Do you ever daydream?
It was my lucky night. I reported for patrol duty on graveyard shift with S.P.D. My favorite desk sergeant was having a night off. His relief sergeant did things his way. As I strolled up, I asked where I was riding. He said, “Looks like Cedar Grove, Mac. Yeah, Cedar Grove, The regular officers are off.”
He tossed a set of keys to a police unit on the counter. Before he could change his mind, I clipped them to my keeper on my rig and headed to roll call. With my gear loaded in my unit, I wasted no time heading to my beat. The departmental grapevine was humming with news a shakeup was just around the corner. I heard I was being promoted in a week or so to criminal investigator. I smiled thinking about investigating major crimes in plainclothes.
Just like all other nights, I drove south from the station along Southern Avenue. I rounded the corner of Jordan and recalled a S.P.D. precinct located there years earlier. It was called Police Station Number 2 or West precinct. When I crossed Pierremont Road, I was officially in Cedar Grove, a place dear to my heart. Every time I traveled this section of Southern Avenue, I tried to place both left wheels of my car on top of the crack in the street. In fact there were four distinct cracks. I knew them well. There were two sets of old streetcar tracks. One set on the south and the other on the north lane of traffic. Every block or so the tracks turned toward the curb and back again to the main travel lane. In years past, these were streetcar stops.
After the streetcars were replaced with electric trolleys, the city poured asphalt over the embedded tracks. In most places the asphalt was so thin the steel rails were exposed and flush with the street surface. As kids, my friends and I competed against one another to see who could ride the rail the longest distance. I went a full city block once before I slipped off the rail. The city has paved over it many times now. The rails are no longer visible, only the cracks in the surface remain. (I drove down Southern Avenue yesterday and confirmed the cracks are still there.)
In my unit stopped at the traffic light at Southern and 70th, I glanced at the old Corner Drug Store. Many days of my youth were spent in that place pestering Mrs. Smith, the sweet lady at the drink fountain. I wondered if my name carved on its surface was still visible. I hooked a right and began checking businesses to make sure no one had broken into them. At the K.C.S. railroad tracks, I turned around headed back toward Fairfield Avenue. I hit the alleys behind the storefronts I just checked. I dodged broken beer bottles and shined my big spots on the rear of old buildings dating back to the 1900’s. I stopped in the parking lot behind the Corner Drug, killed my engine, got out of my car and listened. I wondered how many other officers did this. I knew it was a good thing to do and for me, it produced many criminal arrests. At times I could hear dogs barking, shots fired, women screaming, kids crying and glass breaking. Tonight it was nothing but silence. My eyes fell to the parking lot. After all these years, they were still there. I happened by on my bike the day Mr. Richardson poured concrete over the pothole infested gravel parking lot. The crews poured the entire parking lot and placed sawhorses to prevent cars from driving across. I slipped around one and rode all the way across the lot on my bike leaving two small impressions. I could see where I went in and went out. This is our secret. I have never told anyone I did that.
It seemed strangely peaceful that night on patrol, the lull before the storm. I needed coffee so I headed for Line Avenue several blocks east of the Grove. Just across Pierremont was an open convenience store. I leaned against my left front fender and listened once again as I sipped their scorched, bitter coffee. At that time, the water fountain in the center of the Pierremont Mall Shopping Center was still working. One summer my buddy D.J. Weed and I sneaked out of our houses for a little fun. D.J. brought a giant box of washing detergent with him. We poured the box of soap into the fountain and watched the bubbles grow. After an hour, a two foot high wall of foam covered the entire parking lot. It reminded us of snow.
I snapped to attention when my number was called over the radio. I was dispatched to an automobile fire call on E. 73rd Street. When I rounded 73rd from Line Avenue, I saw the blaze two blocks away. Flames were at least 10 feet high. I pulled behind the pumper engine to block the street so no one would run over the hose.
I spoke with the district fire chief and learned the owner attempted to start the engine by priming the carburetor with gas. He used a quart size coffee can. The car started but backfired through the carburetor. The flames reached the can of gas. The owner dropped the can and ran for safety. It did not take long for the fire to totally consume the car. No charges were placed against the poor owner. I went back to my unit to babysit the firehose. Watching the firemen spray the flames, I drifted back to my first car fire and first car wreck.
When I was three years old and my big brother Bubba was four, we lived in the country on Mayo Road south of Shreveport. Our Dad loved to read books and would lie beneath the homemade window fan in the bedroom while watching us. Bubba and I were fascinated with cars. That day we were playing in our old, tan Plymouth Clipper outside the window where daddy was. I remember crawling on the big bumper to the front fender and walking along the edge to the open driver’s window. I slid inside and Bubba followed. In those days, people did not lock their doors at night or take the keys out of the car.
I was on the floorboard near the pedals. Bubba stood in the front seat holding the steering wheel pretending to drive. One of us, probably Bubba, must have turned the key. I remember pushing a big round button and the engine suddenly started. Daddy had left the transmission in gear and away we went. I could not see where we were going but I could tell we were moving across the dusty yard. I can still hear Daddy shouting for me to stop the car as he ran behind us. I remember the awful sound of the car impacting the large wooden barn doors and the screeching as it smashed into a mountain of five gallon paint buckets.
When the dust cleared and Daddy realized we were not hurt, he pulled us from the wreckage and gave us a good spanking.
Aunt Juanita loaned her nice car to Daddy until the Clipper could be repaired. Living in the country, Daddy hated to leave Mama without transportation. One day he caught a ride to work and left Aunt Juanita’s nice car parked by the house. I do not know where Bubba was at that particular moment but I was outside playing and became bored. I spotted the nice, navy blue sedan and up the bumper I went. I ended up in the back seat on the soft, cloth covered seats. I stood in the seat and spied a small box of Diamond matches. I pulled out a couple and struck them. The flame amazed me and they left smoke marks on the inside of the rear window. The next thing I knew the headliner was on fire! A big, flaming section fell on the top of my head and caught my hair on fire. I patted it out and bailed from the inferno.
Mama had been talking to me moments before from the kitchen window as she washed dishes.
“Now you be a good boy, Patty”
She must have briefly stepped away from her window when I set the car on fire and jumped out. I was so worried and scared. I crawled under the house to hide. My Mama screamed so loud I began to whimper and cry. I looked at the car and it was in total flames. We had no phone or neighbor to call the fire department. Mama must have thought I burned to death in the car. She set on the back steps of our little house and cried and cried. It was the first time I heard her cry. It broke my heart. I could not take it any longer so I crawled out and sat down next to her. I put my arm around her. She stopped crying from fear and began crying for joy. She held me so tight I could barely breathe.
I got another good spanking that evening when Daddy came home. Bubba stood watching. We were so close when one of us got a spanking and cried, the other cried too.
The fire truck beep that sounds when it is in reverse brought me back to the present. They were finished with the fire call. Hoses were rolled up and they were leaving the scene. I glanced at the charred remains of a nice car. I felt sorry for the man and his family. I got back into service and made a few minor calls before I ended my shift.
Not every night police officers are on the streets is running gun battles, stabbings, murders, rapes and robberies. Some nights, like that night, it is strangely quiet.