Long ago in the far off land of Late Adolescence, south of Alexandria, my next door neighbor Richard and I set off to Meade’s Liquor Store in Southeast D.C. to buy a case of cheap beer for our boring summer night’s entertainment. It would have been the early 1970’s since we were both 16. Richard had acquired his uncle’s mint condition 1967 royal blue VW bug with separate reverse lights on the back bumper, and a pure white interior. Within two years he would total it on Kings Highway or Telegraph Road. He survived. I don’t recall the details, but I believe all the witnesses were compromised by hallucinogenic substances. I swear I was not there. Even if I were, I would have been unreliably messed up and my testimony would not be admissible in any court, except maybe the one in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Perhaps you wonder how two sixteen year old punks could legally purchase a case of beer in D. C. where the legal age to purchase alcohol was then 18. The short answer is “They coulddn’t/can’t; shouldn’t/shant!!” One trick I had learned to circumvent the law was to borrow my older brother’s driver’s license. We looked enough alike to pass cursory muster by the fish-eyed counter men at Meade’s; plus I knew Steve’s birthday. On other occasions we’d pull into the seedy parking lot behind Meade’s and ask a local drunk to purchase our alcohol, promising to share a beer or two with him upon completion of this episode of Mission Possible. Usually it was not hard to find a desperate drunk to collude with our illegal actions. I heard that once a local not so drunk stiffed some naive boys from our neighborhood; he walked out the front door with their alcohol and a big grin on his lucky face as they waited helplessly out back. Hey, he was the legal beer owner at that point. What were the underage boys going to do? Have him arrested for illegally purchasing their alcohol? My friends, there is no honor among thieves or addicts, I guess.
However we came by our ill gotten case of beer, we were drinking and putting along the neighborhood roads and avenues off of lower Telegraph Road. I recall Richard making a left turn up the hill toward Jefferson Manor when the cop behind us lit up his double cherry top rack. This was going to be bad. I just knew it. Richard tried to charm the cop with his cherubic smile and sweet Baby Jesus angel face. Heck, it worked lots of other times and places to prevent the harsh hand of justice from slamming his head into the pavement. It was worth another try. No luck. Aaaaggghhh!!
“You boys follow me to the substation up on Kings Highway. Got it?”
“Yes, sir!” we blurted out in stereo.
We couldn’t throw the beer out. That would just garner a littering charge on top of whatever we were facing. Plus, tampering with evidence. Plus, wasting beer that we had just paid good money for. That’s a crime too. Looking back, I wonder why there was no confiscation of the beer, no sobriety field test, no formal protocol at all.
Once we were settled in the substation, a call was placed to my parents. My father drove the two miles downhill to pick us up. (Ironically, as I recall this story, I remember the great escape I made with my 3 year old brother Chris from Penn Daw Bowling Alley when I was five, [maybe 1961] just a few hundred yards across Route 1. We bolted from the child care room out the back door and had walked most of the way home when our caring neighbor Connie Page picked us up from the ditch side of Kings Highway. That ended badly also for me. Hmmmm, is there a pattern here? Sociopathic tendencies?)
My father made a tough guy appearance for the officer, implying that a terrible fate awaited Richard and me. And that maybe it would be better for us to remain in police custody. The cop thanked my father for gathering us up and released us into his puffed up custody performance, perhaps even telling my dad not to be too rough on us.
I didn’t know what to expect when we turned off the silver ignition key. Silence and then crickets… and then more silence. My dad went in the house. We got out of the car and carried the illegal beer with us up my sidewalk. We waited a bit longer, and then set up the folding lawn chairs under the starlit night sky. Still, no father of fury showed up. No General Patton appeared. I looked inside our cookie cutter house. Atilla the Honey Bun Hun had gone to bed.
I closed the door and cracked open a beer. “We need to get rid of the evidence, Richard. Bottoms up.” We sat in my front yard under the old sappy elm tree chuckling and slurping beers. I didn’t get it. This teenaged movie seemed to have lost a segment where the boys are rebuked and punished. A strong lesson is learned. Good citizens walk away shriven by the calloused hands of blind justice. But instead, Nothing. Just crickets, an occasional cicada, and silence. A burp, a slurp. More crickets.
Maybe what Clark tells me all the time is true: “You were not beaten enough as a kid.”
All in all, it was a very pleasant evening, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. What it lacked was a moral takeaway. I still wonder how no barbed hook was involved in this arrest that never happened. It was a case of catch and release. I mean there was no lecture, no fine, no record. Young trout swam away unharmed. The next day was simply the next day. Forty four years later I marvel at the void.