I met one of them more than 30 years ago when we were both photojournalism students at Kent State University. As students we “worked” on both the newspaper and the magazine as part of our grade. I say worked but mostly it was guided volunteerism with the promise of the oh-so-treasured publication status and a passing grade. It was a fun, albeit sometimes dangerous, filled with exciting opportunities, path for those of us who wanted to see the world through the eyes of our pen and cameras. Tom Wood was one of our small group who graduated to work at newspapers and magazines. Like many of our colleagues from that era, he too realized the low pay, high risk, sometimes hostile working environment career would not to-say-the-least make us rich. (Working as a McDonald’s cashier pays more than many starting news jobs). Publishing companies who supported those creators of intellectual property through paid advertisers lost their business model in part due to the technology advances of smart phones and the internet. Tom, along with many others who have left the profession of journalism, realized the redeeming thing about journalism and photojournalism degrees is that they lend themselves nicely as an accessory to other careers.
So how did this mild-mannered Ohio photographer wind up on national TV this week helping the US Coast Guard, firefighters and other rescue personnel get the last trapped man out? How after a midnight Coast Guard rescue of 20 of their shipmates stopped after a fire broke out on the ship? Four young men who had seemed as doomed as those entombed in the World War II Pearl Harbor attack.
I decided on this anniversary of the September 11th attacks to discover how. To find out I travelled to Brunswick, Georgia, where we reunited after 25 year. While we sat with his rescue coworkers, affectionately called The A Team, in a car-themed bowling alley we ate a familiar favorite college dinner of pizza. His teammates bowled as we caught up on our classmates and all of our diverse lives-after journalism.
From college Tom worked as a staff photographer on some small newspapers then packed everything in a truck and moved to Colorado. He worked different jobs-with several years as a roofer- that quadrupled his news photographer salary and helped support his growing family of a wife and three children with his oldest just now starting college. Always an avid outdoorsman and climber, he trained for years in different parts of the United States. This love for climbing got him on an expedition financed by National Geographic. The stipulation: they would help finance the expedition but in return Tom had to photograph it for them. A nice clip and a great experience but still no specific payment for a professional photographer in a high-risk situation.
Tom decided to take a job as a highly-skilled, high-risk vertical rescuer in Colorado. He helped with cave and other mountain rescues. He kept his creativity alive through writing a book about climbing and his rescue experiences, “Trading Steel for Stone: Tales of a Rustbelt Refugee turned Rocky Mountain Rescuer.” You can buy it on Amazon. Over the years I watched on Facebook as he turned into a kind of Grizzly Adams in a snow-covered environment while I lived the beach life in Jacksonville, Florida.
Until the day when that perfect storm of his rare talent combined with an uncommon incident (a 4,200 car carrying Korean cargo ship wrecking sideways off the coast of St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, after just leaving Jacksonville) led Tom and the frequently-travelling similar-minded group of skilled professionals to coordinate on this successful rescue mission. Some came from as far away as Montana and Tom flew from Colorado. A few came from the Carolinas.
“This is a looong way from the mountain and cave rescues I’m familiar with,” Tom said on his Facebook page. He posted this with a Coast Guard-released image of the rescue crew posing together on the rust-colored rudder of the side-turned capsized cargo ship after completing the daring rescue. “Such a great feeling to help the 4th and final crew member out of that hole.”
He added, ” Working with my Elevated Safety and Defiant Marine teammates on this rescue was truly a high point in my career.”
Thankfully for the four, communicating their survival only through banging on the wall while trapped for more than 30 hours inside the ship, Tom and the rest were there to carefully drill puck-sized holes in the hull so a piece could be opened for firefighters to fit inside and go down to retrieve the four out off a dark oily interior.
Maybe someday Tom will write a book about this rescue too. When he gets some free time. Until then Tom has found his calling as a vertical rescuer, and to those four and the world watching this week, he was one of those angels.
It was a day like too many other days in that house on Milburn Avenue in Cleveland, Ohio. A day that was filled with fear. Yelling, hitting, choking, knives being thrown and kid’s being locked upstairs for hours in bedrooms were on the menu. An environment that could turn hostile and toxic at any given moment. The kind of place where the youngest committed suicide to escape.
I don’t talk about how bad it was that much because it takes me down so far when I think about it. It was a battleground that endured my entire childhood. Yes, there were good moments and memories, 4th of July parades, birthday cakes, picnics and happy extended family gatherings but the abuse was overshadowing. Trust was obscured in lieu of survival. As soon as I turned 18 I was thrown out-all my stuff tossed on the porch-with the police telling me I wasn’t welcome to live there anymore. My mother wanted me gone.
But before all that happened I was growing up-trying to protect my little brother from the abuse-unsuccessfully as it turned out. I was just a kid and the adults and professionals in the city did nothing to stop it.
