Chapter One: Only Four Roads Lead Out
In my entire life, I have never worked as hard as I did Friday, February 13th, 2004. I have no physical or scientific evidence to support that indeed this particular Friday the 13th was consumed by a disproportionate volume of labor. More so than any other day in my life. Admittedly, in 2004, I was only 22-years-old and a mere babe in the woods by the conventional standards of the working class American. However, neither before, or since, have I ever felt like I spent more of my collective day engaged in so much strenuous drudgery than I did one cool day in February of 2004.
In reality, the reason that day is seared in my memory has less to do with the actual toils of labor and rather has everything to do with what that day represented in my life. Similar to hearing the words, “I’m pregnant,” this day represented one of those moments in which a person realizes their life will never be the same again. When I look back, I realize the experiences that day are not altogether significant in the grand scheme of things. Yet still, this day was significant, because it was the day that, unexpectedly I discovered I had a new path in life.
This new path was dark, mysterious, and scary; yet simultaneously, it was undeniably exhilarating. Unsuspectedly, I realized that day, I was headed down a trail that was completely novel and different than any place I ever thought my life would have been at this point.
On February 13th, my workday began at 6:45 am, in the briefing room of the Garden City, Police Department. A 45-person police force, that is responsible for serving and protecting the 14.3 square miles of township that outlines the westerly border of the historic city of Savannah, Georgia. I listened intently to that morning’s briefing, as the previous shift’s Sergeant gave a run-down of the various calls of service his officers had handled the previous night. This morning was particularly meaningful because it marked my third-day since I had been “cut loose” from the field training program.
For the past six weeks, I had gone through the “field training program” with my new employer. Currently, practically all police departments have some type of FTO program in which all new hires go through upon starting with an agency. However, less than a decade and a half ago, the idea of a finite indoctrination period was somewhat unique in policing. Particularly, at smaller departments such as the one I work for. In fact, I had friends I had gone to the Police Academy with, who graduated on Friday and then on Saturday, they were handed the keys to a Ford Crown Vic Police Interceptor, and told, “Have fun.” They already had “war stories” to share, and to me, it felt as if they were already grizzled veterans since our December graduation from Georgia’s mandated 8-weeks of law enforcement training.
The field training program is supposed to be equal parts training and assessment. Starting at day one, an officer is taught the ropes of policing and the idiosyncrasies of their new agency by being paired in a car with a more seasoned cop. Typically, this on-the-job trainer is called a “Field Training Officer,” or “FTO.” In addition to training a rookie officer, an FTO is supposed to constantly be accessing the new law enforcer to make sure they have what it takes survive the complex and constantly evolving world of modern-day policing.
Unfortunately, at some police departments, low-staff numbers and an existing financial investment, cultivate an informal handicap of an FTO’s authority to say that a rookie isn’t cut out for the job. In fact, one tattletale of the dedication a police agency has to quality over quantity can be seen in the number of rookie officers that end up not making it through the FTO process. An agency should always have some individuals who it is determined they don’t have the necessary abilities the public depends when it comes matters of life or death. Any agency that has a perfect record of success in this initial rite of passage almost assuredly is engaged in some degree of negligent retention.
Over the years, the customary FTO process in policing has evolved into a much more structured and formalized procedure than it was when I first started. However, in all honesty, no matter how convoluted or simplistic an FTO program is, the metric of measurement is always centered on three things. Is the rookie cop capable of navigating the area they will be working; can they write a report; and are they going to defecate on themselves and curl into a ball if things get scary.
One would assume that number three on this list wouldn’t be a huge problem, given the bravado that often surrounds the profession. Police Academies or even the collective law enforcement culture often makes it sound like a person will be deploying to the Korengal Valley, rather than working on streets of Any-Town America. You would assume that one would know what they were getting into before they applied for the job.
However, just off the top of my head, I can think of no less than five individuals, I witnessed have their dreams of having a career in policing dashed because they lacked the intestinal fortitude for the job. Well… maybe a little less dramatic. I have not actually seen someone shit themselves or curl in a ball. However, I’ve seen people who realized, policing just ain’t for them.
