The Last Time I Was Arrested... and other short works of fiction
The Last Time I Was Arrested
(and other short works of fiction)
By Jon Berry c
This is a lengthy story of the last time I was arrested - so bear with me.
This is not a spiritual journey nor a particularly uplifting story with a good moral message. It is just a recounting of one chapter in our lives, many years ago and many more miles away. Enjoy it for what it is - a short story that no one would otherwise know unless it had been written - just to pass the time away when there is nothing else to do.
It all started about thirty years ago when my wife and I decided to go to North Carolina to visit her mom and step dad. They lived in Cherokee North Carolina and the trip was a long hard journey from Wichita Kansas into the deep south in our old 1968 VW hippie bus that I had made into a camper by building a bed in the back and putting in some real camper windows I got from the salvage yard out of an old wrecked one. We had it all! There was room under the bed to put a guitar and a suitcase, 4 inches of foam to sleep on and the back shelf above the motor was still available to keep my tool chest and some extra parts - in case the thing broke down. (Something it did with precise regularity) Driving into the deep south with long hair and a hippie bus shortly after "Easy Rider" was an exercise in bravery that all my hippie friends thought particularly dangerous if not plain stupid. But "stupid" wasn't in my vocabulary then - I never used words that big in those days.
We took off after work on Friday night, loaded the bus and headed south on I-35, cutting over to Tulsa on the turnpike. Sure enough, just about midway through Tulsa, the first sign of trouble came to our attention when the generator light came on. So we pulled over into a K-mart parking lot to do a little engine diagnosis. Not being a whiz at auto repair - I deduced I needed a new regulator and went in and bought one and hung it on right there in the parking lot. Sure enough, the light went out and we went on our way.
Driving all night to get to Memphis had become a regular weekend outing for us, as Debbie's grandparents were always amused to see the dirty hippie that their sweet innocent granddaughter had decided to adopt. And falling asleep at the wheel was something I had to guard against with the utmost effort. In fact, I had gone to the greatest expense to avoid falling asleep and had installed a stereo and a power amplifier and built some speakers that would blow enough noise to the front of the bus to cover the drone of a VW motor running at full tilt. Cruise control in those days was a large brick on the gas pedal and with that and a downhill slope we could get up to - maybe - 56 or 57 miles an hour! The music was so loud that I often couldn't hear the fuzzbuster go off up on the dashboard - but that isn't part of this story so we'll let that one rest for now.
Along about Little Rock at about 2 in the morning, we noticed a noise coming from the back of the bus that sounded like thumping. We pulled over into a truck stop, looked at the tires, checked the engine, looked under the bus to see if we were still dragging the corpse of whatever it was I hit while I was dozing through Fort Smith but it was all to no avail. Nothing could be seen. We pressed on.
Driving into West Memphis on I-40 used to be a harrowing experience - especially in a VW bus. There were always semi trucks flying past us and blowing us off the road. We would change lanes without any effort or plan. It was particularly adventurous if we were in the middle lane and a semi came up on both sides. I could take the brick off the gas pedal and just float along on the air pressure for miles.
Sure enough at the precise moment that two semis passed me by, the engine started cutting out and it was all I could do to get the bus over to the side of the highway where I could do a quick engine tune-up and replacement of the ignition points. Whenever you replace the points in a bus, you have to also set the timing as well and you ought to let the engine cool and reset the valve gaps but we didn‘t have that kind of time at 4:00 in the morning on the side of a busy interstate and another hour or two before stopping. So there I am on the side of the road doing this tune-up when I realize I didn't have a new set of points. Good thing I never throw anything away! There in the bottom of my extra large tool chest was an old set of points that were burned but not completely destroyed like the ones I just took out. In they go and we're off again, rolling down the highway to the sounds of ZZ Top and honking the anemic little bus horn to the beat of “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide”.
