Karen Douglas didn't think she would make it through "the five worst months of my life."
"Oh, it was a killer," recalled the 37-year-old mother of two sons, guiding her black-and-white Dodge around slower traffic on the San Bernardino Freeway. "I thought I was going to die. There I was, competing with guys 21 or 22 years old, fresh out of the service. I couldn't run as fast as the others. The instructors screamed at me.
"Back then they tried to put as much stress on you as they could to teach you to control your emotions."
\o7 In the next lane a fat, bearded man steers his decrepit blue Pontiac toward a freeway exit, ostentatiously signaling the turn with his left arm while peering at Douglas out of the corner of his eye. "He sees me," Douglas remarks, smiling. "His turn signals don't work. I wonder how many times he really uses his arm."
Life at the Academy
One of only three female sergeants among the 4,417 men and 309 women in the California Highway Patrol, Douglas glanced at the Pontiac leaving the freeway, and returned to the "five worst months" of her life: 21 weeks spent nine years ago at the CHP Academy in Sacramento.
For the 5-foot-6 1/2-inch, 130-pound, thrice-divorced field sergeant the hardest part of the academy involved her children: "They (the instructors) could call me names and tell me I was going to die because I was not strong enough. But I felt guilty about leaving my kids for the first time, and when they told me I was a lousy mother and I should be home with my kids, it was devastating."
By now, Douglas is cruising the Pomona Freeway. She pulls up behind a sedan parked on the shoulder. The driver explains that a tank truck hit his car. "Probably the wheel hub of the truck did it ... sometimes they take the whole side of the car off," Douglas observes, calling on her radio for a patrol officer. In minutes, two CHP motorcycle officers ride down the freeway shoulder to take a report.
Back in her vehicle, Douglas reminisced about when she first considered becoming a cop. It was 19 years ago at Earl Warren High School in Downey, where she lived in a beige, three-bedroom house on a quiet residential with her mother, who was a seamstress, and her father, who owned a machine shop.
"Up till I was 15 my ambition was to be 16," Douglas said, with a mischievous smile typical of her on-again-off-again sense of humor that crops up often and unexpectedly. She turned serious again, and said, "By the time I was 16, I wanted to be a deputy sheriff."
"I saw it as a rewarding, exciting job where people would look up to me."
The first thing Douglas did after graduating from high school in 1966 was to get a job laying out art work at a container company. Next she got married. "I was 18 and thought I could do anything I wanted."
Douglas' son, Mark, arrived on May 24, 1967. Four months later the new mother went to work for General Telephone Co., hooking up wires in its Downey office.
After three years of that work, Douglas signed up to take the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department entrance exam. The same week she was due to take the test, she discovered she was pregnant again.
"I'd been trying to get pregnant anyway. I wasn't real disappointed," she said.
Not Much of a Challenge
On Oct. 9, 1970, her second son, David, was born. Douglas spent three years at home, raising her boys. Then she got a job as a restaurant hostess/waitress. She didn't find it much of a challenge, and within a year she was a part-time student, taking law enforcement courses at Cerritos College. She got A's, "especially because I took only two courses a semester."
Until nine years ago, Douglas' resume boasted a hopscotch work history. In addition to the jobs already noted, she also had stints as a metal lathe operator, department store clerk and cocktail waitress.
In the summer of 1977, she signed up to take entrance exams for both the Sheriff's and Highway Patrol's academies.
The Highway Patrol's academy started a month before the Sheriff's, and Douglas "always wanted to work traffic. I wanted to be out there in a patrol car and the Sheriff's told me I'd spend the first five years working in the jail." So she chose the CHP:
"July 11, 1977. It's a date nobody ever forgets, the day you go into the academy. It's like your birthday, or the day an alcoholic takes his last drink."
Douglas struggled through the academy, one of six women to start her class of 61 cadets, one of four women among 50 graduates.
'Loyal and Competent'
She was assigned to the CHP office in Santa Fe Springs, commanded by Capt. Worley Jones, since retired, whom Douglas describes as "a good ol' Texas boy."
"As a field officer she functioned very well," Jones recalled recently. "I had full and complete confidence in her. She's good people.
"She's got a quick mind. I found her to be loyal and competent. I was so impressed with her that I made her the first female public affairs officer in the state."