Lessons Learned / Mike Turpin
We all know that something is eternal. And it ain't houses and it ain't names, and it ain't earth and it ain't even the stars ... everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you'd be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There's something way down deep that's eternal about every human being. -- Thornton Wilder, "Our Town"
I met the man they call "Woody" in the gym as I was struggling to finish the final repetition of an overly ambitious bench press. A wry, sarcastic voice cascaded down from above and asked, "you need a little help there, young lady? Looks like you are a going a bit light today?"
I stared upside down past folded muscular arms to a silver moustached face.
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The former Marine wearing a "Semper Fi" work-out shirt with a twinkle in his eye smirked and sighed. "OK, I will bail you out but only this once." With a grunt, Steve Wood easily hoisted the 225-pound weights off my chest and liberated me from my humiliation.
Over the next few years, we became friends, swapping insults, stories and political punches as the world around us shifted and changed. I was surprised to see him in uniform one day -- learning that he was the senior shift lieutenant for the New Canaan Police. I had pegged Woody for a football coach, ex-Secret Service or prison warden. He exuded authority but had learned to speak only when spoken to and had that quiet ability to endure moronic people. I was not sure if he looked more intimidating in his uniform or in his cut-off Harley Davidson shirt, tossing up bench-presses and shaking his head as Congress and ultimately the White House took a hard left turn in November. Woody would only stiffen to attention when his wife, Pat, would walk by -- tipping us off that he was not the ranking officer at home.
I quickly gathered that he was a tough man, extremely candid and consistent.
If he were anything other than human, he would be the granite face of a Sierra Nevada mountain. As I got to know some of the other officers in town, I learned of the great respect that was afforded this 32-year veteran by the entire force. "He had enormous integrity," one officer shared. "He was the most consistent and disciplined person I have ever met. Even when he was sick from chemo, he was showing up to work every day."
He initially did not let his tribe of gym buddies in on the fact that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. As he endured chemotherapy and a nine-hour surgery, he astounded his friends and family -- barely slowing down at work, on the bench press or at his cabin in the Catskills where he hunted and rode his Harley, "hunting down liberals," he used to joke.
His oncologists referred to him as the "iron man." As an ex-Marine, he had utter contempt for his cancer cells, calling them "terrorists." He would wander into the gym on a Saturday morning, a day after chemotherapy, and chip in that "we laid a good round of napalm on the bad guys yesterday in the chemo session." Woody's advice to anyone fighting illness was attitude is everything. "If only a small percentage survive, you have to believe you are going to be one of them. Also, have a good support system -- doctors, cops, gym nuts, family and exercise. If I had been a couch potato I wouldn't be have lived so far beyond the initial prognosis."
Anyone who knew him watched in absolute amazement as he showed no fatigue, and inspired everyone around him to focus on what was important as the stock market was crashing and jobs were being lost. In the darkest moments of his hand to hand battle with cancer, he showed us that courage and patience were the building blocks of any life well lived.
As a father of a teenager, I asked Woody to describe today's teenagers versus those he encountered as an officer in the '70s, '80s and '90s. He smiled and quickly pointed out that kids today expect too much and do not always understand the value of knowing how to work hard for what you want. He shakes his head once again with that world-is-going-to-hell-in-a-hand-basket disgust that I witnessed a thousand times growing up in my father's home. I could see it in his eyes -- the teens of the '60 are running the country now and the teens of the '70s -- the same teens he used to hustle out of the woods who were now parents of the children that were trying to find their way in a world filled with conflicting messages and an absence of role models. He believed parents make or break a kid -- and often joked that "the apple never falls far from the tree."
Woody quickly pointed out that he was proud of how some kids have learned to work together on teams -- in sports, in the community and socially. He was intensely proud of his daughters Kim and Kelly, their husbands and his grandchildren. In his own way, he felt he imparted by example rather than fiat, the Corps principles -- the value of teamwork and the fact that a team of four people can defeat a much larger force of less cohesive individuals.
Woody's daughters loved and admired their dad and savored the way he interacted with his grandchildren, offering a lightly sandpapered love that only a tough older generation grandfather could provide. He and his wife, Pat, were a perfect blend of leather and lace and the perfect guardrails for their growing families.