Only to be pulled over by the Arkansas State police within about 5 minutes. The last thing a guy with hair midway down his back, wearing greasy blue jeans and a dirty t-shirt, driving a hippie bus with a very pretty and innocent young girl in the back - the last thing he wants - is to be pulled over at 5 o’clock in the morning by some redneck southern cop with nothing to do but harass him and cause all kinds of trouble. But pull us over he did. Seems that as I was "fixing" my bus, I had bumped a wire loose and one of my taillights was out. After explaining to him about taking my sweet wife to see her grandparents across the river, and the regulator and the points and the strange thumping sound in the back - he had mercy on us and let me go with a warning to fix the light. Which I did as he was getting back into his patrol car. I waved as he drove past and breathed a big sigh of relief.
I had been driving - or working on the car - for over 13 hours by the time we got to the bridge over the Mississippi river and I was exhausted. It was this way every time we drove all night to Memphis. I would find myself driving well enough, keeping it between the white lines - but for some strange reason, the sound would go off and I couldn't hear anything. No music, no wife, not even the drone of the bus engine as it roared into the eastern daylight. Then a Semi would push its way past and the noise from it flying past us and the bounce the bus would get - would startle me enough to make the sound come on - with unreal volume - I might add. The eyes worked fine - but everything else would be dead to the world.
After a long night and an early morning we finally pulled onto Danny Thomas Blvd and on into Frayser and found our way over to Benjestown Road where Mema and Pepa were about to sit down to breakfast. After eating a meal of homemade biscuits and syrup - I found myself wandering off to bed to get a couple hours of sleep before heading on to North Carolina.
As you may recall, we had pulled into Memphis early in the morning and took the opportunity to catch some shut eye before heading on to our final destination. Let me tell you, Pepa was one of the kindest people I have ever known. He never had a bad word to say about anyone and in fact, all of his stories usually ended with the words “you know, I believe he was a good man”. He also knew a lot about cars so I took the opportunity to have him come out and look the old VW over to see if he could figure out what the noise was coming from the back of the bus. We walked around the old gray monster (it was painted primer gray for about 6 years and we had decided that it would probably live out the rest of its days as a rolling bondo advertisement.). Anyway, we walked around it, kicked the tires, looked at the motor and here was the diagnosis from a guy who had rebuilt engines and changed his own tires… off the wheels. “For the life of me, I don’t see anything wrong, but I sure don‘t know much about those German cars!” That was great help but the old guy was a good man so I thanked him, loaded up the bus and Debbie and I were again off to the destination that had somehow been planned for us… stopping by Tops bar-b-que over on Thomas St. so we could eat lunch and buy extra for the long trip that lay in store.
We planned to take the route that seemed safest - I-40 through Nashville and then down I-24 to I-75 - never mind we hadn’t ever gone through there before! Little did we know that by Nashville, the thumping coming from the back of the bus was growing worse with every revolution of the wheels. We stopped in Jackson and looked - nothing. We stopped in Nashville and looked - still nothing and the sound just got louder and louder. As we headed down toward Chattanooga, it was once again dark and the thumping had now grown to a pounding noise. Bam, Bam, Bam, Bam, Bam all the way down the road. Add to that the rain that hadn’t stopped most of the day had the busy highway slippery with a mix of oil and water.
Now remember, this is getting to be around midnight by the time we see the Monteagle Pass with this noise pounding away at our nerves. If you don’t know about Monteagle, Johnny Cash sang a song about it. It was legendary - this before they widened it into the incredibly tame superhighway it is today. We had taken the VW bus through the mountain ranges of Colorado and the foothills of northwest Arkansas and let me tell you, Monteagle blew them both away. We had never been so scared in all our lives. At the first curve, there were at least five cars that had run off the road or fallen off the edge of the mountain. State Police cars everywhere. The road was like a bad roller coaster trip with semi trucks blowing past or riding your bumper. Add to that a little fog, more than a little rain and oil and a little fatigue and you have one wild ride! And still that nerve racking pounding coming from the back of the bus. Bam, Bam, Bam, Bam, Bam!
