It’s hard to write about My Journey from Beach Cop to Police Chief by Donald R. Sloan without sounding snide. Even the story behind how I came upon the book has a built-in punchline: My friend Mike found two copies at the Book Barn in Niantic, Connecticut. One copy was selling for eight bucks and the other for six. The six dollar version had a bit of writing on the title page, which may have explained the price difference. The writing? Sloan’s signature and a note to a “Mr. and Mrs. Hewitt.” He writes: “I hope you enjoy reading this book as much as I enjoyed living it.” Dude devalued his own book without even knowing it.
The book is exactly what it says it is: a true story about a lowly beach cop muscling his way through the ranks of the New London, Connecticut police force, eventually becoming the city’s police chief. But the journey plods along slowly and is mostly unremarkable. Basically, it is one long personalized police blotter. He recalls nearly every single incident of his career from non-events, like times in which he issued teenagers warnings for bringing beer onto the beach, to the slightly more lively, like when he had to break up racially charged parking lot brawls.
Each of these small stories have strange, pithy headlines like “POLICE PATROL AT ITS EXTREME” and “BEWARE OF YOUNG LADY OF THE NIGHT” and “WIFE UPSET, GIVES AXE TO HUSBAND.” But the headlines rarely deliver as Sloan is a stiff writer who never probes too deeply. Take “POLICE RESPONSE TO ADJACENT PROPERTY,” for example:
“Mr. Henry Prospect, a good friend of mine, would call for a little help, when he had persons, who appeared to be trouble makers, creating a disturbance in the Milldale hotel and bar, located just outside the beach. […] The officer on patrol for the area normally was tied up when this occurred. They often would request I go out of the park, across the street from the beach and resolve the situation taking place. This, I did, many, many times over the years while on patrol at the beach.”
That is an entire story. Specifics and concrete conflict are absent. Here are Sloan’s thoughts on accusations of racial profiling within the New London police department: “Some of the criticism was justified and at other times it was not. But nonetheless all did a good job in preventing major problems.” Yeah man, you said it.
There are pictures all over the inside, too. Some are of Sloan, some are of New London, and all were scanned into the book by a person (likely Sloan) who had no idea how to use a scanner — and, by the way, this thing is 422 pages. On 8x11 paper.
But back to the whole thing about trying not to sound snide: Here is a dude who knew he wanted to be a cop by the time he had graduated high school (whereas I am 30, unsure of what I’m going to do tomorrow). Still, I was having trouble locating any sort of humanity in Sloan. Emotional texture is not his bag.
But then the circus came to town, and everything changed. Specifically, Welde’s Performing Bears came to Ocean Beach, Sloan’s main beat. These bears could do a whole lot: slam dunk a basketball, stand on their heads, dance. But Sloan was less intrigued by dancing bears than he was by Conny Welde. Oh, Conny, how you stole Donald’s heart:
“Conny, who by the way was a tall blonde with blue eyes, a stunning beauty, to say the least. She was a high wire artist who also assisted her family with the bears. Not only was she a beauty, she was multi-talented, handling the bears with ease, in their acts of riding bicycles, dancing and many other tricks. […] I found her accent charming along with her beauty.”
This love was indeed requited, and within a few months of meeting, the two got hitched and Conny got pregnant. But Conny started feeling the heat from her parents: They needed her in their traveling act, which toured the world year round. Conny knew the ropes best and succumbed to the pressure. She couldn’t quite break this to Sloan, though. Instead, she told him she’d be taking their four-month-old son to Florida for a quick vacation with her parents. She never returned, nor did she ever write. Just like a trained bear riding a motorcycle off into the sunset, Conny and her son, Donald R. Sloan Jr. (of course), faded. Sloan Sr. was crushed, clearly: “It was a difficult time in my life, facing up to the fact of my short lived marriage to a circus performer and the loss of my son.”
I really do feel for Sloan here. There he was, living a relatively quiet, simple life, the same beat day in, day out, and suddenly a high-wire performing, bear-training goddess reroutes the straight line of his life, seemingly for the better. How exciting and weird it must’ve been for him to visit his in-laws to find bears in the backyard, lounging and wearing tiny hats. And then to have that all ripped away from you, forever? Damn.
Sloan tried hard for years to locate his son, but only found dead-ends. But then the circus came to town again, in 1981, 26 years later. This time the circus set up shop in the New London mall parking lot. Sloan was police chief by this point and was asked to make a visit to the circus site to ensure everything was running safely and smoothly. As he approached the tent, he spied a trailer marked “Weldes Bears.” Sloan, who writes that his “body was trembling” decided to take in the circus that night, on the off chance he might spot Don Jr.
When the bear portion of the evening began, Sloan knew right away that it was indeed his son commanding bears to dance. He approached his son after the show, but chickened out, opting for idle chatter instead of dropping the dad-bomb. Sloan ends the story of their initial meeting with, “At that moment, I did not identify myself as his father.”
And there it is! Sloan’s humanity! It may seem cruel and cold of Sloan, but really it was all about nerves and pain. There is so much wrapped up in this tiny moment even though Sloan doesn’t explicitly say so. Of course he couldn’t tell his son right away. How could anyone? Twenty-six years of not seeing his son, not knowing his son, (who was now known as John Welde; Conny changed it) and then the kid pops back up at a circus — the scene where the whole weird ride began? Talk about a mind-fuck. And while Sloan never gets deep or even sentimental about the relationship, you can see the real person in him in this moment, the nervous, little child in him. He’s not a police chief or beach cop in this moment; he’s just a dude who has endured some significant pain.
But then Sloan goes back to the circus the next night and approaches his son again. And this time, he fesses up. And they go on to have a fairly decent relationship. It would have been pretty sweet if a bear had walked over during this scene and hugged the both of them hard, but that didn’t happen because this is a self-published memoir, not Finding Nemo.
Look: My Journey from Beach Cop to Police Chief is not a good book, but that doesn’t matter. That’ll never matter.
I wanted to end with some poignancy, but my attempts are feeling forced. Instead, I’d like to leave you with some words from Sloan. This is his explanation as to why two people were having sex in a boat during his patrol on the beach one night: “When two lovers are together, under conditions out of the ordinary, time and place have no bearing.” Haha, Donald: You said “bear-ing.”