An excerpt of the short story Chaser
WAR STORIES FOR MY GRANDCHILDREN
a memoir by Jansen Estrup
Being a cop, any kind of cop, was the last thing I'd have chosen for an occupation.
Not even as a toddler, when I'd run away from a theater showing the frightening film Bambi and been found wandering the militarized streets of Tampa, had I cared for policemen. He had been okay with me, I suppose, but he was nasty with my mother when she showed up at the station carrying my brother on her hip and my sister in her belly. That had been 1942 or so, and I had been two, goin' on three years old.
In the years since I'd come to know deputies and cops as Klansmen and moonshiners, company town thugs and extortionists in Florida, Alabama and Arkansas, and I supposed they were the same everywhere else. All of them, even in the North, were quick to violence, if news reels could be believed. Of course that doesn't mean that all law enforcement officers everywhere were like that, just that all cops I had any experience with, in the places I had traveled, had behaved that way.
One incident remained particularly vivid in my memory.
It had happened only a year or so before, in the Florida city of Jacksonville. I had just gotten off a Trailways coach and wrestled my seabag out of its cavernous hold.
It was late at night, or maybe already after midnight and I looked for a connecting bus to take me out to the Naval Base at Mayport, my newest duty station. As I dragged the bag along filthy terminal sidewalks a seemingly empty bus pulled in. The driver turned on the interior lights, stepped out of the open door and quickly walked away. I saw him nod at two policemen as they approached and they both drew their batons.
For a second I thought they were after me, but they pushed past me as if I wasn't there and entered the bus.
Without a word they began slamming their night sticks against the head and shoulders of a sleeping sailor. The sound those blows made was sickening and as I watched in disbelief a third cop wearing sergeant's stripes walked up and told me to "get movin'," unless I wanted some, too.
I went on inside the terminal but through the slowly closing door I saw the sleeping sailor begin to rouse. Awkwardly, he raised his arms against the blows and slowly he stood up.
"What the hell?" he protested, "What the hell?"
One of the cops backed down the steps, still swinging furiously, but more often than not he hit parts of the bus. The second cop's blows still rained down on the man's shoulders and he shouted, "Swearing at an Officer of the Law, huh?"
In slow motion, like a legendary giant uncoiling from his cave, the sailor advanced down the stairway, both cops walloping on him as he came. He was huge! At least six feet, eight inches tall, he was broad shouldered, powerfully muscled and movie star handsome enough to have played Samson in a Fifties film, perhaps even in real life. He was also so drunk the flailing police clubs seemed hardly to penetrate the fog of his unawareness.
Groping like a sleepwalker, or Frankenstein's monster, he clamped one of his hands onto a chrome bar and hung there while Jacksonville's finest valiantly beat and simultaneously tried to handcuff him ... and he brushed them aside like annoying flies. Gradually I understood that this had happened before, that it was neither an isolated nor unusual incident.
It also occurred to me, as I lost interest, that this was training and possibly punishment as much for the closely supervised cops as it was for the drunken sailor ... and I saw that if they felt free to treat a white man, a serving member of the armed forces with such brutality, it was no wonder that southern cops did not shrink from attacking black women and children with dogs, clubs and fire hoses ... or worse.
No, I didn't want anything at all to do with police work. Not that anyone cared what I wanted. To be as truthful as I can, I quickly and happily forgot the incident. I was newly in love with all of the dreaming, idealized emotions love empowers. Within five months I would be married, transferred again and enrolled in a super secret school, and then, only days after graduation, rejected for duty in that profession.
So I wouldn't be going to Alaska for a year. Instead I was abruptly ordered to Virginia, to the Receiving Station at Norfolk, to await further transfer, probably to Vietnam.
But that didn't happen right away, not for months. In the meantime I was assigned to one of the oddest quarters I have ever seen. "X" Barracks, it was called.
Self contained, it had the feel of an old European city except instead of stone it was made of wood, much like hundreds of other Navy barracks, and painted pea green and gray like all the rest, and had a salty old petty officer in charge.
So what was different, European? For one thing, the POiC (Petty Officer in Charge) seemed to think of himself as royalty, as a Squire, perhaps, and this barracks as the seat of his power. He sat behind a desk at one end of the long building and his desk was on a raised platform behind a heavy mesh fence and locked steel door. Seated, he seemed above us, glaring down if he chose or benign when it suited him.
