“Sometimes she finds him weeping
As he lay there in his bed
The distant sounds of battle
Still echo in his head”

The Oak Ridge Boys ~ G.I. Joe and Lillie


Thank you, Veterans. I am forever grateful. Thank you, too, Oaks, for your unyielding support and love for our country and for the brave men and women in uniform.

 


The 38th parallel, where perhaps 1 million soldiers faced each other across an area boobytrapped with over a million land mines, was the line drawn in the sand during the Korean War. Cross it and a soldier could quickly die in a hail of bullets.

My Uncle Pete (left) was there in the 1950s, stationed just across the 38th parallel. During his entire 26-year career in the U.S. Army, the time he served in Korea was possibly one of the worst times of his life.

Recently, Uncle Pete told Denene and me about standing guard at night, hearing the enemy soldiers on the other side of “the line,” yelling, firing their weapons, and banging on things, an effort to prevent sleep for our soldiers. And suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, groups of them charged across the line, firing their rifles and pistols in short bursts aimed at the U.S. soldiers. Then they’d run back from where they came. This occurred night after night after night.

He told of having very little to eat except rice. Rice, rice, rice, and more rice. After he left Korea he swore he’d never touch rice again. Just the thought of it turns his stomach.

He recalled nights when soldiers were forced to burn drums of alcohol to keep warm during -60 degree temperatures. They’d remain huddled around those barrels, moving away only to start the tanks every thirty minutes to prevent the grease in the gun turrets from freezing solid. If that happened the tanks would only fire once since the frozen grease would prevent recoil of the tanks’ gun barrels.

He told war tales that would curl the toughest and straightest of toes. Then he switched to stories about other assignments around the world, from different bases where he was stationed throughout his career. His favorites were in Germany and a long term serving at the Pentagon in Washington D.C.

Back then, he said, D.C. was a fun city and his job at the Pentagon was quite rewarding.

On January 20, 1961, Uncle Pete was one of the sixteen thousand U.S. soldiers who marched along Pennsylvania Avenue in President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural parade. It was a proud moment for him when he passed the reviewing stand, seeing out of the corner of his eye, President Kennedy; First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy; the President’s parents Rose Kennedy and Joseph P. Kennedy Sr.; Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson; and Lady Bird Johnson and other dignitaries. He also received an invitation to the president’s inaugural ball. This was a high point in my uncle’s life.

But there were times when things in Washington weren’t so rosy.

In November of 1963, Uncle Pete again marched as a soldier along D.C. streets for President Kennedy. This time, though, the march was for President Kennedy’s funeral procession after he was assassinated.

My uncle has seen and done a lot in his day. He’s been “there” when times were tough, and he’s been practically on top of the world.  He’s a fighter. Always has been.

I’ve seen a few oddities over the years, especially during Halloween, the night when both kids and adults dress up as their favorite characters. It’s also a night that a few ghoulish folks believe is the perfect time to commit the usual plethora of crimes ranging from petty theft to murder. But there’s one Halloween crime from my old case files that stands out a bit from the rest and, as always, I have to tell the story. I do so, as irritating and long-winded as it may be, to help you with details for your own writing. As they say, you can’t make this stuff up and believe me, I read a lot and I write a lot, and most of what I see in fiction doesn’t compare to, well, this …

It was late one Halloween night, after costumed trick-or-treaters were long back at home gorging themselves on sugary treats—M&Ms, Whoppers, mini candy bars, Lemonheads, Candy Corn, and Skittles—when I knocked on Miss Evelyn’s front door, a wide plank of weathered wood with rusty strap hinges.

Through the square glass near the top of the door I saw a small slice of yellow light that started in a backroom to my left and stretched across the narrow hallway floor where it disappeared into another room on the righthand side of the passageway.

At the sound of my door-rapping, a figure moved across the light, first one way and then back.

While waiting for the owner of the shadow to respond to my presence, I had a look around the porch. Nothing unusual … a one-gallon vegetable can (absent its label) filled with sand and topped with a handful of cigarette butts, a rickety old rocking chair, five plastic flower pots with each containing the remnants of some sort of unidentifiable plant—all dead, dried up, and crispy—, a well-worn green cloth sofa, and a portable radio that was missing a knob.

A foil-wrapped coat hanger poked up from a hole in the top of the radio’s plastic casing. It replaced the former antenna that, at some point, had broken off and was either lost or discarded as trash. Either way, the radio, in it’s present condition, had been there for as long as I could remember.

And, as always, smack-dab in the center of the front door were three fairly fresh chicken feet that were tied together at their bloody stumps with a piece of bright red twine. The collection of gnarly toes and bony knuckles dangled from a bent 4d finishing nail.

Chicken feet, according to Miss Evelyn, bring good luck and, as a bonus, they also prevented evil spirts from crossing the threshold. Nope, nothing odd at all … for Miss Evelyn. The porch “decor” hadn’t changed in all the years I’d gone there. Not a thing.

I knocked again. She yelled from the back of the house. “Just a minute!”

I’d met Miss Evelyn after arresting a man for burglary and, while searching his pockets for weapons and other illegal items, I discovered a small flannel pouch tucked inside his wallet. I figured the contents could possibly be drugs, probably marijuana or hash, or something of that nature, so I asked the kid to level with me so I’d know what to expect.

