Starting Out

My first police job was as a railroad cop. Most people don’t know it, but railroads are permitted to form police departments – not security departments – and appoint actual police officers to protect their far-flung property and interests. In the 1970s, the government took a bunch of failing railroads in the northeast, and combined them into ConRail. In March of 1977, I was appointed to the ConRail Police Department.

I don’t know how railroad policing may have changed since the 1970s, but back then it was dangerous, dirty work. Freight yards and rail lines are inherently dangerous; the footing is bad, there is debris all about, and trains aren’t gentle things. If you are far back from the engine, your first clue that a freight train is moving is when it jerks into sudden motion in front of you. In rail yards, the freight cars are shoved nearly silently into long dark tracks between other trains, with little room to spare, or cut loose to roll silently through the yard.

On at least two occasions, my fellow officers – one was actually a high-ranking boss – told me quite explicitly that they would kill me if I should ever say anything negative about them to someone in authority.

And then there were the thieves we were supposed to be deterring. Several of my colleagues had been shot while patrolling freight yards alone; one had been abducted and shot in the face at point-blank range. A guy I was working with quit suddenly after being hit over the head with an iron bar.

So I walked the freight yards with my issued .38 on my hip, a short-barreled .38 in a shoulder holster under my jacket, and a heavy blackjack in my hip pocket.

My first assignment after completing my minimal training was on the midnight shift, covering the former Erie-Lackawanna Main Line from the yard in urban Paterson, NJ to the yard in rural Hillburn, NY. The freight in Paterson was pillaged routinely and extensively. The yard in Hillburn was a feeder for the Ford assembly plant in nearby Mahwah, NJ, and had become a target for tire thieves. Before I was posted there, a group was taking a truck into the yard during the night a couple of times a week, and filling it with tires meant for the Ford plant.

About three o’clock one morning, I left the Hillburn yard and started down the two-lane state highway to the village of Suffern. As I came around the bend, I saw a village police car stopped on the road ahead of me, its red roof lights flashing. As I pulled ahead of it, I saw the officer standing in the harsh light in front of the car, looking at a human form lying in the roadway. I stopped, turned my red lights on, and walked back.

The man lying on the pavement wasn’t moving. The Suffern officer, who had sergeant chevrons on his sleeve, was looking at him calmly and thoughtfully. “Pedestrian hit?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “Just drunk.” Then he squatted down by the man, shook his shoulder gently, and when the man opened his eyes, the sergeant said, “Come on, pal, let’s get you out of the road.” He helped him to his feet, and then to the side of the road, where he steadied him to sit on the guardrail. The man’s head was hanging forward, and the sergeant told him that the ambulance would soon be there to take him to a hospital where he would be safe until he sobered up.

I didn’t hear anything of the indifference or contempt that is so common in emergency service workers dealing with drunks and other lesser beings. There was only gentle concern and kindness.

Standing in the red, moving light, I realized that I had just met the cop I wanted to be.

6 responses to “Starting Out

  1. Don’t know where to leave comments in general so decided to leave it/them here because I particularly like this story. It brought a lump to the throat…so sweet. But I do like every little story here, Paul. You’re a very good writer. I have a feeling that in each case you wrote a lot more, then pruned and pruned to just the right words. Hemingway did that, I understand, but like yours better! Now what do I do?? I’ll “post comment” and see what happens.
    Happy Easter

    • Helen, Thank-you for gushing about my writing. It’s even more meaningful because you have compared me favorably to Hemingway, who is one of my favorite writers. (I half feel like I should take umbrage on his behalf.)

      I am very pleased to read that it looks like I have done a lot of heavy editing on these posts. Actually, blogging, by necessity, is more like journalism; you write quickly, give it a quick read to make sure everything makes sense and see if any needed edits jump off the page, another quick proofread, then click “publish.” If it is coming out looking polished, I can only credit that to years of writing experience. Thanks again.

  2. Moderation to what? How many words allowed??

  3. Well, I’m glad everything magically got through. Think they could use a better word than moderation, though! Guess I’m going to have to learn a new language! Not a happy idea at all at all. Hasta la vista, or whatever!

  4. Paul, I had no idea that the RR job was as dangerous as it apparently was. It was really gutsy of you to stay on until you got what you wanted, particularly given the threats from fellow officers. Of course, best of all possible wishes for you with this blog. You’re off to a great start.

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