We were on our way to the airport, my wife and I, and looking forward to lunch at a place we’d heard about. Supposed to have the best country ham in the area and these parts were known for their hams. So we’d left with plenty of time to spare before I was due to board the plane. No hurry. Just going with the flow on the four-lane, divided highway. Not passing anyone and not being passed by anyone, either. Which was slightly unusual, since there were a lot of drivers here, where Virginia and North Carolina met, who believed that if the gods had treated them fairly, then they would have been driving at Darlington or Talladega. Still, they did their best with what they had and would stand on it any chance they got.
So the flashing blue lights were a surprise and we assumed, at first, that the mean looking police cruiser would pass us in its pursuit of some genuine lawbreaker up ahead.
But it was not our day. He was after us. My wife was driving and she pulled over. I opened the glove box for the registration and insurance information.
“How fast were you going?” I said.
“I don’t know. Just keeping up with traffic.”
A beefy man steeped out of the cruiser and walked slowly up to the window on my wife’s side of the car. He wore a uniform of some sort. It had a lot of pockets. Also insignia and badges of rank. It fit tight and looked sort of “tactical.” Something like people at the nearby Blackwater training facility would put on before a day on the range.
The man also wore a lot of polished leather in the form of a Sam Brown belt that carried the holster for his sidearm — a Glock, I imagine — and handcuffs, Taser, radio, spare mags, and who knows what else. I was reminded of the time when I had been at a mall with a man who had been in SEAL Team Six and done some interesting things in his time. The mall security guy was rigged out about as extensively as this traffic cop and my friend looked him up and down and said, “You know, I’ve gone in to take down whole buildings with less gear than that.”
The police officer who had pulled us over probably wouldn’t have found that line amusing. Going by his expression, he wouldn’t have found much of anything amusing. He had one of those professional scowls that made you think he probably practiced it in front of the mirror.
“License and registration.”
And good day to you, too, Sir.
My wife handed them over.
Before he turned to head back to his cruiser and “run them through the computer,” the officer said, “I clocked you at 58 in a 45 zone.”
“I’m sure you did,” I thought. “And aren’t you proud of yourself.”
A four lane highway, running straight as a razor cut through vast, monotonous farm fields and posted at 45? What could be the reason for that? There were no feeder roads that might have caused sudden congestion. No construction or maintenance going on. No bridges that had been washed out or culverts that had been backed up. No chain gangs working the roadside. Just a long, wide highway where in a modern automobile or pickup you would have to concentrate to keep the speed under seventy and would feel like you were standing still if you were doing 45.
“Did you see any signs?” my wife said.
“No. But I wasn’t looking.”
“Neither was I,” she said mournfully.
We both knew there had to have been signs. But…sometimes they just don’t register and you drive at what seems a reasonable speed. I remember an enlightened time when that was the law in Montana. No posted limit. Just a law that said, in effect, “Don’t drive like a maniac.”
You know, the sort of guidance that sums up the proper relationship between honest citizens and their government.
Then, there is the sort of government that dresses traffic cops up like SWAT team troopers, trains them to be exquisitely rude when dealing with citizens, and doesn’t do the obvious things to ensure that those citizens know what the law is and obey it. Nobody actually knows how many criminal laws it is possible to break in this country. But you would probably have a tough time getting through a week — maybe even a day — without busting at least one of them.
If the state of Virginia really wanted people to drive at 45 on a stretch of highway where instinct and experience say 65 is safe, then it should put up big flashing signs that say so. Help the drivers out a little, you know. Most of them are just trying to get to the airport, or wherever. Trying to earn an honest dollar so they can pay the taxes that keep the highway troopers tricked out in ballistic clothing and top of the line firearms.
This one handed over the summons and mumbled something about how my wife could pay by phone or show up in court to contest the charges. Fat chance of that. The money was as good as in the bank and you suspect that this was what all this was about, anyway. Governments are always looking for new “sources of revenue.” Government people will inevitably argue that enforcement of speed limits is about safety, not revenue. But like I say, if there had been something dangerous about driving at a speed that felt safe, and a couple of miles back down the road would, under identical conditions, have been legal, then there should have been big signs and flashing lights to warn drivers.
But we got a fine in excess of $100, handled by someone whose telephone personality was every bit as warm and friendly as that of the cop who stopped us. They must go to a special school where they teach bureaucratic manners. You know, rudeness and impatience and boredom served with a dash of contempt.
It was a small transaction that pretty much summed up a larger theme. Namely the poisonous feelings citizens feel for governments that make their lives just a little bit harder in so many ways.
The ham, by the way, was excellent. And that salvaged the day.