The little boy and the drunk driver
This story is for any officer who has ever questioned if it’s worth being tied up for two hours with a DUI arrest
In my police career I was what some would call “aggressive” in regard to my passion to take drivers off the road for operating a motor vehicle while impaired (OMVWI). It did not come from a hunger for promotion, or a sergeant hounding me. The seed of my passion to become the bane of anyone driving drunk through my bailiwick was sown in my youth long before I could even pronounce the word bailiwick.
Before I share this story, I must tell you that my dearly departed father was firmly in the grasp of alcohol for the first 40 years of my life before he broke the hold it had on him. This afforded me many an opportunity as a youth to see how truly dangerous a drunk human being can be while driving a car. I would like to share with you just one of these instances, which is permanently seared by fear into my memory.
I can’t tell you how young I was when it happened, possibly four or five, or maybe a bit older. It was a day when my dad had left the house on his day off because he was, “Out of cigarettes.” My mom sent me along hoping it would inspire him to come back home after making the purchase. It didn’t. It never did.
Instead I spent the whole day and night traveling from bar to saloon while my father drank and socialized. For most of this time I sat alone in the car. Day became night and night became early morning. I finally was relieved from the boredom and hunger by falling asleep in the front seat. After the last bar closed, I awoke as my dad poured himself into the car. I was startled by the noise coupled with the odor caused by a day of binge drinking and chain-smoking that permeated the car. I sat bolt upright in the seat.
My dad started the car and gunned the engine repeatedly as if he was at the starting line of the Indy 500. Then he drove off. I could see he was only partially conscious of his surroundings and remember, even at that young age, being aware of the fact that I was either hurtling toward home, or my grave.
The Railroad Crossing
This was a time before car seats and even seat belts so I was able to maneuver into a position to watch where we were going. The car was careening in the general direction of home, when suddenly I realized we were barreling down the road toward an unguarded railroad crossing as a freight train was approaching. My father initially didn’t seem to be aware of the train, but just in the nick of time he hit the brakes and skid to a stop, sending me sprawling.
I crawled back up onto the seat and watched each car on the train slowly rumble through the intersection. I was old enough to understand that the only thing keeping our car from rolling into that train was my father’s right foot perched precariously on the brake. It was disconcerting to realize that as the freight train moved slowly along dad was on the nod. In short order that phase passed and he fell fast asleep. I was horrified.
My young mind started thinking about the survival dilemma I was confronted with. I worried that if I yelled to my dad he might be startled and take his foot off the brake, causing the car to roll forward into the train. I could save myself and jump out of the car immediately, but once again that might startle my father into driving into the train and I would be the cause of his death.
The plan I arrived at was to watch my father’s foot on the brake, while keeping my hand on the door handle. If my dad’s foot left the brake, I would unlatch the door and jump out, and shout a warning as I exited. In that way if he reacted properly my shout would save him. If he didn’t and he died I would not be the cause of it.
As I held the door handle with my small shaking hand and watched my father’s foot I listened, “click-click, click-click, click-click, click-click, click-click, click-click.” That was the longest damn freight train I have ever seen in my life. Finally, it cleared the intersection and I breathed a sigh of relief. I continued to watch my dad sleep behind the wheel, while stopped in the middle of that street, until he eventually woke up. He drove home never knowing how close to death he had placed us both, while I would never forget.
Two Times I Remember
I can honestly say that very few of the events I have experienced in law enforcement have re-visited me as often as those excruciating minutes I sat in the car watching that foot on the brake as that train lumbered by. I can’t help but remember it every time I sit and watch a train pass through a crossing.
The other time the memory would come back to me was as an officer, when I sat with a suspect I had under arrest for OMVWI and in their slurred speech, shaken and stirred with a bit of belligerence, they would growl, “Don’t you have anything better to do?”
I would think about that little boy watching that foot on the brake listening to the lumbering train and honestly say, “No sir, (or Ma’am), I don’t.”
In closing I would like to make this request. Whenever you find yourself thinking – Should I tie myself up for two hours with a drunk-driving arrest? Don’t I have something much better to do? – remember that little boy with his small shaking hand on the door handle listening with dread to that “click-click, click-click, click-click.”
He would tell you without hesitation, “No, you don’t!”