The Unusual Suspects
July 26th, 2009

I’m not black, but I know how it feels to be singled out for special treatment by law enforcement–and, like Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., I’m mad as hell about it. “Why ME?” I kept thinking all the time Officer Dudley Dimwit was dressing me down for committing what he deemed a felony: permitting my son to fish without a license.

Backed against a tree, hands behind my head, fingers interlaced the way I’d seen it done in what used to be my favorite TV show COPS, I was struggling mightily to keep a civil tongue. In the fading light, Officer Dimwit loomed large as a grizzly bear, a grizzly bear armed with a pistol, handcuffs, baton, and god only knows what else. There were no bystanders, no witnesses should he decide to forgo further interrogation and just shoot me and my son and our dog dead and be done with it.

Alex was speechless. This was his first run-in with the law and he wasn’t sure how to react. Same deal with Tippy, who had assumed a passive position at our feet, head buried beneath his forepaws. Tippy had just been fined fifty bucks for not being on a regulation five-foot leash.

“I thought the fine was only twenty-five,” I said.

“I’ll decide what the fine will be!” growled Officer Dimwit. “Now, what about the beer you boys been drinkin’?”

Evidently, while Alex and I and Tippy were out on the lake in our rubber boat committing various felonies, Officer Dudley Dimwit had been conducting a search of our campsite. In the trash barrel he’d discovered two freshly emptied beer cans. 3.2 Utah beer, the sort of alcoholic beverage that wouldn’t get you drunk unless you ingested a case of it.

“How ‘bout I give you boys a breathalyzer test?” he continued.

“Do me first,” I volunteered. “I drank both cans. Alex doesn’t drink. Neither does Tippy.”

Dudley decided to pass on the breathalyzer test. He asked to see my driver’s license, even though I hadn’t been driving. He then turned to his radio and ran a background check. Turns out I’m clean. This was my first felony.

“Would you like to see my fishing license?” I asked. “Want to check our boat for fish? We don’t have any.”

I was informed in no uncertain terms that physical evidence wasn’t necessary. He said he’d been watching us through binoculars the whole time we were on the water. He’d observed that for a minute or two Alex was holding the pole while I was rowing. And because I had handed him the pole, I was guilty of aiding and abetting. The fine for that would be a hundred dollars, and I should thank him for going easy on me.

“You know, I could as easily slap you with a felony charge,” he repeated for the umpteenth time. “You better think that I’m a nice guy.”

I bit my tongue.

“I’m a good example to MY son,” he boasted as he climbed into the cab of his government-issued Dodge Ram 1500 extended cab pickup truck. And with that he was off to his trailer in Kamas to regale his little redneck son with still another tale of derring-do in the national forest.

Meantime, Alex and I broke camp, packed our gear and high tailed it for home. It would be the last time we’d ever visit Lost Lake, which had been a tradition for years. At the end of each summer vacation, the two of us would spend a night in the woods, and then it was back to college for Alex and back to work for me. And back into the garage for our vintage 1973 Volkswagen Kombi van.

During the drive home, in between volleys of profanity laced fulminations, I reflected upon the evening’s events. “WHY US?” I wondered aloud. I mean, we weren’t the only campers at Lost Lake. I’d seen lots of fishermen along the bank, some with fish and some with dogs. Many dogs were running loose. So WHY had my son and I been singled out for special treatment? Then suddenly it dawned on me.

The Rainbow Family of Living Light had just concluded their annual camporee in the national forest and—as is the custom at every Rainbow Gathering—law enforcement officers had been busy handing out citation after citation for infractions real and imagined. Now, surely everyone can agree that unclad, long-haired, fun-loving hippies are a threat to the established order. They need to be hassled at every turn, or else who knows what might happen? Peace and Love might break out, and then what will cops do for a living?

I remembered now that when we pulled into the campground in our vintage VW bus the campground hostess—a dead ringer for that “disapproving lady” in the commercials—was giving us the stink eye. Evidently she’d read in a book somewhere that hippies travel in Volkswagen buses, and so she’d immediately run to the telephone and dialed the Forest Service. “The Manson Family is in unit seven!”

And that explains why Officer Dudley Dimwit was hiding in the shrubbery, watching us through his binoculars as we were watching a doe and her fawn grazing along the lake shore while in the background the dying rays of day painted the summit of Mount Baldy a golden hue. That’s why we hadn’t noticed him, because we were distracted by beauty.

I won’t make that mistake again. And in the unlikely event I should ever revisit Lost Lake, I’m gonna arrive in a super-sized pickup truck with a bunch of dirt bikes in the bed, a rifle on a rack and bumper stickers proclaiming that I’m a proud member of the NRA, that I support the troops and families are forever.

-Richard Menzies