Fremont: On Serendipity in Law Enforcement and Writing

Fremont District Library

Thursday, April 27, 2013

Reality and Fiction in the World of Woods Cops

It’s great to be among book-lovers.  

Not everyone feels so positively about books as we do, so let me share a little story with you to illustrate this other reality – one we book folks need to bear in mind at all times.

My friend, an English professor at Western Michigan University, had a student who excelled in English and was approaching his senior year.  The professor felt that this student ought to seriously consider seeking advanced degrees in English.

            My friend mentioned this to the student, who admitted he was interested, but also certain his father would never go for it. My friend said, “Why don’t you bring your dad around for coffee and  let me talk to him.” The student agreed… albeit reluctantly.

            The day arrived and my friend greeted the student and his father and proceeded to tell dad what a fine and gifted student  his son was, a fine writer, an exquisitely perceptive reader, and the possessor of a wonderful eye and ear for characters and stories and language.

My friend concluded that he was certain the boy would easily secure a Ph.D in English and have a fine and rewarding academic career teaching college students.

            The father said not a word  until this moment, when he leaned forward,  elbows on  his knees,  fists clenched white, squinted his eyes and declared, “Books……..lies.”

             True story: Make no mistake: There are many folks in this country who share the man’s view, and do not share the love and interests of people sitting here.  There is another group of people who think books are fine – as long as the views and opinions in those books agree with what those folks already believe, otherwise they too are all lies.

In a revolution one of the first things that happens is that one side burns the books of the opposing side.  One good thing here: it’s a lot easier to shut down a so-called social utilitythan find books to burn. You have to ferret out the books one at a time.

These anti-forces are always among us. Yes, even in America. For all our lip service to free speech, there are a lot of Americans at both dark extremes of the political spectrum who believe free speech belongs solely to them and those who believe the way they do.

The role of serendipity and luck in law enforcement, as in life, is real and often overlooked. Serendipity, meaning right time, right place, the simultaneous intersection of luck, sight and focus.

What might appear to be random chaos or nothing to a civilian , is seen as possible evidence and a potential investigation by the Woods Cop.

  Here’s a real case from two weeks ago.  I was there.

A call comes in from the county of a deer carcass discarded in a remote farm field. This happens thousands of times around the state every year, and most often occurs at night in a drive-by dumping. It is technically littering, but seldom is there evidence to take you to the dumper, much less other transgressions.  

Enter serendipity.

Conscientious officers check every such report and this time  my partner and I roll up to the offending carcass,  and lo and behold,  there lays a tiny doe, with  a 2012 deer tag. We run the license number through the state’s Retail Sales System, and get a name, telephone number, and an address.

We don’t call ahead. We simply drive into the individual’s  driveway, knock on his door, and ask him to  step outside to talk.

After some squirming he admits to dumping the carcass, and almost as matter-of-factly, he tells us that he tagged, but did not shoot the deer. The tiny doe which he proudly described as “big” was shot in the neighboring county by an acquaintance of his, who killed it for him so he could have venison. We learn later he was actually hunting on the property at the time and the shooter called him over, and announced, “I got your deer for you.”

We tell him to not call the other person, who we learn does not get home until later in the evening and at that time we pull  into that  driveway and are invited in and begin asking questions. The man readily – almost happily — admits to shooting the deer. He’s 51 and had never known that one cannot shoot a deer unless the shooter tags it.  He immediately demands to know (because it’s my constitutional right to know, how the CO learned of this). The CO does not tell him; it’s none of his business that his pal is sloppy and equally ignorant.

We then ask questions and there is some discrepancy between he and wifey as to how many deer got shot last fall.

The CO goes out to the barn. I stay with the wife to engage her so the man can have privacy for the interview outside. I continue to ask polite questions. Though the season has ended just four months ago, the wife can’t remember if she shot one or two bucks. When we first asked this she said two with confidence, then looked at hubby and clumsily amended the answer to one?, You know, one like with a question mark?

 I say, “You had tags for four deer and shot one — or two — so where are your unused tags?”

