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The Watchman

A recent trip to the Florida State Fair provided inspiration by stepping back in time. In a hidden corner of the fairgrounds, just outside the flashing lights of the Ferris wheel and the constant hum of vendors selling their wares, sits a collection of buildings from the late eighteen hundreds.  Quietly they sit away from the hustle and bustle of the carnival rides but close enough for the smell of fried anything and everything to drift and hang in the air. These wooden treasures have stood on Florida sand from shortly after she became a state and were here before an automobile ever rambled on dusty Florida limestone. Walking down the wooden ramp to the last remaining green grass at the state fairgrounds you feel like you have stepped into a simpler time even if you are surrounded by motorized wheelchairs and ringing cell phones.

“Simply, the blue light stood in the dark void of night and warned of the danger that others could not see.”

In here, the smell of fried pork skin mingles with the sweet charred scent of caramelized kettle corn. It appears to be a village, a circle of wooden structures, each representing another aspect of town life. The church, the general store, the one room schoolhouse, the print shop, and the blacksmith all present, as though someone had called roll call. The buildings are manned by reenactors, history docents, and lovers of the past, each giving a piece of the story, often a story that still echoes in the pages of time. As you walk past each of these buildings you see consistency in build and in color with the exception of a bright red caboose that sits near the Okahumpka train depot.

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Okahumpka, a name that will still make any middle schooler or honest adult smirk, was a geographic area whose greatest attraction was cattle fields that nestled up to a chain of lakes. The train depot stands as a memorial of this simpler time, with a large model train filling the interior, providing a diorama of life at the turn of the twentieth century.

Walking the wooden decks, looking across the lush green grass, I could almost hear the distant whistle of a train. You could feel the hot afternoon sun, beat down on you as you waited patiently for a distant loved one, or just word from anyone who had sent their message along the rail. It was here on this relic of the once great Henry B. Plant Railway system, that I noticed a metal sign with the word watchman. This peeked my curiosity and as with so many things this led to the next part of the adventure which was getting the answers.

She was a female at least 65 years young, her blonde hair turning gray, and beginning to reflect the blue gray of her eyes. She smiled with a knowing smile, and her skin wrinkled at the edges of her mouth making it clear that she had spent a lifetime smiling. Her skin was tan and leathery from years of being in the sun and exposed to the elements. She spoke as someone with knowledge, someone who grew up with the Florida land and though she was not from a railroad family, she had knowledge in the transportation that changed the face of North America forever.

Above where she stood was a series of glass lamps, signal lamps that were hung above the window that opened to the outside deck. When this train depot was in its original birthplace in Lake County the tracks would have lied just beyond this window, so that messages could have been exchanged as the trains chugged by on the way to their next destination.

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The lanterns caught my eye each with a different color of glass and each holding a different meaning to the observer. Some of the lanterns contained yellow glass, others clear glass, some had red glass and there was one which stood out to me, sitting near the middle, with blue glass. It was a lone blue light hanging in the window as a signal for all. I began to speak with the lady who began to tell me stories and spoke about the different messages that could be conveyed with the different color lights. The clear lamps she told me were simply for signaling purposes, they were used to convey a message or to light an area in the darkness. The yellow lights she explained were for caution, they warned the engineer to be on the lookout for possible danger. Red, she explained, was of course the universal sign for stop. However, when she looked at the blue light, she expounded, she said that in America it stood for danger, it too was a cautionary light warning the engine and its occupants that danger was possible, but that it could be avoided. Simply, the blue light stood in the dark void of night and warned of the danger that others could not see.

I found the parallel uncanny. Just as the safety of the train and all of its passengers and goods were under the protection of a faithful watchman, so too are we as citizens under the faithful security provided by todays law enforcement. The term watchman has been around for centuries and was brought over to North America from England. It was the role of the night watchman to keep an eye on the village, town or city during the late hours of evening and into the early morning. I guess it is true what mom always said, “nothing good happens after dark.” That is why the watchman was there, his task was simple, to stand between the evil that lurks in the shadows and the citizens asleep in their beds.

The role of the watchman dissipated with the Municipal Police Act of 1844 in New York City and the creation of police departments all across the United States. However, the term watchman has endured and is still codified in Florida Statute along with a lengthy list of other law enforcement positions.

“Keeping the watch has always been the role of those drawn like moths to a flame to the career of law enforcement. It draws those who prefer to walk the outer fence near the wolves than to be nestled behind the fence with the sheep.”

Keeping the watch has always been the role of those drawn like moths to a flame to the career of law enforcement. It draws those who prefer to walk the outer fence near the wolves than to be nestled behind the fence with the sheep. It takes an understanding that the true danger is believing that the danger does not exist. For it is better to embrace the fear outside the fence and try to conquer it than to pretend there is nothing to fear.

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Law enforcement officers today have continued the role of the watchman. Even now, when in the early morning hours, I conduct a building check or a foot patrol, I feel a pull back to the early days of a protector walking a beat. As I walk, I am drawn back to the very foundations of law enforcement. Whether it is walking under a street lamp in the dark and watching the shadows dance on the outer fringe of the ring of light or listening for the sound of footsteps that do not belong, each step I take transports me back.

We as law enforcement are still the watchman, waving the blue light, warning of the danger that lies ahead.

Today we stroll the streets in vehicles with computers and radios, but we still stroll, knowing that crime is still afoot. Knowing that the very danger the watchman was hired to prevent still exists. We are still hoping, as did they, that our mere presence will be the lamp warning of the danger that lurks in the shadows. A lot has changed in the world in one hundred and twenty years, but one thing has not. We as law enforcement are still the watchman, waving the blue light, warning of the danger that lies ahead.

THIS POST FIRST APPEARED AT ON THE BLUE LINE, FEBRUARY 2019.