Column: Neighbor's help past 'snake alley' inspires career in police work
The 5- or 6-year-old little boy crying must have been a sad sight for the cop down the road. He had probably seen the kid before in the neighborhood, but obviously something was wrong with the little guy that day. Clearly he was lost or scared of something. The off-duty policeman shut down his lawn mower and approached the child to see what was the matter.
Unbeknownst to the kind policeman, the kid knew exactly who the guy mowing the lawn was and what he did for a living, because the child’s mom and dad had told him. They also told him if he were in trouble or lost he should find a police officer. The little boy was paralyzed with fear and needed help. He hoped the guy mowing the lawn would see him and help him home.
Muskegon Chronicle photo
The policeman asked the child if he was lost. The little boy nodded his head, although he was not lost. The child was terrified to walk the equivalent of two or three city blocks down the dirt road to his family’s cottage. The little guy was deathly afraid of snakes and always had an older buddy or an adult walk him past the area of underbrush where snakes frequently crossed the road or sunned themselves.
On this particular day the older friend he had been playing with got called away by his mother. The older pal’s mom told the younger child to just run along on home. Easier said than done, lady — clearly she did not realize the scared kid would have to run the gauntlet of “snake alley” alone.
This was the first time a police officer saved me, but it would not be the last. I did not know it that day, but that police officer would play a tremendous role in my life. The Ann Arbor policeman’s name was Kenneth Klinge.
Mr. Klinge was a great role model for a kid who wanted to be a cop. Blond hair, blue eyed, barrel chested and in great shape, Mr. Klinge jogged many miles on the swampy road that led from the lake up to the main road. He seemed to always be working, exercising and moving.
When I got a little older — and much less afraid of snakes — his son Brian and I were pals. Mr. Klinge would ask Brian and I if we wanted to join him in the 40 push-ups he seemed to do daily — no thanks — but Brian let him know that a few trips around the lake waterskiing would be cool.
The only time Mr. Klinge was not moving was when he was fishing. Almost every evening, he fished in a rowboat usually by himself. He used a night crawler harness and a whole night crawler to catch bass, but truth be told usually caught only bluegills.
One of the few times his son Brian went fishing with him as a preteen, Brian caught the biggest smallmouth bass anyone had ever seen. Mr. Klinge was so proud of Brian’s catch. I felt sorry for Mr. Klinge, though, because he put in hours fishing but never caught a fish that big — it was huge!
One day the Klinges took me to a rodeo in Saline. On the way home, some guy was passing on a double yellow line and Mr. Klinge had to do some fancy driving. “Speed on brother. Hell’s only half full,” he dismissed the driver and shook his head. His wife was frightened, and he reassured her that she should see how close it gets on some emergency calls. I pondered how cool it must be running lights and sirens.
Fast forward several years, and I was in pharmacy school at the University of Michigan. Mom and Dad convinced me, hoping this foolish cops and robbers thing would pass, that I could always be a police officer with a pharmacy degree. My folks told me that with a pharmacy degree, like my sister Kat — the 1971 Pioneer High School valedictorian — earned, I would always have “a profession to fall back on.”
Mr. Klinge saw me at the lake and asked me how college was going. I told him it was “OK”— like I told him I was “lost” years earlier — but I still wanted to be a cop. He clearly saw through that. He suggested that perhaps it was time that I should summon some courage and tell my parents what I wanted to do.
Mr. Klinge gave me the push I needed. I told my folks, they supported me as they always have, and the next fall I was at Michigan State in the Criminal Justice program. Three years later I was an Ann Arbor police officer.
I was proud to wear the same badge and uniform as Captain Klinge. I was just a rookie, but it was an honor to work with him. I did not work directly for him but it felt great when he would barrel down the hall, smile, nod his head passing me and chuckle in greeting, “Richie.”
“Hey Cap’n,” I’d reply with a big grin.
Captain Klinge as a command officer was a no nonsense, high-strung, straight arrow. He commanded the Special Services section of the Ann Arbor Police Department. This unit oversaw citywide traffic enforcement and also organized the police response to large events like Michigan football games and the Art Fair. At one time he was in charge of all the Ann Arbor officers contracted to police the campus before the university had its own police department.
While commanding the Special Services Section in November 1986 Captain Klinge died suddenly of a heart attack. It rocked the department because, at age 50, when he died, he still looked like a recruitment poster officer.
I miss seeing the Cap’n fishing. Shortly before I retired — near the “snake alley” where his dad saved me — Brian Klinge told me, “Dad would be proud of you.” Perhaps that was the greatest compliment I ever received. Thank you, Captain Klinge — Semper Cop.
Lock it up, don’t leave it unattended, be aware and watch out for your neighbors.