Powerful Words: A Cop's Repentance

This is the second in a series of four posts.

*     *     *

Back in 1971, the small New Jersey beach-town where I had a job as a summer cop—a job that paid $2.00 an hour, just a bit above the federal minimum wage of $1.60 at the time—still had a lot of blue laws and similar religiously based legal restrictions. Among the latter was an ordinance in accordance with which it was against the law to go barefoot anywhere but on the beach. Going barefoot anywhere but actually on the sands of the local beach was literally proscribed, and that included outlawing going barefoot even on the boardwalk next to the beach.

Like all too many laws, that one was selectively enforced. Basically, it was there to be used by those vested with authority for law-enforcement—as I, patrolling my boardwalk beat on the swing-shift during part of that summer with my gun and uniform and badge and mirrored shades, was so vested—to bust people they wanted to bust, but could find no other legal grounds for busting.

The more laws, the better for such purposes. Just give us enough laws, and we ingenious cops can almost always find some reason to hassle those we want to hassle. (As for people we happen to like, or want to like us . . . well, they aren’t really hurting anybody by breaking the letter of a few little laws, are they? Don’t sweat the small stuff!)

The two fourteen year-old boys who, one evening that summer of 1971, managed to irritate me with their chatter to one another as they were clinging to the railing and inching along the outside edge of the boardwalk, happened to be barefoot. They had taken their sneakers off and stuck their socks in them, then tied their shoes together to sling over their wrists as they walked on the beach, just before they started climbing around the boardwalk by me as I walked along on my nightly patrol.

So they were barefoot off the beach.

That was all I needed to vent my spleen on them, once they’d managed to get under my precious and pompous skin. After all, they were breaking the law! Well, I would show them! I would break their nasty little uppity spirits!

I told the two they were under arrest for breaking the law about going barefoot off the beach. I made them sit down on one of the boardwalk benches and told them to put their socks and sneakers back on.

The town was so small it only had a single squad-car. I used my walky-talky to call headquarters and tell them to send it. I needed transport for my two little lawbreakers to the little cell we had for the likes of them back at police headquarters.

Then, however, I looked up.

I saw the sheepish, intimidated look on the faces of the two kids as they started to obey my orders and put their socks and shoes back on.

And I suddenly came to my senses.

Realizing with shame what I was in process of doing, I immediately called headquarters back and told them to cancel my order for the squad-car. Then I told the boys they could leave their shoes off. I apologized to them, telling them that they had done nothing at all wrong, and that it was I who was completely out of line. I begged them to forgive me.

They did. In fact, they became my friends. For the rest of the brief time I was beating the boards nightly in my blue uniform, packing my piece and all, they would often come down to the boardwalk during my shift to keep me company. They’d bring me cookies and other good things. They were good kids, with a still living sense of humanity. I have no idea what happened to them after that summer, but hope they are both still doing well.

I’m not proud of what I tried to do to them. But I am proud of the shame I felt when I suddenly realized just what it was I was trying to do, and of begging their forgiveness.

A week or two later, my two new young friends were horsing around wrestling with one another on a little triangle of lawn and some flowers just off the boardwalk, near some steps down to the sidewalk along the street beside it. I was standing just above them on the boardwalk, watching benignly as they played.

A couple of self-satisfied, self-righteous old women (the town in question did not suffer from any lack of such creatures, and still doesn’t to this day) were walking along the sidewalk just then. They proceeded to berate me for letting the two kids wrestle that way, where they might destroy the precious public property by rolling over into the flowers. I told the two old biddies that the boys were friends of mine, that they were not harming anything, and that I’d keep an eye out for the flowers. The two elders went huffing away down the street, remarking on my insufficiencies as an officer of the law.

I’m proud of that, too.

*     *     *

To be continued.