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Brothers for life, behind a badge

Their memories are as close to them as their guns and badges once were, always at their sides or over their hearts. At a gathering this weekend of retired New York City police officers, men whose retirement years have softened their bodies were clear on this one thought: Once a cop, always a cop.

"I missed it when I left. I missed it very much," says Bill Byrne, 62, of Port Charlotte, who retired in 1977 after 24 years on the city's streets. "You saw the worst kind of life, but you enjoyed the job. Don't ask me why. It was a zoo out there."

More than 400 ex-officers and their wives came to Orlando, armed only with their stories of kids who have become cops themselves, of failed marriages, of long, cold nights on patrol.

And a few came with the story of the time Detective Joe Carmona went to cash his paycheck a couple of days after Christmas.

It was his last day as a cop.

They call their organization the 10-13 Club, the numbers used over police radios when an officer needs assistance.

"The socializing is the biggest part," says Norman Andersson, a retired police inspector who is a lawyer and president of the 10-13 Clubs of America. "We spent a lot of time together in our work, and people get close."

There are more than 27,000 former New York City police officers in America, a few hundred more than are now on the force. More than 10,000 retirees, some as young as in their 30s, others in their 90s, belong to 10-13 clubs, including branches throughout the Tampa Bay area.

"You always have sort of a brotherhood, so getting together like this is wonderful," says Jack Cody, who is 66 and lives in Holiday.

A scene often repeats itself during the weekend at the Delta Resort in Orlando, as men who were once as close

as kin recognize old friends under the wrinkles and thinning hair.

Get them all in one place, over coffee or beers, and the blue knights ride again.

Dec. 28, 1970, and Joe Carmona is getting ready to cash his check at a Chase Manhattan Bank in the South Bronx.

Four men come in with guns, pointed and ready for a bank robbery on a payday when banks usually have extra cash on hand.

"Everybody take it easy," one robber says. "This is a stickup."

Carmona, a narcotics detective, doesn't wait a split second. His booming voice soaked with its New York City accent belts out:

"Yeah, there's no stickup while I'm here."

"Ninety, ninety-five percent of the job is boredom," says Byrne, who has two children on the city's force. "When something happens, it happens like that," he says, snapping his fingers.

Like the time Bill Reichert was stabbed twice in the left leg with an ice pick while trying to remove a woman "who was raising a ruckus on a city bus."

"I didn't even know I was bleeding," says Reichert, 64, who volunteers with children at a Safety Harbor school. "I'm talking with my lieutenant right after the arrest, and he says, "Geez, who's bleeding?'

"I look down, and there's blood on the floor," Reichert says. "I never even felt it."

The tellers and few customers dive for cover as Carmona whips out his handgun.

Bam. One robber shot over the left eye. Killed. Bam. Bam. Another shot in the groin and stomach. Killed, too.

Behind a pillar, he fires again at the third man, wounding him. Carmona, a department veteran of 19 years, doesn't see the fourth robber behind him.

But he hears the gunshots. BamBamBamBamBam.

New York City police officers can retire with half pay after 20 years, and many do.

"Changing jobs, leaving a job, is one of the most traumatic experiences in life," says Lawrence J. Kaplan, professor emeritus of economics at New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "It applies to everyone."

Maybe more so to police officers, another professor says.

"Leaving their role as police officers makes them consider who they are as persons," says Charles Bahn, coordinator of the graduate psychology program at John Jay.

Police officers, especially men, are driven to socialize together, he says, by such things as their odd schedules and their suspicion of outsiders.

Retiring makes police adjust. "They have to relate to people in their new guise, and that can be hard," Bahn says. "The gun is gone, and the uniform and badge. They've been cops seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Now they must learn to shed the role."

But most of those at the convention didn't seem as concerned about life after police work except for one aspect: their pensions.

Like most retirees, the ex-officers say they have watched inflation eat away at their pensions. They are worried that unless something is done for them, such as cost-of-living increases, the job where they were always ready to give their lives will be robbing their retirement years.

The fourth robber hits Carmona five times. Once in the right arm, three times in the back.

And once in the back of his head, a nasty wound that takes the big man down.

Witnesses call police, and a dispatcher sends out the police radio call: "10-13 ... officer needs assistance."

It was easier to be an officer back then, in the years before Miranda rights, Supreme Court decisions and liberalism wiped away their authority, the former officers say.

"I was respected a little more back then," says Ed Murray, who is 72 and lives in Venice, Fla. "Laws were changed. The cops in the old days, they could take the initiative and get things done."

Others agree, but add that something else has changed police work: drugs and younger and younger people getting into trouble.

"Sure, there was always drugs, but never like today," Cody says.

"Life is so cheap up there now," says Byrne, the former police sergeant. "People are crazy, so unpredictable."

They give you medals when you are shot, and funerals when you die.

"I looked up at the ceiling and knew I was alive," Carmona says, showing the Medal of Honor bar he received. "See, the morgue's got a real high ceiling in New York, like a theater, you know. In my job, I'd been there lots of time.

"So I'm there completely naked, and I look up at the doctor and tell him "Hey, I'm not in the morgue. I guess I'm alive. Right?"'

Carmona, 63, lives in Palm Harbor, where he is president of the Pinellas 10-13 Club. He never returned to work after recovering from the shooting.

"I still got five fragments in my head," he says, pointing to his head for emphasis, "and there's this scar." He held up his upper arm and showed the bullet-size mark.

"Yeah, that was quite a day."