by Sean Chercover
My first ride in the back of a police car happened at the age of thirteen, on a beautiful autumn Sunday. I’d spent the morning with my buddy Greg, setting off bottle rockets around the neighborhood.
Out of ordnance but still full of energy, we returned to my house for supplies. I’d recently purchased a starter’s pistol, impressed by how real it looked, so we took turns with the gun, chasing each other through neighbors’ backyards, shooting, diving over fences, tucking and rolling, and dying dramatic deaths.
We were Joe Mannix. We were Jim Rockford. We were Beretta.
It was almost noon, and Greg had the brilliant idea of using the pistol to freak out the local churchgoers as they emerged from service.
So we did.
We sprinted past the God-fearing civilians in their Sunday-finest, Greg about five yards ahead, me giving chase and unloading with the starter’s pistol.
And off we ran. Through backyards and over fences, until we came to rest in an alley. Laughing our asses off. Reliving the looks on their faces. Catching our breath. And laughing some more.
I handed the gun to Greg and he reloaded. I straddled the top of a fence, ready to fall onto a pile of leaves on the other side. Then I heard a terrible sound.
A cop car, flying down the alley toward us, sirens wailing and lights flashing. I went over the fence and took off. Greg came over the fence right behind me, and fled in a different direction.
I tore through a backyard, over a fence, through a backyard, over a fence, down a driveway, across a front lawn, over a hedge, and across the street.
My peripheral vision registered cop cars and motorcycles and flashing lights. On the other side of the street, I went over another fence, through a neighbor’s backyard, and into my own. I slowed to a walk, sucked wind, crossed my backyard, up onto the deck and into the house.
As the adrenaline rush subsided, I took stock. I was home. Safe. I’d gotten away clean. But what about Greg? He’d gone in the other direction, likely straight into the arms of waiting cops. He was a tough kid, and I didn’t think he’d roll over on me.
Maybe I was a good friend, or maybe I was a sucker, but I decided I couldn’t let him go down alone. I walked outside and around the block and turned myself in.
They handcuffed me and put me in the back of a cruiser and drove me to the station. I fought back tears, thinking how disappointed my parents were going to be. Then they put me in a little office with a gray metal desk and gray metal chairs. They made me empty my pockets and demanded to know why I had a book of matches.
“For burning leaves,” I lied. I may have been dumb, but not dumb enough to mention bottle rockets.
A detective came in and sat at the desk and phoned my parents.
My dad came to fetch me. When he entered the room, my eyes hit the floor. The detective explained: They’d received a call about a gunfight in progress. They’d dispatched 13 cars and two motorcycles. They’d caught Greg and I’d turned myself in.
The detective talked for a while, using words like reckless and dangerous and potentially disastrous. A uniformed cop brought Greg into the room, and handed the gun to the detective. The detective demonstrated the gun for my dad. He shot it into a wastebasket. It was very loud in that small room, and a flame jumped from the barrel.
The uniformed cop said to Greg, “You scared the hell out of me, kid. When I yelled for you to stop and drop it, you stopped, but you turned around before dropping it. If you hadn’t been so small…” he turned to me, “…if it had been you with the gun, I would’ve shot.”
Greg’s parents were out for the day, so my dad told the cops that he would take responsibility for Greg. We drove home in silence, dropped Greg at his house, and then pulled to a stop in our driveway. But my dad didn’t get out of the car.
“You understand what an incredibly bad idea this was,” he said. I did. “And you understand that you are grounded for three weeks.” I did. “And you will never do something stupid like this again, right?” I wouldn’t. “Okay.”
And then my dad did one of the coolest things any dad has ever done for any son: He reached into his pocket and handed me the starter's pistol. “I believe this is yours. Keep it locked-up, and if you ever want to use it again, just tell me and I’ll supervise. But if I ever find out that you used it without telling me, there will be big trouble.”
I’ll never forget how my dad treated me with more respect than I deserved at that moment. He used the experience to get me to take responsibility for the starter's pistol that I had used so irresponsibly. He used it to teach.
Now that I’m a dad, I just hope I can be half the father that my dad was, and is, to me.