I was surprised to hear him say that what I held in my hand was not was I’d suspected. Instead, he said, it was his “medicine bag,” a ground up mixture of chicken bones, tobacco, human hair, and herbs. Its purpose was to keep him safe. This was my first contact with a medicine bag. However, it was far from the last.

Root doctors make medicine bags containing plant and animal matter, such as human or animal bone, sage, garlic, and even dirt from a grave. The purpose of the bag is, for example, to provide safety, heal and prevent illness, and to help ignite or halt romances, etc. Another practically endless list.

This young burglar purchased his bag from Miss Evelyn, a local root doctor. Since this was a totally new experience for me, I decided to pay this so-called root doctor a visit. And, long story shortened a bit, Miss Evelyn “knew all and saw all” and she soon became one of my most reliable informants.

Her customer base was massive and many were criminals, so I basically kept her on speed dial. I also dropped off the occasional gift—a turkey or ham at Christmas, or a turkey in liquid form (Wild Turkey bourbon), her preference, as a sign of my appreciation.

This particular Halloween night a young man, Miss Evelyn’s nephew, answered the door and led me to the kitchen where his aunt stood at the head of six-chair red formica-topped table, hard at work assembling her latest batch of medicine bags and other concoctions. Behind her, a large black kettle was at full boil on the wood stove. A foul-smelling steam wafted my way. I didn’t ask.

If I had to guess I’d say Miss Evelyn weighed at a pound or two over a hundred pounds. She was so thin that the blood vessels on her arms and hands were visible and looked like someone had draped a squirming knot of skinny earthworms there, much like hanging tinsel on a Christmas tree.

As always when “working” tiny pearls of sweat peppered her forehead. Her fingernails were bitten to the quick. She wore a simple and faded housedress that was three sizes too big, a Winnie the Pooh apron, age-yellowed white socks, and pink Flip-Flops with the rubber thong jamming a wad of white sock material between the first and second toes of each foot.

When she smiled it became instantly obvious that dentists were not a part of her clientele, nor had she ever, not once, crossed the threshold of any tooth doctor’s office. Her breath smelled like a rotting animal carcass, an even worse scent than the pungent odor emanating from the pot on the stove.

Miss Evelyn was quirky, to say the least, and she was one of the nicest people I’d ever met.

I’d gone there that particular night to see if Evelyn could offer any insight about two bodies that had been dug up in a local cemetery. The vaults had been damaged and the caskets broken open. The grave-robbers took the same thing from each coffin—bones from the lower right arms and hands.

She said she’d heard about a couple who used human bones as part of their religious rituals. Before exhuming remains, though, they had sex atop the grave sites.

Coincidentally, the man and woman visited Miss Evelyn earlier in the night to ask if she knew where they could get heir hands on a fresh corpse because, in order to complete their ritual, they needed blood and they knew that to get it they’d need to reach a body prior to embalming. Well, Evelyn was having no parts of their nonsense and sent them on their way. And that was the purpose of my visit. Miss Evelyn called me the second the grave robbers left her house.

I finally caught up with the couple when I discovered their car parked near a funeral home. They’d planned to break in to steal someone’s dearly departed loved one. Fortunately, we stopped them before they committed the act.

So you see, folks, bizarre and morbid and spooky crime does not always come in the form of murder. Nor are the macabre criminals always the odd characters who reside at the spooky house at the end of the street.

This particular couple, the grave robbers, were as normal as your neighbors. Both were professionals with public jobs. They lived in a typical neighborhood and drove a normal car. However, the contents of their trunk was a bit different than most—shovels, picks, tools for prying open caskets, and a few human and animal bones scattered about. Other than that … as typical as you and I.

Well, perhaps we’re are not the best examples of normal, but you get the idea …

 


Bonus Section

Halloween Safety Tips For All – You, Your Kids, and Police Officers

 

Halloween Safety Tips For Kids and Grownups

  • – Avoid costumes that greatly reduce visibility or are too dark for motorists to see. Apply face paint instead. It’s safer than bulky masks.
  • Plan the route you and your children will take well in advance. Tell someone else about those plans and what time you’ll return home.
  • Stick to well-lit areas.
  • Attach reflective tape to costumes.
  • Use fire-resistant materials in costumes.
  • Carry a flashlight or glow stick, but not a lighted candle. Candles are burn hazards.
  • Trick-or-treat in groups, accompanied by at least one adult.
  • Attach kid’s names, address, and phone number to their clothes in case they become separated from adults.
  • Teach children to exit and enter vehicles from curbside, away from traffic.
  • Stay on sidewalks as much as possible, and cross at corners. Do not walk between parked cars. Always look both ways before crossing.
  • Children should not eat candy while out, until an adult examines it. Candy should not show signs of improper sealing, punctures, or holes.
  • Do not allow children into apartment buildings unless accompanied by an adult, and only visit homes with outside lighting.
  • Residents should remove obstacles and trip hazards, such as tools, ladders, and toys from their sidewalks, porches and front yards.
  • Keep lighted jack-o-lanterns away from porches or other areas where they could ignite a low-hanging costume.
  • Do NOT allow your kids to carry any toy gun as part of their costume, especially those toys that look like the real thing, even if the tips of the barrels are painted orange. The orange color doesn’t show well at night, if at all.

