Mid-afternoon at the beach.
The tide was rolling in here at Fort Walton with little fanfare, the repetitious sounds of its crash-and-recession soothing to all present, the waves having barely enough force to erase footprints in the unusually white sand. In years past I’d seen water coming in that seemed as if it could crush a small car, but this year (or day) the wind was so light I was surprised I didn’t see toddlers at the waterline.
The sun was hours away from the horizon and a warm breeze swept east to west as I sat back watching the shoreline with mild interest in its activities, focusing on how grateful I was to be here, away at last from our landlocked home in Tennessee. We have lakes and rivers that I make great use of, but like a good Cuban cigar…there’s a huge difference. Such was the mood I decided my biggest problem for once was “what to do?” and I loved it.
As if on cue, a man in his mid-40s strolled down from the hotel bar that perched above the sand and walked with poorly masked discomfort towards the waterline, a large funny-shaped glass in his hand filled with orange liquid and capped with an umbrella and an oversized straw.
His forearms were a deep tan that stopped just above the elbow, and resumed above his collar line. This led up to cheap sunglasses and a high and tight crew cut, and I knew right away—I was no longer the only off-duty cop on the beach.
It’s a strange thing, being a cop. You’re never allowed to be completely off duty. I mean literally; it’s written in the rules that we always have a duty to act and are considered on-call all the time, every time. So when we’re away from our homes (jurisdictions), it’s not surprising that we have no idea how to act. The first sign of this is the fact that we don’t know how to dress.
The reason for the cheap suits is obvious (pay), but being out of style is a direct result of not getting a chance to wear out our civilian clothing, and not seeing others outside of work enough to have any idea of what is new anyway.
The average cop has one suit of a neutral color that is fitting at both funerals and weddings. If he has more than one, it’s a direct result of weight gain (or loss, don’t laugh) over the years (plural) of having it in a closet. The suit even usually smells like a closet, that weird mix of cedar and mothball you wrinkle your nose up at but accept as a price of doing business. And why deal with this? Because only a cop would argue about paying $200 for a suit but not hesitate to spend $1,000 on a pistol he can’t even carry, much less has need of. How do you fight that? (No, really, I’d like to find out some day.)
Everyday clothes? I don’t feel it’s necessary to address the obligatory cop-oriented T-shirts that line the closets, floors, and trunks of cops’ personal spaces everywhere. Family gifts of police-related shirts and free T-shirts are as much a part of the job as digestive tract issues and lawsuits…but belts and shoes? No such excuse.
A cop in an un-tucked T-shirt (or the dreaded Hawaiian) may hide what is almost certainly a black woven or (God help him) black Velcro belt threaded through his blue jeans belt loops (the sturdy belt being to secure a gun, and the un-tucked status is to cover it up), but the black combat boots that he chose to complete the ensemble…? Boom. Cop.
Sandals? Not a cop. Anything plain and leather with jeans and a T? Cop.
My brother on the beach was obviously not dressed as such, but aside from the hideous partial tan, he also had the short haircut that in itself wasn’t a giveaway until you saw it in concert with its “copstache”. Short hair? It could be Robert T. Nash for all you know. But combined with a ‘stache? Cop. And if that haircut is an Army Ranger-style High and Tight? Oh yeah.
The end of the guy’s arm was another clue as well. The orange drink in the fruity-ass glass with the umbrella? There are only two times an American male is allowed to drink such publicly: When with a wife or girlfriend at the beach, or…OK, when with a wife or girlfriend at the beach. The out-of-town cop, however, has NO rules to contend with. The 24/7 scrutiny is gone, no one knows his name, and he flaunts this. (And, more often than not, he is not much of a drinker and this is the best he can do. Or it was from a complimentary Manager’s Reception.)
Cops generally consist of two types of drinkers: Lightweights and hardcore “Arthur” movie functional alcoholics. The former are the most common, but the latter are a vile breed that revels in self-destruction. (My beach guest today still had clothes on and wasn’t fist-pumping while screaming “Woo!”, so I was able to quickly ascertain which type he was after years of experience with the asshole-types.)
Our guest had eased into the water and continued giving off cop-signs like a blinking cell tower in a deep Blue Ridge Mountain fog: His eyes were darting everywhere and he was trying to mask it.
