The next time you're watching your favorite cop show on TV, and the hero detectives are poking around a crime scene, take a look in the background. You'll see a couple of uniform men leaning
against the wall, maybe have their hats tipped back, chewing on a toothpick, something like that. That's the paddy wagon crew, and more importantly, two of the most colorful cops you're ever going to meet.
Hard to believe, huh? Okay, but just imagine yourself riding around in a truck all day-or night-sifting dead bodies out of fires, fishing them out of rivers, bagging shooting victims, scraping up the
aftermath of traffic accidents. Wouldn't be long before you'd be colorful, too. And dead bodies is only one of many jobs wagon crews are responsible for. They also transport prisoners and act as an ambulance when a
real one isn't available. Which can be often in Chicago.
I knew one wagon man who claimed six babies were named for him because over the years he and his partner had acted as
doctor and nurse for their delivery. Starting to get the idea? Kinda thought so.
Here's more. After having to deal with the tragedies of life day in and day out you might think wagon men would become stone cold, withdrawn. Just the opposite. Wagon men love to tell jokes, only they'll never laugh at yours. Well, maybe amongst each other they might, but not so you would notice. It's as if they have their own private union, and the rest of humanity exists solely as fodder for their fun.
For example, I was a rookie cop one sweltering July afternoon and got a call to assist a wagon crew at a third-floor office. Arriving in a flash, I rushed up the stairs with my gun at the ready only to
find two old time coppers lounging in the hallway. One guy gives me a tired look, and says, "Uh, need to get in that room, kid, and it's locked. How's about we boost you through the transom? Soon as you get the door open, me'n Joe here, we'll take over." Happy to prove my
worth, I shinnied up the door, and dropped inside. Then caught this awful odor. Like nothing I'd ever smelled before. Gagging, I turned to investigate. Right behind me, perched in a desk chair, was a three day
old stiff, cooking in the heat. Eyes glazed over, staring at nothing. Flies buzzing around its mouth and nose, having a feast. I ran for the door, but couldn't get in open. My friendly wagon man hollered from
the opposite side, "Damn, don't know why, but this thing won't budge. Hey, open some windows in there, breeze the place out. Meanwhile we'll work on the lock."
By this time I realized they had the door braced shut. In agony, and out of options, I raced around flinging open windows, and stuck my head outside. I actually considered jumping. Might have too, had
I not been three stories up. When the wagon crew finally came strolling in, I thought my ordeal was over. Wrong again. I had to help get Mr. Dead Guy from the chair and onto a stretcher for the trip
down to ground level. Meaning to get my misery over with, I grabbed a limp arm. Only trouble, I was now the only one standing, because the wagon crew were rolling on the floor, roaring, pointing fingers
at this dummy rookie with four layers of dead skin bunched up in his hand. I know, gruesome, but you have to laugh. That or go goofy.
By the way. Wagon men will tell you folks always wait until they're at least on the third floor before dropping dead, especially those at 250 pounds or more. To wagon men it's all a conspiracy so they'll
have to tote deadweight down three flights of stairs. If you should become a rookie cop, and have to assist a wagon crew in such a task, don't let them talk you into taking the low end. Awful body fluids
sometime slide out, and with your hands occupied, you won't be able to defend yourself. Rule of Thumb: Never trust a wagon man. Ever.
Detective Charles Shafer, Chicago PD (retired) has written a crime fiction novel entitled: "On Cabrini Green", scheduled for publication in May, 2000
Copyright © 2000 Charles Shafer
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