When I was 16 I worked as a waitress at a Bob’s Big Boy restaurant. A blonde guy with blue eyes came in and started sitting for coffee in my section. He had a broken arm with a cast on it. Soon we started dating. He was so kind to me. He went to all my basketball games, drove me to school after breakfast at McDonald’s everyday and was teaching me how to drive. I never truly trusted his kindness always waiting for the other shoe to drop. It never did.
One night after a particularly bad fight at my house he let me cry on his shoulder. I remember just punching my fists into his leather jacket as he held me. The next time my parents wanted to “discipline” me he refused to leave when they told him to.
“I’m not leaving,” he said, and stayed long enough for them to calm down.
He was taller than my father and that day I didn’t get hit. A witness-outside of the 9 family members who lived there- was not what they wanted. They continued to treat him coldly when he came over but I don’t remember ever getting hit by my father again. My mother’s yelling, hair-pulling and slapping continued and I was routinely locked in rooms but by then I had learned how to cut screens and climb out windows to escape.
The day I was “evicted” with no notice, I called Mike at work crying and he came over. He picked up what was left of my stuff from the porch (after my mother had rifled through and taken things) and let me move into his new apartment. For the next 3 years he helped a traumatized teenager who drank way too much alcohol turn into a less angry and better adjusted adult. I eventually left him and went off to college. He became a police officer.
I wish I could accurately describe what it felt like that day he stood up for me to my father in the kitchen of my house almost 40 years ago. That day in that house, the boy who would later become Cleveland Police Sergeant Michael Rybarczyk was my hero.
My parents were “pillars” in their church. They were super religious fanatics, like many families more common than we want to admit, love had warped into control and domestic violence. Later in life my parents and I and the rest of our family came to find some peace with the past.
Throughout the years I have been proud of the progress Mike made on Cleveland’s police force. He said to me once when I ran into him that seeing what happened to me in my home helped him help others as a police officer. One day on the job he became a hero again for his community helping take down some criminals on a highway road in Cleveland. He grieved along with the family and his department for a colleague killed in the line of duty on a joint police event late one night.
For almost 30 years he protected the ungrateful people of Cleveland. The politicians, including the mayor, who couldn’t even be bothered to put fresh cheery paint on the inside of the dismal and depressing buildings that house their police districts. The same hypocrites who are quick to demonize a hero who has been through and seen so much shit that they wouldn’t even have the balls to deal with. Instead of helping a hero they have collectively attacked- cowards that they are- to avoid addressing the real problem: Your police are as traumatized as your city’s citizens, criminals and victims.
Instead of helping you hide from the problems. You reflect the poorest leadership of the city and apathy toward the damage you have mitigated among your police and first responders.
There is no such thing as a perfect hero. Everyone has flaws. When you take pleasure in taking down a true hero, who maybe made some human mistakes, it makes you look like spineless losers instead of leaders. You all need to be voted out of office. Mayor, Judge, Prosecutor…and a certain low quality print journalist who doesn’t know enough to ask the right questions.
Time to Retire.
The courage Mike showed that day so many years ago to stop some of the abuse going on in my childhood home was life-changing for me. The unconditional love and kindness Mike gave to me helped me go on to finish second in my college sequence and led me over the years to be just a little bit of help to other first responders hurt by tragedy. The authorities in Cleveland at the time did nothing to stop the damage going on to me and my siblings in that home yet they now crucify this man who tried to put a stop to the child abuse they ignored for my entire childhood.
This city and our country really should take a good hard look at how badly they treat their own first responders. Or maybe someday soon no one will want to be one. What will we do then?
Dallas, New York, Columbine. Las Vegas, Orlando, Parkland. Now Jacksonville.
These names of cities we know that have had indelible man-made intentional tragedies. No longer do we say not in my town. Instead we say how will you be best prepared when it does happen? Our first responders trained for this moment. As the firefighters rushed in first from where they were training across the street there was no hesitation. With little thought to their own safety and police two minutes out they saved lives. The police arrived in a flash and went hunting and all worked to save and protect as many lives as possible. Why would they risk their own lives to save strangers? It’s more than the job responsibility. People here love each other. Our first responders are a tight knit group of men and women with golden hearts. Although our Jacksonville hearts break for the victims of this latest mass shooting the world has seen what we already knew- that our first responders are worth more than gold.
So when you think of Jacksonville don’t let the mass shooting here be your defining view of our city. Leave a memory in your heart of the love that was shown by those risking their lives to save as many of the victims as possible.
He got on the plane at Dulles but couldn’t stop thinking about the mess she had made for them. He loved her with a lifelong fondness and gratitude. She would always be the mother of his beautiful daughter. He would accept her with all the decisions she made good and bad in spite of his distain for the choices she had made regarding this bombshell. This one shook him to the core of his being but their bond was unshakeable. He did resent that she had made a baby with the one man they both hated. Even though she had given the boy up she had reunited with the evilness of this all these years later. Now this secret choice, which she had made years before they had even met, threatened his own daughter with her.
