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Columnist wonders how his life would be different if he hadnt run from the law
I'm a rule-keeper. I didn't get kicked out of high school once. But there was one night when I was on the run from the law. I didn't get caught. I fear it may have changed my life forever. - photo by Steve Eaton
Recently, Ive been reading through old journals trying to figure out what went wrong and how I got so old, when I remembered a fateful decision I made one night that led me to a life of one crime.

Im a rule keeper. Im not proud of it. Captain Kirk would not like me. I dont tear the tags off of my mattresses, I put my seat on the airplane in an upright position when we are landing and even to this day I make sure the water is running when I turn on the garbage disposal. (My mom made that rule and I still stress that Ill get the sequence wrong and turn off the water before I shut off the disposal.)

That makes this story I am about to share all the more unbelievable, but its true and it wasnt a dream. When I was a teenager, several of my friends and I decided we would become certified scuba divers. We lived in Washington state where they had put up an ocean on one side of the state that could be used for recreational purposes by polar bears and other arctic animals who didnt mind the freezing temperature of the water.

The chain of circumstances that made me a wanted man had nothing to do with my underwater exploits, however, but what happened on the way home from our scuba lessons that took place in a swimming pool. Once a week, we would carpool to class that was held in a city that was about 20 minutes from our home town. One of two cars would be taken and both of them were old, worn-out cars that we called beaters.

I drove a 1963 Bonneville Pontiac, and I cant remember what my friend drove. A favorite topic of conversation was the debate about whose car was faster. One day the other driver showed up late so he drove to class alone. That meant when we got out of class there were two cars available for the trip home. As we walked to our cars, my friend challenged me to a street race. Actually, it was a race to be held in a parking lot. Like I said, even back then I was a rule keeper, but as I sized up the situation I realized it would be an off-road race, through a deserted parking lot, near a school that would include two speed bumps and probably would not top 35 mph. I agreed.

All cheered and began shouting that we were about to witness The Battle of the Beaters! People voted for the car they thought would win by getting into it. One person ended up in my car because there was no room for him in the other car. We pulled up to an imaginary starting line and someone shouted, Go! and both cars sort of moaned as we pushed the gas pedals to the floor. I won and I doubt we even topped 40 mph. The speed bumps put a real damper on things.

When we got out to the main road and headed to the local hamburger stand for our traditional after-class feast, my friend made it clear, by pulling his car next to my car and making excited gestures, that he wanted a rematch on a street that had real traffic and no speed bumps. I would have nothing to do with the idea. We stopped for food and once it came, I decided to escape this dangerous situation by flying off into the night and eating our food on the run.

It didnt work. He caught up and it started all over again. He would drive up close behind me. Then he would pull alongside me and slowly move into my lane. Then he would drive ahead of me and slow down suddenly. I knew if a cop saw us we would get serious tickets and who knows what might happen if we both went screaming ahead at speeds topping 45 mph. So, I waited until my foe was ahead of me and I suddenly slowed down and took a hard left into a residential neighborhood that was just a couple of miles from my house. My goal was to just get one turn ahead of him and park and watch him go off into the night chasing his own shadow. It didnt work.

He caught up and started chasing me around the neighborhood. Sometime during that process we passed a police cruiser, and Im guessing that he radioed into all the cops in my home town all four of them telling them that a real car chase was underway and he was in pursuit. As we approached a big intersection near my home, my passenger shouted at me that there were cops everywhere!

I went through the intersection, into the parking lot of a small grocery store, and made a decision that would change my life. I reasoned if the cops were behind my friend, and my friend was behind me, then the angry flashing lights werent officially about me and I was under no obligation to stop. That store had been built on a field I used to play in as a child, so I went behind the store, drove on a rough path through the weeds and ended up back on the street in the clear, headed for my house that was only two blocks away. It was like Smokey and the Bandit without the car jumps or Daisy.

I did not go home but instead drove down a long dirt driveway nearby and parked my car behind a friends house on his lawn without even asking permission first. It was the wild, reckless behavior of a lawless man. I told my passenger that he was on his own and we both went scrambling off into shadows, running as if we were down behind enemy lines.

After I got home, it was only a few minutes later that a cruiser pulled into my driveway. I watched him on my hands and knees peeking out through our front window from our darkened house. I prayed he would not knock on the door and wake up my parents. I didnt turn on the lights and resisted the instinct to run outside to confess to him. It worked. He left.

The next day when I went to school, I found out that my friend had received a $300 ticket and been ordered to go to driving school for several weeks. That was a big deal because $300 in the 1970s was enough to buy a new beater or several silk disco shirts. The chase even made the newspaper.

I parked my car, and for the next few weeks, I walked the six blocks to school instead of driving. I assumed a very low profile. I tried to blend in and not draw any attention to myself, as if I was in a very low-budget witness protection program run by dim criminals. When I drove, I wore a disguise.

I wonder if I hadnt been so focused on flying below the radar, would I have been drafted into the NFL right out of high school? What if I had access to unlimited cash and fame early in my life? Would I have been tempted to do something worse, like partially deflating footballs?

I guess Ill never know for sure. I do know that my life with one crime sure hasnt paid. Im still driving a beater.

I wonder what went wrong.
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