This was the key phrase that averted a minor catastrophe and put the best end to that was playing out to be one of those “you’ll never believe this” mini-dramas at two in the morning last fall, around a tree, in downtown Ouray, Colorado. My bride and I had been peacefully asleep when one of Ouray PD’s finest special-called me.
When fully-staffed, there are only 17 full time law enforcement officers in Ouray County; divided between the County Sheriff, the Ouray City Police Department, the Ridgway Marshal’s Office and the enforcement rangers for the Ridgway State Park. That’s not a heck of a lot of law enforcement for 542 square miles. The agencies back each other up but you can be on your own for a while until help arrives.
I wasn’t special-called because officer Biggs, of course nicknamed “Smalls” needed, to quote the movie ‘The Princess Bride,’ “the Brute Squad”. Nope, she wanted me there to pick up the pieces when she tasered this one particular drunken bubba’s butt.
To set the stage, in the City of Ouray, population 973, we had been having periodic problems with marauding bruins coming into town and going dumpster diving. To compound the problem, somehow the bears seemed to know that this would be a particularly long and cold winter for them. How they knew we would end up receiving 178% of normal snowfall science has yet to figure out. Anyway, throughout the month of October we were having even more than the usual number of marauding bear “visits”.
It just so happened on this particular evening that three Texas elk hunters, down on their hunting luck, were drowning their sorrows at the Silver Eagle Saloon when one of them spotted a bear crossing Main Street.
Like any fine somewhat inebriated self respecting Texan would do, they ran out and gave chase to said bear.
Frankly, if the bear had hauled off and decked them, it would have served them right but then the bear would have had to been put down by the Colorado Dept. of Wildlife. So our smarter-than-average bruin turned and high tailed it towards the hillside.
The problem was that he had just finished gorging himself of the contents of several trash cans so he was lumbering a little slower than usual. In turn, our highly motivated but judgmentally-challenged Texans, who were whooping and hollering, were gaining ground. Not to mention generating numerous calls, at least for us, to 911 for disturbing the peace at almost two in the morning.
When Officer Biggs caught up with the group, they had chased the bear up a tree. But that was not the worst of it. Not by a long shot.
The boldest or drunkest of the group had climbed up the tree after the bear because, and I quote, he was going to “Whack it in the butt!”.
You can’t make stuff like this up.
So why was I special-called? Well the telephone conversation went something like this…”This is Norm.” I have long had the ability to sound like I’m wide awake when awakened from a sound sleep by radio traffic or a phone call, even while the brain is still rebooting up.
“Norm, I need you right now.” Officer Biggs informed me in a tone of voice that spoke volumes.
“Ahhh, Nicole… Why?”
“I’m finally going to get to tase someone and I want you here when he falls out of the tree.”
Over the top of voices shouting in the background and Nicole telling someone to get down now, right now and she wasn’t fooling, she went on to tell me, “I’m the only one from my academy class who hasn’t tasered anyone yet, but that is about to end tonight so get down here now.”
More shouting in the background and other noises I couldn’t quite identify and Nicole ordering someone down again. “Look, just get here.” And she hung up.
As I struggled out of bed, disturbing our cat who let me know that she was annoyed, my bride asked what the call was about. I told her I wasn’t quite sure but it sounded like Nicole was about to taser someone.
Vicki called it right as she rolled back over, “Probably some drunken Texan. This time let the police take him down.”
OK, you can take the medic out of the city, but some of those muscle memory instincts don’t always stay behind. There had been a couple of calls over the past three years where I had “adjudicated” a situation and then realized that law enforcement was there and it was in their job description to do so, not mine.
So properly and appropriately chastised I finished dressing and drove the short mile and half to Nicole’s location.
There was Nicole on one side of a swaying 45-foot pine tree and two fellows on the other hollerin’ up to their buddy about 20-feet or so up in the tree who was still insisting that he just wanted to “Whack it in the butt!”.
