“On Graveyard in The Graveyard”
The desk sergeant was good for his word. He did his best to assign me Cedar Grove on graveyard shift during the off days of the senior officers. My buddy, Glenn Schach, rode South Highland. L.L. was now on our shift and rode Warner Park and Sunset Acres. We were busy that night when we first hit the streets. Burglar calls, family fights, auto accidents, gunshot calls, prowlers, drunks, loud music and all other calls cops across the country routinely make late at night.
I recall that comfortable summer night like it was yesterday. We were in the middle of watermelon season. They were being harvested from local farms raised in our rich Red River sand. I have never tasted one raised elsewhere as good. In the 70’s, Shreveport had produce stands in every neighborhood. One of my favorite stands was on W. 70th across from Linwood Junior High and just west of the campus. As a kid I was often given a shopping list of vegetables and melons to buy for my family. The little stand was actually a shed. It had a tin roof and chicken wire walls for after hours security. The place was stocked full of produce baskets overflowing with various vegetables. I can close my eyes and still smell the sweet aroma of melons, beans, peas, corn, squash and tomatoes. It is funny how our minds never forget these scents.
I never knew the name of the old farmer who owned the place. He had to be in his 70’s when we first met. He caught me trying to swipe a peach. Caught red-handed he gave me a choice. I could sweep his parking lot for the peach or he would take me home to my daddy for punishment. It took me two hours with an old straw broom to clean that parking lot. Years later when I was on leave from the Marines Boot Camp and wearing my dress blues, I visited with him. He recognized me immediately as I stepped from my little Nash Metropolitan. Without a word, he tossed me a fresh Ruston Peach and smiled. He said it was on the house and no need to sweep the lot. I learned he too served in the Marines. We grew as friends that day. On one of my first solo tours of duty in Cedar Grove for the S.P.D, I made a point to swing by and say hello.
He was closing up shop for the day. I got out of the big, Chevy police car and greeted him.
“Well, hell. They will hire just about anybody down there these days! You mean they need cops so bad they hired a little thief like you?”, he said with a big smile as he took my hand.
Yes sir, they hired me. They knew I was a little outlaw raised out here. Thought since I was one, I may turn out to be a good cop, so they took a chance.
“I think they know what they’re doing down at city hall to hire you. I bet you will be a great officer! Look, I’m about to head home. Will you keep an eye on my place tonight? Seems there are younguns like you around that swipe stuff, like you used to do.”
Yes sir, I promise to keep a lookout for them.
Whenever I wanted a fresh watermelon, I stopped by and bought one from him.
As I drove to the station to make roll call that night, I still remember that dang melon rolling from side to side in the bed of my pickup truck. As I loaded my police gear into my unit, I grabbed the melon and slid it in the back floorboard. As soon as I was in my beat, I swung by a convenience store and placed it in the ice bag freezer.
When Glenn and L.L. hit the streets, I radioed them a coded message.
“Be advised I have the Papa Charlie secured.” Papa Charlie stood for Piss Chunk as we called watermelons.
Calls for service always amaze me. Near the first of the month or on a full moon, we made call after call. On hot, summer Friday and Saturday nights, it was crazy on the streets. This was a weeknight and calls for service had all but stopped.
School was out for summer break. Kids were allowed to stay up late and play. There was a house full of kids living next to the old A&P Food Market parking lot on 71st Street. I knew them well. I often wrote my police reports beneath the giant parking lot floodlights. They were always in the lot at night. The little boys were about 6-7 years of age and good boys at that. They always walked to my window to visit. They called me, police. Never asked my name, just police.
“Hey police! What you doing tonight? Shoot anybody tonight? What’s that button do?”
They pointed at my dash and zeroed in on my overhead light switch. They knew what it did but asked anyway. I flipped the switch and fired up the old red and white bubble police lights. They always jumped up and down with joy. Every night they reached in my unit, grabbed the handle of my big spot lights and turned them on. They shined the lights everywhere and loved it. I knew my friendship with them was a positive influence. Like me, they were poor and raised in a tough neighborhood where most people despised cops.
It was after midnight when headquarters dispatched me to a disturbance in this very parking lot. A concerned citizen called S.P.D. to report kids in the lot trying to shoot out the floodlights with BB guns. I knew instantly who the culprits were and took my time responding. I eased into the lot from the alleyway. I was on them before they had time to run. Two of them had lever action Daisy BB guns aimed at the floodlight next to their house. They pinged away at it but the guns were weak. The little ball bounced off and fell to the ground.
I summoned them to my unit. I stood in the open door with my left foot on the ground and my right foot inside on the floorboard. They were embarrassed as I gave them a light scolding. I told them their neighbor had seen them and called me. I explained a flood light was very expensive and their Mom did not need to spend her money replacing it. They held their heads down as I gave my gentle sermon. I asked one of them to get their Mom and bring her to my car to talk. He took his time, dragging his tennis shoes as he slowly walked to his house. A moment later their mother came with a worried expression on her face. I told her it was not a big deal. As a boy I had done much worse. I mentioned an old, abandoned metal sign leaning against the building in the alley behind her house. I would get it for her.
I grabbed the old rusty sign and carried it to their backyard. I leaned it against the wooden, privacy fence at the back boundary. The boys could sit on the back porch and ding away all they wanted. If they missed the target, they would hit the fence. I stood next to the mother under the lights from the parking lot watching the boys as they took turns firing at the sign. I knew she was a single mother raising her little boys alone. I made a mental note to keep in touch with this family as much as possible.
