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COLUMN: A temporary taste of hell

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By VINCE LUECKE, Editor

They say a photo is worth 1,000 words. If so, this flattering shot of me suffering from the effects of a run-in with police pepper spray is priceless.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve taken part in a class for future Tell City reserve police officers. One of the requirements asked of volunteers – reserve officers aren’t paid – is to take a dose of pepper spray in the face.

Officers carry pepper spray, also known as oleoresin capsicum or by the acronym OC. Some people carry OC for self-protection, too, and I suppose there are postal workers who deliver mail who carry some version of it as well to ward off dogs.

The active ingredient is capsaicin, which is a chemical derived from the fruits of plants that include chilis. I’ve eaten my share of chilis, but never, ever, have I experienced a vision of hell that I did Nov. 11.

Police endure a dose of OC so they know its effects and how it will affect them should an attacker ever use it on them. I suspect the experience also leaves officers more judicious on when to use it.

I’d been around over the years when officers took part in OC training. I giggled as they rubbed their puffy eyes and snorted streams of snot. I took their photos and teased them that it “can’t hurt that much.” I was wrong.

This time the tables were turned and I was on the receiving end. Standing in front of certified OC instructor Cannelton Sgt. Lee Hall with five other volunteers, I took a dose of the spray in the chops, from my forehead down to my chin. The burning sensation began immediately and my eyes involuntarily clamped shut. Like some cartoon, I felt like I’d dropped into the pits of hell.

Once doused, I was told to run to another officer and deliver knee kicks to his midsection, simulating what it might be like for an officer to have to fight someone who had used the spray on him. This particular officer didn’t stand still like he was supposed to and I had to chase after him, all the while holding one eye open with my fingers.

I finally found him, delivered a sissy kick or two and moved on to a second station where I was handed a baton and had to wail on another officer. Both policemen held small foam mats  so I wasn’t delivering any real punishment – not that I was able to anyway.

From there, a fellow trainee led me to a garden hose in an attempt to wash away as much of the spray as possible. No luck. Mine stuck to my face like glue. A helpful paramedic dribbled a substance, perhaps something like baby shampoo, on my hands and I rubbed it all over my face.

That helped a little. Still it felt like a few dozen hornets had landed on just my face and planted their stingers in me. I was on fire and all of the water in the world couldn’t ease the pain.

Once sprayed, future reserves writhing in pain stood in front of fans that helped ease the pain around the eyes. That helped more than anything else, as long as I stayed in front of the fan.

Indiana State Police Trooper Charlie Johnson took photos with my camera, including the one of me you see here. He was persistent, becoming more of a pushy, in-your-face news photographer than I’ve ever been. Another officer captured the action live with his cell phone, asking repeatedly how I felt.

I don’t remember exactly what I said to him since I was too busy squealing like a stuck pig, though the officer who later watched it said he had to cover his kids’ ears from time to time.

The whole episode was videotaped by the police department and while I fear it may appear on someone’s Facebook page some day, I’m left with the permanent memories of the pain.

It took a good hour to recover enough that I could leave the comfort zone of the fans. I went to McDonald’s that evening with the officers, a bit of  a truce offering I suppose, but tried not to let anyone see me.

My face was red and swollen and it looked like I’d been crying for hours. I still felt on fire and was sure, had I wanted, I could have peeled my eyebrows right off my face.

A shower the next morning reactivated the spray that was still one my face and I howled even more. The effects never went away until the following evening.

I later found out that officers sometimes carry OC with different levels of intensity or “heat.” As I stepped up to the plate, an officer handed Hall his can of the higher-level spray.

I won’t mention his name, but let’s just say he is the smallest of Tell City’s officers. Two others in the class got shot with the same stuff. Two fared better than me, but the third took an even larger dose than me and had an even worse reaction.

There will come a day when the class will be shot with Tasers, the stun guns officers now carry. I’ll be ready and while it will no doubt hurt a lot, the effects surely won’t linger.

After having hot pepper spray over my face and feeling like my face was on fire, I’m not afraid of being jolted for a few seconds.

Deer Season Opener

Thanks to Indiana Conservation Officer Rob Brewington for allowing me to ride with him a few hours on the opening weekend of the firearms season for deer. He is a professional who takes his job seriously and deals well with the public.

With his help I was able to photograph a few successful hunters and their deer as well as today’s front page photo of Oriole Pond.