Halloween Safety Tips For Officers

Working as a police officer on Halloween poses special challenges. Think about it. In a world where someone wearing a mask is normally thought to be up to no good, you’re suddenly faced with scores of masked citizens. Kids are out and about darting in and out of traffic. They’re excited and and may not listen as well as they normally would, or should. And practical jokes often go horribly wrong. Needless to say, it can be a wild and trying night for cops.

Here’s a short list of tips for officers working the streets on one of their busiest nights of the year.

1. Stay alert. If it looks wrong, then it probably is.

2. Carry copies of outstanding warrants in your patrol vehicle—the people you’ve been unable to locate. This is the one night when the dummies will probably answer the door thinking you’re a trick-or-treater.

3. Carry candy in your patrol car. It’s the perfect time to show kids that you’re really one of the good guys.

4. Watch out for lone costumed adults, or those walking in groups. They’re probably up to no good.

5. Watch out for people tossing things from overpasses. For some reason, Halloween seems to be THE night to bomb police cars with bricks, rocks, eggs, and pumpkins.

6. Be alert for kids and adults who wear actual guns as part of their costumes.

7. Park your patrol car and walk for a while. Mingle with the trick-or-treaters. Keep them safe. It also keeps the bad guys guessing your next move. Besides, it’s a good idea to mix things up. Patrol your areas in a different order. Never allow yourself to fall into a set routine (this goes for the rest of the year, too).

8. Drive slower than normal and keep your eyes on the roadways. Watch for kids!

9. Keep an eye on the registered sex offenders in your area. They aren’t allowed to pass out candy nor should they open the door for children. And they shouldn’t have Halloween decorations displayed in their yard or on the house. Pay them a pre-Halloween visit to remind them of their court-ordered restrictions, if needed. No need to harass, but it’s often best to be proactive.

10. I preferred to patrol with my car window down, even in the winter time. Halloween is the only night of the year when I didn’t. Too many flying objects!

11. If possible, have extra officers working the streets on foot, in plain clothes.

12. Bring plenty of extra handcuffs. You’ll probably need them before the night is over.

13. Please, please, please wear your vest!

And, to you and yours …

Happy Halloween!

Labor Day: while you're enjoying the day off

While we gather with friends and family to enjoy backyard barbecues … well, this …

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WPA my mother would call it a ministry

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Transporting prisoners

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Each year on the last day of December I travel to a secret location where I meet with my friend Madam Zelda to learn her predictions for the coming year. The mysterious clairvoyant is so good at what she does that she’s rarely, if ever, wrong. The woman is uncanny.

So, in keeping with year-end tradition, Madam Zelda did a reading for us this morning and she’s confident 2019 will be fantastic. Here’s a list of her top fourteen predictions. Believe me, she’s always right … sometimes.

Here goes …

  1. California will enact new law requiring all laws to be law, unless exceptions and exemptions are needed to make the law a bit less lawful to avoid hurting the feelings of criminals.
  2. California police officers will no longer have powers of arrest. Instead, their new duty is to be the punching bags of politicians and criminals, which are often one and the same. Can’t tell them apart …
  3. Due to the large number of people now residing in California, the government will be forced to divide the land mass into two separate states—Regular California and the State of Homelessness.
  4. Since defecating on the streets and public sidewalks in San Francisco is legal, plumbing will be officially banned and become obsolete in California. Roto-Rooter will file for bankruptcy.
  5. San Francisco plumbers will assume lead roles in a newly formed San Francisco Department of Public Crapping, the SFDPC. Some spots will be filled by former Roto-Rooter employees.
  6. A murder will occur in Baltimore, D.C., and Chicago.
  7. Someone will cross the border from Mexico and the U.S. and someone will do the same in the opposite direction.
  8. Politicians will have better health care than the people who elected them into office.
  9. Someone will “sling mud” in an upcoming run for political office.
  10. Straw purchases take on a new meaning in California.
  11. Someone will believe everything they see on social media.
  12. A writer will have a character smell cordite at a crime scene.
  13. I will absolutely lose my mind when I see number 12 in a book.
  14. A BIG announcement is forthcoming. Madam Zelda believes it has something to do with “After Midnight.”

Today marks the end of another year. This one was especially turbulent for me and my family. But above all the bad, of course, came the filling of most of the top portion of a half-empty glass.

As many of you know, both my mother-in-law and our daughter, Ellen, were each diagnosed with serious cancer. They underwent surgeries, a couple each, and they received chemo and radiation.

Our daughter’s primary physician initially mis-diagnosed her troubles, telling her several times during several visits, to deal with the intense pain and other horrible issues, and told her to take Tylenol. He also dismissed obvious signs and symptoms as nothing more than “female problems.” In the meantime, and I won’t go into detail, but she lived a life of crying and moaning while doubled over from excruciating pain, while experiencing an agonizing and extremely anemic hell, for more than a year.

Then, fortunately, she visited a specialist for an entirely different issue. It took him only a minute or two to realize that his patient was in serious trouble and had her rushed to a local hospital for immediate, emergency surgery. Her condition, the troubles dismissed by the original doctor, were life-threatening. Thank goodness the specialist recognized the deadly disease symptoms because we learned that the surgery likely saved her life, that very day.

Then came the cancer diagnosis

During the emergency surgery, doctors discovered the disease, and it didn’t look good. Had the primary care physician performed any sort of typical exam for the type of problem he would have caught the cancer a year earlier. A FULL year sooner.

