Somewhere in the home where Older Brother grew up is a photo of a family trip to Disneyworld late in the last century when he was not quite 10 years old. It was taken at the point on Splash Mountain when the ride was just about to suddenly plummet, and Pops could be seen gritting his teeth, 5-year-old Younger Brother had a grin on his face suggesting life at that moment couldn’t be sweeter, and Older Brother appeared to be screaming.
It was an image that offered Pops something to smile about seven years ago after Mom had informed him Older Brother had sent her a text that began, “Exciting News!” It went on to explain that he was going to be heading to Afghanistan early in 2012 with his Army Reserve unit. “Exciting” wasn’t the adjective Pops would have chosen for that disclosure, unless it pertained to the effect it had on his wife’s blood pressure. But it was also a reminder of how children’s personalities change as they grow.
And a boy who had once seemed too gentle and shy to imagine his going into a war zone had grown to embrace the opportunity, opting to ship out earlier than he was required to under his commitment.
Snow, Traffic Jam Nothing to Squall About
So when Pops turned the corner onto Church St. shortly before 7:30 p.m. Nov. 15 to find that the snowstorm that was starting to taper off had left a long wall of traffic in front of him, any thought of forgoing the drive down to Washington for Older Brother’s graduation from the U.S. Capitol Police the following morning was banished by the thought that the months he had spent overseas being awakened on a regular basis by enemy mortar fire made bad weather and worse traffic seem puny in comparison.
He held onto that thought for the 100 minutes it took to crawl less than a mile to the entrance to the Holland Tunnel, and again upon entering a New Jersey Turnpike spur out of the tunnel to discover the lack of plowing had ensured it, too, would be a mind-numbing slog. After an hour of inching forward, Mom remarked that according to Waze, their estimated time of arrival at a hotel in Falls Church, Va. would be 2 a.m. Pops, staring at the car’s odometer, did a quick calculation of how far they had traveled in the preceding hour and concluded that most of the turnpike in front of them must have been plowed, because their current pace would have gotten them to the hotel by 3 a.m. Saturday, 15 hours after the graduation ceremony was due to conclude.
He found himself thinking about the last time he’d encountered traffic like that on the Turnpike, more than two years earlier, coming home from Philadelphia after a Met game at Citizens Bank Park. It was the third in a series of annual road trips he and Older Brother had been taking to ballgames, this one with his son’s girlfriend and Younger Brother accompanying them. With Jacob DeGrom pitching a one-hitter and Phillies’ fans being unexpectedly tolerant of the New Yorkers in their midst, it had been a pleasure right up until traffic came to a standstill along the Route 13 exit ramp that would lead them to the Goethals Bridge.
As they idled, Younger Brother, a notoriously tough critic of musical theatre—taken for his 16th birthday to a revival of “West Side Story,” when asked at intermission what he thought of the show, he said, “It was pretty good until they started singing and dancing”—allowed that the soundtrack of “Hamilton” playing in the car had “some pretty good beats.” He and Older Brother then began talking about their high-school baseball careers, with Younger Brother recalling the write-up he had gotten in the Daily News for batting over .600 as a sophomore, and Older Brother countering with his own favorable review in the Post.
At which point Pops turned to him and said, “I never knew you played high-school baseball.”
To which Older Brother replied, “Well,” and let his silence finish the explanation.
He had been an uninspired middle-school student, and after he failed two courses in his freshman year of high school, Pops had warned him that if he didn’t improve in the first semester of his sophomore year, he would order the school’s basketball coach to take him off the team even if he remained academically eligible to compete. Sure enough, Older Brother failed two courses the first marking period, and despite his pleadings, Pop drove to school with him to deliver the message to the coach.
Big Man on Campus
Older Brother had been shy growing up, particularly around grown-ups. Participant sports were the one place where he came out of his shell, whether it was Little League or youth basketball leagues in both Brooklyn and Queens. And so it came as a shock to Pops when they entered the school building and Older Brother’s face turned from glum to animated as a steady succession of his schoolmates greeted him as if he were a celebrity, which in their world he was.
Undeterred, Pops told the coach he didn’t want his son playing until his grades picked up. Older Brother was silent, his earlier insistence that he would do anything requested of him if this penalty wasn’t imposed having had no effect.
The tough love worked so well that for the next marking period, Older Brother failed three courses. Pops would later tell his own 11th-grade English Teacher that he regretted not finding some compromise that might have gotten his son to apply himself to schoolwork more seriously to preserve his chance to play ball.
His Teacher demurred, remarking, “Who’s to say your son would have turned out as well as he did if you hadn’t drawn that line for him and showed him there were consequences for not living up to his end of the bargain?”
