LINCOLN CITY - Marie Dickerson showed up early Saturday, parking a picnic chair on the sidewalk along U.S. Highway 101, one American flag in her hand and two more affixed to the collars of each of her two Shiba Inu mixes, Red and Cody.
At first, Dickerson was all alone on that sidewalk. Maybe she'd be the only one to greet Lincoln City police officer Steven Dodds as he rolled into town for the first time since he was gunned down on this same highway nearly three months ago. Maybe she and Cody and Red would be all the welcoming committee Dodds got.
"Officer Dodds needs to know," Dickerson said, "that dogs love him too."
But as the minutes ticked toward Dodds' planned arrival, Laura Todd showed up, two more fur-coated sentinels in tow.
"We care about the people who serve us," she said.
Then a group of paramedics strolled out of the fire station just up the road. Then, one by one, cars began pulling into the adjacent lot, their passengers all trickling onto the sidewalk. And by the time Dodds' motorcade loomed into view from the north, the entire highway was lined with flag-waving onlookers, welcoming their wounded hero home.
From his police-escorted limousine, Dodds waved, marveling at the readerboards that broadcast messages of "Thank you Officer Dodds" and "Good to have you back Officer Dodds" and "God bless you Officer Dodds," and at the hundreds of people who lined this impromptu parade route all the way through the city.
The caravan pulled into the Taft High School parking lot and Dodds stepped out, a crowd of fellow police officers waiting for him. After a quick briefing from his chief, he limped down the school's corridor and into the auditorium, where about 100 more awaited his arrival. He made it only halfway to the podium before somebody noticed and kicked off a rousing ovation.
The officer fought back his tears and stepped onto the stage.
"Hang with me," he asked the audience, "while I try to get some words out before I start crying."
This community has hung with Steven Dodds from the moment he was gunned down on Jan. 23 after a traffic stop - from the neighbors who heard the shots and rushed to his aid, to the paramedics who cut through his bulletproof vest to find his wounds and stop them from bleeding, who intubated him as he gasped for air on the ride to Samaritan North Lincoln Hospital, to the emergency room doctors who stabilized his plummeting blood pressure and worked to stop the bleeding in his abdomen as they readied him for helicopter transport to Portland, to the surgeons who stitched him up, to the residents back home who passed boots to raise money for his family.
"I wouldn't have made it without them," Dodds said. "They deserve all the credit."
Added Erling Oksenholt, the director of the emergency room at Samaritan North Lincoln Hospital: "He should have died out there."
Between bursts of applause and hard swallows to keep his composure, Dodds thanked all who kept him alive, taking extra care to single out two of the many people who stood by him as he endured 10 weeks of grueling surgeries and physical therapy: his girlfriend, and his daughter, Megan Dodds, who sat at the table with him Saturday, doing her best to suppress tears of her own.
"My daughter has been incredible," Dodds said, dropping his head as the crowd filled an emotional pause with more ovation.
"I'm so proud of him," Megan, a college freshman, said after her dad spoke. "He's a really strong guy. He's really stubborn."
Dodds didn't say much about the shooting itself, which is still under investigation, except to say that he "just happened to be the one that pulled over the wrong vehicle," and to correct the many descriptions in media reports of that night as a "routine traffic stop."
"There's no such thing," he said, "as a routine traffic stop."
The officer also made no mention whatsoever of the man who shot him, whom police believe is David Anthony Durham, who remains on the loose and on the America's Most Wanted list after a five-day manhunt in Waldport. But the fallen officer did talk about what it's been like for him to undergo several surgeries and weeks of physical therapy, and how grateful he is to have made it through all that.
"I'm pretty happy to be able to walk," Dodds said, albeit with a slight limp that he hopes will dissipate as he continues to heal.
He also said he knew he'd survive the shooting, even though every doctor and paramedic who treated him has called it miraculous that Dodds pulled through, that he lived only because of his tip-top physical condition on a diet his fellow officers joke is "fish heads, twigs and berries," his presence of mind to radio for help, the neighbors who came to his aid and the medics who treated his injuries.
"I had no doubt," he said, not just that he'd stay alive but that he'd one day rejoin the police force.
That's a ways off, though, and it was clear as Dodds gingerly made his way about the auditorium that he's got a good deal of recovery to undergo before he can think about getting back on the job. But Dodds had a different focus, once the pomp and circumstance commenced on Saturday.
"I'm going to go home," he said. "For the first time in three months."
And at that, one of the officers in the bleachers called out, "Steve! Welcome home."