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My father, Jim, sums up his 31 years of service as a law enforcement officer with several pointed soundbites. You can tell he’s put a lot of thought into the quips as he rattles them off for effect. They all mix in a bit of sarcasm with an equal part of purpose and a dash of despair.
The statements include: “If you want to be a hero, be a firefighter, nobody likes a cop.” Another is: “In my line of work, I never had a shortage of customers.” Or this one: “I didn’t get invited to your house, I was there because you were having the worst day of your life.”
Given what peace officers see, hear and experience in order to protect and serve, many develop a similar cup half-empty outlook. They assume the worst of someone to diligently be on guard, and perhaps not be disappointed when the person comes up short of the law.
One of the byproducts of this outlook is the desire to find solace away from people, often in a desolate place and particularly for retirement when it’s time to hang up the badge and gun.
That search for solitude led my father’s longtime law enforcement colleague Bob from Northern California to the pines of Lowman, Idaho, two hours east of Boise near the Sawtooth National Forest. As Bob and his wife built their cabin on the banks of the south fork of the Payette River, they convinced my parents, as my father neared retirement, to purchase the riverfront lot next door on a country lane of only eight lots. (Side note: At one point, more than half of the owners in the neighborhood were retired law enforcement officers.)
It took a handful of years for my parents’ cabin to be finished following my father’s retirement, with my father doing much of the work himself in a labor of love. My father transferred his dedication and commitment for law enforcement to completing the cabin, simultaneously cementing his legacy for his profession and family. And Bob was a constant in the cabin construction, as the two friends enjoyed brotherhood and matching wits to tackle tasks from electrical wiring and plumbing to designing a loft staircase and a pine plank ceiling.
I would visit during these construction years to help and fly fish, turning to Idaho and the Payette for my own form of solace with a growing career and family of my own. Full disclosure: I did a lot more fishing than helping, but my father was happy to have me around however he could get me. As a father of two grown sons now, I know exactly how he felt.
One of these summers as the cabin neared completion, I had the privilege of helping my father and Bob build a simple wooden bridge between their two lots. I don’t know who originally had the idea for the bridge, and it was no feat of engineering. The simple flat wooden bridge covered a small drainage swale on their shared property line, and the two retired friends placed it on this hot summer day with the same focus and attention to detail that they had poured into their cabins and careers.
When the bridge was done, they both smiled, patted each other on the back and moved on to the next task of the day. Yet I found myself pausing and staring at the bridge that afternoon. I knew that day the bridge represented the friendship of two complex men who couldn’t describe in words their feelings for each other. But they could show each other, by working and relaxing together and simply being there for each other.
As we know, life unfolds in seasons, and the retirement season my parents and their friends enjoyed in Lowman lasted several more years. Then the season abruptly changed as health issues arose for them all. My parents’ visits were clustered in between doctor appointments at home in California, while cancer forced Bob to frequently make the trip to Boise for treatment.
During this season, fate threw another twist when Bob’s cabin burned to the ground one fall evening. Not in a forest fire, but in a blaze the cause of which was never determined. With their riverside cabin in ashes and Bob’s cancer treatments two hours away, Bob and his wife chose to start their next chapter in Boise. They bought a quaint new house in a suburban planned community near the hospital.
My parents still visit their friends in town on their way to their cabin, but they admit the cabin experience isn’t quite the same. My dad doesn’t have his friend next door to work on projects together listening to ’50s oldies music. They’re not able to watch baseball on TV or play cards on the deck. Or have dinner together as couples as they so often did.
A new owner has bought Bob’s property, although he hasn’t rebuilt. All these years later, and the remains of the fire are still there. They’re a constant reminder for my parents each time they look next door. When my parents visit Bob and his wife in town, they don’t speak much about the cabin or the river. Bob and his wife say they thoroughly enjoyed their years there, but it’s too painful for them to really talk about it. If it were up to them, they’d still be living healthy and able in their fine home on the river.
Indeed, life has its seasons. My parents and their friends are managing on the health front and enjoying the precious moments life presents. The friendship continues for my father and Bob, and while it’s not as sweet as the time they enjoyed together on the banks of the Payette, it still stands firm and proud. Just as the bridge does that they built on their property line, a fitting tribute to two law enforcement officers’ elusive search for peace that was enjoyed for a season.