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Bear's Lesson

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By James Gilbert

I want to tell you about the Bear.  He was, and to me still is, all that is pure and admirable about being a cop.  I was assigned to him during the summer of ’69, and my five months with him left me so in awe, so touched and troubled, that I still often think of him. 
      The bear flew to the scene of an incident like an avenging angel.  His small thick hands grasped the wheel so tightly in anger that I actually feared for the life of the unknown suspect at the other end of the ride.  No red lights or siren; just a gut-wrenching wide-open acceleration born of Bear’s fury.  I was nervous with this field training officer, who was known to all as Bear – or THE Bear to those who were perpetually in wonder of him, as I certainly was.  I stole a glance at him as we throttled around the corner, a block away from our assigned location, and involuntarily shivered at the sight.  A 220-pound, five feet, eight-inch body swathed in blue material, harnessed by a gunbelt partially obscured in fat, topped by an undersized head sporting a marine-style crewcut.  A bear indeed, with an animal-like anger to match.  He scared me then, for he looked so formidable.  But this was before I came to know him.  And it was before his final bout with evil. 
      You see, there was so much to know about the Bear, so much that was missing to those unable or uncaring enough to see beneath his gross surface.  I’d never known anyone quite like him.  He seemed to resemble a complex chameleon, always changing, never predictable.  Just minutes before the radio call that sent him into a rage, he had been patiently explaining how to hear life in a tree.  “You see, we got blinders on this life-thing, partner.  We like it that way.  Know why?”  “Why, Bear?”  I asked dutifully.  “So we can destroy the entire goddamn earth in good conscience, that’s why.”  He continued, his small blue eyes blinking rapidly: “You think those trees and plants don’t have feelings?”  “I never really thought about it, Bear.”  He gave me a chastising look for my lazy mental attitude.  “Well, they do.  All you got to do is put a stethoscope up to a tree during spring when the sap’s flowing, and you can hear its heart beating!” 
      The Bear was always going on like that.  It was simply amazing to me, for I know he had no formal education, and had struggled to obtain his G.E.D. to qualify for the department.  Yet I, with a master’s degree, simply paled in intellectual diversity before the Bear.
      The unit braked to a stop in front of the residence.  The call had come out as a standard family fight, but Bear apparently recognized the address and knew from prior experience what he’d find.  He was out and moving towards the tattered screen door before I had even unlatched my seat belt.  I know there was going to be trouble.  I’d already observed that the Bear rarely lost control, with one major exception.  He simply could not tolerate, under any condition, abuse of the vulnerable.  Children, animals, the elderly, all were the Bear’s personal wards.  And he was their wrathful protector. 
      I followed him into the one-story stucco house, so common in California.  It had been a beauty in the ‘30s, but now it was a weathered trash heap.  A Battered woman was sitting rigidly on a filthy imitation-leather couch intently staring at a black velvet portrait of Christ on the opposite wall.  Her nose appeared to be broken with her right eye beginning to puff into a darkened slit.  Tiny droplets of blood covered the upper portion of her torn cotton dress.  Bear totally ignored her as he frantically searched the small home.  He stormed back into the living room and sat down by the woman.  “Where’s the boy, Gaylene, and that bastard of a husband of yours?”  She answered in a whispered monotone, never shifting her gaze from the portrait: “He finished on me and went after Jason.  Said he’d cut him, kill him.”  Bears’ chest was heaving I anger as we hurried to the car.  He transmitted the situation on the radio as we drove wildly through the neighborhood.  “What’s going on?”  I yelled above the roar of the engine.  “The husband, he’s the worst kind of garbage.  Beats the wife regularly, but it’s the boy he really wants.”  He stopped the car, shined the spotlight into an alley with no results, and drove on.  “He wants to kill his son.  A little seven-year-old and he wants to kill him.  Who the hell knows why, but he wants to.  Broke his shoulder last year.  Nobody could prove it, you’ve seen the wife.  They claimed he fell down the basement steps onto the concrete.  But I knew.”  The Bear braked the car so violently that I slammed toward the dash, bracing myself just in time.  We had found the boy.
      I’d have never seen him, but of course Bear had an eye for such things.  The boy had crawled underneath a Volkswagen van.  He looked like a pile of rags to me, until Bear put the spotlight on him.  He peered upward through eyes that were decades older than the rest of him.  Bear got out and brought him to the car with a gentleness he reserved for the crushed of this world.  We took him to the hospital just to be sure, but he was all right, at least in terms of physical damage.  His father had been far too drunk to catch him.  A neighboring unit had found him, passed out in a hedgerow, the six-inch steak knife still clutched din his hand.  The Bear held the boy close as he drove home, his huge arm lightly draped around the frailest of shoulders.  The kid never spoke, but I watched his terrified eyes search the night through the windshield.  

