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کتاب: زندگی در چند بخش / فصل 13

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Explorer

My dad liked that the name Kim Edward Cranston sounded like King Edward Cranston, but when my mother suggested that they just name him King, Dad countered that it would be too hard for my brother to live up to that name, and it might confuse people. They might think it was our dog. Here, King! So, Kim it was, and Kim it remained for about a dozen years.

Kim always felt he got short shrift in the name department. Kim was a girl’s name, he’d say. Edward, his middle name, was slightly better, but I think he hated his options there, too: Ed, Eddie, Edward. Blah!

In high school he became Ed, the least objectionable of the bunch.

Ed joined the LAPD Explorers, a training ground for future police officers, after career day at Canoga Park High. In those days every high school, especially ones like ours in lower-middle-class areas, would host visits from service providers to get kids to start thinking about their lives after twelfth grade. I’m not sure exactly what drew Ed to the program, but I know what drew me. The first year my brother was in the Explorers, he took a trip to Hawaii. The following year he went to Japan. I was marking time at odd jobs while my brother sent postcards of white-sand beaches and torii gates. I stared a long time at those images, steeped in envy.

I joined the minute I reached the minimum age of sixteen. I had no designs on a career as a cop; I just wanted to travel the world. But in order to join the Explorers you had to go to the LAPD Academy for eight Saturdays in a row to study police work. Explorers were asked to man parade routes, help with minor traffic control, issue bicycle licenses, and participate in searches for evidence at crime scenes, among other duties.

Our West Valley Division was the cream of the crop. The big reason was Sergeant Roy Van Wicklin, Van to everyone except new recruits; you had to earn the right to call him Van. He’d been a paratrooper in the army in World War II, and he brought a soldier’s discipline to the Explorers. He was squared away. And he was tough, but only because he cared so much. He arranged for his division’s newbies to go through a Hell Weekend prior to the start of the regular academy with the rest of the division’s recruits. We studied police procedures and codes, drill formations. We trained like animals: eat, train, sleep, repeat. The older recruits made it extra hellish. It was a bitch. The consolation was knowing the shit you were taking, you’d get to give back to next year’s new crop.

Sergeant Van Wicklin set up a special trip to the morgue for us every year. Special. My ass. So many guys came up with lame reasons why they couldn’t make the trip: homework overload, my grandma needs me to walk her across the street, explosive diarrhea.

Those of us without the brains or the balls to make an excuse took the bus over together. I looked around and saw all the guys smiling tightly. Every one of us felt deep dread, though none of us showed it. Wouldn’t be manly.

The smell of formaldehyde—like pickle juice and aftershave—made my eyes water. We walked by a long row of bodies draped in white sheets. They seemed like zombie spectators settled in along a parade route to watch terrified teenagers shuffle past. I caught sight of a man’s bluish foot sticking out from beneath a sheet. Looking around, I realized that all the bodies had one foot uncovered, toe tag dangling—a way for the technicians to quickly locate the corpse they were looking for. Whatever these people had achieved in life, whatever they had seen or suffered, was reduced to a toe tag. That was the inevitable fact.

In another room, two men wearing rubberized jumpsuits casually chatted as they worked. Music played from a tinny transistor radio. They barely registered our presence. One was tending to a new arrival, a body in full rigor mortis—natural muscle stiffening that occurs shortly after death. We saw the technician snap the body’s extremities. We’d learn this part of the process was called breaking rigor. They released the muscles, preparing the body for the next step. No explanation could change how savage it seemed. It was hard to accept that bodies didn’t feel anymore.

The other man was washing a female body with a sponge and soapy water. I was sixteen. The only thing I wanted in life was to see a naked woman. To my great misfortune, this was my first. Well, outside of Playboy magazine, and accidentally seeing my grandmother stepping out of the shower.

Whoever she was—midtwenties, pretty—I wondered what her name was, how she died, whether her family was overcome with grief. A shuddering, overwhelming compassion moved through me.

BLAM! One of my fellow Explorers hit the ground. He’d fainted. Out cold. People rushed to his aid. He’d be all right. The technicians shared a smile.