By Chattanooga, we had had enough and decided to limp off the interstate and take the state road 64 east just to regain a little peace and quite. 64 was a winding little two lane that followed the path of a river from the mountains of the Carolinas. Rather than stopping and getting a motel room as my wife so strongly suggested, I chose to press on, hoping to get to her mom’s house by morning. Debbie, having more sense than me, wanted to get some sleep and a break from that pounding noise as it was getting harder and harder to ignore it and get any sleep in the bus as we rolled down the highway in the rain soaked night.
At about 2:00 in the morning, I decided she was right and started looking for a place we could pull over and rest for the night. The hope was to find one of those wide pullouts where there was enough room to park the bus off the highway. But as luck would have it, everywhere we pulled off, there was a sign that read “No parking during and after rain. River is known to rise unexpectedly. Flash flood zone”. We don’t have signs like that in Kansas. Sure it rains, but being flat out there - there is nowhere the water can rise to that would make it a surprise it was coming. But sure enough, it had rained the better part of the day and we weren’t going to risk being the first VW ark.
Bam- BaM, BAm, BAM, BAM went the noise and sure enough at precisely 3 o’clock in the morning, on a rain soaked highway with nowhere to park - that darn generator light came on again. The last straw, I thought to myself. If I had a gun, I would have shot the dang thing and rolled it off a cliff! Nevertheless, realizing it was our only transportation - and we were a long way from home - stuck in the Deep South - with a pretty girl on a deserted and potentially flooded highway and me with my long hair and beard and Kansas accent - I didn’t want to raise any suspicion… or have to thumb it back home.
Finally, there was a wide spot on the far side of the road where we could pull over and I crawled back to the bed for some sleep - knowing I had to once again spend some quality time with the engine the next morning. It was a fitful night of reliving every turn and noise through the pass, the rain, the poor visibility, the semi trucks that would run up on your bumper in the night. It was two hours of the worst dreams you could imagine.
By 5:00, I had had enough and got up. I couldn’t sleep and I couldn’t go on. Helpless, hopeless and hippie - not a good combination in western North Carolina. While Debbie slept, I went to the back and began my search for the noise and the reason for the generator light, hoping that somehow the generator had been making the noise all along. As it turned out, the brushes on the generator had worn down to nearly nothing and the only thing I could do was turn them over and put them back in on the opposite side from which they came. I cleaned everything up as best I could and sure enough - all that generator dirt looked better on me than it did on the motor - or at least the motor thought so - cause the light went out and we were once again heading down the road in the crisp new morning.
The highway had become a series of rolling hills up one, down two, up one, down two and going uphill, the bus would maybe get up to 35 or 40 mph - but going downhill, we were flying! At least as fast as 60 mph on some of the hills. If it hadn’t been for that unending noise from the back of the bus - it would have been fun! As were just cresting the top of a hill and started down along a high ridge, Debbie now in the passenger seat and I with my eyes taped open, we were rolling along at a high rate of speed when BAM, BUMP, BOOM, GRIND, GROWEL BUMP,BUMP,GRIIIINNNNDD, STOP! The back of the bus dropped about a foot and a horrible scraping noise started grinding away from the back. Debbie look startled and asked, “Did the motor fall out” and about that time, something flew past my driver’s side window at a blinding speed. It was a tire on a remarkably familiar wheel. Not just any tire - a brand new tire - one from Sears auto. I could tell by the fine print on the sticker on the side… as I had just paid to have them put on before this trip. (that and a tune-up with points and ignition) I know, I know - that breaks the first rule of owning a VW microbus - never let anyone else do a tune-up. Déjà vu all over again!
But there it went, my brand new tire, bouncing past us with enough determination to bound over the guardrail and off the cliff on our right hand side. The bus had ground to a stop on its right rear shock absorber - nearly grinding it in two. And not only didn’t we have a way to jack the bus up - the spare was the wrong size. It seems that Sears hadn’t properly tightened up the lug nuts on the tire that came off and all the nuts were still on the hub. The wheel had just pounded itself off right over them.
