FOUR MONTHS LATER...
My eyes involuntarily widened as it hit me again. Everywhere I looked, it was all I could see. The banners, the audience, the murmuring. I was graduating from the Orange County Peace Officer’s Academy, I’m going to be a cop.
I could hear my breathing shorten as I looked around the room and felt the pomp and circumstance of it all. I slowly nodded my head allowing silent self-congratulation for completing step number one.
Maintained a full college schedule in addition to the full-time Academy requirements and I was worn the hell out. I could barely see straight thinking about it—probably from my long term lack of sleep.
I pinched my thigh with my thumb and forefinger in an attempt to get out of my head and snap back into the moment. My goals finally began to feel reachable.
Everyone was in uniform and looking tip-top, including visiting police management from various cities. The slick hairdos, the ironed pant legs, the bright white smiles. We wore our excitement on our sleeves.
So many cops in one room. The seniors looking at us with a soft nostalgia in their eyes. Us returning their looks with our excitement for the near future. The energy was bouncing off the walls.
I’d been living and breathing law enforcement for the past few months (in addition to the academy I went on "ride-a-longs"), and it had become a large part of me. It filled all of my waking and even some of my sleeping hours.
I was learning of the responsibility and power that comes with wearing the badge. But then again, how much can a rookie really know at his graduation ceremony? I hadn't been much beyond the books part, yet.
I could see Mom and my wife Sarah and two daughters, all beaming with pride. I also saw my father-and-mother-in-law. His name was Dick, and he had the tendency to act like one. It was clear he was surprised I’d actually made it this far--he didn't do a great job of hiding that sentiment.
He once saw me dance ballet in tights and from that point forward never ascribed anything alpha to me. I was Og the leprechaun... not a dedicated college student, the father of his grandchildren and now-police officer. Just some little boy in tights.
The largest allowance he'd give me is that I was funny (I mean, who could deny that?), a really silly guy, but also the only guy brash enough to take his highly confident eldest daughter. I think I confused him. I don't think he felt I had the toughness to do the cop job. It didn't surprise me of course--no one, especially back then, saw a man wearing makeup and costumes and thought he could also save lives.
My mother-in-law, Lucille, seemed completely disinterested in the ceremony. And why not? Several years ago she’d put a 10 gauge shotgun on the family dining room table to shoot and kill herself. Placed the barrel against her stomach and as she reached with her toe to pull the trigger, unintentionally twisting, she partially missed and failed. I had to pull her eight-year-old daughter out of school with the news, and later clean her stomach parts off the dining room wall, right after my twentieth birthday.
The graduation must have been pretty dull in comparison.
I vaguely heard the MC introduce Buena Park Police Chief John Sedley. The salt-and-pepper-mustached man rose from his seat and walked to the podium with the perfect posture, where he was welcomed with nice applause.
The chief stood at the podium, spreading a few papers out and clearing his throat. He smiled paternally at the audience, as they finished clapping. He had this way of smiling at a room, and everyone present believed he was speaking directly to them. I felt my face drifting into a smile in return, eager to hear what he had to say.
“Thank you very much, Don. You know, it’s an honor to be asked to speak here today,” Sedley began, giving an appreciative nod. “Orange County Peace Officer’s Academy does a wonderful job in training our young police officers of tomorrow. I often sat in on classes, and I got to tell you, folks, these men graduating today know their law enforcement. Buena Park PD is very happy to be associated with the program. Our communities are well-served. We have four officers graduating today, Officer Ellis with honors. And we expect every one of you graduates will have long and honorable careers.”
He turned his head to the graduating group and nodded, affirming and scanning the eyes of all. He gave two "thumbs-up" and with enthusiasm turned back to the audience.
Sedley spoke with a soft yet firm sort of grace, making the four of us feel properly acknowledged and respected. All eyes were on him, nodding along with his words as he continued, addressing law enforcement and 1965 social issues and conflicts. Monumental changes in almost all aspects of this country. Woodstock and young men burning draft cards, the Birmingham marches, Vietnam escalating and Bob Dylan going electric.