          One shift ended and Bear invited me to his place for a drink.  He lived in a mobile home park known to the department as the graveyard.  All but Bear referred to it that way due to the constant stream of dead body calls originating from the park.   It housed mainly the elderly, those who were too lively or too frightened to face the indeterminate sentence of the nursing home.  Bear’s trailer mirrored his personality outside of the uniform.  It was orderly and clean, and totally devoid of character.  And it was lonely.  You could feel the blue-gray emptiness settle on your chest as you entered. 
      He had begun to invite me over with greater regularity now, but I was rarely comfortable with him.  Off duty, Bear was like an overcast winter day.  Quiet and colorless, he seemed to come to life only when warmed and brightened by his uniform.  We sat around his gleaming Formica breakfast table and had a beer.  His television droned to itself in the corner, throwing flickering light about the walls.  Bear compulsively turned it on whenever he was home, yet he rarely watched it.
      It was fortunate for the father that Bear didn’t find him that night, for this was the third such incident since the boy’s broken shoulder.  I had heard that four straining officers had to hold Bear back during a previous encounter.  There was little conversation as we drank, for he was troubled.  Something was working on him, grinding away, making his tense and uncommunicative.  I tried to get it out of him, for he was starting to worry me.  “What do you think we should do about this kid and his father?”  I asked.  “Nothing,” he answered in a matter-of-fact manner.  “That situation is gonna take care of itself.”  There was something about the way he said that, its finality, that alarmed me.  Bear tipped his beer and emptied the contents without pause.  He crushed the can and clashed aterse grin at me.  He seemed to feel a great deal better. 