With the help of a “good man” in a car full of kids on their way to church that Sunday morning, we picked the bus up high enough to put the spare on and I spent the better part of the day walking up and down that cliff looking for my new radial tire in waist high grass and who knows how many rattlesnakes and copperheads. Never did find it. It was long gone. But you could have started quite a beer bottle collection from the thirty years of bottles that had been flung over the side of the road.
Finally though, that awful pounding was gone too! We rolled on toward Cherokee in perfect silence… or should I say the drone of a purring VW microbus. Yes, the bus rolled along a little lop sided on that wheel that didn’t quite fit, but at least it wasn’t pounding away at our nerves. The only worry was how I was going to get the money to buy a new tire and wheel as well as a new generator.
In retrospect, owning a couple of VW buses wasn’t too bad. Our 68 had the wheels come off twice while I owned it - this time with over 500 miles notice and once in traffic without a sound or any warning. Sears Auto really knew how to do their job! The 73 on the other hand poured oil from the day we bought it until I dropped the engine and replaced the main seal. Little did I know that the Porsche engine in the newer busses weighed ten times as much as the motor in the old 68 and laying in the heat of the summer Florida sun trying to wiggle that big monster back into place was not too fun. But Florida and big engines were a future I hadn’t even dreamed about yet. We were pulling into town in our 68 where everyone looked like extras from the movie “Deliverance” or were dressed up for a war party.
Cherokee North Carolina in the early 1970’s was not really a hotbed of organized crime. Instead, it was more disorganized crime than anything. With an Indian in full dress on every corner to have your picture made with or a dancing bear someone had brought down from the mountain. The “authentic” Indian gift shops with their trinkets made in China or Malaysia were the worst of the fraud committed. Now that they’ve gotten organized - Casino gambling has taken the lead. But the 70’s seemed to be a more innocent time in the land of tourism and evening buck dances down at the Dairy Queen.
For those of you who have never witnessed a good ol’ mountain buck dance, it is sort of like watching a bunch of people moving around on an outdoor “dance floor” with the top half of their body being totally still while the bottom half of their body was moving in every direction at once. A wonder to see and they say, a wonder to experience for yourself and “more fun than anyone should have a legal right to have”. You have to understand, the music wasn’t from some well known orchestra, but by two drunken Indians on guitar and drums and Debbie’s uncle Jimmy on bass guitar… or whomever they could get that wasn’t too drunk to play. Jimmy had played with Jerry Lee Lewis in the 50s and early 60s and even has his picture on Sun Records Hall of Fame wall in Memphis. He and his buddies were close friends with Elvis and spent too many nights partying with the king at Graceland and touring the country in the early 60’s - so by the seventies the various indulgements had taken their toll and the only work uncle Jimmy could get was this gig at the Dairy Queen.
But buck dancing only happens at night in Cherokee and we were limping into town early in the morning on a tire that didn’t fit and a generator that could quit at any moment. We needed cash - quick - or we’d be spending more time in this podunk little town than either of us wanted. If you knew my mother-in-law - you would certainly understand my desire to leave as soon as possible!
She and her husband Tony, owned a restaurant on the edge of Cherokee which she ran while Tony…ran around… town… doing odd jobs and construction work for a place called “Santa’s Land Park and Zoo”. Tony was a whiz with a paintbrush and as the story goes, painted most of the park - several times. In those days, Tony was connected to a bunch of friends - more “family” than friends really - maybe you could even say they didn’t much like each other and they just were “friends” in order to get jobs done and fulfill certain contracts. Tony always said they were a bunch of really good fellows - and who was I to argue - I didn’t know any of them. Tony was also some sort of hunting guide - one that made very good money leading one way hikes into the mountain forests for old acquaintances and former “family” members. He was a force to be reckoned with and no one wanted to argue with him or get him riled. He’s a lot different nowadays, he is older and much tamer - ever since those years in the penitentiary in Alabama he got for driving around in a “borrowed” car with a trunk full of “merchandise“. They say prison changes some people and it did for Tony. But in the early 70‘s, you wouldn’t want to stand in his way.
