Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Oral Board...

On this second to last day of 2009, just before the moon transits into Cancer and spends it's last hours in Gemini, I feel like talking..

I remember a day in November of 1971, this one as clear in my mind as if I were there today, when I was challenged in a manner I had never experienced before. Just having returned from Vietnam a couple of months previously, still trying to adjust to life in the new world, I had applied to the Detroit Police Department. My last three years had been spent as a military police officer in the good old US Army of A. Trained in law enforcement and combat operations and having spent a great deal of time in both, I was ready to take on my chosen career.

It had been almost six weeks since I applied and three weeks since the physical and psychological examinations. I was notified that I had passed both and had been scheduled for my oral interview. Throughout my Army service I had experienced oral interviews, always a staple of the promotion process. Having exited as a Sergeant, there had been three of them to get that far. They were all the same.

"Private, what is the muzzle velocity of an M-16 rifle?" "Yes, sir, 2386 feet per second. Sir."

"Specialist, how many rounds are carried in the magazine of an M191A1 Model .45 caliber, semi-automatic weapon?" "Uh, yes sir, 7, sir." And on and on. They tried to trick me in the Sergeant's exam by asking, "Who won the Triple Crown in 1968?" "Hmmm, yes, sir, Secretariat, sir." (I think) There were always several "What would you do if?" questions, the answers always being common sense which luckily I seemed to have in bundles, and I was promoted up the line.

On this day, I arrived for my oral interview at the Detroit Police Department dressed in my best suit, new haircut, tight, GI shave - smooth, very smooth - and shoes that shined like mirrors. After waiting for nearly an hour, I was finally called into the interview room. I must say that the state of the building and the decor was better than I had seen in the service, but not by much. Solid wood doors, dull, drab tan and green walls with pictures of the president an chief of police placed precisely in the center. The furniture was old, scarred and mismatched, looking like it had come from the days of post-World War II.

The lighting was low wattage, buzzing florescent and there was an odor in the air that I knew but couldn't quite describe. Like a combination of bad paint, old wax, sweat and fear. It was the fear and sweat part that bothered me a little because I had smelled it before. But, as a veteran of that element, I wasn't bothered that much.

Placed directly in the center of the room was a long wooden table. It had stains and scars and part of the side molding was peeling away. On one side there were three chairs and on the other, one. This singular wooden chair had armrests with shiny finish, except where hands had worn away the gloss. Sweaty hands, squeezing hands, hands that shook and slid. I smiled because I knew what that was about. I was alone in the room.

I sat in that lone chair and waited. The room was hot and the heating vents lifted the dust from the floor and swirled it around the room. I wanted to sneeze but wouldn't. The morning sun beat through the windows to the east, shining directly on the side of my face, causing little beads of sweat to erupt on my forehead. I ignored them. It was another half an hour before the door at the end of the room finally opened. Through it marched three large individuals.

The first was a grizzled, uniformed police sergeant, his face craggy with weather, worry and a fierce, fierce intention. He had short, wiry, salt and pepper hair and looked like he could best a lumberjack without breaking a sweat. Wide shoulders, a slight bulge at the gut and hands that could break your neck in a flash. He snapped back his chair, staring at me with small, close set eyes that were black as coal. He sat in his seat with a cool calculation.

The second person through the door was a tall, immaculately uniformed black man. His face was unlined, his hair perfectly cut to his features. He wore lieutenant's bars on his shoulders and he carried a clipboard like it was a bible. He was intensely good looking but I saw no emotion in his face. He, too, sat down directly opposite with precision yet his eyes showed no interest in me.

The third man just slouched through the door, his arms too long for his body. I judged his age at mid-forties though it was a little difficult to tell. He was white but his cauliflower nose sort of bloomed and spread to the left on his face. He had a Clutch Cargo mouth, nothing more than a slit across his jaw and his moustache was thick and black. His eyebrows matched it, connecting above his nose. He wore a uniform with no insignia and I knew that meant he was - or had been - just a street cop. He slid into his chair, huge forearms on the table and smiled this cruel little smile, looking deep past my eyes into my soul.

Those little beads of sweat kept popping out just below my hairline and the room kept getting hotter by degrees. But I never moved and after meeting their eyes as they entered, stared straight ahead like a statue. I knew what was going on and it was pure, undisguised intimidation. I was grinning inside but kept it there where it quietly amused only me.

We sat for what seemed like an hour while the lieutenant checked and re-checked his clipboard. No one moved and I sat with my hands on my knees, back straight, head erect, eyes looking directly forward.

"Larry Fowler," said the lieutenant, his voice flat.

"Yes, sir." Clipped, respectful and direct.

"Why do you want to be a cop?" asked the sergeant to my left. His dark, penetrating eyes burning holes into mine.

"Yes, sir" I began before I was cut off by the lieutenant. "Honorable discharge," he said.

"Yes, sir, two years, nine months and 8 days. US Army, sir." You could never use too many sirs. The sergeant glared at me.

"I asked you why you want to be a cop," he growled. "Didn't you hear me?"

"Yes, sir," I said, "but the lieutenant asked me a question." I knew the game; rank had it's privileges and policy dictated that you answered the higher one first.

"Says here you finished as a sergeant," said the lieutenant. "That's pretty good in a Corps as small as the Military Police. Not much attrition and a lot of competition. Also says that you were awarded the Bronze Star."

"Yes, sir, I worked hard and did my best." Keeping it short, smart and direct.

"How many times have you had intercourse with your mother?" snapped the police officer to my right. His grin had gotten wider, pulling back like a grimace.

I looked calmly to my right, directing my attention to the Cruel Grin. "Sir, approximately fourteen thousand, five hundred and sixty five, if I recall correctly, sir."

"What!" he screamed. "You screwed your mother fourteen thousand times!? Jesus Christ, that's sick!"

Without looking directly, I could see that the sergeant and the lieutenant were horrified, thinking what in the hell do we have here? How did this guy get past the psychologicals?

"Sir, I've had verbal intercourse with my mother for as long as I remember, sir." My close kept amusement started to waver but discipline kept me like granite.

There was a stunned silence and then the lieutenant started to laugh and the sergeant followed. The cop was slower on the uptake but his grin turned to raucous laughter while I sat there like a rock.

"Oh, shit, that was a good one!" laughed the sergeant and the lieutenant looked at me like he had seen the promised land. "Damn, you are quick, arent' you?" he asked.

"I try, sir, I try," barely keeping my face in control. Score one for the recruit.

And on it went, back and forth, question to question. Most were innocuous dealing with my background and experience. I answered quickly, respecting rank and keeping my posture erect. These guys had nothing on me.

"I see you have a roommate," said the cop. "He's from, where, uh, oh, Beaver Island, eh? What, you gay?"

"No, sir," I said, "He's applying for the force, too, and needed a place to live while he did. My landlord, who's on the job, asked if I could put him up. Sir."

No one else said anything so I figured I had handled that one okay. Suddenly the sergeant produced a joint and threw it on the table. A big, fat splib that landed and rolled right in front of me.

"You were in 'Nam," he said, "and I know that pot was everywhere so I'm sure you smoked some. So why don't you fire that one up for me?" The grins were back except for the lieutenant who looked at me with equanimity.

Of course, having smoked my share during the war, my mouth started to water at the sight of that white, fat joint on the table. My composure was wavering but I remained strong.

"No, sir." My eyes were locked on the lieutenant, gauging his reaction. I wasn't falling for this one. "Never touch the stuff."

"I said smoke it," he growled.

"No, sir, thank you, sir" I said. "That's an illegal substance and I do not indulge."

"I gave you a direct fucking order!" he swore. "And I expect you to obey it!"

"I'm sorry, sir, but that's an illegal order and I'm not required to follow it. Sir."

