Graduate or Go to Jail… I Have a Choice

I organized a protest my senior year. It was probably the first time El Dorado Union High School students in Placerville ever went on strike. (It may have been the last.) As I recall we skipped class and presented a petition to the Principal. Some our more rowdy classmates added an exclamation point by lighting a trashcan on fire.

As a 60’s issue, it wasn’t a biggie. The Administration had axed our Senior Ditch Day; we wanted it back. Practicing for my future at Berkeley wasn’t what almost got me thrown in jail, however.

My problem was with the LAW, or, in this case, Mike Denatly, the Placerville Chief of Police. I had my run in with him on the very day I was to graduate.

It was a goof off day. All the tests were over, yearbooks signed, and caps and gowns fitted. There really wasn’t much to do except celebrate and say goodbye to friends. Lunchtime meant a final cruise of Placerville’s Main Street to check out girls, to see and be seen.

What happened was out of character for me.

I normally keep my comments on other peoples’ driving habits inside the car. The horn is for really bad infractions and, on very rare occasions, a single digit comment is appropriate.

I would never stick my head out the window and yell at someone. That can get you shot.

But heh, it was graduation day. When a blue car stopped in the middle of Placerville’s crowded downtown street in front of us, it irritated me. When the driver got out to have a leisurely chat with the driver of the car in front of him, it pushed me over the edge. Out went my head as we edged around the two cars and I had an attack of uncontrollable Y chromosome aggression.

“You SOB,” I yelled,  “get your car out of the way.”

So what if I didn’t recognize the Chief of Police out of uniform in an unmarked car. So what if he had stopped to offer help to a guy who had managed to stall his car on Placerville’s busy main street. So what if I had suggested he had canine parentage in a voice that half of Placerville heard. It was an innocent mistake.

“That was Mike Denatly you just cussed out,” our driver managed to stutter with mixed parts of fear and awe.

As a teenager, I pulled some fairly dumb stunts. Most of us do. Young people have a responsibility to push the envelope. It is the rather awkward method evolution has provided for growing up and developing unique personalities. Mistakes are bound to happen. But I was carrying my responsibility too far; I had gone beyond dumb and plunged into really stupid.

“Keep driving,” I uttered with all the hope of the irrevocably damned, “maybe he is too busy and will ignore us.”

Sure, like maybe the sun won’t rise tomorrow. The poor stalled guy could still be sitting in the middle of Placerville for all of the attention the police chief paid to him after my little admonition. Denatly jumped in his car, slapped his flashing light on his roof, hit his siren and sped after us. Not that he needed to speed fast or far. We were creeping up Main Street in sheer terror about one block away.

I am sure my car-mates were wishing fervently that one Curtis Mekemson hadn’t gotten out of bed that morning, had never made their acquaintance, and was, at that very moment, facing a group of starving cannibals in a far off jungle.

We pulled over with Denatly literally parked on our rear bumper and resigned ourselves to the firing squad. Luckily, for my friends, the Chief had no interest in them. He appeared at my window red-faced and shouting about five inches away. Under the best of circumstances he was known for having a temper and these were not the best of circumstances.

“Get out of that car,” he yelled. “Get out right now!”

I moved fast. This was not the time for bravery and stubbornness. It was a time to be humble… it was grovel time. And I groveled with the best. I blathered out apologies and managed to work “sir” into every sentence, several times. I trotted out my friendship with his stepson Brian Morris, I threw in the City Treasurer who was a mentor and I even brought in Father Baskin, the Episcopal minister, as a character reference.

“Get in my car,” he ordered. My groveling seemed to be having minimal impact. At least he hadn’t handcuffed me.

We drove up to City Hall and I had visions of being booked and thrown into a cell with some big hulking giant who either didn’t like young men or liked them too much. I thought of having to call my parents and explain how their son had become a common criminal.

But Denatly had even more diabolical plans in mind. We slowly made a turn through the jail parking lot to give me a sense of my future and then, to my surprise, hopped on Highway 50 to Canal Street and drove up to the high school.

I was going to have to explain my actions to the Principal. My chances of graduating that night slipped another notch. I doubted that the Principal would have much sense of humor about one of his students cussing out the Chief of Police. But explaining my inexplicable actions to the Principal would have been mercy in comparison to what happened.

It was a beautiful late spring day, this last day of school, and it seemed like half of the student body and a significant portion of teachers were enjoying their lunches on the expansive lawn in front of the school. Denatly pulled up to the sidewalk beside the lawn and ordered me out.

The Chief of Police arriving with me in tow was enough to capture the attention of several students sitting close by. Then he made sure that everyone was aware of our presence.

“Do you want to spend the night in jail or graduate, Curtis?” he asked in a voice that was easily equivalent in volume to the one that I had used in suggesting he move his car.

Conversation on the lawn came to a dead halt. Every ear in the place honed in on us with the intensity that a cat reserves for a potential mouse dinner. And I was the mouse. This was a Kodak moment, not to be missed.

My answer was easy: of course I wanted to graduate, SIR. And so it went; Denatly barking questions with the voice of a marine sergeant and me responding as the lowest of privates. Finally, after a few minutes that felt like eternity, the Chief got in his car and drove away.

I was left to deal with the not so gentle humor of the students and faculty plus a Vice Principal who wasn’t quite sure whether he should take over where Denatly left off or laugh at my predicament. At least he had the grace to wait until I left his office before he chose the latter. I could hear his laughter echoing down the empty hallways.

And yes, I was allowed to graduate that night.

This blog is part of a series in celebration of the 50th High School Reunion of the Class of 1961 of El Dorado Union High School in Placerville California. Next up: Love, Lust and Like

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