The oncologist overseeing Ellen’s condition decided to approach with a full-on super-aggressive attack. She wasn’t messing around. Chemo and radiation were started right away and, as a result of the intensity of the regimen, the powerful treatments took a huge toll on Ellen’s body and mind and emotions, as well as ruining her family financially. As a result, they’re struggling to meet even the basic human needs—food, clothing, utilities, and shelter.

The Hurricane

Next came the hurricane, a storm that devastated her city and community. Homes just down the road from Ellen’s house were destroyed by wind and water. Fortunately, Ellen’s home is still standing, but it received damage from heavy rains and floodwaters, damage that included ruining their septic system. They now use a pump to drain the bathtub and sinks and there’s a Port-a-John situated at the end of their driveway. This is how a cancer patient, who’s in pain most of the day, must live. Still, her faith is strong and prayer helps her go about her daily life.

Ellen applied for and was denied public assistance. Disability was also denied. In the meantime, Ellen’s husband’s work hours have been cut as result of company shutdowns of related factories. The cost of medication alone is more than their monthly income. The hospital forgives some of the expenses, and many of you contributed to Ellen’s GoFundMe campaign (please click here to contribute), as well as a few of extremely generous private contributions (no amount is too small). But those dollars are gone and bills still arrive and the medication is ongoing, some for life. By the way, Ellen and I are extremely appreciative for your assistance. I’m forever grateful and will never forget it.

My mother-in-law continues regular doses of chemo. Her surgeon and I chatted, in private, immediately after operation and he said her situation was not great. But, what he didn’t know is that, despite her years, Denene’s mom is a strong, independent woman. Cancer and the life-changing, body-altering surgeries were nothing more than a bump in the road for her. She took it all in stride and pushed forward.

Like Ellen, her faith is strong and she relies on prayer to guide her way. Her family is close and devoted to one another.

As soon as she was able Denene’s mother returned to a fairly normal lifestyle, including yard work, hairdresser appointments, shopping trips and, of course, going to church on a regular basis. She drives to her chemo appointments with the company of a friend. She’s tough.

Ellen and my mother-in-law are fighters. They’re strong. And they’re survivors.

Ellen’s last scan showed she’s cancer free. Not pain and sickness and emotionally free, but cancer free. It’s a miracle we didn’t see coming.

At her last scan, my mother-in-law’s results showed her cancer had reduced in size. Still serious, but less of it and what’s there is smaller. They recently  increased the dosage of her ongoing chemo. Hopefully, we’ll soon learn that she, too is cancer free.

The Gifts

Many of you contributed books and other reading material, and gifts, and prayers throughout these ordeals. Those things meant the world to Ellen and my mother-in-law. They helped them escape the world for a little while each day. They’re both avid readers and thoroughly enjoyed the books, and other things. Ellen told me that she often read a book in a single day. The stories took her away from it all for a while.

The Fires

During all of the above, we, while living in California, we were forced to evacuate our home due to one of the huge wildfires. We watched as the smoke began to rise over the hills in front of our house. A day later ash piled on my vehicle and in the yard and on walkways. The air grew thick and smelled like a water-dampened campfire. Then we saw the sky turn orange and soon the flames reached into the sky above the golden, dry hills.

We loaded our valuables and important papers and fled to an area out of the evacuation zone. A former co-worker of Denene’s owns a very nice condo located in a city near where we lived and she gave us the key and told us to stay as long as we needed. We had no idea if our home would be standing when we returned. Fortunately, it was. The threat of fire continued throughout the entirety of last summer, with many communities near us being totally destroyed. People lost their lives, including firefighters.

The Hip

Meanwhile, my left hip was hurting, a lot. With each step it felt as if someone jabbed an ice pick into the bone. I visited my doctor who said it was bursitis. No exam, just an opinion. She gave me an injection. I saw no improvement and the pain grew much worse, to the point that I was limping like the Festus character on the old TV western, Gunsmoke.

I convinced my doctor to send me to a specialist who ordered x-rays. Again, a diagnosis of, “I don’t see anything work. Take Ibuprofen. It’ll pass.”

Well, it became far worse. I didn’t want to walk because it hurt so bad. Another doctor visit. No luck. Another x-ray. Nothing wrong, they said.

Then we moved to Delaware. Another extremely stressful point in our already turbulent lives. We moved to be closer to our family.

As soon as our health insurance went into effect I visited a nurse practitioner at the University of Delaware. She ordered x-rays and, wait for it, she learned that there’s absolutely no cartilage in my hip joint. It’s bone on bone with three bone spurs wedged between. She said she couldn’t imagine me dealing for so long with the pain this caused. She sent me to a hip specialist. He agreed. A total hip replacement was the only solution

My surgery is scheduled for this Thursday, January 3rd. Again, no cartilage in the joint. It was impossible for even a non medical person to look at the x-rays and not see this. But that’s the care we received from Kaiser Permanente in California. I must say, it was the worst I’ve ever seen. Denene, too, and she’d know since she been in the medical field her entire adult life, including managing hospital labs, teaching at medical universities, contributing to medical textbooks, and running clinical trials for drugs she and her teams developed that are now on the market.

