I know it shows my age to start a post like this, but …
When I was a boy growing up in a small town about 80 miles north of New York City, cops walked the beat. I knew their names. In fact, it has been almost 50 years since I left that community and I can still tell you the name of one particular police officer …
I was a good boy who looked for the kind of mischief a lot of “good boys” look for – the kind that provided a measure of immediate risk that gave you bragging rights without landing you in jail. It was the Christmas season and as per the custom of our town, one of the large pine trees near the community playground was festooned with Christmas lights. A friend and I thought it would be cool to sneak up at night under cover of darkness and steal some of those lights.
We did. Once we took them, what to do with them? The best idea we could come up with was to smash them in the street in front of the playground.
We started out slow. The second night, we got a little braver, and it soon was very apparent that the Community Christmas Tree was losing its shine.
My memory fails me here – was it on that second night? Or did we go back a third night? On one of those nights the police came around in their patrol car just as we were smashing lights in the street. We took off across the playground field as the patrol car stopped. Glancing behind us, we saw their bright flashlights beaming out onto the playground. We dropped on our stomachs and held our breath. After a few moments the lights went out and the car drove away. We went downtown for a soda – and as I sat next to my friend I bragged, not seeing the off-duty police officer – the one whose name I still remember today – sitting nearby.
We went home, and about half an hour later, my friend was at my door all out of breath. “Listen,” he said to me as he named the police officer – “He was just at my house asking me questions about the Christmas Tree lights! Here is what I told him. If he comes here and talks to you, you need to tell him the same story, got it?”
I “got it” alright. My friend had come up with an alibi to explain my incriminating comments back at the soda fountain. The officer never came to my door. I think he probably knew that he didn’t have to.
Our vandalism made it into the local paper. I do believe that the police knew who was responsible. And I believe they knew that we knew – and our knowing they knew was sufficient to keep us from doing it again. I wonder … had we been two teenage boys of color rather than the white teenage boys we were, would they have shot bullets onto the field that night instead of beams from flashlights?
All these years later I’m not bragging. The cops taught me a lesson without threatening my life – or taking it from me.
I don’t want to point fingers or make accusations before all the facts are known. I just pray the day will come when teenage boys – walking down the street minding their own business or up to no-good teenage trouble – will know that society is for them whatever their skin color. Maybe we need fewer guns in our communities, and more flashlights.