A New Car for Jared

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Chesterfield County has twelve new police officers and my nephew, Jared, is one of them. Striking in their crisp olive drab uniforms and shaven heads, these young men were sworn in last Friday afternoon. It is hard to hold the tears back as my sister, Laura, and my brother-in-law, Michael, pin the shiny badge on their son’s chest. Hard not to look back on the goofy, happy-go-lucky little kid that he was; to realize that his plastic squirt gun has been replaced with a Glock.

Harder still, not to think about what lies ahead for him.

These men began the physical fitness portion of their training in the intense heat of Virginia summer—in full uniform, Kevlar vest included—sweating through sprints, obstacle courses, push-ups and sit-ups.

They’ve been out on the driving course, learning to execute those stunts we’ve only seen on television (“That was really cool, Aunt Linda,” Jared said. “Those V-8 engines are powerful!”) They’ve spent days on the shooting range, honing their accuracy with weapons. They’ve endured pepper spray and tear gas. They’ve had to drink and monitor their blood alcohol level. They’ve wrestled each other in marital arts training.

The world is a different place now than it was when I was growing up. Unemployment still drives people to drink, and people still drink and drive. But now they also drive and talk on the phone or text. No longer rare are the drug cartels, the gang wars, home invasions, meth labs, acts of domestic violence against the general population. School shootings, mall shootings, workplace shootings. Today’s criminals are often better armed than our law enforcement officers.

And to think. In Jared’s previous job at the glass company, we used to worry that he’d cut himself.

These rookie policemen spent the last six months in school. Now they’ll spend the next few months getting schooled out in the real world where these things actually occur. Where fires destroy and storms ravage. Where cars crash and teenagers bleed. Where adults abuse children and spouses batter one another. Where girls go missing, and kids screw up. Where the bad guys break and enter, steal and murder.

How will they deal with all this? In addition to their weapons and defensive tactics training, they’ll face it all with a dose of compassion.

“Much of this will become routine for us, but we always have to remember that when someone calls the police, very often it is the worst day of their life,” Jared explains to me. “How we respond can make that better or worse. What we do can make a big difference.”

After the family celebration at my sister’s house, after the cake has been eaten and the guests have departed, we talk more about the day’s ceremony and the weeks ahead. Laura tries on Jared’s jacket for size and looks like a little kid playing dress-up in her father’s clothes. The rookies have been issued their cars, but they’ll each spend the next few weeks riding with a seasoned officer before they’re sent out to patrol their beats alone. Jared looks forward to all of this with awe and excitement.

He sits on the floor and leans back against the couch. “I can’t believe it,” he says, his voice filled with wonder. “I’ve got my own police car.”

For a moment, no one speaks. We don’t know whether to laugh or cry, to rejoice or despair. Jared’s got his own police car.

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And What About Your Drinking Water?

Watching the people in West Virginia adjust their lives to deal with a crisis of safe water availability makes those of us who are able to drink from the tap feel fortunate.  But should it?

While researching an update on Kepone, a pesticide that was dumped into the James River in my hometown of Hopewell Virginia in the 1970’s, I stumbled upon a startling fact.  Not only are monitoring programs not strictly overseen by “responsible” agencies such as the EPA or the state, sometimes the monitoring required by the EPA is useless in determining whether or not there is a problem.

Take Kepone for example.  The hundreds of thousands of pounds of insecticide that were released into the water floated in suspension, then drifted to the bottom.  Bottom feeders sifted the contaminated sediment.  Bigger fish ate the contaminated bottom feeders.  Humans chowed down on the contaminated fish that contained so much Kepone that in 1975, Governor Godwin banned fishing, crabbing, and oystering from Richmond to the Chesapeake Bay, a ban that would not be completely lifted until 1988.  Fish consumption advisories remain in effect to this day. 

Hopewell gets its water out of the Appomattox, in an area that was affected by Kepone.  Today, no one monitors for Kepone in the drinking water, even though Kepone still remains in the sediments of the river in great quantities.

Kepone is buried in cells around Hopewell.  At the state Department of Environmental Quality, I was able to find monitoring reports for only one of the cells— one located on Honeywell property, monitored by the same company that was responsible for the original contamination of the river.  (Allied Chemical, the creator and manufacturer of Kepone, later purchased Honeywell and assumed its name.)

It is impossible to determine from the monitoring reports whether or not Kepone is present at levels that could affect human health.

