This throwback column was first written in June of 2010 but is about something that happened nearly 30 years before, an event I had neither written about nor spoken of in years. I think I felt the time was right to put it out there because of our coverage of a now deceased legislator who had a habit of driving while impaired. This night in 1982 wasn’t my finest moment but it shaped what would be the best of what I would become. Thanks to now late Bill Marshall for being my attorney for no fee when I was broke and to Rich Palotta for being a responsible friend from my college days who could pick up somebody housed in the city jail at 3 a.m.
“You lied to me Mr. Taylor,” said the man in uniform with a faint hint of sarcasm in his voice. Otherwise he had the unmistakable monotone way of speaking common to those in his profession down pat. He wasn’t kidding around.
This was serious business, and I knew it.
I was 22 years old and not long enough out of college to have my first real job yet. I was trying real hard to find one, though. That’s because my dad was giving me a look strongly indicating that his house wasn’t really large enough for the both of us over the long haul. He was correct of course.
This situation certainly wasn’t going to help. I knew that for a fact 10 minutes after I saw blue lights in my rearview mirror.
The year was 1982. The city was Greensboro. The place where I was taken turned out to be the police station downtown.
And let me tell you right here and now there are no brighter lights in all the world than those glaring inside a police station at 3 a.m.
The person standing before me was holding the results in his hand of a Breathalyzer test. He was trying to determine how much alcohol I had consumed before getting behind the wheel of the old Buick I was driving at the time. I was pretty sure what the result was going to be. In fact, I was positive of it. I was caught.
So when the Greensboro city police officer who pulled me over at around 2 a.m. on Walker Avenue said, “you lied to me Mr. Taylor.” I knew exactly what he was talking about.
NOW HOW I came to be driving around under the influence of alcohol at such an hour is a long and embarrassing story. Let’s just say it was beyond idiotic. I wasn’t headed anywhere of much importance. I should’ve just stayed with the friends I was hanging out with most of the night. That’s a lesson I filed away for use the rest of my life.
The officer signaled me over after I turned wide at a stoplight. I knew immediately what I had done but when the cop — as cops do — asked if I knew why I was stopped, I got a blank look on my face and answered, “No sir.” Years later a friend who was a former police officer told me to never answer the question that way. “Always own up to it,” she said. “Cops hate it when drivers lie to them.”
I filed that away, too. It’s come in handy a few times. Saved me a ticket or two.
On this night in 1982, though, I was young, highly intoxicated and stupid. When the officer asked how many drinks came before myself and this driving exhibition, I came up with an answer I thought he might accept. One was too few. Six too many. I gave him something in the middle: “Three beers,” I said with the conviction of someone who had consumed more than a dozen can muster under pressure.
The Breathalyzer test had no such filter. It simply spit out a number high enough to make the officer say, “You lied to me Mr. Taylor.”
I looked up, shook my head and said: “If I told you I drank a 12-pack was there any chance you would’ve let me go?”
With that the officer smiled a little and said, “Mr. Taylor if you have a responsible friend who can pick you up, I won’t put you in jail.
“You still get the ticket, though. And don’t pick up your car until after one o’clock today.”
A COUPLE of months later I pleaded guilty to driving while impaired because I was guilty as all get out and deserved whatever I got from the American legal system. By this time I had indeed landed a job with the Reidsville Review and the judge gave me lenient driving privileges that allowed me to work in the kind of odd hours sports writers maintain. He also sent me to a school where drinking drivers were counseled.
That’s where I learned a lesson that would guide the rest of my life.
On the first day of class a trooper with the Highway Patrol stood before a room full of people. He eyeballed us at length and said, “Not a one of you is lucky. If you were lucky, you wouldn’t be here. Lots of people drive under the influence and never get caught. But you did.”
For whatever reason, that’s a message that gained purchase in my brain like a bad pop song from the 1970s — think “Seasons in the Sun.” I also knew and still know that when driving at night it’s easy to get stopped by police for a variety of reasons — from a broken headlight to driving too far under the speed limit. Add those things together and I decided the margin for error was far too slim to drink and drive — even if it really is only one or two drinks. It’s also dangerous to others on the road who deserve far better treatment.
Since that time I’ve pretty much left the driving to others when it comes to going out. Often, I don’t go out at all. Instead of stopping for a quick drink on the way home to unwind from a brutal day I keep driving and buy one from my own refrigerator and relax in the recliner instead of a barstool.
It’s cheaper, safer and more than anything else tamed the wild out of me enough to win the woman who would become my spouse.
So maybe I was lucky after all.