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COP TALES: Happy anniversary from 3,000 miles away | Cop Tales by Brian Smith

Cop Tales are true stories as told by law enforcement officers from all over the country. The stories are told in the first person. The actual officer’s initials follow each story.

When I was a commander with the highway patrol on the West Coast, I was invited to a surprise 50th wedding anniversary of longtime friends. They lived in a small mountain community on the East Coast that had a police chief and one officer. I had planned on attending, but due to circumstances beyond my control, I could not fly back for the event.

I felt bad for not being there, so I called the closest state police barracks and asked the commander if he would send a trooper to the event to wish the couple a happy anniversary. When the trooper arrived at the event, everyone got quiet and wondered why the trooper was visiting their small town. The trooper told them that I asked him to give my best wishes from the highway patrol 3,000 miles away. They were very excited and appreciative. I really appreciated the camaraderie of another state agency so far away.

Souped-up imported cars, with undercarriage lights and obnoxious exhaust, racing up and down the streets are a perpetual nuisance in many large American cities. One way to combat such irritating and unsafe behavior is to bring massive resources to bear, targeting their gatherings and routes to and from such gatherings and writing tickets and impounding cars in a never-ending cat and mouse refrain of questionable effectiveness.

Under such circumstances, I found myself several years ago, assigned as a motor officer working in the wee hours of the morning. I was chasing cars all over town that sounded more like gas-powered geese mimicking the sound of a junked lawnmower that even Uncle Vern wouldn’t bother to fix. They often looked, seemingly impossibly so, even more ridiculous than they sounded.

Like a hunter on safari, I spied my prey. It was a cheaply painted metallic green cartoon of a car careening down the road, aggressively wailing and gnashing its teeth like a threatening, but not scary animal. Let’s say it was a cartoon wildebeest. Unbeknownst to the driver, I maneuvered onto the road and followed awhile, compiling a mental list of the many ways the festooned abomination violated the laws of my state.

As I followed at a few car lengths back, we stopped for a red light. I passed the time by testing out new nicknames for the car. Settling on “Snot Rocket,” I could sense the driver’s excitement as he spurred the wildebeest forward as fast as its little legs would carry it as the light changed. It was time to bring this farce to a close. I made my move.

I accelerated in and activated my glorious and astonishingly bright lights as we approached the next light. Eyes inside the “Snot Rocket” wildebeest cartoon darted to the rear view, casting a glare of fear, apprehension, irritation and a dash of defiance all at once. This interaction, the police lights, and the motorist’s glance are a dance of uncertainty. Will he stop or will he test my will and run? It’s a time familiar to all cops when it’s about to go down, or not and it’s perfectly benign, until it’s not.

In this case, the eyes looked back to the road and he darted into the left turn lane and accelerated through the turn as the light cycled from yellow to red. It doesn’t take a post doctorate degree in human behavior to understand this to mean the man has chosen his course; he will run. I gave chase and as I leaned hard and accelerated into the turn, two things happened that changed the barely begun chase.

First, my motorcycle was no longer under me. It slid away instantly as though it slipped on a banana peel. Secondly, as it did, I summoned my inner, albeit previously non-existent, ninja and rolled over my shoulder on the asphalt and sprung to my feet as the motorcycle was still sliding off into the night, sparking and bucking until it thudded to a stop at the far curb. I was out of the chase in a spectacular, but thankfully benign anti-climax.

I looked for what happened to the green wildebeest, wondering if I’d underestimated my opponent and his “Snot Rocket.” I expected it to be a little more than tail lights in the night at that point. My eyes found the cartoon car at rest, sitting askance about 200 yards away. It turns out the driver, in his haste to escape, became befuddled by the commotion of my crashing and crashed himself in solidarity, breaking his wheel. Adding insult to injury, the car was badly overheated and the motor was blown; the cartoon wildebeest was dead.

It occurred to me that perhaps I’d underestimated the man behind the wheel. Maybe he’d used some James Bond-like oil slick trick to outmaneuver me. It seemed far-fetched, but I’d been bested before, I’m not ashamed to admit, and I was prepared to entertain the humility. In the end, my adversary’s evasive maneuver turned out to be the wildebeest sneezing all of its radiator fluid onto the road, making “Snot Rocket” an unsettling apropos nickname. The car’s owner was as bad at fixing cars as he was driving them. A poorly executed radiator repair nearly undid us both that night and certainly killed his beloved green metallic creation.

As is always the case, my friends came when I called and the most anticlimactic, but oddly eventful pursuit situation of my career was resolved. The wildebeest was interred into some tow yard, the appropriate charges doled out and I, none the worse for wear given my graceful dismount, rode my motorcycle back into the night to continue the hunt of bleating cartoon cars terrorizing our streets.

Brian Smith served four years in the U.S. Marine Corps, and retired as an assistant chief with the California Highway Patrol. He resides in Bakersfield. If you have a personal “Cop Tale” to share, please contact Smith at bmsmith778@gmail.com.

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