My Dad’s brother had bought a new brick ranch house on the frontage road of the interstate, situated about three miles out of town. We were there on a Saturday evening to see the home and celebrate with them. All I knew was that we’d had a meal together and now I was bored with the conversations of the adults.
My older brother, Houston, fit in age right between two of Joe and Jessie’s sons. The three of them wanted to pal around without the six year old tag-along, me. And usually they got away with leaving me behind, but on this occasion Mom had not given my older brother a choice, “Take Stephen with you,” she’d directed.
So out we went, me scurrying to keep up with the big guys. We roamed around the yard awhile, then walked down the frontage road about a tenth of a mile to the overpass. It was early evening as we stood on the bridge, watching cars speeding by underneath us.
Who thought of it and who started it I do not know, but someone proposed dropping a rock off the bridge to see if we could time the drop to hit a car. Today I shudder at the stupidity of the dare and the danger involved, but in my remembrance I don’t think six-year-old me gave any of that a second of thought. All I knew then was that I didn’t want to be left out of anything the older guys were doing.
So, we found small loose rocks on the bridge and leaned over the railing, waiting for cars to come along. I don’t recall dropping a rock myself. I believe I was only allowed to watch as in turn the older guys stood in the prime position over the lane and timed their releases over the approaching cars.
Fortunately their timing was not good, but unfortunately, they got better, quickly. In the first round the rocks hit the pavement after the car had safely passed underneath. But then a rock connected, with a windshield, with a loud smack, with a screeching of brakes, and with a panicked rush of three older boys knocking me down as they took off for the woods.
I never saw it. I don’t know if the windshield broke or not, or if anyone was hurt. Of that fateful moment I remember most the brakes and the stampede. I was alert enough to jump up quickly and take off after my brother and cousins, across a field and into some woods.
I didn’t stop running until well past the tree line, and might would have kept running except that my heart was about to beat its way out of my chest. In my hand was the rock I’d chosen to use but had never had the chance to drop. I quickly threw it down as if it were a scorpion in my hand.
Hiding behind a tree, I listened for the others. I was afraid to call out, but also afraid of being alone. In a loud whisper I called for my brother. No answer. I listened intently, unsure what to do.
I thought I heard some movement in the woods. Maybe I could catch up with them. Maybe they’ve found a place to hide I thought. So deeper into the woods I crept, moving from tree to tree, occasionally calling out in my whisper voice.
No brother answered. No movement was heard. I finally realized it was getting darker as dusk progressed to evening, and I was getting further into unknown woods. I sat down and leaned against a tree trunk, breathing deeply to hold back the panic beginning bubble up within me.
It’s up to me, I thought. I’m on my on. I’ve got to get out of the woods, back across the bridge and to Uncle Joe’s place before Mom and Dad start missing me. The others will have to fend for themselves. By age six I had played imaginary army games many times in the woods around my house and I knew I was up to the challenge.
I stealthily began my journey back. At the tree line I paused. It was dark, but not dark enough. I waited for what seemed an eternity and then nearly jumped out of my skin when a car came slowly along the country road. Maybe it was the man in the car that got hit, looking for us. Rats, I thought, now I have to wait some more.
When another eternity had passed, and no other car had come along, I left the woods. There was broom straw and stubble in the field and I was small, so I figured I had pretty good cover until I got to the ditch along the road. If the car came back along I would just fall flat until it passed.
At the ditch I had to make a decision. From there I would be totally exposed, until I crossed the bridge and made it to the frontage road on the other side. My instinct was to run like hell. But, I thought, if I ran, and the car came back along, they would know immediately I was running because I was guilty.
I decided to walk across the bridge, not run. I’d walk as if I was just walking to a friend’s house so I wouldn’t arouse suspicions. With that resolve, I stood, crossed the ditch and began walking. The bridge was only twenty yards away. I can do this, I thought.
Then the lights came on, blue flashing lights. I whirled around and watched as out of a driveway up the road a highway patrol car quickly pulled out. I stood motionless, as if caught in a spider’s web, as it stopped beside me.
The car door opened and the officer walked around to me. I immediately knew then and there two things for certain: first, I would lie to protect me and my brother, and secondly, I was going to jail.
The officer got my name (I didn’t have a rank or serial number to give him, but if I’d had them, that was all he would have gotten because I knew from army movies that was all you had to give them). Instead I told him where I lived.
He wanted to know what I was doing out there at night. Just walking to my cousin’s house. He said he’s gotten a report that some boys were throwing rocks off the bridge and I was the only boy he’d seen. Where were the others?
I told him my cousins were with me earlier, but they’d gone on and I didn’t know where they were (which was the truth.) “Why were you throwing rocks? A man’s car was damaged and he could have been killed,” he demanded.
I knew he was angry and I realized he didn’t ask if we threw rocks. I was guilty, caught, and condemned, but I lied. “We were on the bridge watching the cars and we kicked some rocks, but we didn’t throw any,” I submitted.
He looked at me a long time. Then he opened the passenger door and told me to get in. He walked around, got in as well, and put the car in gear. Instead of taking me to jail, however, he did something worse, he told me to direct him to my parents.
I showed him where to turn on the frontage road and pointed out the house where my parents were. As we rode he kept talking to me about the dangers of what we had done and how we were lucky that the windshield had only cracked, but that the rock could have gone through the windshield. It could have gone through the roof and killed someone.
The blue lights were still flashing as we pulled into the yard, which, I thought, would have been cool if my brother and cousins had been there to see it, but in this case only added to the disaster as my Mom and Dad and Uncle Joe and Aunt Jessie and my sisters came out to see what was going on.
While my Dad and Uncle Joe talked with the officer, my Mom and sisters just stared at me. I felt alone, suspended, while judgments were being determined. After a bit, I was questioned again, and I repeated my lie, the one about kicking rocks. I don’t think they believed me, but I stuck with it.
To my surprise I was not arrested and the patrolman left without me. Also to my surprise I was not immediately punished by my parents. Some time later when my brother and cousins emerged from the woods, Mom kept me inside while Dad and Uncle Joe talked with them outside.
When we got home that night Dad had a talk with me. I imagine now that it was about being truthful, or not following the crowd, or about not doing stupid things. I don’t know because at that time all I was thinking about was the spanking that was sure to follow.
But there was no spanking, and I don’t know what punishment by brother received. He wouldn’t talk to me about it. I didn’t understand at the time, but he had to apologize to me for not taking care of me. He did finally tell me how they snuck across the interstate and were hiding in the woods after I had gotten caught, that’s the part I was interested in. And I wasn’t allowed to “tag-along” with him anymore. In fact, for a long time he didn’t get to go off anywhere to where I could have tagged along.
Thus I learned early what it was like (in my own limited way) to be on the wrong side of the law. The downside was that it took several years, and several good encounters, for me to learn that police officers weren’t out there “to get me,” but to be a help to us all.
The whole incident scared me enough however, so that I began to learn that you have to think about consequences. What will be the result of my actions? Do I want to be a part of this? I’m not saying that I ethically matured through my run-in with the Law. I don’t even think I felt much remorse at my lies. Alas, I may have even considered them noble in that they were to protect my brother and cousins. But I did learn that you better think about what you are about to do!
Whenever I drive on Interstate 385 and pass under a certain bridge I am reminded of six-year-old me standing on the bridge, ready to go along with whatever, just to be accepted as part of the group. Inwardly chagrined, I smile to myself, hoping I have learned my lesson.