Selby’s address eventually ended without mentioning Dylan, and everyone was given their certificates to audience applause and cheering. Moments later, I was standing tall and talking with my family just like every other officer in the room. To my surprise, Chief Selby approached our group. I introduced him to everyone, noticing my tiredness had become fulfilling rather than exhausting.
The chief smiled at Sarah as he shook her hand, “You must be very proud of your husband.”
“I am. He worked hard," Sarah answered with a proud smile. "Full load at school... "
“And honors, here,” Sedley added. I’m impressed.” He turned his attention to me, “Ellis, you're the type we need in law enforcement. You’ll do fine.” He patted my shoulder and gave me a friendly wink. “Nice to meet you all. Enjoy the rest of the evening.”
Dick was beaming now and not trying to hide it as if he thought I’d suddenly entered manhood. His chest thrust, him grinning like he knew a secret. Like maybe all that tights-wearing is okay if you also have a big-ass police badge.
There was of course… the actual work ahead of me.
That evening Sarah and I sat close together on the couch in our Anaheim apartment. It was a two-bedroom, sparsely furnished and a little worn in, but it was ours. Our two girls were also in the living room/dining area. Four-year-old Mary was curled up pawing through a picture book while Annie, two years, quietly gazed at the television.
“…We still have a week at the PD with Sergeant Keaton, then they throw us out there,” I said with a vacancy.
Sarah tilted her head, giving me a quick peck on the chin, “I’m proud of you.”
I squeezed my arms around her in silent thanks and held her as I rested my chin on her head and continued staring at the wall.
“Lots of things going through my mind, babe. This is a whole new world. Gonna get me through college faster and get things to where they need to be. But I'm gonna need to have a whole different worldview now. Parts of which I didn't know existed before the Academy.”
She slowly moved her hand up my leg, patting me gently with comfort. “You’ll adapt. I’ve got faith in you.”
I buried my hand in her blonde hair and reached the nape of her neck, pulling her face to mine, “I’ve got faith in you, too.”
TWO WEEKS LATER…
I’d been on my own for a week now. My police car was hauling ass down La Palma Avenue, with flashing emergency lights and siren (“Code three”). I’d been assigned an "unknown trouble," medical-aid type emergency and was making my way to 9505 San Marino Avenue.
Drivers did their best to pull out of the way of my siren, but they seemed mostly confused. Sirens did that. My eyes were steady on the 2 p.m. traffic and my heart was slamming against my chest.
I felt like my eyes could see at a 360-degree angle--I was superhuman. It was a huge rush. Nervous, but very alive. Colors were brighter, building edges were sharper--it's like everything was on steroids.
The voice of Sid the Dispatcher continued from the auto speaker, the soundtrack to my unknown. “… Now confirmed headshot. The victim reported as four-year-old white female. Possible accidental shooting by a six-year-old boy, unknown further details at this time. Proceed with caution. Ambulance in route.Your ten-twenty (location)?”
“Westbound on La Palma at Western. ETA one and a half.”
I recognized Sergeant Cooley's voice as it crackled on the air, “twenty-three ten, following up at Beach and Orangethorpe. ETA about three.” I was slightly pacified by the news he was close behind me.
I’d also been doing this just about long enough to know a world can change in a second. We patrolled in one-man units and the concept of back-up was somewhat comforting on an "unknown trouble" code three call. Especially the first one.
I arrived near the scene to find a woman frantically pacing back and forth on the curb. As soon as she noticed my black and white, she began waving her arms, motioning for me to come forward. I accelerated to her and parked, exited the car and grabbing my first aid kit from the trunk.
The woman moved toward me, looking ready to melt at my feet, her body trembling. She had to clamp a hand over her mouth to quell her hiccupping sobs for just long enough to blurt, “A-a little boy sh-shot her. It was a-an accident. You-you-you’ve g-got to h-help her. It’s really b-bad.” She sat hard directly on the ground beneath her, her hands finding their way to her head.