          We were patrolling beat eight, the Southside, mainly poor black and brown neighborhoods.  People who lived here seemed to have the purest emotions for the police.  Love and hate, immediate respect and violent contempt; all open and aboveboard.  None of that white middle-class hypocrisy and contempt concealed behind toothy false smiles and quick waves.  I liked working this part of town, as did Bear.  We were halfway through our shift, which has consisted thus far of two family fights, one lockout, a reckless driving citation, and dinner.  Between calls, Bear had been holding forth on the connection of moon-reflected solar radiation and criminal behavior.  “People are nothing but electricity and chemicals, partner.   Just like plants, right?  So when the moon is full our air is bursting with solar radiation.  Ya see what I’m getting at don’t you?  That screws up the atmosphere and that messes wit their minds!”  He could sense my skepticism, and started to dig into his briefcase for some obscure Duke University study on the subject he’d sent for, when the radio caught our attention.  It was an assist to the fire department no more than two blocks away.   As we rolled Bear paled noticeably; he face seemed to collect more sweat each time the passing lampposts threw light into the car.  He pulled directly in front of the location, a two-story wood-frame apartment building partially engulfed in leaping orange flames.  The fire units were arriving, their amplified sirens rocking the night.  Windows were breaking, children creamed, men shouted and cursed, dogs barked.  It was a nightmare out of hell. 
      “Get out,” he whispered.  I thought I heard him wrong.  “What, Bear?”  “Get out, they don’t need us both to guard these goddamn trucks.  I’ll come back for you later.  Get out!”  You had better believe that I got out.  He drove off and left me standing in a pool of hydrant water, surrounded by havoc.  An hour later it was over.  A gutted shell remained where 24 relief families had once lived.  Somebody tried to barbeque ribs too close to an outside stairway.  The first light of morning began to break, and the place was actually serene in some sort of surrealistic way.  The spent firemen began to slowly gather their hoses and to axe the tottering frame of the apartment.  I scanned the intersection for Bear’s arrival, pondering his erratic behavior. 
      “Where’s your partner?”  It was the fire marshal, a tall, gaunt man covered in soot who, unbelievably, was in the act of lighting a cigar with a flaming Zippo lighter.  “To tell you the truth, I don’t really know, “I answered.  He shook his head and leaned against one of the trucks.  “This could have been a bad one,” he said.  “Could have fried the shit out of some of these people.”  He glanced at a crowd of former residents who gathered to stare and pick through the rubble.  “I know you’re wondering about your partner.  Let me tell you a little story, maybe clear thing up a bit.  ‘Bout seven years ago we had a nasty thing go down on Alameda Avenue.  Fact it, it was just about this time in the morning, first light.”  He paused and took a quick puff, his mouth making a little smacking noise.  “Well, this gal was coming home from work, a waitress over in ‘Frisco, I think, and she falls asleep at the wheel.  Broadsides a parked sanitation truck but good, must have been doing 50 or 60.  She totaled her car and flipped it on its roof.  The friggin’truck didn’t even move from the impact – typical, right?  But she can’t get out, the dash and seat got he pinned tight.”  The fire marshal looked at his cigar as if he just discovered it in his hand.  He threw it down and stomped it.  “Well, about this time her car started to catch; the gas tank was only half full and it flew.  Just then a cop arrives, and I’m right behind him, only people on the scene.  We tried to get her out of course, but it was no go.  She was burning by then, pounding on the windows, screaming and thrashing, hair on fire.  She begged him to do it you know, shoot her.  She knew she wasn’t coming out of there except in a body bag.   We kept trying to get her, over and over, burned the living hell out of our arms.  But that friggin’ car just wouldn’t give her up.    So he did it, popped her right then and there, right in the head.  Your partner.”  He stopped talking then, and just stood and stared at the charred remains of the apartment.  “By the time the trucks arrived the car was like a Halloween bonfire.  Bear was just sittin’ on the curb watching it sizzle, still holding his gun.  Holy God and sonny Jesus, I’ve sure tried to forget that morning, but my dreams won’t let it go.  No way I could have done it, but he Bear, well you know, he just ain’t like the rest of us.”  He turned and walked away, looking a whole lot older than when we started the conversation. 

          Bear eventually picked me up, but we never discussed it, ever.  In the weeks that followed I became more concerned about Bear.  Nothing that anyone could notice, but I had gotten to know him well, as well as anybody on the department.  I had been his first, and last, rookie trainee, for the brass disliked his style and refused to assign anyone to him.  But you remember how it was in ’69, all hell breaking loose, hippies, riots, a lid of grass behind every bush.  A ton of federal money was pouring in to stop crime; it was about as effective as sandcastles against the tide. 
      Of course quite a bit of the federal money was used to hire more cops.  My academy class was the largest ever; we spilled out, eager to kick ass and take names.  They assigned me to Bear, for every senior man on the shift was pressed into service as a FTO.  I think they assigned me because they felt I’d be the least likely to becontaminated by him, due to my education.  But like I said, they didn’t really know the Bear at all.
      What really had me worried was that Bear seemed to be losing interest in his work, which was simply his fuel for living.  His concentration, drive and strength were diminishing.  Once during burglary report I watched Bear stop writing while a 50-year-old man, struggling to keep himself from weeping, tried to describe a stolen ring left to him ay a long-dead mother.  Bear just closed his notebook, looked at me, and walked out of the guy’s home.    He was changing, all right, and I couldn’t figure it out, or help him. 