The Move

As a result of our move to Delaware, Denene left a job she absolutely loved. So switching was a difficult choice to make. And there was the whole moving thing where it’s inevitable that belongings are lost or destroyed. Along with a move comes the stress of finding a house to purchase, selling the old home, and so on. We were lucky to have sold our sold our California home extremely quick and I credit that to a wonderful and extremely efficient Realtor, Phyllis Ballew, with Berkshire Hathaway. We found a really nice home here in Delaware, a place that’s in a state of chaos right now due to a large remodel project that includes a complete custom master bathroom re-do.

The contractor we selected for the bathroom job, after a serious search (we’re picky), is Delaware contractor R.A. (Ron) Barker. He and his crew are wonderfully meticulous down to the finest detail. Since I’m just hours away from hip surgery, having a new bathroom is essential. I think they’ll have it completed just in time. It’s a large space that required a ton of work and they’ve gone above and beyond to accommodate us. The room isn’t finished but already looks amazing.

Since I’m barely able to walk from one room to the other (I rely on a can I’ve named Virgil. Get it? Virgil Cane?) it’s practically killing me to not do some of the work myself. But it is what it is.

The Gratitude

I’ve shared all of this to express my deepest gratitude to each of you for the support you’ve shown for me and my family over the past several months. It’s been a tough year and I don’t know what we’d have done without your generosity and kindness. Believe me, I cherish your friendship.

You guys are the best and wish you all an extremely Happy New Year.

Again, thank you from the bottom of my heart!

 

 

Candies and cakes,

And eggnog too.

Turkey, ham, and stuffing.

Pumpkin pie,

For me and for you.

 

Family and friends,

And fireplace crackles.

Cedar logs sizzle.

Family dog,

Sleeping at the hearth.

 

Cookies and milk.

And laughter and squeals.

Stockings and gifts.

Silent wishes,

Happy, hopeful dreams.

 

Home.

Wish I was there.

 

Pepper spray and handcuffs,

And puking, smelly drunks.

Radios and TASERS.

Spouses battered and bruised,

Black eyes and broken bones.

 

Tiny tots and tears,

And drug dealers and robbers.

Sad pitiful kids.

No toys,

No place to sleep.

 

Crack pipes burning,

And no food, no heat.

Gunshots and stabbings.

Car crashes and suicides,

Ambulances, hospitals, and morgues.

 

Crying, bleeding, and dying.

 

Home.

Glad I have one.

Aren’t you?

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night…

A general rule of thumb is to not begin a tale with the weather. I know this and humbly apologize for violating protocol. It’s just that the elements are such a crucial part of this story and, well, please bear with me for a moment as I take you back to an honest-to-goodness dark and stormy Christmas Eve.

I was working for a sheriff’s office at the time, patrolling a county that sits smack-dab in the middle of the north-south I-95 drug corridor. Needless to say, crime, especially violent crime, was quite commonplace.

In those days, I drove a hand-me-down Crown Vic with a light bar that had a mind of its own. Sometimes the rotating beacons turned and sometimes they didn’t, with the latter occurring more frequently during cold weather. In fact, it wasn’t unusual for me to respond to an emergency with the gas pedal mashed to the floorboard, the siren screaming like a cat with its tail caught in the ringer of grandma’s antique washer, and me with my arm out the window banging my fist on the side of the light bar hoping to set it in motion. It often took a good two miles and ten whacks with the heel of my fist before the initial barely-turning speed of the lights caught up with the seriousness of the situation at hand.

Believe me, there’s nothing more frustrating than driving at warp speed while your emergency lights rotate at the speed of drying paint. But, if the call was far enough away the lights eventually caught up with the direness of what could be and often was.

Christmas Eve calls, for the most part, were an eclectic mix of complaints and incidents, ranging from window peepers to drunk uncles high on too much eggnog, to crooks who preferred to do their last minute shopping after the stores were closed and tightly locked until the day after Christmas. And, of course, there were murders and robberies, calls that necessitated the use of those darn lights.

Blowing Wind and Freezing Temps

It was this one particular Christmas Eve that comes to mind, though. The one when the wind blew so hard that traffic lights hung horizontally instead of their typical right angles to the streets. Gusty breezes toppled garbage cans and sent them clanging and banging and rolling and tumbling across asphalt and concrete. Dried leaves clicked and ticked and swirled in masses as they made their way down avenues and boulevards and through intersections without regard for red lights or stop signs, continuing on through alleys and across lawns and driveways. The lighted sign at the bank on the corner of Broad and 14th blinked between the current time and a steady temperature of five degrees. Believe me, it was cold enough to make a snowman shiver.

Homeless people camping under the overpasses and down by the river burned scraps of broken pallets and whatever twigs, branches, and tree limbs they could find. Many of them had no real winter clothing—no coats, parkas, gloves, or wool caps. Instead, they added extra layers of filthy, soiled clothing over their already grimy attire. They used socks to cover their hands and they draped old army blankets or blue furniture movers’ pads over their heads and shivering bodies.

Ridley Perkins

And then there was Ridley Perkins, a homeless man who’d been around the city for so long that his name and/or face was quite well-known by many of the locals. He was also a regular visitor to the city jail. Corrections officers, men who’d “seen it all,” shied away from Ridley when it came time for him to be strip searched. No one wanted the job of watching him peel off layer after layer of grunge-caked clothing. After all, Perkins’ body odor alone was enough to gag anyone, and it was not unusual to find live maggots squirming around in his soiled underwear or on his skin.

