what I thought was the smacking of a hand on flesh. Memories and sensations of dread and having done something wrong crashed through my mind and added to the pounding in my chest. My father had done the same to me many times and I’m sure it wouldn’t have sounded any different if some passerby had been close enough to our house to hear it when it happened. Their rage was the same, the other man and my father…and it looked the same as it fell on the boy and me…from our fathers.
A few days later, I happened to pass through that alley pathway again. I walked slowly and listened carefully before I rounded the corner and turned up and into the walkway that led between the boy’s house and the shed. I don’t know where the thought came from…other than from having witnessed the boy getting a beating those few days before, but for some reason, I decided to light a match to the cloth that was sticking-out from beneath the worn and tattered edge of the shed. Aside from my anger at the boy’s father…and my own, I’m sure, I can’t imagine what other motive would have possessed me to do so. I knew the dangers of playing with matches. I had received a couple beatings for merely lighting them in the house while my parents were outside or somehow occupied and out of my sight. I was nine years-old and knew what fire could do, yet I lit the rags anyway and sped off, pumping myself up the hill as fast as I could, out of the alley pathway and beyond.
I don’t remember the events immediately following that particular afternoon’s misdeed and I can’t recall how long I waited to make a trip up or down that walkway again, but eventually I did. There were no longer any rags or clothes visible from the path side of the shed, and given the fact that I was the hoodlum who had started the fire, I knew well enough not to linger too long or show too much interest in whatever I happened to pass in this particular juncture of the alley or passage. My hasty survey of the damage showed that the bottom 18 inches of the shed door had been burned in a near triangle-shaped pattern that didn’t seem to have burned very long. The man, or boy, or someone must have seen the smoke from their back window and rushed outside to extinguish the fire.
One might say that I’m lucky I didn’t get caught. I do feel a certain level of doubt that I would have survived the beating I would have received if I had been discovered. That’s probably too strong of a statement regarding my father’s harsh treatment of me when I was a child, but it might be more accurate than I’ll ever know. I feel fortunate, today, to have found that the fire was no more extensive than it was those many years ago. Considering the proximity of the other buildings along the path, the results could have been much worse. And I wonder, still…what does it mean that I set fire to the shed? What outcome was I hoping for that afternoon? What was I looking for…why did I do it? Could it have been the desire to burn those images of hate and rage from my memory, or was there some deeper drive or force that compelled me to do something that I knew was so wrong?
Several weeks ago, I stumbled across a blog posting that discussed the author’s discomfort with all of the hyphenated identities that are present and becoming more common in our modern, globalized, and shrinking world. The article caused me to think, again, about the salient characteristics of the self and our awareness of that self within us and how we deal with naming it…how we identify it…ourselves. Why does it matter what or how we call ourselves? Why does it matter how people “know” us? What is in “our” name that is sacred or worthy of remaining so? Our identity…we are and identify ourselves as a combination of things, a coming together of diverse origins, and a hybrid of things gone and now. We’re Irish-American, African-American, Mexican-American, Bosnian-American, Iranian-American, Rwandan-American, German-American…and many other mixings of American…and we’re proud of those other parts while still being proud of our American self. No matter how much we celebrate our American heritage, we do so from a core that speaks with a different accent, one that has a different birth-place and history. Yes, we are proud, we want to be here, we want to relish in all that being American means…while still being from somewhere else, while having primal roots that dig deeper and hold longer truths than our infancy of citizenship in our new country. We can’t divorce ourselves from our earlier histories and the nation of our nativity…we simply can’t. We are what we are and our blood is fluent in the tale of its ancestry and we cannot remove it from our beings. The hyphen in our identified ethnicities joins our past and our future and creates a bed in which our children will be born and live and know from whence they came and understand the price of sacrifice that was paid to inform their lives and make them what they are and will be in the many tomorrows of their future.
Being a White male with a western European lineage, a few remaining drops of North American indigenous blood, and a family history of having existed on this continent for documented hundreds of years, I don’t have a need, personally, to identify myself as belonging to a particular culture or country of origin. At times, I have wished to be anything other than a White male because of the history associated with being such…on this continent and in this particular country. But my identity doesn’t revolve around the color of my skin, gender, or ethnicity. I think this might be an unspoken luxury of being born into the country’s majority. If I had been born into any other status and worked hard to remove certain stigmas or economic situations that have been common to my “kind,” I might feel differently…and I might feel differently very strongly, especially if I were still witness to others of my “kind” being discriminated against simply for having been born with a different color of skin, or on the proverbial other side of the tracks…or river.
