In high school, even though the stupid career test thing said I’d make an excellent nurse, I knew I wanted to be either a police officer or a mortician. I had no idea how or where one became a mortician, but I knew where the police station was, and I applied to be a cadet. I did that for about a year, and it was a very positive experience before things started to…go…horribly wrong…and I had no idea that in ten years I was about to be a recently divorced funeral director who still hadn’t seen a dead body before.
Being a cadet means you do mostly public appearances, security work and traffic direction, but my very first day on the job I had to restrain a man who had assaulted an officer. I had no weapons and no training. I was not a bodybuilder yet. I just put him into a kneeling position and stood behind him holding his wrists while spectators shouted about police brutality and I called for backup with my two-way radio.
I felt nothing at the time, but the next day I hurt as though I had been in a fight.
I also learned how to shoot. I didn’t become very proficient at the time, but I could fire a revolver and a shotgun without falling over or anything.
Shooting was fun. I later acquired a few guns and joined an indoor shooting range, or found places to shoot outdoors. I’m no expert, but I am reasonably proficient now.
If I spend two hours in the woods or at the range and go through a few hundred rounds of ammo, I tend to feel it as soon as I get home. I crash. My knees buckle and my arms are too tired to hold anything. I take a nap.
A police shooting range is a very stressful environment. You are constantly reminded why you are there – to learn how to kill people. This is not some anti-cop rant about police brutality; it’s an honest statement about the purpose of a handgun. If you have a handgun you are prepared for the possibility that you will kill someone with it. It is the only reason to own one. In addition to target practice, there were also dynamite demonstration areas and SWAT training buildings; structures that were built only for simulated drills involving hostages.
I have spent much of my life living out several identities at once, and I sometimes struggle with knowing what is and is not real life. If I’m role playing a hostage, I don’t exactly role play. I become the hostage. Several times during training, the exercise would have to be called off as I was removed from the field and instructed not to “make everything so realistic.” I was just a little too good. The other cadets, my friends, were holding me hostage, and I was going to get out, even though the hostage breaking a chair, fashioning a crude weapon, escaping out a window and running through the woods was not part of the drill. Similar problems occurred when we learned how to deal with riots and protests. I was supposed to act like a rioter, so I acted like a rioter, and it’s probably a good thing I switched careers.
However, I did later end up becoming an FBI informant, and suddenly there it was all over again. The weapons and the surveillance and the unfortunate reality this time. The acting. The double life. The deception. And the fear. It was scary. The FBI tend not to care about petty thieves or drug users or shoplifters. If you are being paid to engage in criminal behavior with other criminals, they’re probably the bad sort of people. I can say the money was not worth the ever-present sense of danger or the complete interruption of my life. It’s very hard to maintain relationships when you keep having to hop on a plane to do an FBI thing, because who is going to believe you had to get on a plane and do an FBI thing?
I absorbed everything that happened during hostage situations and riots – fake and real – the way I absorbed the powerful recoil of the weapons I fired. At the time, you don’t feel it. You don’t hear it. Feelings are for when you get home, and I felt them very strongly. As soon as the drill was over, I had the sore shoulder from the shotgun stock and the ringing ears from the dynamite. I felt every gunshot, every explosion, and the psychological feeling of hard and repeated violent actions. The person handling the gun knows she is shooting at a paper target and that no one is shooting at her. The person’s body does not know this, and the body will in some manner bear the trauma of what it thinks happened. In my case, I check out. I fall asleep. When I wake up I no longer feel as though I have been fighting, although when I was informing for the FBI, I often woke up to ripped sheets. I was fighting something.
Today, thankfully, my life is quite a bit more mundane, and I rarely even go to the shooting range. But I am still exposed to violence on a daily basis. I am getting to know the victim through his family. I know about how he spent his life, and what his plans had been, and I have touched those wounds. I have repaired – cosmetically, at least – the damage those weapons caused. Sometimes I replace or reattach parts that were forcibly removed. I can see the exact chain of events – here is where the killer started. Here is where he finished. Here is where he may have changed his mind. Here is where he panicked. Here is where he got bored. He walked off and left the body.
In a bizarre way I become a final stage in both the killer’s and victim’s life. The victim didn’t get to “process” what happened. He didn’t get to think about it later or psychologically be tormented by or recover from anything. It’s almost as if he passed that along to me. In his world, bullets pierce skin. In my world, skin comes back together and there are no bullets but when the workday is done, I go home feeling like I’ve just been shot.
To see violence each day is supposed to desensitize you. I suppose this is true during the actual work – after all, I couldn’t possibly do my job if I were dwelling on this poor woman and that poor baby and how sad it was that a young man who had never hurt anyone in his life was so brutally killed and why do these things keep happening…but over a decade after seeing my first homicide, I don’t exactly get over it. I remember that man’s name. I remember his wife. I remember the custom headstone. I remember the name of the one who killed him, and the price of the funeral, because the crime victim’s compensation program needed to know. I remember what I was wearing at the televised funeral. I just might remember more than members of his own family do.
For Christmas I received an old black-and-white photo of my great-grandfather, in an undertaker’s top hat and zoot suit, standing with a horse and carriage in front of what is now one of the many corporately-owned funeral homes. It was his wish that someone in the family would take over for him in the business, and no one wanted to. It’s probably one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received.