Bad News Bears…….

Troopers, and their brothers and sisters in other agencies, are involved in a number of activities and events that result in the hearts and minds of folks being exposed to the light of day, and dark of night as the circumstances might dictate.  The Highway Patrol, as a matter of tradition and propriety, prided itself in the notification of the next of kin in person, a practice that I am sure continues today.  The phrase, “Next of kin notified”, or in the alternative, “Name withheld until notification of next of kin” takes on a special meaning for those of us who have been called upon to be the bearer of the ultimate in bad news.  The notifications involving the loss of life are never easy, but they take on a special significance when you have officiated at the event that resulted in the loss of life.  I thought I might share an experience or two that are as vivid in my mind today as they were when I sat down with my family for the next available meal, whether it be breakfast or dinner, quietly acknowledging the Master’s good grace in granting me the opportunity to see them alive and well.

It was a pretty summer morning in the town I was assigned when a a teen age boy slipped into the police station looking as if he had been mauled by a bear.  He was dehydrated, cut up, scared and disoriented but was able to tell us what had happened.  He and a friend, late the night before, hopped a moving freight train passing through town and rode east on a flatcar.  As the train picked up speed, they became frightened and decided to hop off the train, which they did.  This young man landed in a briar thicket and he had no idea where his partner was.  He was able to describe a crossing, east of town, which was close to where they jumped.  We immediately went to this crossing and after a short walk, located his buddy, killed instantly in his leap into large rocks along the tracks.  Identifying this young man was short work and I drove to his house, adjacent to the funeral home parking lot, to tell his mother what had happened.  Her son was a bit of a character, no stranger to mischief, and when I knocked she appeared and began scolding me for what she perceived as the harassment of her son by the police.  After a minute or two of her criticism, she asked me where he was and what kind of trouble he was in now. It just so happened the ambulance was at the funeral home back entrance, across the parking lot from where we were standing, when I told her that her son had been fatally injured in an accident.  We were standing on the front porch when she turned and looked across the parking lot and back at me and asked if that was her son being unloaded………

I was due off at 4:00 PM, and had enjoyed a great fall day working US 24, through the apple orchard country, when radio notified me that my services were needed at a single fatality accident on a state lettered route north of my hometown.  It was 3:00 PM when I arrived at the scene of a single vehicle (pick-up truck) accident, in which the truck had missed a curve, travelled down an embankment and struck the ditch bank.  The driver, a young man who was returning home from vocational school, was killed instantly.  He was also my neighbor.  He and his wife had not been married long, and his mother was the manager of a financial institution that I was doing business with, resulting in me also knowing her well.  I parked my Patrol car, squared up my hat, and instead of walking to my house, walked next door where the young wife and her mother-in-law were waiting for Kirk to come home.  I knocked and was waved in cheerfully as they told me they were waiting for Kirk to get home so they could go out to eat.  The hat was the clue as I entered and did not immediately speak.  His mother looked carefully in my eyes and said, “Kirk’s not coming home is he……”. I replied, gently telling them he would not be home……

On yet another beautiful summer evening, I was called to a one car accident near Higginsville, in which a car left the state lettered route and struck a tree in the front yard of a residence, instantly killing the young driver, who was known to the residents in this home.  When time permitted, it was my custom to locate a clergyman or family member to meet me when I was making notifications.  I always dreaded leaving a grieving relative alone, and made it a practice to remain with them until someone could be there with them after I left.  The young man who was killed did not live far from the scene and I was able to arrange for a clergyman to be enroute when I drove into the driveway of the home located on the same road the accident occurred on.  When I pulled into the driveway, in my assigned unmarked car, lights came on in the upstairs windows of the home and folks were looking out of the window to see what peril had just driven in at such a late hour.  It was the hat, again……..As I exited my Patrol car, the porch light came on and a woman, previously looking out of the upstairs window, began screaming as she travelled down the stairs and met me with her husband at the front door.  The minister, just now arriving sealed the deal, leaving me with little more to offer beyond where their son had been taken and the circumstances surrounding his death.  When I got home, I turned the lights on in my children’s bedrooms to be sure they were sleeping soundly and confirm their safety………

There have been many more such instances,  some involving events that I investigated, some events that occurred in another county, city or state.  I remember them all, dark days that reinforced my decision to become a public safety advocate and professional.  It is impossible to ever know how many such notifications have been prevented by the efforts of those in this exciting, dangerous and rewarding business who understand, firsthand, the fragility of life and the consequences of carelessness………

Those days when we squared up the hat and became bad news bears are among the last memories to fade as your career slips further behind in the rear view mirror…..

One thought on “Bad News Bears…….

  1. As a State Trooper, you remember your first death notification like you do your first Patrol car. I worked a rather gruesome fatal crash at a railroad crossing in downtown Eureka, MO very early in my career. The driver had driven his vehicle around a closed railroad crossing barrier equipped with flashing lights into the direct path of an approaching train.

    After finishing up at the crash site and filing the prerequisite fatality radio report with Troop C HQ, I was subsequently given the task of notifying the victim’s next of kin, a brother, who lived a few miles south of Eureka. While driving to the brother’s home, I tried to recall all the information given to me in Recruit School on how to conduct the notification with appropriate words of comfort etc.

    I located the home, knocked on the front door, assured that the man who answered the door was indeed the victim’s brother and asked if I might come in. I advised the man with all due respect and formality that I had some bad news about his brother. I related that his brother had recently been killed in a traffic crash in Eureka. I will never forget what he said in response…”You ain’t pushing that body off on me.”

    Liked by 1 person

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