Those Familiar Flashing Lights!
How many of you took driver’s ed in high school? Since I wanted to drive legally, I took a course my sophomore year. That entitled me to a ‘learner’s permit’ so I could drive with any adult family member that had a death wish. At the time I attended Missouri Military Academy, and my uncle and cousin made the two hour trek from Central IL to take me home for summer vacation. About halfway back, my uncle made the mistake of letting me drive – then took a nap.
To pass or not to pass – that was the question that afternoon. I chose to pass – even though within seconds a car quickly rounded a curve headed my direction. The problem was that I was trying to pass a vehicle ‘caravan’ eight cars long. My uncle woke up when he heard the throaty roar of the engine. He looked out and saw the oncoming vehicle and that we were five cars into the train with no way out. Several laws of physics and plain common sense told us both that we were not going to make it. Finally, one of the cars in the file slowed down and let us in – about two seconds before the other car thundered by. Needless to say, my uncle had me pull over and then drove the rest of the way home.
Well, one of the realities of driving is that most of us will rub elbows a time or two with the law. All of my life I’ve had nothing but respect for cops. They have a difficult job to do and for the most part do it very well. In fact, many of my friends are cops. However, nobody enjoys looking into the rear view mirror and watching the familiar red and blue flashing lights. But, one cop who was not my friend lived in Pleasant Plains, Illinois, population 777. (Of course, this included their dogs and cats.) Anyway, Pleasant Plains was always one of Virginia’s biggest rivals in basketball – so there was no love lost between our two towns. While I was growing up, they had a sheriff that also did triple duty as a preacher and teacher if I remember correctly. He also created one of the most infamous speed traps in Central IL. One night heading from Virginia to Springfield, I picked up a speeding ticket — doing three miles over! I got a lot of grief over that one, along with paying the fine and the difference in my insurance premium increase!
In the early 90’s, I was a vice president for a company out of Chicago. Besides flying all over the United States two weeks per month, I also did a lot of driving. In fact, in three years I put over 167,000 miles on my company car! For its time, the second generation of the Ford Taurus SHO was a great car. Mine had a Yamaha engine that generated 210 horsepower. It was also a five-speed manual – which added to the fun. But, the part that I could have done without was getting 8 speeding tickets in one year – totaling $850 in fees. Fortunately, IL had a court supervision program – and as long as I didn’t have another ticket in a 30 day period in the same county I was ok. It reeked havoc with the monthly allowance my wife gave me though. Half of my $200 a month went to pay for fines!
Once during one of the road-trips, I had to drive from Bloomington, IL to Oklahoma City. When I entered Oklahoma, their toll road system allowed me to drive 75 mph. But, why drive 75 when a Ferrari is doing 90 plus! Since I knew the SHO could at least do 90, I pulled behind the supercar and away we went! Well, an hour into the drive we blew past a car heading the other way that looked like a hot fudge sundae with a cherry on top. When the highway patrolman crossed the median and came into our lane, I immediately slowed down and the Ferrari increased speed and quickly disappeared. Fortunately, the ‘drive friendly’ policeman told me that he wasn’t paying attention to how fast I was going – but knew it was well past the speed limit. After checking my papers, he gave me a warning. Before he went back to his car, I asked him why he didn’t go after the Ferrari. He simply said that he didn’t think he could catch the Ferrari – but was certain he could catch me!
None of my experiences with the ‘men in blue’ could quite compare however to my encounters with Mexican cops. The way that my father in Mexico City explained it to me was that the traffic police there only made about a thousand dollars per month in salary. As a result, they had to supplement their income with the ‘mordida’ – a little bite out of each of our wallets. In fact, in my first ten years of working and traveling in Mexico, I so feared the Federales and the other flavors of Mexican police that I refused to drive in their country.
Finally however at the start of my second decade in Mexico I broke down and started driving – sometimes with hilarious results. For instance, the first time I drove in Tijuana to visit one of my distributors, I made the mistake of turning the wrong way down a one way street. Within seconds I quickly realized my mistake and turned around. However, a city cop was on me in an instant. After checking through my papers, he told me that it was going to take a lot of work and time to go to the station and pay the correct fines. I asked him if I could somehow reimburse him for my stupidity. He said that $20 would help to facilitate matters. Well, to my chagrin as I opened my wallet – I only had a few $100 bills. I asked the officer if he could make change. He erupted in laughter as he shook his head no. From that night on I made sure that I only had denominations of twenties or less in my wallet!
For the most part, most of my run-ins were with the Federales. Once, when I was headed back to Ensenada from San Diego, I stopped off at a small convenience store right after I entered the toll road. After grabbing a Coke and a bag of candy, I went up to the counter to pay the bill. A Federale came up next to me with his plate of food and a drink. The lady rang up all of the food together. I started to protest that some of that food was not mine – and then looked at the Federale. I quickly changed my tune and said that his meal was my gift for his keeping the toll ways safe! (Yes, I know how to be politically correct when I have to.) He laughed and thanked me. (I was just hoping that he would remember my gift if he ever stopped me in the future. I am betting that he doesn’t!)
