A Shared Loss

As two men in blue are laid to rest today, a mother and son remember their own fallen hero.

October 19, 2000|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

She was more or less settling down for the evening, sitting in her favorite armchair, watching the Sunday news, waiting for "Touched by An Angel," when the picture on TV hit her as hard as a punch.

Even after the anchors moved on to other news, Judy sat pinned in her chair, feeling weak. She couldn't get the sight of that smashed patrol car in Hamilton out of her mind.

In Dundalk, she waited for her son to call. He'd driven to Pennsylvania and when he phoned to say he'd made it, she would tell him.

"C.J.," she would say, "we've lost two more guys in blue."

He would want to know whether the officers had families, and she would tell him, yes, and then neither she nor C.J. would know what to say.

Twenty-two years ago, she was the widow, C.J. was the kid, and it was their hero being buried in Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens.

Most of the people who reached out to them then have gone on with their lives: the 300 police officers who came to the funeral, the Maryland dignitaries who filled Christ the King Catholic Church, the elderly people whose wavy handwritten notes fill a box upstairs.

The entire city, it seemed, had followed the hearse up the Beltway to Timonium, to the cemetery where Edgar J. Rumpf Jr. was the second person buried in the Fallen Heroes section, the first Baltimore policeman to die in a fire.

But after that day, the stream of calls and visits and donations tapered to a trickle, then stopped altogether.

Judy and her kids were left to make something of the pieces.

That was fine; that was life, after all. But now, sitting in the house waiting for C.J. to call, alone with the family portrait over the couch, Judy could not hold back the pictures that came to her as vivid as those on TV.

It was the day after Valentine's Day, Feb. 15, 1978.

She was 29, Jimmy was 33. Her son from her first marriage, Peter, was 4, and Clinton James was 9 months.

The house was noisy then, with the sound of Peter playing, the sound of C.J.'s baby talk, the sound of a mother encouraging her child to walk.

Then the sound of the door: Daddy's home! Jimmy came in wearing his uniform, took off his hat, put his gun belt up out of reach, and the boys climbed him like a tree. Some nights, he hoisted C.J. onto his hip, and they followed Peter on his tricycle down the sidewalk.

Then one day Jimmy went to work and never came back. There was a knock at the door, and Judy found two police officers on her stoop asking if she was alone.

Over the years, Judy told the boys as much as she knew.

Peter was old enough to remember his stepfather, but not C.J. He was 4 or 5 before he started asking questions, gathering bits and pieces to create memories he didn't have.

What was his father like as a boy? What was his dream car? Why did he want to be a policeman?

Some questions she couldn't answer, because they had only been married a year, a month and a day.

She told C.J. they met when she was a diner waitress, and he was a Central District policeman, an intimidating 6-foot-3 cop whom she didn't like at first.

She told C.J. his father liked to cook, that he loved models and war games.

She told C.J. about the worst day of her life, when police showed up at the door.

They said Jimmy had been on patrol in Bolton Hill. He'd radioed headquarters to report smoke coming from Beethoven North Apartments. He'd run inside, ushered two children to safety, then gone back to look for other tenants.

The officers worried he was trapped.

The wait that night was terrible.

Her mother and father came to help with the boys, and Jimmy's mother was there, and they were all starved for news. At 10 minutes before 7 the next morning, the two officers returned, and Judy knew before they told her that Jimmy was dead.

When he was older, C.J. could read the obituary, look at old newspaper stories, see the picture of his mother with the folded flag in her hands. He could visit his grandfather in Florida and touch his father's .357 Magnum.

But he grew up with no physical memory, no recollection of how his father walked or what he said when he answered the telephone or whether he drove with one hand or two.

C.J. had been too young to recall anything more than a presence, a vague feeling that another person had been in the house and now was gone.

Last Sunday, as Judy waited for C.J. to come home from Pennsylvania, the house felt empty. It always did when C.J. was gone.

She found herself reliving the days immediately after they found Jimmy.

Her parents went with her to pick out the casket. She took the boys to the viewing, thinking it would help them remember their daddy.

How had she told the boys? She can't remember.

C.J. seldom asked for details about the fire. He knew it started when a 10-year-old crawled under a bed with a candle in search of a tennis ball. He heard his mother say the apartment building violated the fire code, that it was a 9-alarm blaze, that 77 people lost their homes. He knew no one else had died.

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