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The desire to be cops is the mystery that drives them

When he was still in diapers and taking his first steps, the boy would ogle up at his daddy just home from the night shift.

Twenty something years later, I can still see it: My nephew grasping his tall, tired father's knees, fascinated by the ritual unstrapping and unsnapping of belts and buckles and whatnots from the dark police uniform.

I think even then he knew what he wanted to be. Okay, I remember something later about joining the Ninja Turtles, but he was clomping around in his father's spit-shined shoes saying "policeman" since I can remember.

He was the first grandchild, and the fact that he turned out to be bright and adorable and in possession of a wicked sense of humor didn't hurt. He discovered that a rubber band surreptitiously tightened around a kitchen sink sprayer meant anyone who unwittingly turned on the faucet took a blast of water to the chest. We found this endlessly hilarious. I think everyone in the family still checks for rubber bands before doing dishes.

My sister and her policeman husband lived in South Florida, where their son fell in love with anything to do with saltwater. Once, the family came north for a Disney weekend, and, as an afterthought, we went to a fishing pier on the gulf. Today, baiting a hook on that specific pier is crucial to any visit. The slender, tanned kid in the frayed Hurley ball cap stands around with the old salts, talking snook and reds.

After high school, he took a job piloting boats for rich folks. I held out hope for the Coast Guard — even the fickle sea had to be friendlier than the streets of any city I could think of — but there was a restlessness to him, like he was still waiting for what he had always been waiting for.

While all this was going on, his favorite (okay, only) aunt was making a life in Tampa as a reporter. I got to know a few cops, interviewed them, chatted with them, wrote about some who got in trouble and respected a lot of others. I listened to their jokes and saw photos of their babies-turned-high-school-football-champs. I liked them. But I never did get why they wanted to be police officers who risk everything on any routine work night. When I asked, the answer was usually that it was what they always wanted to be and that they couldn't imagine being anything else.

It seems like there have been so many police funerals over the years, two for men I knew, Ricky Childers and Randy Bell. Last year — just as my nephew was announcing his big plans to go to the police academy — I saw the mayor of my city weep for Jeffrey Kocab and David Curtis, two more officers down.

This week, we saw a mayor in tears yet again, a city stunned, a police chief holding one officer's badge and another's wedding ring. We heard how St. Petersburg police Officer Jeffrey Yaslowitz loved being part of the canine unit, how Sgt. Thomas Baitinger could light up the room. My nephew and his classmates attend the funeral today.

He's doing really well, thank you, buried in books, running miles. He has never seemed happier or more focused. I'll go to his graduation and probably cry and embarrass him, a little boy two heads taller than me who will work brutal night shifts and deal with the worst side of whatever city he lands in. I think I'll be equal parts proud and afraid. And probably, I'll never really understand.

Sue Carlton's column resumes its regular schedule soon.

The desire to be cops is the mystery that drives them 01/27/11 [Last modified: Friday, January 28, 2011 2:23pm]
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