Epiphany – a moment of revelation or insight. How many moments of epiphany does the average adult person say they have experienced? I’m curious because I’m not too sure I’ve had many – or at least many worth writing/talking about. I do not know exactly what that says about me, could it be that I am unenlightened? Egads! (Sigh, *hangs head in shame*) When I first wrote this post I was writing about only one epiphany, but now that I’ve re-read it I’ve actually found more than one – it’s like ‘Where’s Waldo?’ but instead ‘Where’s the epiphany?’)
When I was 19, I moved a 4 hour drive away from home to Waco, Texas to attend college. I thought I wanted to study drafting & design because one of my older brothers had found a way to make a good living from it and enjoyed it. Once taking some of the classes at the trade school I discovered one very big problem. I had no mind for mechanical numbers and while the electrical drawing made sense to me, it was architectural drafting that I originally wanted to be involved in because I loved houses and house plans. What I didn’t love was the math it took to configure the piping, etc. for those designs. Realizing I was out of my league and needing to find a new dream, I jumped on the next bandwagon and decided to become a nurse because, of course, my sister-in-law was a nurse and making a good living from it. I switched to the local community college in Waco just to start taking the basics and attended part-time as I needed to work full-time in order to live independently. (Note: after a semester I realized nursing was not the vocation for me – I cannot be around vomit getting without getting sick myself and nurses have to deal with that kind of thing often.)
I found full-time employment easily enough. The local police department was looking for transcriptionists (a nice word for typists) for the night shift so I applied. It was a great fit for me, as I could type fast and it left the mornings free for college classes. Because I was in the Army Reserves the PD welcomed me aboard with speed and joy. I began working the 11pm to 7am shift typing police reports from a Dictaphone all night long. It was interesting work at first but I quickly began to tire of the monotony of it. Domestic disputes, trespassing, assault and other offenses became quite mundane when heard repeatedly through the earphones night after night – the voices may change and some accents were more challenging to decipher than others but the actual crimes do indeed become redundant over time. And then there were the creepy reports from the ‘undercover’ cops who would go to the local porn theatre to catch weirdos exposing themselves (jerking off). Those officers seemed to have something just as strange wrong with them as the perps they apprehended.
No surprise then when an opening was posted for police dispatchers on the same shift (but with more pay) that I did not hesitate to apply for a transfer and immediately began my training as a dispatcher. This position proved to be much more challenging. I had to memorize the police codes for the radio, which calls were priority and how to firmly make the officers go where you told them to go instead of where they wanted to go. The beginning of the shift was always stressful and busy with constant emergency calls and time would fly by until about 3am when the phone stopped ringing repeatedly. By that time we were ready for a break and gladly took it – but we had to remain alert and ready for spur of the moment emergencies while desperately trying to stay awake. Heavy lidded, recuperating from the beginning shift stress and slightly foggy minded from a night without sleep we would sit waiting for the phones to ring.
I remember one such night like this when it became rather slow and a call came in with someone reporting that there was a car in a certain area of Cameron Park where sodomy was taking place. I took the information and quickly looked up the number code for that offense as it was an unusual call. After I sent the information through the computer I turned to the lady dispatcher who was responsible for training me to ask, in a regular voice and with total naive innocence, “Maria, what is sodomy?” Her eyes enlarged and she started laughing then said “Shhh! Don’t let anyone else hear you asking that!” After she explained it to me in simple, no nonsense language it was my turn to get the big eyes and laugh. And my face sure did turn red.
I just happened to be at the PD when the new 9-1-1 system started up (yes, there was a time when there was no 9-1-1 emergency phone #!!!) and so had to begin training as a 9-1-1 dispatcher as well. Each week we would rotate through the different positions: 1-answering phone & directing call to specific emergency (police, fire, ambulance), 2-talking to the phone caller and inputting information into the mainframe and 3-deciding which officer to send on the call & dispatch accordingly over radio. This was the most stressful of all positions because you had to coordinate your thoughts, the foot pedal which allowed you to speak over the radio , your speech and you had to know where every officer was at all times in case they radioed in an ‘officer down‘ emergency. During the busiest times the Office Desk Sergeant would monitor this position to make sure it ran smoothly – which meant you had someone in police uniform watching over your should adding an extra bit of stress. This is where I learned about ‘getting into the zone‘ because on extremely busy nights (Friday & Saturday for instance) you had no time to mull over if you were doing it right or what the Police Officers, Desk Sergeant or other Dispatchers thought about you. You just constantly moved the foot pedal dispatching officers on call after call. As soon as they called in finishing one call you were dispatching them off to another. You knew where every officer was because you paid attention only to the addresses on the map where they were sent. The huge wall sized map in front of you gave you the visualization you needed in order to keep track of everyone. It was fast and frenetic.
