Sgt. Pat McArdle and I were to meet a few Tuesdays back to talk about his upcoming retirement. Instead, McArdle was called to the scene of a fatality in Taylors Falls.
McArdle, a state trooper, often is among the first responders to such tragedies. Might this have been his last? "I sure hope so," McArdle said when we talked a week later. But, with two hours remaining before official retirement began, he wasn't assuming anything.
In 32 years, McArdle, 54, of Forest Lake has spent more than 1 million miles in his squad cars, covering largely rural north Washington and all of Chisago counties. Steady and low-key, McArdle said much of his work was teaching road safety, sometimes with a friendly warning. Slow down. Click that seat belt. Keep your child in a car seat.
If he had to make his point a little louder, he'd issue a citation. But his job never was about writing "as many tickets as possible," he said. "It was uneventful a lot of the time. Then, suddenly, it's not routine at all."
Reluctantly, McArdle pulled a lined sheet of paper from his pocket. Cryptic hand-written notes on both sides tell the sorrowful tales, the ones he kept from his wife and his two children, now grown.
Rollover. Head-on. Trapped. 4-year-old boy. Knew victim.
McArdle once attended the funeral of a 17-year-old girl who fell asleep at the wheel. "When I drive by [that spot] I still think about that," he said. That was 15 years ago.
It's not just the deaths that haunt him. For every fatality, he said, "there are 10 serious injuries. To me, it's just as sad if somebody's permanently injured, and that happens a lot. You always wonder how they're doing, the human toll."
McArdle entered Arden Hills' Training Academy, or "rookie school" he calls it, at age 22 in 1979. Suzanne, his wife of 31 years, says her husband wanted to work in law enforcement as long as she's known him.
Back then, the speed limit of 55 seemed "pretty fast," he said, and driving while intoxicated was a public health nightmare.
"We saw at least one head-on crash every weekend due to drunk drivers," McArdle said. Safety campaigns and the tireless work of groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) have turned that around.
Equally heartening are historically low traffic fatalities, thanks to nearly universal seat belt use. Unfortunately, we just pick up new bad habits. "Distracted driving is huge," McArdle said.
Back to teaching road safety. "Ninety percent of people just made a mistake," he said of those he pulls over for speeding, texting or running reds. "They're not mean. They're stressed out." Many hand him their driver's license "with a shaking hand."
Sometimes, McArdle did the shaking. He learned how to find "clues" as he approached cars, such as looking into mirrors to see where a driver's hands were. Rookie school also taught him how to use a calm voice.
"Most people are going to react to you the way you deal with them," he said. "A lot of it is therapy. Somebody just broke up with her boyfriend or had a really bad week."
They'd still usually get a ticket, but it came with charitable advice. "You should keep your mind on what you're doing here, so you're safe," he'd say. "Three-fourths of the time, they'd thank me."
Suzanne preferred to hear very little about her husband's work, and he complied. "Pat sheltered us from it a lot," she said. "He would say, 'It was a really bad motorcycle accident,' but not the details. One thing that helped is that I just had such confidence in him, as far as him having a lot of common sense."
Still, she always was happy to hear the squad car pull into the driveway.
McArdle was the third state trooper to arrive at the Taylors Falls crash scene. He could have left, but the team player stayed to finish up, marking the "final positions." It was, in fact, the last time he had to do such sad work.
The trim McArdle, a cross-country skier, cyclist and kayaker, is thinking now about working at a sporting goods store, where the biggest stressor might be learning how to use a cash register.
"I've done the job enough," the state trooper said. "But I'm going to miss the people."
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