“Where’s the gun?” I asked firmly, moving toward the front door of the home.
“I - I don’t know. It’s in there. The girl is in th-the last b-bedroom.”
“Please stay put and tell the next officer where I am?” I said, turning and locking eyes with her right before I turned to disappear inside.
I walked down the hallway, filled with a newly found caution, going over all the information and possibilities in my head. My first aid kit in my left hand, my right one on my holstered weapon. I still didn’t know where the gun was or who was now in possession—important to know while in a police uniform and actively on duty.
I pushed inexperience aside and acted as though I knew exactly what I was doing. Oh, a little girl was shot? No problem. I’ve had three or four of these calls this week alone, I rambled to myself. Yeah right. You’ve got no clue what you’re doing, yet.
I forced myself out of my head and into the present, focused to make a positive impact on the situation. If not to prove something necessary to myself, then for the sake of this hysterical woman and the poor, unlucky little girl. Thoughts of my two young daughters flashed before me as I picked up my pace, whipping my head from left to right to rapidly check the state of each open door.
All was strangely quiet until I reached the last bedroom. Before I had the chance to peer through the doorway, a hysterical woman with dark blood staining the arms of her blouse and her hands hurried through, almost running into me in the process. I felt the heat of panic and sweat and blood on her and the chaos flowing from within the room.
“You have to help my baby girl. Please, sir. She’s dying!” the woman gasped through sobs.
I stared at her incredulously as she spoke, hit with further learning that this was life. This was part of my unknown. One minute you could be sitting down watching television, wondering what you’re going to cook for dinner, and the next minute you’re covered in your child’s blood, wondering whether or not she was still going to be alive to eat dinner.
I just want to be in plays.
It’s an old speculation that there are two ways a person could react in a crisis. They could spring into action, or they could freeze up. I don’t know how Bill Ellis would have reacted in this situation, but Officer Ellis (rookie as he may have been) began seeing everything clearer than ever before.
I gently and quickly moved past the woman and entered the room to find a tiny girl lying on the floor bleeding. There was no confusion. She’d been shot in the head. The blood pooling beneath her head was now married to the mustard-colored shag carpet.
There were two other women in the room who looked in a daze and a teenage boy with long hair, his entire body shaking, tears streaking his face.
Police training made it almost autonomic for a glinting .38 revolver to catch my eye. It was lying about a foot from the girl’s head wound. In one fluid motion, I retrieved the gun then kneeled and opened my first aid kit, getting supplies to treat the wound.
As soon as I’d finished dressing her the best I could, I gently touched the girl’s small, smooth chin and looked into her childlike eyes, growing glassier with each passing moment, each drop of blood leaving her head.
“You’re going to be okay, darling,” I said quietly, as though we were the only two people in the room. “Can you do me a favor?”
The girl managed to flicker her eyelids, imitating a nod.
“Just breathe very slowly for me. It’ll all be okay soon.” I turned my head to the women, still standing in the same spot and staring at us. “Where’s the boy?”
She seemed as though she was opening her mouth to speak when Cooley burst into the room. He knelt on the other side of the child, quickly checking the head wound.
“Shit, we don’t have the time here to wait for the ambulance. You hold her, I’ll drive. Let’s move.” The last two words were said over his shoulder as he grabbed the gun I'd retrieved and disappeared back into the hallway.
I scooped up the girl, and we hurried to his squad car through a parting crowd of both horrified and fascinated people, he behind the wheel and me in the passenger’s seat, holding the child on my lap, her sticky warm blood now slowly seeping through my shirt.
A squeal of tires and a familiar shriek of the emergency lights as we peeled out of the neighborhood, bound for the emergency room. I continued applying gentle pressure to the girl’s head. She focused on me with concern and questions in her eyes.
For the first time, I noticed the name “Jenny” sewn onto her shirt.
