Running From Justice
Copyright 2006 by Barbara Poelle
My story is an account of an afternoon I spent assisting in the K-9 workout of a police dog named Justice. I have always wanted to be that person in the "puffy suit" that gets tracked down by the German shepherd, and as I am 5'4" of bouncy blonde ponytail, this proclamation has been quite amusing for my family and friends...but finally, my dream came true!
When the German shepherd’s jaws open, his saliva spraying in viscous streams, I notice he has what appears to be a metal silver fang in place of a normal canine tooth. It is at this point, perhaps a second before this titanium fang and the other surrounding teeth plunge into my arm, that I realize I am having the time of my life.
It is six days short of my 29th birthday and my husband, through an astounding manipulation of nepotism, is able to secure an afternoon that I have dreamed of since I was a little girl. It consists of me, a puffy suit, and a police dog.
We arrived at the modern home of Watsonville Officer Eric Montalvo on Monday June 12, a little before 2 pm, and were greeted by family friend Master Officer Henry Robles. After the introductions were dealt with and the eyebrows had settled back into place (“You really want to do this? I mean, you really want to do this?”), I am led into the spacious back yard.
There are several others gathered about the backyard, including a third officer, Eddie Santana. Officer Santana announces his belief that I may be insane; after ten years on the force he refuses to even consider being in the yard- much less the suit- for Justice’s training sessions. As I am five feet and four inches of blonde ponytail and grin, he can only shake his head at what is sure to be an afternoon of total carnage.
Finally, there, gnawing on a red rubber bone as thick as a toddler’s arm, is Justice. Officer Montalvo introduces us. Justice looks quite…normal. Even a little on the small side. He could be a neighbor’s dog who is allowed to play in the yard during a summer barbeque. He even gets a little petulant when Officer Montalvo takes away his rubber bone.
“I have to put him inside before we get the suit out. Well, actually, I’ll get the suit out and then put him inside, but he’s gonna go a little crazy when he sees the suit.”
The puffy suit is actually called a bite suit and is generally constructed of a blend of materials designed to be durable yet flexible. It feels a lot like climbing into a rhino carcass. I am hefted into the suit with the help of Officers Montalvo and Robles. Inside the house, peering through the glass, Justice proceeds to go insane. We have to halt the process of donning the suit so that Officer Montalvo can go into the house and wrestle the dog into the back seat of the squad car parked in his garage.
I am now fully engorged in the jacket and pants of the bite suit, and Officer Robles has added his own riot helmet to the ensemble. Officer Montalvo is running through the list of commands I can expect to hear.
“There is one thing, ummm, not like it’s likely to happen, but what I’m thinking about is if he doesn’t go for you here,” he grasps his wrist. “Or here,” he grasps his bicep. “Then he might, uhh-“
“Go for the jugular?”
“Yeah. Go for the jugular. But I’ll keep him on the long leash at first so I’ll be able to pull him off pretty quick, but, uh, just try to protect your neck. And if anything like that happens, yell real bite and then I’ll know to get him off you.”
“Actually, what I’ll probably be yelling at that point is Mommy.”
“Heh heh…yeah. Well, umm, it only happened once before, so…uh… it probably won’t happen today.”
That’s the kind of confidence we needed at the Alamo.
“Well, if you see arterial spray, that should be your first clue,” I say, my face shield steaming with my words.
He chuckles to himself and repeats, “Arterial spray,” as he walks back towards the house.
“How ya feelin’ honey?” My husband calls to me, waving, eyes focused on the digital screen of the video camera.
“Great! Justice is clawing at one side of the door and I’m clawing at the other,” I call and give a thumbs up. My mouth tastes like I licked the neighbor’s cat. “Hey, this suit’s washable if I brown my drawers, right?”
One of the officers answers affirmatively as several spectators run into the house to observe from the safety of the large ground floor bay windows. My breath sounds like the loud huffing of a wild dog, and then I realize that sound I hear is the loud huffing of a wild dog.
Justice has just entered the yard.
Officer Mantalvo is holding tightly to what appears to be a fifteen foot leash, choking up on the end. Justice stares at me the way the fox looks at the rabbit, the tiger at the gazelle, my mother at a rum and coke. Montalvo calls out a few final instructions, and he may as well be speaking in Portuguese because all I can see is Justice creeping forward on his belly, straining at the leash, titanium tooth shining in the afternoon sun.
“Ready when you are,” he calls
I dance a bit like a boxer before the bell, well, like a heifer before the bell in the bite suit, and steady myself, then I brake into a run. Okay, a lumber.
Officer Montalvo gives a command in German and some ten to twelve yards behind me, Justice clearly barks the words, “It’s on, bitch!”
For a moment, a small moment, I am running gracefully, the wind whistling in my riot helmet. I could’ve been out on the beach, perhaps floating in the ocean on a lovely inflatable raft enjoying the quiet lovely summer air, and then: a great white sharks hits me from beneath.