When we got to Debbie’s mom’s house, the whole place was in a mess. It seems the night before, she had been tied up and the house ransacked. I was a little surprised they didn’t gag her as in the 30+ years I’ve known her, she hasn’t once stopped talking. She has perfected the fine art of talking while breathing and not losing a single syllable.
While we were waiting for Tony to get there, I debated as to whether I was going to untie her or gag her myself. Well, whoever did this job was looking for large sums of cash that evidently they couldn’t find. Tony came home from a “business” trip to find his wife and the house and he was steamed. He had a pretty good idea of who he thought had done the job and kept talking about making a trip to Florida to see his “boss”. Now, I don’t know why he had to go to Florida to see his boss when he worked most of the time in North Carolina at Santa‘s Land, but I was a hippie then and didn’t ask too many questions. When spoken to, I mostly said “huh” or “say what” and “yeah man, far out” and that was the extent of my vocabulary.
Tony was an efficient man - if he was nothing else. Whenever he went on a business trip, he always did at least one other project or errand that would bring in a little cash and on the day we rolled into Cherokee, he had already been planning a trip to Seaworld down in Florida. So going down there to get permission (or whatever you call it) from his boss to do something else was an ideal setup.
Seaworld, as you may know, has a research center close by where they study marine life, mating habits and migration movements in the great oceans. If you had a problem or a question about aquatic life, the people at Seaworld are the place to call and that is exactly what the owners of Santa’s Land Park and Zoo had recently done. In those days, Santa’s Land had put in a large tank with some trained dolphins that were the hit of the park. People from all around skipped Gatlinburg just to go see the dolphins do their tricks. That is why Gatlinburg put in that fancy new aquarium - the competition from Santa’s Land was just too much. But as those fish got older, the owners knew they would have to replace them or breed them one or the other and they didn’t know how to get that kind of job done. So they called Seaworld and of course they had the answer. The dolphins needed a high protein diet made up of some sort of whey powder product mixed with specially fertilized eggs, so Tony was asked to go to Seaworld the next day, as they were the only ones on the east coast with quantities sufficient to produce the required results… very happy dolphins…!
Knowing I needed some cash to fix up my bus and get back home to Kansas, Tony asked me to “ride shotgun” with him in his large box truck he used for his painting business. “Tony’s Quality Paint” printed all over the sides let people know what business he was in. But riding shotgun was not a term I was particularly fond of - especially with Tony. It just had a bad feeling about it.
So off we go heading to Florida and my fate with the law. Tony was a good driver, in fact as the story goes, he had won some cross-country races with some black and white cars over the years and driving that old box truck was no exception to his driving skills. In fact, we got to Florida in record time and loaded the truck full of eggs on one side of the shelves and whey powder in plastic buckets on the other. It was full to the roof and there was some concern that between the heat of the un-air conditioned box and the time it was going to take carting that many fertilized myna bird eggs back to North Carolina, we would have a time coming back with a full load. I guess any type of fertilized eggs would work but that was all they had at the time and we weren’t too picky - ignorance being the better part of valor. Not to mention we had the side trip to Tony’s boss’ office where Tony had an unusually long meeting while I sat in the truck and watched the eggs... and kept the motor running. It seems Tony didn’t want to spend a single moment longer than he had to, so he parked with the wheels facing out, the motor running and the door slid open so he could jump in and hurry on home. What did I know?
Florida heat is daunting and that big box truck must have been 140 degrees, I was beginning to think I’d be eating fried eggs before too long. But finally Tony came out in a hurry and we headed back north to the land of cool mountain breezes and peaceful streams.
