Nightmare on Pine Street
“Greg, please bring your books and come with me.”
My high school English teacher’s command in her soft, southern accent broke my streaming daydream and rudely confronted my senses. The class was almost over, so I couldn’t imagine why Miss Riggs insisted that I grab my books to go somewhere. My friends looked at me with shrugs and frowns.
In the hallway I saw a man in a suit. He had a crew cut and his arms were folded across his chest. Miss Riggs wore a concerned look and said, “This is Mr. Harding, the county juvenile officer. The vice principal, Mr. Olson, has instructed that you go to the court house with Mr. Harding for some questioning.”
My heart raced and my palms became sweaty. Why would a juvenile officer take me from the school? I was treading into Twilight Zone territory and I began to wish I could wake up from a bad dream. I had no idea why they would want to question me.
In the late '60s, I was an honest, church-going teenager from a straight-laced Midwestern family in Garden City, Kansas. We ate together at the dinner table each evening, just like the Cleavers, and went to Sunday school each week. My mom and dad complemented each other in their parental upbringing tasks. Mom doted on each of us siblings, and Dad was the provider. The time he spent with us is what I would call instructional time. He taught us how to play golf, and he took us fishing and camping. I cherished the time I spent with Dad, although he could be stern and tough when there was a teaching moment.
To be a teenager in Western Kansas was akin to being banished to Siberia. Books, Music, and art helped divert my attention from the bleak existence. I planned to go far away to college once I had finished high school, and leave what I considered to be a God-forsaken land . . . a land of tumbleweeds and sandy roads, a land of flat fields, irrigation pumps and giant green circular fields that dotted the arid high plains. It was a land where the few trees that survived were stunted and deformed by the unceasing south winds. My nature-loving older brother once said, “This land has a beauty all its own.” I looked really hard, but I couldn’t see much of anything to call beautiful.
|The alleged criminal is on the left|
Mr. Harding did not waste any time. “Come with me. We’re going down to the courthouse. I want to ask you some questions.”
Questions? About what? What deep dark secret had they uncovered? What could I have possibly done that would warrant an interrogation? Had they seen me hop out of a car trunk with my friends a few nights ago at the drive-in theater? Was this some kind of divine pay-back for an unknown and grievous sin I had committed in a past life?
Mr. Harding marched me to his car, parked in front of the school. The sidewalk, located just outside the classroom windows, made my exit visible to the students in the building.
As Mr. Harding drove towards downtown, he told me they had reason to believe I was involved in a recent car theft.
“Sir, you have the wrong person!” I exclaimed. Then I asked, “Would it be okay for me to call my mom or dad? This is a mistake.”
“We’ll let you call them eventually. First we want to ask you some questions,” replied Mr. Harding as he looked straight ahead.
He had a “no nonsense” air about him, somewhat of a Marine-in-a-monkey-suit kind of look. A sense of terror overwhelmed me. I was afraid I might lose control of my bodily functions. Oh, the horror of it all!
The sunny March day began to grow very dark to me. Mr. Harding drove to the courthouse at Eighth and Pine, and pulled into an angled space reserved for the sheriff’s cars at the rear of the building. He escorted me along the courthouse sidewalk as shadows of the elm trees danced eerily in front of us. The cold wind buffeted my body, which already shivered with fright.
We entered the rear of the Finney County courthouse, brought to life in Truman Capote’s book, In Cold Blood, the story of the senseless murder of the Clutter family. Was I walking down the hallway where the murderers, Hickok and Smith, had walked to trial? Would I be thrown in jail and surrounded by vicious criminals?
The interrogation room was just like those in the movies. A single light bulb burned beneath a small metal lampshade suspended in the middle of the room . . . a room so dark I could not see the perimeter walls. There were two government-issue gray metal chairs for the detectives. Six feet away from the chairs was a short stool with a hard seat.
I sensed that a lot of sweat had been expelled in this dreary room.
“Have a seat over there Mr. Larson,” said Mr. Harding as he motioned towards the stool. “My partner, Mr. Jones, and I want to ask you some questions. Do you know anything about a stolen car that was put on the railroad tracks and hit by a train last week?”