“Burned them,” she says, “you know, like to get rid of the litter?”

Litter.  Let me paint a picture for you; I am standing in an old farmhouse (once owned by the current owner’s grandfather) and there is stuff, and trash, and litter,  all over the floors and counters, a place that strongly reeks of the uremic acid of five cats running loose, walking across tables, on the counters, in sinks, everywhere, and stinking to high Heaven. And she burned the licenses to save on litter?


The woman owns that she has been “Nuts about deer hunting since she was a young girl,” but so sorry, she just can’t remember how many deer she shot last season.  She does remember, however, that her one buck was a ten-point, shot on Thanksgiving Day at nine in the morning. She remembers this because the buck was bigger than hubby’s biggest buck?

“How many did you  shoot the previous season? I ask

Note here, from a writer’s technique  perspective I am telling this story in present tense to increase suspense in the telling.

“An eight-point, and a doe,” she answers without hesitation.

She can remember two years ago, but not last season?

Very odd.

The man, meanwhile, shows the CO the skulls with tags of his deer and gives us the name of his meat processor. Our hunter demands/ pleads with us not to go visit the processor at this hour, but we do, and the processor tells us how the man in question brings all his deer to him, and those shot by friends, and by his kids, and by his grandkids and by his relatives and so forth.. that lots of deer get shot on that property by lots of people.  We think he is trying to tell us something. We will pass word to the CO for this county and let him work it as a lead next deer season.

All the processor’s records are in order and the individual will get a ticket for not tagging a deer with his own tags and for borrowing a license. It seems likely that more than this one doe was shot, that this smells like it is a custom on the property, but there is no solid evidence and no point  taking this one case any further.

Following up on a carcass call has led to an individual who loaned his tag and dumped illegally, and from him to a man who borrowed the tag and failed to tag his own deer and two properties and individuals to be watched for the future.

Interestingly, neither man has ever read the DNR hunting guide and neither knows the rules, except what they think they have absorbed from listening to others. This is quite common in this state — hunters who never read the guide.

Serendipity can sometimes rhyme with stupidity.

For the past dozen years I’ve spent roughly a month a year in trucks with COs all over the state, mainly in the U.P., but also in downtown Detroit and Lansing. I witness serendipity all the time. And massive stupidity and so much lying tht it can make you both dizzy.

This whole notion of serendipity interests me as a writer and the central technical writing question is how do you capture the mystery of a case in such a way as to maintain  the reader ‘s interest and suspense? The answer for me is tell the story from inside only one character’s head and that is from the mind of Grady Service. Unlike writing from a multiple points of view, that is, omnisciently from the minds of multiple characters,  you and I are both restricted to knowing only what Grady Service knows, and following along as he tries to figure out the puzzle he faces.

It’s more difficult to write this way because it is so much more restrictive, but it is also more like life’s realities  and this  helps me to build and maintain suspense, and more importantly to me, it gives us a view of what it is like to be an officer, what they face, how they think, and react to, and handle  things.

In my years in trucks officers have been extremely forthcoming about what they are thinking and weighing at any given moment as we go about the patrol. This helps me produce a convincing inner professional life for Grady Service and lets the reader experience his or her thoughts and methods.

My job is not to provide my own report of the affair in hand, but my account of another person’s impression of reality – Grady’s.

My goal is to eliminate the author-creator entirely from the story so that when you read, you are swept into the motion of life that Grady Service lives. If I do my job correctly,  I do not exist. This is by design.

The experience of a book is, in my mind, wholly on paper (or an electronic reader) and the experience and magic is conveyed by my words into your mind, where your own mind completes the connection and allows you to buy into the story or not. With a book and no experience with me in the flesh, everything is in the book. Whether I am a jerk or nice guy is totally irrelevant.

It follows then, that coming out and talking to you like this can upset that intimate applecart of words – the chemistry, if you will. In my mind, the worst thing that can come out of this experience is that you will go to the next book and start trying to guess what part is me speaking and what part is Grady. You now hear my voice and that’s the last thing I want when you read my stories. We writers take pride in our writing, but why anyone would want to listen to us is beyond most of us.

