The Right Stuff

In January 1979, Tom Wolfe released his book, The Right Stuff. It chronicled the United States’ efforts to break the sound barrier and then the Mercury space program. The true stars of the book were the pilots that flew these airplanes and spacecraft. It went into detail describing the courage and fortitude it took to fly these missions. When it was common time for the pilots to die in a flaming crash these pilots strapped themselves in their aircraft and tested the limits of their ship and their personal courage.

Wolf writes about Chuck Yeager. Famous now, but no one out of the close brotherhood of test pilots knew anything about him at the time. He describes how Yeager remained calm and in control no matter the situation. Even when in a flat spin and out of control he remained calm and worked to solve his problems. His radio demeanor became famous and it is the standard other pilots still work to emulate.

There is a similarity with police officers on the police radio. We all know a few officers who never got flustered on the radio. You could rely on them remaining cool and collected. If ever you heard panic in their voice you knew things had gone very badly for them. Some officers never lost their cool on the radio.

As a young officer with about a year on the job, I remember a team of partners calling in a 10-1. In Chicago that means they are being attacked and need help immediately. There was no panic in their voice. They were almost jovial and laughing. My partner and I were the first on the scene and found the two officers in their car with about twenty people rocking and trying to flip their vehicle. They were in grave danger and it deserved a 10-1. Had these people gotten the two officers out of the car they might have beaten them to death. Rather than panic these two remained calm and found humor in the fact that help would respond quickly.

My partner and I both worked to maintain that calm on the radio. We talked about it and agreed that it was important to remain calm on the air to ensure we were able to get important information out to other officers in an emergency.

I clearly remember a group of us responded to shots fired. We were at the end of the alley and shots were being fired towards us from the middle of the alley. We all were hiding behind vehicles and around the corner of buildings. One of our sergeants, the only to arrive on the scene, quickly assessed the situation. He stood there, took out a cigarette, lit it, took a puff told us all what to do. He spoke coolly, with confidence, and expressed not a worry. He could have been telling us where to find the bread aisle in the grocery store.

This sergeant’s calm demeanor calmed all of us. In the end, no one got shot. The offender was in custody, and we all were better for the experience.

This sergeant had the right stuff. We all had come closer to achieving it ourselves that night. We all wanted to be that calm and collected.

Many years later and after I had retired, I attended the wake of a fellow officer I had once worked with. A group of us stopped out afterward for a beer. We told old war stories and toasted lost comrades.

right stuff

Cops with the right stuff. (Photo courtesy Robert Weisskopf)

As I was preparing to leave an officer who was still on the job came up to shake my hand and say good night. Instead, he thanked me.

This officer said that when he was a young recruit, he noticed that my partner and I never got flustered on the radio. He said “You guys always remained calm on the radio. I knew if you were coming to back me up on a job, I would be okay. I also knew that if you called in something serious and needed assistance, I needed to get my ass in gear and go help.”

I looked around the room and noticed we weren’t a very intimidating group. We wouldn’t strike fear into hearts but everyone in that group had the right stuff and had shown it quietly over the years. Their professionalism and dedication made a difference for many people over time.

I was reminded of The Right Stuff this morning as I listened to a recording from the police radio. Last night a bank robbery occurred in the NW suburbs. The local officers gave chase into Chicago. The Illinois State police as well as local district officers joined in the hunt. Just a few blocks from my home this chase came to an end. The offender was shot but not before he had shot an innocent bystander and a Chicago police officer.

The offender did not survive his injury. The bystander is seriously injured but I’m not sure just how badly. The officer was shot in the head.

The injured officer has a skull fracture and blood on the brain, a hospital official said. His condition is listed as serious, but stable. I pray they both recover well.

This link is to the recorded radio activity during and following the incident. On it, you will hear a lot of officers with the right stuff.


Stay safe my brothers and sister. Run low and zigzag.

– Robert Weisskopf (retired LT. CPD)

Note: you can find more of Robert Weisskopf’s articles as well as links to his books at his web page


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