As long as I can remember, all I ever wanted to be was a policeman. I grew up in Van Nuys, California, in a typical baby boomer neighborhood where small, boxy homes were crammed into an expansive grid of urban sprawl. Down the street from me lived a tall, soft spoken police lieutenant named Bob. After his shift, Lieutenant Bob would park his big old black and white police car in his driveway, and many days I would appear as he drove up - a small boy waiting in excitement.
That police car was so imposing to me, with its draping, round, 1950s-style fenders and a growler siren mounted on its roof. I know my eyes widened when the lanky man stepped from his cruiser, and I saw that long-barreled revolver slung on his hip. Without a word, big Bob would offer a slight nod in my direction, which was his way granting me unspoken approval to climb into his police car. I would quickly clamber onto the cigarette-burned and coffee-stained front seat and just sit there for hours, listening in rapt attentiveness to the police calls on the radio. Without moving, that black and white cruiser transported me into an exhilarating world of cops and criminals. The crackling words filled my exuberant and fertile mind, and it was I who chased down stolen cars and fleeing bad guys.
Many years later, I realized my dream when I became a police officer with the Costa Mesa Police Department in Southern California. I worked as a patrol officer for several years, then as a motorcycle cop and finally, a crime scene investigator (CSI). Eventually, I graduated from the FBI Homicide Institute.
I admit, there's some truth to those stereotypes about cops and donuts. Some mornings after a long graveyard shift, when the sun was straining through the coastal haze, I would find time for a routine cup of coffee at a small donut shop on 17th street. On several occasions, around 7 a.m., or so, I would find a wide-shouldered, big man standing next to his car, all alone in the parking lot. He lived in nearby Newport Beach, and he liked to frequent this particular donut shop about the same time I did. He wore an Irish tweed cap on his head and held a steaming cup of coffee in his huge fists. His name was John Wayne. We often talked together about what had happened during my shift. He loved hearing stories of the night's activities and, just like me as a small boy, he too liked to stand by my police unit and listen in on police calls.
Once Mr. Wayne told me that his life was completely scripted, and while he was sometimes shot or killed in the movies, it was just an act and he always went home unharmed. He often said that the police were his heroes because we weren't acting, and real harm could come to us at any moment from unexpected circumstances. He liked to say that my job was unscripted. In my job, the bullets were real, and the potential for death skulked around every corner. Ironically, it was not that long after one of my morning meetings with the Duke that I was involved in one of those ”unexpected circumstances.“
The Burning Truck
One late afternoon, while working in plain clothes as a crime scene investigator, I heard a radio call reporting that a man had set his pickup truck on fire in his front yard. I had no clue that this odd event would ultimately change my life. The call was not directed at me, of course, because I worked on crime scenes at that time and didn't take general patrol calls. I was right around the corner from the burning truck, though, so I radioed ”9-10“ to say I would take the call. I turned down a narrow neighborhood street and, sure enough, there was a pickup truck parked on a front lawn, totally engulfed in a ravenous ball of fire.
I parked my all-white police car directly in front of the house, got out, and walked up the short driveway through a curtain of sour smelling haze. The black smoke burned my eyes, but I could see well enough to discern a blurry man behind the front screen door of the house. I rubbed my watering eyes and made a few more steps in the man's direction, trying to focus on him through the screen door. Then I stopped. He stood about thirty feet away from me, a half-empty bottle of vodka dangling from one hand, and a rifle propped up in the other. The barrel was aimed directly at my forehead.
”You a cop?“ the man grumbled. Then he slurred, ”I'm gonna kill a cop.“
The day had started out like any other, if anything could be considered ”normal“ on that job. Many shifts were just long days of drudgery, with one call after another followed by the tedious filling out of reports. Many shifts involved incursions into the darker corners of society. On occasion, a circumstance would erupt that sent a sour shot of adrenaline across my tongue, while my heart pounded wildly against my ribs. This was one of those days.
On one side of that screen door stood a man whose mind was saturated by alcohol and strife. On the other side stood me. His finger locked onto the trigger while he struggled to keep my head positioned in the metal v-groove on his rifle sight. I thought about reaching for the semi-automatic 9mm under my sports jacket but decided against it. Instead, I slowly–if not meekly–stammered out, ”Hey man, I am no cop.“ He seemed to relax a moment, and I turned to walk away.
The calm lasted only a few moments. Maybe he saw the yellow light in the back window of my unmarked unit, or maybe he spotted the barrel of my shotgun peeking up from the dashboard mount. Whatever connection he made, he must have decided that I was law enforcement, and gunshots erupted through the smoke.
”Pop pop pop pop!“ The man unleashed the hell hounds that had been crouching in his wounded soul. If he'd been sober, his aim might have been better. As it was, a fusillade of sonic-snapping bullets shot past me and I sprinted to my car. Something stung my leg just before I dove behind the steel body of the cruiser, and I thought I had been shot. Happily, it was only asphalt spraying from bullet impacts. I pressed my back behind the shielding bulk of the car axle as a barrage of bullets flew past. Across the street, puffs of stucco blew into the air, shingles popped up and windows shattered. Shredded tree leaves rained down from the canopy of branches above me.
When under extreme stress, a rolodex of bodily reactions kicks into high gear. The heart races to pump more oxygen to the brain. Surges of adrenaline prepare the body for the strength needed in a confrontation. Eyes widen for greater peripheral vision, and nostrils flare to suck in the air needed to operate the body's survival mechanisms at optimum efficiency. I added one additional method to my survival system that day; I sent up a short prayer.
A raging fire still consumed the man's truck, and over my shoulder I watched as the black funnel cloud tilted in the wind. It seemed as if a demonic tornado had stopped to sip up the flames, and I felt certain that a fire in the man's heart roared as hot as the charred truck. I later learned that the man had been arrested for drunk driving on the previous night. He had lost his job over the crime, and his fed-up family had left him alone and distraught. Uncontrollable rage overwhelmed him and demanded recompense, and his plan was simple. He would kill a cop for what had happened to him, and I was the sacrificial beneficiary of his reprisals.
I hunkered behind my car while the man unleashed his fury, still in danger but at a distinct advantage. I had good cover, and I would be alive at the end of the night if I didn't do anything especially stupid. I waited until I heard a metallic ”clank,“ which told me his spent rifle clip had dropped to the tiled floor. He'd have to reload, which gave me a few seconds to open my car door and reach for my radio mic. I pulled out the grey, coiled umbilical cord attached to the radio, and I forced out the words ”44 290- 998“ into the receiver. The first five numbers were my call sign, and the dire proclamation of ”998“ alerted all other cops that shots had been fired. I grabbed my shotgun and yanked it free from its clamshell mount on the dash.
No music from any composer ever sounded so beautiful as the sirens that wafted through the hazy sky. The posse soon arrived. A crowd of curious onlooker began to grow, and newly arrived officers set up barricades to keep them back. There was no loss of excitement, though, because the enraged man kept shooting. Firetrucks arrived, and when I saw an ambulance pull up at the end of the street, I hoped I would not be its next occupant.
The hostile situation lasted for hours. I tried to convince the shooter to come out and give up, but the vodka kept a-flowing and the bullets kept a-flying. The shooter communicated through the screen door with incoherent rants punctuated by foul insults.
The dark of evening fell fast as the shots and shouts continued. After several hours of conflict, the man suddenly and without warning kicked the screen door hard. It slammed open with a startling bang, and he marched out the door and down past the smoldering corpse of his pickup truck. He didn't even look at the results of his arson, but kept his face turned down as he headed right at me and his own demise.
Everything shifted into slow motion. I rose up and flopped onto the trunk of my police car. I stared into the oncoming spits of orange discharges from the barrel-end of his weapon. I aimed my shotgun at his chest, and a gun discharged from another cop on my right. At that same instant, my sweaty finger compressed the trigger of my weapon, and it recoiled hard into my shoulder. The blast rang in my ears as a blinding yellow ball of flame spewed from the barrel. I heard the sickening sound of air sucking from the man's gaping chest wounds as he flew back into the dark shadows of the bushes. I stood over the man a few steps later. He lay on his back, blood pooling around him. I stared into his startled eyes. He stared back at me for a few moments, and then the life faded from his face.
I knew right then that both of us would start our respective new journeys. His journey would end in an eternal destiny established by his personal life choices, and my life would be spent struggling to forget that moment.
Mount Ararat and Jim Irwin
I left law enforcement at the end of the 70s, shortly after the shooting incident, and it threw me into a mid-life crisis. My wife and I moved away from southern California, and my new life in Colorado left me yearning for something to fill the void of lost excitement. I eased into the booming Colorado real estate market of the early 80s as a private developer, partnering with my brother Paul. Paul is one of the most honorable, hard working men I have ever known, and we got off to a fast start in business together. My days were busy and fulfilling, but I still felt a hollow place in my chest just below where my badge had been. I had enjoyed the sense of adventure and accomplishment all those years as a cop, and to this day I don't understand why I left the police force so soon after that shooting. In retrospect, maybe God had other plans for me.
I first met astronaut Jim Irwin during this time. One of my friends asked me along to share lunch with the living legend, so I joined a small group of Jim Irwin's family and close friends at a restaurant.
Jim and I hit it off immediately. He was a humble guy, lacking the self-importance that his astounding resume of accomplishments might evoke. This was a man who had once been jammed into a small capsule 360 feet above a hissing Saturn Five rocket. If it had exploded, the million gallons of propellant stored in its tanks would incinerate him to a small lump of charcoal. Jim had logged 295 hours in space as a lunar module pilot and had spent 18 hours and 35 minutes walking on the moon's surface. This was an extraordinary man who had done truly remarkable things, and I had the opportunity to sit and chat with him over a friendly lunch!
Jim and I had many conversations in the years after that day. On one occasion, he described for me the tension of his first space launch as the time dragged on before blastoff. When the countdown sequence finally hit...”Ten-nine-eight-seven-six-five-four-three-two-one-ignition“ the events dashed by at a dizzying speed. A tremendous roar of the rockets erupted under Jim as that metal monster shuddered and then thundered to life. Bathed in a flaming cyclone of unimaginable fury, the rocket violently but slowly clawed its way upward. Soon the speed increased, with G-forces that plastered Jim and his two companions back against their seats. The rocket eventually reached the velocity of a bullet and, just minutes later, the blazing daylight morphed into indigo blue and then into consuming blackness that extended forever past the expanse of stars.
When the Apollo 15 space capsule splashed down 13 days later on August 7, 1971, a physically exhausted Jim Irwin emerged safely from the capsule. His boot prints had been left forever stamped in the moon's primordial dust. From that moment onward, Jim held a rare spot in the narrative of mankind's greatest accomplishments. He had walked on the moon! He was a world-wide hero for the ages.
Jim's space travels were not the only stories that interested me. Jim resigned from the Air Force and NASA in 1972 to form the High Flight Foundation, and Jim's excursions on Mount Ararat searching for Noah's ark intrigued me as well. Just thinking about Noah's ark made me dizzy. If the ark were found, it would be the greatest discovery of all time! Jim himself told me it would far surpass even his trip to the moon.
As we talked during first lunch in 1985, I imagined I might join Jim on a search for Noah's ark one day, but my enthusiasm dampened when I learned there was a long list of very qualified people clambering for a spot on Jim's team. There was also a serious danger-factor in hiking high up Mount Ararat, and Jim himself had a bad fall there in August of 1982.
Near-Death on Ararat
He explained to me that he'd been exasperated with himself, because a few hours earlier he had failed in his attempt to reach the icy summit of the nearly 17,000-foot-high Mount Ararat. For perspective, that's about a half-mile higher than Pike's Peak in Colorado. Jim seldom failed at anything, and in irritated frustration, and out of breath, he decided to leave the rest of the climb team and walk down alone to base camp. That was a huge mistake.
Jim told me that he had to stop above a treacherous northern chute high on the mountain. He needed to descend, but he'd reached a treacherous boulder field. The cumbersome metal crampons lashed to his boots had worked great up on the glacier, where their steel fangs bit clean into the slick slab of ice. The crampons were of no use on this boulder field, so he stopped to sit down on a spine of rock jutting out from the snow, and he reached down to undo the leather straps that secured the crampons to his boots.
As he sat laboring over his crampons, a rock above him pulled free. This stone had been nested in volcanic tuft for millennia, but now it bounced along, gaining speed in its decent until it clipped the base of Jim's skull. He was sent cartwheeling like a rag doll down the craggy slope, eventually sliding to a stop on an ice-crusted rock field far below. Jim lay limp, unconscious that his contorted body was a bloody mess. Four big gashes gouged his head, four teeth were knocked out, and his hands were cut so severely that they would swell to almost twice their normal size. His entire body was horribly busted, bludgeoned, bloody, cut, and bruised.
The embers of the sun had long since dissolved into the horizon when the rest of the climb team arrived at base camp. They looked around and asked each other, ”Where is Jim?“ The team set off to search for the missing Jim Irwin, but their echoes were answered by nothing but mute blackness and a rising icy wind. Their head lamps probed the shadowy crags, but the sheer drop-offs in the mountain proved to be far too deep. It was as if the mountain had swallowed Jim whole.
It became evident that finding Jim at night was impossible, so the team returned to camp. There, they huddled together in the numbing cold and prayed all through the long night. When the seemingly eternal darkness gave way to the glow of morning, they set out again to search for Jim. They knew the prospects were grim; many climbers had gone missing on Ararat and had never been seen again.
Jim's injuries were not his only concern that night. If Jim hadn't regained consciousness, he could have frozen to death. After the fall, though, Jim eventually woke up to brutal pain, and he carefully, agonizingly wriggled out of his back pack and removed his sleeping bag. He spread it out and then ever-so-slowly shimmied inside inch by inch. He then rolled a few feet to a protective spot behind a big boulder to keep himself safe from additional rock falls. Just then, another massive rock from above rumbled down the mountainside. With a thunderous impact, it collided against Jim's stone shield, and that crashing, shaking sound was the last thing Jim knew before lapsing into unconsciousness again.
The rescue team found him about eight o'clock in the morning, inside a sleeping bag stiff with frozen blood. The ice-encrusted fabric had to be peeled away from Jim's open wounds in order to treat them. The 53-year-old retired astronaut had survived the dangers of space, but Ararat had nearly killed him. The Turkish commandos that escorted the climbing group announced that if the team wanted Jim Irwin to survive, they needed to get him off that mountain fast.
The climbers attended to Jim's many injuries, and one of the commandos hiked to a nearby nomad village where shepherd Kurds lived in tents. The soldier frantically asked the Kurdish elder to provide a donkey to carry the injured astronaut down to a hospital. Dispassionately, the elder refused to help. The Kurds vehemently hate the Turks, and the old man was unwilling to cooperate in any way whatsoever. Finally, the Turkish soldier pulled out his pistol and pressed it into the Kurdish leader's forehead, and a donkey was made available.
Over the next several hours, Jim was transported down to a legitimate road, where a car was flagged down to drive him to a medical facility. As Jim told me the story, I studied a grayish scar above his eyebrow as an indelible souvenir from that expedition. It should have given me a sober sense of warning about the dangers of venturing out with him onto that mountain. Instead, an excited hope rose in me that one day I would be able to climb that beast called Ararat, and I would be the one to find Noah's ark...
This article was excerpted from Bob Cornuke's new book Explore: My life searching for lost locations in the Bible.