Why do we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, or Cesar Chavez Day, or Martin Luther King Day? Why do we have Black History Month, or Chicano History Month…or Gay-Pride Day…or for that matter, or any matter in this discussion, why do we have Mother’s Day, or Father’s Day, or Grandparent’s Day, or Secretary’s Day…or Valentine’s Day…aren’t we simply celebrating some part of ourselves or honoring a part or role that someone else plays in our lives in their given or chosen identity…doesn’t it all come down to that…identity…who we call ourselves? Maybe….
Keeping the name or identity of our and our forbears’ nationality is somewhat akin to when we take the name of our new spouse or partner and keep our own family’s name; we’re proud of both. We’re keeping the label or tag that informed our earlier existence and life, we’re honoring our history…and we’re keeping a substantial part of ourselves; we’re not forsaking all for the mate or partner that we’ve chosen…our identity remains intact, not sacrificed on the altar of tradition.
When we get adopted, we hope to keep at least a part of our name so that we have something of our primary identity, the person we were first…even if we didn’t know it or weren’t yet aware of it, but it was still who we were, and now we might have a new last name or some kind of, or part of a new name, a promise, almost, that we can be or will be someone different, that our potential has changed and we’re going to be something that we probably couldn’t or wouldn’t have been if we hadn’t been adopted and had our name changed…and become part of a new family, become a new person…or at least a person with a newer part of themselves…and after all the legal mumbo-jumbo or mumble-jumble, we’re still able to say, “I know my name is….”
And lastly, what about when we finish school after those long and many and tiring and trying years…and decide to put that B.S., or M.A., or PhD after our names? Aren’t we further identifying ourselves, telling people who we are, what we accomplished…and hope that they might see us as a person who accomplished something…maybe…we set out to complete a task, to succeed in reaching a goal…we endured somehow…we were driven to learn or know…and now we know how little we know…and how much more there is to learn…about life, ourselves, and who we are…and others and then.
While our identities are often fluid, transforming in kind and character within moments or seconds in response to some stimuli, environmental or societal factor, or the presence of some other person or personality, they are often as solid as bedrock in the core of what they represent in our souls…the deepest reaches of our inner-most being. Sometimes those hyphenated names speak to the completeness of what it means to be us, you and me, as only you and I can be.
It has been more than ten years since I first heard that tone in my ear and answered it with “9-1-1, what is the emergency?” and I still marvel at our experience, as 9-1-1 operators and dispatchers, of the full spectrum of human emotions…in ourselves. We expect that we’re going to hear the full gamut of emotions in our callers, and to a lesser degree with the officers on the radio, but it’s almost surprising when we reflect on ourselves and witness the same sensations catapulting us to the heights of joy and excitement and then crashing us down again into the valleys and crevases of dark anger and sadness as we do our jobs “answering the call.”
In my first weeks and months on the job, my prevailing emotion was that of anxiety. I had recently left a job where I had worked for 10 years and had all the benefits that accompany working for a municipality…job security, great health insurance, retirement, paid holidays, etc…and there I was at 37 years old, switching careers again to work for another government entity with the same benefits and better pay…and having to endure another 12 months of probation in a much more severe and demading environment where liability was a daunting concept and in the forefront of my mind at every moment. In the middle of that anxiety and nervousness, there were also other emotions, of course. After six weeks of class-room training, and then in the middle of my floor-training of actually taking calls, I had an unexpected shock. I was taking calls with my trainer listening-in, and I received a non-emergency call. After I announced myself, “Phoenix Police Department, this is Scott, how can I help you?” the caller responded with “Daaaaamn!” It was my partner from my old job! The person I had worked and talked with almost every work day of the past ten years…and she recognized my voice on the phone. What a surprise! I was gone from that other world, but it was still present and very much a part of my new every-day. During the years to come, I also received calls on 9-1-1 from clients that I had dealt with at the health department…they were still out in the jungle of the streets, living nightmares of mostly their own making, and when things got bad, they only had the police to depend on in coming to rescue or assist them. So my days and nights were also touched with nostalgia at hearing the callers’ names and knowing the locations from which they were calling, still being able to see their street-corners and back-alley hovels where they stayed between their tricks and hustling to make a living. My time on the phones and radio were blended somewhat with my former occupation, in that we/I still dealt with the same people.