The morning of Friday the 13th 2004, was only the third shift I had worked since successfully passing my FTO program. By this point, I had already been immersed into some of the aspects of policing that are normal for the profession, yet completely counter intuitive to basic human nature. Weeks prior, with my FTO seated next to me, flashing blue strobe lights danced around me, siren wailing as I sped towards the screams for help that a person had frantically cried out to a 911 dispatcher.
“Chatham to a 10-8, 200 unit for a signal 20, signal 7 at 4809 Highway 17."
In the cryptic language of police emergency services, the dispatcher had requested for any available Garden City units to respond to a report of a person who had been shot. Additionally, the shooter was said to still be on scene.
My FTO, Corporal Childs, one of the most modest and uncontroversial officers I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with, said to me, “Ok, now you can turn them on.” He was referring to the police car’s lights and siren, I had been so impatiently waiting to put into action. As I raced into the cool winter night, I hoped that Cpl. Childs didn’t notice the uncontrollable shaking of my legs. A side effect of the sudden dump of epinephrine from my adrenal glands.
The 4.6-liter V8 engine of the 2002 Ford Crown Vic engine roared, blue lights danced into the night like a band of enigmatic gypsies as we sped towards eminent danger. I remember thinking to myself, “This is fucking crazy!”
Human beings are inherently hardwired to avoid danger. Yet, here I was exceeding the speed limit, thus making the already dangerous practice of driving more dangerous, just so I can get to a location where a person, who has supposedly shot someone, is patiently waiting, gun in hand.
To top things off, the location all this had gone down consisted of a mobile camper, yes “camper” not a mobile “home”, park and flea market. I’m pretty sure the place is actually just a vacant parking lot that someone decided to use some random scrap wood to build sales booths and then decided to park their pop-up camper in the small unoccupied space in the rear of the lot. The location looked like Mogadishu and a monster truck rally had a baby; and then like Field of Dreams, “if you build it they will come,” more mobile campers just showed up.
Essentially, nothing was normal about rushing towards any one of those things. Yet, there I was just barely old enough to purchase alcohol legally, doing exactly that. Rushing towards all of it. The wind howled as it whipped across the light bar mounted on the roof of the car. The dispatcher updated us that our suspect was a white female, purported to be outside, with a pistol in one hand, and a bottle of liquor in the other. This madwoman was said to be firing off the gun at random and without any discernable sense of reason.
“This is really fucking crazy!”
As I stood there February 13th, participating in the ritualistic and department necessitated passing of information, called morning briefing, the night of the camper park/flea market of horrors, was a thing of the past. I had successfully not shit myself, proved I could write a report, and even demonstrated I could successfully navigate my way around the city. A feat I accomplished pre-GPS or smartphone days I might add. I had earned my right to police as a “one-man unit.”
My shift Sergeant that morning was actually my previous FTO. Corporal Childs became Sergeant Childs around the last two weeks of my training. My final two weeks was a tad more taxing than the first four, as my riding partner was a man who was effectively was forced out of policing after he un-holstered and pointed his service pistol at a newsstand outside a local coffee shop because he was less than pleased with the day’s headline. Years later when I would become a Lieutenant, I looked back on this and thought, “That’s really fucking crazy!” At the time it seemed crazy in a, “Is this man of sound mind and body?” kind of way. However, supervision has a way of morphing that time of thing into a “Dear Lord, why have you forsaken me and allowed this man to have access to weapons of death and destruction; and placed me in the position of being responsible for him,” kind of crazy.
That morning Sergeant Childs informed me that I would be assigned to Zone 3. The was an area that covered the southwestern portion of our city and just so happened to also contain my favorite camper park/flea market/unauthorized shooting range for drunks. Now, I would love to paint this picture of me stoically standing before my veteran supervisor, as he proudly looked on at the young man he had helped prepare.
“McMillan… You’re the greatest officer I’ve ever had the pleasure of training. You’ve got Zone 3, son. I know you can handle it, now go out there and save the world. God speed.”