You see, when sitting in a restaurant you can position yourself to see the door to watch for the most likely entrance of danger (as to not be caught unawares) and if more than one cop is present, seating is generally determined by seniority and/or level of paranoia. But in the ocean? The potential for danger is literally everywhere, thereby making it intensely difficult to be a control freak. And when Officer Control Freak sees something like a jellyfish a few feet from his vulnerable bare legs or stomach? It’s pure comic greatness seeing a control freak trying to maintain his cool while literally out of his element, made even more interesting if there is an attractive female in the audience.
Weakness and vulnerability are out the window when in view of “A Lady”, so seeing the grown man with the cheap haircut, fungus-esque mustache, and large fruity drink high-step it out of waist-deep water while trying to look cool…I just smiled, closed my book, and began to pack up my chair. There’d be no more relaxation if I was going to be forced to stifle laughter like this for the next hour.
I made it inside the hotel (a modest Ramada resort) where I saw even more of the same.
Not right away mind you, but as a professional observer it’s hard for me not to notice a group of people in a semi-circle smiling and laughing—but also standing in just slightly bladed positions (subconsciously slanting their gun-hip away from the others), talking to each other while also staring all around to constantly watch what was going on behind each other’s backs. No one had both hands in their pockets, and the gun-hand was always the one free.
As it turned out, the Okaloosa (Florida) Sheriff’s Office was hosting a training class here in the hotel’s conference room for “Event Security Planning for Public Safety Professionals” (something fortuitous for us given the nature of the “Occupy” protests that would be appearing in the coming months) and there were po-po from Washington state to North Carolina attending. Seventy or so attendees, as a matter of fact, and I became instantly nervous.
Cops are clannish (a less than perfect choice of words) and have to exercise restraint 95 percent of the time lest they appear on the news and be out of a job, but that remaining five percent is the officer’s time, and depending on age and seniority in their departments, that five percent can do 100 percent damage (particularly to an out-of-state hotel and its lawn furniture). All the repression of emotions and internalization of the things they have to see day-to-day…when you take that and mix it up with an all-expenses-paid trip out of town with more than six dozen people you can relate to without so much as a word, all while feeling the empowerment of a close peer group you may not see again after returning home? It turns into a powder keg of “WTF?”
“Good God, do they have a golf cart here?!” I said to myself in a building panic. “If they find it, they’ll shut this hotel down and toss us in the ocean.” (This somehow seemed more than plausible.)
The hotel had sufficient facilities for the men and women in attendance and the conference itself was rare, in that it would probably hold their attention for a while (rumor had it, they were going to show previously unreleased footage of the Dale Earnhardt crash)…but after that class is over? It’s their problem.
• Cash bars at courtesy and vendor receptions would lead to upgrades (like real bars down the strip, and large beachfront dance clubs), and so will go the neighborhood.
• No lawn furniture within 40 feet of a chlorinated pool will be safe.
• Business owners will be furious, and citizens will be annoyed when the people they call the police on end up getting a hug and a handshake instead of cuffs and getting stuffed.
The beachfront conference: They’re animals when they party, but what would you expect? We make them animals when they’re working a shift from the academy on up. We undo a lifetime of learning so that they can grab the weapons off their belts without looking (and therefore keep their eyes on the target) and teach them to be instinctual thinkers, so how mad can we be when they find a place to ignore the bad dreams while feeling the safety in numbers?
I’ve painted a potentially scary picture without giving any examples, but I think you get my point. They’re just—different. And wherever you are, the off-duty cops are, too; you’ve just never thought to look.
The man ahead of you in line at Walmart that, when standing still, keeps his right elbow bent and kind of pressed in? He’s doing that to make contact with the pistol in his waistband, simultaneously giving him comfort and protecting it from someone walking up and laying hands on it. (Cop.)
The girl that walks with her arms (or at least elbows) further away from her body than usual? That’s to accommodate the spaces normally occupied by a pistol on one side and a radio on the other. (Cop.)
But to see these guys near the Florida surf…free from local scrutiny and the laws of fashion? It can be a beautiful thing to see them laughing again, if you had a glimpse of what they’ve been through and what they’ve seen so that we wouldn’t have to.
The toys are more powerful and easier to hide, training is at a new level in every aspect of the job, and we’re probably more educated now than at any other time in U.S. law enforcement history, but cops…cops haven’t evolved much at all, and I suppose I find that pretty comforting.
Unlike combat boots with blue jeans. (Trust me on this.)