Letters to a Young Cop: A Cop’s Christmas
There are things you do as a cop to make up for missing the holidays. Sneaking home in the middle of the night to put presents under the tree is one of them
The following is excerpted from the forthcoming “Letters to a Young Cop” by Victor T. Letonoff.
I think of him every time Christmas rolls around, which is why I’m thinking of him now. The town where I worked for nearly two decades, not so far from the town where he and I once patrolled together, is preparing for the holidays. City workers wrap garland around lamp posts, hang twinkle lights in the branches of the Bradford pears lining the main avenue.
My first Christmas as a cop was actually my first night on duty after graduating from the academy. Midnight to 8 a.m. I was thirty-nine-years old, my daughter was two and a half, my wife four months pregnant with my son.
Charlie was showing me the ropes that night. He, too, was a dad, with three-year-old triplets at home.
Around 2 a.m., we drove to his home on the outskirts of town, where his children and wife were asleep. The house was dark but for the glow of Christmas lights. Silently, we pulled wrapped presents from closets and other hiding places and arranged them under the tree. Charlie knew he might not get home in time to see his children as they raced downstairs in the morning to see what Santa had brought.
I spent a lot of holidays on duty — all cops do. How many Christmases did I stagger bleary-eyed into my living room after working night shift, my kids awaiting my arrival before beginning their Christmas savagery? I was always so thankful for their patience, especially since more than once I fell asleep sitting on the couch in my uniform, watching the Christmas morning madness unfold.
But other times, I simply missed. My kids’ birthdays, wedding anniversaries, Thanksgiving. I’ve never been able to celebrate the Fourth of July, a mandatory work day in my beach resort, where the fireworks over the ocean draw such enormous crowds that traffic is blocked for hours after the display. I missed the party to celebrate my father’s election to City Council, and I missed the literary reading my favorite aunt gave shortly before she unexpectedly died. I say this without complaint, though not without regret. It’s a part of our job. We miss special times with our families, so others will have those times with theirs.
I’m not sure how much people really think about this, and I wish they did.
Anytime a person’s in trouble, he can call 9-1-1 and expect that we’ll respond. It’s been this way since 1833 when Philadelphia became the first U.S. city to employ both day and night watchmen, thus beginning the trend that still defines policing all these years later.
Right now, even if it’s 3 a.m., somewhere nearby, a cop is on duty.
The last time I worked on Christmas Eve, I dropped by the Catholic church for midnight mass. I slipped in through the huge oak doors, trying to stand unobtrusively just inside, ready to leave if a call came in. The place was full and it felt warm with all the bodies packed together. I loved seeing the Christmas outfits: holly-patterned sweaters and ties; little girls in velvet dresses and lace tights; women in red wool coats. My own kids are grown, and I missed them, their younger trusting, believing-in-Santa selves.
It’s a strange feeling to stand in a church in a police uniform, wearing a ballistic vest and gun belt.
And then my radio blasted, and I was gone — to deal with whatever problem had come in. If I did my job well, no one would have even realized I’d disappeared. By the time the service was over and families were headed out to their cars, perhaps snow was beginning to fall, and they’d forgotten all about the police officer in the back of the church.
But I’ve never forgotten that first Christmas as a cop, Charlie and I tucking presents under the tree, and I feel — have always felt — grateful to have been a part of that small task. Not long after that, Charlie’s wife was killed in a car accident.
In a way, our being “elves” allowed Charlie to still be part of his family’s last Christmas together. Of all the many things he showed me that night about how to be a cop, this was the most important.
About the author
After 21 years of police service, Victor Letonoff retired in 2020 from the Rehoboth Beach Police Department, where he worked since 2002. During the last decade, he has been writing about his work as a police officer. His first published, essay, “Suicide by Cop” appeared in the July 2013 issue of “Delaware Today” and went on to win first place for a feature article from the Delaware Press Association and second place for a feature article from the National Federation of Press Women. His second published article, “Answering the Call,” was published in the April 2014 issue of “Delaware Beach Life” and received a 2015 International Regional Magazine Association Award of Merit in the “Public Issues” category for all circulation divisions. Victor is currently seeking representation for his book, “Letters to a Young Cop--and Those Who Love Him, Those Who Fear Him.”