Posted on Leave a comment

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.

fullsizeoutput_9a3

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.

fullsizeoutput_91d

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.

fullsizeoutput_912

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.

Posted on Leave a comment

The Mental Toll of Mental Toughness; A Story

If you or someone you know is struggling with depression, please seek help immediately, you do not have to struggle alone. 

He sat there staring at the black silhouette of a handgun, lying on the cream-colored sheets. It was motionless, and so was he. Well, he was motionless at first glance, but upon closer inspection you could see his chest rise and fall, you could see his eyes flutter occasionally when pulled from their blank stare, and you could see the occasional repositioning of a foot or a hand as uncomfortableness would force the movement. However, what you could not see was all the motion inside his head. In his mind there was endless shifting begging for clarification and understanding.

steve-halama-361313-unsplash

As you survey him, you would not see any damage, hear any pain or discomfort, or feel the angst that was there. There were no visible wounds, no lacerations, no punctures, no physical defects. What you might notice is moisture, you would have to look to his blue eyes, past the blank stare and towards the edges where the color meets the white, there in that space was a tinge of glistening moisture, moisture that spoke to something that could not be seen. Tears are a funny thing, they can be felt, but their voice is mixed and is not clear. Tears can be mistaken for joy, for pain, they can indicate being overwhelmed. They are clear and loud in their delivery, but lack in the clarity that allows the observer to know why they are there. Today, in his eyes these were not tears of joy. They were tears of pain and they were tears of devastation.

As you continue to study the scene, your eyes would inevitably go back to the handgun sitting on the edge of the bed. The black Glock 42, its name indicated by the markings visible as you glance down, appeared to have a magazine inserted into it. Within the magazine, one could assume were 6 rounds nestled together, neatly in a row, and an additional round chambered into the sleek handgun. One may be concerned as they looked at this firearm, as to its purpose, its role in the scene. Yet, it has no intent within itself, no action that it can take from its motionless state unless enacted upon by an outside force.

Near the gun, sits a badge, its gold reflecting the light in the room creating a star-like pattern on the nearby wall. Its star-shaped silhouette seems to indicate that it belongs to a Sheriff or a Deputy. The badge holds no authority, no strength on its own, but it can represent both strength and authority. The badge means nothing where it lies, but it can mean everything where it is wielded. Like the firearm that it lies next to, it’s only role is to be obedient, to be a tool, and to fill a role when called upon.

The male reaches down and picks up the badge. He holds it and feels it. He feels the weight, both real and perceived. Yet, its weight can be almost too much to bear. Who would have known that such small piece of metal, a piece of silver, a piece of gold, a piece of tin, could have such a profound heaviness. The badge represents so much, stands for so much and remembers too much. A tears salty moisture finds its way from the man’s red cheeks to the edge of his gold badge, sitting on the edge for only a moment, before cascading to the floor with the assistance of gravity.

Gravity. Weight. Heaviness. Those were the words that describe this scene, but why?

The items in this scene cannot remember, but he can. They cannot recall the traffic scene. They do not recall two a.m., when a mother of three young children stopping at the store on her way to the house to pick up last-minute Easter gifts for the kids. Her mind certainly focused on their smiling faces and a blessed day of friends and family, church and Easter egg hunts. Her mind was certainly with her family as she pulled out of the store’s parking lot directly into the path of an intoxicated driver who never even attempted to hit the brakes. The lights, the sounds, the screams, the smell of hot brakes and burnt rubber. The smell of blood and the struggle to try to sustain life in the face of certain death. No! The badge, the gun, they did not remember, but he does. He remembers every moment and always will.

“No! The badge, the gun, they did not remember, but he does. He remembers every moment and always will.”

His mind goes back to the infant lying lifeless in the child’s parents bed. The initial indication that someone rolled on him and smothered him during the night. He remembers vividly the young baby motionless, appearing like a baby doll on the sheets. The badge and gun were there as he tried to console the parents, assure them that even though they lost their entire world; that somehow, and in someway it would be ok.

The roller coaster of his mind continued, up and down, around and around, memory after memory. Dead body after dead body, young and old, drug related and health related, expected and gone too soon; they all just mix together and run through his mind. He thinks of the abused victims, children beat by loved ones, children sexually assaulted by the very ones who were supposed to protect them, children with no one left to care for them and children whose voices never even had a chance to be heard. Victims who have lost almost everything and victim’s who have lost everything to include life itself. Their voices echo in his mind, they are a constant drum beat, driving steadily to a crescendo of hurt and pain. That is where he is today, the drum beat has grown, the orchestra has assembled and the angst and pain seemingly has no outlet as the sound becomes deafening.

He sits the badge down and reaches over to the nightstand and grabs a rocks glass. The gold from his badge refracting through the jagged design, etched in the glass above the brown liquid. The brown liquid moves slowly around the cubed ice as the glass is gently circled in his hands. The alcohol moving around the ice as water moves around rocks in a gentle stream. Alcohol. The one thing that he hopes will help. All he wants is for the drumbeat to lesson and the memories to fade. However, even though alcohol may slow down the memories, they don’t evaporate. Alcohol can make the voices quieter, but they do not leave. Where once was screams there is now a roaring whisper. Yet, much like the overwhelming song of the katydids on a summer night after a brief rain, the memories of suffering flood his soul and continue to echo in the deep caverns of his mind. He sips the alcohol, still wishing for relief and the glass is sat back on the table.