There is also sadness, of course, in working in public-safety communications, unutterable sadness that touches to the core, that taps deeply into that part of your emotions that transcends our relationships inside of our police “family.” Within my first six months of working here, I witnessed, or at least heard, my first “Last Call.” If you don’t know what that is, the Last Call is a rite or tradition performed by a police dispatcher during the funeral service for a fallen officer, one who died on the job, whether it was through an act of violence committed by a bad-guy, or an accident that went tragic and the officer perished somehow. In this particular instance, the officer was wrestling with a bad-guy on the side of the freeway and the bad-guy got away by running across traffic. I don’t know the exact details, but the officer gave chase and was hit by a semi and killed instantly. A citizen stopped and cleared on the officer’s radio and told our dispatcher that the officer was down. I cannot imagine the horror of being that dispatcher and having some regular person, not an officer, talking on her radio telling her that one of her officers was down. Yes, one of “her” officers. Hers or his, whatever gender the dispatcher. When we’re working in Radio, dispatching calls to the officers, the dispatchers, “we,” often feel a particular ownership of what happens on the radio. We’re supposed to know where each of our officers is at all times. We try to recognize their voices and their particular cadences of speech and what they were doing last and who was with them so that if anything happens to them, in case they call or cry out for help, we will know who they are and where to send help. They are “our” officers and we’re supposed to do everything within our power to make sure they go home at the end of their shift. Whether we’re embedded in the police “family” and live every aspect of our lives for and with all things police, or not, they’re still our officers…we want them to be safe. We’re amped-up when they’re chasing someone and we’re excited when they catch him…we cheer sometimes in the radio room when “we” finally catch the bad guy that we’ve been looking for all day…and we’re saddened beyond description when things go bad…when things “go south” and one of “our” officers dies on duty. I was one of the “new guys” when the dispatcher was preparing to do that Last Call, so the supervisor told me to come from the 9-1-1 room into the dispatch side so I could listen…so I could be baptized into my new family by participating in the sadness and grief that sometimes accompanies us doing our jobs. So I stood there and watched the dispatcher and listened as she spoke his call-sign, “Nine-thirty-four-bravo? Nine-thirty-four-bravo? I copy Nine-thirty-four-bravo is 10-7 at such-and-such address (cemetery)…he is gone but not forgotten…rest in peace, Nine-thirty-four-bravo…goodnight, Sir…KOA789.” Tears were streaming down my cheeks and those of the other dispatchers standing around with me as the officer’s dispatcher gave his Last Call. Her voice was calm and even, clearly-spoken…holding it together as she did her job…and her voice only broke slightly as she gave that final “goodnight, Sir.” She did a great job…truly…I can still see her today, all these years later. This Last Call is my first memory of this salty old dispatcher who called me “Sonny Boy” a few years later and told me that she had seen some things in her twenty-odd years of dispatching that I wouldn’t even be able to imagine. She is still here today, and while some of her war-stories have gotten a little old in the re-telling, she is a wealth of information and history and adds a particular and distinct quality to our group of dispatchers.
It’s easy to take for granted some of the people with whom we work…or to easily label them as snotty or intolerant of people who aren’t as skilled as they are, people who haven’t yet worked some of the horrible situations they have…who haven’t been baptized with the true and severe fires of working officer-involved emergencies. Sometimes their impatience and intolerance is wearing, it’s taxing to be putting out the fires that they’re causing throughout the radio room among their co-workers because of their brashness and biting remarks. But these same people can be awe-inspiring when the proverbial shit is hitting the fan and we get the opportunity to watch or listen to them work. On a particular Saturday evening, a particular April 12 of six or seven years ago, a two-man unit followed a suspicious vehicle into one of the Central Phoenix neighborhoods and ended-up in foot-pursuit of the bad guys as they bailed from what we later learned was a stolen vehicle. The officers chased the bad guys through yards and alleys and other yards and alleys and crossed streets this way and that and didn’t know where they were and suddenly one of them yelled “Nine-Nine-Nine!!!” Those numbers are not spoken by anyone in the normal courses of their days here…not in the police family…even if they’re numbers on a license plate. We say “Nine hundred and ninety nine.” When someone says “Nine-Nine-Nine” it only means that something horrible has happened and that things are going to get much worse before they get better. The officer had been shot four times with bullets entering his abdomen from under his vest and causing incredible damage to his insides before coming out or getting lodged inside. He gave his call-sign and said that he’d been shot. His partner had shot the bad guy, but they didn’t know where they were. The dispatcher broadcast the “all-call” city-wide, repeating the 9-9-9 code, and told responding officers to switch to her frequency and hold their traffic (be quiet). She then continued to clear the officers to try to find their location so she could send help directly to them. They were stuck in a backyard somewhere that was full of garbage and broken-down cars and…they couldn’t tell where they were…somewhere around 20th Street and Roosevelt. The dispatcher relayed the information to the air-unit after they cleared her, asked for a co-worker to get Fire to respond…and then scolded the patrol lieutenant for talking on the radio – “Patrol fifty-two, will you hold your traffic, we still don’t know where Five-twenty-five-mary is…!!” The presence of the dispatcher, her courage, control, single-mindedness, focusing on the task of getting help to “her” officers was incredible. She knew her job, knew how to do it, knew what needed to be done next, who was where, who needed to be somewhere else…all of it…she ruled her frequency. And you might ask how she didn’t know where the officers were when they needed her help…and that’s a good question. The officers were statused as 10-8, or available. They never told the dispatcher what they were doing. They hadn’t run the plate of the vehicle and hadn’t told their dispatcher that they were trying to pull the guy over, but he wasn’t complying. Her first indication that they were doing anything other than just driving around was when they yelled those numbers…Nine-nine-nine.
This particular incident ended relatively well. It occurred less than a mile away from a major trauma hospital, and while the officer is reported to have “bled-out” nine times during surgery, he survived and returned to work a few years later. When I mentioned the police “family” earlier and talked about how dispatchers feel a certain protectiveness of “their” officers, this particular situation was tightly wound in that “family” relationship. The injured officer was an academy class-mate of the dispatcher’s officer husband…they had picnicked together, been present for the births of children, spent holidays together…. They were family in so many senses of the word. And the dispatcher was awesome, trying to take care of “her” officers. I have often told my new dispatchers that if I die and come back as a dispatcher again, I want to be just like this one.
All officer-involved emergencies don’t end as “well” as this one did, obviously. Relief never came to some of the situations. Yes, the dispatchers and 9-1-1 operators went home at the end of the day, most of the officers went home and sat with their spouses, or partners, or parents, or children…and recounted the day’s events. They told how they heard the “all-call” and responded to help as quickly as they could, or they worked the call on the radio, broadcast for more units, responded to the air unit, started the K-9 officers, called Fire and told them to stage or come straight in to the scene…they told how they almost held it together until the scene was stable…or how they thought it was strange how they continued to work in an oddly detached sort of way until the next shift’s dispatchers and operators got there to relieve them. The dispatchers told their families how they gathered in the lunch room or conference room to talk with the crisis counselor who was called-out during the middle of the night to help them make sense of what had happened, to share what information we had or didn’t have…to listen to them cry and tell how they felt so inept or frustrated with losing such control…they couldn’t do enough to help…they couldn’t get in their own car and drive out there to do something…they were stuck behind a desk wearing a head-set as the officers were laying on the apartment lawn with bullets in their heads and hearts…two officers dead at the scene, two more wounded with non-life-threatening injuries, and one more with a broken arm as he flew through a red-light and crashed into another car as he was trying to get there in time…one of the first officers on the scene was married to one of the dispatchers on-duty and told her how he held his squad-mate as his heart beat for the last time…covered in his blood and nothing he did could help, as he had taken a shot to the head…and the mayor came down to the communications center to check on the dispatchers…his son was an officer, too, and he wanted us to know that he was thinking about us as we tried to take care of “our” officers…his son and others.
Another officer’s shooting location is directly on my way home…I pass it every day. I wasn’t at work when it happened, but I pass the memorial marker that the city has affixed to a lamp post at the location…I drove past it every day right after it happened and saw the candles and flowers and stuffed animals that people had brought in honor of the veteran officer who had been shot…over a wrong plate being on the suspect’s car…and I saw the patrol-car that sat there around the clock with its running-lights on as the officer inside sat behind tinted windows and watched the citizens passing-by…keeping vigil…remembering his squad-mate or fellow officer. My heart was and is saddened…and there is never a “right” word to say to the slain officer’s family member when I see them at work.
We tell ourselves that anything can happen at any moment on any day that we’re at work…and while nothing horrible happens on most of those days, sometimes a lot of horrible things happen all together…and there’s nothing to do but persevere…endure…grunt through it. July 27, 2007, was my first day back to work after a two week vacation…and it was just me and another supervisor in charge of the call center (our back-up call-center at that) when our computers went down…CAD was down, computer aided dispatch…and it went down during the middle of a police pursuit of a stolen vehicle that had rammed an officer’s car in his attempts to get away. That is considered an aggravated assault, crashing into a police officer’s car intentionally…so a pursuit was called by the officers…and the air unit was overhead…and CAD was down, so everyone was writing their notes by hand, entering the information on logs…writing all calls by hand and having a runner take them from the 9-1-1 room over to the Radio room…and the air unit was calling the pursuit…and the observer suddenly told us that two media helicopters that had been filming the pursuit had crashed into each other and have exploded and fallen to the ground in the middle of a park in the heart of Phoenix…. And the air unit kept following the occupied stolen vehicle westward and hell was breaking loose…and our computers were down. The dispatchers were incredible in their command presence, keeping the helicopter crash on the tactical channel that had been working the stolen vehicle, switching the pursuit to another tactical channel, closing one of the information channels and using it for traffic associated with the wreck…and…the entire city had a cell phone and needed to call us…and the computers were down…and I’d never worked a helicopter crash before, as either an operator or supervisor…so I punted…did everything that we normally do for a high-profile incident like an officer-involved shooting, notified everyone and God…and then checked the dispatchers to see that they had what they needed. Things settled down, as they do with any situation…officers responded from all over the city to help with the helicopter wreck, to work other areas that were short officers…they caught the bad-guy with the stolen vehicle…and the crashed and exploded helicopters had fallen into an unpopulated area of that central Phoenix park, so nobody else was injured or killed from the wreck…aside from the pilots and photographers. The computers came back up…our technology was serving us again…and the swing-shift operators and supervisors relieved us from our positions and our day was over…and we took deep breaths and walked out into the scalding desert afternoon, found our cars, prayed for the air-conditioning to work properly…and then sat there in disbelief at what had happened during our eight and ten hours at work that day.
Later that evening, one of our officers was shot and killed when a forgery suspect’s girlfriend distracted the officer as he was trying to cuff the bad-guy. The suspect grabbed a gun from under his shirt and shot the officer in the head…and the bad day continued into the night and dispatchers and 9-1-1 operators and police officers were thrown again into the turmoil of emotions of hate and sadness and the sense of futility and hopelessness…and….
When we’re on the 9-1-1 phones, we hear funny things sometimes…they don’t make up for the sadness, but they provide a break…they soften our hardening hearts with their ridiculousness. One guy called to tell us that everything really was ok at a certain intersection…in case anybody called to report a bunch of weird people kneeling in the dirt lot with hands raised to the sky or jumping up and down…they were just praying to their Almighty that they would be able to purchase that particular corner of land for their new church. Or people call to tell us that there are people in their attics who are spying on them…and have inserted probes into their ears and are sending them strange signals to make them do certain and particular or wonderful things. We feel the satisfying joy, sometimes, of questioning our callers and obtaining precise and detailed information that leads the officers to the certain bad guy that we described in our calls…and they take him or her or them into custody and we feel like we did something…we were part of something bigger than ourselves…we helped someone, really.
In our communications center, we receive all the 9-1-1 calls for the city. If we determine that it’s a fire or medical emergency, we click a button on our phones and the call is transferred to the fire department. Sometimes, we don’t know what we have on the phone…we have to pry the answers out of the callers. They’re either ambiguous, don’t want to say certain words for fear of being overheard by the bad guy, they don’t have a clue where they are, they just woke-up and can’t see what’s happening, but they can hear shooting and screaming and cars speeding away…and sometimes they don’t say anything…we can hear that the line is open, that someone is there, breathing or moving…but nobody is responding….
“9-1-1, what is your emergency?”
“Hello? This is 9-1-1, do you have an emergency?”
Nothing…possible movement…light rustling…someone is there so I sent TTD tones in case the person is deaf and can’t hear me but has a TTD machine so we can communicate. There’s no response to the tones…still someone is there.
“Hello? Can you hear me? You called 9-1-1, do you need the police or fire department? Do you need paramedics?”
