Sunday, March 4, 2018

Good Bye to a Craftsman

Charles Emerson Winchester III (David Ogden Stiers) (after one-upping Hawkeye and B.J. with a photo of himself having dinner with Audrey Hepburn): "When will you two cretins realize that your feeble imaginations cannot keep up with my real life?" MASH, "Major Topper," (1978).

Noting the passing of actor David Ogden Stiers.

It is nearly unbearable, parting with the echoes of so many fond memories. The 1970 movie MASH, something of a sendup of the Vietnam War - set during the Korean War - led inevitably to the TV series of the same name. Sharing only one main character (Gary Burghoff's Radar O'Reilly), the TV version took a season or so to get its legs and then took off.

I watched the show with my mom during my college years. Later, through the miracle of recorded commercial TV on tape and disc watched the episodes again with my wife. And again. And again. We have seen every episode, many multiple times.

The episodes that featured both Colonel Potter (Harry Morgan) and Major Charles Winchester are our most beloved, and arguably are some of the best TV ever made. David Ogden Stiers played the aristocratic Boston Blue Blood with glaring pomposity. Winchester was a gifted surgeon, so much so that his efforts to outshine his tent mates Hawkeye Pierce and BJ Hunnicutt were invariably successful, even as his immense ego led Potter to once exclaim in anguish, "You're not worth it. Nobody's that good!"

Yet, the writers and Stiers crafted a character much deeper than the symphonies, cognac and Back Bayisms that usually characterized Winchester. In one Christmas episode, several members of 4077 MASH conspired with Winchester's parents to have his old tobogganing hat mailed to him in Korea. As the happy boyhood memories flooded into, and for a moment overwhelmed, his Korea present, Stiers performance still brings tears - the intensely human quality of child-like innocence he brings to the battle-hardened Harvard surgeon is breathtaking.

Stiers was more than just an actor. He was a musician, a conductor of remarkable talent and repute, and the voice on a number of Audiobooks. He was a professional, whose acting career spanned decades and resulted in several Emmy nominations. 

Mr. Stiers's passing at 75 may have stilled his skilled voice, but it cannot erase a body of work that now speaks for him - a superbly talented man, a wide array of interests.

Thank you, sir, for all of the memories.

Friday, March 2, 2018

When a Madman Comes to Town

"The problem with quotes on the Internet is that it is hard to verify their authenticity."
~ Abraham Lincoln

Social media. For every vice, a virtue. For every head-scratching moment, an epiphany. Home to every -ism known to humankind, including some whose existence was heretofore unknown. A place to exchange views under the clear protections of the 1st Amendment, and a place to marvel at the idealistic naiveté of the Founders, that they ever considered "Congress shall make no law" as a way to begin the Bill of Rights.

In the horrific aftermath of the recent school shooting in Florida, charges and countercharges have been flung with willful abandon concerning the actions - pre, during and post incident - about nearly every aspect of the Broward County Sheriff, and his organization. Cowardice, incompetence, and even the possibility that this was a staged incident involving a tacked-up adult assassin, are everywhere. 

Most high functioning police organizations (I have no hesitation to state unequivocally that I work for one, and am closely associated with another) look on in head-shaking wonder at the instantly-expert writers on a variety of web sites foisting wild theories and demanding draconian responses. Those of us charged with training people to respond to active shooter incidents, who are ourselves tasked with being the first responders at the scene and those who command the incidents ask many more questions than offer unenlightened opinions. We have seen remarkable acts of bravery and sacrifice by officers all over the United States responding effectively to active shooters. We've watched tactics succeed...and fall short. We want to learn to do our jobs better. To wit:

What actually happened? It seems a simple question, but there are so many moving parts it often takes weeks or months to fully explore. How did the suspect arrive, was their weapon concealed and at what point did they brandish it publically? When did the shooting start, and where did it start? How did the shooter select targets, use cover, reload? What weapon(s) did they employ, how did the weapons function and perform? What ammunition did they use, what was their load out? How were they dressed? Where did they go? What tactics did they use? What effect did the fleeing students have on the suspect's actions? Once the shooting stopped, what did the suspect do?

