Four years ago today, a friend of mine was murdered in the line of duty. Chris Kilcullen was a police officer and negotiator for the Eugene, Oregon police department. I worked with him in training exercises many times from 08-11 and found him to be a remarkable man. I wrote this article in April 2011 after I got home from his memorial service.
The new University of Oregon basketball arena is fantastic. No expense was spared to give the Ducks a special home in what had been the site of Williams Bakery when I attended the school in the 1980’s. I remember waking up in my freshman dorm to the scent of fresh baked bread that first fall away from home, a smell that today can take me right back to those early days of semi-adult freedom and all the joy I felt at having the opportunity to study history.
It was an odd homecoming for me. I had not been to the campus since returning from Afghanistan. Frankly, last fall I did not think I would survive my time in theater and never expected to see again the school that became my first home in Oregon. Now that I am back, I never expected to return to it in the way I had to this afternoon.
In the arena’s lobby, I stared at the words printed on the main wall, superimposed over enlarged photos of past Duck athletes in action.
Urge the Heroes
Being a middle aged Duck, I recognized those words from our fight song, Mighty Oregon. Reading the words reminded me of the summer of ’89 when I worked at the Paul Masson Mountain Winery’s concert series. During intermissions, I had wine pouring duty and I used to give extra vino to anyone who could sing Mighty Oregon. I was amazed at how many Bay Area residents had gone to Oregon, and even more surprised at how many Duck alumni could remember the words to the fight song.
Today, those words overlayed across past hardwood glories offended me. I felt a stir of rage. Then tears. How dare we use that word in such context.
I stepped into the arena. On the giant screen above the court, the first thing I saw was a photo I took in the fall of 2008. Displayed there for all to see was a true hero, not the false idols found here on game night.
In that photo, Chris Kilcullen was full of life, his winning smile exuding charm, his eyes full of mirth. I sank into a seat and thought of the many hostage negotiation exercises we went through together. I’d be on the throw phone role playing a bad guy holding my wife or kids at gun point, screaming irrational demands at Chris. I swore at him. I called him every name I could think of to cause him to lose his cool. I said horrible things about his mother and his wife. I probed for every weak point a man can have in hopes of causing a flare up, a quick retort or some other slip that we could discuss in the post-exercise after action review.
In other iterations, I’d been able to get under the skin of some of the other negotiators. Just before the SWAT entry team kicked in my door and took me down in one exercise, the last thing the negotiator said to me was, “Sayanora mother fucker!”
One memorable exercise had Chris teaching a new negotiator how to talk a person out of jumping off a building. That person was me. I jumped. Chris imparted some of his hard-won experience to his protégé, and in the succeeding iterations he talked me off the roof.
As I sat in the new arena, I thought about all the vile things I spewed at Chris that never elicited a response. His calm and soothing voice was in my ear at that moment; the consummate professional. But he was more than that. He was a consummate, compassionate human being.
After one iteration, we were standing around talking. Somebody said to Chris, “You can charm the panties off a nun.”
Chris had been with the Eugene Police Department since 1998. He was a motorcycle cop assigned to the traffic unit. This meant he was out there giving people with lead feet (like me) speeding tickets. But he did it in such a charming way that those he ticketed came away feeling better for their chance to interact with him. His spirit shined that bright.
It was snuffed out last week by a 56 year old mentally ill woman. She shot at Chris with a .38 after he chased her into Springfield. This great cop, this father of two, this doting husband, died on the streets he devoted his life to keep safe for the rest of us. Exactly how a woman so deranged can legally buy a firearm in this State needs to be addressed. For now, this woman’s rash and senseless act has torn apart a family, and a community. We all need to heal. Coming so soon after Jerry Webber’s death, it was an especially cruel blow to his fellow officers.
Over brats and beer in the Rilea starships, I talked cars with Chris. He loved his ‘50’s Chevy pick up that he’d had since his teen years, and it was particularly painful to see it for the first time on the arena floor parked beside the stage erected for the occasion.
I remember rolling into Eugene in December, 2009, on my way to bring all the photos I’d shot to Lt. Jen Bills. Until I went to Afghanistan, some of the best images I’d taken were during those weeks at Rilea with EPD. I was proud to give them to Jen so that she could share them with everyone else and their families.
Little did I know that two of the men I photographed would later die.
Driving along 7thStreet, I passed a sleazy downtown motel. Something was amiss, as the place was surrounded by police, and a team of officers looked ready to enter one of the rooms. I saw Chris and his motorcycle across the street on the outer cordon and waved at him. I’m not sure if he saw me as I drove past, but even in the middle of the real action, he had a slight grin on his face. Ever the buoyant one, Chris Kilcullen. He was in his element.