I could almost see the smoke coming from his ears as the lieutenant and the cop watched the action. I was sweating profusely at this point but would not raise a hand to wipe my face.

"Get the fuck out of here!" he screamed. "Just get the fuck out of my sight!" He stood up knocking his chair to the floor. Spittle was forming in the corners of his mouth and I was sure he was going to come across the table at me.

"Yes, sir!" I stood straight up, pushed back my chair, smartly did an about face and exited the room.

By the time I found a chair in the waiting room, I was shaking. Aw, fuck, what did I do to myself? I thought. Nope, I did the right thing, I know I did. I found a men's room and toweled the sweat from my face. My shirt was wet and sticking to me and I felt like crap. My head hurt and I was sore all over.

Back in the waiting room, I sat on another ancient, uncomfortable chair with 10 other faces looking at me like, what in the hell happened to you? They had yet to go in and now I could see their faces were filled with fear.

"They kicked me out." I said softly and sat there wondering what in hell was happening. God, I wanted a cigarette! Twenty long, nerve shattering minutes went by before the door opened again.

"Fowler!" snarled the sergeant. "Get your ass in here!"

I returned to the room and sat in my chair. By now the sweat was pouring down my back.

"I'm gonna give you one last chance," said the sergeant. "Are you gonna smoke that joint?"

"No, sir," I said with as much confidence as I could muster. "I will not. Sir."

Silence that lasted an eternity. I stared at the lieutenant across from me until a smile broke across his face. "Ok, son, that's all. We'll be in contact."

I was afraid to move but I did. Performing another perfect about face I left the room never looking at the sergeant or the cop.

Three weeks later I was accepted to the department, first to work as a trainee until a slot at the academy opened up. I was gainfully employed in the career of my dreams and sang "Joy to the World" for days.


  1. Haha wow dad, nice story. At least you had the sense not to smoke the joint although I'm sure you wanted to. ;) I like it!


  2. Why? Why? A well written piece for sure, but I simply can't understand the motivation...maybe this is part of a larger story that speaks to why a person would want to be part of an intimidation/ego ring of unsavory characters. Career of one's dreams? It must be for some people because jails & the military are a harsh reality...because intimidation/torture exists...because Mars & Pluto can overpower Venus and the Moon.

  3. Why, Elizabeth? Because some one has to do it. And those who do have to be special kinds of people. Cops choose to express themselves on the right side of the law, criminals the other. There may not be much difference between the two except choice.

    Personally, I wish Venus and Moon would overpower Pluto and Mars, and soon. I wish all cops could retire, and all armies could be disbanded, but it's not in the cards yet. I wish all of us could fire up our Light and change the world to what it should be.

    As far as the intimidation/ego ring concept, that may be a little harsh. You have to be prepared for battle. To do less will dishonor your brothers and get someone killed...

    As always, 'Lizabeth, I thank you for your honesty.

    And Jess, you are used to my stories so I thank you for your comments. But actually I knew that that joint was fake. (laughing)

  4. Well, I really enjoyed that! Although these types of scenes terrify me and think that these intimidation tactics are unnecessary and most times grossly inappropriate, I have a fascination somewhat for the mental and physical discipline required to serve in the forces and S.S. I feel much admiration for people like you who have served and endured the harsh strictures of this profession. I found your account very well written too!

  5. Why thank you so much, Sammie! We who have served can never hear those sentiments too often! Particularly Vietnam vets; we had a bit of a rough time during that war. Sentiment was not exactly on our side.

    As I tried to explain to Elizabeth, these kinds of tactics are necessary to determine who can and who cannot handle the stress of the position, whether it be Army or Police. I have been on both sides of the issue - as a recruit and as a drill instructor at the police academy, and I can guarantee you that I would much rather work with an individual who successfully navigated those kinds of rough waters.

    Knowing that s/he can handle whatever comes makes for a great and effective team in environments that test the courage of both...

    I am so appreciative of your comments about my writing. I'm just starting out and that kind of support shivers me timbers.. ;-)