In 1980, at the age of 26, I bought the family construction business. The deal came complete with hefty payments and several pieces of heavy machinery that were well beyond their useful life.
The machine that I relied on most every day was also the one in the worst condition. The 1959 Bantam Truck Crane could mightily and safely dig dirt, and set seawalls and dock pilings on a job site, but it was a smoking, sputtering, rusted out hulk on the highway. I know, I know… it was totally irresponsible on my part, but it was all I had to work with at the time, so I used it… until the State Department of Transportation pulled me over at the corner of Old 41 and Bonita Beach Road.
I knew I was in trouble when, through the thick smoky haze in the driver’s compartment, I saw blue lights flashing behind me. Thankfully, the roar of the un-mufflered, sputtering engine drowned out all my comments as I allowed the 15-ton rusty wreck to coast to a stop on the side of the road. Not that it had bad brakes… it had NO brakes. So, as I sat there waiting to go to jail, I watched the officer walk slowly along side the machine towards me. He was looking up and down at the truck like it had just landed there from another planet.
“SHUT OFF THE ENGINE!” he yelled as he adjusted his sunglasses. I gave my best forced grin and yelled over the roar of the sputtering motor. “I CAN’T! IF I SHUT IT OFF… IT WON’T START AGAIN!” He put his clinched fists on his hips and yelled… “WELL…THEN OPEN THE DOOR!” As I fiddled with the door handle I mumbled a dejected (“If you say so…”) and then slammed my shoulder into the perpetually jammed door. As it popped open, rust flew everywhere… everywhere on the neatly pressed uniform and polished shoes of the now fuming lawman. He slowly looked down at his rusty speckled outfit, but before he could comment, his anger turned to amazement as he noticed that there was no floor in the vehicle. My seat just hung in mid air over the front tire, supported by a single piece of rusty steel. He leaned forward and pointed with both hands. “WHAT THE… WHERE’S YOUR FLOOR?” I shrugged. “Well… uh… ” He was actually hopping up and down now, still pointing. “YOU’RE JUST HANGIN’ THERE OVER THE TIRE!” Then he looked down at the tire and I closed my eyes. “WAAHHH?? THERE’S NO AXEL HOLDING YOUR TIRE ON! GET OUTTA’ THAT THING!”
Now, I knew if I got out the engine would quit and then there would be an all day scene right there on US 41. Everybody I knew would drive by and wave… uggh! “OFFICER? IF YOU LET ME DRIVE ANOTHER 1/2 MILE, I CAN SHUT IT OFF! THEN I’M ALL YOURS!” He took his hat off, looked around, while wiping his brow. “ALL RIGHT! BUT I’M NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR ANYTHING THAT HAPPENS… AND REMEMBER, I’M RIGHT BEHIND YOU! I smiled a bit “DON’T WORRY… I PROMISE NOT TO LOSE YOU!” He didn’t laugh.
When I got to the parking lot I shut off the motor and hopped out. He was right there with a fresh ticket pad. “Okay, let’s start with the lights. Hop in there.” I shook my head. “Sir… I can save you some time… nothing works.” He looked over his glasses. “Well… how about the turn signals.” “No Sir… nothing!” “The brakes?” “No Sir” “THE HORN?” he yelled, frustrated. I looked down at my feet and then back at him shaking my head slowly. He stared at me for a bit, obviously sizing me up and then he put his ticket pad in his pocket and began talking slowly. “If I ever… see you… in this thing… on the road again…” “No sir! You won’t! I promise.” He nodded, got in his car and left.
Every so often, I meet people in positions of authority that for one reason or the other won’t swerve an inch from the rules; that won’t weight information that’s not “in the book”. Perhaps they feel they aren’t allowed to or they don’t trust their own judgment or people in general. I don’t know why the officer gave me a break, but I’d like to think that his instincts told him that the young man in the greasy cloths was a hard working young person that deserved his trust. If we should ever meet again, I hope that he finds that his instinct to trust me was a good one… and that what I’m driving actually has a floor in it.