It can’t be much fun to be a law enforcement officer these days, if it ever was. Cities are more crowded, respect for the rules seems to have weakened dramatically, and if that’s not enough, there are always terrorists and their imitators to worry about. Of course, even in the good old days and even in small towns, the town cop sometimes had to deal with serious and dangerous offenders. While the town I grew up near had fewer than 600 citizens and only a single town policeman who furnished his own gun and motor vehicle, there were occasional real crimes, like shootings, a suspected rapist to be apprehended and saved from possible lynching, and a sex offender to be caught and put away. Still, most offenses were minor, sometimes deliberately annoying, and occasionally funny.
When I was in high school in our small town, my cousin became the policeman. While he was not Marshal Dillon, neither was he Barney Fife, and nothing I say is intended to belittle him. He was a congenial but serious fellow, determined to keep his town as safe as possible, despite no training, no special equipment, and low pay. He wore his own police revolver, and he drove his own small, aging Ford pickup. The town’s young men liked him but they, and a few hot-rodders from out of town, were not above annoying him when they thought they could get away with it.
Young men sometimes enjoyed speeding down the highway that formed the town’s main street, roaring past the point where they knew my cousin was likely parked. He would give chase, hoping to get close enough to identify the vehicle or get the license number, but the little Ford just didn’t have enough guts to compete. Finally, in determined anger, he built a wooden ramp at his favorite lurking spot and backed the pickup onto it so as to get a more powerful takeoff. That didn’t work either, but at least it entertained the locals for a while. Eventually the town got progressive enough to provide a patrol car, and either the car’s potential for speed or boredom with the game caused the chasing episodes to fade away.
Lesser pleasures were still available, though, and I learned about one of them a few years ago. A high school friend I’d not seen or heard from in more than forty years reestablished contact from his home on the west coast. In one of our email exchanges, he told about a late summer night when school and friends were no longer there and he was temporarily back in his parents’ home, restless and bored. He strolled down to the main business area, now deserted and quiet, and enjoyed a cigarette as he stood alone on the sidewalk. Always of an inventive turn of mind, and still young enough to enjoy tomfoolery, he pulled out a large firecracker he’d brought along and wedged it on the back side of a sheet metal sign positioned on a stand on the sidewalk. Although no one was around, its blast would echo off the sign and buildings in a most satisfying manner, startling nearby residents. He punched the fuse into the back end of the still burning cigarette, but just as he stood erect, the town police sedan rounded the corner and coasted to a stop by him. My cousin rolled down his window and proceeded to chat. And chat. And chat. My friend began to sweat. Eventually he managed some excuse and hurried away toward home.
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He was nearly there when he heard the loud boom. And then the sound of a speeding vehicle, the lights of it soon coming up behind him. The town cop slammed to a halt and said, shaking his finger, “I know you did it. I don’t know how, but I know you did it. And when I find out how you did it, I’m coming after you.” He never found out. If he’d still been alive when I got the story, I would have liked to share it with him. I think he would have found it funny. Even if not, I suspect the statute of limitations on small town cop harassment had long since been reached. And extradition would hardly have been worth the effort.
Gilbert and Sullivan got it right in “The Pirates of Penzance.” Both then and now, a policeman’s lot is not a happy one.
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of “Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage.”