Of Life and Limb

An online dialogue between some old cops reminded this old cop of an incident from the early days of my law enforcement career.  This particular episode of my time in the field was dangerous, amusing, and are-you-kidding-me all in one package. As with many stories of this nature, it started on a slow Thursday night.[i]

The call was to somewhat routine.  One of our regulars was mixing his poisons again. His folks called to let us know he’d run off down the street chasing ghosts or something.  The guy was in his twenties or early thirties, physically and chronologically.  Emotionally and intellectually, he was a damaged teenager on ineffective medication.  Medication which did not interact well with the street drugs and alcohol he’d consumed that evening and many other evenings.

Typically, the guy, let’s call him Larry, would turn up in an hour or two.  He’d either find his way home after sobering up a bit, or one of us would find him somewhere and provide a place for him to sleep it off, whatever “it” was. The concern this evening was the creek or drainage ditch near where he lived. If he’d chased his demons into the creek, it might be challenging to find him or retrieve him.  As it turned out that was the least of our problems.

Several patrol units responded to the area. No one, his folks or the neighbors seemed to have any idea where he might be. Since he wasn’t attracting attention to himself at the moment,  we figured he was either hiding down in the creek, curled up under a porch, or passed out behind someone’s shed or garage. Whatever the reality, walking the area was the only possibility of finding him. Thankfully the neighborhood was small and compact. Still, we had no luck. Then, we got a break.

Someone called and reported hearing cries for help near the south end of Railroad Avenue. Railroad bordered the tracks, stopping just short of the wooded area near the creek. It was the kind of place Larry might hide if he was afraid. Still, when we made it to the location, we couldn’t hear or find anything.

We were about to call it a night and head back to our regular assignments when we heard a faint cry of some sort coming from overhead.  We immediately assumed the “cries for help” were coming from a cat stuck in a tree. Still, we had to check.

Flashlights in those days were not the flame-throwing LED lights of today.  Most were the two D-cell lights the department issued. They were good enough for checking the interior of a car or finding something you dropped.  We did not expect to see much with them unless the cat’s eyes caught the light just right.  Well, it wasn’t a cat, and the eyes of the large pale creature in the tree did not glow.

Larry was in the tree. Not only was he in a tree, he was in the uppermost branches. Not only was he in the topmost branches, he was hanging upside down by one leg which was caught where a large limb forked off the trunk.  Not only was he hanging upside down in a tree fork in the upper reaches of the tree, he was stark naked.

All right! Fire department time! Police officers did not climb trees to rescue cats or people.  That was the smoke eater’s job. True to form, the fire department responded in style, bringing their ladder truck, and all their fancy gear.  Then they called a supervisor, who called the chief, who decided no one from the fire department was going up that ladder to rescue a naked, intoxicated, and stoned psycho, their words not mine.

Now we had a problem. We were street cops.  We were ready willing and able to jump in a lake, dive into a burning car, kick in a door, or do almost anything else necessary to assist someone in distress. Climbing thirty or forty feet up a tree to extract a naked, frightened, drunk, was a bit out of our comfort zones.  Still, some of us were attempting to suck it up enough to at least give it a try when our savior arrived.

Yes, two of our detectives pulled up to see what all the fuss was about. Now, street cops all wanted to be detectives at some point. That did not mean we wanted detectives involved in a situation like this. In many cases, detectives were ill-prepared and ill-equipped to respond to routine police calls.

For instance, there was the time two detectives decided to assist the nightshift with a burglary in progress call. They arrived ahead of the uniformed officers, with no flashlights and no plan. Thankfully, the only injury was when the burglar accidentally shot himself. Perhaps, I’ll write about that near comedic tragedy at a later date. Here, the detectives, at least one of them, was a lifesaver, literally.

His name was Don West. He was one of the smaller guys in the department, and I do not remember him being that fit.  However, he looked at the firefighters and street cops pointing fingers at each other, said a few bad words, took off his sport coat and climbed up the ladder.  Not only did he climb all the way up, but he also managed to calm Larry, help him extract himself from the tree fork, and got him down to the ground.

Once the suspect was on the ground, routine took over.  Larry was dealt with appropriately, and Don went home to clean up and get some rest.  The neighborhood went back to sleep, or whatever they did in the wee hours of the morning.  The excitement and confusion were over for that night.

So, why did I share this story?  Is there a point or moral? There are lessons to be learned from any incident of this nature. Yet, that is not the reason for telling the story here. It is told here to remember Don West.

As I mentioned, Don was not a big guy. He was not trained to rescue people from hanging upside down in a tree, and could easily have taken the position that was not his job. The Fire Department guys who, theoretically at least, underwent rescue training, were refusing to go, and the street cops responsible for the call were waffling, including me. He could have driven off into the night with a clear conscience.

That wasn’t Don though.  He risked life and limb to rescue someone who spent much of his time attempting to drink himself to an early grave.  He had a record of attempted suicides, and everyone knew it was simply a matter of time before he’d succeed. In fact, not long after this incident, he finally did.

Don knew that was a possibility. He knew he was going to risk his life to help someone who was, at best, going to die at an early age of liver problems. Yet, Don did not hesitate to place himself in danger to help someone in distress.  If nothing else, I thought this little bit of Don’s story deserved to be shared.[ii]

[i] Okay, it may not have been a Thursday, but Thursdays were often the slowest night of the week in our part of the world. Also, when something did happen, it was often weird, frightening, unexpected, and different.
[ii] Like a lot of guys Don left our PD to pursue other interests, going on to make a living as a polygraph operator and investigator as I understand it.  Sadly, it appears Don passed away earlier this year, and that is another reason to share this story. May he rest in peace.


© oneoldcop.com – 2019


About S. Eric Jackson

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