August 16, 2015

Shot by police, reflections 40 years on.

In light of recent media coverage regarding police shootings, I found myself thinking about a long-ago tragedy, from the perspective of middle-age.
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I've written dozens of stories and essays. Most sit in a file cabinet. While this young man and his family were a big part of my grade school years and exist on paper in the cabinet, I never wrote about his death. Today, I’m older than his parents were at the time and my children are older than he was when he died.

Patrick Fitzgerald had a younger brother and two younger sisters. One sister was my age and we played often at each other's homes. One summer in particular, we wrote snail mail letters back and forth, drawing flowers and stars on the envelopes. Each time I dropped a letter in the mailbox, I’d phone her on the rotary and we’d giggle excitedly about our ‘secret’ messages that took at least two days to arrive. I’d forgotten how we had to have patience.

When junior high arrived, our letters fell off and we hung out like teenagers do. Parents faded into the background and our new world orbited around boy-drama, make-up application, sneaking cigarettes, and much more. We felt a false safety in numbers and in our town.

For me, finding this article after 40 years was a bit of a shock. So matter-of-fact, so final, and so one-sided. It is at once timeless and heartbreaking:

Chicago Tribune Archives: May 29, 1975

My middle-aged self thinks, "A young man was shot and killed on a Monday night and, wow, the deputy was cleared and back on duty in less than 3 days." I've had fender-bender insurance claims take longer. And I can't help but wonder why the deputy unholstered his gun. And then fired a warning shot that preceded the alleged provocation.

Patrick grew up around hunting guns. To state he charged an armed officer after a warning shot seems odd unbelievable. I recall seeing the coroner's drawing in our local newspaper, diagramming the fatal bullet's trajectory. The coroner determined he was in a crouched position. Was he hiding behind a bush as his friends said? How could he be advancing and in a crouched position at the same time?

Reading this article, I wonder if he drew the blade from his clothing. Was it laid next to his body after the fact, or did it fall from his hand?

At the wake in the viewing room, we made surreal small talk as his sister pointed out Pat’s visible injuries from running into the fence wire. So visible, in fact, a friend mistook them for Pat trying to grow a beard.

Galling to me then and now, newspapers published blame-the-victim anecdotes, as if they were germane to events that night. Alternatively, newspaper comments attributed to his companions implied agreement with police, even though they actually disputed portions of the deputy's account.

As a teen, I stood in the back of our church during many a Sunday mass. A perfect vantage point for a kid who didn’t want to go in the first place, but needed to prove attendance. Every week, I watched Patrick’s mother walk back to her pew after receiving communion. She was always in tears. Every time.

40 years on, I can still see her and my teenage self. The whole thing resonates as if it just happened. Except now I'm an adult and dread what else comes with it. Like how easy it is to make an instant, but life-altering decision - by action or inaction - and have to own it for the rest of your life. Sure you did your best, but what of it? The damage is done.

Today's media can't make money parsing subtleties or by sticking around for the daily grind. As social media consumers, we don't hesitate to post biting comments about people we don't know because there's no responsibility, no face-to-face interaction.

My adult self gives silent prayers each day: be kind, be patient, show compassion. So much has changed. But, a lot hasn't.