Joe Dircks steadied himself, grabbed the horn of the saddle and swung over the horse.
It had been 64 years since Dircks wore police blue and rode with the mounted patrol. And now, the last surviving member of the Los Angeles Police Department's original mounted patrol was being feted on the day after his 90th birthday by officers who have followed in his path.
"I have a lot of memories," Dircks said Thursday after a surprise birthday party at the Ahmanson Equestrian Center in the Atwater district. "There are so many things, but what I miss the most is the association of my fellow officers. I'm honored."
When Dircks last served the city on horseback, downtown Los Angeles was as safe as any neighborhood. He saw Prohibition come and go and smog come and stay. He witnessed the completion of the Coliseum and hobnobbed with the rich and famous.
Dircks was a young man of "220 pounds of muscle" when he joined the mounted patrol in 1923. Los Angeles was grappling with phenomenal growth, but it was still a relatively safe town, a time when characters like "Penal Code" Reagan and "Postman Smith" hung around the corner of 5th Street and Grand Avenue and the Gypsies camped along the banks of the Los Angeles River.
"Things were very mild then compared to the way they are now," he said. "About the most exciting thing that happened to us was overtime parking."
A native of Stratton, Colo., Dircks moved to Los Angeles at the age of 19 and four years later joined the police mounted patrol, which was then used primarily to catch parking violators and to control crowds at gala Hollywood film premieres.
With a chestnut quarter horse named Bob, Dircks patrolled Grand Avenue between 5th and 9th streets. It was while on patrol that he met his future wife, Lillie, the sister of a parking lot attendant. They have been married 66 years.
The mounted unit was disbanded in 1926 because of what Dircks called "a political thing."
"We had this sergeant who gave the head of the Police Commission a lot of tickets for parking in an alley over between Main and Spring," he said. "The guy had some kind of business over there. He told the sergeant to stop but he didn't. Sure enough in a matter of two or three weeks they disbanded the mounted squad."
Even with parking fines costing only $2 then, Dircks said the chief of the Police Commission expected favors.
"We'd do it all the time," he said. "We'd have roll call and someone would say, 'My friend got a ticket,' and you tore it up. The city didn't get much money but you made a lot of friends."
Dircks and Bob became something of a celebrity twosome on the beat. Dircks would eat at the Biltmore while Bob would beg for treats from passers-by.
"He'd stand out front of the Biltmore and kick his hoofs until the girls came out and gave him sugar," he said. "If you could go there today, on the Grand Avenue side, I bet you'd see where he beat on the sidewalk.
"Bob was a fine horse. He was really more like a mule than anything else. He ate a lot. He used to walk behind me and sneak two apples from a fruit stand. No, really he was more like a dog than a horse. Like my dog I have right now, he'll do anything to please you."
Dircks said the city he knew as a young officer was "full of characters, and I remember them all. We had one guy we called 'Penal Code' Reagan because he could recite the entire penal code by heart. There was a postman who used to give the horses Smith Bros. cough drops, so we call him 'Postman Smith.' It was a fine city then. Only 350,000 people when I got there."
Dircks said his most dangerous incident came in a close encounter with a prizefighter who was angry because Dircks had arrested his girlfriend. There was another drunk who hurled $20 gold pieces at him, but he didn't encounter "anything like the problems" officers face today.
After the mounted patrol was disbanded, Dircks went on to help establish the department's first shooting range. He retired from the Police Department as a lieutenant in 1943, about the time "we started getting some smog," and went to work for Douglas Aircraft in Long Beach as head of security.
The city's mounted patrol unit was brought back in July, 1981, and is used extensively for crowd control and patrol duty, much as it was in Dircks' day.
It had been 10 years since Dircks was on the back of a horse, but Thursday he mounted an LAPD horse and took a final ride around the ring with a special honor guard.
When it was over, he slowly dismounted and took off a black ceremonial cowboy hat adorned with a silver police badge.
"You know," he said finally, "as you grow older you don't remember the things that weren't so pleasant. You remember the good things. It's better that way."