They worked in the path of violent death…where bullets do fly…and families do cry.
The entire country witnessed the funeral of Det. Steven Mcdonald at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in NYC. Bullets fired into his body had changed his life forever some 30 years ago. But those bullets unleashed a spirit of forgiveness in him that touched the hearts of a nation. No doubt about it, Steven McDonald was a hero of the spirit and deserving of all our notice, honor and respect.
But at the same time as his Mass, where he was mourned, and deservedly praised in New York’s hallowed cathedral I walked into the humble church of St. William the Abbott in Seaford, NY. I came to mourn, honor, and remember Police Officer Thomas W Barrett, retired veteran of the New York City Transit Police.
The church was nearly empty as I walked in about ten minutes before the 10:00 a m Mass. I was met by Fr. Augustine near the door. He told me there were three Masses this morning, he was celebrating Tom’s Mass.
Amazing Grace played as the NYC Police Department’s Honor Guard, in military precision, preceded Tom’s family down the aisle. I took note of the various name plates of the officers: Nolan, Rosado, Toto, Schwab, so indicative of today’s NYC multicultural police force. Tom’s ashes, in a polished wooden box, were placed on a table just forward of the altar.
I too intend cremation, my ashes to be cast along the Long Beach shore where I spend many a morning with the gulls, the sea, the sand and the sky. But at the wake, Tom’s wife, Sabina had told me with a gentle smile, “Tom said, ‘Let them cremate me then take me back home.’”
It was the comforting phrase , “take me back home,” that caught my attention. Yes, I thought, “that works for me too. Take me home till I’m no longer a vivid memory to anyone, then cast my ashes to the Long Beach shore.” Tom, you still give me some good ideas.
There were about 50 mourners present as Fr. Augustine spoke of how Tom was so proud to serve as a police officer. He spoke of what a loving husband and father he was to his family, his wife, Sabina, his son, Thomas and daughter, Denise.
As Fr. Augustine spoke I eyed the beautiful banner that read, “Thomas is at peace in the arms of the Lord.” I had decided to write a post about Tom so I wanted a close-up photo of that banner. I also wanted a photo of the Honor Guard who marched solemnly down the aisle. But I could not violate the sacred moments. However, I did intend to at least take a photo of the banner at the end of the Mass.
As the mourners made their way toward the lobby I’d make my move. But long before I was able to leave the pew, I saw the dutiful woman assigned to the task take the banner down, lay it upon some seats, and change Thomas to Ellen, the decedent of the next Mass. Alas…too late Tom.
But I did move quickly to the center table that had held Tom’s ashes, getting there just before the dutiful lady. I took a photo of the framed shots of Tom in uniform. But the lady, soon at my side, awaited the finish of my effort. I thanked her for her patience but I knew if I were just a moment late it would have been Ellen’s photos I show you here:
I worked with Tom on New York’s subway platforms and trains where the sun never shines. I also rode next to him for many hours in a Transit Police RMP, (patrol car) responding to crime in the subway, responding to people injured, responding to people under subway trains. I also rode with him for a year or two when we car pooled to work.
We got to chat often, of course and we got to know each other a bit. My most lasting memory is of Tom as a gentleman, a reliable partner of integrity and just a really nice guy to work with. I think most cops would want nothing more to be remembered by.
Retired officers of the New York CityTransit Police are an aging legion. Those who did not die by gunfire or other violent means succumb, as do we all, to natural causes. Tom came close to dying by the former method when he worked a post-retirement job.
As many of us retired law enforcers do Tom worked in security. He last worked in that position at St.Francis Hospital, Roslyn, NY, the hospital where he ultimately was admitted and died.
But long before that day he worked for a security company involved in protecting revenue. And as Tom was delivering a satchel of said revenue into a building he noticed a man wearing a tool belt, but one of the “tools” in the belt…was a handgun.
Before Tom could react the man pointed the gun at him and pulled the bag by its strap down Tom’s arm. But the strap hooked onto Tom’s watch and didn’t release past the wrist readily. The gunman apparently interpreted this release failure as Tom trying to maintain hold of the bag. They struggled and both went to the floor.
Then the gunman did what gunmen do…he fired his gun into Tom’s chest. But Tom was wearing a bullet proof vest. Stunned and injured Tom pursued the gunman but could not apprehend him.
Were it not for Tom’s bullet proof vest he’d have been mourned decades ago. He’d have been robbed of many years of his family, the NY Rangers, the NY Mets and time on the links. Tom was an exceptional softball player for the NY Transit Police team and is being nominated to their Hall of Fame.
As the Honor Guard and the mourners exited the church the air was filled with “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory”, also known as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” And it is battle that some of us are assigned to perform for America. Yes, some of us chose to serve and protect and in that service even do battle to keep the rest of us safe. And when I heard the phrase, “His truth is marching on,” I could not help but think of today’s truth before me this day.
Tom’s funeral didn’t warrant national attention, nor will mine, nor will the thousands of other officers across America who die of natural causes. But he, and all the other Toms of America were the living body armor of us all as they served in the path of violent death.
Officers like them rise each morning across America. They buckle on the gear of their trade, with armor their families hope is adequate, to go out to protect their fellow Americans.
Day after day, decade after decade they do this noble work. Some will die in blasts of fire and steel in desperate efforts by the evil or insane among us. Some will be ambushed, assassinated. Some will be have bullet-severed nerves which will leave their limbs limp…yet incredibly forgive the inflictor of lifetime quadriplegia.
But most police officers will never have gunfire used upon them nor fire their own weapons in mortal combat. But they will have to use necessary force to effect arrests.
They are demanded to use just the “goldilocks” amount of force. A force not so insufficient that fierce resistance to arrest results in their injury or death. But not too forceful as to bring a charge of brutality, costing them their livelihood, their liberty or their reputations forever ruined by videos looped again and again on the evening news.
But buckle up, they will. Serve, they will. Protect, they do…in the path of violent death.
May we keep all of them in our thoughts and prayers, all of them in our appreciation, all of them…in our love.
P.S. After posting, I received this elusive banner photo along with some wonderful words of appreciation from Tom’s daughter, Denise. Thank you, Denise for completing this post so beautifully and may you and your family be forever grateful to have had such a wonderful dad in your lives. May I again extend sincere condolences from myself and all of Tom’s Brothers and Sisters in Blue.
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