Saturday, September 01, 2007

A Rough Script of Life, if Ever There Was One

By DAN BARRY
This Land
The New York Times
September 2, 2007

CHADRON, Neb.

Item from the blotter of the Chadron Police Department: Caller from the 900 block of Morehead Street reported that someone had taken three garden gnomes from her location sometime during the night. She described them as plastic, “with chubby cheeks and red hats.”

When you reach Chadron you’re glad for it, because this Nebraska town is a long way from anywhere. Drive north on Main Street, past the Police Department, and you hit prairie; drive south, past the state college, and you hit prairie. In between, 5,600 people embrace, avoid and endure one another in a compact place that began more than a century ago as a remote railroad town.

Here, as anywhere, the specifics of most encounters between residents evaporate with the moment, leaving only those precious, fleeting bits, snatched from the ether and pinned by some dispatcher sitting at a desk behind the Police Department’s service window. A call comes in, the dispatcher types and another brief paragraph is added to the continuing Chadron epic.

Caller from the 200 block of Morehead Street advised a man was in front of their shop yelling and yodeling. Subject was told to stop yodeling until Oktoberfest.

It is in this regard that Chadron is blessed. For here, life’s gradual unfolding is measured and honored by Police Beat, a longstanding feature in The Chadron Record, the weekly newspaper. It records those small, true moments lost in the shadows of the large — moments that may not rise to the Olympian heights of newsworthiness, yet still say something about who we are and how we create this thing called community.

Caller from the 400 block of Third Street advised that a subject has been calling her and her employees, singing Elvis songs to them.

Police Beat repeats, almost verbatim, some of the calls that the town’s police dispatchers receive and then dutifully log, often in a literary style that synthesizes the detached jargon of the police with the conversational language of the people.

Caller from the 200 block of Morehead Street advised that a known subject was raising Cain again.

Every day, except on those days when they don’t feel like it, the dispatchers fax copies of their calls log to the ink-perfumed office of The Record, just around the corner. There, a young reporter named Heather Crofutt selects the most interesting items, edits out the names and specific addresses and types them up for Police Beat. Although she is essentially transcribing the reports, she says, “People think I make it up.”

Officer on the 1000 block of West Highway 20 found a known male subject in the creek between Taco John’s and Bauerkemper’s. Subject was covered in water stating he was protecting his family. Officers gave subject ride home.

George Ledbetter, the editor, says Police Beat rivals the obituaries in popularity, so much so that it has become an integral part of local culture. Not long ago, for example, the loud practice sessions of four Chadron State College musicians earned them a mention in the log. They instantly knew what to call their fledgling band: Police Beat.

Mr. Ledbetter struggles to name his favorite item; there are so many. But taken as a whole, he says, the feature is “such a reflection of human life.”

Over the years, Chadron police officials have had a tolerate-hate relationship with Police Beat. One top-ranking officer complains that the feature seems to minimize the difficulty of police work. She says that while there are plenty of calls about animal encounters (Caller on the 900 block of Parry Drive advised a squirrel has climbed down her chimney and is now in the fireplace looking at her through the glass door, chirping at her.), there are plenty of calls about far more serious matters: child abuse, domestic violence, you name it.

But Police Beat often reflects how heavily some of us rely on law enforcement for just about everything (Caller from the 800 block of Pine Street advised that she had just left someone’s home and she forgot her jacket, and requested an officer to get her coat), and demonstrates how deft the police can be at defusing potentially volatile matters:

Caller from the 100 block of North Morehead Street requested to speak to animal control because caller felt that someone was coming into his yard and cutting the hair on his dogs. Dispatch advised caller to set up video surveillance on his house. Caller said he planned on it.

What emerges, then, is a kind of weekly prose poem to the human condition, where annoyance about barking dogs is validated, where nighttime fears born of isolation are reflected, where concern about others is memorialized.

Caller stated that there is a 9-year-old boy out mowing the yard and feels that it is endangering the child in doing so when the mother is perfectly capable of doing it herself.

In short, Police Beat is a rough script to the tragicomedy that is everyday life. And if the details preserved in the ever-expanding Chadron epic do not always find us at our best, there are moments, recorded for posterity, when we seek redemption, we make amends. We try.

Two weeks after the theft of those three chubby-cheeked, red-hatted garden ornaments, a brief item in Police Beat reported a break in the case. Two girls refusing to identify themselves had “brought in some gnomes.”

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