Sunday, April 8, 2007

"That Old Guy Tried to Fight Me"

I mentioned in yesterday’s entry that I had “facilitated” in another DWI arrest once upon a time. Here’s that story.

Hard to believe that it was over two decades ago now. After over two years of living across the street from one another as the two most notably confirmed bachelor aviators in our squadron, my best friend of over 25 years now and I had finally managed to be assigned to the same crew. No longer being on opposing alert and flying schedules made all kinds of things possible. Like our St Patrick’s Day trip to Savannah, and our spring break in Ft Lauderdale. Two single captains on flying status. Need I say more?

Toward the end of our final summer in eastern North Carolina, we were making a trip from Goldsboro over to Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point to pick up my buddy’s car, which he had loaned to a friend who needed to catch a hop out of Cherry Point. We’re cruising along eastbound on four-lane NC Hwy 70 with barely another car on the road in the middle of flat, down-east North Carolina. At some point, it becomes clear that we’re gaining pretty fast on a small pickup truck about a quarter-mile ahead. No sweat. I change to the left lane. The pickup moves to the left lane. I move back to the right. The pick up moves back to the right. All of this as we’re closing that quarter mile or more, rather quickly. Off the accelerator, I coast into a position behind this pickup. At least, occasionally behind it. I stayed in the right lane. The pickup swerved, while creeping along at about 20 mph, from the right shoulder to the left, and back again. Through the back window (remember, this was in the day before window tint was the norm), we could see a white-haired male, swaying with the swerves. Also in that back window, and giving an irony to the moment that persists to this day, was a sticker for the Retired Sheriff’s Association.

I looked over at my friend. “I believe he’s drunk.” I said. “What was your first clue? The way he’s driving or the way he nearly falls over every time he swerves to the left?” “Do you suppose he’s sober enough to be able to tell the difference between an unmarked Mustang (car of choice for the NC Highway Patrol in that era) and a charcoal grey Camaro?” I asked. “I doubt it.” “Let’s find out.”

So, tucked in behind him, I turned on my emergency flashers and my headlights and flashed them from bright to dim. The driver pulled well off the road and onto the shoulder and stopped. “Now what?” Remember this was also in the day before cell phones—even those the size of a shoe box—had been invented. “We need to be very careful.”

So, I got out the driver’s side, and my friend got out on the passenger’s side, and we walked slowly toward the pickup. As I did, the driver’s side door opened. We stopped. Out came a pair of legs in jeans. The driver leaned out, made one attempt to stand up, and then fell over backwards into the driver’s seat. I’m thinking the truck must have been a Toyota or a Chevy Luv, or something like that, because he was able to sit there on the seat, facing out the door, with his feet on the ground and his hands on his knees as I approached. He seemed pretty harmless. Your average southern good ole boy. Ball cap, white hair, an empty bottle of Crown Royal laying atop its velvet sack on the passenger’s seat beside him.

“How you doin?” I asked?

“Whaaaa?” he looked up, bleary-eyed.

“Had a little to drink?” I asked.

“Whaaaa?” he said again.

“Tell you what. If you’ll give me a name and phone number to call, we’ll have somebody come out here and drive you home, buddy. You’re in no shape to be driving.”

“Whaaaa?” he said a third time.

“Never mind.” And with that, I reached past him and pulled the keys from the ignition. No resistance, no awareness, just a continuing effort to balance himself in an upright sitting position, hands on knees, feet on the ground, facing out the driver’s side door. “You just sit tight pal. Somebody will be along to get you.” I looked across the bed of the truck at my friend on the other side. “Let’s go.”

We got in the Camaro, pulled out, and headed down the highway, leaving him in the same position he’d been in since his first attempt to stand up out of the truck. “You took his keys?” my buddy said. “Yep.” “Now what?” “We go to the next exit and call the Highway Patrol.”

And so we did. From a pay phone at gas station on a crossroad a few miles down the road, I had the operator connect me to the nearest Highway Patrol office. I remember having to explain a couple of times exactly what was going on. Eventually, we gave the dispatcher a description of our own vehicle and arranged to have a trooper meet us on the overpass of the road we were on, and then we went back to the bridge where the road crossed Hwy 70, parked, got out and waited. Fifteen or twenty minutes later, we watched as a NC State Highway Patrol cruiser exited Hwy 70 from the east, came to the top of the off ramp, drove past us and then did a U turn to pull in behind.

The officer got out, walked up, and asked, “You the guys that called?”

We spent the next five minutes basically telling the story above and then handing him the keys from the other vehicle. “Now let me get this straight . . . you just leaned in and took the keys?”


“And he didn’t try to stop you?”

“Officer, he couldn’t have told you what country he was in, let alone notice that I was taking his keys.”

“Well, I’ll be danged. I been doin’ this for quite a while, but this is a first. Where’d you leave him?”

We estimated the distance west of us where he would find at least the vehicle if not the driver, gave him our names, addresses, and phone numbers in case he needed any more information. He said thanks, still not sure whether that was the right thing to be saying or not, and then he took off, heading down the on ramp west with a little more urgency than he’d arrived from the east, and my buddy and I hit the road eastbound again toward Cherry Point.

We’d not been driving for ten minutes before we saw, across the median, two more State Troopers hauling the mail westbound with lights and sirens. We made it to Cherry Point, picked up his Saab, and then drove back to Goldsboro, arriving late in the afternoon. The first thing we did was to call the State Highway Patrol and ask to be connected to the dispatcher for the area east of Kinston. After explaining who we were, the arresting officer eventually came on the line.

“We saw a couple of cruisers headed your way in a hurry after we got back on the road,” I said. “I hope everything was okay.”

“I’ll tell you what,” came the reply. “By the time I got there, that son of a gun had sobered up enough to figure out what you’d done to him and I’m gonna tell you, he was hoppin’ mad. That old guy tried to fight me! I had to call for backup! You probably don’t need to worry about going to court for the drunken driving charge. Public drunkenness, resisting arrest, and assaulting an officer ought to be enough. You probably saved somebody’s life by getting him off the road. Probably not the safest thing to have done, but thanks for doing it. We’ll call you if we need you.”

We never heard another thing about it, but to this day, we still laugh at the mental images that come to mind of an old man, too drunk to even stand, trying to take on a State Trooper because he’s figured out he’s stranded by the highway, without his keys, and nothing left in his bottle of Crown Royal but the backwash.