He was swept into her betrayal again. First her unholy alliance with that man against her country and now the baby. He wondered why she had always held back the trust that might have held their relationship together. He took another sip of his scotch on the rocks. They had enjoyed their moments though. Time had not dulled the memories. Their whirlwind and forbidden short-lived marriage in Italy while they were on assignment. The moment he met his daughter at age seven another secret she had kept. The erotic Valentine’s Day night that started out so well at their daughter’s recital only to end in humiliation and disappointment. He had been vulnerable and open to rekindling their romance. She had used that opportunity to lash out at him and left him tied up with her stockings to a pole in his penthouse all night. God she was hot that night though, he thought. She had taken his breath away. He had still fallen and remarried her for a second time.
They were fine when they co-parented but the sparks they had always made fighting left each of them alternately bitter and angry. Always going head to head with her had made him gun shy and emotionally unavailable and just plain exhausted. Still, they came through for each other over the years, he as the father to his only daughter and she during his cancer treatment. True long-lasting romantic love had always alluded them. He knew he had to make peace with this. She had a place in his life but not as his soulmate. That place had already been filled and vacated. He ordered another scotch.
As he drank he reflected back on the only one who had ever made him feel like home. His second wife. The one he had truly cherished. The real love of his life. He was a different man with her, a better man, he thought. But she had betrayed him too. They didn’t fight much. The few times they argued it was civilized and always consisted of the best makeup sex. Only when she felt hurt did she withdraw. He regretted the differences that had drove her away. Somehow right now they seemed unimportant. He wished back to a time, a moment. The day they had talked about their own Manderley. Looking back it seemed so pure so innocent. Love had hurt him twice. Why after all these years, he wondered, did she still shine through in his fondest memories of happiness?
He stared at the melting ice cubes in his empty drink and set it down on the tray. His eyes were tired. He fell asleep on the plane thinking of her.
The pilot’s voice awoke him as he was still dreaming of her. They were getting ready to land. This had been happening more frequently lately. His memories had been laced with her smile, the feel of her hands on his body and the way she had felt in his arms. The flight attendant took his glass and put up his tray table.
He looked out the window and focused on the Washington, D.C. meeting he had before flying to Europe. Another mission, so many escapes, his way to shut off the painful memories. When would it end, he thought, all this running away. Lately it was getting harder to be by himself. He was lonely. She encapsulated his thoughts. How he could still ache for this woman who was his own version of Camelot. He still loved her even though his anger at her past behaviors was still so fresh and raw in his mind. Was he some how to blame in causing her to sink so low? he knew she had played her part and was involved in poisoning the water. Was he, as his first wife said, cold and unforgiving?
It’s all part of the package, the good and the bad, he thought. He missed the company of a woman. He knew he couldn’t be with just any woman. No one would be able to replace this one in his heart. Where had the time gone? And how much did he have left.
As the plane stopped at the gate he made a decision. This would be his last mission. It was time to get his affairs in order. This was getting old. He still felt like a kid at heart and he wanted to live life and have fun. Let someone else do this. He wanted to return to that small city in New York for good.
He would meet up with his contact, the Italian C.I., the one he called “Whiskey” and work this last case with his friend in the U.S. Marshall Service. One last favor for the kid he had met long ago on that Cleveland case.
As long as he was heading to Paris he thought he might just have time to meet up with his old friend’s ex-wife who was taking care of her young grandson laid up with two broken legs.
As he exited the plane he was already dialing her number on his sat phone. Nothing like old friends to brighten up his mood.
“It has been too long, Luv, ” he said. “I will be in Paris soon and I would love to talk about old times. I will call you when I leave London.” He hung up the phone with a smile.
He still carried only one bag, the old tan duffle, his traveling companion since the early days. It didn’t take him long to exit the plane and find his way out of the airport to the car that was waiting for him.
He nodded to the driver and said nothing. That’s the way it worked. The less communication the better between operatives. It was safer that way. Everyone knew their orders and followed them to the letter. He was dropped off at his hotel the same one he always stayed at in London. The organization had their block of anonymous rooms at many hotels. He merely related the password of the day and he was wisked up in the private elevator to his luxurious suite.
He tossed his bag on the bed and set up his own private security features. This habit had kept him alive so far. He was hungry and headed downstairs to find one of the little cafe’s on Bond Street he loved so much. As he rolled up the sleeves of his dark green shirt he noticed the early evening air was just a little cool. it was a short walk before he found just the right cafe. He sat down and ordered a croissant chicken sandwich with a side of the chef’s special Italian pasta and a cup of tea.
Sitting in the trellised entryway of the cafe mostly hidden from view by the sidewalk,where he could watch the entrance, was still his favorite place. As he sipped his tea and waited for his food he looked out and people watched. Partially he did this for entertainment, the other reason was security. He could usually see what was coming with enough time to exit.
It happened in what seemed like slow motion. He stopped and stared in disbelief. He would know her anywhere. There she was in a beautiful blue blouse, black skirt and heels getting out of a taxi just as a speeding car turned the corner headed right for her.
