A man doesn’t always have to be proud of his actions to be a man, but he should at least own up to them when he makes a mistake. And it’s not like I didn’t have the choice to walk away, so I’m not exactly justifying what I did. I guess I’m saying that I know I was in the wrong, but I really don’t regret doing it. Still, I suppose there has to be some kind of reckoning.
Come May every year in Washington, D.C., we have this big gathering of active and retired law enforcement types. It’s a time when a lot of cops from around the country put on their dungarees and double-knit polo shirts and converge on the nation’s capital to commemorate our fallen—sometimes the cops wear cargo shorts. Normally, I have a lot of respect for this particular breed—salt of the earth kind, digging deep into their pockets and burning their vacation time to come out and commemorate the honored dead. I guess that what makes what I did sort of out of character for me.
There are a couple of major events over the course of Cop Week that just about every one of us feels obligated to attend, like the candlelight vigil and the memorial address, but when we aren’t at any of those, and after the museums and the all you can eat buffets have shut down for the night, we all need a place to go and kill some brain cells. That’s what Tent City is for.
If you haven’t been to Tent City, you’ll need the specs to understand what you’re dealing with. It’s a couple of acre paved parking lot, fenced in with chain link and barbed wire. The perimeter of the compound is surrounded by vendors schilling everything from T-shirts to knives to discount vacations—the latter of which, I suppose, could help you relive your Tent City experience on a cruise vessel or a beach. In the center of the compound is an enormous counter that serves as a 30′ x 30′ square bar. Inside, a bunch of off-duty cops are slinging cheap beer and liquor—not a lot of wine gets sold in Tent City. Some of the bartenders are wearing their pieces on their hips. There’s a DJ stand with a tower of amplifiers on one side of the bar and a bank of port-o-johns on the other. Scatter a few picnic benches here and there and you pretty much have the layout. Picture a smaller version of District 9 without any of those creepy crawlies skulking around in the trash.
Well, I had a pretty good head of whiskey and I was a in a raw mood that night and I guess I just wasn’t really in the Tent City mood. I wouldn’t really say that I was out there looking for trouble, but if it found me, I probably wasn’t going to get out of its way. I was kind of hungry, so I went looking to get some food, but all I found was a goddamn hotdog stand. The sign said that they were 100% beef, but I’m not really sure I believed it. Plus, hotdogs are loaded with nitrates, so I wasn’t happy with my options. I could have gotten fries, but I really have to be craving fries, and I wasn’t. I was hungry and I knew that if I was going to do any more drinking, I’d need something in my stomach, so I went up and ordered a hotdog. That’s when the trouble happened.
I took my dog over to the condiment stand and was at least a little happy to see that they had pumps for the mustard and ketchup. I don’t like dealing with those small packets of sauce, especially when I’m a little stiff from a few drinks. So, I grab a few napkins—all right, it was more like five or six. Definitely not more than six. Anyway, I pull the last napkin from the dispenser and I hear a voice from behind me say, “Got enough napkins, buddy? Jeesh.”
Now, before I go on, I want to say that I know I’m on pretty shaky moral ground here. What with the environment and trees and global warming and all, but I DO NOT like having mustard on my hands. Yeah, I take a few extra napkins here and there, but this punk had no idea what I was going to do with them. Maybe all of the napkins weren’t for me. Maybe I was picking them up to be shared by a small group of people. I may have been overreacting, but like I mentioned, I had started my Tent City night in a pretty bad mood. It didn’t help that the DJ was playing country music, or the fact that this shithead had one of the only four women in the entire compound with him. I was drawing pretty close to the tipping point.
“Who the fuck are you?” I said.
“Scott Riggins. New Smyrna Beach PD.”
I’m not really sure how the rivalry between my police agency and New Smyrna Beach PD got so out of control. I mean it seems pretty unlikely that two police departments that are about a three-hour drive apart would even be on each other’s radar, but the fact of the matter is that we all hate each others’ guts. No one seems to know why, but it’s definitely real.
I saw red.
I dropped my hotdog and napkins right there on the asphalt ground and cracked him one right across the jaw with a haymaker. I was pretty drunk, but the blow managed to land solid. New Smyrna Scott staggered backwards, but was caught from falling by a couple of his boys, who I now noticed were wearing matching NSBPD T-shirts. They tossed him back at me and we were caught in like a sort of a boxer’s clench. I hit him in the floating ribs with a couple of rabbit punches and I started to feel him go heavy in my arms. Had the fight stayed one-on-one, I’m pretty sure it would have been over in a few seconds and I’d have won. But that isn’t how New Smyrna-ens tend to fight. I never saw the blow that caught me on the back of the head coming. It was just a matter of luck that I dipped at the knees and it missed some gorilla from hitting me square. It wasn’t going to matter in the long run. I wasn’t going to be allowed to win. Sets of hands were grabbing me from all directions. I was pulled off of my feet and they began dragging me off somewhere. I was pretty sure I was going to end with me in the ER if I was lucky. More likely, I’d be left in a ditch somewhere. I would be moved a few feet, get stood up, punched in the face or stomach, and then moved again.
I had no idea where my boys were when I threw that first punch, but if I had to guess, they were probably at the bar or in the port-o-johns—neither of which were immediately visible from the hotdog vendor area. Things were looking pretty grim and I was losing consciousness when the cavalry finally showed up. Every man I talked to claimed to be the first jump in. To me, it doesn’t really matter. I was so outnumbered that one person would have just meant another victim. Whether it was someone from my city or just another cop who hates New Smyrna Beach as much as I do, I needed every advantage I could get and every man who wasn’t wearing a NSBPD shirt was my hero. One by one, the goons were pulled off of me. I wasn’t much good in the fight at this point, but I landed a few superficial blows. If we’re being honest here, I don’t really know which side could claim victory. There was no real style to it. Fists, knees, elbows, head butts. The skirmished raged for about ten minutes, but it seemed like it went on for half the goddamn night. Knives and guns were plentiful in Tent City, but by some unspoken rule, no one used either. Anything else that anyone could get his hands on was in play, though: sticks, brickbats, rocks. Some asshole even used one of the condiment pumps to shoot mustard in people’s eyes. Finally, one of the barkeeps with a hand cannon fired a shot up in the air and the whole thing started to come apart. I think everyone knew that if we kept going, someone was going to get killed, and no one had really had the belly for that, so the warning shot was just about as good of an excuse as any.
I got me some rescue on scene and they said I should go to the ER and get myself checked out—maybe a stitch or two on account of I was bleeding from over my eye pretty bad. I passed on all of that. Some of the boys were over at the bar pouring bottles of vodka on their wounds. I grabbed a bottle of Wild Turkey because it was the closest to me, and I went over to one of those picnic benches and had myself a little drink. Funny thing is that some of the guys from my department were drinking with the New Smyrna Beach crowd. It was probably too late in the game for me to change, but it made me think that in some crazy way, the whole melee might have been worth it.
One of the guys from my shift eventually sauntered over to check on me.
“Hell of a fight, Sarge. You know what started it?” he asked.
“Just cops blowing off a little steam, I guess.” It wasn’t exactly a lie.
“I’m kind of hungry. You want to grab some food?”
“Nah. I bought a hotdog earlier.”