In this first story, it is November 1973 and I am a newly minted police officer, a graduate of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police training academy in Regina, Saskatchewan. My first posting was Whitemouth Manitoba, a mixed farming community located 100 kilometers East of Manitoba’s capital city Winnipeg and 30 kilometers from the largest provincial park in the province, The Whiteshell. The population of Whitemouth was 900 persons at this time and the town hosted the regional RCMP Detachment. Three members were stationed there.
As a city boy born and raised, it was a bit surreal arriving at my first posting as a rookie police officer. The area was decidedly rural; houses were interspersed, small and generally located well back from the two lane provincial highway that joined the big city to The Whiteshell provincial park, a seasonal and commercial tourist area that meandered through numerous lakes over a geographical area of 2800 square miles. The largest structures that stood out on the landscape during most of my drive were dairy barns and feed silos.
The highway was icy and the snow blowing across it reduced my visibility as I slowed to meet the directive of the speed sign on the outskirts of Whitemouth Manitoba, my first posting and new home. My 1969 Chrysler Newport had made the journey well from Regina; even so, I had stopped for the night in Winnipeg due to a seasonal winter storm. Packed into the Chrysler were all my worldly belongings, a trunk-full of uniforms and police regalia, a small suitcase containing jeans and T-Shirts and my only piece of technology; an old beat-up cassette tape player. If there was ever any doubt that I had made the successful transition from a 21 year old lifeguard to a 22 year old law enforcement officer, that doubt was erased by looking at my professional police kit and clothing juxtaposed with my adolescent pool-boy attire. I’d come a long way in a short period of time.
Entering the town I passed a general store, two gas stations, a tow company, a diner and a car wash. Just before the first street, a sign directed traffic to the police office. I passed on that opportunity and drove one street further; making a left turn down the main street of town. Railway Street ran parallel to the Canadian National Railway main line and along that right of way stood a bulk fuel facility and brown wooden grain elevator. On the opposite side of the street were the town office, a post office, bank, convenience store, two grocery stores and the local hotel. Turning left again I passed several houses, the town curling rink, the hospital and a local church. Passing the church and looking to my left I saw a brown brick building with several cars in the parking lot. A flag-pole and Canadian flag visible in the front yard drew me in that direction and as I closed near to the parking lot I identified two of the cars as being marked police cars and noticed a large sign identifying the office as that of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Whitemouth Detachment. I had arrived.
Parking on the street I walked up the shovelled walk to the front door, entered and approached a counter that separated the main office from the greeting area where I stood. I looked around; three desks, filing cabinets, a couple of type-writers, a new computer of some type that already looked old and lots of pictures on the walls. A photograph of the Queen and another of the Commissioner of the RCMP were centrally located on the dividing wall adjacent to the counter. My scan of the room was interrupted as a man came around the corner from an unlit hallway. He was about 6 ft. tall with short brush cut hair, jeans and a t-shirt; he was wearing slippers. The picture of him evoked a scene from the Andy Griffith Show, where the prisoners are for the most part harmless and have free run of the jail while in custody. He smiled and said, “you must be Bill, my new recruit, welcome!” My new boss, Corporal John Higgins.
Recovering quickly and hoping he was not a mind reader I responded, “yes Corporal, I’m reporting for duty.”
“Good” he replied, I’ll show you around. Let’s start with your quarters.”
As he gestured for me to lead and hit a light switch with his hand, I preceded him down the only hallway, past an office that was obviously his domain and ending at a dead end that offered a choice of two doors. Both doors were open; I saw a cell in the one to my left and a bed in the other to my right. Using the deductive reasoning gained over the previous six months in law enforcement training, I turned right. The room was a good size, and the furnishings were comfortable government issue. A double bed, four-drawer dresser and two single cupboards, clearly enough space for me and my stuff. A small doorway led into the 3-piece bathroom area; ok good, a shower not a tub!
Lacking topics for discussion we both turned our attention to the cell room. A cage within a room really, silver flat metal bars on all sides with two bunks; no toilet. On the bunk were two buffalo blankets and a white pillow. Without speaking, Cpl Higgins knew what I was thinking and with a smirk on his face commented, “it’s a holding cell, if the prisoners need to go, they got to hold it!”
In reality, I soon came to realize that my bathroom and space, indeed my life was now “open concept” and available to anyone in need as the need arose. As an example, my whole room was vanilla blend, the blankets on my bed were the same as those in the cell and again the same as was on my bed in Regina. Government issue! Welcome to the public service William.