I returned to my unit, listened to the strangely silent police radio and reflected. In the distance, I could hear the soft BB’s striking the old sign and smiled.
I thought of a time when I was their age, my older brother Bubba and our first BB guns. Before my family fell completely apart, we lived on Mayo Road south of Shreveport. It seemed way out in the country back then. One day Daddy bought Bubba and me new BB guns and a pretty doll for Sheila, my sister. He sat us down and gave us instructions on gun safety.
“Never shoot your brother or anyone! Don’t shoot birds or any living animals including our dog and cat! Shoot the old paint buckets out by the barn and nothing else.”
Yes sir, we said to him.
That summer I was about five and Bubba was six. We were shooting the old paint buckets for hours and grew bored. We had one pair of nice dress shorts each we wore when we went to town. To save them, Bubba and I often wore only our undershorts. We never wore shirts. On this day we both had on our cowboy boots.
Not sure who fired first. I still think it was Bubba. We decided to play cowboys and Indians. The rule was to only shoot each others boots which protected our tanned skin. I popped Bubba’s boots and he returned fire. He was at one corner and I was at the other corner of our little shack we called home. Bubba could be mean, as older brothers can be sometimes. He shot me in the chest. It stung like hell and left a little bloody nick in my skin. I got mad and returned fire, hitting him in the chest. He cried out in pain. I snickered. The next time I stuck my head around the corner, Bubba popped me in the center of my forehead with a round. It broke the skin. To this day I can show you a little dimple scar. Ready for revenge, I placed my gun to the toe of my boot. I fired and the BB bounced off the boot landing in the dirt yard. There was not a blade of green grass anywhere. I cocked my gun, chambered a new BB, held it in the air and dropped the second BB into the barrel. I was now loaded for bear. Bubba stuck out his head and I nailed him with both BB’s. He cried out in severe pain.
Mama came out and ordered a ceasefire. She marched us in the house and tossed an old, handmade quilt on the floor for us to take a nap. Even though Sheila was an angel and had done nothing wrong, she too had to lie down for a nap under the old rattling window fan blowing hot, outside air across us.
Bubba and I laid down as ordered. Like cowboys we kept our guns by our side. I still think it was Bubba but Sheila thinks it was me. On “our” instruction, she placed her little hand at the end of the barrel. The trigger was pulled and a BB went deep inside her soft skin. Later in life, Sheila who is an R.N., x-rayed her hand. The BB is still there.
Mama did not whip us. She let Daddy handle the discipline. I can still hear his car pulling up to the house and the door closing. I heard Mamma tell him about our shootout. From outside, he yelled for Bubba and me to come out.
“Hand over those guns,” he said calmly.
We followed him to a massive oak tree in our side yard. Daddy took each gun by the barrel and beat it against the trunk. The guns were reduced to tiny bits of broken plastic and mangled metal.
Daddy ordered us to the barn to get an empty five gallon paint bucket. He made us pick up every piece of the broken guns and place it in the bucket. He marched us to the barn and gave each of us a shovel. In the ground behind the barn, he made us dig a deep hole.
“Place those guns in the ground and cover them up. Go to the well and fill this bucket with water. Pour the water on the guns. Every day when I get home, I will come out here and check to see that you have watered them. If you haven’t, I’m going to take my belt to you! When these guns grow into a tree and sprout new BB guns, you will have your next one!”
We never missed a day of watering. I never received another BB gun until I was on S.P.D. I decided it was time to have another one. I promised myself I would never shoot Bubba or Sheila ever again.
Glenn’s voice on my radio brought me back. He was ready for some ice cold P.C. I went to the convenience store to retrieve it. Glenn, L.L. and I met at a cemetery always open to the public. We parked in the back and prepared the melon. I had an old butcher knife. Glenn grabbed the melon and placed it on the trunk of my unit. Because we never turned off our engines, the hoods were extremely hot. We feasted on the sweet, red melon until it was gone. We tossed the rind in a pile of trash bulging with dead and plastic flowers regularly removed by the cemetery workers.
As I finished wiping my hands, I received a call. There was a family fight in the Grove and I needed to roll on it. I headed back to my beat and was stopped by a red light on Southern and Pierremont. I noticed a late model Cadillac with New York plates stopped in the left lane. The car held several occupants. They gave me the once over as I rolled up next to them. I saw the lady in the front seat look to the back of my unit and place her hand over her mouth. The light changed and I proceeded to the call. Later when I reported to headquarters, I was instructed to call the desk sergeant right away.
“Hey Sarge. It’s McGaha. You wanted me to call you?”
“What the hell are you doing, dumb ass?!? Did you eat watermelon off the trunk of your unit again?”
“Yes Sarge, but I always wash it in the carwash at the police garage before I turn it in. What’s the problem?”
“I got another complaint on your ass just now. Seems you are always into some kind of crap! Some citizens from New York down here visiting kin thought you had beaten some poor man to death on your trunk and thought the melon juice was blood! Get your ass to the garage now and wash that crap off, then get your ass back on the streets and don’t do this crap ever again, you hear me!!?”
Yes sir. Though he was upset with me again, I still believe he kinda liked me.