Lonesome Dove author, Larry McMurtry, has said, “I like to read what writers’ write, but am rarely in the mood to listen to them yap.”  He has a point.

The truth is that I’m a lot more comfortable in a truck crawling around woodsy two-tracks and rooting out bad guys and fools than standing here drooling in front of an audience.

So what should you expect from a book?

Novelist Anne Roiphe once wrote: “You have to be a lover of books without expecting more of them than they give – a little pleasure, a little insight, a moment of escape, a deepening of your own humanity. Not much else.”

I am all of the characters, and none of the characters.

They speak things I believe and other  things I don’t believe.

A novelist gets paid to make stuff up. And it is my job to make what I write seem real.

And we make them up from whatever we can find or we think will work for us.

Some critics make the same mistake as readers, as in a time when critics wrote that Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Pudd’nhed Wilson WERE the real Mark Twain.

Fair enough, but why didn’t those same critics tell us the august Mark Twain was ALSO Nigger Jim and all the scoundrels in his stories? He created all of them and they were all him and not him, but products of his imagination. I think people have a hard time separating reality from fiction.

I think it is a compliment of sorts when people come to me and want to tell me how certain they are that character X is person A. Despite all the logic they employ and evidence they present they’re wrong. There is  never such a correlation.

There is no Grady Service.  He is an amalgam, a collection and blend of traits and qualities from many people, many I can’t even identify to myself, but all of it taken  through the prism of my ability to  depict them.

The reader is as important to the process of writing as is the writer.

By this I mean I intentionally omit details so your mind can insert your own interpretation. For example. I have told you that Grady is tall and big bodied. There are no other details in any of his stories and thus the picture of him in your mind is no doubt different than in my mind. And here I would confess that I have no physical picture of him in my mind. I don’t see him at all: I hear him, his voice, his personality, attitude, his views, his way of coming at the world and other people.

I try to paint the life of a Woods Cop as realistically as I can.

Almost all of of the things in my books have actually happened to officers, but many are made up and by making things up I hope to create more truth than a simple accumulation of pure facts might afford you. That may seem counter-intuitive, but while columns of statistics will tell some people a lot, a story that illustrates those statistics will tell you a lot more than pure facts.

Ed Sobol, founder of NFL Films made this point better than I can. Sobol said, “Tell me a fact and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth and I believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.”

That’s why we write fiction, to make stories we hope will live in your heart.

Or, as novelist Meg Wolitzer said earlier this week, “We write the books we want to find on the shelf.” So true.

Every Woods Cop story is designed and intended to feel chaotic, because that IS the life of a Conservation Officer. They have a plan of attack for every day they work, but once they check into Service and the first radio call comes from the RAP Room in Lansing, or a fellow officer, or the county dispatcher or another cop, city, county of trooper, the plan goes out the window. I call this life pattern peripatetic and it is.

Each book deals with a case that relates to a larger issue:

  • ICE HUNTER reflects on natural resource exploitation, specifically diamonds in the western U.P.
  • BLUE WOLF, endangered species and poor interagency cooperation.
  • BLOND MOON is about the  illicit international animal parts trade;
  • RUNNING DARK, tells you about the so-called Garden Peninsula“wars” over fishing rights.
  • STRIKE DOG is about the vagaries of officer safety.
  • SHADOW OF THE WOLF TREE concerns bogus environmental groups.
  • FORCE OF BLOOD deals with artifacts and history.
  • KILLING A COLD ONE, which comes out in September deals with politics and fantasy and crowd psychology. It is also the bloodiest of the novels yet written.
  • HARD GROUND, which officially publishes May 8, is a collection of 28 or 30 short stories all about conservation officers in the Upper Peninsula. The intent in this is to look at officers, men and women, at various stages of their careers and in an outrageous array of circumstances, some fun, some lethal, some very sad but covering lots of possibilities to entertain and inform readers.

I want readers to come away from the stories entertained and also with a sense of how tough conservation officers’ jobs are. A number of university studies have shown that conservation officers are eight times more likely to be injured in the line of duty than police officers in any other venue.