“I saw the picture and I read about it in the newspaper.” I offered.
Mr. Jones looked directly into my eyes and boomed out in a loud voice, “Greg, you’re going to have to tell us the absolute truth about what happened. If you lie, or if you don’t tell us what you know, you will be in bigger trouble.”
“I’m telling you, I’m not the person you are looking for. I didn’t have anything to do with the car. I don’t know anything about it!” I began to quiver and shake. The warmth of the high school and the friends in the hallways seemed a world away.
This was a tag team event for the two detectives. Mr. Harding took his turn. “Greg, you’ve got to tell us the details, and tell them to us now. If you don’t confess to everything, your life is going to get much worse.”
Tears started streaming from my eyes.
“I don’t know what you are talking about,” I blurted out. “You’ve got the wrong person. I want to call my dad. He’ll help get this all straightened out.”
I was sure by now that if they didn’t hear what they wanted to hear, they would lock me up in jail. They continued pressing me for information for what seemed like an eternity. They wanted names of all the people who were involved. They wanted details.
Mr. Harding paused for a moment and then he rubbed his chin. “Nick Slade is the man who says you were involved. Do you know him?”
I tried to keep from rolling my eyes. Nick Slade was the toughest, meanest hoodlum in the school. He had a greaser hairdo and wore a leather jacket. He was short, but everyone was afraid of him. His look was a mixture of a sneer and a grin, and it never changed. I vaguely remembered we were both in the Junior High choir. I suspected Nick must have picked the name of the most innocent kid in school and then gave it to the detectives just for jollies or as a stall tactic.
“I know who he is,” I told the detectives, “but I don’t know him very well. We were in a class together years ago. That’s all I know about him.”
“Mr. Larson, we’re going to take you to a room where Nick will be able to look through a window and see you, but you will not be able to see him. We want to know if he still says you were involved with the stolen car. Come with us.”
I should be the one to see Nick the snake. Why should he be able to see me? Is he going to have a big laugh when he sees me upset like this?
The detectives walked me to a small holding room that had a smoked glass pane about six inches square in one end of the room. They told me to stand there for a moment and they left. In a couple of minutes they came back and said, “Nick is now saying that you are not the suspect, and that he was mistaken. We’ll call your parents and have them come and pick you up. How do we contact your mom or your dad?”
The tide had turned in this nightmarish affair. They didn’t know that now I had the upper hand.
For the first time in the entire ordeal, I looked Mr. Harding in the eye. “Wallace Larson is my dad. He’s a Special Agent with the U.S. Treasury.”
The blood drained from his face.
He’ll have to answer to a Fed now! And that Fed happens to be my dad. This detective is an amateur, and now he’ll have to deal with a professional!
I’m glad I wasn’t in the room when Dad arrived and talked to Mr. Harding. My dad did not swear, but he could scald you with his words until you felt smaller than a piss ant. After confronting Mr. Harding, Dad was still hot under the collar when we left.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
He fumed all the way home, “I can’t believe it! Mr. Olson goes to our church. He knows our family. Why, for the life of me, didn’t he stop them from taking you out of school? Why didn’t he call your mom or me before they took you from the building? He knows where I work.” Dad’s face flushed with rage as he slammed his fist against the steering wheel, “He knows we’re not a bunch of criminals! This is not right!”
He took me home, and as soon as he assured Mom that I was okay, he made a phone call to the high school. They quickly left to meet with the principal and vice principal. I had no doubts about who controlled that meeting.
As for me, I was none the worse for wear. As soon as school was out, my friends called me at home to hear what had happened.
“There were stories all over school within the hour that you had been dragged out of the building and taken to jail!” they exclaimed. “Wow! Did they handcuff you? Let’s go to the A&W and you can tell us the whole story!”
Some excitement had come into my life that day. Western Kansas didn’t seem so boring after all. The warm sun streamed through the car windows while we ordered the root beer. And even though the cold wind swirled into the car as we grabbed the frosty mugs, it felt good.