My brother Jay emailed just now reminding me that I know firsthand the horrifying experience of a policeman mashing down hard on my flattened neck, perfectly willing for me to die. I had related that experience just weeks before George Floyd’s murder, in my most recent post–“Picking the Lock on Wrongful Incarcerations” https://eliotdaley.com/homemade-lemonade-3-picking-the-lock-on-wrongful-incarcerations/ How strange that I myself didn’t connect the two. But thanks to Jay, I now lift out and re-post that episode of arrest-and-miraculous-rescue from the earlier piece, as a brutal reminder of how improbable such a miraculous stroke of well-connected, life-saving luck would be for a counterpart of color. Afterward, I close this post by citing a whiplash-inducing email I got coincidentally today from a lifelong acquaintance whose failure to “get it” leaves me stupefied and repulsed.
It had been a rainy night in Fresno, just before Christmas, 1954. At ten o’clock, I finished my after-school shift at the gas station—shut down the pumps, did a quick solvent wipe of my greasy hands, locked up the place, and eagerly jumped into my car to head home—the long way around. Why take a longer way home after a rain? Ask any teenage car nut. We most loved driving when the roads were rain-soaked, because you could spin the tires like a drag racer, slide around corners in a drift, and create explosive cascades of spray blasting through puddles.
So instead of heading right up Van Ness Boulevard toward home, I went the opposite direction down to the Tower District where newly resurfaced pavement was so slick your car would spin itself 360-degrees like a top if didn’t watch out. Once there, I joyfully careened through residential neighborhoods in a hold-your-breath slalom, sliding around dozens of corners until I eventually reconnected with broad and sedate Van Ness Boulevard, settling down into a straight line for home.
That’s when my rearview mirrors suddenly lit up in the dark. Many blocks back the flashing red lights of a police car were bearing down on me at such speed that the headlights were jouncing up and down violently at every little inflection of pavement. A cold chill whipped down my neck—a noose of guilt for a kid who loved pulling pranks and breaking glass. I slowed and pulled over toward the curb, hoping they were headed somewhere beyond me but knowing in my gut that I’d been nailed.
So I stopped at the curb and watched the dazzle of red lights slam to a halt just behind my car. I rolled down my window, preparing to hand over my driver’s license as they strolled up. Never happened. What happened was that two officers spilled out and rushed toward my car in a crouch—with their guns drawn. They stopped on either side just behind the doors, and the one on my side screamed through my open window, “Get out with your hands up! Now!” There was a shrill note of near hysteria in his voice.
Oh shit. My hair went electric. My mind lurched momentarily toward meltdown. My palms were instantly wet. Not damp. Wet. All in a couple of seconds.
“I said NOW!” he shrieked. “NOW!”
Moments later I was spread-eagled face-down on the hood of my car, a policeman’s forearm hard across my neck mashing my face into the wet warm metal. His partner pried my splayed-out hands off the hood, yanking them back around to my spine. I winced as the handcuffs pinched into my wrists but managed not to react, for fear of getting shot.
They holstered their pistols and stood me up. One officer behind me kept a grip on the chain between the handcuffs as the other investigated the interior of my car, finding nothing of interest. The he opened the trunk of my car, shouted, “Here it is!” and triumphantly yanked out a red metal one-gallon gas can, something everyone in those days carried as reserve. Except mine was empty, probably from fueling our lawn mower.
“Look!” he shouted, waving the can to his partner. “This son-of-a-bitch is dead meat!”
In fact I felt like dead meat. And I would have been dead meat if John Willey hadn’t driven by at that very moment. “Mr. Willey” was the father of a good friend and a prominent attorney in Fresno—a small enough town in the ‘50’s that police officers and lawyers and prosecutors all knew each other pretty well.
Mr. Willey had recognized my car and slid over to the curb in front of it. He eased out of his pearl-grey Cadillac, straightened his necktie, and sauntered back to the policemen holding me prisoner.
“Evening, Tim. Bob. How’re you boys tonight?” Mr. Willey greeted them.
“Evening, Mr. Willey.” they chorused. Lawyers were “Mister” to the police out of respect, the same reason he was “Mister Willey” to me as my friend’s father. I had spent countless hours at the Willey home and in their backyard pool, and we sailed together regularly on Lake Millerton in the foothills.
“Looks like you got yourself a bad guy,” he deadpanned. Despite my petrified and deranged state of mind at the moment, I instinctively recognized a friend setting to work. “What’s the story?”