He jumped into action and with lightning speed scooped her up and dove over the hood of the taxi she had just exited landing hard against the windshield and bouncing down into the street on the safe side. They somehow both landed on their feet. Out of breath but alive.
She screamed. The car sped off without stopping. He looked at her pretty face and into her brown eyes as he spoke.
‘My God, are you all right?” he said.
She looked at him in total shock. Momentarily speechless.
“How? Why? I can’t believe your here!” she said, as her face suddenly lit up.
“Let’s get you inside,” he said, putting his hand protectively around her. He tossed a twenty to the driver and they ran into the cafe where his food awaited.
They sat down in the shadows and she ordered a chocolate croissant and some tea.
“It’s not quite the Versailles Room,’ he said smiling.
Then he got serious.
“Why is someone after you?” he said, taking a bite and handing it to her, while he finished his pasta.
Her chocolate croissant arrived and she nibbled on it. Then took a bite of his sandwich. And then another. That’s delicious.” she said. Holding her chocolate croissant up to his mouth for him to taste.
” I can’t tell you what’s going on,” she said, between mouthfuls.
She handed his croissant back to him and he ate the last few bites. She gave him another bite of her chocolate one then smiled and shoved the rest into her mouth and swallowed. He smiled at her. She laughed at his look.
“I was hungry,” she said. “but don’t worry I haven’t forgot the manners Nanny taught me.”
They felt it and heard it at the same time.
All the windows in the cafe shattered. The taxi had pulled away but had been held up in traffic. It was no longer in existence. Their ears were ringing.
Their eyes met and he grabbed her blouse and pulled her out of the chair. He started running with her toward his hotel.
They didn’t stop till they were inside his hotel room and he had checked his security details were still intact.
“What the hell was that?” he said.
“I work for the prime minister now,” she said. “Some people don’t like what I do.”
“Enough to try to kill you twice?” he said.
“Maybe it was an accident,” she said.
He rolled his eyes then spoke rapid fire fragments on his sat phone.
“Car bomb. Bond street. At least one casualty. Maybe more. I’m securing the prime minister’s aid. Probable target.
I will get her to Paris safely on the train today,” he said.
“Is that really necessary?” she asked, while she sent a text on her cel phone.
“Yes, they want you clear of the area. ”
He made another call and set up their train trip and a car to take them there.
“The Prime Minister and the rest of the cabinet are already at a secure location in France. We need to get you there too,” he said.
“I’m not leaving yet,” she said. “The public will need me to reassure them. ”
“I’m calling a press conference,” she said. “They can meet here in the lobby.”
“Ok, it’s your call,” he said. They were getting in the elevator when she stopped him.
All of a sudden she burst into tears.
“I think it might be my family that is trying to kill me, ” she said.
“So much has happened since I saw you last. I think I may have headed down the wrong path. I couldn’t turn them in for stealing antiquities. I just took the items and gave them back.”
“So the country is on high terrorist alert, we’ve evacuated the entire government, and now you tell me this!” he said.
“I’m sorry,’ she said. “I know I have always disappointed you.”
He pushed the button angrily and they headed down. As they opened the door they saw the media had started gathering in the lobby waiting for them.
“Cmon,” he said walking quickly around the corner with her in tow and entering the library. He shut the door and locked it. Then he turned in a fury towards her.
“Why are you crying?” He said, screaming. “When I am so mad at you!”
His anger had exploded as soon as the doors closed and they were in private. His hands were raised to the ceiling and every crease on his face steamed red with his emotion. He walked quickly around the large room they had just entered in wild steps fuming as if an answer would come to him from its four corners. She stood still silently looking at him. The tears continued to stream down her face endless from a pool that could not be quenched. Still she said nothing.
“You never seem to appreciate how much I loved you!” he continued in his loud angry voice. One she had never been comfortable with aimed at her.
“Always with your scheming and betrayal! Going back with your family business again and again. Letting yourself sink down over and over into the quagmire of their trickery! Didn’t I love you enough?” He paused then, his anger diminished by his outburst, and looked into her eyes. He had finished his tour of the room and stopped a foot from her. The tears continued to dampen her cheeks but she found her voice.
“You deserve an answer but I’m not sure if I know the words to give you,” she said softly, and let her eyes meet his and then look away.
“When we were together,” she began, “those years were home. A-pinch-myself-can’t- possibly-last-happiness kind of home. One where I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop. When the real familiarity of what I know to be home would return.”
She looked down then and spoke earnestly hoping that these words that had taken so many years to speak would be enough. She felt him watching her.
“I was never comfortable with your honesty, your love, your peace because what I knew of home was fear,” she said as her eyes met his again. “That fear became the anchor of my life. I believed with all my heart that my survival meant being tough enough so no one would be able to hurt me any more.”
“You came along and just loved me for no reason at all. A raw, unequivocal, knows-no-bounds kind of love, a one-of-a-kind love that I never understood or had seen before or ever after.”
