Armed and Dangerous

The first time I was arrested was on my dead father’s 52nd birthday. I remember this because DL and my father shared the same birthday–June 11–and I remember DL’s parents arriving at the city jail with a scowl on their face and a sarcastic “Happy Birthday DL.” My first thought was “man, I’m glad my old man’s not around to see this,” a thought that later horrified me.

We got arrested for something the police thought we were doing not for what we actually were doing. And even though the cops knew this by the time they had us face down on the ground and in cuffs, they were sufficiently bent at chasing us through the weeds that it just seemed easiest to arrest us, disperse the crowd, and ride us around town in the backs of their squad cars in hopes that we would somehow feel shame. Or, maybe they were just bored. It sure seemed like the former.

Back then we didn’t have paintball guns, paintball helmets, or paintball “centers”; we had BB guns, plastic woodworking shop protective glasses, and an unfenced neighborhood. But the game was the same. Dress up in full camo, dab on the face paint or ski mask, pump up your Crossman “air gun,” and stalk the neighborhood in search of the enemy.

A number of things brought the cops out on that muggy June night. The first was what they thought we were escaped convicts from the Cook County Jail trying to break in and rob a house. That is, after all, the phone call they received and acted on. The second was the timing of TM’s bowels. TM had to go but didn’t want to leave the game. He decided to back up against some bushes, drop his pants, and let it fly. At that precise moment, one of our elderly widows on our block looked up from her T.V. News story about the escaped convicts with the warning that they were “armed and dangerous” to see what she believed was a young man with a ski mask over his face and his pants around his ankles, carrying a rifle. Alarmed, the woman went to an open window above her kitchen sink and yelled out at him that she was going to call the cops.

TM, like me, and like many sixteen year old males, had an older brother. And say what you will about older brothers, they can beset on you unthinkable cruelties. In TM’s case, this cruelty bred in him a kind of reflexive violence. Tease him or goose him in any way and he was liable to snap back like a cornered animal. And whether it was this, or the mindlessness that comes with outrageous levels of testosterone running through sixteen-year-old veins, TM stood up, aimed his gun at the old lady, and screamed a string of obscenity-laced threats.

I was crawling on my belly underneath the school’s merry-go-round when I saw the flashing lights of a squad car as it veered off the road and came at what seemed like a hundred miles-an-hour across the school’s baseball field headed straight at me. I leapt to my feet and took off running (I would point you to the “surging puberty/insanity” defense for that particular choice of action). I took a half dozen BBs to the chest before the rest of my friends saw the lights, and a half dozen other sets of lights racing down the block before they too leapt to their feet and followed.

We broke for an old white barn behind the Acker’s house and holed up in the hay loft as we listened to the sirens getting closer. They had us surrounded. They even told us so. As the entire neighborhood came out from their house, one of the cops got on his bullhorn and literally, in Adam-12 fashion, belted out “You’re surrounded. Come out with your hands up.”

Which we did. The moment each of us walked out through the barn door, we were pounced on from the side by two officers who shoved us into the ground and handcuffed us behind our backs.

By the time the fifth or sixth kid came trotting out, the cops had the dawning awareness that we weren’t who they thought we were. I think this made them quite a bit angrier than they already were. More than one of them seemed not to have moved beyond the out-of-control-testosterone-induced-frenzy of their adolescence.

When you’re sixteen you do stupid things, a platitude that rings hollow perhaps at the surface but reveals a horrible truth in its depths. One truth is that those stupid things often escalate far beyond what you think the outcome will bring, if even you have the ability to think in the heat of the moment.

This past week in Billings, the police responded to a call involving a reportedly suicidal 16-year-old. The young man had a pistol and took off running as the police approached. During the brief chase, the youth stopped, turned towards the pursuing officers, raised the handgun, and took aim. Amazingly, the officer recognized that it was a BB gun and let the youth shoot, taking a BB in the face before bringing the youth into custody.

I’m not excusing the kid who is very, very lucky to be alive. But I recognize in his actions the insanity of sixteen. The officer most certainly deserves huge praise. I can’t imagine having the sanity of mind in the rush of a chase to recognize that sometimes the people he’s pledged “to serve and protect” and the people he’s chasing are one and the same.

The Billings D.A. has announced that the young man is being charged “as an adult.” Hardly.