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Sunday Journal: Real life fades childhood's euphoria

Life’s terrific when you’re 8 and dad’s a police officer. And then . . .

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Life’s terrific when you’re 8 and dad’s a police officer. And then . . .

Being 8 years old is great. It is 1950, and my mother is in the kitchen making breakfast, singing along with Don McNeill and the Breakfast Club band on the radio.

Dad is shaved and dressed in his dark blue Detroit policeman's uniform. His gun is on the top shelf of the front closet far away from everyone's reach but his. I watch him carefully lock his gun in its holster and secure each bullet on his wide belt. I take his nightstick off the hook on the back of the closet door, slap it against my palm and then place it securely on his belt. As real men do not show affection, his huge hands mess up my hair and a mock championship boxing match commences.

Just as the championship fight becomes too loud for Mom, she summons my two older sisters and me for a breakfast of Cheerios and Del Monte fruit cocktail. Before grace, we all march around the breakfast table singing "Good morning breakfast lovers, how ya do ya" with millions of Breakfast Club families across America. Dad kisses Mom and the girls goodbye. He throws me a fake right hook just like Detroit's hero, Joe Louis.

By the time my sisters and I reach the end of the driveway, we hear a loud "Bye Mom, bye Dad," as our two cousins crash through the front door of the house across the street. "Hi, Uncle John," we shout in unison as my dad's brother pulls the 1936 Buick down the driveway. He hits the horn twice as my father, carefully balancing his third coffee, bounds from our house and jumps into the front seat of the massive Buick. Both are Detroit police patrolmen. Together, they make their way to the local police station and the only job they know.

• • •

If being 8 years old in 1950 is great, being 8 on a summer Saturday in 1950 is even greater. That's the day when the entire family, including countless aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and other Detroit police families, gather near Lake Erie for a picnic.

Dads hit powerful home runs, moms run the bases in colorful housedresses and the kids win every ball game. We swim, fish, and climb mighty elm trees that line the lake's shore. On the drive home, we fall asleep as The Green Hornet and Our Miss Brooks play on the car's radio.

• • •

When the doorbell rings in the middle of the night, Mom knows why. She tells us in unusually harsh words to stay in our rooms as she puts on her robe to answer the door.

Capt. Murray and Father John are waiting on the front porch. Capt. Murray is a huge man with a gold police shield and gold buttons on his immaculate uniform. Father John holds my mom's arm as if she were about to fall. They whisper so that we cannot hear.

Mom is dressed in a moment. In the driveway, a police car's blue and red lights break the black night. As I look out the window, lights in every house on the block are turning on and front porches are populating with the concerned. Two more police cars pull up to the house, lights glowing, sirens silent.

The next morning, the house is full of aunts and grandmothers. They speak in whispered tones as if we were not present. My grandmothers are absorbed in their rosaries just as when my grandfathers died. Police cars line the street with uniformed officers smoking and chatting in solemn circles. They quickly drop their cigarettes and stiffen to attention as Capt. Murray's car pulls into the driveway. Mom walks up the walkway; she looks so tired, so old.

"Dad will be okay," she whispers, as she holds each of us tightly to her. My grandmothers put their rosaries aside, look toward heaven and give thanks.

• • •

Dad is home after a month in the hospital. But our Saturday picnics are not the same. The adults drink a lot more beer and never want to play baseball anymore. My mom and aunts always look worried and my sisters and cousins seem so much older than before. My mother no longer sings in the morning and the marches around the breakfast table have stopped.

Dad is promoted to detective. Detectives wear suits to work. They do not look like policemen. They work lots of hours, leaving no time for our championship fights. He drives alone in his new Ford downtown to the detective division. Most nights he comes home late and very tired. It is not fun being 8 anymore.

Terrence Stapleton, retired president of TWS Systems, is currently chairman of Suncoast Waldorf School and various foundations.

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Sunday Journal: Real life fades childhood's euphoria 02/28/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 28, 2009 3:30am]

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