From the law enforcement standpoint - how were officers made aware of the shooting? Where were they, what did they perceive? How did they arrive? What was said over the radios (both the SO and school) by dispatch, the responding officers and command personnel? What were the officers (individually and collectively) trained to do? What were the formal and informal policies and procedures under which law enforcement officers were operating? What incident command procedures were followed, what training had department members received (at all levels) concerning the management and leadership of an incident? What is the departmental culture, how has it evolved over time, and what are the formal and informal rewards for performance? Who were the individuals involved, what are their strengths and shortcomings?

Finally - what can we learn from the incident? Training, planning - and what are our expectations of each other, our agencies and other first responders? The statistical analysis of first responder, aggressive single officer, active shooter tactics are daunting - a substantial percentage of officers are wounded even in successful situations. Police officers are human beings hard-wired for survival. What percentage of officers will not enter alone? How much training will be necessary to increase that percentage to near 100%? What kind of equipment should be available, how much will it cost and who should receive it? Which commanders are adept at incident command, how much training should they receive and how flexible is an agency to allow real-time rehearsals?

Some years ago I rode with a Collier County Deputy - Naples, FL. - while I was researching Heart of the Matter. We tear-assed lights and sirens to a location because the deputy was not responding to her radio. It turned out to be inattention, and I asked why the urgency. "We call them dumb shit moments," I said.

"The next county over (Broward County) lost three officers last year," he responded gravely. "We take nothing for granted."

When I began my police career nearly forty years ago, I wore second-hand body armor designed to stop .38 caliber rounds. I was armed with a six-shot pistol, carried 12 more rounds in speed loaders and received some training in dealing with active shooters, mostly those who were intent on ambushing law enforcement officers.

When I left patrol in 2015 I had a Kevlar helmet set on the front seat of my car. Behind me was a vest containing heavy plates that would stop rifle rounds (that in addition to my expensive soft body armor). In the trunk - a tricked-out AR-15, with four thirty round magazines. I carried a pistol with a fifteen rounds, thirty more in two spare mags on my belt. I had rehearsed responding, gearing up and going dozens of time. I also had my ICS kit, and had practiced incident command on easy calls so that the skills were there for the more difficult ones. I wasn't alone - everyone around me was similarly kitted out, similarly trained and prepared.

We have learned so much since my career began. We have so much more to learn. While wild charges about malfeasance, cowardice and dereliction swirl all about, professional law enforcement asks questions against the day a madman comes to our town and it falls to us to act. Why?

We promised. Citizens have a right to expect it wasn't an empty promise.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

A Beauty

"You were born to be hockey players, every one of you. You were meant to be here, tonight." Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell), Miracle (2004).

There comes a time, even in team sports, where it's all you. You were put in the game, in that situation, in that tournament, to do one thing. Do it, and the team wins. Let the opponent do their job, you don't win.

Everything counts. The up downs that made you puke. The wind sprints that made you dizzy. The mind-numbing drills, the injuries and the times when you skated off the ice bruised, bleeding... Got a drink, got back in the crease and invited more. And, more. And more.

Last night Madeline S. "Maddie" Rooney, all 5' 5" of her, stood between Canada and the Gold medal. Teammate Jocelyn Lamoureux-Davidson had scored in that most horrible of overtime periods - the Shootout. Now, it was up to Maddie.

She was meant to be there, on that ice, in that crease, wearing the sweater of her country.

It was a beauty, goalie.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Headed Home

Noting the passing of evangelist Billy Graham.


We are told that this, and a few other things, are not discussed in polite company. I'm sure that's true.

Religion can be a place of great reconciliation. The church into which I was confirmed, in Pittsford, NY, was among the first around to have women preaching, the first to have men and women of color address the congregation and - amazing that this would even be the case - the first to invite (they accepted) nuns to attend. 

Billy Graham had a high profile - a stunning world-wide profile - as friend of, and spiritual advisor to, presidents. He spoke internationally. Much has been written about him, more now that he has passed. Gone home, he would tell his followers when asked what death would mean to him.

In the Fifties, he befriended a man named Martin Luther King. Over the years they lived their own destinies, and sometimes differed. But, in 1963 when Dr. King was arrested during the Birmingham campaign, Billy Graham was there to get him out of jail.