          We were riding the northside now, the campus district, with its loud parties and surly college kids, visions of revolution dancing in their heads.  The district was viewed as one big free shopping center by our local criminal element.  It drew the worst from Oakland, like wolves to the tasty sheep.  Sympathetic, naïve and guilt-ridden, the well-to-do college students accepted their victimization as partial absolution for past collective sins. 
      Bear was silent and still; he insisted that I drive most of the time now.  He seemed to start constantly at the radio, an angered look on his face.  It was as if the Motorola had become his enemy, and he wiled it to leave him be.  Our first call of the night was to meet the complainant regarding a down animal.  We rolled to an off-campus sorority house styled like little sister to Gone with the Wind’s Tara.  A crowd of girls were on the porch, hands to their faces, eyes wide in horror.  On the sidewalk lay a fine large sable collie, whining and kicking its hind legs.  The dog was the house mascot and I recognized him from prior disturbance calls to the house as a friendly licker who was as nonviolent as a monk.  The housekeeper had let him out before locking up, and watched unbelieving, as a laughing carload of scum slowly drove to the curb and shot him.  As I interviewed her, Bear walked over to the animal and sat beside it.  The housekeeper was hiving difficulty speaking, for she was shaking with anger, but she a gave a detailed description of the auto.  She was a widowed farmer’s wife from Northern California who cooked and cleaned for the girls, and made sure they too their birth control pills.  She was short and tough, and spoke her thoughts.  As I turned to go, she grabbed my Tuffy jacket.  “You boys find them now, you hear me.  Don’t let them get by with thin thing.  You find 'em!” 
       I drove to the city vet in a hurry, for the collie was starting to bleed heavily.  Bear sat in the back cradling the dog.  He tried to bit Bear several times, for he was in wild pain, but Bear never flinched.  When the sleepy vet arrived, Bear handed over the dog and walked quickly back to the unit.    “Head to the Oakland line, now,” he commanded. 

          Bear assumed, correctly, that the suspects were from Oakland.  Vicious kids who had shot the animal to top off a well-rounded night of reefer, theft, and general hell-raising.  His instincts were right on target.   Urban vampires, they would head back to the bowels of the city before dawn, to the safety of the projects.  Brea put us out of service and we sat on Telegraph Avenue, the main artery between the cities, communities the polar opposites of each other in every way, and waited.  Not quite an hour later the car came into view, moving slowly, confidently, towards the city limits.  It was the described Lincoln, riding low, fender damage, gangster sidewalls, puke pink, no mistake.  I made the pull-over and all four of them were out before our unit came to a stop.  They stood by the car flashing hate stares and waited for The Man. 
      I turned to Bear to see if he wanted a backup, but he was halfway to them.  He wasted no time in getting to the point.  “I’m going to ask just once.  Which one of you hurt that dog?”  The taller of the group smiled at the others and strolled to the Bear with the bad-ass, step-aside walk, known to every ghetto in America.  “Sheeit, dog don’t do much for us man, but I can tell you all you want to know ‘bout pussy!”  He threw his head back and began a high-pitched mocking laugh that I was sure many a victim had heard must before the final punch or kick.  His laugh changed mid-chord into a shrill scream that could have rocked a building.  Bear had him by the testicles and he wasn’t letting go. 
      You know how it can be out there.  They can challenge you, taunt you, drive you to the wall.  I thought I’d seen it all, an extra chop with a nightstick, cuffs just a bit too tight, or a head colliding with the elevator wall on the way to booking.  But this was beyond retribution, too much to glance away from.  I ran to Bear and pleaded with him to let the guy go.  The suspect was on his toes, his voice reduced to a barely perceivable rap.  “Let me go, no more man, let me go.”  He was heading into shock and Bear let him drop like a rock to the pavement.  Bear stared down at him, a look between pleasure and despair on his face.  I had totally forgotten to cover the other three during it all, and I watched them disappear into the shadows, running wildly.  Bear walked back to the unit, his steps slow, like he was wading in knee-deep water. 
      I knew then that Bear was heading to the edge, and that he was going over soon.  I just didn’t know how to stop it, to reverse what y gut told me was going to happen.  The weeks passed, but he was fading from his former self.  He worked his end of it, but he changed, the pleasure of the profession was gone for him, the battle lost and he is full retreat.  Our roles were changing, I was the watcher now, responsible for him, and I, to my shame, carried the burden poorly. 
      One night during our fifth month together he suggested that maybe he was ready to work alone again.  He had cleared it with the shift commander, who has agreed that I could be cut loose, if I wanted it.  I did.  I’d had enough, for he was depressing me, making me anxious and upset.  We still l worked the same midnight shift, the cord was cut, but II felt no better alone.  We both were just waiting for the end, his end. 