Ridley never committed any real crimes—he didn’t steal, rob, or burgle. He was a beggar by trade and a darn good one too. And he knew how to successfully transform a dollar into alcohol. Not the kind consumed by most drinkers, though. Ridley preferred to strain his alcohol from canned heat (Sterno), or to drink mouthwash or shaving lotion. And, when the last drop was gone he’d do something to annoy a business owner or scare a woman or child by lunging at them from behind a bush—his way of going to jail where he’d get a hot meal and warm bed.

The Christmas Present

Okay, I know, I strayed from the story. Let’s see, where was I? Oh, yeah … Christmas Eve. I’d made a pass around my section of the county and had returned to the office to warm my bones with a cup of jailhouse coffee (so thick you could almost stand a spoon upright in the center of the mug) and to back my hind-end against a hot radiator. Even my long-johns, Kevlar, and jacket were no match against the cold that night.

After I’d thawed out, I’d settled into a seat and was skimming through newspaper headlines when someone pressed the buzzer out at the main gate. One of the on-duty jailers pushed the “talk” button on the intercom and said, “Whadda you want, Perkins?” I glanced over at the monitor and saw Ridley holding a round object up toward the camera. It appeared to be a ball of some sort. He pushed the outside talk button and said, “I brung you something. A Christmas present.”

The jailer, a soft-hearted older man, slipped on his jacket and said he was going out to try and talk Ridley into going to a shelter for the night, something Ridley rarely ever did. He despised their “no tolerance for alcohol rule.” Before going out, the jailer poured some hot coffee into a Styrofoam cup and took it with him to give to his visitor.

A few minutes later the jailer returned with an orange, saying Ridley told him that he’d used some of his begging proceeds to buy it for him as a Christmas present. He claimed to have done so because the jailer had always been kind to him and treated him like a man and not as a criminal, or a drunk. We both knew that chances were good that he’d either stolen the orange from a local grocer or that someone had given it to him. But that he’d brought it to the jailer was still a kind gesture.

Ridley accepted the coffee from the jailer, and the advice about the shelter, and then headed off into the cold. He ambled past the reach of the camera, and that was the last time anyone saw him alive.

I found Ridley’s body the next night, inside an old abandoned car. He’d apparently gone there to get away from the wind and the blowing snowfall that had started up in the early morning hours. Hypothermia had claimed his life. He’d frozen to death.

On the floorboard near Ridley’s hand were an empty Styrofoam cup and a small pile of orange peelings.

*This is a true story, however, the name Ridley Perkins is fictitious.

 

An Iowa woman was arrested yesterday after leaving her three small children—ages five, three, and one—at home alone around 10 P.M. The woman, Natalee Kahl, 23, told police that she’d left her kids at the apartment while she traveled to a friend’s house get her boyfriend. In the meantime, one of the children called 911 to report that she needed help figuring out how to watch videos online.

Upon arrival and in addition to finding three young children in need of services, officers also discovered a glass pipe in plain view, a device used for smoking marijuana. It contained burnt residue and was easily accessible to the children.

If the name Natalee Kahl rings a bell, it’s most likely because you read about her back in 2015 when her daughter, an infant at the time, was hospitalized with a blood alcohol content of .284, nearly four times the legal limit for a full grown adult. Kahl poured two ounces of vodka into the child’s bottle, claiming she thought it was water.

Calls like these, where small children are left to fend for themselves, often during brutal, cold winter months, without heat and other basic needs, are some of the most “gut-punch” situations officers deal with on a regular basis.

Seeing those small shivering bodies, quivering and trembling lips, and the intense hurt in their weak, sad eyes is enough to make even the toughest cop crumble. People in need—kids, the homeless, the elderly, the lonely—especially during this time of the year, deserve compassion, and help. Many times the much-needed assistance comes by way of the men and women who wear uniforms and badges, and these acts most often go unnoticed, unpublished, and unmentioned.

I guess it takes the act of wearing one of those badges to understand, actually. And I suppose not ever experiencing the “other side” of life sort of dulls the senses of people who’re fortunate enough to not need help to survive. But cops, yeah, they see it all. They know, and they understand. And they help.

Just as we did for a little boy named Jimmy Lee Bailey.

Christmas For Jimmy Lee Bailey: A Child in Need

The call—a child in need of services.

What I found was a child in need of love.

His house, held together by random lengths of mismatched clapboard-siding, sat at the end of a hard-packed red clay path. Shreds of tar-paper and rusted tin covered some, but not all, of a rain-blackened plywood roof. Four white, spray-painted cinder-blocks served as a front stoop.

The front door had no knob or lock. Just a curved metal handle, worn slick from years of pulling and pushing. A brick propped against its bottom held the door closed. Someone, I’m not sure who, “locked it” when they left.

I knocked.

“Come in,” a little voice said.

It was just days before Christmas and there was no tree.

No presents.

There was no food.

No running water.

No cabinets. No stove.

No refrigerator. No beds.

No drywall. No insulation.

Just bare studs and rafters.

And cold. Lots of cold.

A small dented and soot-caked kerosene heater fought a losing battle against a brutal December evening. Two milk jugs used for holding fuel sat near the splintered front door. Both empty. The heater’s gauge rested at one notch above E. The weak orange flame would soon fade away. The temperature outside was 20, and dropping. The wind was persistently forcing its way through cracks and holes in the walls, floor, and open spaces around the door and windows.