My own relationship with "The Church" has ebbed and flowed over the years. It is impossible, at least for me, to escape the notion that even as I look all around me, realize everywhere is away and conclude I am the center of the universe, I'm not.

Neither, Mr. Graham would have said, was he. But, he had a particular gift for believing he knew where that center was, and making it a little more accessible to those seeking it.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

A Rose, By Any Other Name

Someone who has odd interests, and is often silly at times. A dork is also someone who can be themselves and not care what anyone thinks. Urban Dictionary.

Previously, we examined the word "geek" and how that appellation applied to me. The context was plane spotting, and two guys from London. Today's lesson - Why Jim is a Dork.

Our recent cruise aboard the gargantuan Oasis of the Seas was hit or miss - mostly hit. How can I complain about being away from work, love of my life at my side, margarita in hand aboard what is basically a floating all-inclusive resort. 

But, I am nothing if not observant. A quick run through the TV in our cabin revealed the following:

How to buy diamonds at the port calls, or;
Where we were, how fast we were going, or;
The cruise director (who was actually funny) being funny, or;

There were two flavors of ESPN - one which had the usual talking heads yelling at each other about football players we had never heard of, and;


Okay, I can see you reaching for the mouse all the way from my office. I know what you mean. But, it was the only thing worth watching, since NBC has the Olympics locked up and Royal Carib hadn't bothered to buy the package. Lucky us, right? So, we gave cricket a look.

So, it isn't baseball... But, it actually is at least a distant cousin. But, let me try this out on you. It looks, for all the world, like a combination of baseball (a ball and bat), hockey (somebody protecting a goal) and that time-honored kid past time, running bases. Okay, go ahead and tell me that doesn't sound better than a sales pitch for bamboo sheets.

Combine that with the locale of the tournament  being broadcast - Antigua. I'll save you the trouble - It's one of the Leeward Islands in the Caribbean. The matches we watched were played under the lights, the pitch surrounded by lush stands of palm trees swaying in the ocean breeze. Jamaica was playing Guyana...with some big dude from Guyana hitting the ball well into the darkness.

We went to a small Mexican restaurant aboard and watched cricket as we ate. One of the wait staff, a guy from India, explained some of the niceties. There is a strike zone (after a fashion) and if you can get past the sight of the "bowler" running up to the pitching line, throwing straight-armed and bouncing the ball up to a guy wearing leg pads, guarding wickets... One of the commentators actually said, "Oh, that's untidy cricket" about a play that would have made it to "C'mon, Man!" if this was the NFL.

I was fascinated. I was rooting for Guyana, but Jamaica had some serious game...


Never mind. I'm going back to reading Cricket Explained, a book my dear wife bought for the husband she knows so very well. 

Monday, February 19, 2018

Whistling Past the Graveyard

If the world should blow itself up, the last audible voice would be that of an expert saying it can't be done.
— Peter Ustinov

Few things are truly certain. One is that people will offer grand, sweeping statements in the aftermath of a tragedy. Yeah, me too.

The latest school shooting, this one in Florida, is no different than the last, or the one before that. Or the one before that. Some disgruntled asshole obtained a weapon - this time apparently legally - walked into a school and began shooting. Multiple fatalities, multiple injuries. Much political hay being made on all sides. No real discussion, no real debate. In time, this will just be another historical artifact.

Here are a few things I think are factual.

First, the ubiquitous AR-15 platform began as a project to fill a need within the US Military. The US Military purchases weapons for one reason - to arm service members. The notion that the the AR-15 was not conceived as a small arm intended for use in shooting human beings is absurd.

The AR-15 is a semi-automatic shoulder weapon that is functionally indistinguishable from any number of other semi-automatic rifles. The differences are sometimes cosmetic (most AR-15s are black), but sometimes meaningful.

The AR is ergonomically superior to the weapons systems it replaced. Mild recoil, compact design and the straight line bore-to-shoulder make it easier to fire multiple shots accurately (the argument over magazine capacity is a side show). Advancements in "furniture"  - stocks, fore grip pieces, etc., enhance the shooter's ability to run the gun. Optics that make target acquisition child's play are inexpensive, rugged and efficient.