The Ouray County Sheriff’s deputy was responding to back her up but he was way up in the north end of the county and still about 10 minutes out.
Nicole had her taser out and little blue flashes of electricity were arcing between the dry stun electrodes as she gave several warning cracks on it to let everyone know she was serious.
She gave one last command for the fellow to come down now. Right now or she was going to fry his butt!
It was then that one of the buddies let out with the telling phrase.
“You better come down now Cody, she really means it and she’s more than pissed. She’s Mama Mad.”
Apparently the term “Mama Mad” caused some preconditioned survival neurons to kick-in and take over. All of a sudden our belligerent tree climber turned docile as a boy scout, climbed down and stood in front of Nicole, all five foot four of her. With his head hung down and in a soft voice totally different from his early hollerin’ he apologized.
“Sorry ma’am. I guess I got carried away.”
Nicole said a few more things. All three of the now humble and chagrined Texans stood towering over her with their heads hung down and mumbling a chorus of “Yes ma’ams” and “No Ma’ams.”. Nicole ended up taking a field report and let him off with a warning.
Our young tree climber and his buddies promised to never, ever, ever chase a bear again or otherwise make rowdy in town and walked back to their motel.
Nicole turned to me and instead of saying thanks, said “Damn! I’m still the only one from my academy class that hasn’t tased anyone yet.”
I said something about better luck next time and got back into my buggy and headed back home. On the way home I started playing the little mini-drama back in my head. The obvious turning pint had been the phrase “Mama Mad”.
I got to thinking about the power of those words.
Obviously this has to be a conditioned response. My dad had a phrase that he would use, “You better” fill in the blank, “or heads will roll and tears will flow like rivers.” When my brother and I would hear this we knew there was only one correct response and everything else would result in pain or worse.
This wasn’t an immediate response the first time we heard those words. We had learned over the years, the meaning behind them. Good judgment is what you get for surviving bad judgment. Yours or someone else’s.
But our mother, she had various levels of, shall we say, force escalation.
Everything from reasoning, motivating, to indirect action. She taught my brother and I to start making our own beds by short sheeting them when I was 12. We quickly figured out it was easier to just make the bed then have to get up at night and remake it right just so we could sleep. And she strategically timed this behavioral modification during the winter months so there was no faking it by sleeping between the top sheet and the bedspread or blanket.
But when those didn’t work, or we had just plain ticked her off most royally or had otherwise pushed her past her limit, well then, the game was on. And Mama Mad was just not a good time for bonding.
Not that I ever got a whoopin’ I hadn’t earned, with one exception, it was just that when mom got to that point, even if my brother JD or I held perfectly still, it was only a 50/50 chance that the swat, shot with the wooden spoon or swing of the belt would actually land on our butts. I understood ‘Mama Mad’ all to well. Having pushed her to that a time or two growing up.
And speaking of games, how many of you remember the 1992 movie A League Of Their Own’? My friend Kenny Darenzo’s mom was one of the women who played in the women’s professional baseball league during World War Two. She had one heck of a throwing arm.
One day Dick Sterne and I were playing at Kenny’s, I think we were 11 or 12. Anyway, Kenny’s older brother Bill had done something to tick their mom off. I mean really cheese her off. She was unpacking groceries while we were playing in the den. Kenny happened to look up and spot his brother walking down the driveway about the same time his mother did.
Kenny took one look at her as she was making for the front door, threw open the window and yelled “Run Bill. She’s got a potato!”
Bill turned around and started beating feet but he wasn’t quick enough. She caught him at almost a hundred feet away right between the shoulder blades, bringing him down in a cloud of dust. She then turned and glared at Kenny.
Dick and I were frozen in place like deer-in-the-headlights but Kenny had no illusions on what was coming next. He took off for his bedroom as quick as he could as Mrs. Darenzo pulled off her sneaker let it fly. Kenny had already rounded the corner and was two steps from his door, but like a Cruise Missile, that sneaker tracked him around the corner and caught him in the back of the knees, bringing him down with a crash.
