It is 0700 on the Figure 8 Ranch as I write this, dead-calm and coal mine dark. I’ve got a cup of tea on my desk and just came in from feeding the horses. My face is still cold. From the window where I work I can see the merest outline of the ponderosas, and a yellow light spilling out of the barn where I leave the stall lights on. The light glows on the ice in the paddocks. I can’t prove it, but I think the light works for the horses the same way a night-light works to settle the nerves of children afraid of the dark. And there is something ancient in the light that works for me too, something in my cellular composition drawing me to the promise of a campfire or a torch, a refuge against the wolves in the woods.
We still have wolves, of course, and highwaymen, and it is likely that despite our efforts to make better generations of human beings we will always have them. What’s also true is that good cops aren’t just sheepdogs. They are also big game hunters; they say to each other before a shift: “Happy Hunting”.
I am proud of the hunting I did. Over the course of my career I hunted and hooked rapists, child molesters, murderers, dope fiends, gangsters, the whole spectrum of American big game predators. But I am most proud of those moments along the trail that required a different kind of service. I am proud that every Christmas I took bags of clothes to the bums who lived around Dwight Murphy Park. I’d put two trash bags full of clothes in the trunk of my patrol car and drive down to the softball field where they camped and slept in the bleachers and the dugouts. I’d call them over and give them the bags of clothes. We would yuck it up while they tore through the bags. And then I would drive away, knowing that as they tore deeper toward the bottom they would find a bottle of good wine in each. Judge that however you want, but it helped them get well in the morning and maybe gave them something to laugh about as they camped outside in the holidays. And maybe it helped them see cops as something other than the enemy.
I am proud of answering a call and discovering an old man alone in his apartment — and then making him breakfast. I don’t remember why I was there in the first place, but I remember whipping up a plate of scrambled eggs and toast, and pouring him some orange juice from the refrigerator. It may have been a simple “Check the Welfare” call from a concerned and distant relative, but there is a difference between making sure someone is alive and doing something to keep them that way. I’m certain that old man is long dead, but I’ll never forget the hour or so I spent with him, scrambling eggs and talking about his life, bringing some needed levity to a long-liver whose apartment afforded him only the narrowest view of the cold pacific.
I bring this up because I’m no longer in the hunt. These days, I’m the old warrior who walks out some distance on the trail, measuring the young lads in their confidence as they ride off, hearing them sing their trail songs and knowing the fading melody of my own. But now I must stop outside the village. I’ve earned all the coup feathers I’m going to earn in this life, and my warbonnet hangs in my lodge as a nod to the past and the work the warriors of my generation performed when we hit the trail together.
I recently finished reading Pekka Hämäläinen’s brilliant book “Lakota America,” and this passage, which is taken slightly out of context for my own purposes, struck me:
“Succesful parties returned home with blackened faces, and the people rushed to seize their weapons and booty, symbolically stripping the leader of his power. It was understood that its concentration in his hands had been but a temporary necessity.”
My power has long been stripped, I no longer blacken my face when I return from the warpath, and my wife no longer hoses the blood out of my uniform in the back yard.
This morning I am reminiscing because my daughter was recently sworn in as a police officer. I traveled south through the big desert to be there for the ceremony, for the accolade, to pin her badge and quietly whisper advice into her ear in front of the Chief and the assembled dignitaries and family. I won’t share what I told her. That remains between warriors, but I will tell you that moment rocked me. I stumbled blindly back to my seat. And I was honored that men of my own tribe, true warriors who fought the wolves and the raiders beside me, made the arduous trip through a blizzard to be there and welcome her into our society.
Hunting predators is a filthy and violent business no man would ever want for his daughter. It is hard enough to see the training videos of her learning defensive tactics, to see her tossed around on a mat by large men skilled in jiu-jitsu, and to know the raw metallic fear even the toughest men experience when fighting a blown-out tweaker in an alley at night without backup. I am buoyed by the fight in her, the no-quit mentality she has worked hard to build and to sustain and to live by. But it remains hard to know ahead of time the things she will see — the shotgun suicides and abject poverty, the stabbings and the blood trails leading down a sidewalk, the dangerous mental health freak-shows and the abused children and the diseased dregs, the crib deaths and car crashes and the violence and horror of relentless municipal life.
But this is the path she has chosen, and she is now on the hard trail, learning the lessons.
And I am buoyed by the female warriors that have gone before her. The Birka Viking, for one, buried with the tools of her trade in a 10th century chamber-grave. Experts are still arguing about how a female in a patriarchal society could be a warrior, and they will likely argue until they grow cataracts on their eyes and moss in their brains. But a warrior gets buried with her tools. And she was buried with warrior stuff, which in my military mind can only mean she was one of us. I am buoyed by the ferocity of Boudicca, who fought for her people and comes down through history to us as a symbol of resistance to tyranny.
So consider this morning’s missive a prayer. Not just for the officers who wear their shields over their left breast as a nod to the ancient Greek formations, each shield covering and protecting the warrior on the left so that they might thrust with their right hands, but for all of us, and our violent, predatory culture. Pray that we can make it better, and that those charged with defending what is good and just are protected from temptation, and from the wolves and highwaymen who would tear it down.
As I look up from the page just now I can see what Tom Russell so evocatively sang in The Sky Above, The Mud Below as “the first blue light of morning.” It glows above the treetops. And as I sit here, knowing what I know, I am glad I am not out in it, where I have been, freezing and tired and without a fire in the dark and the cold, listening close and staring long into the night, standing a watch in the bitter winds, watching for wolves while my people sleep.