“You’re going to be okay, Jenny. We’re going to the hospital sweetheart, you’re going to be just fine,” I said, convincing myself as much as I meant to convince her.
A tiny hand reached up to touch my face but didn’t quite make it, so I met it halfway and grabbed onto it with my own, which was heartbreakingly larger. I couldn’t cry for her benefit.
That took effort.
Cooley grabbed his radio mic, “twenty-three ten, we’re transporting the victim to Lincoln hospital. Can’t wait for the ambulance. Have two units preserve the scene.” He put his radio back in the cradle and sighed, looking out the window as we sped past traffic.
“So Ellis, what happened to the little boy at the scene?”
“I’m talking to you. Hello?”
He looked over at me, annoyed I was ignoring his question, but I hadn’t heard a word he’d said because I was busy staring at the girl’s eyes. They looked different, something didn’t feel right. I squeezed her little hand which was still in mine. It felt limp, lifeless and so small.
I closed my eyes and suddenly knew it didn’t matter how quickly we got to the hospital.
It didn't make a difference that we didn’t wait for the ambulance because Jenny couldn’t wait for us either.
The ultimate effects of tragedy and violence had found me early.
The story doesn’t really start here, but by now I've realized nothing ever really does.
It's closing time at the Buena Park Kmart store. It’s a large department store—presumably one of the core stores where they shoot commercials or train new employees in a dingy little conference room behind the swinging black "Employee Only" door.
The year is 1970, although it could easily be 1950 in Buena Park, the way the community has resisted the Cultural Revolution underway.
Sunday evening September air is just beginning to crisp in Orange County. Back when California still had a semblance of season change.
The Vons market next door to Kmart will close at 7:30. People don’t have to look at their watch to know it’s almost time. It’s a feeling existent in the smoggy air. People's bodies begin to move faster as they mentally prepare for the end-of-shopping-night, yearning for one last "blue light special."
Soon evening will turn into night, but no one is wearing a coat. Not in Southern California.
Customers from both stores are filtering out the front doors, making their way to the comfort of their vehicles, bags, and parcels in hand. A band of merry shoppers.
Two hundred and fifty feet from the Kmart entrance sit a man and woman, by side in a 1969 white Volkswagen bug. Purposely nondescript, but looking to be in their late twenties, both are intensely watching the storefront doors, slightly inclining forward, each in their own way.
A blatant, almost comical contrast between their physical stillness and focus, and the movement of the customers in a hurry to get home and settle in for the night.
Through the front store windows, it’s fairly easy to see the store staff going about their closing duties. Most wouldn’t glance twice, a scene truly unworthy of two glances, but the boredom is misleading.
In the meantime, an unknown terrifying storm is gathering within the store.
Twenty minutes later a majority of the staff hurries through the front door with a mutual elation of shift-end. Leaving the jungle of retail for the night. One staff member silently raises her fist in the air as though victorious in surviving another shift as she leaves.
An unarmed security guard hastily locks the entrance doors, sliding the keys into his pocket as he makes his way to his Honda. He has a slight limp and is always hypersensitive to other people staring at his limp, although usually, no one is.
As of now, six people are still in the store. More than usual for a typical Sunday evening closing. More than accounted for.
Joe Burn’s face glistens with sticky sweat as inner-fear threatens to overwhelm him. His Left-hand twitches and he can't stop blinking hard. He stretches slightly, thinking this will ebb the tremors. It doesn’t. Instead, the movement releases a cloud of pungent body odors. His brow furrows. He curls up, smelling his upper lip in a comforting, slightly OCD type of way.
Hunching down unnaturally as if attempting to hide from someone, Joe has awkwardly nestled his body in the gardening section, behind hoses and pesticides and a storage shed facade. "The stress these events offer can cause one to deviate from a perfect plan... and fuck everything up. Stay aware." The earlier words from his "boss" reverberate through his ears with perfect clarity.