Part of this is logical: They are outside in all weather and across all terrain, a lot of it very inhospitable at best. They are out there on foot, in trucks, on four-wheelers, bicycles, dirt bikes, cross-country skis, snowshoes, snowmobiles, in motor boats, canoes, kayaks, on wave runners, and in aircraft.  I know another officer who hooks a ride on a train every now and then to catch track hunters, and another who watches for illegal hunters by riding a fully automated computer-driven harvester that is tied to the GPS system.  Great way to get around undetected.

Each of these methods carries its own risk benefit formula for normal operation and often COs are operating at the limits of the machinery and vehicles. Injury is inevitable, and fortunately death is rare, this due in great part to the intense, and continuing superior training our officers receive year in and year out.

They are constantly practicing shooting firearms by day and night in all weather conditions – multiple pistols, shotguns, rifles. You do not want to get into a night shootout with a CO.

They also train in first aid, hand-to-hand combat, driving boats and trucks and four wheelers and snowmobiles in combat and pursuit-chase conditions, electronic communications, interviewing, drug detection, booby traps, and many other things.  They are even taught how to use a boat as a tactical weapon.

They train year-round and the standards are demanding from day one throughout an officer’s career.

They are by every definition, an elite force. They are fully commissioned police officers who can enforce all laws, not just fish and game. Many are also federally deputized. Bottom line: they are the most powerful police officers in the state with powers that stretch far and wide.

Let me swerve here over to a few words about writing. Lots of people seem interested in the nuts and bolts of the actual writing process, so I will describe mine. But remember, there is no single “right” approach. The only test of a writer’s method is the result, not the process that produces it. What I do works for me and has been learned and refined over  more than three decades. All writers go through a similar journey.

So you want to be a writer?

You will read a lot. Fiction and nonfiction, poetry, everything. You will be fascinated by vocabulary and language.

You will carve out time to write every day, not just when the mood  tickles your fancy.

You will keep a regular schedule.

You will find a place to write where you can be alone and uninterrupted. You will not answer phone calls when you are working.

No drop-in visits from pals and friends and loved ones. Writing is a solo, selfish process, not a group effort.

Where does a book come from?

This is a fair, if unanswerable question. Oddly enough I would direct us to the words of the great painter Paul Cezanne who advised, “A work of art ,which does not begin in emotion, is not art. Emotion is the starting point, the beginning and the end. Craftmanship and technique are in the middle.”  I agree with the Monsieur Cezanne.

And if I wanted to strive for the ultimate compliment I would love to hear someone say of my work what one fellow painter said of Cezanne. “He is so good he can paint bad breath.”

The driving force for an artist, writer, painter, dancer, composer, musician is always the same thing: imagination. And while you can learn technique in classes and school, nobody can teach imagination. They can encourage it, but it cannot be installed like a fancy black box with special software.

You will need infinite patience as you move word by sentence by paragraph by chapter through each book realizing that from start until you see the work in a store it may be two years or longer. If you are in need of instant gratification, go elsewhere, and do something else.

Writing  usually doesn’t provide much in the way of public affirmation. The writer takes gratification in the day’s work, a book finished, the next one started.

But there are exceptions. Occasionally something funny happens.

Two falls back I was out with an officer in the UP during bear season for houndsmen, and we encountered a crew with 5-6 trucks and more than a dozen individuals and we could hear in the distance some of their dogs singing as they chased a bear.  My young partner jawed with the hunters, and I stood quietly beside him. On the other side of my partner  there was an old guy with a snow white Santy Claus beard, a Richard III  bent back, and soul-less Dick Cheney eyes and he leaned over, and looked  up at my partner and, out of the blue, said, “Who do you think YOU are, Grady Service?”

I choked. My young partner didn’t miss a beat and said, “Nah, he gets more women than I do.” Everyone roared.

We  said nothing, returned to our truck, got in, drove a mile out to the main gravel, stopped, looked at each other and broke down laughing. “If I had told them who you were, we would have been there schmoozing for an hour!”  So it sometimes goes for a “local author” 500 miles from home.