A doctor was describing the protocol at the morgue, but his voice became background noise, like the teacher’s drone in a Charlie Brown cartoon. It wasn’t until we were almost out of the room that I noticed the song that had been playing on the transistor radio. The Everly Brothers hit “Wake Up Little Susie.” I’d never hear that song the same way again.

If breaking rigor and body washing was the warm-up act, then an autopsy was the main event. We watched a doctor cut a clean line through a man’s chest with an electric saw. At another table, a physician peeled back a woman’s scalp. Body cavities were opened. Fluids escaped. Organs were gently removed for study. Down went a couple more of my friends. They were carried from the room. Two others left so they wouldn’t have to be carted out. I focused on my breathing. My great chicken-shit epiphany crossed my mind, but I chose mouth-breathing in the end. If I breathed through my nose the formaldehyde would nauseate me. I wasn’t going to go down like my fallen comrades.

At some point I was able to get beyond my physical responses and focus on the mystery at hand—the essential mystery. An autopsy is ordered only when the cause of death is not absolutely certain. There were discoveries to be made. What happened? Bodies were complex riddles to be solved.

Once the doctors had collected all the evidence, they put the body back in the condition they found it, more or . . . less. They poured all the fluids and plopped the organs into the cavity and sewed it up. I saw how professional these people were, and how serious a duty it was to attend to the dead, and yet this was their job, and they needed to desensitize themselves, to be slightly workaday about what they might have once found gruesome; which, of course, was the point of the visit to the morgue. If I took the law-enforcement path, I would have to learn to shut down and not let blood and guts and death affect me.

But did I want to be desensitized?

At that moment, what I wanted or did not want in the long haul was irrelevant. The whole reason I’d joined the Explorers program in the first place was so I could see the world, and sure enough, when summertime rolled around, I got to go on a monthlong trip to Europe. The entire cost, including airfare, food, and travel was something like six hundred bucks. That was a fortune to me then, but the idea of seeing the greater world beyond Canoga Park and the confines of my mother’s house was all the motivation I needed. I socked away every dime I could.

Police departments in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands hosted our group: twenty teenage boys accompanied by a few policemen chaperones. We slept in military barracks or police auxiliary halls. You put your sleeping bag on a cot, and you were home.

My first trip abroad, my first time being around people who spoke different languages; they sounded almost moonlike to me. But we didn’t have much time to fraternize; every detail of our days was accounted for. We were guests at lunches and functions and took tours of police facilities, even Interpol. In the evenings, we were unshackled from the itinerary. Each night we got the lecture: Be back at 2300 hours. Be careful. Don’t do anything stupid. Don’t go to bars.

We went straight for the bars.

One night in Austria, I paired off with two guys a little older than me, both more aggressive and confident. They were resolute, they were dogged, they were on a mission: their virgin years were about to be over. It was time.

Like they had some teenage boys’ version of sonar, they made a beeline for an Old World house close to the center of Salzburg. A red light gleamed from an impressive wall sconce. This was the beacon! This was the promised land!

I stood in the foyer as the two boys haggled with the proprietor using hand gestures and broken English and agreed on a price. Meanwhile, I made the lame excuse that I forgot to bring money and gave the universal sign for empty pockets.

My buddies went upstairs with their chosen companions, and I shrugged and took a seat and stared at my shoes. I think this had been my plan all along. I hadn’t had the courage to make that night the night. My friends had boldly met their agenda. No hesitation. And there I sat, glum, berating myself, then giving myself a pep talk. Those guys were braver than me. But I bet neither of them had ever beheaded a chicken!

When I looked up, a woman in a minuscule blue dress was standing over me, hands on hips. She waved me to come with her. I fished out the few bills I had to show her: I don’t have enough. She took the money and grabbed my hand.

