|Onward! Home | Contents | Authors||Wordrunner eChapbooks | April 2020 | echapbook.com|
There were several people in the suburban Kansas City living room. My maternal grandfather and grandmother. My mother, a martini in one hand, cigarette in the other. My stepfather mixing a drink at the wet bar. My sister. The usual drop-in Sunday drinker or two.
My grandfather snapped the Kansas City Star he was reading and made the pronouncement. No one disagreed. The declaration, practically a Papal Bull coming from a man who had once been the Kansas City District Attorney (appointed by Harding, but that’s another story) was this: “I’d say this boy is well on his way to being a criminal.” “This boy” was me at sixteen. My grandmother pursed her lips and frowned into an old-fashioned.
I had been picked up at a juvenile detention center in downtown Kansas City and delivered to the house by my uncle Pete. Reno Pete. Pete was no stranger to police blotters himself, and that may be why he had been designated to spring me. My crime? I was in a carload of contemporaries which had stopped along the way to add to a growing cache of hubcaps, a form of currency back in the fifties. A couple of the guys had hopped out, jimmied four hubcaps from a new Oldsmobile with large blade screwdrivers and hopped back in with the precision of an Indy pit crew. We were also drinking beer. When the siren sounded, the driver weighed running for it against the possibility that he may have been speeding and the trunk full of chrome wouldn’t be discovered. He pulled over.
A flashlight search produced hubcaps under the front seats, some underfoot on the back floor clanking against empty beer cans. The trunk was a mother lode. I can still hear the driver’s voice in my head. “Hubcaps? Officer, I have hubcaps. Why would I need more?” We were all charged with theft and underage drinking, deposited at the downtown Kansas City police station, then transferred to a juvenile center. Cops were not hamstrung by any PC mores back then. I spied a phone while sitting and waiting, got up to make my one call that I’d seen on Dragnet. A detective said, “What the fuck?” and smacked me with an open hand upside the head as they say. The message was clear. No phone call. “Sit the fuck down,” he requested.
When phone calls were allowed, the other guys’ parents got them out that night. I was left in for that night and the next. My stepfather was a law and order type who occasionally quoted John Wayne.
I recall trying to sleep on a sprung cot the first night in a communal barracks type room. Suddenly a shadowy form loomed over me. I thought Oh God, here it comes, I will fight to the death. The form lifted my thin mattress at the foot of the cot, retrieved a pack of cigarettes hidden there, retreated into the darkness. I don’t think I slept that night. The next morning dawned gray and we were herded to a dining area with those long tables they have in church basements. I sat between two large delinquents who jostled me, then took things from my tray. “You want that toast?” Toast gone like hubcaps in the night. I wasn’t hungry anyway. You eat fast in these places or you don’t eat.
My name was called mid-day the next day and I was led through barred doors to a waiting area. The jailer looked at a clipboard and chuckled. “Says here that your old man said throw away the key.” He handed me an envelope with my billfold and a few items in it. I’d changed into what I’d worn the night we were apprehended.
Uncle Pete was smoking and talking to a cop he apparently knew. As he walked toward me he said, over his shoulder, to the cop, “Optimist in the third.” Then he turned to me. “Well if it ain’t Vito Genovese. You kill anyone in there, jailbird?” Then he mugged a boxing move at me.
We walked away from the grimy halls of detention in the sunshine to The Yellow Peril as Pete called his flashy Packard convertible. On the drive home, he stopped at Union Station for a Racing Form. He pointed at a phone booth, said, “Bet you didn’t know your granddad was at the Union Station Massacre. He was making a phone call, missed the action when the lead started flying—he dropped to the floor of the phone booth. Stayed there.” He chuckled. “Smart man, the D.A.”
Well the D.A. hadn’t liked me since I’d told him he looked just like Harry Truman, which he did. I thought it was a compliment. I knew they were friends. Truman used to sit at the piano at the old house in Independence with my mom as a toddler on his lap and play The Missouri Waltz. Pete told me that and my grandmother verified it. She was great friends with Bess Truman.