Justice takes me down as a wrecking ball would swat a fly. My bones actually rattle against each other like nickels in an ashtray and I make a sound between a grunt and a dry heave. Once on the ground, Justice shakes me like a British nanny, his growl sounding like a low flying jumbo jet liner in my ears. My left arm feels as if trapped in the heavy doors of a freight elevator plummeting straight into hell.
It’s great. It’s just so great.
I can hear a German command and Justice releases my arm. I lay, the riot helmet suspending my face inches from the dirt, and laugh. Officer Robles comes and rolls me over like a giant sea turtle. I yell breathlessly, joyously, “Good job, Justice!”
Justice whines and lunges towards me before being chastised back into a sitting position.
We do several different drills that afternoon, among my favorite the “hidden suspect”. This is where I hide behind a shed and Justice is released on the opposite side of the house and is asked to sniff me out. The look on that dog’s face when he rounds the corner of the shed and spots me is absolutely priceless. I am sure the criminals never take the time to articulate their view of the dog to the K-9 officers who will never fully see this expression, so I will do so: it is the expression of a four-year-old waking up in the morning, wandering into the living room while rubbing sleep from his eyes, and then instantly remembering it is Christmas. And then the four-year-old transforms into a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
When we are finished running the drills, I have lost eleven pounds in water weight, and Justice has to be forcibly pulled back into the house. Officer Montalvo states that Justice would keep attacking until he literally couldn’t stand anymore.
Whatta good boy!
Master Officer Robles helps to free me from the bite suit, and my jeans and long sleeved t-shirt are soaked through with sweat. I gulp greedily at the Sprite he hands me. My husband is watching footage on the small screen of the digital video recorder chuckling to himself and muttering, “Oh my God”. Later when I watch the footage with him, whenever Justice hits me we both shout like hockey fans.
The bite suit is settled on the back of the wrought iron patio furniture and Officer Montalvo lets Justice back out into the yard. His tail wags furiously as he beelines towards me and spins around so I can scratch his hindquarters. It’s as if he’s saying, “It’s just business babe, so we’re cool, right?”
Oh yeah, Justice, we are very cool.
He lies down and resumes his assault on the red rubber bone, tail lazily swooshing along the grass line.
As I sip my soda, Officer Montalvo brings me ER photos of Justice’s most recent take down. It looks like someone has laid a pound of raw hamburger on an arm and then snapped a photo; only the raw hamburger is the arm. I’m glad he waited until after I was finished to show me these photos. The can of Sprite trembles a bit as I raise it to my lips. Justice wraps his paws around the bone and gnaws, the titanium tooth glistening in his mouth.
We talk about how Justice came to be an integral member of the Watsonville police force, and what it took to train him. I am astounded to learn that Officer Montalvo paid for Justice out of his own pocket, and that when the pup arrived from Czechoslovakia, Montalvo was concerned that he was “a bit scrawny”. Officer Santana had convinced him to hang in there with him, and I can personally attest to the brilliance of that decision. What Justice lacks in size, he makes up for in tendon-tearing, bone-fragmenting fierceness. As for the silver tooth, Justice had cracked his original tooth in a take down and the vet replaced it with a titanium substitute. Officer Montalvo calls it “his bling”.
While we are talking about some of Justice’s more famous take-downs, the wrought iron patio chair across from me begins to lurch steadily backwards. Justice has the arm of the bite suit in his mouth and his tail is wagging maniacally. Officer Montalvo warns him off the suit. Two minutes later, out of my peripheral vision, I see the chair oh-so-subtly jerking sideways again. I can hear the quiet chuffing of a happy dog, so I don’t draw attention to him. Officer Montalvo spots it soon enough and calls Justice off the suit for a second time. Justice sulks back over to his rubber bone and appears to pout as he apathetically tosses the bone about; he is a child who has been told he may not have anymore candy today.
When we finally leave, I want to come back again tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that. These men and this dog and the job they do every day; there are heroes among us.
This morning I wake up and I feel like I have been dropped from a five story building onto a pile of cinder blocks. I can’t turn my head to the right, and I can’t raise my left arm higher than shoulder level. My husband films me trying to brush my teeth; he says it will make a great ending for the video. I am icing for twenty minutes and then heating for ten. I have taken two baths, four Advil, and finally, at the advice of my loving mother, a double shot of something distilled. I am made entirely of pinched nerves, pulled muscles, and perhaps a slight concussion, but my only visible souvenir is a pea-sized bruise on my lower right calf. My husband seems disappointed that he won’t have any footage of flesh resembling rotten fruit or old meat products, but he still seems to fairly skip into the computer den to edit the footage. He can’t wait to send it out to my parents, who will mix a pitcher of Long Islands and laugh until they have to pause to refill, and then laugh some more.
No one from my bloodline is entirely normal.
I lay, moaning, on my back, a heating pad beneath my neck, an ice pack on my arm, and two fingers of amber colored medicinal Jack Daniels in a rocks glass on the nightstand.
To the Watsonville Police Department…to Justice…to adventure…I raise my glass in a toast.
Barbara Poelle graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1998. She currently lives in Northern California with her husband Travis.
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