By: Tim Bean
*I hate to start a story with “This really happened”, but I’ve learned that, in this case, I need to. I promise my embellishment is kept to a minimum.
95% of this really happened. I worked the night shift at an Indiana McDonald’s from 1996 to 1998, when I was 16 to 18 years old. Terrible job, but jobs at that age should be terrible. If you remember being that age working a late shift, you can imagine the ridiculous rituals my fellow workers and I established over years working together. I’d love to fill you in on a variety of them, but that’s for another story. I’m here to discuss the night one ritual ended.
After we closed the store at 11, we cleaned. Fast. Sometimes we finished at 11:30, sometimes at 12:30. We would all leave McDonald’s at the same time, drive around the parking lot once (a safety check) and then head home. I lived seven miles south of the store and a work friend lived another mile south of that. Two friends, both guys in their late teens, driving home on a deserted four-lane highway at midnight. Any red-blooded American can guess the ritual we developed.
For over a year, if we worked the same shift, we raced home. Usually I won. He drove a 1993 or 1994 Pontiac Grand Am, lime green with custom decals. A very nice car at the time for a guy in high school. I drove a 1988 Oldsmobile Cutlass Siera with rusty rocker panels, no A/C, a horn that blew fuses if I used it and sagging springs. But it had a 3.8L inline six-cylinder engine, which made it pretty fast and smooth.
I don’t know how fast we went the last night we raced. I never knew. My speedometer only went to 85. My friend’s went to 100, but he loved to embellish shamelessly. Man, we were going a hundred and thirty, had to be! I doubt that, but I am guessing a hundred wasn’t out of the question.
We pulled out of the McDonald’s lot on a chilly night, pulled onto southbound US-41 and, in a few seconds, we floored it. No gentle build of the gas pedal, no finesse. We went from easy pressure to mashing the pedal down. The empty highway streaked by and, as usual, I quickly pulled ahead of him. Although the smooth engine took the speed fine, the tires and suspension were another story. At seventy or eighty the car developed a steady vibration that turned into a wobble, but I ignored it. Eventually I discovered that was a bad U-joint.
His headlights fell away from my passenger window, first appearing in my sideview mirror, then in my rearview mirror. I won. I streaked along, remembering very clearly listening to a song from U2’s Pop album that had just come out. A good night.
In my rearview mirror, my friend’s lights caught my attention again. What started out as distant twin dots got larger and brighter. I goosed the gas down again, having slowed to eighty but bringing the Old’s engine right back up. Usually when one of us pulled far enough ahead, that was the end of the race. But he wanted another go.
I mashed the gas and buried the needle again, only this time he didn’t fall away. He got closer. The headlights grew from dots to saucers and to white-yellow plates beaming through my Old’s rear window. I cussed and gave him the middle finger, thinking his newer car finally outdid my beater.
That was when my world fell away.
I plowed down 41 in the passing lane and the headlights behind me switched lanes, going even faster. They came up on my left and another light, brighter and as foreign as a UFO, flicked on, running up the body of my car. When the spotlight hit my window, I realized what I was looking at. A police officer.
The next day, my fellow racer would tell me he saw the cop, honked and flashed at me to give me a warning, but I knew he was lying. He slinked away as anyone would, sacrificing me to the gods of moving violations. And I violated that one. Seventeen years old, driving over a hundred, flipping off a cop in the middle of the night? A violation in every sense.
My first thought when all of that hit? Oh, my dad’s gonna kill me…(To this day, he doesn’t know about this incident).
Once the spotlight hit me, the cop dropped back and flashing red and blue lights joined the antiseptic white. I was shaking. I’d be going to jail, the car would be impounded, a phone call would jar my dad out of sleep in the middle of the night. I’d have to ride the bus to school. Somehow, second to my dad killing me, riding the bus was my chief worry.
I pulled over, not to the right shoulder as you’re supposed to, but to the left, in the passing lane along the median. I didn’t even think about it. Looking back, that might have been the cop’s first clue that I was out of my element. Delinquency wasn’t something I frequently delved in and when I was wrong, I admitted it. In this case I was as wrong as warm soda.