Here’s why:  The EPA requires a detection method that can tell if Kepone is present at 20 parts per billion or higher.  Honeywell actually uses a method that can detect Kepone at even lower levels – 5 parts per billion according to their reports.  They do an even better job than the EPA requires.

Which sounds nice until you realize that Kepone is harmful to humans at .03 parts per billion

In other words, no one is using a detection method that can determine if Kepone is present at a level that is harmful to humans, even though today’s technology can detect Kepone at parts per trillion.  Note that people still fish, swim and ski in the river at Hopewell and beyond.

When I asked an EPA employee about this, he said, “I hate to tell you this, but it’s like that for things that are far worse than Kepone.”

What happened in West Virginia last week has pointed up how many chemicals we live with and how little we know about many of them.  Even worse in my mind are the ones we know quite a bit about, and still turn a blind eye.

Think about that the next time you turn on the faucet to get a drink of water.

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A New Respect

The very mention of snow caused my father to rave like a madman.  “I’m never going back!” he’d say, as though we’d threatened to move him from Virginia to one of his childhood homes up north.  His early years were spent in Worcester, Massachusetts.  When he was fourteen, his father was transferred to Buffalo, New York, where the winter weather was even more epic.

He claimed to have hopped down from the balcony of his family’s second story apartment so he could tunnel out to the street in order to walk to school, which was never cancelled.

He’d shown us pictures of beautiful snow-covered parkways, with soft humps lining each side.  “What are those?” we’d ask in our Southern ignorance.  “Cars!” he’d say, nearly shouting.  Snow that buried cars?  We couldn’t imagine such a thing. Yet, we were the only family in our neighborhood to have a set of snow tires, which my father faithfully put on the car each winter.

Last week when Kevin and I drove to Vermont for a quick visit, I got a window into that world.  We’d looked at the weather before we left Virginia; a winter storm named Hercules was threatening the New England states.  Bitter cold was scheduled to grip the area over the next few days.  But up we went.

Getting there was no problem. Driving through New Hampshire was like driving through a paint-by-number winter scene.  Snow snaking down dark hardwood branches, gathering in the crotches of trees.  Evergreen boughs bending under blankets of white.  Black granite thrust toward the sky, splotched with patches of blue-gray ice.  Quaint New England towns nestled among the hills, church spires reaching for heaven, lights twinkling in the distance.  It was greeting card lovely.   How could my father not have missed this, I wondered.

The return trip was something else. Snow fell all the next day and the outside temperature was minus 6 degrees with howling wind.

The roads were coated with chemical spray and soon the car was encrusted with gray salt. Tires moaned on snow-packed streets like landlocked whales in an albion sea.  The windshield washer sprayer froze.  On the highway, we had to pull over every half-hour, find a gas station and wash off the windshield before resuming our journey.  Finally we purchased a half-gallon of blue windshield fluid, and then just pulled over on the highway and poured it over the windshield, running the wipers until the glass was clear again.

Constant freezing and thawing, and incessant snowplow blades created potholes like craters that jarred your bones each time the car wheels slammed into them. Driving at night was the worst –the white-coated streets, snow swirling madly, headlights dimmed with a coating of salt, unable to see the patches of black ice that might lurk. Feeling mildly confident until you saw the blue lights of the police up ahead, or the red strobe of the wrecker, pulling some car from a snow bank, front end smashed; driver huddled outside, figuring out his next move.  That was what you didn’t want – to be stranded outside the car.  Wind-chill double digits below zero, stinging any area of your body that wasn’t covered with at least 3 layers.  Fingers and toes going painfully numb in minutes.

And the weight of the clothes required to stay warm: thermal underwear, thick pants, shirts, coats, scarves, gloves, hats, multiple pairs of socks, boots. The constant putting them on, taking them off. Struggling out of your layers once you’re in the car and heater catches.  Wriggling back into them before you get back out to face the icy blast.   Shoulders hunched up to your ears, body tense without even realizing it.  A low level ache from the sheer weight of winter.

I got it.  After 2 days in this environment, I could understand why, after years of it, Daddy’s memories of this kind of weather were not fond ones.  Beauty, yes, but more than that, tension, and worry. Damage.   Danger.  Survival.    To drive in this weather – just to stand in it – meant doing battle with it.  It was just exhausting.

To my hearty ancestors— Swedish and Irish immigrants— and to my friends that make their homes up north – I salute you with a new found respect.

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