She fixed us with a look that said “Problem?!”
“Uh, no ma’am. I think we’ll just be going home now.”
As I grew up and left home to follow the medic trail. I encountered numerous examples across the races and religions in various parts of the country that reinforced the old adage, “If Mama Ain’t Happy, Ain’t Nobody Happy”.
Whether in the poor or working class neighborhoods of St. Louis or the blue collar neighborhoods of Ypsitucky. That’s actually Ypsilanti, Michigan. So many southerners, especially from Kentucky had migrated north to work at the GM Hydramatic Plant in Ypsilanti that in the 70’s it had earned that nickname by us emergency responders.
From there to the multicultural neighborhoods of south San Jose to the streets of San Francisco, one thing was constant. In most families, single parent or both, gay or straight, the mother, or the person in the mother role, was the driving force for the family the vast majority of the time.
On more occasions than I can accurately recount I managed to talk my partner and I out of trouble or calmed down an explosive scene by identifying the alpha female and working with them. Once she was with the program, the rest of the family generally calmed down. Or at least stopped venting on us.
This wasn’t always possible though. One call in particular stands out. It was a late spring night 22 years ago. 1986. My partner and I had been dispatched to an assault in a low-income apartment parking lot. It was one of those East San Jose surrealistic calls that sort of defied logic.
For one, the Santa Clara Valley had been developed so quickly in the 60’s & 70’s that there were miles and miles of low and middle income housing in what had only a decade or so before been fruit orchards. Each developer, in turn was able to assign street names to their developments. This resulted in some really interesting themed names for various neighborhoods.
One neighborhood would have wine related themes. Chardonnay Way, Cabaret Lane, etc.. Another was named after various agricultural products.
Cantaloupe Drive, Melon Street. And for some poor married couples, Honey Dew Lane. (The husbands out there will all get this one.)
Anyway, this low income apartment complex was located in a neighborhood where all the streets were named after Disney characters. So we were responding to the intersection of Bambi Lane and Cinderella Court for the assault.
We arrived with a two-man fire unit and two police cars to find a big 16 year old Samoan kid laying unconscious in the parking lot. He had obviously been in a fight and come in second. We c-spined him, backboard, c-collar, sandbags and tape. A nasal pharyngeal airway and high flow oxygen via a non-rebreather mask completed the ensemble.
We had just lifted him onto the gurney and were just about to raise it up to roll it over to the ambulance when we heard a commotion coming towards us. We turned to observe a large Samoan woman running towards us being trailed by what we later learned were her other sons, daughters, nieces and nephews. She was just about my height and size and we were two of the smaller members of the group that arrived.
She threw herself across our patient who turned out be her son and started crying.
I was just about to step forward and reassure her that he would be all right when she started shouting “I told you not to hang out with those boys!” And started punching and slapping her unconscious son.
The oxygen mask and then the c-collar went flying in different directions as she continued to chastise and otherwise vent her frustrations to her unconscious son. I started to step in to intervene when I felt a large hand on my shoulder.
One of her older sons leaned down and said in a low and actually very kind voice. “Don’t. When she gets like this it’s best not to get in the way.”
She was Mama Mad. While I was contemplating his words she finished meting out punishment, cried on our patient’s chest for another minute or so and then told him that she loved him and would see him at the hospital.
We hustled our patient to the ambulance before she had a chance to change her mind and repackaged the kid enroute. Documentation? It began with ‘the patient was the victim of several assaults’ and then went on to describe his injuries, treatments and response to those.
Getting back to the present, as I returned home and made my way back upstairs to annoy our cat yet again because I made her move out of my spot in bed, I bet that patient from 1986 understood what “Mama Mad” was and idly wondered what our tree climbing Texan had done to learn what it meant as well.