At the Elks lodge in Camillus last night, in the dining room beyond the bar, I spent some time with men the age of my father.
Or, more correctly, my uncle.
He had been one of them in a distant day, in the colors of the Praetorian Guard, pushing a troop car from one radio call to another.
My uncle had been the senior trooper of the man across the table, and he told of one night coming through Central New York on a two lane, when they swerved to avoid a car coming at them, straddling the broken white line.
That was one of the funny stories.
The one about the couple having sex.
They were doing it driving down the road and my uncle glimpsed it through the window and spun around and lit them up and the men in the Stetsons walked up on a car on the shoulder occupied by two people working furiously to get something finished.
The man asked if this was going to be in the newspaper. It was one of those married-but-not-to-each-other situations and he was looking to avoid embarrassment.
So he was written up for failure to keep right and she was hit with interfering with the operation of a motor vehicle and the troopers drove off into the night.
Not all the stories were funny.
Many of them remembered the stench of Woodstock and some had gone over the wall at Attica. The man to my right, who worked and played ball with my uncle, spoke of the nightmares after he retired, fighting for his life each night in the dreams of his long career.
They carried revolvers back then, with extra cartridges in loops on their belts. If you couldn’t get it done in 12 rounds, you’d better be able to get back to the car and the box of unofficial shells most men stowed in their briefcases.
They meet every month, the retirees of Troop D. The oldest last night was 95, and the youngest were men who came off the road just a year or two ago. They had a spirit of camaraderie and brotherhood, and they clustered by age, telling stories of then and now. They talked about protecting governors and securing an Olympics, about learning to drive a snowplow to push burning tires out of I-81, about speeding tickets and how cheap the state is.
I sat at my plate, turning left and right, craning to see their faces across the room. Driving home I realized I was looking for someone who wasn’t there. Who couldn’t be there. Someone who left their ranks a generation ago, at his own hand.
There was a study out yesterday morning, it said more first responders die of suicide than in the line of duty. My uncle was one of those. He pulled his back one day lifting the duty box out of his troop car, and his virile and vital life took a hit. He went on medical and they gave him painkillers and then there was some trouble at home about a girlfriend. That led to counseling and more pills and one morning in the car in the garage with his wife pounding on the window he shot himself in the head.
The same muzzle he followed through 20 years of darkened buildings turned round and took him home.
And not a one of them mentioned it.
They had doubtless been at the funeral. They remembered my aunt’s name. They told story after story. They wore the same uniform he did, on the street and at the ballpark. And their memory of him must be punctuated, like my memory of him, by the sadness and self-destruction of his death. But not a one of them said anything about it.
Because they were kind, and, I suspect, because they had seen enough of suffering. Because they had all grown to be grandfathers and great-grandfathers, and because they had spent their working lives helping people through hard times, and they were wired to build up, not tear down.
So I was told about his softball skills and his good cheer on the job, and I heard the other side of stories I remembered from my youth. I was taken back to the glory of a childhood hero, the uniform and the resolve and the creak of gun leather. A guy who always had the answer, until he didn’t.
And I realized looking around the room that he would have been there – if not for that morning and that moment – that he would have lived on and learned and grown and aged, and been there with his pals, old men drifting into life’s sweet spot.
That survey may have confused things with a mistaken presumption, the one that said there are more suicides of law-enforcement officers than there are line-of-duty deaths. The survey presumed that a suicide isn’t a line-of-duty death.
I think sometimes it can be. I think sometimes it can add up.
When you wear a uniform overseas, or when you wear a uniform here at home.
I’ve missed my uncle all these years. I named my son after him and I’ve tried to remember him, but it’s been 30 years and the only thing that hasn’t faded is the sense of loss.
But I got to visit last night.
Not with him, but with men like him, and men who remembered him.
Men who, last night at the Elks lodge in Camillus, did him, and me, one last favor.