It was a surprise to see the officers in a real world environment instead of the training range. As I parked at the station, a surge of pride went through me—in some small way I felt like I had a part in all this. Those weeks off from writing and away from my family to serve as a tackling dummy for the EPD never seemed more worthwhile. Perhaps some of the lessons helped the SWAT and CNT folks learn would be of use out in the field after all.
But all those iterations at Rilea failed to save Chris from a lone crazy armed with a pistol she never should have been able to obtain. I don’t have the space in my heart left to feel guilty about that—Taylor’s death owns that real estate—but I couldn’t help but second guess some of the things I’d done during those training weeks. Could I have done something different that could have given Chris the edge he needed to survive this woman’s surprise onslaught?
I imagine, there’s a lot of that going around right now. And I remembered writing about two soldiers soldiers who died in Iraq during an IED attack. The men in that platoon were quick to blame some of the decisions made on that patrol. Recriminations lingered and left some of the men embittered. From an outsider’s perspective, I thought the men had gotten it all wrong. The decisions were of no consequence. The insurgent who triggered the bomb killed those men. War happens. The bad guys cause damage despite every precaution and care taken. That’s just the nature of the business. And so it is with Chris’ death. Nobody is responsible but the woman who chose murder over a ticket.
I listened as Chris’ friends and families told stories of his life. His partner listed off his nicknames, many of which were hilariously off-color. When he finished, he said, “There was one name I never said to him…best friend.”
Finally, I could not take any more. Two years, four funerals—Jon Hudson, Taylor Marks, Jerry Webber and now Chris. I go through life with my heart wide open, but these past months have caused me to withdraw and be more protective of myself. Now, I felt raw again. I stepped into the lobby and walked to the huge windows overlooking campus. Across the street, I saw my freshman dorm, Dunn Hall. Third floor, center. There was my window shared with my first roomie, Chet Nakada.
Chris was born a month and four days after I was in 1968. He went to Willamette High, class of ’86. He started at the U of O the same time I was there. I wondered if we crossed paths on campus all those years ago. Perhaps we had one of those massive lecture classes like Western Civ together. I’ll never know. But he was there, sharing the experience of the university just as I had, tasting those first sweet moments of freedom right along with the rest of us.
Jen Bills. Mark Farley. My wife, Jennifer Beggs. We were all in the student body together. In time, our lives would come together in unexpected ways, and I wondered what we would have thought of that if we had such foreknowledge back then.
I stared at my old dorm room window and thought of dancing in the hallways. Water gun fights. The great Dunn Bun War that left our floor littered with hundreds of stale hot dog and hamburger buns the night before Christmas break. I thought of tender moments shared in the predawn hours with my first college love, waking in her arms to the delicious aroma of fresh baked bread. I once told her that I’d live in a cave if I had to just to be an historian and do what I loved. She didn’t like that thought. She had dreams of material wealth, big houses and dinner parties, little black dresses and rooms captivated by her charisma.
So not me.
But I’ll say this: mine has not been an easy professional path. Moments like this one, these farewells to friends and colleagues torn from this life through violence or circumstance weighs heavily on me, and makes carrying the work forward increasingly hard.
I turned away from the window and that idealistic gestational phase of my life. I needed to say a proper goodbye to a man whose noble heart had earned my respect and admiration.
I walked through the lobby and saw those words again.
Urge the Heroes
So misplaced on that wall. There are no heroes on the hardwood, only athletes with heart and grit. Respectable, sure. Heroic, never. Americans misuse the word “hero” all the time. It has become an ingrained cultural error, one that demeans the service and spirit of the true heroes whose lives are spent in service for the greater good.
Suddenly, I didn’t feel so worn down. Chris Kilcullen dedicated his life to protecting us. I’ve spent my life making sure men and women like him are not forgotten. That is my purpose, my crusade. And in that pursuit, I connected with Chris. We were both men devoted to our callings.
The big house my college sweetheart so coveted has eluded me. Coming home from Afghanistan, the financial mountain I face is a scary one. No matter. I’ve known heroes. I’ve seen them in action here at home. I walked the ruined streets of New Orleans with them. I flew into battle with them last fall. In the final judgment, that is all I need out of life.
I returned to the arena, suffused with sadness, but rededicated to all I’ve predicated my life upon. Somewhere in the years behind us, the kid I once was stared out that dorm window dreaming of doing the things I have done. If he could see me now, I’d tell him only one thing: I’ll keep the faith.
I owe it to men like Chris.
Originally Published April 30, 2011: