You dont have to be a Fallujan to feel uncomfortable watching helicopter gunships descend on your city amid deafening reports of live automatic weapons fire and rising plumes of flash-bang grenade smoke. Unless, like the crowd that gathered on bleachers at a Staples Center parking lot last week to watch a tactics demonstration by the Los Angeles Police and Sheriffs departments, youre in law enforcement.
"Beautiful," said Abdallah Mssika of the Tanzania Police Force, squinting as a couple of helicopter-borne snipers inflicted justice on a pair of balaclava-clad terrorists standing on a nearby roof. As the light poles wagged in the rotors wake and the crowd shielded its eyes from flying debris, the terrorists (mannequins, actually) offered scant resistance. A few shots rang out, and then they gave a slow, Oscar-worthy descent to the ground. Like many of the 14,000 delegates attending the annual conference of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) last weekend, Mssika was sickened with envy. "We are not nearly so well-equipped," he said, shaking his head.
"The threat has been reduced," assured deputy chief of police Mike Hillman through his microphone. The thousand-strong crowd applauded as the helicopters beat their harpylike retreat, then surged forward to assess the damage, meet the heroes and climb inside the armored vehicles and helicopters. But a pair of Swedish gentleman in suits hung back, seemingly repulsed.
"In Sweden, its too big, too military," said Willis Alberg, a police superintendent in his native country, offering his preferred approach to a hostage crisis. "We will make the criminal tired and hungry, and then we start to negotiate."
But the Swedes were in the minority. The crowd again cheered when LAPD Chief William Bratton took the mike: "We hope youve gotten some sense as to why Sheriff Baca and I think we have the two best jobs in the world," Bratton said.
The convention that culminated in this display of special effects and wonder had begun, appropriately enough, with a group tour of Universal Studios. Apparently, a few days in Los Angeles can leave even the most stalwart enforcer of the law starstruck. "Its the closest Ill ever come to being a movie star," said a beaming John Ashcroft as the newly resigned attorney general addressed the convention in the proud and slightly weepy tones of a Little League coach at seasons end. Still, there was some serious discussion going on in such seminars as "Keeping Good People Good," "Preparing for the Use of Force During a Demonstration" and "When the Media Is Unfair." Ashcroft himself weighed in on the last topic: "I was amazed when The New York Times ran a headline last week that said, Despite Drop in Crime, an Increase in Inmates. Well, duh!"
In a seminar billed on the IACP Web site as "Policing in an Emergency [sic] Democracy: Post-Hussein Iraq," Iraq police consultant and Order of the British Empire member Douglas Brand offered a sobering reminder that not all of the convention attendees colleagues were having so much fun. Following a moment of silence for the fallen, and 30 minutes of candid criticism of the impossible demands placed by coalition governments on the Iraqi police and their foreign trainers, Brand projected a slide photo of a donkey. The animal, he said, had towed a cart used in an insurgents rocket attack on Baghdads International Zone: "A colleague of mine said, At least we found one of the weapons of ass destruction."
The mood was considerably lighter on the exhibition floor among the cool toys: disco-worthy displays of sirens, potato-gun-like Less Lethal Launchers, trading cards for cops and their bomb-sniffing dogs ("Vannah helps protect American one sniff at a time"), garishly color-coded handcuffs (yellow for felon, orange for recidivists, red for Hannibal Lecter), and a best-uniform contest. My favorite exhibit was a Northrop-Grumman-manufactured satellite-map touch-table operated by waving ones hands over it, not unlike the holographic display used by Tom Cruise in Minority Report. One could route parades, contain riots and assess the aftermath of nuclear explosions. The $250,000 price might seem steep, but salesman Mark Whitman saw a new willingness to pay it. "Oddly," he reported, "we havent had much sticker shock."
The weirdest pigeon at the Pageant of Pigeons looked just like a regular pigeon but had, stuck to its back, a swath of curly feathers curly like carrot rosettes or frisée lettuce or Diana Ross hair. It has taken thousands upon thousands of generations of selective breeding to achieve this pigeon. It would not survive in the rough-and-tumble world of actual nature. Though here, tonight, among thousands upon thousands of his fancy brethren at the Orange Show Fairgrounds in San Bernardino, he was getting along quite well.
It was late on the night before the big opening day of the Pageant of Pigeons, and people closely affiliated with the show, the judges, the breeders and the wives of breeders, were setting up, checking cages or generally fussing with their birds. The first thing you noticed (aside from the pigeons) was a layered crrooo-crrooo-crrooo-crrooo sound like deep white noise. It was the quality of sound that would either put you into an immediate state of profound relaxation or drive you mad. I found it relaxing. I wandered up and down the rows of Strawberry balds, Opal laces and Red mottles soaking up bits of conversation.
"He wanted to name that damned thing Bob and then Timmy Bob and then Timmy Bob Two," said a man in denim overalls.
"Thats his sister," said another man, pointing to a pigeon with a brisk crownlike tuft of head feathers. "And thats his sister and thats her mother." All three pigeons looked exactly identical.
Eventually I ran into one of the men in white coats affixed with official-looking embroidered badges. Leon Stephens was past president of the Los Angeles Pigeon Club. "There are pigeons with feathers on the nose, or over the head like a hat," he told me. "There are pigeons with long beaks, with curls on their chest. There are robust utility birds bred specifically for the purpose of eating. There are Pouters whose ornamental air sacs blow up with a puff of air. There are others that turn somersaults. Those are the Tumblers. They fly into the air and flip themselves over like yo-yos. Nobody knows why or what causes it. But they seem to enjoy it. There are others bred for flying stamina, like the racing homers. There are lots of famous pigeons," he said. "Take the pigeon named GI Joe. He delivered a message that saved the lives of an American troop that was pinned down in one of the World Wars."
The racing homer is the super-athlete of the pigeon world. It is bred, fed and trained to fly as fast as it can for as long as it can, and the record is something like halfway around the world in 15 hours. When I asked President Stephens which pigeon was his favorite, he stopped to think. If he were a pigeon, I guessed, he would be a gray Monk or a brown Priest.
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"I like the Saxon color pigeons," he answered solemnly. "Something about the color and white bars on the wings fascinates me. You can just about fall in love with them. When youve been working on a bird, when you see that its got nice feathers, in a good condition and youve made some advancements," he sighed. "Like Freud says, its probably a sexual thing."
The next day I brought along my friend James. James and I had met online. In the olden days, our largely epistolatory e-mail relationship would have been conducted entirely via homing pigeon. It took us an hour to get to San Bernardino from Pasadena, but a racing homer could have probably done it in 20 minutes. I relayed what President Stephens had said about the "why" of pigeon fancy: You come home and go out to your pigeon house at night. You play with your birds. You talk to them and they dont talk back to you. You hold them. You examine them. Its relaxing. James looked skeptical. As we talked, a woman with an English Trumpeter clutched in a death grip bumped us on her way to the judging booth. "Pigeon people," I said, "are very intense."
"Sure," said James, "if by intense you mean crazy." Then he scooted away to take a picture of three birds underneath a sign hand-markered with the words "Black cocks." I bent to have a closer look at several spotted pigeons the size of geese. Pigeon fanciers, Stephens had said, were artists. "We are doing biological art. Our talent lies in making living creatures express certain characteristics." I was parsing the ramifications of this Frankensteinian approach when James returned. "That was either a two-headed pigeon, or a pigeon sitting really close to another pigeon," he said. His eyes were wide and his shirt was covered in small curls of cedar shavings. Somewhere nearby, a bird that sounded suspiciously like an owl but was undoubtedly a pigeon began to hoot.