The place was not much more than a shed. One cobbled together from scrap wood and discarded “whatevers.”

A tattered blanket and two patchwork quilts. Threadbare and slick from wear.

No winter coats. No hats, nor gloves.

Dirty window panes.

One missing, replaced by a square of cardboard.

Dish towel curtains.

A hardware store calendar, two years old.

A cooler with no lid.

Mom, passed out on the floor.

A bottle of bourbon, its contents long gone.

A pipe for crack smoking.

“Mama says daddy will come home … someday.”

A dog. All ribs and backbone.

The floor, bare.

No rugs, no toys. ­

A table.

Two chairs.

A book.

Some paper.

The boy, writing.

Cigarettes.

A saucer for ashes, overflowing with discarded butts.

A deck of ragged playing cards.

Roaches. Scurrying up, down, there and here.

Mouse. Unafraid.

A squalling baby.

The bugs, they’re there, too.

The stench.

A tin lard bucket in the corner.

A checkered cloth on top.

A half-empty roll of Scotts.

The only bathroom indoors.

“You writing a letter?”

A nod.

“To your Dad?”

“No, to Santa.”

“Mind if I have look?”

He held it up for me to see.

“Your handwriting is very nice.”

A smile.

“Dear Santa,

Don’t worry about the bicycle I asked for.

Or the Tonka trucks and new coat.

And I don’t even like video games anymore.

Or DVD’s and toy trains.

I’m too big for those things now.

‘Sides, some men came and took the TV. Said Mama couldn’t pay for it no more. The ‘lectric neither.

What I’d really like is a warm blanket for my brother. He needs some milk too. And some medicine to make his fever go away. And could you help my Mom some? She needs to stop drinking and smoking. I wish you could make those men leave her alone too. They get all lickered up and hit her and do things to her that make her cry. Maybe you could bring my mom a coat for Christmas this year. She don’t have one and she gets cold when she walks down the street to get her cigarettes and that other stuff she smokes.

And if you don’t mind too much could you bring my daddy something to eat. He don’t never have no money. And if you see God while you’re up there flying around please tell him to say hi to my baby sister. And ask him to tell her I’m sorry I couldn’t make Mama wake up and take her to the hospital. If you can do all that, don’t worry about bringing me nothing. That stuff will do just fine.”

Your friend,

Jimmy Lee Bailey

*Jimmy Lee Bailey was definitely in need of some love. So, when Christmas morning rolled around he got his Tonka trucks, a bicycle, and a new coat. He also enjoyed a nice meal before moving to his new home. All courtesy of the guys who patrolled the graveyard shift.

 

It seems like just yesterday when they were last here,

Sharing their laughter and their love,

Playing silly games and offering warm hugs.

 

Telling bedtime stories,

Of giants and beanstalks,

Jack Horner and Miss Muffett too.

 

Family meals,

School plays,

And summertime fun.

 

The beach,

The boardwalk,

Taffy and arcades.

 

A milkshake and french fries,

Special times,

Fun times.

 

It seems like just yesterday when my mother held me in her arms,

While an aunt made goofy faces,

And funny sounds.

 

Grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins,

Ah, yes, the cousins,

All sizes, all shapes.

 

Boys and girls alike,

Playing in the old barn,

Cowboys and cowgirls.

 

Pretend horses, and sticks for guns and bats,

Toy trucks and wagons,

A ride.

 

With me in the middle,

An uncle pulling,

And another to the rear.

 

Such joy,

When sometimes doing things,

Things we knew we shouldn’t.

 

Yes, we were carefree,

And worried not,

Life was forever.

 

Fireflies,

Hide-and-seek,

And freeze tag.

 

Seasons came and seasons went,

Holidays too,

Thanksgiving, Christmas, and each new year.

 

Sleigh bells,

Santa,

The tree, the lights, and the angel perched high above.

 

Turkeys and hams and holiday treats,

Presents and eggnog,

Joy and comfort.

 

But it’s mostly quiet now,

As I often sit, lost in thought,

They’re gone now.

 

My grandparents,

My parents, uncles, and aunts.

The givers of hugs, love, and much-cherished treats.

 

Times change,

Wrinkles come,

And memories fade.

 

Falling leaves,

Long, cold nights,

And sad, lonely hearts.

 

It’s almost Christmas,

And it seems like just yesterday,

But they’re no longer here.

I’ve seen a few oddities over the years, especially during Halloween, the night when both kids and adults dress up as their favorite characters. It’s also a night that a few ghoulish folks believe is the perfect time to commit the usual plethora of crimes ranging from petty theft to murder. But there’s one Halloween crime from my old case files that stands out a bit from the rest and, as always, I have to tell the story. I do so, as irritating and long-winded as it may be, to help you with details for your own writing. As they say, you can’t make this stuff up and believe me, I read a lot and I write a lot, and most of what I see in fiction doesn’t compare to, well, this …

It was late one Halloween night, after costumed trick-or-treaters were long back at home gorging themselves on sugary treats—M&Ms, Whoppers, mini candy bars, Lemonheads, Candy Corn, and Skittles—when I knocked on Miss Evelyn’s front door, a wide plank of weathered wood with rusty strap hinges.

Through the square glass near the top of the door I saw a small slice of yellow light that started in a backroom to my left and stretched across the narrow hallway floor where it disappeared into another room on the righthand side of the passageway.

