I’m not a for-real criminal, but I’ve done time. Three bids in fact. If being in a cell can be called a bid and if a total of about five hours in jail cells can be called time. Let me explain.
I’ve been locked up three times. In each case, I was guilty, and in no case did I actually have to go to trial. The first time in jail came when I was 15, and involved a series of misunderstandings involving explosives, a laundromat coin-changing machine, an attempted escape out the back door of said laundromat and a couple of gun-drawn cops chasing me and my confederate down. Although I do not wish to betray my partner, I’ll bet Jonas Zoller of 22 Faculty Road, Durham, NH, does not have an alibi for his whereabouts at 5:17 am June 7, 1974. Just saying.
The reason I was jailed? After the cops had arrested us for blowing up a coin-changing machine, they couldn’t reach my parents and put me in a cell while they figured out what to do next. I’d taken my parents’ phone off the hook before sneaking out of my house at 11:45 the previous night—not because I thought I’d be arrested but because I didn’t want a wrong number to lead them to look in on me. In a “scared straight” attempt, the cops locked me up until I cracked and told them why they couldn’t reach my parents at that ungodly hour. Instead of going to trial, I was required to go fishing a few times with a member of the force, Ronald “Smiley” McGowen. I don’t remember catching anything except for a slight crush on his daughter, Sherry, who I expect saw me as a notorious and desperate outlaw. I am no recidivist. I have never since taken fireworks into a laundromat, let alone ignited them.
The second and third times I was arrested involved an Army buddy of mine, Mike Peckham, who, at 24, was much older than my 17 years, leading folks to assign him ringleader status. That was not accurate. Mike and I were both studying “military journalism” at the Defense Information School at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis. The course of study to become a DINFOS-Trained Killer involved learning to develop black-and-white film, write inverted-pyramid news stories and show up for morning formation fully dressed. I had trouble only with the last one, reporting for duty with a pair of sneakers on instead of combat boots. It had been a long night and I wasn’t ready for it to end. But I digress. The story of the third arrest will come later, but let me tell you about the second.
Mike was from Minneapolis, a mere 500 miles from our fort, so we decided it made sense to leave Friday after work and hitchhike through Chicago and Milwaukee and across Wisconsin to meet up in the Twin Cities the next day at noon. I know how naïve that sounds now—hitchhiking is seen as a form of Russian roulette, and finding someone in a city half-a-thousand miles away in the age before cell phones seems a fool’s errand. The past is a different country, and none of this seemed odd at all. To be fair, my lack of anxiety may hae been related at a crest in my illegal chemical consumption. If I hadn’t been eating peyote like Good and Plenty and smoking weed a dozen times a day, my rational side might have won out. So be it.
We set out, recognizing we could not travel together, for it would be way less likely to get a car on the interstate to stop for two young and strong GI’s. (For the record, in my memory, at 17 I was about 6 foot three, weighed about 215 pounds, and shimmered with waves of menace. My military records say I was seven inches shorter and 70 pounds lighter. I choose to believe what I can see with my own mind’s eye.) Without turning this anecdote within an anecdote into a third-rate On the Road (which is already fourth-rate at best in my judgement, and that of Truman Capote, who said of Kerouac’s Big Whiff—“That is not writing. It is just typing.”), let me jump forward to about 2:32 in the morning in Waukesha, WI, a small Milwaukee suburb known to be very law-and-orderly. Given Milwaukee’s penchant for maintaining public peace at all costs, this is kind of like saying a town is the slow ward of the State Home for the Confused. Anyway, knowing nothing of Waukesha, I’d been dropped off at an I-94 ramp and raised my right thumb, turning to scan for upcoming traffic. As soon as I did, a set of blue lights sprang to life and pulled up beside me. At 17, I’d already been on a few long-distance solo trips, so I was familiar with the drill. The cop would ask if I was all right. I’d say yes. He’d ask if I knew I couldn’t hitchhike on the interstate. I’d say, Why no, officer. He’d instruct me to go to the top of the on-ramp to hitchhike. I’d start walking away, and before his lights were out of sight, I’d have gone back to the same spot we’d first encountered each other, and I’d hope to get a ride before he meandered back and gave me a very stern talking to. I knew this, but apparently the Waukesha police were trained on a different frequency. The cop immediately asked me for identification. Weird, but I showed him my driver’s license and military ID.
