A reader responds with a tale of mercy from California

A reader responds with a tale of mercy from California

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Dear Leah,

My wife and I enjoy your weekly opinion pieces, and we especially enjoyed your column about a police encounter (“Techniques for avoiding traffic tickets,” Aug. 9). It rekindled the memory of our encounter, 55 years ago, with the California Highway Patrol.

By Chuck Darling

In January 1963, while employed by the Gyrodyne helicopter company in St. James, I was “volunteered“ by the owner, Peter Papadakos, to lead a team of engineers and electronic technicians to assist the U.S. Navy fleet in Coronado, California, installing our drone helicopters on Navy ships. This assignment was to last six months, so Nancy and I packed up the four kids, (ages 5, 4, 3 and 1), and the dog, locked up the house and flew to San Diego. After we had settled in for a month, Nancy’s folks decided that they could use some time away from the brutal winter weather in Illinois, so they drove to San Diego to warm up and to see their grandbabies. Whilst there they volunteered to stay with the rug rats for a long weekend, so we could have a respite from parenting. This was a godsend for Nance, for, other than the occasional movie, she hadn’t had a break from the kids for more than five years. She immediately contacted some friends that we knew from the University of Illinois who had settled in Southern California, and set up a long weekend in Las Vegas. Nancy’s folks had driven their 1958, fin-tailed Cadillac from Illinois, and since it had air conditioning, they thought it would be more comfortable for us to drive in it through the desert to Vegas than in the used Volkswagen Beetle which I had bought in San Diego. We gratefully accepted their offer.

On a Friday morning in February, we kissed the kids goodbye, and headed east for Las Vegas. Driving the Caddy was like flying a plane — it was quiet, comfortable and fast. It was very easy to let the speed creep up, as the road was flat and very few cars were evident, especially when compared with traffic on Long Island. As I noticed the speedometer at 80, I also noticed in the rear-view mirror, a California Highway Patrol car approaching with his bubble light flashing. Oh, no! I pulled over and the smartly dressed officer approached and said, “You were going a little fast there.”

I told him that we were headed for Vegas for a long weekend, the first time for the two of us to be away from kids together, and we were giddy to get to the palaces of pleasure in Vegas. He asked to see my driver’s license, and I handed over my New York license. He said, “Why a New York license?” I told him I was on a temporary work assignment in San Diego, and hadn’t bothered to change it for a California permit. He said, “But you are driving a car with Illinois plates.” I said it was my father-in-law’s car. He was visiting us from Illinois and the old folks were sitting with the kids back in Chula Vista while we were in Vegas. He asked to see the car’s registration, and I told him that I had forgotten to get it from Nancy’s dad before we left. He had this incredulous, bewildered look on his face and just stared at me for the longest time — it seemed like an hour. Finally, he said, “I’m going to have to let you go with a warning.” I almost wet my pants with joy. But, since the CHP wasn’t known for its benevolence, I asked him, “Why?”

He said, “Because a judge would lock you up forever if I wrote you up. You’re driving 80 miles an hour on a California highway; you have a New York driver’s license; you’re driving a car with Illinois plates on it — and you don’t possess the car’s registration. You would never get out of jail. Somehow, someway, I believe everything you’ve told me, but I’m not sure a judge would. Just get out of here, just leave.”

As I watched him walking back to his patrol car, he was quietly shaking his head as though he had seen everything now.

Originally published in Ferry Tales, a Jefferson’s Ferry publication.

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