Again lacking a topic for discussion I told John (yes, we bonded quickly) that I was ready to move in and wanted to know when my first shift was. His reply, “tomorrow morning at 8 AM you start. Archie you will meet later, he is on course in Winnipeg, and I’m going moose hunting in the morning, so you’ll be in charge. I’ll be away for four days and back every night, but if you have any problems get in touch with the neighbouring detachment. If anything happens during the night, just bang on the door, my quarters are attached to the office. The best place for coffee in the morning is at Johnnie’s diner; he’s the Justice of the Peace as well. The hotel is the better place to eat. Spend the next week learning the area. Don’t get into trouble, have fun!”
My first sleep was restless; I spent the night waiting for the phone to ring; waiting for my first reported homicide, or suicide, or car accident, or robbery or domestic dispute. In that the phone did not sound, I unwittingly fell asleep and awoke with the sun coming in my window and the realization that I had slept well past my intended start to the day and the beginning of my first active duty shift. But then, I was in charge and the only police officer within 100 square miles. The time was totally mine now, or totally not, depending on your point of view. Within 20 minutes I was up, showered, shaved and dressed, ready to start my first day. Standing before the bathroom mirror, I looked and felt exactly as I had been trained to look and feel. Clean pressed shirt, tie pin in place, polished boots, gun belt secured to my waist belt, hat squared off to my forehead and confident. The difference now was that over my perfect uniform I was wearing a winter parka designed to eliminate all the stylish sharpness and replace it with rumpled creases. Such is life!
I was too late for the morning coffee at Johnnie’s so I grabbed the keys to the 1969 Dodge 440 hp marked police car and headed out to the main highway. Driving past the outskirts of town and 10 miles beyond into the white winter wilderness, I checked left and right for any signs of habitation. Finding none and with no other cars in sight, I stopped and turned the police car on the bare asphalt highway and stopped it with its black nose heading back toward town. Hitting the gas hard, I activated the emergency lights and siren; 100 miles an hour down the middle of the highway in celebration of a goal I had worked so hard for. I had arrived. Yippee!!
The nerves of the previous evening were replaced by greater feelings of confidence as I parked in front of the hotel for lunch. Entering the hotel I was met by the owner and cook who warmly welcomed me into town. The dining room was mostly empty and I sat at a four-person booth. I ordered lunch from the menu and sat back to bask in my feelings of contentment and joy.
He came from my blind side and sat down across from me in the booth, leaning forward to close the gap between us. He was about 40 years old and his straggly black hair and unkempt beard hid the best part of his weathered and wrinkled face. His teeth were brown-ish and looked poorly kept. He was wearing a forest green jacket and brown canvas pants. Worn brown gloves hung out of the right pocket. I was afraid to shift my gaze elsewhere, preferring to keep it focused to predict his intentions; my confidence ebbed. I left it to him to make the first move.
“Hi,” he said, you must be new. My name is Joe.”
“Hi Joe, my name is Bill and yes I am new.”
“Ok, I just want to introduce myself, I’m Corporal Wallace and I’m here on vacation for the next few months. I work undercover most of the time and that’s why I look this way.”
Six months of training in Regina did nothing to prepare me for the next 10 minutes of conversation with Joe. Of course I didn’t believe Joe’s story and yet, who could be absolutely sure. In that period of time I can’t really recall our conversation. All I wanted to do was leave my options open and play the scenario out. And I remember thinking that reality doesn’t pattern theory very well! Just before my food order came, Joe excused himself and left the building. With a smile on her face and a plate of chicken in her hand, Ginny the waitress remarked, “I see you’ve met Joe!”
While I don’t now recall the conversation that I had with Joe during that first 10-minute meeting, I do remember thinking that the first 10 hours had been totally unlike what I had originally expected of police work. But as a learning opportunity, that experience taught me two important lessons that would anchor my behaviour for the next 30 years. First, Joe taught me to trust my instincts in every situation but to leave my options open to all possibilities. Second, Joe taught me to always keep communication open and interactive at all times. These two lessons served me well and kept me safe during my career. Joe appeared on my first day, either by coincidence or fate, with a message, to enjoy my career regardless of the seemingly unfriendly circumstances or impossible goals and to seek out the support and opinion of others in all situations, whenever possible.
Maybe Joe was an undercover officer after all!