Not far away, Scott Miller is also contorted in hiding. Scott is even taller than Joe, making this feat particularly difficult. He's also the senior by thirteen years. Scott leans forward, tightly holding a .38 caliber revolver to his chest. The tips of his fingers meet the grooves of his wedding ring as he does this, sending a wave of shock through his body. He leans forward even further, pressing his lips, trying to detect any movement whatsoever.
He’s strategically placed between bathroom supplies and the cleaning product aisles. Scott has given himself plenty of room to move around without detection. He can roam if hunching gets too hard on his tall body or his legs get too restless. And most importantly, he has a perfect vision of the large store interior.
EMPLOYEE LOCKER ROOM…
Accessed from the store warehouse only, the employee locker room lies in the northeast corner of the store. It's there for the employee's convenience to relax and change into their work clothes. The locker room contains a dressing area and a separate large bathroom. The north wall of the bathroom holds the door to a broom closet, where the janitors keep their amenities.
Alone, Fernando Garcia reluctantly slides both of his thick legs into his pants, pulls them up and tightens his belt. He yawns and glances at the shiny beige metal locker while putting on his “Kmart Custodian” Shirt. No reflection is available, but he didn't expect any.
" I hate this fucking job," he mutters.
Chipped lime green walls back the wooden bench he's seated on, bolted to the floor at every opportunity and running the length of the lockers. This locker room avoids giving one hope from any angle. It helps with employee retention.
On the bright side, there is that broom closet---a room with no corporate eye, a necessity for Fernando's mood lightening, pre-shift toke-ritual.
The six remaining employees pepper the northeast corner of the store. They wait by manager Bob Mosher’s office for him and security to complete the register closing duties. Bob has been handling deposits, going over receipts, and taking cash and checks for the armored-truck arrival for years now, and he prides himself on it. All that life or death kind of stuff is a big accomplishment for Bob, whose parents never thought he’d amount to much.
The two final employees arrive simultaneously, though from different areas of the store. The fateful eight now ceremoniously engage in small talk as they wait, completely unaware of what is happening beyond.
End of day talk, store talk, the kind of talk they only have to be half-conscious for. Offering smiles that fade weakly. Head nods to affirm speakers are heard. The bored employees are both sexes and a range of ages. Bob’s been delayed but they aren’t too concerned—they’re preconditioned to wait for his arrival.
Joe is still in the gardening section, squirming around in his cramped space, trying to dim the pounding of his heart in his head. Careful not to make a sound, he attempts to uncurl his body for any semblance of comfort. The air is growing heavier, making it difficult for him to breathe. A .32 caliber revolver is hanging out in his right hand.
FIVE YEARS EARLIER…
It was a crazy summer.
Wearing my only suit, I was sitting on a hard visitor’s bench in the lobby of Stanton city police department, a mild challenge for my bony butt.
Two other guys in their mid-twenties sat with me. We were quiet and still without interaction. Through my peripherals, I caught each of them wiping their sweaty palms on their pants.
We were waiting for the oral interview portion of the testing process to become a police officer. We all knew only three people would be selected out of a remaining ten, from an original field of over a hundred. And, that showed in our lack of conversation and our body language, each one of us feigning disinterest to the other two, but inwardly aching for success.
I was passionate about my need for this particular job. All the other applicants had their own needs for the job, I'm sure. But, mine was more like desperation. There was urgency. The stakes were high for me.
I felt pretty good about my chances as I fidgeted a bit on that hard surface. Had a background in theater and was comfortable in front of groups and the board consisted of three members. That’s a group, I reassured myself.
My written exam scores were the highest. I’d studied to get there. On paper, it seemed like I had the right stuff.
This was one of the very few jobs where I could work, act, support a surprise (and still growing) family and complete my graduate education full-time. And in a reasonable time. Twenty-five years old and I had serious catching up to do. It was making me anxious, gave me an empty feeling in my stomach when I thought about it. Fight or flight was my new normal.
