Behind the Scenes at a Small Town Police Station

My maternal grandmother (or Nanny, as we called her) was a radio dispatcher for our small-town police department until her retirement in the early 1990s.

She had actually worked, for a number of years, way before I was born, as a hairdresser (one of the great pleasures of my young life was getting my hair washed in the salon-style sink she’d had installed in the basement of her home), so I have no idea how or when she landed at the station. And now pretty much anyone I could have asked about it is either dead or all but estranged from me.

Nevertheless, she was a well-regarded fixture among the town’s various civil servants, their goodwill toward her extending well past her retirement. She even cashed in a favor on my behalf when, at 16, I begged her to get a police officer to fix the ticket he’d given me for blowing a stop sign late one night on a back country road, so that my dad wouldn’t lose his shit if he found out his precious, perfect daughter had fucked up so carelessly.

More than that, though, I remember, as an extremely small child, being taken by my mother to visit her on duty at the town’s small old police station, which buzzed with faintly green fluorescent lighting and smelled of stale coffee and enjoyed the then-novel feature of an enormous, wood-paneled pop machine near the front entrance.

Photo scanned from “Images of America: Dyer” by Paul Anthony Benninghoff (Arcadia Publishing, 2010), page 104

I’m sure that many of these visits must have occurred while she was on a break. But I’m also pretty sure that the town was sleepy enough in the early ’80s—long before it became overrun with chain restaurants and strip malls built to appeal to exurban commuters to Chicago—that sitting with her in the control room while she was on duty wouldn’t have been that big a deal. It was normally quiet enough there that we could visit together casually, our conversation only interrupted by an occasional “10-4” spoken into the radio, or by hearty greetings from the burly, friendly cops on duty, just passing through.

My grandmother was far from mild-mannered, and she yelled at us plenty when my siblings and I got ourselves into trouble or started getting insolent and bratty with her. But my memories of her demeanor in her professional capacity at the station are consistently cool and even-tempered. There must have been countless emergencies she needed to attend to over the years, things that I certainly wouldn’t have been privy to both due to my age and my being a citizen off the street, and she had to have had a million other responsibilities beyond sitting at the desk and communicating via radio with the police cruisers. But the many times that I saw her at work, I recall no stress, no overwhelm—just steady, calm, alert command. 10-4, 10-4, over and out, she’d repeat quietly, almost flatly, with her dusty smoker’s voice, into the long metallic microphone affixed to the elaborate radio console.

TeachingI compare this, mentally, to my hot-tempered father, a high school music teacher and band conductor, who was reputed to have thrown a music stand in anger, either at a student or near a student, during an after-school rehearsal. (Called on this in later years, he hedged that the incident may have been exaggerated, that he likely just knocked the stand over accidentally while gesturing emphatically.) I compare this also to my own current job, managing book production at a midsized publishing house, where I’m constantly short-tempered, irritable, and prone to lashing out if I’m feeling over-stimulated or unnecessarily distracted by someone else’s demands on my time and attention.

death, death, death, death, murder

Of course law enforcement, even in a small Midwestern town, would likely be very different today from what it was in the ’80s, and assuredly much more high stress, but I still find myself thinking about my grandmother, and the discrepancy in our respective workplace attitudes, a lot these days. Thoughts of her, in her light blue police shirt and clip-on earrings, pop into my head, almost unbidden, when I feel myself losing control of a given situation at my own office, when I find myself ashamed of my wild mood swings and pettiness. I try to channel something of her cool way of handling things, and of handling people. 10-4, 10-4, over and out, I’ll think to myself, remembering her dignity and her situational unflappability, not so much wishing that she’d answer me back as hoping to make contact with my own version of the oasis of calm that she was able to summon, night after night, shift after shift, helping keep the town as quiet as she’d found it.

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