In the room, she indicated I should take off my clothes. This was happening. I undressed slowly. She handed me a sealed condom. I struggled to open it for a bit too long, and she snatched it back, opening the package and putting it on for me. I was already erect—more nervousness than excitement. She lifted her dress. She wore no panties. What was the point? She lay down on the twin bed and brought me down on top of her and pulled me into her. I saw her breasts. I’ve got to touch her breasts. I went for it. Soft and—WAP. She slapped my hand, hard, clearly indicating You don’t have enough money for that. Just get it over with.

And soon, it was. There’d been no fireworks. No tenderness. No talking. We never exchanged names. I’d had no idea what I was doing. It was just this stranger and me at this particular moment in time. As uncomplicated as it could be. She wasn’t expecting anything from me. She wasn’t disappointed. She felt nothing. For her, it’d been an utterly forgettable moment. But it was a moment I’d never forget. Though I admit I couldn’t conjure her face under a threat of death.

I got up and got dressed. She got herself together and she was gone. She left the door open behind her.

It turned out nearly half the guys in our group went to whorehouses that night—including my brother; we lost our virginity on the same night, an odd coincidence that we never bring up. From that point on, it was the hooker tour. Most of the kids’ parents had given them money. Enjoy your trip! In Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, whenever we were allowed any free time, it was the same patter. What’s that? The Louvre? That’s nice. Why don’t we get going so we can experience some interactions with the locals and help circulate money to the people? Help the economy by supporting small business.

• • •

Back home I discovered that the Explorers wasn’t just about foreign relations. I discovered I had real aptitude for police work. As I neared the end of high school I realized that’s how you forged a career. You alighted on something you were good at and then you bored into it.

I applied myself to the Explorers and excelled in physical and scholastic achievement: running, obstacle course, sit-ups, push-ups, relay course, and marching drills. I learned that a 211 was a robbery and a 459 was a murder. Code 1 was get there when you can. Code 2 meant get there quickly. (Lights.) Code 3 was get there immediately. (Lights and siren.) Code 7 was grabbing a bite to eat. A 10–100 meant you were on a bathroom break. (A bit of police argot the film business borrowed; it’s part of the lexicon on set.) There were codes for all kinds of things. I memorized every last one, along with proper procedure on securing evidence, when to approach a crime scene, crowd control.

I graduated first in my class of Explorers. Number one out of 111 kids from all over the city. Number one! Had I ever been number one at anything? The die was cast. I’d learn to shut down my feelings and do the job.

I say I was first. I was first with an asterisk.

In the final testing at the police academy, I aced the scholastic stuff.

And then came the physical component. I breezed through the obstacle course and scored one hundred, the maximum, in jumping jacks and sit-ups. All I had left to do was polish off the push-ups. Every Explorer was given a buddy to do the counting to assure accuracy. My buddy was another West Valley recruit named Vince Serratella. Vince was a good guy. He was a friend. After I counted out his sixty or so push-ups, it was my turn to knock off a hundred and get a perfect score. I had done one hundred push-ups a few times before in training. It wasn’t easy, but it was doable, and I was confident going in. I was in peak shape. I was sixteen years old, determined to finally achieve something.

At about push-up seventy-eight, I was laboring and fatigued, but still pretty strong. When I hit eighty, Vince called out: “Ninety!” What? I was initially confused, thinking that Vince made a mistake, but after a few more push-ups I realized what he was doing. Ninety-two. Ninety-three. He was cheating for me. Only a handful of the 111 recruits accomplished one hundred push-ups, so ninety was noteworthy. The instructors and other Explorers rushed over to cheer me on. I could feel the crowd thickening around me. The group began to count down in unison.

I ground out the last few, my whole body burning, my mind racing about what I should do next: Should I continue and finish it the right way? Or should I just go along and pretend I’d really done the full count? I was still undecided when Vince cried out: One hundred! My classmates surrounded me and cheered. Vince clapped me on the back. I was a hero. And I was glad not to have to do ten more push-ups.

At the same time, I thought, I could have done ten more. I was exhausted, but not completely spent. I might have done something great. Now I’d never know. I quickly let myself forget Vince and got lost in the moment. But as I was getting congratulatory punches on the shoulder, deep down I knew. I hadn’t earned it.

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