She paused for a moment to let her words sink in. Then she continued.
“I knew when I left you no one would ever love me the way you did and no one ever has but I felt I had to do it. Leave you because I was hurting you and I didn’t know any other way. Your undeniable enduring emotion from that time-your voice in the darkness-has been my best memory of home. I made a mess of it. I’m sorry.”
She took a breath then before she continued. “The bad things I did or that others did to me felt normal while your unconditional love always felt undeserved.”
I never felt that I was worth the love you gave me so I did not know how to handle it when you gave it,” she said. “I felt awkward and uncomfortable and did what I always do shut down and hide my feelings.”
“The only way I knew to reach out to you was through my schemes to find a way to stay involved with your new life. In a way I knew I would never fit in again. I know now that that was wrong and I should have found a way to tell you the truth.”
As she spoke his face softened and his blue eyes were focused completely on her.
“I have always loved you,” she said with a sigh, “and have always also been terrified of being vulnerable. I call it walking in unfamiliar territory. You called it mistrust. A place where there is no fighting, no abuse, no drama. You provided a safe haven for my heart and I hid it from yours. You said I never loved you enough to trust you.”
“I didn’t know how,” she said. “to love someone who risked his life every day. I was afraid you would die.
“That mistake has cost me a lifetime of happiness with you. The children we didn’t have. The memories you have now with someone else instead. The peace I will never feel. I know it has no meaning in your life now but you, you,” she raised her hands to take both sides of his face, “you have always been the most important person to me.”
She let her hands drop as she went on. He stood there with his full attention on her as she continued.
“The one that I hurt so much that I vowed to always try to be honest and outspoken with my feelings when it mattered.”
“It hasn’t really worked for me,” she said as she walked over to look out the window. The rain was softly drizzling quietly through the trees.
“Sure, I have had some success but it came at such a high price…” she paused as her words failed her. She turned and walked back to him and stopped directly in front of him. Then regaining her courage she continued speaking.
“I still have not been completely honest with you,” she said looking directly into his eyes. “I know it won’t change anything. Not your circumstances, not my life, not the situation we are now in, not the future, but I need to now. I need to be honest.”
She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I have never stopped loving you,” she said.”
“If there ever is any chance at all-no matter how remote-if your circumstances change, I want another shot with you,” she finished speaking and the room was silent.
He seemed bewildered. His anger deflated. His face was softer and the gentle blue eyes that she remembered so well had returned. He seemed more surprised than anything. As he spoke she heard every word.
“When we were together all those years ago I loved you with my whole soul and you broke it,” he said in a soft voice, “but I forgive you.”
“I made my own mistakes and they were not your fault. My wife put those pieces back together. She kept me alive and focused and I was totally devoted to her.”
“However, the part of me that I gave to you still loves you and I will always. It’s just different now. I understand how bad it was for you. I thought I could save you. All I ever wanted to do was take care of you. I wanted to erase all those bad memories with love and it just was not possible. I realize now that the problems buried deep inside you were too much for me to fix.”
He sighed. His eyes never faltered in their connection to hers.
“I have been so angry a number of times with you because of your behavior. I guess I never realized that all you needed from me was to know I still loved you too.”
“I have seen you throughout the years in so many faces in my job as a police officer and an agent. I was able to understand and help others like you because of what I saw you had suffered. So you affected my life too.”
As he spoke he had moved closer and was now again right in front of her. His face inches from hers.
“Look at me,” he said. He reached out and his lips found hers. She responded in a kiss that encompassed time and took her back to one 37 years ago. The first kiss they had ever had. He wrapped her in his familiar arms and time again stood still. He felt and smelled as she remembered from long ago. As the kiss ended he cradled her in his arms and they held each other close. She remembered what had been missing all these years-the feeling of being safe in his arms. As they untwined from their embrace she looked up at his face and they both smiled. A feeling of peace settled over her. And this time she saw tears in his eyes too.
“I have missed your friendship,” she said.
“I have missed you too,” he said. “Maybe there is a way for us to work on that…a friendship”
“I would like that,” she said, now smiling as she wiped her tears. One with a lot less defense.”
“I’m sorry that I didn’t see sooner why you were doing what you did,” he said. “I never wanted you to think I didn’t love you.”
He reached out his hand and gave hers a squeeze. “I feel better about you than I have in a long time.”
She gave him a half smile and squeezed his hand back. “Me too,” she said.
Their smiles and eye contact held for another minute before they let go.
“I’m sure now we can tell them that we will work together to fix this situation,” he said. “They’re right outside the door and they need our leadership.”
He paused and waited to see that she was presentable.
“Let’s do this, luv,” he said, with a new confidence and determination.
“I’m ready,” she said, getting her strength from him.
As they both regained their professional demeanor they headed to the double doors. He stopped and held the door open for her to walk out first. She entered the hall just ahead of him to face the crowd and the music.
They had this, he thought. Maybe the rest they could work out after with a new beginning.