Not being recognized is wonderful gift.  Back in Portage and Kalamazoo I’m rarely recognized, except by friends. Most of my neighbors don’t even know I am an author.  But up in the north woods, presumably where it should never happen, I get recognized a lot more than you might think.

One morning I was gassing my truck at the Happy Rock Shell in Gladstone and a woman walked by, stopped, backed up, stared at me,  waggled her finger,  and yelped, “Hey, when the hell is  that next Grady Service story coming out?”
            Never saw her before. Or since. No name, no introduction, just where the hell is your next book? She made me laugh.

Once in a while you get the right ship – wrong crew situation. One morning in Portage, an old gent ambled up to the garage where I was  tumbling agates and said to me with a dopey dog smile, “I love your Great Lakes ship stories.”

I said, “I’ve never written a Great Lakes ship story.”

He frowned, pointed his finger, and yelped at me:  “Yes you have! I’ve read them!”  Then he stalked away muttering to himself and shaking his head.

Lonnie and I were fishing on a river up north some years ago, and two drift boats floated past and as they get abreast of us somebody yelled, “When’s the next book?”

Patrols, however, are usually serious business.

We get a frantic call from a female officer for backup in a village, and we hauled ass to get there. My partner says, “I’ve known her eight years, never heard her voice like that.”

            When we got there we found the diminutive officer astride a giant with blood and snot coursing from his nose and mouth. The man’s wife called to report hubby beating up their daughter. Officer responded, got to the bedroom, and saw what was happening. The man immediately wheeled on her and the fight was on. You just never know.

            Over in Iosco County an officer and I had just had lunch with newly retired Pete Malette and  my partner and I are headed toward the source of some complaints when we  see a man in camo with a scoped rifle walking in the ditch. My partner stops the truck to tell the guy to put on his orange, but the man rabbits with his scoped long gun into the cedar swamp.


She heads into the swamp, I head down the road , paralleling the swamp. Eventually she pops  out in the marsh into a swamp clearing and points  further down the road and I start going, but it dawns on me that I was up on the roadbed, a perfectly  silhouetted target. Duh. I slide down toward the ditch and keep moving.

My partner  comes back. We  quickly find a semi-hidden vehicle, and tracked the  plates, Turns out we have a felon with a firearm. He had switched plates on the vehicle with his girlfriend, unbeknownst to her. When we called her, she told us where he was hunting.  Which was exactly where we were.  We put out the call for help.

Township cops come, another CO, troops, county deputies, all flow in and immediately want to know what my partner wants done. She is the de facto incident commander. There is no game playing. People jump to do what she asks them to do. She heads back into the woods with a deputy for a partner. I stay with our truck.

A troop just arriving on the scene spots a man in a T shirt crossing the highway, and describes him over the 800 mhz.

My partner says, “Detain him, my partner will drive to you and ID him.”

I take the truck and meet the Troop and his prisoner. No question it’s the same guy.

            “Where’s your coat and hat?” I ask him.

            “I was just taking a walk,” he says, panting.

            “In the swamp?” He’s wet to his belly button. “During deer season?”

            The state police send a dog and handler down from Lincoln. We find the gun, the coat, dope in the vehicle, more dope in his coat, and the guy is on his way back to the home for wayward bad boys. His jacket was reversible with orange. Had he stopped, chances are, my partner only would have told him to reverse it to orange and we would have gone on our way to address our complaints. But he ran and went back to jail.

            Total professionalism by all involved. I was happy to help.

            Of course, a lot of funny things happen to all cops and conservation officers are no different.

            I’m out with a CO last fall, the hound-bear opener. Our county partner texts us around dark to tell us he found a dirty bear bait and followed truck tracks directly to a camp about a quarter mile away. He knocked on the door and was greeted by two men, a fifty something and a man almost eighty, both of them snockered off the planet and not only disclaiming the bait, but insisting they were not even bear hunting, despite bear bait laying all over the yard of the ramshackle camp. He checks RSS. Both have bear tags. Drunk liars.

