Road Signs

Or, how I became the most wanted man in Texas

Despite the fact that my wife, Jacqueline, and I had been on vacation for five days with four children -- two of our own, our nine-year-old son John Henry and infant daughter Harriet, and two more, a boy of 13 we'll call Duncan and a girl of 11 we'll call Edith, belonging to our neighbor -- things had gone well. We had spent four alternately languorous and stressful days at Neal's Cabins in Concan, about an hour's drive west of San Antonio, dividing our time between wallowing in the spring-fed Rio Frio and yelling at the kids for playing with fire, climbing dangerous rocks and fighting with each other, et cetera, and we were now almost home.

We had just eaten lunch at a funky cheap Mexican greasy spoon in San Antonio and were congratulating ourselves on the facts that none of the children had gotten hurt on the trip, our rented van was making great time on the way home -- we were already on the outskirts of Sealy -- and the entire meal for five back in San Antone had set us back less than $30. A Queen song was playing on the box and some of us were singing along.

That's when I glanced in the side mirror and saw the DPS car hot on my tail, blue lights blazing. Which struck fear into my heart, as my license expired some time ago, but since I had barely even been speeding, I just assumed he wanted me out of the way. I eased over into the slow lane, and to my despair he stayed on my bumper.

"Shit, I'm getting pulled over," I said to my wife, who was sitting in the backseat comforting our infant daughter. "You're gonna go to jail!" she exclaimed. She'd been nagging me to take care of my license for a long time. "Just tell them you had to drive so I could see to Harriet," she added quickly.

By this time I had stopped the car. I was still wondering what the hell I had done. I soon realized that this was no ordinary traffic stop as I glanced again in the side mirror. The trooper had his pistol drawn and was pointing at the car. Then came the screamed instructions over the car's speakers, the ones you see at the end of every car chase on COPS -- stuff like "DRIVER. PUT YOUR RIGHT HAND ON THE DASHBOARD. TAKE THE KEYS OUT OF THE IGNITION WITH YOUR LEFT HAND -- YOUR LEFT HAND!!! -- AND PLACE THEM ON THE HOOD OF THE CAR!" (A neat trick -- you should try it sometime.) "EXIT THE CAR AND LOCK YOUR HANDS BEHIND YOUR HEAD! GET ON YOUR KNEES! BACK UP ON YOUR KNEES TO THE SOUND OF MY PARTNER'S VOICE!"

And so on. This was heavy. These cops were serious, and I was still wondering what the hell I had done. All I could think was that maybe the rental company had reported the van stolen, or maybe they thought I was ferrying illegals or something. Maybe I had run somebody over and not known about it -- you read about things like that sometimes.

"Keep your hands behind your head and look at me," commanded the voice behind me. I fleetingly thought that maybe this partner was the "good cop" in this scenario, but no, he had a shotgun pointed at my head and a "just try it" glint in his eye.

While the original cop -- the driver with the pistol -- talked to my wife and kids in the van, Shotgun frisked me thoroughly. Then Pistol came back over and a little of the tension seemed to dissipate, even though I still had my hands over my head. He asked me where I'd been and I told him. He asked for my license, and all I could give him was a state-issued ID. Shotgun took it back to the car and started running it for warrants while Pistol grilled me some more. Meanwhile, I could hear my son bawling his head off -- the poor guy was terrified that his father was either going to jail or getting executed right here on I-10 East.

And then I got the lowdown. "Do you know what your daughter" -- meaning Edith -- "wrote on the side of your car?" Pistol asked.

I had no idea anything was written in the dust on the windows. "No," I said, thinking maybe she had written "Fuck Tha Police" or something like that. She likes rap, does Edith.

"I'll tell you what she wrote," he said. "She wrote, 'Help. Please God. Call 911 -- I've been kidnapped!' For a while there, you were the most wanted man in Texas."

The earth moved under my feet. "She wrote what?"

The cop repeated it, and told me that a carful of concerned citizens had obeyed the scrawled instructions. "Don't you know that writing something like that is illegal?" he demanded.

"Yeah, I know it is, and I want her prosecuted!" I said. I now regret that I said that, but you've got to remember that I had just been humiliated on a busy interstate at the wrong end of two guns -- both wielded by guys who thought they had snared a kidnapping child molester. At any rate, I think the cop almost smiled at my righteous, if less than gallant, zeal.

I was allowed to go back to the van, where I comforted my son, who was approaching full-blown hysteria, and I was given a ticket for my expired license, and my wife was given one for allowing me to drive with that expired license. She took over behind the wheel and we continued on our way. I was still fuming at Edith, but Jacqueline told me the cop had already given her what-for, so I clammed up. And then I found out how that message came to be scrawled in the dust on our van window. As it turned out, Edith had not acted alone -- there had been a little magnetic poetry action going on back there.

"I was waiting for you outside the restaurant in San Antonio and the kids were driving me crazy, so I wrote 'Help' on the van," admitted my wife. Yes, my wife. "And then Duncan came up and wrote, 'Please God.' "

"And then right before we drove off I wrote the part about being kidnapped," said Edith. Just why she wrote that has never been fully explained, but there you go.

An hour later and we were home, and a cold Lone Star has never tasted better than the one I cracked the second I walked in the door.

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