By the time I was in Kindergarten, I was living on Pierce Ave in the Dorchester section of Boston. I had been exposed to cops where I lived previously, also in Dorchester, primarily due to my alcoholic neighbor and the battles and dramas that played out regularly which often included the police. The police had never come to my house at that point in my life that I can remember. The cops had never dragged my old man out of the house nor did they ever have to whack the crap out of him in order to do so.
This was, I later discovered as a cop myself, not always the case in every household. Early in my career I remember going to my first few domestics or family problem calls and finding the young kids hiding under their beds or in their closets. And, to my horror, I discovered that they weren’t hiding from the jackass that was acting up in their household that resulted in the visit from the local constabulary. They were hiding from the police. They were hiding from ME! I was the bad guy, who apparently was the one to be feared. As a new policeman I had a problem with that dynamic and had to get used to it.
However, in my case, I never had reason to fear cops. I saw them take my friend’s dad away several times after he had administered beatings to his wife and others, so my first exposure to the police was more or less that I was in awe of these guardians who magically appeared like white knights to quell these nasty disturbances. I was always impressed when Boston’s Finest rolled up in their old Gray and Blue cars with the forward blinking blue lights on the roof.
However, that didn’t mean I wasn’t somewhat intimidated as a child when I looked up at a guy who looked to me like a tall oak tree and was carrying a gun, handcuffs, a large baton and who know what else was on his on his big, thick black belt. I knew enough that I would never want to be spanked with that belt! And then there was always the hat, the brim usually pulled low covering his forehead.
So, by the time I was in kindergarten, I had no real fear of cops. I’d seen them around quite often. They always seemed to me to be the good guys.
This week, I was going to the Thomas J. Kenny School, which was and still is on Oakton Ave, pretty close to my house. I was going to the morning session every day. Usually, I walked there each morning with several friends my age. Oakton Ave ran parallel to and in the back of Pierce Ave, so my Mom would stand on our back porch and wave to me as we walked by heading up to the school.
This particular weekend, a rumor reached my friends and I and it spread like wildfire through the neighborhood, as rumors often do. This particular rumor was very serious and it disturbed every 6 and 7 year old kid for blocks around. It seems that it had been confirmed by unnamed sources that an elderly woman who lived in a house on the corner, a house we passed twice everyday to and from school, was a witch! Can you imagine, a witch in our neighborhood! Furthermore, the buzz around the 1st grade community was that she was making kids somehow, nefariously disappear as they passed by. There was even some talk about a broomstick and big black pot having been seen. Well, this was terrifying news to those of us in my crew of kindergarteners and first graders.
And, so, after discussing this scuttlebutt all weekend, Monday morning arrived. I would have to head out to school. We had all pretty much decided we would take a different route to school to avoid the newly confirmed witch’s house.
For some reason, I was running late. Usually my Mom would see that I got off to school on time, but I was late on this morning. I wonder if I lingered just a bit watching an episode of the Three Stooges or the Little Rascals. Perhaps I was moving slow on purpose. Either way, by the time I left the house, all my friends had already gone ahead and I was alone. I protested to my mother about the witch at the end of the street, however she just told me this was all nonsense, but I thought, ‘what do grown ups know about these things?’ They don’t even believe there are such things as witches, ghosts and goblins. We kids knew better.
Well, I probably don’t have to tell you this was a problem. Especially with all this unsettling witch business and the sightings. So, I headed up the hill to school, instead of my usual route which would have taken me by the witch’s house. Sound reasoning, or so I thought at the time.
So up the hill, around the corner and suddenly I was on Adams St. pretty much the main drag in my hood. I finally made it to school having gone the long way around. The only problem was that when I finally arrived, all the doors were locked! I couldn’t get in. I knocked and knocked, no one came to the door. Perhaps due to the fact that I hadn’t yet attended Infantry School at Ft. Benning, where were required to pound the hell out of the door of any office we were summoned to enter, my timid knocks on the huge doors went unheard and unanswered. Since I was so late, maybe it was just as well, or so I reasoned. I turned around, and slowly headed home. There would be hell to pay from my Mom, and even more so later when my Dad got home from work. Missing School? Unforgivable in my family. At that time anyway. Low and behold, almost as soon as I turned the corner back onto Adams Street, what did I see but a policeman meandering steadily towards me at a leisurely pace.
