Among the many hats my father wore during his 40 plus year tenure as an employee of the State of Michigan, one was that of a detective. If one ponders the skills that make a good detective, it doesn’t take too much imagination to understand why I never found it in my best interests to lie about anything I may or may not have done. I learned early on that when a detective asks a question, he probably already knows the real answer. If that is the case, there is no point in dancing around the subject and digging an increasingly deeper hole that one will then have to eventually crawl out of. He may or may not have known the whole story that spawned one of these Q&A fests, but I found a truthful, straightforward explanation was the best way to fly. In the end, I can’t remember ever being grounded, but I did pile a good deal of firewood to atone for my foibles. I still can’t lie about anything to this day without reminding myself that I did become a pretty good wood piler for a reason. If one isn’t a very convincing liar, then one should probably stick to the truth. Liars tend to have so many loose ends in their stories they never do quite tie them all together whereas a truth teller only has two threads to catch hold of: the beginning and the end of the story. Yep, if there is a document somewhere listing ‘honest Flanders’, I like to think my name would be there and not just because I can’t keep a bunch of loose threads sorted out well enough to be a convincing liar.
Case in point: I had to do detention once in eighth grade. As I recall, the lesson diagramming sentences in Mr. Gill’s English class took a backseat to general eighth grade silliness and it was yours truly who got the detention assigned (and yes, I am sure that I wasn’t an innocent bystander). Not having been tabbed as a detainee before, I had to actually ask someone what to do. The drill was simple enough: report to Mr. Greenwall’s room after school and do your time. Mr. Greenwall was the new guy at Graverate and it just so happened that he and my brother were former co-workers at the Red Owl grocery store. I knew the warden, so it wasn’t like getting sent to a prison camp. An empty room greeted me upon arrival so I headed for the bus and went home.
The next day I bumped into Mr. Greenwall and he inquired how it was that I hadn’t paid my debt to society. He accepted my version and gave me a second chance without penalty, but he let it be known if I missed the make-up detention, there would be consequences! I came, I sat, I paid my debt, and I walked home. It was not unusual for me to arrive home later than when I rode the bus because when I walked home, my route took me through the University Center at NMU which usually involved a stop by at the bookstore to nose around or to get a malt in the Wildcat Den. On days that I arrived home late, no questions were asked if I mentioned I had decided to walk home. One may note that I don’t count not explaining my getting a detention as a lie, just a minor sin of omission covered by my “I decided to walk home” cover story. In an odd twist of fate, I ended up doing my student teaching for Wayne Greenwall eight years later, but that is another story for another day.
A week or so later, I almost choked on my diner when my dad casually asked me if I had gotten any more detentions this week! Gaak. Busted! I simply said, ‘No’ and he said ‘Good’. Not a lot of words exchanged, but another lesson underscored: sins of omission do count. I certainly wasn’t going to kick the beehive and ask him how he knew: a good detective never reveals his sources and being too nosy would have served no purpose other than to get a couple of more cords of wood to pile.
When I was seven, I got a new used bike. At that time, the streets in our relatively new neighborhood were still gravel so we would take the bumpy ride down the stretch of Lincoln Ave . between Center St. and Wright St. to get to the large, paved parking lot at the Marquette National Guard Armory. That was as far north as I was allowed to go with the B&J corner store three blocks south being the other limit to my travels. The local geography figures into my early life of crime as a seven year old drug mule.
I was happily riding my bike around the Armory parking lot one day and there was a man dressed in blue overalls was out front raking the lawn. He called me over and asked me my name. Yes, I know we are taught not to talk to strangers, but he was dressed just like the custodian at Whitman Elementary so no alarm bells went off. He asked me if I could run to the store for him because he was too busy to get there. When I asked him what he needed, he said in a deep, gravelly voice, “Nutmeg, as much as you can buy with this.” and he proceeded to push a few crumpled up one dollar bills into my hand. “If there is any change left, buy yourself some candy,” was the last thing he said as I rode off to help my new buddy. The clerk at the store eyed me up and down. He asked if my mother was doing some baking when I asked how much nutmeg I could buy with the money I had plopped on the counter. I said, “No, it’s for a friend.” Back then, you could buy a pretty good haul of candy for the pocket change I had left over so I headed down the hill with two little tins of nutmeg in one bag and a pile of gumballs in another. My new buddy was happy when I delivered his bag and I had my own bag of loot for the princely sum of riding my bike on a ten block round trip. The red flags should have gone up when he said, “Hey, don’t tell anyone you did this for me,” but at seven, no such flags or alarms went off in my head.
Several days later, my dad spotted me chewing gum and asked where I had gotten it from. I had stashed the bag of gumballs in my dresser drawer so I showed him. Naturally, he wanted to know where I got the money to buy it, so I told him the story about my janitor friend at the Armory. Once he put the pieces together, he made a phone call and then sat down to explain exactly what I had gotten myself into. My janitor friend was actually a trustee from the Marquette Branch Prison who was dropped off to work at the Armory a couple of days a week. In lieu of something stronger, they would grind up the nutmeg and snort it as a substitute for real drugs. I was a little confused, but when he pointed out that the guy was now in big trouble because they weren’t supposed to have any money on them and they weren’t supposed to ask kids to go to the store for them. I was crushed – now I would not be able to ride my bike at the Armory anymore because this guy would be mad at me. My dad assured me that he wouldn’t be back because he had violated the ‘trust’ part of being a trustee on work detail, but I still avoided the Armory for a while just in case he had friends. It was a very short life of crime, but it was one of the first times I can remember thinking, “He figured all that out because I was chewing gum? Detectives see everything!” I was trusting at seven, but not too dumb to learn a lesson or two from my mistakes and misadventures.
If one can learn a skill by osmosis, I must have absorbed some of my dad’s observation skills. During my senior year in high school, my folks were out of town when I came home in the early A.M. from a band job. There was a car parked in front of the neighbor’s house with the engine running. I took notice because it was the same make, year, model and color of the car my sister’s boyfriend had at the time. It was also parked facing the wrong way on the wrong side of the street but that didn’t seem strange at the time. I was beat so I didn’t think anymore about it and headed to bed. The next morning, there was a knock on the door of our house and to my surprise, I opened it to find two city police cars parked next door and a uniformed officer on our porch. He explained there had been a break in the night before and wondered if anyone had noticed anything unusual. As soon as I started to explain what I had seen, he stopped me and said, “Let me have you talk to the detective.”
When I described the scene to him, he went through the information at least three times to make sure I had the time, the car make, and the car color correct. He thanked me for my time and that was that. A couple of weeks later, my dad said, “Hey, detective so and so from the Marquette City Police called to say you helped them catch the crook who broke in next door.” Apparently the only solid lead they had in a whole string of burglaries was the description I had given them of the car. The detective literally drove around the north end of Marquette until he found a car of that description parked in a driveway. With a warrant in hand, they had searched the place and found it loaded with ill gotten loot. When the crook asked the detective how they had found him, he did what any good detective would do: he didn’t tell him.
Having grown up as the son of a policeman, I have always found it easy to admire them for the job they do. I knew all along that it wasn’t in my blood to be a policeman, but I have found the detective observation genes have come in handy from time to time. A tip of the hat to all of our peace keepers and especially to the Michigan State Police as they celebrate their centennial year.
Top Piece Video: Classic Thin Lizzy with Jailbreak – the thing I thankfully didn’t end up having to do . . .