Something is touching the phone, moving against it, not hard and not soft….
“If you can hear me, try to click on the mouthpiece of the phone…try to click twice if you can hear me.”
“So you can hear me, but you can’t talk, is that right? Click two times to say ‘yes’ and one time to say ‘no.'”
“Is there someone with you and you can’t talk because he’s there? Again, click two times to say ‘yes’ and one time to say ‘no.'”
Click…. No second click….
“Are you hurt or sick and you can’t talk? Click two times for ‘yes’ and once for ‘no,’ ok?
“Did someone hurt you and leave you there? Click two times for ‘yes’ and….”
“Are you sick?”
I entered the call, minutes ago, as a Check-Welfare hot-call…officers were responding with lights and sirens. I asked one of my co-workers to call Fire and get them rolling, too. I didn’t want to transfer the call myself, as I didn’t want to take the chance of losing the caller.
“I’ve got police and paramedics coming to you…can you still hear me?”
“Can you get to the door? Are you able to open the door?”
“Is the door locked?”
“Stay on the phone with me, ok? Don’t hang-up for anything…just keep the phone there next to you, ok?”
My heart was racing and I thought I was doing everything right. This was odd…it was strange…I had heard about this kind of call before, but this was my first one. I couldn’t imagine what was happening there and the only confidence that I could have was that the caller really did mean “yes” and “no” when she clicked accordingly. I was hoping that there was no bad guy there or nearby…I was hoping it was medical. I remembered that scene from The Fugitive when the doctor’s wife was calling 9-1-1 after the guy had bashed her head and was hoping the officers wouldn’t find something similar when they got there. My supervisor had clicked-in and was listening to me work the call at the same time she was listening to the dispatcher on the radio. She leaned in my direction and told me that the officers were there and getting a key from the office.
“Hello? Are you still there? The police are there at the apartments, ok? Can you hear me?”
I heard someone open the door, people talking, more rustling, and then someone picked-up the phone?
Hello? Is this 9-1-1?
“Yes, I’m here. Is this PD?”
Yeah, we’re inside and the paramedics are working on the lady. You can hang-up now.
And that was all…it was done, just like that. The officers and paramedics were there and I was done…. I put the phone on not-ready so I wouldn’t get another call and then leaned back and turned around in my chair and looked at my boss. She said I did a good job. Wasn’t that fun?!
As it turned-out, the woman was in anaphylactic shock and was quickly slipping toward coma. The paramedics worked their magic, she recovered very quickly, and was doing so well when the paramedics were preparing to leave that she refused to be transported to the hospital…she was that “ok.”
My very next 9-1-1 call was a man from Ahwatukee complaining about illegal parking. After working the call I just did with the woman in shock and almost dying, this bozo called 9-1-1 to report illegal parking…more emotion, a little bit of anger, exasperation, frustration…and it was all still on a recorded line so I couldn’t chew him out. I was rather short with him, told him that the parking situation wasn’t an emergency, and gave him the non-emergency number.
A few months later, I was on the night shift and just worked a shooting call where a pregnant woman was shot in the back while she stood in her front yard and told a bunch gang-bangers to quit racing up and down her street…my very next 9-1-1 call was a person complaining about loud music…. “It’s two in the morning and my neighbors won’t turn off their goddamned music!!” So they called 9-1-1…some people.
We’re frustrated sometimes, angry and sad, sitting there in disbelief at what we’re hearing…we look around the room at what we consider to be “normal” and wonder how people get themselves into the situations that they do. Our patience and impatience of being on the phones and radios bleed into our lives and we want all the details…we don’t want any details…don’t tell me what happened last week, what’s going on right now…give me the 9-1-1…what?! We go home and share some of our stories with our equally unbelieving family members…we remember the words for years…we keep the feelings tucked-away sometimes and recall them in a purging moment or afternoon when we just need to get them out of our heads or hearts again. Sometimes we write stories about them…we put to print the emotions and paint pictures that follow us through the passing years, like the events that transpired in That Call…or the moments and calls that I shared in 261 in Progress, Next to Last Epitaph…or And Rage…? These things and others have become a part of us, these memories continue to inform our lives, touch us in purposeful moments of reflection, or in the unintended flashes of images or words or circumstances that visit us uninvited when we’re going about even the most mundane or unrelated actions…like watching a movie, walking to the mailbox and hearing the loud bass from a passing car…riding our bike along the canal…or driving home after work, passing a too familiar location that takes us again to the echoes of number-nines ricocheting through the radio and out into forever…and then.
