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Thanksgiving Memories From A Retired Officer

Editor's Note: In the law enforcement family we too easily lose contact with our fellow officers once they retire, or we retire.  Unless we see them socially, the bind that we had called "the job" doesn't exist anymore and all too often we fade apart.  When you consider the trials and tribulations, the joys and horror that we experienced together on the job for decades, it seems a shame to let them go out of your life.  If you can think of a fellow officer who meant a lot to you "on the job," but who is no longer in your day because one of you retired, call them; reach out to them; let them know you still cherish the bond you had - even if you no longer risk your lives together.  You did. '...and he who sheds blood with me shall be called my brother.' The statement means a lot.  Make that call.

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I had 37 Thanksgiving holidays wearing a badge.  Worked some and off some but the majority as I was a detective so I was on call.  Thanksgiving is usually quiet and peaceful. 

One war story I enjoy was a call one my best friends, Allen Watkins (one of the finest Deputies I worked with), received:  a domestic with fighting; yelling and screaming were heard.   He parked up the street (yes we had some sense 30 some odd years ago) and slipped up to the house.   Suddenly the man in the house let out a line of expletives which Allen thought were at the man’s wife.  In the south during Thanksgiving, the temperatures were usually in the 70’s and we left our doors open. Needless to say Allen entered the house to quell what he thought was a hot domestic. 

What he found was a man cheering on his favorite football team and his wife cheering for the other side.  Football and Thanksgiving go hand in hand and are taken seriously in Georgia.  One has trimmings the other colorful expletives.  To make matters worse this was a house divided so we had a triple call here.  Allen stayed around a few minutes to see to see the next touchdown and all hell broke loose. He told them to have a good time but to quiet down for the neighbors’ piece of mind.

On Thanksgiving Day 1978 lifelong residents of Douglas County, J.L. and Ruby Washington, were reported missing.  They were in their twilight years with children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.  They were last seen traveling to a family dinner and never heard from again. In those days everyone in Douglas County knew each other.  For them to be gone meant there was foul play.  A search was begun with Sheriff Earl D. Lee leading the efforts.   

JL and Ruby’s bodies were found at a pulpwood site in a remote area of the county.  They had been shot, stabbed, and bludgeoned.  In my years working cases in other jurisdictions, the crime scenes I viewed, photographed, and autopsies that followed, theirs was among the worst I can remember.  It touched the heart of every investigator and officer there and solidified the resolve to bring the case to a close.

Some of you have read articles I’ve written about Sheriff Lee but this was one of the most troubling cases I ever worked with him on.  At the time he had been with the Sheriff’s office in some capacity for over 20 years.  He had strong ties with the community and everyone owed the sheriff in some way or another and it was time to call in his markers. Lee worked for at least three days straight. He would hit the couch in his office for a few hours rest and we were up and going again.   He always gave words of encouragement to those with him using humor to keep us going.  We also drank 90% octane coffee back then so we were wide awake and read to go.

He would assign us leads while he grabbed a driver and he went through out the county playing the markers.  One of them came through.  Lee was given the name James Mathis.  Lee had dealt with Mathis on a sexual assault case 1970 and therefore was familiar with him and his actions. Mathis had just been released from prison on the assault charge. Lee subsequently obtained information putting Mathis in the car with the Washingtons on Thanksgiving Day.  Shortly thereafter the community came to Lee with the information he needed to find the weapons used and Mathis gave a jail house confession to another inmate regard the deaths of the Washingtons. Mathis was arrested.   Mathis was subsequently tried, convicted, sentenced to death, and unfortunately died in prison.

A lot of the Thanksgivings we were allowed to go home and have our Thanksgiving meal there. We all were grateful for that and if a buddy lived outside of the county they went home with you.   Of course, the fire departments and Hospitals had their dinners and you had to stop in and eat again.  I learned one thing early in my career: don’t ever make an EMT, Nurse, or Doctor mad... you may be looking up at them one day if you understand my meaning.  You want the best of care.

The last Thanksgiving I worked was here in my hometown with the Police Department.  The families got together and we had a meal at the decrepit lean-to we called department headquarters built in the 40’s.  We had all the kids there and families. We said our thanks to God and broke bread together. It was a great time for all.  It felt good that I had returned to a small department and my roots.

This year I will be with my family at home. I will be giving thanks to be alive and hope for the future. I have been diagnosed with a Cerebral Ataxia rare brain disease that attacks the Cerebellum which affects coordination with every sensation or movement in the body. Legs, arms, hands, feet, speech, and it goes on and on. It transgresses on its own time period. I am thankful for every day I can rise up and get around.

When you pull the pin (retire) you gradually slip away from your friends.  They move on with the job and you go on to what little time you have left.  In every instance I mentioned there was reason for thanks.  No one was hurt in Allen’s domestic; Sheriff Lee got his man and justice was served for JL and Ruby; I had a great Thanksgivings with co-workers at the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, Firemen, Hospital Staff, and at Douglasville Police Department. 

I am especially grateful to Sheriff Phil Miller of the Douglas County Sheriff’s office and his staff who have supported, encouraged me, and kept me with the Sheriff’s office family in an adopted sort of way.  They have kept me in prayer for the last two years and my spirits uplifted.  They all have been friends for many years.  There is where I call home.  You folks are the greatest.

This year will be different for me in a big way and an additional reason to give thanks. I have been diagnosed with a Cerebral Ataxia; a rare brain disease that attacks the Cerebellum which affects coordination with every sensation or movement in the body.  Legs, arms, hands, feet, speech, and it goes on and on.   It transgresses on its own time period.  I am fortunate that my so many folks have pulled in behind me to care for and be with me. 

The message I want to send to you is cherish each and every moment with your family and the rest of the people you come into contact with.  Life is short: partners, supervisors, Sheriffs, Chiefs, firemen, EMTs, nurses (you may look up at them one day from a gurney), doctors, and soldiers.  I could go on with this but everyone that touches your life every day. When someone leaves keep in touch.  One phone call can keep someone going for weeks.  Pray for each other.  Pray for who you lost last year that you will not see again in this life. 

Last of all, be thankful. God has given me a reason to thank him for 57 Thanksgivings – 37 that I spent with some very special folks.   See you in my next article here at officer.com. This is my seventh year and we have a saying in the south: “I ain’t dead yet.”  I think God and the good folks here at Officer.com are going to let me stick around a little while longer. God bless you all.

 


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