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Graveyard shift—those eight long and often mind-numbing hours between midnight and the time your relief signs on to take over your beat. It’s boring. It’s exciting. It’s sleep-depriving. And it’s getting dressed while everyone else in your household is undressing, putting on pajamas, and crawling between the sheets for a good night’s rest in a set and toasty-warm bed.

Speaking of getting dressed … there’s a daily ritual for cops—shower and shave, slip on underwear and t-shirt—rookies will quickly learn that it’s best to put on their socks at this point. You’ll see why in a moment. It’s also important to note that not all officers shave as part of the daily routine. Some simply don’t need to. For example, my wife, if she’d chosen to become a police officer instead of a scientist, would have the luxury of skipping this step.

Next comes the vest. You’ve left the upper Velcro straps in place to allow you to slip the entire contraption over your head like a 7lb sweater. So over the head it goes, followed by pulling the side straps taut and securing them in place. Of course, you never get it right the first time, so you riiiiipp the Velcro loose and do it again and again until the fit is just right.

The shirt is a process all to itself—pinning on the badge and other shiny do-dads in their appropriate places (sort of like decorating a polyester Christmas tree), and inserting a couple of ink pens in the sewn-in pen slot beside the breast pocket. After a quick check to be sure your name tag is not upside down, you slip on the pre-adorned shirt, pulling and twisting to make it lay properly over the vest.

Time for the pants. Out of necessity, you’ve placed them in a spot that doesn’t doesn’t require bending too far, because the vest has already limited your movements just a bit. Now, tuck the tails of the vest inside the waist band of the pants and thread a belt through the loops so your pants won’t fall down. Goodness knows, once you’re fully dressed it would require a huge effort to reach ALL the way to your ankles to pull your pants up again (now do you understand the socks issue?).

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Front and rear vest panels. The top two straps on the rear panel are often left attached to the front panel to allow slipping the entire vest over the head like a sweater, or t-shirt. The material at the bottom of each panel is tucked into the pants like a shirt tail. Obviously, the front panel (with the “U” shaped cutout) is for the “convenience” of male wearers during a trip to the restroom. Use your imaginations to determine the need for the opening in the material.

Shoes … They’re shiny and squeaky clean because that’s how you roll. Look sharp. Act sharp. Be sharp. One last, quick swipe with a cloth just in case a speck of dust has landed on the toes.

Next comes the duty belt/utility belt, with all its bells and whistles already in place. And yes, it’s heavy. Imagine strapping a bowling ball to your waist each day prior to heading off to work.

 

Securely connect the buckle hooks/clasps/snaps and then loop a few belt keepers around the duty belt and the belt holding up your pants. The last step is IMPORTANT. 

 

 

Belt Keepers

Without belt keepers, the thin straps made of leather or nylon with snap closures, the duty belt would easily and quickly fall down to your ankles, especially when running/chasing someone through a dark alley. Embarrassing, right?

Hamilton One 046

 

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Two belt keepers positioned between handcuff cases

Time to go to work, and by now everyone in the house is already asleep. So you tip-toe to the back door, with leather squeaking, keys jingling, and Velcro crackling all the way.

Outside, the neighborhood is pitch-dark, and still with the exceptions of a lone cricket chirping in the backyard and the owl who hooty-hoots at random times throughout the night.

The only lights on are a streetlamp at the corner and the sliver of yellow slicing through the narrow opening of the curtains at the front window in the house across the street, where you know the widow Jones is peeking outside. Tomorrow morning she’ll be there again so she can report to the rest of the neighborhood what time you went to work and what time you returned home. After all, they pay your salary and Mrs. Jones is not at all shy about reminding you of it, either.

Time to get into the car so you unlock the door, open it quietly, and then gently slide into the seat. I say gently, because if there’s even a tiny bit of love handle at your waist, that soft, floppy flesh will be severely pinched between the bottom edge of the Kevlar vest and the top edge of the duty belt somewhere near the pepper spray canister or your sidearm—a real eye-opening, tear-inducing way to start the shift.

You take care to gently close the door. Again, I say gently but this time it’s because  without fail, the sound of the door slamming shut causes the eruption of a cacophonous symphony of varying tones and pitches of yips, yaps, and howls from dozens of hyper-alert dogs, all from within a three block radius.

Thirty minutes later, at your first call of the night, you find yourself rolling around in the smelliest mud you’ve ever encountered, trying to handcuff two burglars who’d decided to lead you on a foot chase through the fairgrounds where, by the way, you realized the circus is in town and that what you’re rolling around in is not mud. Instead, it’s what elephants, horses, and other animals left behind while waiting for their time under the big top.

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And so it goes … night after night after night.

