For the most part, I can remember circumstances surrounding an incident with reasonable clarity. There is one event however, indelibly etched in my mind, that has no beginning—and really no end when I stop to think about it. The pundits will say that a good story has a beginning, a middle and an end. So quite possibly this is not a good story— maybe you should stop reading now… but I need to tell it because the middle is so crystal clear even these many years later.
It was a bright and crisply cold day. I am inside a Chicago Transit Authority station on the Eisenhower Expressway. I stare down the long ramp that goes down to the platform that is on the expressway level. That platform runs for about a block and then becomes another long ramp that climbs to street level at the far end. The entire stop, consisting of a station at each end, the ramps and the platform runs for two city blocks.
I am extremely familiar with these surroundings, having worked as a part time ticket agent for the CTA during my college years. Many a long hour was spent in the ticket booths that nest inside each station. But today, I am a cop on assignment at this location. I am outside the ticket booth and my back is to the street where the occasional bus stops to pick up and discharge passengers to and from the rapid transit trains that run in the center of the expressway. I watch down the ramp as a young man approaches, climbing steadily upwards toward me.
He looks to be about early twenties and although he is Caucasian, he sports afro style light brown hair. Coupled with his white skin, he presents a non sequitur image of an Afro-American. The overall look is no doubt intentional, but it just doesn’t work. He vaguely reminds me of a guy I went to school with—I never liked that guy. He’s wearing a heavy ¾ length tan corduroy jacket, similar to what I saw in a mail order catalog just a few weeks previous. He walks with determination staring at me as he approaches. The sun catches a bright reflection off of an object he is carrying in his right hand.
My alert level rises several points as I strain to identify the object. As he gets closer, I can make it out to be a hunting knife, identical to the size and style my cousin and I used to carry when we were tramping the north woods of Wisconsin as teenagers. We used the knives to cut underbrush and saplings. Somehow, here at this transit station in the city, I do not believe that is his intention. I reach under my coat and clumsily draw my little five shot snub nose. It takes too long. He is rapidly closing the distance between us. My “Surviving Edged Weapons Attacks” training vaguely flashes before me—wasn’t there something about a “21 foot rule?” No time to even think about that now—he’s definitely closer than 21 feet.
I call to him to stop and I gain a few feet by stepping rapidly backwards, but he is a man on a mission. It is astounding at how quickly your brain can process information under extreme stress; I do a quick assessment of the consequences of shooting. Directly behind him is the ramp sloping downwards towards the platform. If I miss, or if the shot is through and through, the bullet will hit the corrugated metal roof of the ramp. The decision is made in a fraction of a second. Shoot! Shoot now!
At this distance it’s an easy shot. He’s too close, but a well-placed shot or two will most likely take him down before he can do much harm, but…
…but my trigger finger will not work. It’s like my finger has fallen asleep. Whose finger falls asleep? Even with every ounce of effort, I cannot pull the trigger. I step even further back, stumble into the turnstile and fall on my back between the walls of the turnstile. I cannot roll. My trigger finger is paralyzed. He is on me now; he raises the knife and strikes, the blade just a few inches from my chest.
I awake with a start. My heart is racing. My head is wet on the pillow. My wife sleeps quietly at my side. It’s “the dream.” In my case, it’s a recurring dream and it is nearly identical each time it happens. Thankfully, it only happens two or three times a year.
Most law enforcement officers have experienced “the dream” in some fashion or another, but some won’t generally discuss the details. For many, the situation may vary from dream to dream, or the hanging point may be different. Several have told me they pull the trigger, the gun fires, but the bullet falls out of the barrel, harmlessly to the ground. For cops, such dreams are not unusual and their meaning can be debated ad infinitum.
In my case, I am certain that it was the manifestation of a subconscious doubt as to whether I would be able to shoot another human being. The power to take a life without protracted legal procedure is one of the most awesome powers possessed by every police officer. Much of our training addresses the laws that cover the use of deadly force. We talk about the fact that state law details the precise circumstances under which deadly force is permissible. Then department policies will most usually proscribe additional limitations and finally, most law enforcement officer personally limit themselves even further. Is it any wonder why we might dream about deadly force? My subconscious doubt was erased on a cold February night in 1974 at 13 minutes past midnight when my partner and I exchanged gunfire with armed robbers. My revolver worked just fine, as did my trigger finger. From that day forward I never had that dream again. That was “The Shootout at the High Roller’s Pool Hall” and you can read it by clicking the title.