Anyway, I survived the homecoming, and as far as I can remember there were no charges and the incident went away. My stepfather was convinced I was scared straight by my extra time in the slam, whereas the other guys would recidivate having been let out within hours.
“Guess you learned a lesson, right Butch?” I nodded. “Sure did, sir.” He poured another bourbon and lit a cigarette with a practiced move of his Zippo.
But what really made an impression on me was a wild night that the tough-love parents would never even know about. I look back on Rocky and the rebel punk, as it came to be known in my mind, and I see the whole unfolding saga as if was a week ago. It was actually 65 years ago. I was sixteen, and driving a 1949 Ford, a car my parents disliked immensely. It was lowered, primered flat black, with speed equipment and loud pipes that could be heard blocks away. I believe to this day that they called the cops on me and, for a while, I was made to install legal mufflers on the Butchmobile. But only for a while. The thing was a cop attractant muffled or not. What was I to do? James Dean had just starred in Rebel Without a Cause; I couldn’t be seen in a stock automobile. Or unheard.
On the night in question, I had two passengers, friends Mike and Maury, and the three of us cruised the drive-ins, and a high school haunt called Teepee Town which was a supervised teen meeting place near Southwest High School where dances and other activities occurred. Our school mascot was an Indian, hence Teepee Town, which, come to think of it, didn’t sound odd or dorky to us back then. It was just a place on Wornall Road where some action might be found, albeit supervised.
We’d pulled up in front, rough idling and pipes rumbling, three of us in the front seat, posturing as only insecure teens do, devoid of expression, unblinking, cool. About that time a carload of four guys pulled up next to us. They wore leather jackets and looked like hoods, but the car was a new Buick, not a rod at all. The front seat passenger said, “That old piece a shit is gonna shake its parts off.”
Obviously they didn’t know that a three-quarter cam made the flathead V8 lope a little. Plus the dual carburetors needed adjustment. But the gauntlet was thrown.
“It’ll beat grandma’s go-to-church sedan,” I said.
“On three,” said the passenger. He held his hand up, slammed the roof on each number he yelled. On three, I laid rubber all the way to the stoplight, which changed to red as we screamed through it. The Buick pulled ahead and edged us over, then we chased them.
My passengers, Mike and Maury, were cheering as we gained on the Buick. Then Mike said, “What if we catch them?” Noting his wisdom, I slowed and slid a right hand turn. Then I noticed the red light and heard the siren. Maury said, “It’s only six blocks to State Line.”
State Line Road is the actual state line between Missouri and Kansas. The myth we laid to rest that night was that if you crossed State Line Road to Kansas, the Missouri cops could not pursue you. We all knew that. It was pretty much gospel in high school. I was headed west; all I had to do was floor it and we were home free in Kansas. Then I would take careful rights and lefts, staying on the Kansas side until we reached The Keyhole, a beer joint that served 3.2% beer to anyone over eighteen. It was 5% in Missouri and you had to be twenty-one. We had passed before, so we’d just go to The Keyhole for a congratulatory beer. One problem was my license plate. It was Missouri yellow on Black 448888. Well, maybe we were far enough ahead the cop couldn’t see it. I accelerated. So did the cop. State Line was in sight. I ran the stop sign after slowing enough to see it was clear, then, when across, I began to drive the speed limit. So did the cop. That’s when I saw the two Kansas police cars nose to nose, blocking the street.
“They can’t do this,” said Mike.
“And that guy crossed State Line,” said Maury. “You can sue. I think.”
I pulled over. Swirling red lights washed the neighborhood. I wouldn’t just spend the night in juvey for this. I would probably go to federal prison. Leavenworth was in Kansas.
“You two, sit on the curb,” said the Missouri cop. “Now.” Mike and Maury complied.
“You. Get out.” I complied.