Now, normally, the sight of an approaching policemen to me, unlike many people I’ve encountered later in life during my police career, would not be a concern. But at some point in my early childhood it was explained to me that all children had to go to school because it was the law. I was also told what a truant officer was, and they and the police would arrest kids that skipped school. Now at this point in my life, at age six, I had managed to make it thus far without accruing that criminal or school “record” that I was told would follow me through life. Not a good thing to have I had been assured of many times by my parents.
So, as I saw this policeman come closer and closer, I knew I was in trouble. I also I knew I was officially “Truant” for school. I was scared! For the first time in life, I experienced the Fight or Flight syndrome. For some reason, I figured the only rational course was to continue walking like nothing was going on. Maybe if I just kept quiet and just walked passed him he’d never even know I was there, or at least figured if I wasn’t at school where I belonged, there was an acceptable reason. And, what the heck, I thought, there really was a good reason for my being late. After all, I couldn’t be expected to walk past the witch’s house by my self!
So, I put my head down and walked forward, trying to be cool about it. As I write this today, it reminds me of all the times that, when I was in a cruiser and pulled up next to someone at a red light, and that guy in the next car gripped his steering wheel tightly with both hands, and the entire time he was next to me stared straight forward, never moving his eyes, as if he was searching for a ship to appear in the far off fog. I always knew that guy was either wanted or had a suspended license. And, the times I got to check on that hunch, I was usually right. So, the 6 year old scofflaw that I now was, walked on, trying to be cool but heart beat racing.
Yeah, in case you didn’t guess, the cop stopped me. Naturally, he asked me where I was going and why I wasn’t in school. I guess cops in Boston back in the day actually inquire about such things. Anyway, it was then that I knew I’d never make a living as a criminal. I immediately broke. I explained everything as quickly as I could. About the witch, about my friends, about being late and finding the doors locked at the school. About everything. After all, I didn’t want to find myself being pitched head first into a wagon like happened to my drunken neighbor so many times!
Surprisingly, the cop didn’t seem too upset about any of this. He actually listened patiently and if I didn’t know any better, I’d have thought he was somewhat sympathetic to my circumstances. In fact, after I finished spilling my guts, he then did something that shocked me and to this day I never forgot it. He said “let’s go”. He then picked me up, and put me on his shoulders! He turned around and headed back to the school with me on his shoulders while he held onto my feet as they dangled down onto his chest. I didn’t know what to think. It didn’t appear that I was headed for the back of a police wagon after all. Dare I relax a bit? He walked right up to the front door with me on his shoulders! And for him, someone actually opened the door. He talked to someone, and after I told him I was in Mss McGinntey’s class, he set me down and I led him to my classroom.
Miss McGinntey opened the door. In way of an explanation, he told my teacher that I was a good kid and it wasn’t my fault I was late. I remember him telling her not to yell at me. I was relieved beyond belief. I guess this explanation from a cop was good enough for my teacher. My appearance at my class that morning in the company of a police officer did cause a bit of a stir among my classmates, the other kindergartners. The kids in my class looked at me just a bit differently, in a good way, after that. My teacher sent me to my seat in the play circle and not another word was ever spoken about my tardiness. Of course, I had to tell and retell my story to my friends and the other kids in my school.
Mostly though, that encounter formed my foundation regarding how I looked at cops growing up. I’ve thought a lot about that beat cop over the years. I never knew his name, nor did I know anything about him. He wore a badge, and he took care of me in my moment of need. No small thing to a six year old. He was understanding, and once I realized he was on my side, I instinctively knew he was going to make everything alright. Sadly, I’m sure we never crossed paths again.
Today, as I look back and reflect on my own police career, I can’t help thinking that if I have ever done anything as meaningful as that, if I ever helped anyone in need, if I ever did any good at all throughout those years, those folks I may have helped may well owe that to the cop I ran into so many years ago. It’s too bad that police officer never knew that the way he treated me that day would effect so many people, so far away, through my behavior. Am I overthinking this thing, like I am oft to do? I don’t think so. I’m sure he’s long gone by now. But, I wish I could have told him. Who knows? Maybe if he was as good a man as I thought he was he does know…