It was a time of cops-and-robbers chases, bootleg whisky and shoot-em-up bank robberies.

Big, hearty Earl Burdine was a man suited to those times.

Now 83, still straightforward and fearless, he is the only living member of Montgomery County's original six-man police force. The five privates, including Burdine, and their chief were Montgomery County's entire force for the first five years after it was established in 1922.

But more than that, they were the law. Appeals from their on-the-scene judgments were in vain.

The officers were all local men. "They were chosen for their families, their reputations and their political activities," Burdine said.

Like most county jobs at that time, the police positions were political plums given out by E. Brooke Lee's Democratic machine, which controlled the county for nearly 25 years. Burdine, whose family owned a 17-acre farm in Takoma Park and whose father was the city's first mailman, was hand-picked by J. Bond Smith, Lee's Takoma Park ward boss.

He was attracted to the job, Burdine said, by the steady pay of $125 a month. The men were required to have a telephone and that was about all. With no training in weapons or law, they were sworn in and assigned beats. The work was physically grueling and the hours long, Burdine said. For five years, the officers worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week and were on call 24 hours a day.

The officers were given a Harley-Davidson, a .38 Smith & Wesson handgun, a blackjack, a "law book" and a uniform that "looked like a Mexican general's," Burdine said. The chief, Charles Cooley, got a Model T Ford.

For 10 years, Burdine rode his beloved cycle on rutted dirt roads, giving it up only because a car came with his promotion to lieutenant.

The officer's manual listed motor vehicle violations and definitions of crimes, but Burdine didn't need to ponder over complexities of the law.

"I knew what was right and what was wrong," he said.

And if Officer Burdine took a man to court, the judge knew the case was good.

"We knew them (the judges). We knew their whole family. They were all members of our party. We used to dance together and play ball together," he said.

His wife of 49 years, Rose, told of the time a defendant accused her husband of lying.

"The judge stopped him right there," Rose recalled. "He said to him, "I know this officer and when this officer comes into my court, I know he's telling the truth.'"

Sitting in his Takoma Park home, smoking a huge cigar, and surrounded by pictures of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, Burdine talked about the kind of crimes he encountered back then.

His beat, the largest of the five covered by individual officers, included everything north of Gaithersburg. Once out on the beat, Burdine said, "we were on our own. If we got in trouble we couldn't call for help."

On his beat, he was "responsible for everything from barking dogs to murder. I was a general policeman. I had a territory and I took care of that territory." He was responsible for each case from the initial report to sentencing.

Domestic violence, theft of farm animals and public drunkenness were the major crimes of the day. A good deal of his time was spent chasing speeders down Rte. 28, he said.

"We didn't have the murders and all like they do today," Burdine said. "Why, an (armed) robbery, people would talk about that all over the county." Of course, there would be plenty to talk about because bank tellers were armed and robberies usually climaxed in shoot-outs.

"I don't remember any rape cases, none at all," Burdine said.

There was so little juvenile crime that Burdine was free to handle each case as he saw fit.

"On this one case I was supposed to bring back a boy for something. On the way he started to cry. He said, 'please don't take me home,' that he would get a beating. So I didn't. I put him in a foster home. He called me for years at Christmas, to say thanks, Burdine recalled.

He told of the time he found a young boy sitting on a wall by the courthouse crying.

"He said he wanted to go to California, that he didn't want to go home, so he could live with an uncle or something. So I wrote on my police card, 'Please help this boy get to California.' He got there. He showed it to police along the way and they helped him get there."

This is the stuff of Jackie Coogan movies, but it was real in 1922.

Burdine's favorite assignment was walking the beat in Rockville on Friday and Saturday nights.

"Those farmers would come to buy their goods and then they would start drinking beer. There was more excitement, fights, arguments. I loved it," he said.

He usually capped off the evening by chasing a few rowdies on foot through the middle of town and carting them off to jail. When it came to fighting, Burdine said bluntly, "I never had to call for help." He adds, however, that "people didn't resist when they saw the uniform."

Sport for the lawmen was chasing the rum-runners through the county. Many were chased but few were caught.

"They would throw them smoke bombs out," he said, which stopped the cycles.

It was a different story with the stills. "Nine out of 10 times we caught the people," Burdine said. "It wasn't too hard to find them (the stills). I had a good nose."

Nearly six feet tall, blue-eyed and broad-shouldered, he was the prototype of the handsome young cop. Referred to in newspaper stories as "The Sheik," he was, Rose said, "the handsomest man you've ever seen in his uniform. All the women were crazy over my husband."

As a policeman, he shot several men and killed one -- an event he recalls without regret. "I had to. He went for me. I was trying to arrest him. He went for me and somewhow he got my finger in his mouth. He was on me. So I went for my gun and shot him in the belly."

Until the mid-'40s, county police chiefs changed with nearly every election. Lower-ranking officers often lost their jobs too.

In 1946, when the Fusionist Party -- an alliance of Republicans and anti-Lee Democrats -- gained control of the county, Inspector Burdine was given the choice of resigning or being demoted. He resigned.

A year later, the county police department, except the chief, came under Civil Service protection.

After leaving the county police department, Burdine worked another 20 years on the security force of the Naval Ordnance Laboratory in Silver Spring.

The patriarch of a family in which two sons and a daughter-in-law have worked for the county police department, Burdine maintains an interest in police activities. Wearing his stetson and authentic Texas cowboy boots, he attends meetings of the Montgomery County Police Association, an organization he helped found and to which he was elected president six times.

"He had a fabulous life as a policeman," Rose said. Her husband agreed, saying he would be on the force today if he could.

"We had those hard hours. And we were on our own," he said, comparing the lot of today's police officers to those of his early days. "But the police today don't get the backing or the respect that we got" from the courts or the public.

"They (the public) didn't call us names like they do today. They didn't call us fuzz and all that. They called us by our names. I wouldn't say they were afraid of us. They knew us. They respected us."