“This son-of-a-bitch torched a house down in the Tower District. An old man was in it—burned real bad, probably won’t make it,” one of them summed up.
“Yeah,” the other chimed in, “caught the bastard red-handed trying to get away. Drove away like a bat out of hell but we got him. Look at this.” He held up the empty red gas can. “Son-of-a-bitch’s got gas all over his clothes. You can smell it on him.”
The smell was true. I never finished a shift at the station without reeking of gasoline that splashed out of overfilled spouts in those days before automatic shut-off valves on hose pumps.
And as I was to learn from the paper the next day, the old man didn’t make it. This son-of-a-bitch was going to answer for arson, and for murder. Dead meat, dead to rights.
“Well, boys,” Mr. Willey eased into it, “I think you did a real good job.”
“Thanks, Mr. Willey,” one said while the other nodded.
“But I think you still got some more work to do,” he added.
They looked quizzically at him.
“I know this kid pretty well,” Mr. Willey continued. “Well, actually, really well. And I can tell you he didn’t do it.”
They looked both puzzled and disappointed, but needing more.
“Name’s Eliot Daley. Good friend of my boy Rod’s. His parents are Jad and Nan Daley, out on Palm, corner of Indianapolis. You may know ‘em. Good people. Fine people.”
They were nodding in time with his cadence.
“Now Eliot’s no saint. You know kids,” he added confidentially. They nodded some more. “But he’d never do something like that.”
One of them nodded again, but the face of the other wrinkled up like a week-old baked potato, and he began shaking his head in fast little negations, all discombobulated.
“But lookit him, Mr. Willey,” he protested. “Dark pants, white tee shirt just like somebody said. Covered with gas. And driving like hell to get away from there. And this,” waving the prized red gas can at Mr. Willey.
All true. Levis and white tee shirts were our uniform as teenagers. And they didn’t yet know where the gas on my clothes came from.
“Eliot pumps gas down at Chet’s station on the bend of Van Ness,” Mr. Willey explained. “Covers the night shift. I’m guessing he’s still in his work gear.”
I nodded. Strangled with emotion, I could not produce any sound whatsoever with my voice. I didn’t even try.
Minutes later, still never having spoken a word, I was sitting behind the wheel of my car, little contortions twitching my limbs, spasms of relief shuddering through my central nervous system. Mr. Willey and the two cops were bantering like old friends beside Mr. Willey’s big Cadillac.
I fumbled with the ignition switch, too shaken to be smooth about anything. I got the engine fired up after a couple of cranks. The car jerked and lurched when my quivering left leg clumsily let out the clutch to pull away from the curb toward home. I drove very slowly all the way to our driveway, tentative, groping along as though for the first time at the wheel.
I tumbled onto my bed still in my gasoline-splotched clothes, twisted fitfully a while in catastrophic fantasies of what almost was, and finally fell asleep thinking how many innocent men and women must be in jail because Mr. Willey had not come along.
Today–the very same day I got Jay’s reminder of my experience–I also got an email containing the excruciatingly sarcastic words of a classmate from my high school and college days who mocked the very idea of white privilege. Let me offer just a snippet from his miles-long, repulsively snarky harangue:
As a man, I used to think I was pretty much a regular person, but I was born into a two-parent household which now, whether I like it or not, makes me “privileged”, a racist, and responsible for slavery…if so that would make me about 170 years old.
I am a fiscal and moral conservative, which by today’s standards, makes me a “fascist” because I plan, budget, and support myself.
I went to high school, got a degree, and have always held a job. But now I find out that I am not here because I earned it, but because I was “advantaged”.
His disgusting rant goes on like this, ad nauseam, in a devastating display of American obtuseness. Ironically, the author/promulgator of this witless crap served as the Headmaster of two different “American School” campuses in Europe and Latin America…private-education incubators of privilege par excellence. I don’t know what he studied while he and I were in college together, but I was writing my Master’s thesis on the subject of academic underachievement–what cruel syndromes of familial and societal factors befall and lethally cripple an innocent child-victim’s hopes and capacities to do well, precluding their ever getting that degree of which he crows in self-satisfaction.
He may choose ignorance and self-satisfaction. That is his right and a pathetic part of white “privilege”, I guess. I just wish he’d shut up and marinate silently in his own wonderfulness while those he disdains struggle to survive and get ahead against odds he declines to imagine or understand.