That’s my first memory of him. I think it was during one of our long runs and we were both done with running. He expressed himself while running so what actually came out was more along the lines of “Fu..u..cki..ng…bull…sh…it.”
My most vivid memory of him? We’d sussed out a local barbeque joint, something we did about every other week or so, and had ordered like pigs: brisket, beer, sausage, beer, beans, beer, coleslaw and cornbread, beer…beer. Yeah, yeah, I can remember him drinking but what I really remember is sauce, deep red and flecked with all manner of black spices, slathered over his chin. Watching his little pink tongue slither out and lick away the sauce was one of the funniest things I’d ever seen.
But my last memory of him?
Draped with an American flag, surrounded by endless bouquets of flowers, his Air Force helmet in the coffin with him, his face much more stern in death than I had ever seen it in life.
Casey was my friend. For twelve weeks at the academy, Casey was my work colleague. For many of those weeks, Casey was my barbeque compadre.
Casey was also a police officer…a canine handler to be more precise.
And now Casey is dead.
Hit by a drunk driver; killed on a rain-soaked stretch of I-55 in north-central Illinois on October 30, 2013.
I’ve not had that many good friends dance with death. I remember when writer Sean A. Moore died in 1998 and how numb I was about that and for how long. I didn’t know Casey as well as Sean, but I can feel that same numbness in my head and heart now.
At the police academy, Casey had first struck me as world weary, unsurprised by anything. But as I got to know him better, I realized he was excitable but when he was dealing with victims and bad guys, with issues and concerns, he affected an outer calm that did an amazing job of calming down both the scenario role players and the other police recruits.
What I didn’t know, until his funeral, was that Casey had decided early on in life he was going to be a police officer. He rode with the local department constantly and then joined the Air Force and tested for the Pontiac Police Department almost the moment he got home.
So yeah, he was a good cop, even as a recruit. And yeah, he was a great cop on the road. A k-9 officer, a member of a multi-jurisdictional task force, had detective’s training. He was a monster and I’m sure he did great things for people that I’ll never have any idea he did.
But all his good cop-ing aside, what I remember most, next to the barbeque sauce, was how his calm helped me get through something new and alien to me. He’d decided young to be a police officer but I’d decided young to be a writer. I had no experience in law enforcement at all when I hired on at the Sheriff’s Office. After three years in the jail, which was small and rarely had any problems at all, they put me on the road.
The situations those instructors talked about – barricaded subjects, hostages, shoot-outs, domestic violence with knives and guns, murders, sexual assaults – were completely new to me. I was absolutely out of my element.
Casey helped me get through many of those scenarios. He, a 22-year old kid, taught this 40-year old almost every time we went out together.
And we ate a crap load of barbeque.
Can’t ask for much more, right?
I have no idea what the count was at his funeral. I heard from a couple of people that 1,000 police officers attended, that there were more than 600 squad cars in the mile-long processional. Do I believe that? Maybe…maybe not. But regardless of the number, it was an impressive turnout.
During the procession to the cemetery, we snaked back and forth through town. Every intersection was closed, nearly every business with a temporarily closed sign hanging in the door. There were, no hyperbole, thousands of civilians along the route. Many saluted, many waved American flags, most filmed the procession. Some just stood, looking stunned at their hometown hero, had been snatched out of their collective hands so senseless and quickly.
Casey was imbued with the terrible ferocity of duty and the horrific beauty of service. He wanted to serve his town and his family and friends and even people he didn’t know. He knew that serving, and that duty, carried a terrible price. Not always death, but in what he saw, in what he learned about the human condition and both the amount of suffering, and amount of love, humans bestow on each other as every second ticks past.
From the first moments I knew him, Casey wanted to serve and to help, as much as a cliche as that sounds like. Yeah, he wanted the adrenaline calls and the excitement of being a police officer. But mostly he wanted to help those around him.
Which is why it hurts so badly to know that when he needed help, when his SUV had been crushed by a man who’d spent better than five hours, according to the video footage, drinking at a bar, I wasn’t able to help. I wasn’t able to warn him off of that particular stretch of road, or have him pull just a little further into the turn-around where the drunk hit him.
He probably wouldn’t have listened to this old man, anyway. Out on that highway, with his canine partner, being a police officer and serving his city, was the only place he wanted to be.
Godspeed, Casey, we’ll all miss you dearly.