Dispatch was his business and he sent his charges out on missions as if they were knights after foul highwaymen, abducted maidens or wayward dragons. Out there, somewhere, a king had gathered his knights into armies and a great and glorious mission was crossing the seas, but it did not affect me, not yet, or the Squire either. His name was Coontz and that lent a poetic feel to his nickname. Squire Coontz. All business was conducted across his desk through a rectangular opening. Day and night, it seemed, he sat there wearing his badges of office, three blood red chevrons and a fore-arm full of service stripes (at least six of them) on undress Navy Blues.
His title was Chief Master-at-Arms, but he was not a Chief or a Master-at-Arms, either (that rating would not be initiated for another ten years or so). Rather, as I read the Blue Jacket's Manual, he wore the rating badge of a Bosun's Mate. Somewhere above and behind him must have been a chief petty officer, a commissioned officer, perhaps of the Judge Advocate General's Corps, certainly someone wearing a title like Provost, who might have been the actual royalty.
Regardless, Squire Coontz was my new boss and also my only point of contact for bed assignments, clean linen, laundry, meals, mail, daily orders, liberty passes, pay and ultimately, the Bureau orders which would put me back on the road to a ‘career'.
If he was the Sheriff of RecSta County, over time, at least unofficially, I became his chief deputy. I was given no choice at all in the matter. I'd never wanted to be a cop, but suddenly I was one.
The training I was given to earn that title was bizarre. Only moments after my first breakfast I was in a van headed for the pistol range. I was shown a .38 caliber pistol with a four inch barrel and instructed to fire ten rounds at a target some 25 feet away. As told, I loaded five rounds in the cylinder, fired them off, reloaded the cylinder with five more cartridges and squeezed them off, too. Altogether I hit my target nine times and six of the holes were actually inside a series of concentric circles.
"Great," muttered the guy who ran the firing range. "You passed."
Being a Navy Petty Officer, wearing the ‘crow', the embroidered eagle... that was the main criterion. That I was a brand new Third Class PO did not matter. Somewhere, some commanding officer had signed his name to a document which pronounced me ready for ‘greater responsibility' and depending upon circumstances that might mean anything from carrying trash cans to commanding a 70 foot liberty launch ... or more. I'd even been told the true story of a Chief Petty Officer at Pearl Harbor who suddenly found himself in command of a sinking battleship and he won the Medal of Honor for running it aground clear of the main channel so that other vessels could escape the trap.
Who knew what I'd be expected to do.
Back at X Barracks I was issued a white web belt and holster cover and told to keep them immaculately clean. I laughed. The grubby set I held in my hand seemed never to have been washed and I doubted I could make it look white again.
Then I was given a black leather holster and two matching cases, one to hold a pair of hand cuffs, the other for spare ammunition.
Right after came a heavy duty belt loop and the hard black nightstick I was to wear on my left hip.
There was a chipped white helmet liner, a black brassard with the letters S and P in gold to wear on my arm and a chrome whistle.
Finally, with great ceremony, I was issued an ornate white lanyard which I was to wear around my neck like a noose (the other end clipped onto a pistol butt) and my own pistol. I was told to memorize its serial number, never let it out of my sight, to be certain I was strangled to death with the lanyard if anyone tried to take my ‘piece' away from me ... and most importantly, to expect to be buried forever in paperwork if I ever shot anybody.
When the rude ceremony was over, Squire Coontz informed me that I had the rest of the day off, but beginning at 1600 hrs, I had ‘the duty'.
Two hours later I sat watching TV, waiting to be called into action. Less than 36 hours earlier I'd just sat down to breakfast with the wife and children I hadn't seen for more than six months. Only the day before I had flown in from Pensacola excitedly babbling about my next duty station, promising that I would do everything possible to get them all up to Alaska with me. No more long separations, no more absentee fathering. We'd spent a fine day together, and the evening had been good, too. Carole and I had drinks down the street at the lounge where we'd met and fallen instantly into passion, then love.
After six months apart, we looked forward to my leave, ten whole days together with no one to interrupt. She made an awesome breakfast. Three eggs over medium, thick bacon broiled slowly so that the fat drained off, whole wheat toast and real butter, orange slices and a garnish of parsley. The little apartment smelled marvelous and the kids, still in their pajamas, climbed on me as I ate. But only a bite or two into the feast there was a knock on the door.