He had placed a black and white American flag across the windshield of his patrol car. It had a single stripe of blue. The blue and red lights flashed silently from the top bar as he watched the procession. His friend, also a police officer, told me. This officer had had lunch with Lance two hours before the crash. The one that took his life on the way to try to save someone else. Their eyes were among those of the many first responders and families who lined the route the hearse would travel to watch Lance pass from the morgue to the funeral home. The first path along the way to saying goodbye to him forever.
He is in his blue uniform and along with his wife and four young kids they are putting flowers around the three new statues at the Jacksonville Police Memorial. The tall bronze officers in uniform were unveiled less than two weeks ago during our local ceremony to honor the 61 officers who died in the line of duty. Lance will be number 62. The memorial wall etched with their names and faces has only been here for one year… exactly. As a member of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office Lance is his family too. A loss echoed throughout the community of this large small town we all call home. Flags around town fly half-mast for a hero who has died.
They came in somberly, identically, with their heads held high. About a dozen of them. Each in their blue police uniforms, their hats tucked neatly under their left arms just below the black bands across their shiny badges. They walked in a single file line silently yet they were the loudest movement in the church. They had come to show their respects to their brother in blue. After pausing to say goodbye, one by one in front of the open casket, they greeted each member of his family. Gestures of kindness and love for those who would forevermore be part of their blue family. A whispered conversation with Lance’s mom and sister. A pat on the shoulder for his 14-year-old son. A hug for his fiancee. Lots of smiles and handshakes. Then his Zone 6 squad left the room as quietly as they arrived. Without Lance, who remains under the careful watch of a rotating shift of two Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office Honor Guards, who will remain at his side till he is laid to rest.
They came from out of town. Miami-Dade. With wide trooper style hats and green grey uniforms. The six of them paused in front of the casket and ever so slowly together raised their white-gloved right hands in unison and held it. Then just as solemnly lowered their salute and turned down the aisle to quietly exit the church. Lance was their family too.
He came with his wife and three children. The little group greeted Lance’s family then stood in front of the casket and knelt down. He leaned his hand and head in toward the casket. They all stayed like that for a few minutes then stood up and walked over to talk to us. A forehead to forehead hug with another officer. Then more hugs. Lance had been on his squad under his supervision for five years and he was his family too.
We came because each of us has been touched by line-of-duty deaths before. The blue family is our family too. Some were in Washington DC when they heard the sad news. On the way to a call for help, driving in the rainstorm on the highway , Lance had crashed into the trees and died in the early morning on National Police Memorial Day. They found out hours before attending that service on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol.
On the morning of his funeral the church was filled beyond capacity. Close to 1000 family members, friends, coworkers and Jacksonville citizen’s, the community that Lance died protecting, came to show they were his family too.
“The highest honor that we can give Lance is to be as strong, to be as courageous and to be as compassionate as Lance was every day that he put on his uniform,” said Sheriff Mike Williams, speaking at the service. Three other officers had been seriously injured since he was elected, but Lance was the only one to die in the line of duty.
The highest honor our sheriff and the city of Jacksonville wanted to give Lance and his family was evident at the one-of-a-kind graveside service. First the JSO Honor Guard carried the flag-draped coffin to his final resting place while bagpipes played “Coming Home.” The 21 gun salute followed, then the single trumpet playing of “Taps,” bagpipes played “Amazing Grace,” and then the Missing Man Formation (4 helicopters flyover and one leaves the formation to fly over the burial to signify the loss of an officer).
Next they folded the flag ever so slowly in a triangle and Sheriff Mike Williams and the Honor Guard presented two folded flags: one to Lance’s mother and the other to his son along with the shell casings from the 21 gun salute. Finally over a loud speaker from an Honor Guard patrol car-the Last Radio Call for End of Watch:
” Quebec 268. Quebec 268. Quebec 268. Attention All Units. Attention All Units. As of May 23rd, 2018 at 14:18 hours Officer L.C. Whitaker ID #7656 is 10-82 for the final time. Thank you Lance for a job well done. Rest in Peace. 14:18 hours KJH 224.”
In addition to these honors they added the presence of The United States Honor Flag and the riderless horse with boots, which was led by a single officer past the gravesite.
They came from all over Florida and lined up in rows at the cemetery. Officers in a variety of different uniforms all united by the risks they take protecting the communities they love. The Governor, The Mayor and the Sheriff were among them.
You were there too. The citizens of Jacksonville. Lining the streets with well wishes, American flags, with your children. And online with Facebook and Twitter watching live feeds and photographs. All saying goodbye to one of my beloved police officers.
“Most people don’t like the police,” said the six-year-old girl many years ago, “but your pictures show them loving each other.”
This little girl was one of the children I had the honor of helping raise as her nanny. She now has a daughter of her own.
One Jacksonville officer said to me many years ago and these words have always resonated with me: We are your police officers. This has been my home for almost a quarter century and I cherish these officers like my own family.
