A son of Irish immigrants, my father became a patrolman in Cleveland’s Fourth Precinct, the roughest district in Ohio in the late 1940s and 50s. He sometimes walked a beat, other times he rode in a patrol car. He was beaten up, stabbed, shot, you name it, but it was his life for 28 years. He loved Clint Eastwood and the “Dirty Harry” movies. He would have enjoyed “Gran Torino” but he would have tut-tutted about the language. He never used that kind of language, and was especially intolerant of his daughter using the f-word. He was a strict disciplinarian. After my mother passed on, it was just the two of us; I had no siblings, and he had a lot of responsibilities.
Every month when he went downtown to pick up his paycheck, he would take me along. We would always tour the jail to see the inmates (they didn’t particularly appreciate this), then go out back and see the horses of the mounted patrol. He loved them but he never wanted to be part of the mounted patrol, because sometimes the horses would get hurt by thrown bottles, or worse; my dad said that he couldn’t stand that. My grandfather had been a horse trainer in Ireland, and the obsession with horses had been passed down to my father, and then, ultimately, to me. We owned horses because I think my father wanted me to be fearless. And if you’re brave enough to train a horse, there is very little in this world that you might fear.
After I finished eighth grade in a Catholic school, we moved. At my new public high school, having a cop for a father brought down the wrath of the world on my head. Or so it seemed at the time. I became the 1960s version of a Goth girl.
Looking back, I can see that this actually made me a stronger person. I learned not to care what others thought. I made good grades, stayed out of trouble for the most part, so my dad was happy.
When my father finally retired after 28 years, he sometimes took an occasional job as a security guard. His job had defined him: he was a protector. When he was in his 70s, he was driving along an icy interstate and saw the car ahead of him swerve out of control and fly onto the median strip, where it flipped over.
My dad pulled over, ran over to the car, dragged the woman driver out, then went back for her pet, which was in a carrier in the backseat. The car was smoking and could have burst into flames. My father had no thought for his own safety; he was responding to an emergency just as he always had.
Just as his job had ultimately defined him, being the daughter of a police officer ended up defining me: my loyalties and my heart. When I showed an interest in law enforcement as a career for myself, though, he quickly and vehemently objected. I suspect that he had seen things that he could never forget, that haunted him. He never spoke of these events, though; he only told me about the humorous events. For instance, one evening he and his patrol partner spied two sketchy individuals lurking around in a laundromat. These two guys didn’t seem to be washing any clothes; they were obviously looking for something to steal or planning on breaking into the machines.
My dad walked into the laundromat and inquired what they were looking for. They told him they were there to wash their jackets (!). My dad said, well, okay then. He went out and sat in the patrol car and he and his partner waited. The two guys were afraid to leave, so they pooled all the money they had and purchased some soap and put their two jackets in a machine. The patrol car waited right there, running and all nice and warm inside (it was an especially cold winter that year)…The jackets were tumbled around, soaped and rinsed, soaped and rinsed, and spun. But they couldn’t be put in a dryer. There was no more money.
The two guys looked at the patrol car, still waiting there. They had to put on their wet jackets and go out into the freezing night, not only empty handed but shivering and shrinking from the cold. My dad and his partner kept a close eye on that laundromat and other areas around there for the rest of the night and into the wee hours of the morning, but the two scurrilous individuals were not observed again.
My father lived with us for twenty years. Our children never knew a time when he wasn’t there. He kept a sign on his door that read, “Babysitter, banker, psychiatrist, post office.” We had all sorts of animals on our five acres and he was always the one whose job it was to track down where the mother cat had hidden her latest litter of kittens, and how many kittens there were and what colors. He would escort the children to see them, along with admonitions to keep as quiet as they could, so the mother cat wouldn’t be alarmed. When she was ready, she would officially present them to us, he would tell the kids. Shhhh! They were usually able to contain their squeals of delight and claims on the particular kittens until they were on their way back to the house. Usually.
He and I shared a small stuffed leprechaun doll. We would take turns hiding the doll in unusual places, such as the refrigerator, under a quilt, in a boot. Just when I would think he had forgotten about the leprechaun, I might open a kitchen cabinet and there it would be, next to the peanut butter, staring out at me! And it was the same with me; I would let either a few days go by, or a week, or I might totally surprise him by hiding it that same day and then I would be rewarded with a shout from upstairs. That thing sure did get around!
I learned about protectiveness and parenting from him. I was always on guard, alert for danger. And of course, even though our children are grown, my watch continues. There will never be an “end of watch” for me, just as my dad’s has continued. I feel his presence every day, even though he passed away almost fourteen years ago. He was my best friend and I still miss him terribly.
When I was a little girl, my dad taught me how to dance by having me stand on his shoes. Dad, I remember this; I remember looking up at you as we were both laughing.
I know now that I’ll never be able to measure up to him, in any way, but I think that it’s the fact that I try every day that makes me a better person.