It was too early for visitors. I looked at Carole with raised eyebrows. She shrugged and went to the door.
"Western Union," she said as she returned. "Its for you and you have to sign for it."
‘What the hell,' I thought, scribbling my name on the boy's form. Stunned, I read, "Orders issued 06NOV65 by Naval Security Group WashDC hereby canceled. Report NLT (not later than) 2400 hrs 28NOV65 to RecSta, Norfolk VA for further assignment."
I looked at my watch. November 28th.That was today!
I had about 14 hours to get there! This had to be a mistake, but it was Sunday and Washington was closed down. Norfolk was hundreds of miles away. I had neither phone numbers or contacts.
The only good thing about it was that I had not been home long enough to unpack my seabag. It had been a miserable trip. I'd been late just a few minutes, but managed to talk myself out of being put on report as an ‘Absent With Out Leave', because technically I still had nine days leave left, but who knew which orders carried more weight, which superceded which.
And so, a flight, a bus, a taxi later, then a further blur, a target range, odds and ends, badges of authority, a quick shower, another chow line. Here I was. In front of the TV I wore myself out with anxious speculation and had to fight to stay awake. By 2300 I was dozing fitfully in a torn up lounge chair.
"Hey, Bud, you the duty chaser?" I was jostled awake by someone kicking my foot.
"Yeh," I grunted, trying to get my eyes open. Something hard and flat dropped in my lap, a clipboard with several pages fluttering about it.
"Got a job. Down at the Dispensary. Norfolk cops're waitin' to turn him over to you. OOD (Officer of the Day) wants him confined out at the Brig."
Whoever it was walked away before I saw him properly or could think of any questions to ask, like ‘where are the Dispensary and Brig?' ‘ What had the guy done?' ‘ Who do I report to?' An Apprentice Seaman came over as I got to my feet.
"I'm Boggs, your driver." he said.
"Great. You know where the Dispensary is?"
"And the Brig?" He hesitated a moment, then said, "I think so."
"Great," I said and followed him out to a gray Dodge panel truck with US Navy stenciled on it in five or six places. A few minutes later we were racing across the darkened base to an ordinary single story building.
In the tiny parking lot were two civilian police cars. One of the four cops walked over to me as I got out of the truck. "Just sign here," he said, holding his finger on a big red "X".
"The guy's inside. I already got my cuffs. He's been real quiet ..."
Without a word I signed my name and rate by the "X" and the cop walked away mumbling again and again, "He's been real quiet .... real quiet ...." until he got back to his squad car. Then, with a loud guffaw, he shouted, "... real quiet ... TONIGHT!!!"
Then all of the cops started laughing, jumped into their vehicles and rushed away into the darkness.
Still groggy and too ignorant to be worried, I took my flashlight and went into the Sick Bay. For some reason most of the lights were out and no one was around, but I heard voices and as I went toward them I thought someone might be crying.
I followed the sound and in a back room, huddled against a corner desk cringed a small woman wearing the uniform of a Navy Nurse. A desk lamp illuminated her but she was half hidden by the towering bulk of a man who seemed to loom over her. He would have loomed over me, I saw at once and was instantly afraid of him, even though he waved his arms slowly and hunched his shoulders as though in some great pain. The crying sounds were coming from him.
"Hey, Sailor," I said with much more authority than I felt, "Sit down, here. Can't you see you're scaring the poor kid?"
Inwardly I cringed at the familiarity and disrespect I was showing to a commissioned officer, one greatly senior to my own rank. How much trouble could I get into all at once?
The hulk turned on me instantly and I stepped back. Suddenly remembering my night stick, I gripped its handle.
But the man's huge face was not angry. More tears flowed out and he blubbered, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry." He collapsed into a chair and covered his face with huge hands. He reeked of booze.
Emboldened, I took out my handcuffs, wondering if he'd give me time to learn how they worked, if he'd permit me to put them on him. Without seeming too incompetent, I got them on his thick wrists and when I finished he looked up at me.
"Where will I sleep tonight?" he asked tearfully.
"I'll get you a good bed," I told him. "Come on, now."
The nurse signed where it affirmed that my prisoner was physically fit to be jailed and I led him out to the truck.
Behind me she turned the Dispensary's lights back on. Who had turned them off, I wondered. Cops?
My prisoner was docile enough, and cooperative. "I'm sorry," he kept repeating.