Look sharp. Act sharp. Be sharp.

Yeah, right …

 

The Graveyard Shift

It’s four in the morning, the halfway point of the graveyard shift, and fatigue is slowly gaining control of your eyelids. It’s a subtle move, like grasping the string on your grandmother’s window shades, slowly pulling them down. The Sandman’s gentle action is so gracefully executed that, well, you hardly notice it.

Thinking about your family asleep in their warm beds, you turn onto a side street and then into a narrow alleyway, trying to find a place to pull over. Five minutes. That’s all you need.

Shouldn’t have spent those three hours today playing with the kids when you could’ve been sleeping. Still, that’s the only time you get to see them awake. And, someone had to mow the lawn this afternoon, right? And the leaky kitchen sink drain needed fixing. Not to mention helping with homework assignments.

Oh yeah, tomorrow is the day you’re supposed to go to your third-grader’s class to tell them about police officers. How long could it take? One or two hours at the most, right? Well, there is the lunch afterward. Another hour. After all, you promised. Besides, it’s impossible to say no to those sweet brown eyes and minus-one-tooth smile.

Sleep. You need sleep.

Your headlights wash over the back of the alley as feral dogs and cats scramble out of the dumpster that sits behind a bakery like an old and tired dinosaur who’s mere days away from extinction.

The knot of animals scatter loaves of two-day-old bread in their haste to escape the human intruder who dared meddle with their nocturnal feeding. A speckled mutt with three legs hobbled behind a rusty air conditioning unit, dragging a long, dirty bag half-filled with crumbled bagels.

file00018255783You move on, shining your spotlight at the rear doors of a five and dime, an auto parts store, a barber shop, and the real estate office you used when buying your house. Only twenty more years to financial freedom and the joy of seeing the first AARP invitation-to-join letter in the mail.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe night air is damp with fog, dew, and city sweat that reeks of gasoline and garbage.

Tendrils of steam rise slowly from storm drains—ghostly, sinewy figures melting into the black sky.

Mannequins stare into infinity from tombs of storefront glass, waiting for daylight to take away the flashing neon lights that reflect from their plaster skin.

Desperate to close your own eyes, just for a minute or two, you park at the rear of the next alley, alongside a stack of flattened cardboard boxes. Their labels reflect someone’s life for the week—chicken, baby food, lettuce, disposable diapers, cigarettes, and two-dollar wine.

Four more hours. If you can only make it for four more hours…

Suddenly, a voice spews from the speaker behind your head, “Shots fired. Respond to 1313 Mockingbird Lane. Back up is en route.”

“10-4. I’m en route.”

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And so it goes. Night, after night, after night …

The Other Graveyard Shift

It’s believed by some that the graveyard shift (not this blog) got its name from people who accidentally buried their loved ones while Aunt Sue, Uncle Jack, or dear old grandma were still alive.

Believing the “dearly departed” had gone on to their reward, these folks fitted an unconscious or comatose Uncle Bill or Grandma with a new outfit and a spiffy pine box. Then they buried them in the local cemetery where night workers claimed to hear the dead screaming for help from below the ground.

When the gravediggers pulled the coffins from the earth to see what caused the ruckuses, they sometimes found scrape marks on the casket lids, indicating the person inside had tried to claw their way out before finally succumbing to a lack of oxygen.

He’s a “dead-ringer”

To remedy the situation, caskets were fitted with a long string that reached from inside the buried coffin to a bell up on the surface. This enabled the “dead” person to ring the bell should he awaken after his burial. Workers could then quickly rescue the living dead.

It’s debatable as to the validity of this tale, but it makes for an interesting story, especially for police officers who have cemeteries to patrol in their precincts. This bell-ringing story may have also been the inspiration for early tales of zombie activity.

 

Working the dreaded graveyard shift is bad enough as it is, but when you add the extra stress of working it alone, well, then it sometimes becomes downright dangerous. But I’ve done it and so have many police officers across the country who work in small towns and counties. In my case it was a county—my first law enforcement assignment—and the land area wasn’t all that small. But, our sheriff had his way of running things and no one was brave enough to contradict the larger than life man behind the curtain. So working alone it was.

Often, working the midnight shift is slow and lonely, especially after 2 a.m. (10 p.m. – 2 a.m. are the action hours, usually). You spend your late-night patrol time fighting sleep while listening to anything you can find on the radio. Even AM radio farm reports about the latest hog feed options or manure spreading techniques are better than total silence.

Then there’s the constant battle with that mandatory piece of equipment worn by all graveyard shift officers—the invisible string attached to the eyelids, the one that attempts to yank them down much like pulling the cord on grandma’s old-time window shades. By the way, the force generated by the eyelid-string-pull is somewhere in the range of three times the earth’s gravitational pull.

