One night in the spring of my senior year, Gary and Ron and I decided to drive past “No Trespassing” signs into a Nike anti-aircraft missile base, raising a cloud of dust on the unpaved road. Immediately, a passing squad lit up and chased us in.
What were we doing? Here in Orange County, California, we were inside the perimeter of a secure site where ground-to-air missiles were poised like deadly darts to thwart any air attack against the U.S.
Gary panicked. “Tell him you didn’t see the second ‘No Trespassing’ sign!”
“Wait a minute, Gary,” I said. “Think that through a bit . . .”
We stopped. The policeman walked up to my window. “You boys have no business in here. You need to turn around and get out now.”
We turned and drove out. A graceful non-arrest. I wondered what would have happened if we had been Mexicans.
I got stopped several other times, but the time they arrested me, I wasn’t even driving.
It was Thursday night before Christmas, 1958, in Orange, California, my home town. After driving around aimlessly for a couple hours (gas was 25 cents a gallon), Gary and Ron suggested we head downtown Orange to see the Christmas decorations. My beautiful 1953 Ford—nosed, decked, hung, painted metallic gold—we caught a few eyes. Just a few months before, I’d gotten a ticket for loud pipes, so I took it easy as we circled the Orange Plaza with its billowing fountain and huge palm trees all dazzling with a thousand lights, and Christmas carols playing from loudspeakers.
After we parked we walked into Coronet 5 & 10 cent store to look around, roaming the aisles, buying nothing. We got hungry, so we exited the store and crossed Glassell Street toward the car, pushing and laughing. A woman carrying some packages approached us in the crosswalk. Even though we tried to avoid her, Gary bumped her going by. I turned and murmured an apology as we stepped up onto the far sidewalk.
Right then a policeman yelled at us. “Hey you guys. Why did you bump into that woman? She says two of her packages are missing.”
“We told her we were sorry,” I said. “I didn’t notice she dropped any packages.”
“Well, they’re gone. I’m going to have to take you boys down to the station.”
“What?” Ron said. “What’d we do?”
“Unruly behavior, and her packages are missing.”
He wore a black uniform and carried a gun at his waist. Shiny black shoes. Young, crew cut. He loaded us in the back of his squad behind the black wire screen and drove the two blocks to the station. As I smelled the leather seats, I looked out, hoping none of my friends would see us. I tried to tell myself what my elementary teacher had told us: “The policeman is your friend.”
When he marched us into the interrogation room, I noticed the one-way mirror they used to observe us without being seen. We sat there stunned and speechless. were isolated for 45 minutes. To quell my anxiety I repeated the 23rd Psalm under my breath.
Then a policeman came in abruptly, said we were free to leave. We filed out, savoring our freedom as we walked back to my car that was parked on the plaza.
Gary told us, “I overheard some of the cops talking. That woman we bumped into was the officer’s wife, and he was sitting in that squad at the intersection!” He called his mom from a pay phone, his hand trembling as he inserted his nickel.
She told him, “We’re not going to let our good name be drug through the mud. Will they create a police record? I’m going to call the station and demand an explanation.”
Then Ron said, “I know why they hauled us in.”
“What?” I asked. “What do you mean? He thought we took the woman’s packages.”
“No, not really. I recognize that cop.”
“Who is he?”
“A couple months ago some of us were driving around Villa Park Heights and this convertible full of guys blew by us, weaving all over the road. This was that cop—off-duty and driving drunk. I called in a citizens’ complaint on him. This was payback.”
So our arrest was a setup, a cop getting back at the kid who had embarrassed him. Reflecting back, I hadn’t been worried, just puzzled. I wonder if I would have felt differently if I were a Mexican.