At the sound of my door-rapping, a shadow moved across the light, first one way and then back.

While waiting for the owner of the shadow to respond to my presence, I had a look around the porch. Nothing unusual … a one-gallon vegetable can (absent its label) filled with sand and topped with a handful of cigarette butts, a rickety old rocking chair, five plastic flower pots with each containing the remnants of some sort of unidentifiable plant—all dead, dried up, and crispy—, a well-worn green cloth sofa, and a portable radio that was missing a knob.

A foil-wrapped coat hanger poked up from a hole in the top of the radio’s plastic casing. It replaced the former antenna that, at some point, had broken off and was either lost or discarded as trash. Either way, the radio, in it’s present condition, had been there for as long as I could remember.

And, as always, smack-dab in the center of the front door were three fairly fresh chicken feet that were tied together at their bloody stumps with a piece of bright red twine. The collection of gnarly toes and bony knuckles dangled from a bent 4d finishing nail. Chicken feet, according to Miss Evelyn, bring good luck and, as a bonus, they also prevented evil spirts from crossing the threshold. Nope, nothing odd at all … for Miss Evelyn. The porch “decor” hadn’t changed in all the years I’d gone there. Not a thing.

I knocked again. She yelled from the back of the house. “Just a minute!”

I’d met Miss Evelyn after arresting a man for burglary and, while searching his pockets for weapons and other illegal items, I discovered a small flannel pouch tucked inside his wallet. I figured the contents could possibly be drugs, probably marijuana or hash, or something of that nature, so I asked the kid to level with me so I’d know what to expect.

I was surprised to hear him say that what I held in my hand was not was I’d suspected. Instead, he said, it was his “medicine bag,” a ground up mixture of chicken bones, tobacco, human hair, and herbs. Its purpose was to keep him safe. This was my first contact with a medicine bag. However, it was far from the last.

Root doctors make medicine bags containing plant and animal matter, such as human or animal bone, sage, garlic, and even dirt from a grave. The purpose of the bag is, for example, to provide safety, heal and prevent illness, and to help ignite or halt romances, etc. Another practically endless list.

This young burglar purchased his bag from Miss Evelyn, a local root doctor. Since this was a totally new experience for me, I decided to pay this so-called root doctor a visit. And, long story shortened a bit, Miss Evelyn “knew all and saw all” and she soon became one of my most reliable informants.

Her customer base was massive and many were criminals, so I basically kept her on speed dial. I also dropped off the occasional gift—a turkey or ham at Christmas, or a turkey in liquid form (Wild Turkey bourbon), her preference, as a sign of my appreciation.

This particular Halloween night a young man, Miss Evelyn’s nephew, answered the door and led me to the kitchen where his aunt stood at the head of six-chair red formica-topped table, hard at work assembling her latest batch of medicine bags and other concoctions. Behind her, a large black kettle was at full boil on the wood stove. A foul-smelling steam wafted my way. I didn’t ask.

If I had to guess I’d say Miss Evelyn weighed at just under a hundred pounds. She was so thin that the blood vessels on her arms and hands were visible and looked like someone had draped a squirming knot of skinny earthworms there, much like hanging tinsel on a Christmas tree.

As always when “working”, her face was peppered with tiny beads of sweat. Her fingernails were bitten to the quick. She wore a simple and faded housedress that was three sizes too big, a Winnie the Pooh apron, age-yellowed white socks, and pink Flip-Flops with the rubber thong jamming a wad of sock material between the first and second toes of each foot.

When she smiled it became instantly obvious that dentists were not a part of her clientele, nor had she ever, not once, crossed the threshold of any tooth doctor’s office. Her breath smelled like a rotting animal carcass, an even worse scent than the pungent odor emanating from the pot on the stove.

Miss Evelyn was quirky, to say the least, and she was one of the nicest people I’d ever met.

I’d gone there that particular night to see if Evelyn could offer any insight about two bodies that had been dug up in a local cemetery. The vaults had been damaged and the caskets broken open. The grave-robbers took the same thing from each coffin—bones from the lower right arms and hands.

She said she’d heard about a couple who used human bones as part of their religious rituals. Before exhuming remains, though, they had sex atop the grave sites.

Coincidentally, the man and woman visited Miss Evelyn earlier in the night to ask if she knew where they could get heir hands on a fresh corpse because, in order to complete their ritual, they needed blood and they knew that to get it they’d need to reach a body prior to embalming. Well, Evelyn was having no parts of their nonsense and sent them on their way. And that was the purpose of my visit. Miss Evelyn called me the second the grave robbers left her house.

I finally caught up with the couple when I discovered their car parked near a funeral home. They’d planned to break in to steal someone’s dearly departed loved one. Fortunately, we stopped them before they committed the act.

So you see, folks, bizarre and morbid and spooky crime does not always come in the form of murder. Nor are the macabre criminals always the odd characters who reside at the spooky house at the end of the street.

This particular couple, the grave robbers, were as normal as your neighbors. Both were professionals with public jobs. They lived in a typical neighborhood and drove a normal car. However, the contents of their trunk was a bit different than most—shovels, picks, tools for prying open caskets, and a few human and animal bones scattered about. Other than that … as typical as you and I.

Well, perhaps we’re are not the best examples of normal, but you get the idea …

Happy Halloween!