The Kansas cops conferred with the Missouri cop, laughed, then they left. One cop was now going to deal with us. One cop, three criminals. Mike got up from the curb to stretch and our lone, young cop snapped at him to sit the fuck down or get cuffed to the street sign. Mike sat. Mike’s father was a judge. Maury’s grandfather had occupied the same position as my grandfather, District Attorney. All our families were involved in politics, with a long past history of senators, judges, mayors of adjacent cities. My first name was the last name of a Democrat judge who’d been elected 37 years in a row and had a street named after him in the West Bottoms. I don’t know if any of that had anything to do with what followed or not. We all knew better than to think it would make a difference in situations like this. It was just history.
The cop had a ticket book out. I waited. He said, “I don’t think I have enough tickets in this book for all your violations. Ran two lights, a stop sign, speeding, reckless driving, failure to yield, failure to pull over when lit up...Jesus, punk, what have you got to say for yourself?”
I looked at the ground.
“Just do what you’re going to do,” I said, defeated, thinking about jail, loss of car, reporting to a parole officer for life, loss of any and all privileges, loss of girl friend due to loss of car, all compounded by the monetary cost of a stack of tickets. I’d gotten tickets before and just one was expensive. This would be crazy expensive. I’d be working for nothing for months at my part time job. How would I even get to my job? These things raced through my mind and I was barely listening to the cop who was punctuating what he was saying with “punk,” liberally. Mike and Maury were sitting on the curb watching us, mouths open.
“...too much damn paperwork here,” he was saying. “So, punk, I’m just gonna let you go.”
My mouth was open now. Mike and Maury were looking at each other.
“But, you’re gonna see me a lot in the future. My name is Rocky, punk. I’m gonna stop you for any and all infractions and just for being behind the wheel. Your license plate is a poker hand, easy to remember. Your car, man, you might as well have a sign on it, primered, loud pipes—arrest me! Arrest me! Dumbass punk.”
But I was overjoyed. He was letting me go! I was filled with gratitude. A cop was doing me huge favors. Would a hug be inappropriate?
“What?” was all I could say.
“Take your punk friends, punk, and get back in that jalopy and drive the speed limit out of here. Go home, go to bed. I will see you later and often. Rocky is the name. We are gonna get to know each other. Punk.”
“Thank you. Rocky. Mister Rocky. Sir.”
He patted the ticket book against his leg and looked at me for an uncomfortable thirty seconds or so. Then he smiled. Shook his head. And he was gone.
True to his word, I was to see him often. Each time, I was addressed as “punk,” to my chagrin because usually I had passengers or was with my girl friend. Once at a stoplight on 75th Street, I had one arm around my girl and one hand on the wheel.
“Two hands for beginners, punk!” This from Rocky as he pulled up next to me. Both hands on the wheel, I drove sedately away. My girl friend asked if I knew that cop. Later she was to discover I did.
We were parked in an alley behind Southwest High School at night. A flashlight tapped against the window. Once we recovered from the shock I rolled the window down.
“You like high school, punk?” It was Rocky, of course.
“Not that much, sir.”
“Law against parking here, punk. I suggest you move it.”
“See you, punk.” Big grin.
Once on Meyer Boulevard near Brookside the now familiar burst of siren sounded behind me. This time I had a carload of boys and girls. We were on the way to a drive-in for cokes and burgers. It was a Friday. In the rearview mirror I saw Rocky sauntering up, smiling.
“Everybody out,” he said. We all stood on the grass near the curb. My passengers were blasé, They'd been with me during these searches by Officer Rocky before. Cars slowed down to see what was happening. “Hey there, punk. Open the trunk.” I did. He looked around . Then he looked under the front seats, in the back, in the glove box, taking his time. The red lights on his car whirled and advertised a major bust of some kind.
“Okay punk. Get this heap outa here.” And Rocky was gone. Forever. Maybe he got transferred. Maybe he quit or moved. I hope he was never injured in the line of duty or otherwise. After a month or so of not seeing him, I wasn’t looking in my rearview mirror quite so often. I drove more carefully—the habit stuck. That last day, the last time Rocky stopped me, one of the kids said, “He can’t do that. That’s harassment.”
“Yeah, he can,” I said. Mike and Maury agreed.
Maybe Reno Pete had given him a good horse tip. Maybe he just hadn’t wanted to do the paperwork. I’ll never know, but I remember him almost fondly. Almost.
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