Stoically, he sat on a steel bench and I shut up the wide doors, closed the hasp and slipped the heavy padlock into place. We left the base without incident and my driver found the four-lane without trouble. This late at night there was hardly any traffic.
"I think the Brig is three or four miles down here on the right," Boggs told me. We were going about sixty five or seventy when I heard a great bellow from behind me, followed by a tremendous crash. The van rocked on its chassis as if someone had rammed us, but the noise came from inside.
I flashed my light through the expanded metal barrier and saw my prisoner on the floor. He gathered himself like a great spring and uncoiled against the van's back doors with a second fierce grunt. His heals slammed into the steel, about the right height to hit the hasp with maximum force.
It was a loud, terrible blow. The doors flew open and the giant's momentum carried him along the floor until his legs dangled outside the truck bed. The doors flung back against his knees and he shouted out with pain, but he was still mostly within the speeding, lurching vehicle.
"Goddamn you!" I shouted, "Don't move a muscle!"
Still handcuffed, he had nothing to hold onto. "Should I stop?" Boggs was trying to see behind us, trying to drive, doing neither very well.
"How far to go?"
"Don't know," he said, guardedly, "maybe a mile."
"Keep drivin'," I told him, "and keep your eyes on the road."
"You're gonna shoot me, aren't you!?" Wailed the colossus.
Shoot him? Oh, sure. It would be hard enough to explain how a manacled prisoner gets a locked van open and falls out at seventy miles an hour, probably to his horrible death. What possible reasoning could explain bullet holes in his shattered, bruised and tarmac burned body?
But he seemed worried about it, so in my most terrible voice I growled, "You damned right, Asshole! You even twitch and I'll start shootin'!"
Shit, it quickly occurred to me, if he was suicidal, I was offering him an easy, painless way to go. I didn't have my pistol out. It wasn't even loaded, but he didn't know that, and pretty soon it became evident that he didn't want to die at all, not from any cause.
Nevertheless, I played the game hard, knowing that his life and my future depended upon it. I kept my flashlight focused on him, as though my being able to see him prohibited any action. Did he believe that? I hoped so.
After the endless seconds slipped by I sensed the driver changing lanes to make his turn. "That's it," I reassured the giant, "don't move. You won't fall out. Just relax. It won't be long now. You'll be in a nice clean bed, fast asleep before you know it."
The panel truck ate up the distance at 70 miles per hour, but the seconds dragged on and on. I needed them to drag out, to give me time to think.
"He still there?" Boggs asked, desperate as me.
"Yeh, now shut up." At least he had something to do, and before I had any sort of plan working in my head he was slowing down, taking a right turn into the darkness. I still had no idea what to do and began to panic.
"Its up here. See the lights?"
And then we were on it, a double fenced enclosure with rows of low buildings inside. Brilliant flood lights illuminated everything. The guard house stood in front of the first gate.
"Pull in here," I told Boggs, "facing the guard house ... closer, and keep your lights on."
I jumped out of the truck on stiff legs, hoping I looked nonchalant, and ambled up to the guard, a corporal who squinted at me through weary eyes. I had no idea what formalities applied in a prisoner turnover, so I did to the Marine what the Norfolk Police had done to me.
"Sign here," I shoved my clipboard in his face. "The guy's no problem," I lied skillfully.
"Right," the Jarhead said, indifferently. How easy it was, as if it all unfurled out of thin air, or out of my ass. I dropped the clipboard through the truck's window as I passed by to the bent, broken doors at the rear.
"Okay, Buddy," I said softly to the quiescent sailor and fumbled with my cuff key, "this is where you'll sleep tonight."
He simply nodded, as if ready to lay his head down. After only two tries, I got the cuffs off of him.
"Now just stand up. That's it. When we get around here just walk right up to the man and tell him you want a room, okay?"
"Yeh, thanks, thanks," he mumbled as I led him out of the shadows into the brilliant glare.
"Good luck," I said and jumped into the passenger seat. "Go!" I told Boggs, "Get the hell out of here!"
As he gunned the engine I heard the giant's voice peal like thunder, "MARINES?!!!"
And while the old Dodge's wheels spun in the gravel the brig's claxon horns all sounded an urgent camp-wide alarm.
Moments later we were out on the highway, a cold wind rushing through the truck, rear doors flapping like sarcastic applause.
Boggs and I laughed loudly for a moment or two, then hardly said a word all the way back to the base.