That I’m writing these words now is due solely to a split-second decision by a stoned small-time crook. It was fatal to him and his partner, but it saved me from a closed-casket funeral.
I was driving home from my job as a public radio producer in Roanoke, Virginia. I lived then in the tiny town of Floyd, nearly an hour from the National Public Radio affiliate where I was still relatively new.
As the shadows lengthened on that mellow late summer evening in the Blue Ridge mountains, it was impossible to miss the 15 or 20 state troopers and county mounties stationed along the country road between Roanoke and Floyd. I wondered what was going on. Just outside the town limits, I found out.
Topping a rise north of town at normal highway speed, I discovered a Floyd County sheriff's deputy crawling along just ahead of me. He pulled left into the other lane, waving me to stop beside him. I pulled up even with his cruiser. Between the two of us, both lanes of Route 221 were now blocked.
Puzzled, I figured I was in trouble for some reason or other and assumed he'd ask for my license and registration. He didn't. Instead, he hopped quickly out of his cruiser and stared intently in the direction from which I'd come. It didn't take long to learn what he was watching for.
Before I even had a chance to get out of my car, another vehicle shot over the gentle rise behind us, moving like a rocket sled at 90 or 100 miles an hour. In less time than it takes me to type the words, the oncoming driver, seeing that both lanes were blocked, veered to the left, flew off the road and smashed into a tree.
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By then, the front seat of my car no longer felt like a safe place to be. I got out and ran over to the mangled vehicle. One man, whether the driver or the passenger I don't know, was curled in a fetal position in the grass along the road's edge, obviously dead. The other man in the vehicle was dead too.
According to one cop at the scene, the pair had stolen a car south of Roanoke and had led police on a high-speed chase through town, out Route 221 and up Bent Mountain and thence nearly to Floyd, where they encountered the makeshift roadblock the deputy had made me part of. He also claimed they had been using drugs.
What I remember best about this incident a quarter of a century later is the duplicity of law enforcement personnel. I read in the newspaper the next morning that they "didn't know" why the two perps had gone off the road.
On the contrary, they knew exactly why the drivers had swerved off the road. I was amazed to read such nonsense, and I immediately phoned the reporter to tell him what really happened. My version appeared the next morning.
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The deputy and I were surrounded at the scene by other county and state cops; it was obvious to every cop there that, because I'd been press-ganged into being half of a roadblock, the driver of the stolen car was forced to choose between a) smashing into the cars on the road, or b) swerving onto the shoulder.
25 years ago I was more nave about government and law enforcement. When I was quoted in The Roanoke Times, I gave the deputy and his colleagues the benefit of the doubt.
At the time I was struck by the fact that nobody offered an apology for forcing me to risk my life. Years later, it's easier to believe. The only response I got after I blew up the official police alibi was that I was visited on consecutive days by a state trooper who asked me to go over the events as I recalled them. It became evident that he was hoping I'd make a mistake from one telling to the next so that they could cast doubt on my version of events.
Now, it's almost certainly true that, had the two perps raced through the tiny town of Floyd at 100 miles an hour, somebody else would have been killed, maybe quite a few others. From the deputy's point of view, maybe it was better that I die than six or eight people in the town be killed. But shouldn't somebody have asked me if I was OK with this deal?
A quarter century on, I now know that the Prime Directive in government in CYA. That's why nobody apologized. To apologize to a Mundane would be to admit guilt. I might have been the litigious sort, there might have been lawsuits, jobs would have been imperiled. Better to say nothing.
I no longer live in Floyd, but I drive by that spot several times a year. Whenever I do, I remember the day when a cop decided my life was expendable. It's a lesson about government I won't forget.