Who knows, he may grow up to be President someday,
unless they hang him first!
Aunt Polly about Tom Sawyer
-Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Enough time had elapsed from the night of the infamous “soaping all the cars at the apartment complex” debacle for my penance to be paid, and the moment had arrived for me to ask to spend the night at a friend’s house once again. This time it was at Jimmy’s and I had a lot of convincing to do. “Dad, can I spend the night at Jimmy’s?” I knew full well the line of questioning that would follow and was prepared for the first response out of his mouth, “No”. Not to be easily deterred and able to present a pretty good argument (It’s been said that I would argue with a fence post), I came back with the usual, “Why can’t I?” The strategy here was to force Dad to come up with a reason, a logical rebuttal; something other than a “gut feeling” that trouble was in the offing.
He proceeded to go on a long-winded lecture about how I was a sheep and if all the other kids ran off the side of a cliff would I, and how Jimmy was known to get himself and others into trouble (Dad really liked Jimmy, but he also knew that Jimmy liked to push the envelope and that I too was a bit mischievous; not a good combination), and how I had disobeyed him the last time he let me spend the night at a friend’s house. I let him ramble on for a while and then blurted out, “Jim and Andy are going to be there.” All of a sudden, Dad’s features softened and he said, “Jim and Andy, huh? Well I guess it’ll be alright.” Boy that sure seemed easy. With sleeping bag in hand, Dad let me off at Jimmy’s to spend the night, but with the usual instructions; “You are not to leave his yard at any time in the night! Do you understand?” Jumping out of the pickup I yelled back, “Yeah,” and rushed up onto Jimmy’s front porch, not looking back in case there were additional instructions; that I would also ignore.
Once the family had gone off to sleep, the four of us snuck out the back door of Jimmy’s house and made it out into the alley undetected. From there it was down one street and across another and we were in the clear. I had lived in Carthage for a few years, but these streets and houses were foreign to me and I was enjoying the adventure. Even though it was deep into the witching hour and pitch dark on a moonless night, the street lights on every corner made it seem as bright as day. Walking down deserted streets, the only signs of life we saw were the occasional grinning possum scurrying behind a galvanized garbage can or someone’s house cat, locked out for the night and waiting patiently on the front porch for the door to open at the start of a new day.
Looking for some mischief, not usually too difficult to find, we ran into some other guys from school; Mark, John and Red. After chatting for a while, some of the group headed down a side street, away from us and we continued on. Suddenly we heard loud firecrackers, the sounds coming from at least a block away. It startled us for a moment, but within a few seconds we continued on our way; in one way, glad that it wasn’t us disturbing the neighborhood, but in another way, jealous that it wasn’t us disturbing the neighborhood. One great thing about Missouri is that firecrackers and a host of other explosive devices are legal and plentiful. One bad thing about my home town and local statutes; firecrackers are not legal after curfew or during times other than Independence Day. Somebody was heading for trouble, and it wasn’t going to be us; or so we thought.
Walking down the middle of an empty street, we turned the corner and coming from the other direction were the headlights of a car. The headlights caused us to stop in our tracks as the car advanced in our direction. As the car came closer we recognized it as a police car. We hesitated for a second, as most people do when a police car enters their space, but at the exact moment the car stopped and two policemen jumped out with guns raised, yelling “Stop!”, someone whispered a shout, “Run!” and each of us began to run; where wasn’t a consideration and at this point, unlike the Three Musketeers, it was every man, or boy, for himself (imagine someone tossing a live skunk into the middle of a group of boys and the subsequent reaction to said skunk).
I ended up behind a hedge in the front yard of a house on the corner of two streets. It was dark, but I noticed someone else lying silently next to me and I could hear a couple of the other guys continuing to make their way to what they considered a safe hiding place. Barney Fife and his partner (unlike Barney, I’m sure these two cops had more than one bullet between them) stood in the street with their guns drawn and yelled out, “You kids better come out from your hiding places. We’ve got you surrounded and we will shoot!” Lying there, I knew they were full of baloney, but the wee doubt in my mind caused me to consider very carefully my next move. Their bluff worked and we all came out with our hands up and slowly walked out into the street; all except one of us. Red escaped from the dragnet and afterward I realized that he was the person lying next to me behind the hedge. I could have escaped, but fear had gotten the better of me.
It was the first time I would ride in a police car, but not the last, as the cops loaded up the remaining five of us and took us down to the station. On the ride to the station we were asked, “Do you boys know its past curfew?” “There’s a curfew in this town?” I answered, not concerned that my smart mouth might lead to further discipline. From there we were hauled into an interrogation room and peppered with questions. “Who was with you? Who had the fireworks? Give us the names of the ones that got away.” We all would have made pretty good intelligence operatives that night, willing to undergo extreme torture to protect our friends; we gave up nothing. They threatened to call our parents, and we called their bluff. We shouldn’t have.
As we sat nervously waiting for our dads to come pick us up and take us home, we occasionally whispered to each other the secrets we refused to reveal to the cops under their extreme interrogation and bright lights; names, hiding places, locations for our weapons cache, and other valuable information; always conscious of the cops walking by the room, inconspicuously listening in for additional incriminating admissions and evidence. Technically we weren’t under arrest, all of us being far under the legal age, but were being detained until our legal guardians came, allowing the authorities to release us into their custody.
Finally our fathers walked in and we could tell by the looks on their faces that this wasn’t exactly the place they wanted to be at 3:00 a.m. (Dad was extremely aggravated, knowing that in an hour and a half he would be getting up to go to work). All except Andy’s dad; he had a huge smile on his face. We would find out why later. In front of the police, our dads each gave us a series of one or two sentence bites, that when combined made up a serious lecture on obeying the law, curfew, and disturbing the peace. Not only that, but Dad gave me a look that I read as “I told you not to leave Jimmy’s yard and you did it anyway. You and I will talk about what this means when we get home. Don’t even think about asking to spend the night again, anywhere. Not until you leave home and get married.” If I was going to get into this much trouble, I would rather it have been for shooting off fireworks instead of just being accused of the deed. At least I would have had the pleasure along with the punishment.
In later years Andy would tell the story of what his dad said to him when he got home and why he had the smile on his face when all the other dads were so serious and upset. When Andy’s dad walked into the police station and saw us all lined up like criminals, like members of Al Capone’s gang on St. Valentine’s Day, he had to chuckle at the irony. Here were some of the most innocent boys in town, the kind of boys most fathers would want their daughters to date, and the police were treating them as if they had kidnapped the Lindbergh baby. Dad didn’t say a word to me the entire ride home, but when we arrived home and sat down in the living room for the full-blown lecture, I wished that in all the confusion I had gone to Andy’s house and he mine.
*This story is an excerpt from Always a Little Heathen, to be released in the fall of 2014.