News » Travel Feature

Small Town, Big Trouble

Going from boy to man on the shoulder of a highway.



Years ago as a young, stupid boy, me and some buddies went on a fishing trip in a small town in Arkansas. We arrived well after dark, cracked a few jokes about the town as we passed through it, and looked forward to settling down in the cabin we had rented. Tomorrow we would be on the river, and we'd be killin' fish right and left.

Just outside of town, I notice flashing lights behind us. I figure there is an emergency someplace, so I pull over. Sadly, so does the cop -- right behind me. As it happens, I was on the shoulder of the highway, right in front of a sign that said "Speed Limit 55."

Now, this was back in the day when police officers had you come sit in the car with them. So I go sit in the car with him. He's asking the usual questions -- where ya headed, where ya from, and so on -- when I notice that his radar gun says 44 mph. I look at him, I look at the sign in front of my car, I look back at the radar gun. He seems to be writing a ticket.

"Um, officer?"


"I, uh, see that you clocked me at 44 mph."


"Well, I, uh, see that the speed limit here is 55."


"Right, so I was wondering: Am I getting this ticket for going too slow?"

"Nope. You did 44 back in town."

"And what's the speed limit there?"



Not much to say after that. I mean, I tripled the speed limit, I'm a stupid kid from Memphis, and he's a cop holding all the cards. This is where you pretty much twiddle your thumbs and wait for your reckoning.

He tears off a piece of paper and was about to hand it to me when he says, "Tell you what. You were going three times the speed limit in an area where children might have been present and that constitutes reckless endangerment, and for that, I'd have to take you and your car in, and the ticket for that is a whole lot of money. So I tell you what. Let's just say you were doin' 30 and there weren't any kids around. That's about 75 bucks, and you still get to go fishing instead of calling your parents to get you out of jail."

He was playing good cop and bad cop. I was still twiddling my thumbs, only now I was also experiencing some realizations. This was a grown-up situation I was in.

He goes on: "All of that would go on your record, and then the insurance company finds out and your parents, so I tell you what ... "

I notice that he wasn't saying "How about" or "What do you think." He was saying "I tell you." There were the words, and then there was the message. And the message was "bend over."

"I tell you what," he says. "If you just settle this right here -- for, say, 50 bucks. I'm sure the judge'll see clear not to put it on your record. Makes it easier for everybody."

Through the dense fog of teenage stupidity, reality became clear. If there even is a judge, the odds of him ever hearing about this little encounter would be pretty slim. There was a much better chance Mrs. Cop was about to get a nice steak dinner.

"Well," I say, "that sounds good. Let's just settle this right here, then." Completely hip to the scene now, I add, "I assume cash works better?"

"Yep. Cash works better." And it does.

I pull out basically all the cash I have and hand it over. All clear, but now I feel like a grownup, having essentially paid a real, live bribe for my freedom. So now I want to chat -- you know, chum it up with the guy.

"So, how many police are there in this town?"

He seems bemused, to say the least. "Just me and one other officer."

"How many police cars?"

"Just this one. We share it." He hands me a piece of paper and sends me back to my car with a wry grin and a pleasant "Don't forget to obey the speed limit."

Back in the car with my buddies, I look at the paper. It says something about a citation but nothing at all about that 50 bucks. Funny. My buddies look terrified. But not me. I was a man now. I look at them coolly, and I tear up the paper.

They are shocked, amazed, horrified. But I was cool. I was also working on my story. "Screw this town," I say, "and screw this ticket. I blew through this craphole so hard it took half the cops and every car they had to bring me down! They were gonna put me in jail too. But I slipped the cop a little somethin'."

Just then the cop drove by us, and I give him a casual wave. I'm sure he didn't notice, but my friends sure did. I slid 'er into drive, cocked one arm on the wheel, and rolled back down the highway.

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