I didn’t even put the car in park, but I did have sense enough to shut off the stereo. I just sat, the car idling on the edge of the passing lane, my window open and waiting for judgment. The cop pulled so close behind me I couldn’t see his headlights, but those red and blue lights never stopped. I heard his door open and the crunch of his boots on the median grass as he got near.
A flashlight burned into my window, quickly scanning the contents of my car before falling on me. I couldn’t see his face. “What the hell is wrong with you?” he asked.
That I remember. He didn’t ask for my license and registration right off. He asked what was wrong with me. I could barely make him out in the glare of flashlight. He wasn’t familiar. Late 30s maybe. State police, not local.
I stammered. I’d love to lie and say I was calm and cool, but I wasn’t. I didn’t know what to say that wasn’t an outright lie and saying sorry seemed to be the worst thing to say. But I didn’t cry. On my deathbed, I can hold my head up high and say proudly that, in this case, I did not cry.
“There are deer all over the place here. All over,” the officer said. “Do you know what would happen if you hit one at that speed?”
I nodded and stammered, “I-I know, I—“
“YOU’D BE F———G DEAD!” he screamed less than a foot from my ear. I winced.
I said nothing. I looked down and nodded. I honestly felt shame. I waited for him to ask for my license, then step out of the car, please. I’d get a breathalyzer or do a sobriety check and then he’d put me in the back of his car. I’d be handcuffed. Handcuffed…
I waited. And waited. The flashlight stayed on me and I stared down. He said nothing, only breathed heavily.
“Get the hell out of here,” he said. The flashlight disappeared and his boots crunched back over the grass. Then I heard his door open and close.
I once read a book that described a lucky break in terms of a mouse being hunted by an eagle. How does that mouse feel when he sees the eagle’s shadow loom over him, huge and close? And how does that mouse feel when that shadow suddenly disappears? I know how that mouse feels. Jail, fees, fines, a record, my father, the school bus, the bevy of things that matter to a teenager, all about to crash down and then, just as quickly, gone, as if nothing happened.
The officer’s flashing lights switched off and he crawled around my car and drove away. I followed seconds later, driving below fifty, shaking with the gallons of adrenaline evaporating from my system.
And that was that.
I told the story the next day and no one believed me. The friend I raced, HE believed me, but he also liked to spin long, luxurious yarns, so no one believed him. Over time I stopped telling the story to avoid distrustful eyes squinting at me.
Years have passed and I am roughly the age of that officer. I still live in the same area and not a day goes by when I don’t think of that night. How lucky I was and the reasoning behind the cop letting me go. Cynics might say he didn’t feel like writing a ticket or maybe he was in a hurry himself. No. Not if they had heard his voice. Fury, authority…but also worry. And when he left me, compassion. He remembered being a teenager himself, no doubt. We think we’ll live forever and hopefully we recognize that fallacy before we find out. Some of us don’t. That officer probably saw the unlucky ones up close.
That officer had every right to yank me out of that car, but he didn’t. Maybe he knew me. If so, it only went one way. I didn’t know him or don’t think I did. Maybe he could tell I had done something reckless and dangerous, but would not do it again. I haven’t. I cannot think of any other time I have driving anything approaching that ever since. If his desire was to scare me and let me go in hopes that I would never do it again, well, he got just that. To this day, the only moving violations I’ve ever had were going 30 in a 40 (guilt by sign placement) in 2000 and failing to wear a seatbelt in 2012. That’s it.
When I see officers in the news portrayed as reckless, I always think of that. Some actions have no excuse, of course, but it’s always important to remember that behind that squad car, uniform and sidearm, there’s a man or woman who plunges into darkly-surreal moments on a regular basis. That has an effect on decision-making, and I’m sorry, no amount of training can fully prepare a person.
The world can be ugly, and police officers, corrections officers, case managers and other agents of civic authority see more of that ugliness than we ever will. Patience and empathy needs to land on both sides of the fence. Things will never get better if we can’t recognize a fellow human being stands behind a badge. Whoever that officer was gave me a chance to change, and I did. Not everyone does.