Friday, December 3, 2010

Where's Your Camera?

The first time I walked onto the grounds of the House of Correction in Billerica, I got yelled at.

Not by security; the Public Information Officer at the time, Mark Lawhorne, had informed them that a new intern would be arriving to meet the Sheriff. Nor was it by the Superintendent; he pointed me in the direction of the tour group Sheriff DiPaola was leading. And it was not the correction officers either; they helped me pick my way through the maze of hallways until I spilled out into the inmate recreation yard.

I stood in the doorway, surrounded high by bricks and bars. Pairs of hands hung bored from the occasional slit windows that pock-marked the walls.

In the inmate yard's far corner stood the one man I recognized in the entire facility. Sheriff DiPaola was at that moment boisterous and animated, traits very rarely absent from his demeanor. His words to the cadre of state legislators huddled around him were clear and dominant, even over the inmate catcalls growling from the belly of the institution.

I had never been inside a prison before and it showed. My step was unsure, my face screamed "newbie" and my instructions, or lack thereof, left me confused as to my necessity. But the man I was looking for was within walking distance, a familiar sight within this concrete block of unfamiliar things.

He must have seen me standing there in the doorway, obviously timid and blatantly hesitant. The bad things the bad guys yelled from the windows shifted in my direction. And Sheriff DiPaola's voice got just a little louder. It was confident and beckoning, like auditory lamplight in a dark room.

So I put my head down, tuned my ears to his voice and took a first step into the cemented inmate yard. And it wasn't so bad. Scary maybe, but then the vulnerability wore off a little, and I took the next few steps. And soon I was hustling across the diagonal. Within seconds, after dodging a few stray basketballs, I reached the group unscathed.

Pride welled up. I had fleeting thoughts of the Sheriff commending me in front of the State Representatives for having the courage to walk through the inmate yard for the first time, alone and unprotected.

But he didn’t. For a moment I didn't think he even noticed me standing right next to him.

And then he said his first words to me as my boss. They were just as commanding as his speech to the legislators, perhaps even more. Except they were wholly unexpected.

"Where's your camera?" he boomed.

If I had had a camera, I would have dropped it just like my jaw. The Sheriff gave me less than a few seconds to respond, and when I didn't he grumbled something (profane) about Mark and leapt straight back into being a tour guide.

I was devastated, crushed and defeated all at once. I had been an intern for less than a few days and already I screwed up. I hovered at the rear of the group until the tour ended, more because I had no idea how to escape the prison than because I was needed for anything. Eventually the legislators dispersed and I was alone with Sheriff DiPaola.

"Mark didn't tell you to bring a camera, did he?" he said.

"I didn't know. I'm sorry."

I mentally prepared myself for punishment, maybe even termination. I messed up and I hadn't even been employed by this man for a week.

But rather than cut my head off the Sheriff put his hand on my shoulder and said three simple words before leaving: "Good job today."

Then almost as an afterthought (and his amusement at the situation was evident), he laughed and said: "next time, bring a camera."

And so began my professional relationship with Sheriff James V. DiPaola. It has been one filled with highs and lows, learning and teaching, opportunity and controlled chaos, late nights and early mornings, good times and even better stories, laughter and maybe just a few verbal beatings.

I created this blog to ruminate about travel, marriage and growing as a man. It is appropriate then to memorialize here a man who taught me things about all three. I am a writer at heart. It is how I best express my ideas, my perceptions and especially my emotions. It is a large part of why I was hired by the Sheriff for the role I now hold. That itself is a testament to a man who knew how to surround himself with the right people; who knew how to put others in a position to succeed. Because he knew the legacy of the department depended on the success of not just the guy whose name is on the letterhead.

I've thought of that first day in Billerica often over the years because it colors in the details of a man who was larger than life. Even as an intern the Sheriff demanded I be at my best. From that first day forth, there was no coddling, no praise for the mundane, no award for what was expected. And yet in a few simple moments, he taught me the value of confidence, leadership and a big personality.

Superintendent Scott Brazis told me a year later, when I became the Public Information Officer: "Michael, if you can work for him, you can work for anybody."

He was right. Because no one else will ever push you to the summit of your potential like the Sheriff.

The world of law enforcement is uncertain, just like life. Sheriff DiPaola made sure his employees had the skills to handle any circumstance but more importantly, he insisted we all have the confidence in ourselves to face any adversity. Whether you knew it or not, he trained you for the un-trainable. He prepared you for the un-preparable.

Six years ago I would have never taken the first step into that concrete inmate yard had I not known the Sheriff was waiting on the other side. Today that yard might seem emptier. But I am certain that wherever he is now, he knows we are all ready to take that first step, one more time.