Working regular hours, I believed there was no way I would graduate in time to avoid being irrelevant in my career, almost any career.
The life of a police officer was honestly not very attractive to me. The worst case scenario could be death, I thought. At that age, I was still quietly conservative about the unknown. I hadn't allowed myself to be tested in response to blood, violence, and tragedy.
Hadn't been there, didn't miss it. Sure, I came from a blue-collar area, but when the other guys were at their requisite gang fights, I was home watching Fred Astaire or Bob Hope.
Now there wasn’t much of a choice the way I saw it. I needed this job. The other guys there probably fantasized about catching bad guys when on the playground. For me, that was just part of the job description. What I was fantasizing about was support.
For as long as I could remember, my goal was to teach college-level speech and drama and expand into professional acting and directing. That was my playground fantasy.
My shattered dreams could only be put together again with hard work. And everything I was aiming for required time and money. Time spent studying for college exams and memorizing lines. Money for courses and books, costs of starting my career, financing a family. My battle was definitely uphill.
I was Sisyphus.
The mysterious door to the interview room suddenly opened, and a young man exited into the lobby. He didn’t look at any of us, walking directly out, chewing his lower lip in apparent ponderous confusion. Sweating quite a bit on his forehead.
The slightly widened eyes of those of us still waiting, fluttered around the room and nervously made fleeting contact, wondering who’d be next.
Minutes later, police Captain Hawks appeared with the answer, “William Ellis, please.” Hawks was a very large man with thick white hair and two thick catcher’s mitts for hands, his right one extended in welcome. He wore a plaid sports coat with tan pants and black shoes big enough to make you stare. I lost my hand somewhere in his while he shook both, and entered the room.
Two other men were standing behind a long, bare table, watching my entrance with wary interest. (I later found cops look at most everyone with a wary interest). In front of the table only a folding chair, which I’m sure was symbolic of how they wanted the interviewee to feel.
I’d never been in front of three police officers of any rank, in a room before. This is designed to be intimidating. I perceived a spotlight glaring from the ceiling. The single chair was now glowing to me. For one ludicrous second, I thought my ass would be scorched the second I lowered myself into it.
I looked around the room, less like an interviewee and more like I was the victim of an interrogation. This sure wasn't my usual audience. If this audience didn't like your show, they could put you in jail.
Stifle those thoughts and focus on the Captains, I thought.
Pulled my shoulders back, scooted my butt to the back of the chair and tried to look relaxed, but attentive.
They asked about past and present work and school history, my accomplishments and goals, family and wife relationships, activities during leisure time, and so on. They showed interest in what I was telling them, nodding along and even asking follow-up questions. They encouraged me to share my position on various social issues, with them probing deeper on a few.
The interest they were taking in my answers was making me feel comfortable. It was even starting to puff me up a bit. I felt relaxed in this sea of police captains.
It took about fifty minutes and seemed to be a pleasant interview. I was so relieved, I barely noticed Hawks and Captain Brewer exchanging glances. Hawks raised his eyebrows and I took that to mean they had what they needed.
But, he leaned forward and lowered those eyebrows, “You told us earlier you were against police brutality, is that right?”
Simple question I mistakenly saw as the obligatory wrap-up to a successful interview.
“Yes, sir,” I answered, settling back into the chair.
Hawks only slightly smiled as the others now watched. I was too comfortable with myself to realize the smile never reached his eyes and he talked through it.
“Let me ask a few questions to see how you might react in certain scenarios...”
“Sure,” I nodded.
“Okay. You’re a police detective. And you got a few snitches working with you. You know, informants? ”
A virgin to police work, I tried hard to visualize such a possibility as Brewer interjected, “If any cop needs crucial information out of any snitch and the snitch won’t give it, you okay to beat him to get that info?”
I did my best to mask the fact this type of scenario was freaking unimaginable to me. I'd only ever seen anything like that in the movies. The closest I’d personally been to a beating was when Jimmy Kendall cold-cocked that bully in the ninth grade.