For the last approximately 25 years I have documented my heroes lives and specifically focused on the loss of my heroes in a way that I hoped would help you the public understand them and maybe stop people from killing them. By photographing the love they have for one another seen at line-of-duty funerals. It was the way I tried to show how much I love my police officers in the hopes that you would love them too. Because sometimes they need saving too. I hope that my little part here will work in symphony with all the other different pieces of documentation from the week our community said goodbye to Lance.
“Love each other and treat each other with respect…because you never know when you’re not going to have the opportunity,” said retired JSO Master Sergeant Matt Clements in his eulogy at Lance’s memorial service, paraphrasing an online posting from Chief Michelle Cook, of the Atlantic Beach Police Department.
Lance’s funeral is the last one I will photograph. I am looking for another way to honor my police officers. I would like to find the right partner to create an educational museum and for-profit boutique store. My vision is for it to become a permanent place where the public can see the photographs I have taken of the people I love while supporting their local law enforcement families. They can buy items in the store that will in part help provide funds for police (and fire) families who have died in the line of duty.
Because when it all comes down to it everything we do should be about love and supporting those who matter.
On this Memorial Day evening, police officers , firefighters and friends gathered at a local pub to hold a Blue Line Wake for Lance. The Jacksonville Fire Department Pipe and Drum bagpipes played “Amazing Grace,” inside the bar on stage loud enough that maybe Lance can here it in Heaven. Each member of the packed full crowd raised their glass and held it for the whole song in a silent toast remembrance to honor their one-of-a-kind hero who was a cherished member of their family.
Steve Zona, 2nd President, Fraternal Order of Police 5-30, Jacksonville, Florida-one of the leaders of Our Blue Family- said it best the morning before attending the wake of his friend, Lance, when he described how to honor a debt of The Ultimate Sacrifice that we can never repay.
“Thank you is not enough,” he said on Twitter. “Make a difference in your life because they made a difference in ours.”
I’ve always been the one behind the camera. On the Edge. Arrogant. Confident. With a Devil May Care Bad Attitude. National Award-Winning Photojournalist. #2 in my news sequence Graduating Class at Kent State University. Top Photojournalist in the school… The resume sounds good and I have all the stories and adventures to boot but there was always an enormous cost to my achievements.
I wasn’t there for my brother, Robert, to save him from suicide. I was so focused on keeping my grades up and on my own survival that I missed the desperation in his voice that night. When others were out partying I was studying. Hoping for that golden future promised. I interned at top newspapers and got a full-time job right away. I put out 5 resumes and got 5 interviews while others put out hundreds. I picked a gritty local paper to work for and felt I could take on anyone. I had to work harder and be better so that the awards I won would cover the isolation I felt as the only women on the photo staff. I had to be tough enough to see past the hazing and survive in the ultra competitive take no prisoners abusive news environment where you were only as good as your last picture.
But this lifestyle took a toll. I saw too many horrific things. Some days were so bad I would cry in my car all the way home. In 1995 on the way to cover a plane crash for a local newspaper I was a victim injured in a three car hit and run crash involving a Drunk Driver. It took me more than a year to get off disability, another three years to get off most of the meds and another ten years to get out of debt. More crashes and more injuries over the years took a toll but I always bounced back. It got to a point where it just wasn’t worth it any more. I decided to walk away. I did freelance magazine work for awhile but the contracts were only worth the lawyers I could pay to enforce them. My clients would take a one time use payment and make it a forever we own this use. I tried being a nanny and teaching preschool, VPK, Kindergarten. Rewarding and loved the kid’s but car crash injuries always took their toll.
In 2014 a glass van whipped out into the path of my car. It was like a bomb went off. I remember lying in the middle of the street with a doctor and nurse working on me and firefighters cutting off my clothes and I just knew no matter what happened I was not going to let this destroy my life. I was left with a choice: I was told that I would need five more surgeries to help repair the damage to my body. This was after already having an aircast on my foot for months, enduring countless painful therapies along with numerous shots and invasive procedures.
Five more years of pain and recovering from surgeries that no one could guarantee would fix me. This was more than I was willing to do. Instead I chose to have a stem cell procedure in hopes that that cutting edge technology can help. The effectiveness still remains to be seen. I still deal on a daily basis with varying levels of chronic pain. Now I own a vintage toy store. The kid’s call it T’s Toy Heaven. It’s lots of fun but as always the car crash injuries are sometimes unsurmountable.
Chronic pain and the financial cost of dealing with it does something to me that I don’t like. It takes away the laughter side of me. This past year I made a decision. I would make the most of moments that matter. My New Years resolution was Fun and Hope. That change of attitude which I still struggle to keep positive has already made so much difference. I started doing things I never would have done before. Supporting causes of those who like me have also had cancer scares. I found a group that combines fundraising with the most amazing celebrity events I have ever attended. Sandyovarian.org
This leads me back to the part about getting kissed by Tristan Rogers a.k.a. Robert Scorpio, the fictional former Police Commissioner of Port Charles, a character on the TV show, General Hospital. My first cop crush. Role Model. Back then when I was a kid rushing home from school and then work to watch the show, I didn’t even realize it. That this larger than life character chock full of charm, adventure, romance and integrity would have such a drastic lifelong influence on me.
