What I'm reading: Identity Unknown, by Debra Webb
On Friday, I posted the first half of Deputy Hussey's chapter on Remembering the Fallen. Since today is Memorial Day, I thought it only fitting to post part 2. Although we traditionally think of Memorial Day as a time to honor those in the armed forces, those who choose law enforcement as their path are putting their lives on the line daily as well.
If you haven't read Friday's post, I suggest you do so first. This continues as Deputy Hussey attends a funeral for a fallen officer and reminisces about other losses, other funerals.
On January 9, 1981 I was patrolling zone seven for the City of Lakeland Police. As I mentioned before, the midnight guys were all a special breed. The guys from all the neighboring agencies were extremely close, we counted on each other, and we all knew the dangers of working midnight to eight. The dispatcher said the county had an officer down, a shooting, on the edge of my zone. I put on the blue lights and sped to the area. As I approached, I could see the Sheriff’s Office cars and an ambulance. The ambulance sped away, siren screaming as I pulled up. I was afraid to ask.
“Who was it? I inquired of a deputy.
I got cold all over and my mind raced. With my mouth as dry as dust I asked, “How bad is it?”
“Not good,” was all he said. I'd had coffee with T.A. two nights before. I had taken classes with this guy. I knew him well. I hoped he’d be okay.
We later learned that Theron A. Burnham, ID # 127, had stopped a suspicious person fitting the description of a kidnapping suspect. The man was placed with his hands on the hood of the police car so he could be searched. It was the way we did things in those days. As T.A. searched Paul Johnson, it is believed that Johnson lunged backward, knocking the Officer off balance, and pulling a .22 buntline revolver from the waistband of his pants. The suspect then fired one shot, striking the 27-year-old Burnham in the right thigh. As the deputy lay on the ground in shock on that, the coldest night of the year, Johnson removed the .357 magnum revolver from the cop’s holster and fired one shot at close range into his neck, above his ballistic vest. The bullet traveled down a bone and severed his aorta.
Theron Anthony Burnham bled to death on the way to the hospital. He left a wife of less than one year, and two brothers who are also cops. T.A.’s funeral was one of the largest the state of Florida had ever seen.
In late February of 1981 while we were still reeling from the death of T.A., a 23 year old former Frostproof, Florida, football star, and one year veteran of the Frostproof Police Department, answered a silent alarm at local bank. It was an alarm that had been malfunctioning for over a month. Officer Henry David McCall had answered it three times that week already. In fact it had malfunctioned so many times there was no film in the surveillance cameras located inside the bank. As Officer McCall parked his marked patrol car directly in front of the bank’s main entrance, he picked up the radio mike to tell the dispatcher he was 10-97. She never heard it because he never said it. Two masked, black males ran from the bank and found their exit blocked by a police car. Acting instinctively, one of the suspects fired a hollow point bullet from a .44 magnum revolver.
The bullet traveled through the Officer’s skull and through the right side of the car, killing the young cop instantly.
David and his wife had been married on Valentine’s Day, less than two weeks before his death.
This was possibly the most disturbing police funeral I have ever attended. The entire town closed down and turned out for the service. Everybody knew Dave. Things like this didn’t happen in small towns. Dave had grown up here, he went to school here, he bagged groceries here, he played football here. He fell in love and married here. He served his community here. He was everybody’s friend. Now he is our friend too, another hero, gone but not forgotten.
The fallen heroes list is not limited to males, I’m afraid. In 1983, Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission Officer Peggy Park, surprised two drunks fishing without a license, one afternoon while conducting routine conservation operations. After a slight struggle, the two disarmed the Officer and shot her to death with her own revolver. Because she had no radio and was unable to crawl back to her patrol car, she lay in the hot Florida sand and bled to death, alone.
Then I thought about all the other heroes I had buried. The retirees, Ralph Lohman, 163 Golf, Gene Nipper, CID Captain, and Vic Rodriguez, a young cancer victim loved by all. These guys were heroes too. They showed up for work every day and did their jobs. They set examples for us, they taught us how to be cops and how to be human beings. They backed us up and they gave their all for those lofty principals that all law enforcement officers stand for and continue to believe in, through all the crap that gets heaped upon us.
My daydreaming was cut short by the entrance of the deputy’s family into the church. As the bagpipes continued to play Amazing Grace, the widow entered, flanked by two uniformed Lieutenants. Then came the cop’s three sons, the youngest, just ten years old, was carrying the officer’s badge, which he occasionally looked at and rubbed, as if some magical genie might appear and bring back his father. Huge tears ran down his cheeks. What was that little guy thinking?
Perhaps he thought of all the late afternoon games of catch, or last years summer vacation, or the way he and his dad just sat together and watched TV before bed. These things were all just memories now. They would never happen again because of the callous, inconsiderate, criminal act of an eighteen year old punk.
Next was the middle son, thirteen followed by the oldest, now saddled with the burden of being the man of the house at seventeen. They were holding up amazingly well under the circumstances.
After the service, at which the Orange County Sheriff, Kevin Beary, delivered a very moving eulogy, I left the church that day and headed back to the office. A wave of grief swept over me and I began to sob uncontrollably. I pulled my unmarked car to the side of the road and sat there for what seemed like hours.
I missed all those guys, even the ones I did not know. I thought it tragic that it seems these guys died for nothing, I know in my heart that that is not true. Every time a good cop takes a stand, even if it costs him his life, it is worthwhile. There are some things in this life that are worth dying for. Stopping the lawless scum that prey on the meek and innocent in our society, and continuing our proud traditions are some of those things.
I fear that as the time goes by, Deputy Creegan, like the others will move to the backs of our collective memories. I for one will never forget however, the image of John Creegan’s young son, carrying his dead father’s badge, washed with his tears, and purchased with his father’s life.
I have been unable since that day to bring myself, to attend another Police Funeral, even though there have been many since John Creegan’s. I guess in a way I have a better appreciation for my own mortality. But for the grace of God …
Tomorrow, for a change of pace, my guest will be none other than the hubby.