“So, you’re a soldier, huh?” Even in 1976, this was an unusual tone for a police officer to take toward a soldier. Vietnam had been over a couple years, and anyway cops were typically pro-military.
“No, Sir. Just trying to get to Minnesota to visit some friends.”
“They pay you in the army, Soldier Boy?”
“Do they pay you in the army? Do you have fifty dollars cash on you?”
“Sir, I get paid, but I don’t have that kind of money on me. Maybe $20.”
The truth, but only by a coincidence. I’d given Mike my share of the money we were going to use to buy a half-pound of weed from a friend of his.
“Do you know what vagrancy is, Soldier,” this last word might as well have been pronounced criminal ne’er-do-well.
“Sort of, Sir. It’s like being a bum, isn’t it?”
“It’s not like anything. In Waukesha, a vagrant is anyone who doesn’t have $50 cash on them, especially when they’re standing beside our interstate.”
I was tempted to remind him of the history of the interstate system, built under President Eisenhower for purposes of transportation, commerce and national defense, how every five miles of the federally-funded and maintained highway contained a mile-long straightaway for a plane to land on in case of disaster or attack. I was tempted to share this, when the cop interrupted me by reading me the Miranda warning.
“Officer, you’re kidding, right? You’re not really arresting me for not having money in my pocket?”
“The crime is vagrancy. The evidence is your lack of funds.”
“But I’m just passing through. If you’d like, I can just walk to the edge of town, and you’ll never see me again. Promise.”
“Get in the car NOW, Soldier Boy!”
I did as he told me. From the back seat of the car, I tried to plead my case, which unfortunately boiled down to, “Officer, you’re kind of being a dick,” which carried the day in my mind, but not his. We got to the station, where I was quickly processed and put in a cell. Thankfully, Officer Dick went back out to clear the town of military folks without wads of cash, and the desk sergeant on duty was a reasonable man.
“Sergeant,” I called out to him. “Can I talk with you for a minute?”
“That’s what you’re doing, isn’t it,” he said, not without humor.
“Yes, Sergeant. The thing is, it’s early Saturday morning, and I’m supposed to meet someone by noon. In Minneapolis. And it’s about 350 miles. And, finally, I’m hitchhiking.”
“Meeting somebody?” the cop murmured. “What kind of somebody?”
Playing to the room of one, I immediately began lying.
“A female somebody. A girl.”
A lascivious Groucho Marx look crossed his face.
“What kind of a girl?”
Here a tactical decision—was I a love-struck Romeo or a rake, a real-life lover or a roué? I opted for insincere sincerity.
“The girl I love and want to marry.” The story was growing. “Even though I’m 17 and she’s 16, we love each other and always will. Her parents don’t approve of me, and they know I’m stationed in Indiana. I sent Kris a round-trip ticket to Minnesota, and told her to say she was visiting a girlfriend going to school in St. Paul, at the university there. I’m supposed to meet Kris at the airport at 12:15.”
“So, soldier, you’re asking me to release you without prejudice, drive you to the interstate, call out on the CB radio to see if any truckers are heading cross-state and would be willing to pick you up, then give you money to buy flowers for your girlfriend?”
“Sergeant, I’m not asking for anything, but if that’s an offer, I absolutely accept!”
Without another word, the cop let me out of the cell, motioned for me to grab my coat and did exactly what he’d promised. When I got into the heated cab of a truck 15 minutes later, I had a twenty-dollar bill crumpled in my back pocket. Even when I’d started to thank the cop, he’d shushed me quiet, seeming to enjoy the taste of the grin on the outside of his mouth.