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Father & Son

Here we are in a little grove, looking out on a river where Pere Marquette and his Indian guides once paddled in birchbark canoes, and here is a boy who ought to be in school but seems instead to be living in the back of a van learning about life from his


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Fiction or nonfiction? I want to tell this story. It's about a cop, it's about a river, it's about a father, it's about a boy.

It's about who loves his kid, and who knows what's best.

Here's a TV "news" item. Secondary smoke will harm your child. The camera shows mothers dangling cigarettes over their infants. Then an interview with the doctor. Asthma, ear infections, respiratory problems, etc. "I really think this is a form of child abuse."

If you buy into that, better not sign up for a youth-officer training course at the Sheriff's Police Facility in Maywood.

When you're a cop you get to do this, volunteer for additional training, spend eight weeks in a classroom, earn three credit hours from the Chicago City Colleges. As if you were going for a degree.

Attending youth-officer training is pretty much the same deal as attending the Chicago police academy. In fact it is the police academy all over again, only this time--because after all you're already a cop--you're spared all that Mickey Mouse stuff, like inspections and uniforms and running laps around an empty field. This time you wander in wearing blue jeans, feeling an understandable superiority over the regular sheriff's recruits, the wannabes who wannabe what you are.

Imagine a school that goes from nine to five. Imagine classes in law and social studies and police procedures that drag on and on until even the instructors, most of whom are police officers themselves, nearly expire from fatigue.

There's only so much they can say. Then they bring out the slide projector.

Then they show you child abuse.

The mothers in these slides don't just smoke cigarettes, they put them out on their children's bodies. You get to see the results. You get to see the characteristic welts left by extension cords. You get to see the consequences of dipping a naked child into boiling water. You get to see the way some parents break out their children's front teeth with spoons. "Eat that, damn you!" You get to see the blackened eyes, puffed lips, bruised ribs, broken bones. You get to see what a three-year-old kid looks like after her father rapes her. Cops have pictures of everything.

Well, let's get to it, the boy, the father, the river, the cop. I promised a story.

We'll start with the river. There are only three rivers worth talking about in Cook County so it must be one of them. A river that once ran clean and clear and now is the color of mud and occasionally has the stench of death. Pere Marquette came down this river looking for a passage west. There were rapids in it then, and smallmouth bass, and Indians had their villages along the banks.

The site of this story has history. Here all the waters came together and you could make the portage over from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River system. That's one of the reasons Chicago became a great city.

But when you come here now what you see is an expressway, a railroad crossing, the Sanitary Canal, a bunch of scrub forest preserve where kids run their dirt bikes, and a little picnic grove with a couple of old cars facing the river, maybe a few guys with tattoos and long hair drinking beer, maybe an old man walking his dog.

And people fishing.

What do people hope to catch in this dirty river? How could anything live in there, beneath the swirling oil slicks and floating condoms? And if it did, and if you caught it, would you really want to cook and eat it?

If you're a cop without a whole lot to do, sometimes you walk down to the water and ask one of the fishermen how the luck is. He'll lift up his stringer and there it will be, a big yellow carp with bulging eyes and a hose for a mouth.

At one point or another, it's hard to remember when, the cop begins to notice one special crowd that seems to show up every day. An old van, sometimes a second old van, two or three old cars--you know the kind, doors that won't open, tail pipes that drag on the ground, tires bald and deadly. Cars like this and the kind of people who go with them.

People with tattoos and unfocused eyes, with long, straggly hair, with blue jeans that ain't never been washed. People who never seem to do anything at all except sit around and drink. For want of a better word, the cop calls these people "mopes."

A word about mopes. If you were to take a week and spend it driving around the Cook County forest preserves, you would notice how certain spots seem to belong to certain groups. The gang that hangs out in this shelter, the crowd that stands by that picnic table, the bunch you always find at a certain bend in the road. There are certain cars forever present, certain faces that have become part of the scenery.

Are these people living here?

Sometimes it begins to look that way. This crowd at the carp-fishing site, first they drag down an old sofa, then they pull up a picnic table and make it their own, then they carry in folding chairs, ice chests, tarpaulins; they drag over a garbage can, and no matter how many times you make them put out their fire, the next time you drive by another is merrily blazing away.

After a few weeks, this isn't just a bunch of guys fishing, this is a camp. The poles lined up by the water are really beside the point. The point is the beer, the cheap wine, the endless packs of cigarettes some people always find a way to afford.

A truce develops. As long as the mopes stay off the street with their drinking, as long as they step behind a bush to urinate, as long as they don't chop down any live trees, as long as they don't bother the old men walking their dogs or the couples who park in the back of the grove, the cop drives by and lets them do their thing.

Other cops do the same.