He might have been right. But the one bit of insight about their relationship Pops gleaned after his kids’ reminiscences about their sports glory made him smile despite the traffic standstill was that Older Brother had decided that not telling him about his baseball participation meant there was one less thing he could have taken away from him.
Back in the present turnpike delay, the only other consolation was the Thursday Night Football broadcast of the Packers/Seahawks game, and as it headed into the fourth quarter, traffic finally began moving just before Exit 13A. They drove into a rest stop a few exits later; 11:30 was as late as Pops was willing to wait before having dinner. As he headed back on the road, Mom offered two bits of information—their estimated time of arrival at the hotel was now 3 a.m., and Younger Brother was just leaving home in Queens and hoping for good traffic on the Verrazzano that would allow him to avoid the unplowed turnpike spur.
Long Night on Road
Shortly after 3:30 a.m. Pops and Mom pulled into their hotel’s driveway, more than eight hours after lighting out for the Lincoln Tunnel. It only seemed longer than it had taken Older Brother to move through a series of law-enforcement jobs to gain appointment as one of the 2,100 officers assigned to provide security for Congress and those who visit the Capitol Building and other congressional properties.
After he returned from military duty, he was a hospital security officer before being hired by the Correction Department in August 2015. He was part of a record class of 592 graduates at Lehman College that December who had the stately ceremony transformed into a campaign rally by then-Correction Officers Benevolent Association President Norman Seabrook, who told his newest members not to count on the lofty rhetoric of the assembled dignitaries including Mayor de Blasio; that he was the best new friend they had. Some in the audience found the act riveting; Older Brother rolled his eyes when asked about it.
Six weeks later, Pops was spending a quiet Friday night in front of the living-room TV when shortly after midnight the phone rang and someone from the Correction Department asked for Older Brother. He told the caller he expected she could find him working the second tour of a double shift; she replied that she was calling because he hadn’t reported to his post for that shift, and asked that he call the department if he heard from him.
Pops tried Older Brother’s cell-phone, and wasn’t alarmed when he didn’t answer, since officers are not allowed to carry their phones while working in the jails. He contemplated waking Mom to inform her, and after 10 minutes decided it was better to let her know then rather than have her find out hours later. She immediately began imagining the worst, which was enough to prompt Pops to do what he should have done before telling her: call someone he knew in the department’s hierarchy. After apologizing for waking that official, he got a call-back five minutes later with a stupefying, if happy, explanation: Older Brother hadn’t reported for his second shift at 11 p.m. because he had remained at his first one waiting for relief that hadn’t arrived.
‘Why Bother Checking First?’
Later that day, at a birthday lunch for a friend, Pops saw a veteran city official who had held executive positions in two other uniformed departments before running a small agency, and told her what had happened. When he finished, she said, “Do you still have any questions about why the Correction Department is so screwed up? Because I mean why would they bother checking whether your son had gotten relieved when it was so much easier to scare the crap out of mom and dad?”
A few weeks later, Pops was just leaving for work about 8:30 a.m. when Older Brother pulled up in front of the house, looking more whipped than even a double shift ending in an overnight tour should have left him. He told Pops he’d explain that evening. As they had dinner in Junior’s before heading over to a Nets game, he said that near the end of his second shift he managed to break up a scuffle between two inmates without having to use force, but just when it seemed peace was at hand, a third inmate began taunting one of the original aggressors, forcing Older Brother to again intervene to head off a fight. He had faced more-lethal danger as a Military Police Officer in Afghanistan, Older Brother said, but there was less pointless behavior there by those whose paths crossed with his.
As the summer approached, he grew optimistic after an interview for a job with the police force at the University of North Carolina. Before he heard back, though, in early July he resigned from the Correction Department after 11 months on the job, saying conditions had become too oppressive to continue. Suddenly officials at UNC didn’t sound as encouraging, and Pops told him it would have been a better move to stay with Correction until he had the other job secured.
“Couldn’t do it,” Older Brother replied. “There were days I would rather have been back in Afghan.”
A New Home for COs
And so it was back to hospital security work, this time in Suffolk County, and then a few months doing security work at sports events with a Labrador Retriever as his partner until, just over a year after he’d left Correction, he was hired by the Law Enforcement Unit of the Federal Reserve. The most-striking feature of his graduation last December was that out of the 10 members of his class, he was one of the five who had previously logged time at Rikers Island and decided there was something to be said for a quieter, more-logic-oriented kind of government-security work.
By the spring, though, the Capitol Police had called, and he accepted the chance to begin training by shipping out to Artesia, New Mexico just before the NYPD reached out for the second time (the first time, he had just finished his CO training and deferred acceptance because “I couldn’t take another [training] academy” back to back).