“No, sir.” I thought we’d covered this.
Captain Hawks, “Right... It’s against the law. You’d enforce the law if hired, right?”
I nodded again. Inside I felt apprehension, nerves lightly hummed.
“A man and his wife come to the police station to report their four-year-old daughter has been kidnapped.
"Kidnappers demand twenty-five thousand dollars to return the girl, unharmed.
"They give all the drop details and swear to deliver one of the child’s cut-off fingers each day the money isn’t paid.”
The nerve-hum heightened as Brewer continued his scenario, “As they tell their story, you realize one of your snitches probably knows who the kidnappers are. Probably.
He leaned back in his chair and stared at me a moment.
"He won’t just give this to you. They don’t do that. But, you’ve been working him a while, so you know his weak spot.
He leaned forward again as if conspiring. "It's that he can’t take a physical beating. Not a bad one. He'll give up everything he’s got.
So, do you beat him?”
There was a brief silence and I could feel the weight of each Captain looking my way.
I gulped, “I’m against police brutality. I’d try other ways.”
Brewer, “Right. That’s what you told us.”
Something was off. It was like they were speaking those words, but their faces were telling me something completely different. I felt in the midst of a riddle.
“You and other detectives can’t dig up a lead. You try everything. Snitch isn’t giving you shit, but you’re sure he knows.
A slight pause before, "Still, you don’t beat him?”
Eyes were boring into my skull from three different directions.
“No, sir.” I quietly cleared my throat.
“Okay, then. A day passes..." He looked at me as though he expected me to finish the line.
"Parents receive a small box, special delivery. It’s their daughter’s right index finger…”
Holy shit. My mind was freezing like I'd eaten ice cream too fast. Celebrating too early.
Hawks continued the rest leaned forward like he was trying to will me into an answer, “Do you beat him now?”
“Well. I’d… ” I felt my face beginning to fluster. What the hell do they want?
“Means you wouldn’t beat him.”
I stayed silent. My jaw tightened involuntarily, upper teeth clutching lower teeth. It was an effort to continue looking at him and still concentrate. But how could I not?
“Okay then, another day goes by. Parents get a second finger. Now, what do you do?
“We already got you’re against police brutality, and your snitch is still giving you nothing. What do you do?” Hawks pressed.
I remained still, seated beneath the spotlight which only seemed to brighten. I’d been backed into a corner and it was now obvious to me that any response I came up with would be the wrong one. It was designed that way, I was sure.
What they wanted from me in the very beginning was, “I’ll beat the living hell out of that snitch. I'll beat him til he can't stand up. A career is nothing compared to keeping a child safe.” And Mighty Mouse music would play in the background, "Here I come to save the day!"
I resented the ambush, but I eventually got what it was all about. I think it was beyond a police career. Beyond family. This wasn’t about wearing the cool badge, about providing for your daughters and your passion. This was about quickly acting on the right decision for the greater good. Every time.
As I sat in the hot seat and mulled this Don Quixote epiphany, my present-self was unaware that realization would stay with me strongly and help guide my entire life. For better and for worse.
The interview was soon over and I drove home crumpled and still in a daze. The more I thought about it, the worse I felt about myself. My entire life's correction riding on a winning interview I was so damn confident I had.
Instead, I blew it.
I firmly set my gaze on the horizon, ignored the traffic noises, gripped the steering wheel and promised myself out loud this hesitation was the first and last.
After a few days, I wasn’t surprised to learn I failed the exam. I'd have questioned their standards had I passed. But, it still stung. Failure was foreign to me.
I learned from that and quickly gave it a second try, hired by the City of Buena Park as police officer William F. Ellis on March 26, 1965.
Thrilled, I punched my right fist into the air when I read the letter, "Yes! Yes! My goals and dreams were alive again and the jolting interview was forgotten for the moment.
But, although joyful, the news did bring with it thoughts of a considerable unknown directly in front of me. Was I prepared?
I wouldn't have to wait long.