'That phone call' – Memories from a policeman's wife
The tragic events last week that culminated in the death of Sgt. Steve Owen left the community in shock, and those of us with ties to law enforcement reeling. Long before my husband Mike became a wine maker, he was a Deputy Sheriff with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Steve Owen was Mike’s partner when he worked at the Lancaster Sheriff’s Station. Although Mike retired in 1999 due to an on-duty injury, when the call came in last week about Steve’s death, memories I thought were buried forever deep down inside came flooding back.
Mike joined the Department in 1984 just a few years after we were married. He followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming a peace officer. He put in his time working in the jails, then moved on to working various stations before ultimately transferring to Lancaster Sheriff’s Station when we moved to Tehachapi in 1990.
For the most part Mike had a pretty normal schedule, but the occasional worry was always there, especially during his time working on the gang unit. I remember the day we went to the DMV to transfer all of our cars’ license plates to the Lancaster Sheriff Station’s address, just in case Mike was followed home after work by a gang member. This way no one would be able to find out where we lived. In May 1992, a Deputy at Mike’s station was killed while serving a search warrant. I remember that day like it was yesterday. I was making strawberry jam in our kitchen when the phone call came in. A few days later I attended my first police funeral, complete with the flag-draped coffin and a twenty-one gun salute. Each gun shot reverberated through me. It was a day I will never forget. After that the worrying increased: was today the day Mike would get hurt? Or worse, was today the day he would be killed while doing the job he loved so much? Would our kids grow up not knowing their father? Would I become a young widow? It was a daily worry that I could normally push down deep inside, and continue on with my day. The daytime was easier: I was distracted doing normal household chores and caring for our two young children. But night time was a different story. There was something about the dark of night that made the worrying almost unbearable at times.
Mike’s shift at the Lancaster Station was 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. With just under a one hour drive home, he would without fail always be home no later than 11 p.m. Although I would often fall asleep soon after I put the kids down, my built-in alarm clock would awaken me a few minutes before 11 p.m., just in time for me to see Mike’s headlights coming up our road. I would see his car’s headlights reflect off our bedroom window as he drove up our dirt road. I would wait to hear the front door close, roll over and then peacefully fall back to sleep.
Occasionally, over the years Mike was late coming home. Remember, this was before cell phones. I couldn’t just text or call my husband and know immediately that he was okay. As I lay there in bed, waiting for him to arrive home, the minutes would tick by like an eternity...11:01, 11:02, 11:03! My heart would start to race a little...11:04, 11:05. Still no headlights. 11:06 11:07...my insides were screaming, “Where is he??? Is he allright???” My mind began to swirl with worse case scenarios. At this point I was wide awake. I just couldn’t lie there and wait. My heart would race and my mind would start to go to very dark and scary places. I couldn’t stand it any longer. I walked to our living room. From our front living room window we have a nearly clear view all the way down our half mile road. Because of this view I would curl up in the dark in the bay window, hoping to catch a glimpse of Mike’s headlights making their way up our road. From this vantage point I could see his headlights three minutes sooner than if I was in bed. I would know sooner if he was alright.
There isn’t much traffic at 11 p.m. out where we live so from the bay window in the living room I could even manage to see the occasional car coming down the hill from Alpine Forest. Was the car turning or was it passing by our road? The minutes continued to tick by...11:08, 11:09! I wanted to scream, “Please be okay, please be okay”. After what seemed like an eternity, from my perch in the window, I would see the slight glimmer of headlights turning onto our road. Was it one of our neighbors coming home late? They didn’t turn into the first neighbor’s driveway or the second. My mind began to calm. The headlights got closer. My heart stopped racing. The car slowed down. It turned into our driveway. I could hear the crunch of the gravel beneath the tires of the car. I took a deep breath. It was Mike. With that reassurance I would walk quickly back to bed. I didn’t want him to see me sitting in the window, worrying at11:10. I climbed back into bed and drifted off to sleep. Those ten minutes seemed like hours. An eternity.
Occasionally he wouldn’t arrive home until well after midnight. Those nights were the absolute worse. It wasn’t until many years later, after Mike retired, that I told him of my nights sitting in the window waiting for his headlights to come up the road. He never knew. I didn’t want him to worry about me, worrying about him. I knew how much he loved his job. I knew he loved being a peace officer and helping people. This was my own issue to deal with. And I did, for 14 years until his retirement.
Only one time over those fourteen years did I get “the phone call” that every spouse of a peace officer dreads. Mike and Steve were heading with lights and sirens to a burglary call. Out of nowhere a woman high on meth plowed into Mike’s side of the car. To see the car you would think there were no survivors, but Mike and Steve both walked away from the accident relatively unharmed. Mike took the brunt of the impact and ultimately had to retire due to his injuries, but he was alive. That was all that mattered.
And so it was, being the wife of a peace officer. Knowing daily, that when I kissed my husband good-bye and he left for work, that he might not come home, that I might never see him alive again, and that our children could grow up without a father. The events of last week are unfortunately the reality for many spouses and children of peace officers. They have received “that phone call”. They have made the ultimate sacrifice. They have paid the price for all of our safety. Their lives will never be the same.
Please join us on Sunday, Oct. 23 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., for a fundraiser for Sgt. Steve Owen’s family and the Antelope Valley Fallen Heroes Fund. Give generously from your heart to those who have given their lives to protect yours. Thank you.
Event poster is on page 3 of this issue.