Wednesday, September 25, 2002

So I'm cruising down highway 140 this evening shortly before sunset. My lovely wife is in the passanger seat. The new Sara Groves CD is in the player and I had just announced that the current song reminds me of her (side note: always look for ways to score extra points when with the little woman... you'll need them someday) when I noticed the pick-up truck in front of me. It was a late model, silver, step side. Very nice. And very dangerous. We were going to a funeral home in North Alton to sit with a friend who had just lost her last uncle and was quite distraught about it. There was only an hour left before the visitation ended. And then this truck showed up. We came across it east of Powder Mill Road. She was in front of us and in our lane. Then she was on the shoulder of the road. Then she was in the left lane. Then she was on the left shoulder. Then she decided to straddle the white line down the middle of the busy 4 lane highway. I slowed down to stay behind her because passing seemed to be a really dumb idea. Suddenly she was only doing 25mph. The speed limit is 55. Several vehicles didn't know what was going on and shot around us only to put the death stomp on the brakes when they encountered this truck driver from hell. (no swear word... fact.) Then they would get bold and dart around her when she swerved to the right. I decided, after consulting my bride, to stay behind her and call 911. The operator connected me with the Alton Police Department. The dispatcher said that they were rather busy and wanted to know what was wrong. I told him. He was not terribly interested because the truck signaled to turn onto Fosterburg Road. It was about to be not his problem. He said she was entering the counties district and their officers were scattered all over the place. Except that she was just kidding about the turn signal. She went straight. She ran the stop lights at Homer Adams Parkway and in front of the Holiday-Inn. The she stopped in the middle of the road for no reason. Debbie suggested that she was making up for past sins. When she drove her right wheels onto the grass near the watchful eye of Robert Wadlow Debbie let out a mini-scream. We now had the dispatchers attention. (I silently hoped she'd run over a few dental students from the school across the street... that would have pleased me to no end.) He asked us if we minded staying behind her and on the line. Duh. What had I been doing for the last 5 miles? So, like good tax payers, we stayed behind her and watched her careen from shoulder to shoulder, narrowly missing many cars and more than one street sign. The dispatcher told me he had located an available unit and we kept up a running conversation of our location. And then she pulled into the long, tree lined, driveway of Alton Memorial Hospital. I told the dispatcher that maybe she was injured and trying to get to an emergency room. I heard him pass this information on to the officer cruising in our direction. She missed one of the two stop signs at the top of the hill by the hospital and then turned into the parking lot of the professional building. Huh? The professional building is closed at 7pm. The emergency room is another 100 yards down the road. The truck driver chose a spot in the nearly empty lot. I told the dispatcher that I was parking about 50 feet from her and watching to see what would happen. Nothing did. Her foot was on the brake because her brake lights were on. Then they went off. I looked to the right and an Alton Police car was pulling into the lot. For a second I was concerned for the officer. It was obvious that this driver was intoxicated or high on chemicals. We had no idea what we were about to witness but it occured to me that I wish my wife was at home watching TV or at Garden Ridge shopping. The world is a weird, dangerous place. I watched the officer warily approach the drivers door. His right hand was in its customary position, near the butt of his pistol. He knocked on the trucks window. The door opened. It became obvious that the driver was a little gray haired elderly woman. Their dialogue took about 5 minutes. And then another police car pulled into the lot. Back-up in case this "Bonnie-minus-her-Clyde" should turn evil. The first officer closed the little woman back into her truck and turned to the approaching second officer. And now curiousity had me. No way I was leaving without knowing what evil lurked in the heart of my first official "bust." Was she Al-Queda? Iraqi? A home grown terrorist perchance? I got out of my car and walked across the parking lot to the pair of Alton's finest. I introduced myself as the man who had followed the human pin-ball. As we talked I looked around. Surely John Walsh from "America's Most Wanted" was hiding behind a bush someplace. At the very least I expected to see a camara man from COPS. No such luck. And so I inquired as to exactly which substance was flowing through grannys bloodstream causing this traffic debacle. And the officer said... "She's asleep." Huh? "She was asleep when I knocked on her window. She said she's having trouble staying awake and this is where she goes to the doctor so she came here to sleep until she could drive herself home." Batman and Robin were laughing. They didn't know what to do with her. She had broken numerous laws but they had not observed any of them and at the moment her greatest crime was "Malicious Snoring." I asked if they thought they could handle it from here. They allowed as how they figured they could. I thanked them for keeping our streets sleep-free and returned to my car.

Debbie said her heart was pounding. Women. Personally I was terribly disappointed. I wanted a DUI. I hoped for a brick of "premium s###" on the seat next to one seriously doped up dealer. I would have settled for a deranged escapee from the Alton Mental Health Centers criminally insane unit. Instead I got a geriatic Rip-Van-Winkle. You know, this law enforcement stuff isn't all it's cracked up to be. I did a ride-along with Mike Hogan, a close buddy who is an Illinois State Trooper. We patrolled the interstates through East St. Louis on the midnight shift. I wore the vest but nobody shot at me. I held the flashlight while he did a "field sobriety test." (We ran that sucker in. That'll teach him.) I helped him search an abandoned truck on the side of the road. We scanned the tree lined center of an expressway clover leaf intersection looking for bad guys who were suppose to be hiding out in it. Nothing. The most dangerous thing we did all night was eat "lunch" at 4am in a horrible truck stop. That was the only time that I felt like our lives were on the line.

When I was just a lad I had visions of a life in law enforcement. I thought I'd start off cruising the interstates like Mike. Then I'd move up the the FBI and prove my metal by nailing the big fish. I'd finish up a well rounded career by taking down some bad agents that had gone dirty while working in the Hoover Building. The rest of my life would be spent on the speaking and writing circuit, making the big bucks by telling my crime-fighting stories.

And it all comes down to this. A sunny, cool, autumn evening. A chance meeting with a hardened criminal on the cruel city streets. We match wits. One on it ought to be. And as the dust settles... as the cold metal door clangs shut... I am the one walking away... satisfied that, thanks to my quick reflex actions, the highways are once again safe. And granny is asleep in the front seat where she belongs.

Sleep well America.