Steve Wood protected and served our community for 32 years -- in sickness and in health. He commuted to a town he admired for its small town charm and its ability to resist the changes that turned smaller communities into commercial cardboard cutouts. As he drove the streets and patrolled the neighborhoods, he investigated robberies, collared drunk drivers and intervened in domestic disputes.
On April 19, 1989, Sgt. Steve Wood received a call regarding a shooting that after a drug deal that went bad, resulting in nine wounded people. Four armed and dangerous "bad guys" (as Woody called them) fled the scene in a car and were racing at breakneck speeds through residential neighborhoods. The suspects eluded officers from Darien, Stamford and Norwalk, and turned onto Old Stamford Road to make their escape. Waiting for them was a police roadblock at Talmadge Hill and Old Stamford manned by Sgt. Wood and another officer. Woody could see the vehicle racing up the road followed by twenty police cars. "There was no way out for these guys," he shared. "I thought of my family and then remembered the general rule of force, understood what I needed to do and did it." The gunmen decided to drive straight into the police roadblock and the officers.
"I had the shotgun and it was obvious that they were not going to stop. Just then my cell rang and for some reason I picked it up. It was the wife wanting me to bring home some milk. I told her I would call her later. Moments later I was leveling the shotgun at the car and firing several rounds. We stopped the bad guys in their tracks preventing them from carrying on into New Canaan. I slept like a baby that night."
For his role in apprehending the criminals, officer Steve Wood received a medal and two meritorious days off as did the other officers who risked their lives. Woody shared with me that his definition of a hero is someone who knowingly puts themselves in harm's way, risking death or injury to protect another person. Ironically, he did not consider himself a hero, but he admired and respected any fellow officers, the military and individuals who put their service to their community ahead of themselves. He believed the term hero is used too loosely.
As we spotted one another on weights over the years, he spoke economically -- except when the topics drifted left of gun control, lack of personal responsibility or entitlement programs. Two years ago, I received an invitation to Waveny House to honor Lt. Steve Wood, who was retiring after 32 years of service. I knew he would not want a big party, and instead would prefer, like MacArthur, to just fade away -- always the old soldier. But it was not to be. It seemed according to New Canaan police and their chief, Ed Nadriczny, had other plans. Friends, family, fellow officers, firefighters, city officials and people who knew and understood Steve Wood as a fine man and great leader were there to honor him. There was a slide show, and given that this is a family newspaper, I cannot share the exact contents, but suffice to say, those who roasted the man paid him his due.
Woody will be missed by anyone who ever crossed his path. He was 100 percent genuine American and never spent a day apologizing for his nation. When someone suggested he write a letter to his more "liberal" Congressman when it looked as if his insurance coverage would not pay for an experimental procedure late in his cancer treatment, he shared he would rather jump off the Golden Gate Bridge than enlist a Nancy Pelosi-lover for a handout. In the end, Woody did his own homework and made a business case as to why and how his treatment should be covered. He succeeded in convincing his insurer that he was worth the investment.
For all his insistence on personal responsibility, Woody cared for people -- putting himself at risk -- often for those he did not even know. It was a thankless task at times, especially helping those who viewed him as a cardboard cut-out with a badge. He just chuckled at their lack of consideration. He confided to me that he hoped New Canaan will someday offer affordable housing for those that work and help serve this community. He then proceeded to bend my ear about the chaotic parking. In Heaven, he won't miss the accidents, suicides and personal injuries, but will smile when the bad guys get caught. Above all, he showed us how to live, love and fight, and what a hell of a fighter he was -- taking on the cancer terrorists and savoring every final day with his family. If you had asked him what he wanted most, it was not recovery or even to be free of his pain, it was for the Republicans to take back the White House and sort out the mess.
I can't think of a finer man or better companion one could hope to meet should you find yourself in a foxhole, tracking a 12-point buck or waiting behind a road block to take on a speeding car full of heavily armed bad guys. Woody's legacy is all around us -- in his stalwart spouse, his daughters, their husbands, their children and those of us who knew him. You can see him every day in the attitudes and commitment of the police officers and Marines he now leaves behind.
A community like our town is built out of many things -- brick, mortar, people, commitment, history and a shared set of values.
Any structure can withstand the ravages of time if it is forged out of the right material. I can't think of a better piece of New Canaan than Lt. Steve Wood -- as solid a piece of wood as you will ever find.
Vaya con dios, my friend!
Check out Mike Turpin's blog at usturpin.wordpress.com.