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pulled over

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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.

If your car is pulled over by a police officer, there is a good chance that you will be treated mercifully by the officer if you have the same first name as his or hers. How do I know this? There has been research that corroborates that statement.

Now in a possible scenario, it would be a little difficult for me to pass myself off as “James,” the name on the officer’s name tag, when my driver’s license clearly says differently, although I suppose I could try telling him that he can call me by my nickname, “James,” for short. Somehow, on reflection, I don’t think that strategy would work.

As I was considering the possibility, I remembered strategies that did work, deliberate or not, that at least got me out of a ticket. I’ll bet you have some such memories of roadside encounters with the law, too.

The first one to come to mind happened the day after I got married. My new husband was a medical student in Chicago, and he had flown into New York City for the Sunday wedding. We then flew back to his apartment that night, he returned to school the next day, and I got into his car and began to drive to an employment agency in the neighborhood. As I passed along the unfamiliar streets, I came up behind a large truck that was stopped just short of an underpass. When it didn’t immediately move, I assumed it was either stuck or parked there, and I drove around it to continue on my way. Immediately a police car appeared in my rear-view mirror, lights flashing. I should mention here that I had not been stopped before in my short driving career. I pulled over, rolled down the window and waited as the middle-aged policeman got out and walked toward me frowning.

“What’s the matter with you?” he inquired. “You just ran a stop sign.” I looked into my side mirror and realized that was why the truck was stopped. It had, however, blocked my view of the sign. I started to explain.

“Where are you going in such a hurry?”

“I’m going for a job interview with an employment counselor. I just got married yesterday in New York and I need a job.” Although I do not cry easily, I could feel myself beginning to tear up.

“What! You just got married? Where is your lazy bum of a husband? Why isn’t he out working?” (This was February 1963, years before women’s liberation was even an expression.)

“He’s a medical student here, and I’m the one who has to support us for now.” I was beginning to sob. My story must have had the ring of truth, because he stared at me for a moment, then took out his handkerchief — these were the days before tissues — and handed it to me. He looked stricken.

“Now don’t cry. Everything will be all right. You just go on to your appointment.” He started to turn away, then turned back for a moment. “You just make sure that husband of yours takes care of you properly as soon as he finishes school.” He turned on his heel, climbed into his car and pulled away. It was only then, as I was wiping my cheeks, that I realized he had left me with only his handkerchief — and not a ticket.

I have been stopped by police officers on the highways in the course of the ensuing years. But I have never again been able to cry on cue. If you have any surefire ticket beaters, please share them with the rest of us.

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