Then the cop begins to notice the boy. This is a mixed-up group of mopes. There's an old man with a white beard, a guy who might be an Indian or a Mexican, several gray-faced derelicts, the usual burnout rockers, sometimes a woman who would be hard to describe, and one big husky dude who always brings his kid--a boy, no older than ten, and he's there every day, watching this crowd drink and smoke and pass out on that dirty old couch. It's late spring and he's barefoot and tan, living off hot dogs and candy bars; he's a 20th-century Huckleberry Finn.

You have to wonder why he isn't in school.

Let's go back to the police academy and take a brief course in juvenile law. A juvenile in the state of Illinois is not exactly the property of his parents. A juvenile is the responsibility of the state. Let me give you a quote from the Juvenile Court Act: "The parents' right to the custody of their child shall not prevail when the court determines that it is contrary to the best interests of the child."

And here we are in a little forest preserve grove, looking out at a river where Pere Marquette and his Indian guides once paddled in birchbark canoes, and here is a boy who seems to be living in the back of a van, learning about life from Daddy's drinking buddies.

What are the best interests of this child?

A cop, a teacher, a doctor, a nurse, a social worker, any professional who works with children is what the law defines as a "mandated reporter," someone who not only should report any incident of abuse he or she encounters but must. Fail in this duty, and you yourself are liable for prosecution. Not very likely in this case, but . . .

Now I have to step forward and become part of my own story. It can't just be any old generic cop, if there were such a thing. Cops come in all sizes, colors, shapes, and ages, and it finally gets down to this--who you are has a lot to do with how you are. And when you're a man who has taken up the police business a little late in life, you carry a load of extra baggage younger cops never feel. You never quite pick up the mind-set the folks at the police academy expect you to have, you never, like an old dog or a guy who waits too long to marry, make certain adjustments, and everyone lets you know it.

But you're human. You want to do well, to succeed, to earn honor and the respect of others. Above all, you want the approval of your peers. In any job you want this, but suddenly it seems a necessity. Stop and think. How often do you look at a fellow worker and measure him the way one cop measures another? Does this guy have balls? Will he stand up when the thing goes down, or will he step back and let someone else take up his load? Who wouldn't welcome a chance to prove himself?

It's all on a collision course, this cop, this boy, this father, even the river and the spirit of Pere Marquette.

Here's a sacred place in history, a place that was once pure and clean in a way nothing will be ever again. Here's a river that once ran swift over hard, polished gravel, and a land where the prairie grass stood tall; now look at what people have made of it. You can hear dirt bikes grinding through the woods, you can smell the reeking river, you can taste the exhaust fumes that drift up from the expressway.

And here are the people who replaced the Indians and the pioneers: bathless mopes with tattoos, peeing in the bushes and pretending to fish. The ugly people. The new Americans.

The cop hates these people more than he should. Every day they wave and smile and he averts his eyes. No friendship with these assholes. They are on one side, and he is on the other.

Sometimes when you hate someone without any real logical reason you find yourself unwilling to act upon that hate. It wouldn't be right. There could be a dozen good reasons why that kid isn't in school. You must not act on the basis of prejudice or half-baked emotion. You find yourself leaning first one way, then the other, never quite sure which is right.

One morning the cop shows up at work and the watch commander has a job for him. Let's call the watch commander Sergeant Emmer, not his real name. This is the fiction part of this story. I'm disguising things a little, the way television blanks out the faces of people who don't want to be known as snitches.

Sergeant Emmer waits until the other cops have driven off. Then, in private, he tells our cop what is going down: "They got a court order on that bunch down by Stony Rapids."

They? He means the Department of Children and Family Services. Or maybe he doesn't. Maybe he means the state's attorney. Maybe I don't want to come right out and say. But let's make it the DCFS and call it fiction. Let's call it all fiction. Let's pretend there never was a kid and there never was a river and there never was a father who was raising his kid with the mopes.

Let's pretend there never was a Pere Marquette.

Emmer speaks of that mope father by his given name, exactly as if he has known the guy for years and years. And, in fact, he has; they both live in the same town, one of those older suburbs where everybody knows everybody.

"They're going to come get that kid," Emmer explains. "The mother put in a beef, and the DCFS is going to take him away from the father." It's a long, messy story: broken marriage, drugs, booze, violence and threats of violence. Unfit parents is what it boils down to.

But dad--let's call him Lucius--has promised mom, and anyone else who wants to listen, that no one, no one will ever take his son without a fight. "And he's a fighter too," Emmer says. "He's as strong as an ox. We had to arrest him one time, and it took six men to hold him down."

The cop feels a little thrill dart through his groin. At last he's going to get a chance to prove he's as good as any of these young guys!