Working the 11pm – 7am shift for 40-60 hours a week (lots of overtime because they were always short-handed) plus taking 12 hours of college courses and the occasional part-time job (department store clerk) in the afternoons left little time for sleep and rejuvenation. I became burned out, stressed out and exhausted in a period of months. I knew it couldn’t last forever but figured I was young enough that I could handle it all for awhile. At least for my first few years of college. But the job stress only seemed to worsen and my general attitude with life turned from gleeful innocence to jaded sarcasm. Witnessing first hand how ignorant, irresponsible and immoral the general public can be extinguished the bright light burning in this young lady’s eyes. This job did give me a new respect for police officers that I did not have before. After all, when you have to deal with the sewer of society on a daily basis who can blame you for being an arrogant asshole? All of this negative mojo combined with the break-up of a boyfriend, my roommate moving to another city when the lease was up and my best friend moving to another city, and I was beginning to feel the gloom and disparity of my situation. Time became a blur as it seemed I had no true days or nights with my night-shift work.
There was one night, a slow night of answering the 9-1-1 calls that I will never forget. The 9-1-1 dispatchers were all located in a basement room away from the hustle & bustle of the upstairs office. The basement was bland with white walls, white tile floors and florescent lights emitting their eerie hum. The 9-1-1 dispatcher simply answered the phone, “9-1-1 What is your emergency? Police, fire or ambulance?” And if it was fire or ambulance we transferred the call to their dispatchers. If it was for the police we would transfer it upstairs to our dispatch or sometimes if we were short handed we would go ahead and input the information into the mainframe for upstairs dispatcher to send officers to the location. This particular night we were short handed but it was turtle slow. I was spaced out in my own little world when an emergency call came in. I answered and quickly spouted off the question. In the background I could hear a crackling noise and people yelling. A child of about 12 years of age screams, “Fire! Fire! Our house is on fire!” I told the child I was transferring him to the fire department but in the time of transferring the call I heard another background noise which I will never be able to erase from my mind. Another child, a girl, screamed with such loud anguish & pain it was the most horrible and sad sound I had ever heard. A wail of despair. It left me shaking and unnerved.
The next day I read in the local newspaper that a child had died in that fire. I knew without hesitation then that what I heard was the child’s last scream of life. This really hurt me deep inside my heart and I was haunted by the sound. I was only 19 years old and had so far lived a life without much death other than an elderly distant relative. I had no way to process this shock. This was when I realized that my future was not limitless and I began to understand that I needed to be realistic about my abilities. There were things in life that I was not yet ready to handle or face (and I missed sleeping). I knew I could no longer handle the stress of the job and had lost my edge. At the time I stated my epiphany in simple terms, “I can’t handle this kind of shit.” I knew I had a decision to make regarding my future and the choice was all mine.
Shortly thereafter I put in my resignation, much to the dismay of Desk Sergeant Tynes who had been proudly working on my upcoming review. He seemed as disappointed in the fact that his review wasn’t going anywhere now as at the idea of me leaving. I wasn’t sure how to take that, but I had made my decision and I was leaving town. I moved to Houston and started the next chapter of my life. (It helped that my sister & brother-in-law offered me a place to live rent free!) I went to college full-time and worked only part-time. Less stress. I eventually earned my Associate of Arts Degree majoring in English/Journalism – (I knew nobody in this field.)
Sometimes I think back on that short time in Waco and it seems surreal, almost as if I dreamed it. Then I remember that child’s death scream and am jolted back to reality.