How Robert Scorpio treated people on screen set an example for me that didn’t take root right away as I dealt with my own demons and the anger surrounding my brother of the same first name’s death. The tenderness of his affection with onscreen daughter, Robin, and wife, Holly, as well as the stand up way he took care of his friends and then later his ex, Anna, helped to make him such a beloved character that he almost seemed real. He also upheld the law in a way that made sense. The dramatic way in which he and his tv cop wife were honored as killed in the line of duty WSB agents I didn’t see until many years later. I saw it years after I had begun my own journey to honor those real police officers who did make that ultimate sacrifice.
Those who lived their real life the way Robert Scorpio did on TV. My journey to document those family tragedies took many years and encompassed so much emotion. But everything came full circle when I had the unique opportunity to meet Tristan Rogers in person at the fundraiser last week. Thirty-four years after I first remembered him on my TV screen.
I got to observe this iconic man’s kindness to a fan in a wheelchair when he called her grandmother on the phone personally. I saw him patiently sign autograph after autograph for hours. His demeanor with fans. His humor when he laughingly told the audience how he was able to cry on cue by thinking about the salary he made performing. What truly revealed the kind and compassionate man that he is was the lengthy discussion we had as he fortuitously for me was seated next to me at dinner. After asking everybody at the table their names and a little bit about what they did we got to interact just like normal people would. Well as normal as you can be speaking to an icon of your childhood.
“Oh My God,” I said. “Do you have any idea what this feels like sitting next to my childhood hero?”
Tristan just smiled and took it in stride just as he probably has done his entire career.
We talked about everything from Barbies to his early start in acting. He likes to say he was not that good in the beginning but Gloria Monty must have seen then what we all know now. That this character she created was not that far off from the man who walked in to play him.
But I think the thing that touched me the most this day was what he said in response to when I told him how nice that was-the phone call he made to that fan.
I didn’t write it down so I will just paraphrase as much as I can. He looked me in the eyes inches from my face and said this… When you have the opportunity to do something that really makes a difference in someone’s life you should do it. I just felt that it was the right thing to do.
We continued talking about what had happened to me with my injuries and someone asked me if I ever got married. I said no I was engaged once but he left because he couldn’t deal with my medical problems. Tristan’s face looked surprised and sad. He lightened things up by saying something like you know what you need is a man to take you away for a great weekend. We all laughed and then talked more about Barbies. Turns out he owns a collection and I offered to help him figure out the value of it. He asked me for my business card which I gave him. I don’t know if you will call but it felt nice to be appreciated for what I do.
As we lined up to get pictures with Tristan before he left to go to the next table one girl asked if he would kiss her on the cheek for the photo which he obliged. I kind of laughed and said wow you’ll have to start kissing everybody now. I really didn’t think he heard me and I don’t know if you did or not. I certainly didn’t expect anything. I was just really happy to be there and meet you. I posed for a picture with you and I thought that would be it.
“Look at me,” Tristan said.
I turned to look up at him and he kissed me on the lips. And held it for probably about 10 seconds so that The Kiss could be in the photograph. Robin (Cohen) told me later that this unnerved her so much that she was shaking and almost didn’t get the picture. I mean who would not want to be kissed by Robert Scorpio? And now I learned what it’s like. Magic. I felt like Cinderella at the ball getting kissed by the handsome Prince Charming. But what impressed me the most was that this kind man knew full well what it would mean to me and wanted to do exactly what he had said earlier. It just felt like the right thing to do. Perhaps that is why to this day he is one of -if not the- Most Loved Character and real person who graces the screen on daytime television.
I felt like I could have listened to you speak for hours about the stories only you could tell. Maybe someday I will get another opportunity to speak with you. But most importantly maybe we should all take a life lesson from you Tristan Rogers.
Make a difference. Do what matters. Touch someone’s life in a positive way whenever you have the opportunity. And remember that no matter how dark you may be feeling in one moment there is always the possibility of a light at the end of the rainbow. Thanks Tristan for being that light for me.
I was pulling out of my apartment complex very early one morning when I saw smoke coming up from the trees across the street. The fire trucks had just arrived and there was a flurry of activity and smoke swirling up from back in the trees of the wooded area. I felt a sense of dread. It was a gut feeling in the pit of my stomach. Onlookers seemed frantic. I feared the worst.
“Children in car…” I heard.
We had pulled over and stopped on the side of the road. I grabbed my friend’s camera off the seat and jumped out quickly. The first shots I took were of a female firefighter coming out of the woods carrying an injured little girl. Another male firefighter came running out of the woods behind her carrying a baby boy limp in his arms. I took pictures as both firefighters tried frantically to resuscitate the boy and save the girl. Both children were dressed in their pajamas.
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