In reality, Sergeant Childs is not now, nor was he then much of a talker and it would be a lie to say I was standing stoically anywhere during this time. See the police academy had prepared me for many things, however, one thing that no training in the world could prepare me for was the effect that wearing a 20lb duty belt would have on my lanky 6’0”, 130lbs frame. During the early days of my police career, the mere act of wearing the tools of the trade, included a painful stinging sensation, as my duty belt pulled and rubbed against my bony little hips. Now, 13-years later, I’m not sure if it is the sixty-five pounds I’ve added or if I eventually just killed off all of the nerve endings, but I am almost oblivious to the existence of the belt.
This actual event involved Sergeant Childs silently writing my name under the “Zone 3” row on the zone assignment board. My notification that Zone 3 was all mine.
“240 Chatham I’m 10-8 and 10-41,” I notified dispatch letting the world know I was on-duty and ready for action; and just like that, I awkwardly walked, attempting to shift the weight off my hips, onto the streets, A full-fledged officer of the law.
Now, it isn’t all dramatization to suggest that Friday, February 13th was a day that came with a remarkably excessive workload. Indeed, I do distinctively remember having to ride all over my assigned area, responding to a hodgepodge of public crises and predicaments. I can recall having to respond to a 911 call, to mediate a dispute between two truck drivers who were upset with each other over the use of the truck scale at a local rest stop. This particular call is an enduring memory of mine because, as I listened to each driver stake his claim to the scale, coupled with the intermittent lifting of my gun belt to provide my poor little bony hips relief, I experienced an astonishing revelation. I was a 22-year-old kid, who hadn’t even grown man-hips yet, nevertheless, there I stood having to tell two grown men, twice my age, to shake hands, be nice, and share the truck scale with each other. I remember thinking, how utterly silly is all of this?
All in all, the day could have easily been caulked up to being just another average Friday in Garden City, Georgia, up until about 5:00 pm that Friday.
“Chatham to a 10-8, 200 unit for a Signal 5, negative 30’s at Highway 17 and Dean Forest Road.”
“240, 10-4, show me 10-76.”
-Translation: Officer McMillan there has been a car accident in the busiest little section of your entire area at 5pm on a Friday, and no one is injured; or at a minimum, no one has started complaining of neck and back pain, with visions of big lawsuit paydays dancing in their head.
Savannah, Georgia was founded on February 12, 1733, literally 271 years and a day to my Friday the 13th. The city is the oldest township in Georgia and one of the original 13 British Colonies of North America. Thanks to the city being firmly tucked into a cavity along the state’s eastern coastline, the only way out of Savannah is to go West, with the exception of one bridge that crosses over the Savannah River leading into South Carolina. Assumedly because the traffic engineers of the city and the state’s department of transportation are the type of people that like to watch the world burn, there are only four roads lead out of the city.
Now, I will give them credit; the city did decide to build a bypass encircling the town in order to provide some relief for the infrastructure catastrophe in the form of the Harry S Truman Parkway. However, in light of the fact the Parkway is named after the 33rd President of the United States, the road has been under construction, I assume since December of 1864 when Union General William Tecumseh Sherman seized the city, concluding his historic “March to the Sea.”
The Parkway is still under construction to this day.
With a metro population of around half-a-million people, the intersection I had been dispatched to, happened to be one of the most dangerous and chaotic junctures on one of those four roads out of Savannah. At 5’oclock traffic on a Friday none-the-less. Ironically, this intersection is also the exact spot that on December 20, 1864, the Confederate Troops stationed to protect Savannah’s western flank discovered that Gen. Sherman had brought with him some heavy siege guns that could reach out and touch the entrenched Confederate troops from over 7-miles away. This was the exact spot that Confederate citizens of Savannah came out to the Union Army with open arms and sweet tea to say, “How Ya’ll doing? No need for all this silly fighting now is there?” and surrendered the city. Effectively, bringing to end the U.S. Civil War.
Initially, the traffic accident I responded to that day was hardly a significant footnote in the history this land has been witness to. In fact, it was just your average, every day, run of the mill, fender bender car wreck. Honestly, at this particular intersection, you could just about call this wreck “an afternoon” based on the consistency of its occurrence.