He had spent 12 weeks at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center there, then 14 weeks at the U.S. Capitol Police Training Academy in Cheltenham, Maryland, qualifying him for graduation before he would undergo another eight weeks of field training split between Maryland and Washington, D.C.
Which was how Pops and Mom pulled up in an Uber, rather than counting on finding parking, near the Everett Dirksen Senate Office Building about 10 a.m. Nov. 16, with no trace of the snow that had hit the nation’s capital the previous day. Younger Brother, who had arrived at the apartment Older Brother shared with The Girlfriend a bit after 4:30 that morning, got there about 10 minutes later, by which time Pops had scoped out the building a bit.
‘A Billion Here’ Ev
Everett Dirksen, for whom it was named, was an Illinois Senator who was the Republican Minority Leader for more than a decade until his death 49 years ago. He was best known for saying, “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.” He shared President Lyndon Johnson’s strong support for civil rights and his equally strong and unfortunate support for the Vietnam War. There was one other link, Pops discovered as he strolled through the corridors: Mr. Johnson, then a Senator from Texas, had been on the planning committee for the building that would eventually be renamed in Senator Dirksen’s memory.
The family members who would be pinning the badges on the graduates were herded into an aisle of the Committee on Rules and Administration Event Room, where an officer who gave his name as Sergeant Nelson instructed them on how to do the pinning without drawing blood and the choreography that would follow to allow photographs worth framing.
One family member asked, “Who’s taking the picture?”
“Someone better than me,” Sergeant Nelson replied.
When Older Brother kidded him about the response after everything was done, the Sergeant said matter-of-factly, “Gotta learn some humility.”
There were only 22 graduates, a class that was not unusual, according to one of the instructors, who noted that several classes would go through training over the course of a year, aided by the ability to do the early training in Glynco, Georgia as well as in New Mexico.
After the presentation of colors and the singing of the National Anthem, a sense of the work that the graduates would be doing was provided by House of Representatives Chaplain Patrick Conroy, who referred in his invocation first to “this seat of constitutional democracy,” and then to the graduates themselves and “the sacrifices they may have to make.”
‘Lives Forever Changed’
The Class President, Officer Jacob Marten, told his fellow grads, “Our lives are forever changed. We must all remember that success is never final…There will always be more for us to learn, and to teach.”
Chief of Police Matthew Verderosa read a letter to the graduates from U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper, the Mississippi Republican who chairs the House Committee on Administration, that concluded, “Please do not hesitate to contact me if there’s anything I can do in the future.”
“He’s just kidding about that,” Chief Verderosa said, then quickly added, “No he’s not.”
With the laughter having subsided, he spoke more seriously, alluding to battles between the two political parties that were still fresh in the minds of those who had watched the Senate confirmation war over Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh less than two months earlier. “Virtually every issue in this country being played out in either debates or in the courts ends up in one of these two yards,” Chief Verderosa said. Noting that the graduates were joining a 190-year-old department, he told them, “Please take the time to celebrate this milestone.”
Then the graduates and their family members stepped to the front of the hall for the pinning of the badges. Pops was uncertain as to how to remove the pin from its holder until The Girlfriend assisted, and as he tried to place it on his son’s uniform, Older Brother said, “Inside the top button.”
“That’s what I’m aiming for,” Pops responded, finally securing it.
Taking the Oath
Chief Verderosa then administered the oath of office, each graduate in sequence stating his or her own name before he continued, with all of them repeating after him.
Then Capt. Monique Moore stepped to the mic and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the officers of Recruit Class No. 197.”
After the guests rose to applaud, she concluded, “For the last time, class is dismissed!”
The graduates responded by shouting the class motto: “Don’t give up, don’t give in!”
Perhaps it was the setting, in the heart of the Federal Government, the Capitol Building a few blocks away looking larger and more majestic than Pops remembered it from a series of visits nearly 30 years earlier. Perhaps Captain Moore’s description in her welcoming remarks earlier of the graduates joining “the protectors of democracy” made the event particularly resonant.
Or maybe it had been his direct role in the ceremony that gave it more weight than the Correction graduation at Lehman College or the Federal Reserve event in a building defined by the monetary system.
Then they were out on the street, Mom lobbying for more pictures in the fresh air while Older Brother, already out of his uniform and wearing a sweatshirt commemorating his Army unit’s tour in Afghanistan, protesting that if they hung around too long they were going to get stuck in lunchtime traffic and his stomach was growling after having to be at the Dirksen building by 6 a.m.
By the time that they pulled up outside a Brazilian steakhouse, he was discussing what kind of pension he could expect after 25 years on the job once he rolled in his military service. That computation, not uncommon among first-responders even that early in their careers, told Pops that Older Brother had found a home.
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