So three decades past, I am 20 years old.
I’m leaning against my ’74 Camaro, it’s airshocks all blown up in back for the weekend, and a fresh Playboy bunny air freshener hanging from the rear view mirror. My friend, Wade is behind, sprawled across the trunk.
We’re loitering in a small town Nebraska street at 10:00 pm on a summer night. We don’t live here. We live one town over to the west.
We’re waiting for a mutual friend to come out of the ranch house with white siding a jungle mote of Marigolds.
He was supposed to meet us at 9:45, when his Historical Society meeting was done.
No kidding. Historical Society meeting. Real hell-raisers, us three.
We hear the police car before we notice the lights. The white Crown Vic is still a block away, but I guess he doesn’t want us to run off.
Or maybe he does. Maybe he’s hoping we make Dukes of Hazzard-style leaps through the open windows of the Camaro and smoke off a strip of rubber straight down William Jennings Bryan Avenue.
Rough-necks that we are, we stood our ground.
He stops sorta cross-ways in the street with the blue and red lights spinning around, spotlighting half a dozen small homes. For a few minutes, he’s turned this quiet prairie neighborhood into the center stage of a disco dance floor.
When he gets out, he has trouble with the door and his baton catches on the bumper when he walks around the front of the car. He’s wearing an impressive leather jacket with fur at the collar and a gleaming brass badge, but he’s hunched over and moving slow.
I’m thinking about Asa, the bank guard on The Andy Griffith Show, but the red light on his scowl does make him look a little mean, and it’s clear he’s not in a good mood even before he starts barking at us.
“What the hell you boys think you’re doing?”
The hell, he says.
Wade stays on the trunk, but for my part–I straighten up and stay polite. “What’s the problem, officer?”
“Got a couple calls. Shaggy headed losers sneaking around, peering into houses. You boys got any identification?”
“I do,” I admit, without moving to show it to him.
Wade doesn’t say a word.
For about thirty seconds the old man and I stare at each other.
Who blinks first?
And then the voice is inside my head.
It’s MY voice.
What the hell DO I think I’m doing?
Was I looking to spend the night in jail? Or worse?
That baton is awfully shaky. And there’s a gun on that belt.
I decide to get real cooperative real fast.
Apparently so does Wade, but in the wrong way. Instead of moving slow, he rolls off the trunk and skips to his feet, a fast move that has old Asa spinning on his heel, clutching at his baton.
“Goddammit,” he says. “Don’t you jump me,” he warns. He holds the stick out at arm’s length and it almost touches Wade’s nose.
With the still-swirling red and blue I feel like I’m in a music video on M-TV.
“I been a cop long enough to not let guys like you get the jump on me.”
Guys like you.
For the first time I realize that the old guy is scared. Really scared.
And he’s probably been scared ever since Mrs. Johnson or Smith or whoever it was peered out her curtains and saw us loitering in the street and put in the call.
There have been a few incidents around the area the past few months. A lot of towns around were being hit.
Vandals tearing up a park.
A couple burned up pickup trucks.
Nobody knew who was behind it all.
Asa here thinks maybe we’re the ones. Maybe he’s got us dead to rights.
How crazy is that?
I spend the next ten minutes trying to convince Asa he’s crazy, but he’s not buying it.
Even after he’s carted our drivers licenses off to his car and radioed our info across the range, he’s not convinced.
Finally our friend comes out with his parents, and we have a grown-up conversation for another half an hour there in the street.
Eventually he turns off the lights. We find out his name is Chuck.
Whenever I read something in the news about the police, I remember Chuck. I remember the crack in his voice and his baton getting stuck on the bumper of his cruiser.
And when I turn onto a street at night, even in a small town, if there’s a couple kids leaning against a car, my mouth goes just a tad bit dry.
Then and now, it’s a two-way street.