"We'll have help," Emmer promises. "The village is going to have a couple of squads there and so is the sheriff."

It's all set up. At 1100 hours, everybody is supposed to meet on the highway just about a mile away from the carp-fishing place. A woman from the DCFS will be there with the papers, and everyone will go in together.

Say what you will about police work, this beats selling shoes. The cop is excited and pleased and it only glides through him marginally, the reality of what they are about to do.

In the name of the state of Illinois, in the service of justice and humanity, they are about to take a boy away from his father.

At 1100 hours the convoy begins to form. Here's the cop and his squad car, here's Sergeant Emmer and his squad. Here are three squads from the village, another from the state, two more from the sheriff, another from an adjoining village. Here's a small army about to attack the carp-fishing camp.

The lady from the DCFS is last to arrive. She's a well-dressed, well-educated woman with more sense than enthusiasm. Yes, she has the papers.

"Well, let's go," the cop says. He wants this action. He's been thinking about big Lucius all morning. He wants a piece of this guy, not a lot, just enough so that nobody in this department or any other department can ever say he stepped back when the thing went down. "Let's go," he says, and he's thinking: I'll show them who's too old.

It's a good thing we have sensible people like the lady from the DCFS in this world. "Just leave me do all the talking," she says.

So the convoy begins to move. Imagine nine squad cars, lights turning, following an unmarked black Dodge Diplomat. Motorists turn their heads. What in hell has that lady done?

The whole convoy turns into the little picnic grove by Stony Rapids. The mopes are all there, pretending to fish. Big Lucius is there. The boy is there.

The cops park, one behind the other, and step out of their squads, leaving the doors open. The lady from the DCFS leads the way, walking briskly, and our cop hurries to be behind her.

"Slow up," Emmer says, grabbing the cop by the arm.

Lucius and his friends are waiting. For the first time the cop notices how big and strong Lucius really is. And the friends, with their tattooed forearms, look almost as tough. He also notices that some of the other cops, young guys, aren't exactly pushing forward.

The lady from the DCFS introduces herself and shows her papers. "No," Lucius says. "You ain't taking my kid."

One of the mope friends moves a little closer, a tire iron in his hand.

"Drop that," our brave cop says. "Right now!"

The mope tosses the tire iron. "Hey, hey!" he says. "I just happened to have that in my hand!"

"No one," big Lucius repeats. "No one is going to take my kid."

And the little boy, the cop now sees, is holding onto his father's belt just as hard as he can.

The lady from the DCFS speaks softly. She has that trick of talking so quietly no one more than three feet away can hear. She speaks and he speaks and she speaks and he speaks, and the cop can only pick up snatches of it. There is talk about court dates and court orders and lawyers and probation officers. Lucius digs around in the van and comes out with his own papers, and the lady reads them carefully. And all the while the little boy is clinging to his father.

Our cop finds himself slowly sliding his baton back into its place on his belt. Was he really planning to use it? On this man while his son watched?

This is the moment when the ghost of Pere Marquette glides by. No one sees it, not even our cop, but later, whenever he thinks of this day, he knows it must be so. Here on the banks of this once-lovely river something changes, men who were poised for violence stretch and relax; the cops turn to each other and begin small talk, one of the mopes checks his fishing pole, someone laughs, and the little boy rubs the tears from his eyes.

The lady from the DCFS snaps her purse shut.

The cop whispers to Sergeant Emmer: "What are we going to do?"

"Nothing," Emmer says. "You just write up an AOA."

AOA means "assist other agency."

One by one the other cops climb into their squads and back out of the grove. After all this buildup, nothing.

The cop waits until the lady from the DCFS is through talking to Lucius. She talks long and hard and Lucius keeps nodding his big head, agreeing with every word she says. At last she crawls back into her Dodge Diplomat, and the cop hurries over to get her name for his report. "What happened?" he whispers.

She's impatient now, eager to get going. "It's OK," she says. "He's going to see that boy goes to school."

Then she is gone and Emmer is gone and the cop is alone in the grove with the mopes. He approaches big Lucius and gets his name for the report. "It's just a report," he assures the big guy. "I have to write it. It's my job."

When he's through writing he walks down to the water where the mopes are tending their fishing lines. "Catch anything?" he asks. The mopes let the boy pull the stringer out of the water and there is a carp, maybe four pounds, gasping for air. Now the boy smiles, but the cop can still see the streaks on his face where the tears had been.

So what's the point? The summer goes on, the river goes on, the mopes go on, and the father is there almost every day with his little boy. The cop sees them when he drives through. Nothing has changed.

Except one thing. From this day on whenever the cop sees big Lucius and his boy, he rolls down the window, smiles, and waves.

And they wave back.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kevin Kurtz.

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