          I was out of my unit, shaking doors and getting some moist air into my lungs, when the dispatcher handed Bear his call.  The call stopped me dead, momentarily freezing me as the portable radio announced his fate.  They were sending him back to the boy, the child abuse case, the raving father. 
      It was clear across town but I beat his back-up to the scene.  Bear had parked his car parallel to the home, in the middle of the street.  The engine was still running, and the driver’s door was wide open.  He was inside the house, and I could hear the screaming.  I ran in just as the assigned back-up pulled up.  It was one of those visual things where your eyes don’t know where to look first.  The woman was cling to a wall, an awful knife wound in hr kidney area.  The little boy was gazing form behind the couch, where the mother had hidden him, his face awash with tears, ad Bear had the father.
      Bear hadn’t touched him, he was just holding the drunk by his shirt at arm’s length.  The moth before the flame.  As I moved to them Bear hit him, just once.  All of Bear’s rage and confusion seemed to crystallize into that one moment when he slammed his fist into him, a pile-driving force right to the face.  The father slipped to the floor, his face a night-long challenge to the emergency room.  Bear walked past me and jus drove away into the night.  He quit the next day.     

          It took me about a month to sort through it all, to sense what had happened to Bear.  The shallow answers came fast and meant little.  He was stressed, he had seen too much, took the job too seriously, wouldn’t leave it at the station.  No good, not Bear; it was more.  It all came together about a month after Bear had turned it in.  I was sitting with him in his trailer.  He had taken a job as the park’s maintenance man and looked obscenely out of place in his khaki work-clothes and cap.  As he sat there listening with wearied and faraway eyes, he looked exactly as though a surgeon had cut half of him away.  The Bear was gone.  I stopped talking, for he wasn’t really hearing me, and I stared at him.  A silence as loud as a scream in the ear filled the room.  He was sitting there, looking down at his hands, unaware that I’d even ceased speaking.  As I watched him, the living memory of his former self, I understood. 
      The real meaning of being a cop was to absorb evil.  We weren’t really protectors, trash collectors, or even centurions.  We were like Oscar Wilde’s story, where a portrait grew hideous in place of its subject who remained fresh and whole.  The people lived free of contamination, happy, and unstained, at a price.  They lived a good life, ignorant of the realization that the tainted and corrupted were in their mirrors.  The toll was extracted from the bodies and minds of the cops – some cops, those who dared to look, the ones who felt the deepest.  Bear had enough; his cup was full.  No more.  As I watched him, he looked up and locked in on my eyes.  I felt his weight, the burden, pass to me.  The student finally understood the lesson.  Bear’s lesson. 


A former police officer with the Berkeley Police Department (California), James N. Gilbert joined the University of Nebraska (Kearney) as the Criminal Justice department as Chair in 1988.  Dr. James N. Gilbert received his BC from California State University, Long Beach; his MS from Eastern Kentucky University; and, his Ph.D., from the University of Southern Mississippi. He is the author of Criminal Investigation and Criminal Investigation: Essays and Cases.


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