When I was a patrolman, I got called to the same mobile home park every shift. It was a well-known trouble spot; there was at least one on every beat. We all tried to do community outreach in those places. The residents were beaten down from juggling too many needs and not enough money and they didn’t especially like cops, so we made friends with the kids. Shot hoops or kicked a ball around with them if we had time, hoping to store up credit against the day when we’d need friends in their neighborhood.
I usually worked midnights, the time when whatever was wrong in somebody’s life seemed unbearable and solutions were only cruel jokes. When the inevitable 911 call came and my black and white appeared at the mobile home park in response, people boiled out of their doors to watch whatever entertainment was on offer that night. The park had three main dirt roads running through it, and a lamentable lack of house numbers, so I’d just pick a road and drive until I saw a crowd. On this night, I came upon the gathering early. When I got out of my squad car, I was surrounded by people all talking at once, telling me about a bad guy, drunk or high out of his mind, running through the park with a baseball bat breaking windows.
“Here he comes!” a woman shouted, pointing over my shoulder.
Turning, I saw a large man running toward me full tilt, baseball bat raised, ready to make scrambled eggs out of my brains. My training kicked in. Reflexively, I drew my duty weapon, aimed at center mass as I’d been taught, and started to pull back on the trigger. Then a blue flash flew across my field of vision. By some miracle, I was able to stop and point my pistol at the sky.
The baseball bat clattered to the ground. The guy had his arms full of a little kid, maybe three or four years old, in blue footie pajamas. Against his chest, he cradled the boy who’d leaped through the air into his Daddy’s arms.
There was a roaring in my ears. I’d come so close, so damn close to shooting that baby. The whole thing happened in a nanosecond, but it would reverberate in my head for the rest of my life.
Thirty years later, I’d made rank and no longer patrolled the streets, but the streets…they still patrolled me. I was one of the old guys now, nearing retirement, but I dreamed sometimes about the little boy who almost took a bullet for his father. I’d see him flying through the air into my line of fire and sometimes I could stop my trigger finger and sometimes I couldn’t. I’d jolt awake, shaking with the same adrenaline rush I’d felt that night. I usually got up then, knowing there’d be no more sleep.
I’d sit at the kitchen table and drink coffee from a thick mug that said, “World’s Best Dad,” and think about that little boy. He must be an adult with a family of his own by now. I wished I could see him, just to know that he was all right. Odds were against him – poverty stacks the deck – but I hoped he’d grown up okay. I didn’t even know his name.
Life has a funny way of working out. I was sitting in the court house waiting to be called to testify before the grand jury when one of the young Assistant District Attorneys came over and introduced himself.
“Hi, I’m Jeremiah Jackson,” he said, sticking out his hand. “You don’t remember me, but I know you.”
“You do? How?”
“You spared my life a long time ago. I was too young to remember, but Dad told me the story of that night over and over – how I ran out in my little blue p.j.’s and jumped off the porch onto him, how you could have shot us, but you didn’t. My Dad changed after that. He quit drinking and got a job. He said he had a second chance because you were one of the good guys. It made a huge impression on me as a kid. I wanted to be one of the good guys, too. In fact, that’s why I went for a job in the D.A.’s office.”
“You can’t be that kid from the mobile home park!”
“I sure am. Got a little boy of my own now. My wife laughs at me for making sure he always has a pair of blue pajamas.”