So you’re out there in the wee hours along with packs of feral dogs and cats and raccoons who, for their tasty evening meals, raid garbage cans and dumpsters. A drive along a town’s main street reveals back-lit mannequins—some headless and handless—standing watch in storefront windows, the only objects remotely resembling another human.

Wispy tendrils of steam rise out of the storm drains, twisting and winding their way upward toward the black sky. Out in the county, your spotlight reveals “things” hiding between silos and tractor sheds that may or may not be there. Only your mind knows for sure … sort of.

Images of a nice, warm, soft bed and pillow play on a never-ending loop inside your mind.

But there are some moments of excitement and action that  and working an entire county alone poses some interesting problems … like getting to a crime scene before your shift ends in four hours.

The trip across our county from east to west, with blue lights and siren wailing and flashing ,respectively, and gas pedal to the floor, was 30 minutes or so. That’s nonstop as the crow flies. North to south was even further. Much further. Diagonally, though, if a deputy was patrolling in the far southwest corner and received a call in the far northeast, well, let’s just say that we hoped the complainant knew how to shoot or had a pack of viscous attack dogs handy, because we’d have to stop for gas twice and to pull over at least once to enjoy a bag lunch before we’d reach the location.

And that’s if our radios were capable of receiving a signal in the deepest, darkest corners of the county. To make matters worse, since interstates do not run diagonally, that meant dodging deer, ‘possums, and and other critters, maybe even an occasional cow who’d slipped through a broken fence, while traveling on winding and roller-coaster-like country roads for a good portion of the trip.

Daytime shifts in rural areas present their own challenges. You know, like when you’re running full lights and sirens because someone has just been shot, and suddenly find yourself behind a large farm tractor pulling some sort of bright green farm machinery that covering the entire roadway and both shoulders? And, of course, Bubba Jenkins is chattering away on his CB radio while scooting along at a breath-taking 4 miles-per-hour. He can’t hear your siren over the roar of the equipment and he never, not ever, turns around to see what’s behind.

So you’re left with no choice but to find a shallow spot in the ditch and crash through it sending everything inside your car flying—coffee cup under the brake pedal, papers on the dashboard, handcuffs under the seat and, well, you get the idea. Then you plow through an acre or so of corn in order to pass the plaid-shirted tobacco-chewer who turned and spat a nice wad through your open window just as you finally made your way past his mammoth tires.

Then, to top off the trip, you arrive at the scene, a grassless front yard littered with empty beer cans, used diapers, a couple of tractor tires painted white and filled with half-dead pansies, and a Ford engine block with four-foot weeds growing up and through the cylinder block. There, you discover an entire family, along with several shirtless friends, fighting like they’re the feature “act” in one of those ridiculous TV wresting matches. And, they’ve chosen large hunting knives as their weapons du jour.

So you yell out, “Junior!” at the top of your lungs, knowing that at least half of the crew will stop fighting long enough to see who’s calling their given names (Yes, I knew a man whose actual, honest-to-goodness name was Junior. And, of course, his son was … wait for it … Junior, Jr).

The name-yelling was sometimes enough to scatter the ones who had outstanding warrants or who were parole or probation violators. Then you could arrest the remaining half-dozen, or so. Of course, first you’d have to stand toe-to-toe and argue with the wives of each of the offenders, and you don’t want to arrest them because each one has at least one snotty-nosed diaper-wearing kid hanging from a hip. And there’s always a one-eyed, three-legged dog named Bear or Blue or Lucky nipping at your ankles during this entire mess.

Just as you’re about to ratchet the cuffs on the largest of the suspects (if you only have one pair of cuffs, always handcuff the behemoth who’s most likely the one who could inflict the most amount of pain on your already battered and tired body), your radio crackles…”Shots fired … unintelligible …. at the unintelligible … use … unintelligible … 10-4?”

Anyway, that’s how it goes sometimes when you’re working an entire shift, alone. Other times, especially at night, it can be downright nerve-wracking not knowing what’s at the other end of that driveway, the one where you hear gunshots echoing off dented aluminum siding and rusty tin roofs.

But you do what you gotta do to keep your sanity, even if it means finding the end of a long dirt road, stopping the car, turning out the lights, and closing your eyes for a few minutes as Delilah tells some poor love-sick guy, “She’s gone for good, but here’s song that’ll make you feel better about yourself …”

ZZZZZZZ……

Police radio crackles. Eyes open, wide.

“Automobile crash at the intersection of …”

And so it goes … hoping you’ll reach the crash scene before daylight, because it occurred at the far top corner of the county, the area you just left 30 minutes ago.