On another occasion I headed from Ensenada to San Diego to work. I was in dire straits – with only $20 to my name until payday. Of course, the unthinkable happened and I was stopped by a Federale. I told him my situation, and he and I figured out to the penny what I was going to need to get to work. He then took the rest of the money. Sure enough I made it to work – with three cents to spare!
My Miriam not only has an amazing passion for life – but she is also one of the luckiest women that I know. She has never gotten a ticket – even in Mexico! The few times that she was ever stopped, I just shook my head and laughed when they let her go. Once, when she was visiting some of her friends in Tijuana, one of the waiters at a disco drugged her drink. It took full effect when she picked me up a bit later. In fact, I was so concerned that I had her turn down a side street and stop in front of a drug store. What I hadn’t noticed was that she had pulled in and parked going the wrong direction on a one way street! When I came out with the medication that she needed, there were two police cars with flashing lights. Miriam had the five cops laughing up a storm! (If that had been me, it would have cost me at least a twenty each to have them laughing that hard!)
The funniest memory that I have so far involving ‘Mexico’s finest’ revolved around a house we rented off of Calle Diamonte in Ensenada. For just over a year I drove 210 miles roundtrip from Ensenada to San Diego and back each workday. The problem with Calle Diamonte is that it has over twenty four -way stops – before I finally turn on to more ‘driver friendly’ roads. Over time I leaned the art of the ‘speed stop’ – slowing down just long enough to check for traffic. I would stop or not – depending on what was around.
Anyway, Miriam and I and several of her kids went to do some shopping. Hidden around the corner from a four-way stop were several city cops. As soon as I ‘speed stopped’ and saw that the coast was clear – I drove on. Within seconds the patrol truck was on me. To my horror, my Miriam took it from there. As soon as the policeman came up to the window, I heard Miriam say “Andale”. She then shared with the incredulous patrolman every traffic transgression that I had gotten away with since I came to Ensenada! The frosting on this very expensive cake was when she shared with the cop my ‘gringo’ attitude that this was after all – Mexico. Needless to say, the two policemen took a huge bite out of my wallet that day!
Finally, the Bonehead Stunt of the Year Award for 2000 definitely went to my friend Rich! (Of course, the names have been changed to protect the not so innocent.) One night while I was sleeping in the house shared with my friend Al in Tijuana’s Colonia Libertad, I was awakened by a rap at my window. Looking at the clock, it was 1:30 am, and Rich needed my help. He had to pick up a vehicle for work later that morning — but that his girlfriend was using. In reality, his son had tipped him off that his girlfriend was visiting her former boyfriend. Rich was livid, and wanted his Bronco back in that moment – regardless of the hour. Of course, I did not know this part of the story. And, while I wondered why we had to do this so late at night, I was just too tired to ask.
When we arrived at our destination, Rich said he needed to go into a house, which was hidden by some large shrubs. A few minutes later, he was back, and instructed me to drive the vehicle we were in and follow him in the other. I changed places and started the Bronco.
When he drove off, I started to follow, but then his girlfriend ran into the middle of the street waving at me to stop. Still oblivious to the real reason that we were there, I braked, thinking that she needed me to pass Rich a message. She came over to the driver’s side and while greeting me, reached in and grabbed the keys from the steering column. Now I was really starting to wonder what was going on.
When Rich came back, he asked me why I had not followed him, and I explained what had transpired. He immediately went back toward the house while I stepped out of the vehicle. About five minutes later, he was running my direction. He said that we both needed to run – now! After motoring for several blocks, we heard sirens. I asked Rich what the hell he’d done. He told me not to worry about it, and would explain later. Within minutes, two police cars had stopped us.
With guns drawn, the officers had us drop to our knees and we were handcuffed. Then they pushed us into the back of their car. I looked over at Rich, and he spilled the beans on what had transpired. He said that his girlfriend had been cheating on him and that he went to get his other vehicle. After she pulled the keys out of the one I was in and went back in the house, Rich went to get the keys back. When they refused to open the door, he kicked it in, and started beating on people with his fists. After he got the keys back, he ran out. He heard them calling the police as he left. What generated the fast response was because the girlfriend’s family had told the police that Rich barged in with a gun. This of course was a lie.
After several hours, the police determined that I had played no part in what happened and let me go. But, the ‘mordida’ cost Rich $175.00 to get them to release me that night — as opposed to letting me go the next morning or whenever. Unfortunately, they were hanging on to Rich. Thankfully, they gave me a ride back to where I lived. I then got in my car and went to the babysitter’s house and explained what had just happened. She agreed to continue watching his son while I helped Rich sort things out.
Over the next three days, I went to every police lockup in Tijuana looking for Rich. A few had repeat visits – but to no avail. After a conversation with an attorney and making my own deductions, I returned to the original station – which had told me twice already that he was not there. I tactfully but firmly insisted on checking out their holding cells. Sure enough, I found Rich stewing in anger, wrongly concluding that people had forgotten him.
After I explained the situation, I contacted our mutual friend Charlie so that he could make bail. Rich’s temper cost him well over $900.00 – but in my opinion, he got off with a slap on the wrist. This episode underscored that I never wanted to experience the Mexican penal system – ever!