            Next day I’m out with the second officer and we have a trail camera. The plan is to hit the bait and hopefully find the hunters. If not, we’ll install the camera to surveil the site. But when we get there about 6 pm, the bait has been cleaned up, all the paper and plastic gone. And it hasn’t been long since it was moved. There is wet molasses in the grass. My partner takes off like an antelope, runs fifty yards and a voice says, “How’re you tonight, young man?

            My partner puts on the brakes. He has the trail camera in hand. There is a man sitting on a stump, the younger of the two drunks from the night before and he is staring intensely at the trail camera, and my partner sees this and taps the camera and the man squeals, “I told that goddamn sonuvabitch you had us under surveillance.”

            My partner says, “It’s all right there,” and taps the camera again. The camera, of course, is empty.

            But the man on the stump slumps and says,” Okay, it was us, it was our bait, but we tried to clean it up.”

            My partner says, “You’re bear-hunting, you had a dirty bait, and you also lied to me.”

            Sometimes luck is everything.

            We’re in Gogebic County. There is a vehicle parked three hours after shooting hours, so we wait and eventually along comes a hunter, rifle loaded, big flashlight, and we step out on him.

            “Rifle loaded?”

“Yeah, dude.”


            “Rabid coyotes,” the guys says.

            “And the light?”

            “So I can see them?”

            “What’s a rabid coyote look like?”

            The guy shrugs. My partner whispers, “Shmooze him while I call this in.”

            We stand in back of the man’s truck, our patrol truck’s headlights illuminating us and the guy keeps staring and squinting at me and finally says, “I know you.”

            “Nope, don’t think so.”

            He keeps staring, suddenly yells, “You’re that writer guy! The wife and me seen you speak down to the Houghton Lake Library.”

            “Told you I get around the state, eh?”

            “No shit,” he said. “Does this mean I’m gonna be in a book?”

            “Not in a book, but if you don’t tell the officer the truth you may be in jail.”

            He hung his head.

If you are thinking it would be “nice or great” to be thought of as a writer and to live the so-called  “writers’s life” forget it. Writing is about the work not the final output and outside of a few authors in major metro areas, there is no writerly or literary life other than the work. We writers do not, as a rule hang out together and socialize.  

Patience implies the need for physical and mental endurance, the ability to sit like a hunter on a stand or an angler in a boat, long hours in your chair concentrating on the effort at hand.

Let me conclude with some Yooper Doggerel:

No more copper, no more iron, no more miners,

Closed-up mines, mebbe few pulpies over  dere Engadine


Gott few jopps or industry

Most live here social security.


Dis UP she ain’t  what she ustabe, chalk dat up to

CNN, MTV, innernet, and MP-3


Usta could smoke in town, but dose damn trolls

Move up here and vote dat down.


When I was kidd come Sattitty night

Folks dey drink, an’ polka, an’ den dey fight.


Now we got  dem yuppies stop over Old Seney

Want order designer martini.


Gott dose damm condos down Marquette Harbor

Brevoort, Hancock, Epoufette

We shake our heads, ask what the heck?


Girlies here got beaucoup smarts

(not to mention real nice body parts)




Wolfies eaten all are deer

Since damm DNR brung dem here.


Tribes got dose dam casinos all over place

Take all your cash witt smiles on dere face.


Businesses closin,’ some schools shut too

What’re we Yoopers gonna do?


Close Big Mac Straits, block Soo Locks

An’ get all da western roads blocked.
Charge everbody  t’ousand bucks  a day

Come up to UP dey want to play.


Thanks for having us here this fine spring day

 Now I’ll answer questions before we go on our way.


And having had all this to say,

I’ve said my said and had my day.


It’s youse’s turn to query me,

So let ‘em rip and we shall see.


To finish on a final serious note: Sherwood Forest once stretched  25- square miles and now it is a paltry 450 acres Will the U.P. always be as it is now, or will it too shrink down to a miserable remnant?

Limpy Allerdcyce would tell us our country is beset with a lot of varicose brains these days, especially over there in the legislature in Lansing.





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