The train’s motorman released the control handle, hydraulic brakes froze the wheels but the train hurtled on.
Tombstones carry a dash between date of birth and date of death: Jan 1, 1955-Feb 22, 2016.
Inspired by the poem, The Dash by Linda Ellis * my daughter, Kathleen, gives her middle and high school English classes assignments based on it. They write what they’d like their dash, their time on Earth, to be. The responses are enthusiastic, energetic, it’s their mark on life.
It made me think about my own dash.
I was a cop.
Of course I was more than a cop, I had many roles in life beside law enforcer. I was a son, student, U.S. Marine, father, husband, outreach counselor, retriever of bail absconders, blogger too…but I was a cop. I think my dash was somewhat hereditary. My grandad was a Brooklyn trolly car operator, my dad a NYC Transit cop.
Let me tell you a little about my humble dash. I was never a mover and a shaker, never a police gun-fight hero. I was just a working cop, a detective. Sure I made some satisfying arrests for robbery and so forth, even bringing a few murderers to justice who eluded arrest on warrants for years. But my dash, though not legendary, was honorable. And that’s not a bad dash today; I’m sure many of you are proud of your own dash that way, in whatever choices you made.
I could have pinned on the badge and drawn tight the gun belt of any small town or big city force. And I suspect I might have found fulfillment there. But my dash was with the New York City Transit Police. I patrolled beneath the city of New York. It’s a special kind of policing with a special history. Here’s a bit of it:
In the 1930s and 40s there were about 300 Transit Special Officers. Crimes they dealt with ran from minor to murder. My dad was a Special Patrolman starting on the BMT in 1931. He worked there for 10 years, later becoming a city employee as a NYC Transit cop for 25 more years. He retired in 1965, I joined in 1966, fifty years ago this month.
I found an old news article of my dad, Special Ptl. LeRoy Winters and his partner, Arthur Turner in a malicious mischievous arrest. It was a minor charge but I found it fascinating because it was my dad, a Transit cop, in the sepia haze of 1938: http://bklyn.newspapers.com/image/52656316/?terms=LeRoy+Winters
We worked close to people in the subways, very close…and usually alone. Yes, it was dangerous, some cops got hurt, some critically, some never fully recovered…too many died. That’s the job. But every routine interaction a Transit cop has, on isolated stairways and passageways, on trains, on platforms with speeding trains just feet away…is dangerous.
The waking of wee-hour sleepers who sometimes rise up in raging assault. The attempting to ID a passenger for a summons violation, like smoking or public urination, who could be wanted for murder. There are many summonses and arrests for subway fare evasion. But these too can turn violent quickly…fiercely violent.
Then their is rendering aid to the sick, the injured, the victims of crime, the homeless, the mentally ill who should be receiving community-based care but are adrift, human flotsam in the sea of riding masses.The crawling under trains in attempts to save human life. Rolling steel and human flesh are a bad mix too often. These can be surreal experiences.
I was under a train with a young man who had fallen. As I placed belt tourniquet’s on his mangled legs we had a casual conversation…yes, casual conversation. We spoke of his current messenger job and his pursuit of a pianist career as a student at Julliard. I pulled him snug with me under the platform so the train could pull out and he could be removed by stretcher.
If you find yourself under a subway platform remember this, the train has “shoes” which contact the third rail for power. These shoes are on both sides of the train and both sides have deadly current. Don’t let those shoes touch you. Transit cops are close to such current on occasion, it’s the job. It’s the dash. The young guy did lose both legs but his hands were still Carnegie ready.
Sometimes rendering aid is heroic:
I car-pooled with Police Officer Don Kerrigan and I must say he wasn’t of the movie-star-hero mold. He was balding and had a bit of a paunch. He also had an Irish smile that made you want to smile too. It was an amiable face that you’d expect to see behind a bar, towel over shoulder asking, “What’ll it be?”
But one day the Manhattan bound train he was routinely patrolling stopped at Queens Plaza station on the E line. As Don looked across to the Queens bound side he saw that a man had fallen to the tracks. Don jumped down, crossed two express tracks and reached the man.
Now a subway tunnel is much like a cylinder in which the piston-train travels, pushing air ahead of it. As Don bent to lift the man from the tracks he should have felt that rush of air from the tunnel but he was focused on his task. When he did hear the roar that follows the rushing air he was already boosting the man up to the hands of platform passengers. They pulled the man to safety.
But Don was still in the tracks, the platform was too high for him to climb out. The train’s motorman released the control handle, hydraulic brakes froze the wheels but the train hurtled on. But again, saving hands reached down, pulling at shoulders, arms and gun belt, hauling Don up sideways…just in time…to blessed safety.
On our car pool ride home Don told me all about it. He vividly remembered laying on the platform with the speeding train a blur passing before his eyes. He said a Captain who happened to be nearby to witness what he did told him, “That was the bravest thing I saw in all my years on the job.” Yes, Don made a difference in his life’s dash that day…he saved a human life.
Cops in the street, cops in city housing, cops in the tunnels and bridges, cops on the highways…they all work in potential danger. And they accept that. That’s the dash they chose. But whatever dash we choose, we all have human contact and can make a difference.
Sure, sometimes being in the right job, place and time can change the kind of difference. But I think all the times and places I found myself along the dash, as a cop, as a civilian, made a tiny difference, sometimes good, sometimes…could have been better.
But I realize that words and actions do matter along the way. Sometimes years later someone will relate to me words I spoke that influenced them, words I don’t recall at all. Interactions matter, with those close to us, with those not so close. Treating people decently, being fair, seeing the good in neighbors, strangers, cashiers, mail carriers, sanitation workers, showing appreciation, it all matters. They see that you see the good in them and it brings out the good in them. It pays forward. It’s all part of the dash. It’s all part of life.
So I guess it’s not just the occupation we choose but what we bring to it, and maybe what we bring to life, to our dash, that counts. And it’s not so much my life or your life…it’s just the unfolding of life…that we are graced to be part of.
The dash –
It’s really a line, but it’s very short…as is life. And we’ll all be coming to the end of the line.
The question is, what difference will we have made along the way?
Shedding a little light wherethesunsontshine
See my alt. blog: http://leebythesea.me