It is premature to assume that it is only the sounds of the past that haunt him tonight. It is also his own questions, the interrogative statements that pry at his very heart. Did he do enough? Was he fast enough, smart enough, strong enough? Was he in the right place? Did he make the right decision? Is he wrong to think this way? Pointed questions, questions that beg an answer where no good answer exists. On and on they go, until the worst of the questions rises to the top, the abhorrent, What if…? This question has no answer. The very asking of it requires an assumption thus guaranteeing it cannot be determined. Where there is no control, there is no ability to question variables. You cannot know what will actually happen today or tomorrow, because you have no control over it. Since you have no control over it, you also cannot say what would happen if anything about it were different, it is by its very definition, an unknown.

The memories of the uncontrollable continue to race through his mind mixing with the questions of the unanswerable, becoming simply overwhelming. He needs answers but cannot have them, he needs peace and that too remains elusive.

He reaches down to the silhouetted gun and picks it up. His palms sweat and moisture can be seen on the shaft of the firearm as he moves it about in his hand. He notices the weight, much like the badge, it is heavier than its actual weight. The gun holds a power as well, one of life and of death. It is the end of the decision-making process, the final step on a decision tree. Once the trigger has been pressed back to release the firing pin, it cannot be brought back. The hammer, the pin, the strike, the primer, the powder, the projectile; this chain of events cannot be stopped once the decision has been made. If that decision is to take a life or to save a life, once in motion, the decision has been made and only God can intervene.

Tonight though, instead of the trigger, he hits the magazine release on the black polymer body of the handgun with his right thumb and catches the magazine with his left. He drops it on the blanket beside him and grabs the cool metal slide of the weapon and pulls it straight back, watching a round eject unto the floor in front of him. Quickly he takes the gun and throws it a short distance, allowing it to land on the floor, and slide to its resting place along the wall. He then reaches back to the table and grabs his glass of whiskey. The tears are streaming quicker now and each breath he takes is faster and deeper. His only thought, “I can’t do this, I have always been so tough.” However, right now, all he can sense, all he can feel is weakness, the perception that he us unable to control even himself.

ian-espinosa-223462-unsplash

He has been tough, he had to be. When he was the first to arrive to the auto accident and watched the life of the young mother slip away he had to be “tough.” He could not cry, he had to act. He had to seem strong, impenetrable, as he told a mother she would never see her daughter again and knew that she would have to relay to her grandchildren that their mother was gone forever. He had to be tough when faced with physical challenges, he had to be tough when faced with people who hated the badge simply because of what it represents and not who is. He had to be tough when faced with gunfire, tough when rescuing others from fire and water.

Tough had become a defining part of the persona he created. A persona that was beginning to feel more like an alter-ego. Inside he felt so weak, but he knew in his mind he had to be strong for those around him. He had to not only be strong at work, but strong at home. Strong for a family that didn’t understand what compelled him to this line of work, strong for a wife who never wanted him to leave and strong for a son who just wanted dad to be home. However, all this strength felt like a charade because it is the curse of mental toughness.

“He certainly had his moments of true strength, strength of both body and mind, but the mental toll of mental toughness is rarely seen until it reaches its breaking point.”

He certainly had his moments of true strength, strength of both body and mind, but the mental toll of mental toughness is rarely seen until it reaches its breaking point. Mental toughness is a dam filled to the point of spilling over, a river that cannot maintain its banks, a drink that has escaped its glass and escaped across the wooden bar top. The damage is the only measure by which it can be observed and much like the breaking dam, when the damage finally reveals itself, it is so significant he may never recover. This is the reality of mental toughness, is that it is a strength given not received. It is a strength that has a limit if not rejuvenated. When the last drop of strength is given with no refueling, the only result is emptiness or loss, which is often labeled weakness. Strength is not salvaged by ignoring its loss. The choice to ignore the inevitable is why relief is sought in the first place, whether it be in a handgun, a bottle of alcohol, reclusive behavior, sexual promiscuity or illicit drugs, relief is the only goal.

Mental toughness is a misnomer. It is true that a strength of mind has been developed, but in its development a weakness is created, a weakness that makes the strong feel as though they are losing control. Feeling that they are losing the very part of themselves that allowed them to do the work they were called to do originally. It is this feeling, this lack of control, that begins the spiral which becomes the unconquerable challenge. If allowed to continue, it will spiral downward, until the need for relief becomes so strong, so overwhelming, that it is sought after by any means.

Today the story ends differently. After setting the glass of whisky back on the small wooden table, he reached for his phone. At first he didn’t know why, but something compelled him, something told his that today he could make it. He called a friend, a friend from work, someone who has fought the same demons, someone who though they may not have won the war, has won battles. It is better in a war to reach out to someone who has the scars of war than to someone who has no scars for they have never fought. The conversation was short, it wasn’t even descriptive as what was going on, but the friendly and knowing voice over shadowed the haunting voices for at least long enough to set the bottle to the side and to think about his wife and son at the house, to think about life, rather than the echos of death.

“It is better in a war to reach out to someone who has the scars of war than to someone who has no scars for they have never fought.”

After hanging up, he sat his phone down. He reached down and picked up the star and sat it next to the bed on the nightstand, he then reached down and grabbed the magazine and the Glock handgun. As he had a thousand time before, he loaded the weapon and sat it next to badge to keep him safe. Picking up his phone he called his wife assuring her he would be home in the morning. He looked over at the bottle of whisky, picked it up and poured it down the sink. As the last drops circled the drain he smiled and thought that tonight he still had the strength to go on, tomorrow will be a new fight, but that is tomorrow. Tonight he went to sleep.

This post first appeared at On The Blue Line, February 2019.