Chasing loose livestock off the highway and escorting funeral processions were the two least desirable duties in the rural sheriff's department where I began my law enforcement career. As a rookie, I caught more than my share of those undesirable calls, and of the two, I'd rather play matador any day.
Escort service was positively boring. The sheriff required us to stand alongside our cruisers in a show of respect while we waited outside the funeral home. Since all of the funeral directors were heavy political contributors to the sheriff, we pretty much did as we were told.
One beautiful afternoon I received one of these calls. Two motor jocks from the police department would get us through the busier intersections, and then it was a straight IS-mile shot to the cemetery.
The season was late summer, and the natives were restless-lots of family disturbances, bar fights and the assorted mayhem that rookies think make for a good shift. But there I was, stuck in front of the funeral home with my hat in my hand, listening to my colleagues doing real police work.
The dearly departed must have been a real champ, because the proceedings ran nearly an hour longer than the usual 4S minutes.
I spoke briefly with the hearse driver. He was more than 60 years old and wore Coke-bottle glasses and an ill-fitting suit. It was his first day on the job.
Finally, the bereaved filed out of the chapel and into 80 or so vehicles. The hearse was loaded, the scooter guys waved, and we were off at a solemn and dignified pace. I switched on my overheads and radioed headquarters that we were rolling.
Less than a quarter mile from the cemetery entrance, my radio crackled out an all-sector call. A tanker truck had jackknifed into a dump truck and caused a multiple vehicle accident nine miles dead ahead of me. I looked into my rearview mirror, waved to the hearse driver, checked clear of the assignment and added the siren yelp to my running lights while I punched the accelerator to the floor.
Traffic had been heavy, and the highway had lousy shoulders. It took determined concentration to make good time. I weaved and swerved around traffic, occasionally reaching speeds of 100 mph in an all-out effort to be first on the scene. No such luck. As I neared the wreckage, I saw a state unit and another county unit arriving with me. As I slowed to a stop, I saw the highway patrolman do a wide-eyed double take in my direction. I was puzzled until I looked in my rearview mirror for the first time since passing the cemetery exit.
The hearse was right behind me. The driver's hands were white-knuckled on the wheel, and his expression matched the trooper's. My entourage, a caravan of 80 assorted vehicles, was screeching to a halt. Some of the mourners were shaking in fear, while others wore expressions of shocked disbelief. A few, mostly young guys in hot rods and pickup trucks, were exiting their vehicles, laughing and grinning from ear to ear. Determined to stay with the hearse that had been determined to stay with me, most of the troupe had passed the elderly widow in the limousine. By the time it arrived at the accident scene, she had fainted. At the sight of the hearse, so did the injured truck driver.
The following morning I was in the chief deputy's office with as much contrition as I could muster. I drew a week of jail duty, the department's standard unofficial penalty for patrol deputies who had committed non-specific transgressions. After that, it was some time before I was given another escort assignment. However, I did chase an awful lot of cows.
Richard L. Fought is a recently retired police commander and canine trainer for the Schoharie County (N.Y.) Sheriff's Department.