So there we were, heading north out of Florida into Georgia with 357 miles to go and having a conversation as to whether Tony was 44 or 45 and how he wished he was still 22. I’m still not sure what in the world we were talking about, as he was fond of talking in some sort of code that only his buddies would understand.
Like I said though, Tony was not one to let anything get in his way and driving through Georgia at the speed limit was not something that set too well. The farther we got into Georgia, the faster he went - weaving in and out of traffic and generally trying to make good time. Tony was in a hurry to get home as he had a job to do when he got there and he had to “meet” some people before they skipped town. Not to mention that by now after hours of sitting in the heat, some of the eggs had already begun to hatch. That big silver box truck turned out to be the perfect incubator as it rolled down the hot Georgia asphalt. So before they all hatched, he had to get the bulk of the load back to the park in order to feed those crazy fish.
Nothing pretty much happened till we were well past Atlanta and into the mountains around Clayton when Tony noticed a couple of police cars had fallen in behind us on the road and were keeping pace. I went to the back and gave Tony an update as to the number of hatchlings and the cop cars and he responded by flooring the gas and taking off - knocking me to the floor and knocking a tray of eggs down on my head. We were only about ten miles from the state line when I noticed two more cop cars and a helicopter flying by. They were just pacing us - not trying to overtake us or stop us in any way. Then a state police car fell in beside us and ordered Tony to pull over through his loud speaker. Tony ignored him and drove on even faster. The cop cars were closing in on us on all sides and that old box truck was bouncing around the road like the bus in the movie “Speed”.
I didn’t know what to think. Were they after us because we had spent too long at Tony’s boss’ office and something bad may have happened there… or was it cause we were driving too fast, or weaving - or what… I didn’t know! I just knew I didn’t want to be there and didn’t even want to know this family I had married into. What was I gonna do? What would you do if you were a long haired hippie type in the Deep South being followed by who knows how many redneck cops that would make Buford Pusser seem like the Pope?
So we get to the state line between Georgia and North Carolina and the state police, the highway patrol a bunch of local cops and the state militia had set up a roadblock just to get us stopped. Tony said, “Don’t worry… for get about it” in his usual accent - but that was all I was doing. “Besides” he said, “ Once we’re in the mountains up there, I know some back roads I can take and they’ll never catch us.” Great - now I knew I wasn’t the only thing cooked in the back of that truck! That’s about when the tire spikes went up.
Tony hits the roadblock with the full force of that big truck and smashes through - eggs flying everywhere, whey powder filling the back as we tumble over the edge of the road into a ravine with whey buckets flying around like volleyballs and breaking open with dust billowing out the now sprung open doors in the back. I’m sitting there, coughing and trying to collect myself and as the whey dust clears, I see all kinds of guns pointed in my direction and SWAT team types moving ever so slowly into position. I was glad it was over and when they said, “come out with your hands up” it was much to my relief. I crawled out of the truck, which was laying on its side and was immediately tackled and handcuffed. Tony, bleeding from his head and limping was being led to a squad car and I heard him ask why they had stopped us? The main cop said, “Shut up - you’ll find out soon enough” as he pushed him into the car, bumping the other side of his head. I didn’t much want the same treatment so I stayed quiet and just got in on the passenger side.
Sitting on your hands when they are cuffed is not a comfortable position and the ride back to the police officer station seemed to take forever. We were fingerprinted and booked and given the opportunity to make our one phone call before being led off to join Bubba, Rosco and Eugene in the holding cell. Anyway, I called Debbie and told her the story of how we were just coming back from Seaworld and the heat and the eggs and the weaving and the crash until she finally asked me why they had arrested us. So I told her. We were being charged with transporting mynas across state lines for immoral porpoises.
What a long strange trip its been! Hope you liked it!
Some of the names have been changed to protect me from… my … “family”. Unfortunately, for me, much of this story is truer than it is fiction. You decide what you want to believe. That’s my story and I’m stickkin’ to it!
c jBearlyPublishing 2005