I notified dispatch that I had arrived on the scene, as I pulled my police car in behind a white F-150. The truck's driver wasn’t paying attention and happened to bump into the rear-end of a red Ford truck that was in front of it. Straight from the textbook of policing 101, I got out and spoke with the both drivers to ensure that nothing had been lost in translation and indeed, no one was injured. With a look that said, “Look, dude, I just need a report for my insurance company so I can get my bumper fixed” both drivers indicated they were in no need of medical services. Following my check list of accepted police practices, the next practical thing to do was to safely get the cars out of the roadway to reduce any more congestion to the already road rage inducing nonsensical flow of rush hour traffic. After reviewing the game plan with the drivers the only thing left to do was for me to step out into the roadway to stop traffic so the cars could safely move out of the turn lane and onto the shoulder of the roadway.
Whenever, a person asks a cop, “What is your favorite part of your job?” One thing that you will never hear a single officer say is, “Directing traffic. I just really love directing traffic.” The moment a person steps from the confines of their motor vehicle and into the roadway in order to provide direct control over the movement of traffic is the moment that one makes a frightening discovery about the world around them. Trust me, if you’ve never had to direct traffic consider yourself lucky and stop this very moment to give thanks to the Lord for your blissful of ignorance. Because rather quickly while directing traffic you discover just how scary the world is around you. No, I’m not talking about the tens of thousands of pounds of metal machinery moving around you. Rather, I’m talking about some of the drivers who operate those cars.
The moment you direct traffic is the moment you question everything you’ve ever known. Because, rather quickly you will find that when faced with any deviation in the environment, including something as simple as a person's routine travel path, is the moment some individuals go into catatonic mental shutdown. You’ll find yourself wondering how on earth some people reached the lawful driving age and didn't drink bleach because they were thirsty or leapt off of a building because it seemed like a quicker way to get down.
That afternoon, I stepped into the northbound lanes of travel on Highway 17 and used the authoritative universal hand gesture of telling others to cease movement and held my hand up. As I stood in the middle of the road, with my arm out stretched, a white 2003 Mitsubishi Galant approached me at an ever decreasing speed until finally coming to a stop approximately ten or fifteen feet from my fragile bony hipped body. I remember at the time I felt like the car had stopped way too close for my own comfort and when the car got about 20 feet from me, I tersely shook my hand at the driver and gave him the universal look of, “Hello!”
As the vehicle finally came to rest, the Black male driver nodded at me as if to say, “I see you…My bad… why are you shaking your hand and look so angry?”
Content that the current state of the roadway was clear to provide safe travel for my two accident drivers, I looked away from the gentleman in the Galant and looked back towards the wreck. To my amazement and bewilderment, I discovered the driver of white Ford truck, was still standing and staring at the crumbled bumper of the truck he had not so long ago had run into. I thought to myself, I don’t understand… I feel like we went over this already…We had a plan… I stop traffic, you pull onto the shoulder of the roadway.
Yet, there you are, still standing there in no position whatsoever to move your car. Of course, it didn’t help that the driver of my red truck wasn’t paying attention to me and therefore couldn’t see my indication that it would be great if they at least would move and take away my other driver’s object of visual fixation.
Now, I’ve always been a fairly spiritual person. Increasingly so as I have gotten older and in fact, my Jewish faith and identity is a significant part of who I am today. How much I truly believed in God before 5:00 pm on Friday, February 13th, 2004, I cannot really say. However, that day, the existence of something immaterially conscious became very difficult for me to deny. As I stood there, honestly annoyed by the current situation and hoping my drivers would please just get out of the road, I heard something that is difficult to effectively describe. It was the loudest whisper one could imagine and yet I heard it clear as day, there was no denying the sound’s existence. At the time, I feel like I knew the sound I heard was only audible in my head, but was a real as any conversation I’ve ever had.
High strangeness aside, there was no doubt in what the exact context was in the sound I heard. Something or someone said, “Look Out!”
Interested in finding out what happened and reading Chapter Two? Click Here