By Bud Harton
I became a cop in the spring of 1969 after returning home from Vietnam. It’s hard to imagine now, but returning Vietnam veterans weren’t really appreciated by the American public at the time. I quickly learned that I should avoid the subject of Vietnam altogether and if questioned whether I had been there, mumbling an answer and walking away was usually a good idea.
If there was any profession more intensely disliked than returning combat veterans, it was probably law enforcement. So already being an outcast, I decided to become double-shunned by joining a suburban Chicago police department as their newest probationary patrolman.
So I traded one uniform for another. But, wow, what a uniform! My department wore dark blue pants with a light blue shirt and a sheriff’s hat. Ohmigosh, I loved that hat. It wasn’t quite as cool as a drill sergeant’s flat brimmed style, but it really added to the swagger.
You used the strap across the back of your head and that meant you could cock the brim of the hat down over your eyes. Coupled with cool dark sunglasses, I was really something.
But even cooler was the fact that our uniform included carrying our duty weapon cross draw. It was supposedly to facilitate drawing the weapon while seated in a patrol car, but I didn’t pay any attention to that because when I saw myself fully uniformed in a mirror for the first time, I almost couldn’t breathe. I just looked so cool.
My firearm of choice at the time, was a Colt Trooper.
So six months later, fully trained at the police academy and finally released by my field training officer, I was out on my own. There wasn’t a lot of crime in our town. It was primarily a ‘bedroom’ community without many businesses or industry.
The very first homicide in 25 years of the town’s existence had just happened after I was hired and while there were frequent burglaries, I didn’t see one single armed robbery while on duty the entire time I was employed there.
But I didn’t care. I consciously patrolled my assigned patrol area with strict attention to detail. I stopped and helped kids and old ladies across busy intersections, rounded up stray dogs and took them home and wrote a lot of traffic tickets. I liked working traffic because I got to turn the ‘reds’ on and there was always a chance that a pursuit might ensue.
When stopping a violator, I recorded his license number on my note pad in case something happened, advised my dispatcher of the location and the vehicle description and usually had most of that done just as the offender slowed his vehicle to a stop.
I carefully pulled up behind just a little to the left of his bumper so that I had a protected zone to approach him. Keeping my eye on the vehicle I would pop my door open and carefully step out to approach the car.
After a while I got so good at this I was able to carefully position my chrome plated spotlight mounted on the pillar of the door frame so that I could check the angle of my hat and make sure that I was looking good. I really liked how I looked in that uniform.
One bright, sunny Saturday afternoon, I got a radar clock on a car doing 10 miles over the posted limit. That was enough to trigger my predatory instincts and I quickly pulled out from where I had concealed my car, flipped the reds on, and hauled after him. He must have noticed me pulling out because he pulled over almost right away.
I quickly notified my dispatcher of my location and the vehicle description and popped the door open with my left hand as I grabbed my Sheriff’s Stetson and quickly tipped it on with the chin strap firmly across the back of my head.
I stepped out on the pavement while carefully checking my appearance in my cleverly positioned spotlight and looked up at the offending car…only to find that the driver was already out of his car and approaching me. And he had a pistol in his hand.
Time stood still as I started to back myself behind my car door, but I decided I didn’t have time, so as my left hand released the restraining strap on my holster, my right hand found the grip of the Colt Trooper and I ripped it out of the holster. Then, as I drew, I proceeded to throw it across the hood of my squad car, into the ditch on the other side of the car.
As often happened when I was terrified in Vietnam, time stood still and all of my senses were focused on what was in front of me. I could see my gun sailing through the air and the driver quickly approaching.
As my vision and hearing seemed to clear and refocus, I could hear him saying, “Officer, I was just on my way to the station, my son just found this gun behind my house.”
It took me a moment and I’m pretty sure I was able to conceal the violent tremors in my knees and he probably thought that I was doing a pretty good job of controlling my stutter as I said, “Great, sir. I’ll follow you to the station and take your report. I’ll just block traffic here for a moment so you can get back safely on your way.”
He nodded his understanding and said he’d go straight there.
I have often wondered if he saw me in his rear view mirror as I frantically groped and splashed around in the ditch trying to find my Trooper. I’m pretty sure he was too far away to see me holding it up to let the ditchwater drain out of it.