Rifle trainers, and those who know much more than me about ballistics often engage in meaningful discussions about the effectiveness of the .223 (or, NATO 5.56) versus the .308 (roughly the NATO 7.62). Sadly, the lethality of the .223 in mass murder scenarios is beyond question.

Finally - despite the need the AR-15 weapons system was invented to meet, it's not exclusively a "weapon of war." Many individuals whose opinions I value suggest the AR as the premier home defense weapon. It has been used successfully in that capacity all over the country. I know, everyone loves the shotgun. It's easy, it's point and click... And every trigger pull unleashes eight or nine thirty caliber pellets moving in a steadily expanding pattern. If half of them hit the target - pretty good shooting - four are still headed downrange.

So, now we reach the second issue. Does the Second Amendment of the US Constitution secure the right of citizens to own this efficient killing machine? Undoubtedly it does. The landmark Supreme Court cases of Heller (2008) and McDonald (2010) clearly state that the right of an individual to own firearms is "central to the inherent right of self-defense." Not target shooting, not hunting, not macho posing. 

A number of commentators go on at great length about the right to protect one's self against governmental tyranny. Sure, fine. 

But, before anyone runs off to buy a machine gun... The Supreme Court also said that reasonable restrictions, to address "compelling governmental interests," would be constitutional. What are they? 

The court in Heller left it for us to work out. So...

We're the grown ups. We have failed the children we are supposed to protect. We haven't enacted quickly enough laws designed to keep the frightfully efficient AR-15 out of the wrong hands. When enacted, the agencies charged with enforcing those laws has been remarkably inept at doing more than apologizing profusely as yet another mass murdered slips through the dragnet. We've gotten really good at burying school children, though. And saying beautiful phrases at their memorial services.

Some schools have chosen to arm teachers. This is, among other things, an intensely personal decision to be engaged in by...wait for it...grown ups.

Let's all grow up a little. The right to keep and bear arms comes with a degree of responsibility that we have been criminally reckless in avoiding. The absolutists on both sides - yeah, I'm talking to you, too, NRA - need to understand that firearms are valuable tools that keep people safe. And, they are dangerous instruments of mass murder that some people ought not to possess. The Constitution recognizes this, and is awaiting us to get off of our dead asses and do something about it. Does this mean that a lot of people will have guns? Yes. Does it mean some very nice, well-meaning people won't be allowed to have them?

You're damn right it does.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Holding The Line

“We have flown the air like birds and swum the sea like fishes, but have yet to learn the simple act of walking the earth like brothers.”
Martin Luther King Jr.

It is not unusual to hear reference to the law enforcement profession as closed, reticent, hard for outsiders to enter or understand. With the murder of El Paso County Deputy Micah Flick this evening the familiar conversations unfold. We hug each other, say supportive things to each other - grieve together, cry together and, eventually, tell funny and illustrative stories about the fallen...together.

In the midst of this horrible period - three Colorado Law enforcement officers killed in five weeks - we turn to each other. It is not that we are more worthy, or better. It isn't that the courage it takes to be one of us is superior to that of other professions or callings. It's that we know what this particular calling entails, what it takes to make a go of it, and what it extracts from all of us.

It's the officer responding to a call, at the same time on the phone hearing of another fallen brother or sister. It's the significant other that packs lunches, washes undershirts and vest covers and eats dinner, or sleeps, or puts the kids to bed...alone, four nights a week. It's the mom and dad, the cousins, the nephews who watch from afar and hope...pray...that they never get that phone call. It's the man, or woman, who marries into the profession and, before too long, gets a belly full of processions and Class A uniforms and "Something happened in the Springs tonight." It's the cop kids who grow up understanding far beyond their years what mom or dad...or mom and dad...risk every time they go to work.

It isn't that we don't trust others. It's that we trust each other so much. With our lives, with our hearts... With everything we have. When an officer falls, we have each other. And we know, when it happens again, and it will, we are there for each other once more.

Then, we see the flags, and the citizens. We see the firefighters, ambulance attendants. We see construction workers and kids and military. We see the people we serve standing by the side of the road, saluting. We go for a cup of coffee and find out our money is unnecessary - it's been paid for by the woman with the little kids who just left, wanting nothing in return.

And we suit up. Our loved ones say good bye and cope with our absences. And it all, somehow, makes sense.