Recently I was the entertainment at the Pima County Sheriff’s Department awards banquet. I do it every year because they’re the good guys, the food’s decent and the stories of heroism accompanying every plaque and medal handed out remind me just how decent people can be — unlike the deputies in charge of the program who manage every year to come up with stage entrance stunts for me that rival the “Jackass” series for creativity.
And I am that jackass.
When the motorcycle deputies cuff you and drag you up on stage, it’ll be fun.
When we wheel you in strapped to a dolly like Hannibal Lecter, it’ll be fun.
When you ride Santa’s sleigh, pulled by our remote-controlled bomb-disposal robot, it’ll be fun.
When you enter wearing red longjohns tailored to make fun of the new uniform, turn around and drop the flap in the back to reveal a funny message from us to the sheriff, he’ll love it!
This year we were thinking it would be really fun if you were attacked by one of our K-9s.
That’s your idea? A romp with a four-legged piranha?
Sgt. Paul Hill said: “We’ll rehearse at our regularly scheduled practice with the K-9 units. Wear something you don’t care too much about.”
I showed up at Dan Felix Park after dark, found the deputies’ patrol vehicles, hopped out of my van and made small talk with the Bruce Willis look-alikes. Like the Cowardly Lion asking about Toto’s whereabouts, I said, “Deputy, where are the dogs?”
“In the vehicles.”
I pictured them gnawing on the bones of slow-running perps.
“They’re from Belgium. They’re called Belgian Malinois.”
“Is that a breed of French toy poodle?”
“More like German shepherds. On steroids.”
“Let’s go with the poodles. Do you have any crime-fighting Chihuahuas?”
“Try on the bite suit.”
Pants. Suspenders. Then the thick jacket, strapped tight. White plastic cups over my hands. I was Michelin Tire Man, the latest Spider-Man villain to terrorize the big city. Don’t make me waddle over there and flail at you.
“Crouch. Left arm behind your back. Right arm across your chest; hold it out a little bit. Like a chew toy.”
Standing in the middle of the field, I contemplated an exit strategy.
“And whatever you do, don’t run.”
I could see a tawny dog bounding out of a patrol wagon at his master’s command. Yikes. Clifford with a black snout and a shark fin. Twenty feet away from me, the duo stopped. The nice doggy stared at me like a half-starved wolf eyeing a bacon-flavored elk antler.
“Your dog’s name is Joran.”
Pronounced Yor-in, as in “You’re in the ER now.” The dog’s tail was spinning like a windup key on a toy, coiling his powerful haunches for a sprint. Deputy Paul Petropoulos unclasped the leash from his K-9’s collar.
In whatever language they speak in Belgium, the deputy gave the missile launch command. I think it was Antwerp street slang for “Kill the hippie.”
For the first time in my life I could feel Bambi’s point of view in all of those National Geographic videos depicting a kill. The bullet with fangs raced toward me. Joran took flight like one of Santa’s mythic reindeer at the halfway point, landed teeth-first on my arm, clenched, and hung off of me, his snout inches from my face. I looked into his gleeful eyes as he shook the struggle out of me. Safe in the suit, it was strangely thrilling. In a flash of adrenalin I was at one with Johnny Knoxville and the late Steve Irwin.
The deputy barked a command. Joran went from Cujo to Lassie in a second, returning back to his trainer.
When I give my aged retriever, Ellie, a command, she stares at me like I’m Charlie Brown’s teacher at the front of the classroom, making that muffled, unintelligible trumpet noise. “I don’t do ‘fetch.’ ” She couldn’t apprehend a tennis ball. Or sniff out narcotics, a corpse or currency. “Just pat my head. That’s what I’m here for.”
Joran looped around behind the deputy and heeled. I wanted more of this Seigfried and Roy action. The last time Joran spun me and dragged me down like a Pittsburgh Steeler tackling a hobbit.
“Do perps ever resist?”
“If they’re high or know they’re going to prison.”
Like Shaggy loves Scooby-Doo, the badges love their dogs, their very own Batman batarang with a tail that wags.
Sgt. Hill said: “They are our dogs. We never send them into harm’s way against a perp that’s armed. When they get old and retire from service, we keep them.”
In the distant future I expect one of the retirees will enjoy watching “Rin Tin Tin” videos, dissing cats and dreaming about slow-running cartoonists.
And yes, last night was fun. But I do have a question about next year’s program: Will it involve sharks with Tasers?