As 9-1-1 operators and dispatchers, our feelings run the gamut of possibilities, they are reflected through and beyond the spectrum of known human emotions…and then they come back to us…they take us to incredible heights and depths and throw us around corners, abruptly, slowly, sometimes crashing and sometimes easing us along the track of our experiences on the phones and radios…and we keep coming back for more…life inside the roller-coaster…one beep at a time.
“9-1-1, what’s the emergency?”
A few days ago, I was listening to one of my newer dispatchers work an accident call at a major intersection in our large city. There were several vehicles involved and traffic was a mess with nobody getting through the intersection, others crossing through parking lots at corner businesses, and yet others cutting into and through the alleyways that exist in and around the immediate vicinity. One of the vehicles involved was a large pick-up truck that was pulling a horse-trailer. Evidently, this truck and trailer plowed into a passenger car that was in the left-turn lane and was trying to make it across the intersection between passing vehicles. The passenger car was being driven by a 15 year-old boy who had his learner’s permit and had his father in the front passenger seat. The boy was transported to a local children’s hospital and the dad was transported to a major trauma center. The last report was that the boy was in stable condition. The next day, we learned that the father passed-away from his injuries…he caught the full impact of the truck pulling the horse-trailer.
Was the boy excited that day to go for a drive? Did he pester his dad relentlessly to take him out to practice? Or was the dad the one who offered…? “Hey, I’m running up to the store, wanna drive?”
How long will it be until the boy has a desire to get his license again?
We were sitting on the couch, my little one and I, with his mom on the love-seat across from us, watching a movie. We had a bowl of popcorn between us, and as my little one reclined into one of the pillows, he took handfuls of the popcorn and not so delicately or accurately plied the fluffy stuff into his mouth. When the majority of the bowl was gone, he started playing with the pieces of popcorn, alternately flicking them into his mouth or smashing them in his palm and then licking-up the pieces like a dog. We paused the movie occasionally to ask or answer a question, to run to the bathroom, get a refill of one of our drinks or the other…and then continued watching and eating and enjoying the movie and each other’s company. The further into the bowl we got, the more broken pieces of popcorn there were on the little one’s blanket, pillow, pajamas, and surrounding couch area.
I reached over to pick-up some of the crumbs and broken pieces to put them back in the bowl…and made a mistake….
“Do you think you’re making a big enough mess, you little slob?”
Did you just…call me a slob?
My little one asked this with a quivering chin and downcast eyes as he picked a piece of popcorn off of the blanket beneath his chin and placed it anxiously into his mouth.
“Well yeah, look at the mess…hey….”
There were big alligator tears and an immediately running nose and the sobbing of words and half words that I couldn’t understand between his crying and the movie and his mom and my questioning and….
“Hey there…I was just playing….”
Why…did you…call…me that? What was…why are you….
And more tears…and my heart was breaking at his breaking heart and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, and oh….
“Hey, Buddy, look at me,” as I patted his foot, “I was only playing…you’re making such a mess here…hey…look…I was only playing.” I reached over and dragged him to me…. “Hey…I call your mom a slob too, sometimes…when she makes a mess…I wasn’t trying to be mean….”
And his chest was shaking and he was wiping tears across his face and his mom brought over a Kleenex to blow his nose…and I was holding back a smile in my amazement and tears in my sadness at how I had just crushed his little heart…his daddy calling him a slob.
“Hey there…why are you crying? I was only playing….”
I…don’t like…being…called names.
“I’m sorry…I’m so sorry, Buddy. I wasn’t trying to hurt your feelings or upset you…I was just playing with you.”
I accept your…apology. Sniff….
An important aspect of my little one’s life and existence, at this point in his eight years, and possibly for many more years as he learns to decipher and remember the various meanings of our vast array of socially constructed and freighted expressions and intentions and nuanced meanings, is his acceptance of things as they are presented to him. He doesn’t see the gray or shading in many of our words and intentions. The idiosyncrasies of our speech and the subtle and not-so-subtle meanings of our paired words sometimes escape him, even when we’re joking around…they mean, to him, what they literally mean. In my playing, I forgot about the concreteness of his brilliant little mind…and the tenderness of his easily broken heart.
Oh…how it hurts sometimes….