Tuesday, September 07, 2004

JUNE 17, 2004 - continued

I have been riding with Smith Center Police Chief Randy Nelson as he patrolled the highways and byways of the community on a long-shadowed summer evening. Chief Nelson doesn't usually allow riders in the squad cars, but made an exception for me. We have been talking about what it's like to police a small town in north central Kansas.

"I don't know the kids turning 16 now as much as I used to," Chief Nelson said, "and with the Privacy Act you don't get a list of birthdays from the school."

The city shop is near the ball diamond, the fairgrounds, the Armory. The National Guard unit had just gotten back from camp at Fort Riley.

If the sheriff's department needs back up out in the county, "we're going," the chief said. "Sometimes we get there before the county officer if the situation warrants it."

There's a long evening's light in Smith Center in June. "If I weren't working," he said, "this time of night I'd be out golfing. I really enjoy the game, but it's frustrating."

I don't remember if I told him about my "zen golfing." I count the good strokes. If I get three or four in nine holes, that's a good round. When I tell this to real golfers, they just kinda look at me. I don't remember if I said anything to the chief about it.

Both the two other officers in the Smith Center Police Department are from the community, both of them went to school in town. You need about four hundred and sixty hours of training to get into law enforcement, ten to twelve weeks starting out, then forty hours per year of continuous education. "We usually end up having to drive some ways to get training," the chief said. "The sheriff's department just got hooked up to the satellite system, so now we can get some of our hours that way."

We drove past the office of one of Smith Center's veterinarians. "There are two veterinarians in town," Chief Nelson indicated. "They are busy men around here."

The chief made a special exemption to let me ride in the squad car. His usual policy is not to let people do that.

"We don't have that many break-ins," the chief said. "It kinda runs in spurts."

The number of out-of-town people coming into Smith Center to make trouble is minimal, he said. "We don't have that much trouble, really."

"Week days are really quiet," he said. "After 10 p.m. there aren't many cars on the street."

Over and back and up this street and down that and still people are as quick to wave at the chief as he is to wave at them.

"Public relations is ninety percent of this job," he said. "They know that we're not out hunting for them. Most of them recognize they've screwed up. I think we've been pretty fair to people over the years."

I asked him about the Excel Jamboree, and the Noise Parade on the last night of that. He said only a few people have complained about the noise. "A lot of people had a good time," he added. Of the Excel owners who come for the Jamboree, he said "we never have a problem with those people. They enjoy it when you sit down and talk with them."

I asked about the portion of Smith Center's streets that are brick, rather than concrete or asphalt. West Point, Nebraska, and Emmetsburg, Iowa, are other communities I visit which retain some brick streets. "They are part of Smith Center's identity," Chief Nelson said, "but they're about ten times as slick as regular streets."

When we drove past the community's swimming pool, the chief said: "Ah, I think that would be chilly."

Smith Center is fortunate to have an EMS [Emergency Medical Squad] that "helps tremendously - they are really a good crew," Chief Nelson said. "They're getting a new building out on the highway."

"A lot of good things are happening here for a little town," he said.

And still we were driving up and down and back and forth over and back. I doubt there was a street in town we hadn't patrolled. At this point we'd probably logged thirty miles riding together.

"Everything is in its place?" I suggested.

"So far, so good," the chief said.

Does he end up testifying in court very often?

"Not often," he said. "People usually pay the fine. Seems like what we go to court for is dogs running loose."

"If the arrest you make is good," he said, "if you write a good report, you won't go to court."

The department "goes on weather watch when we've got storms coming in," he said.

Chief Nelson is no longer driving truck, and we talked about that. He used to take loads to Los Angeles or Seattle every week. "I don't have the patience to drive to LA now," he admitted.

Then we were out checking over the golf course, three miles south of town. "The city took over the course about five years ago," the chief said. A "super guy" runs the operation. "The rain has really greened up the fairways."

There have been no gas station robberies since Chief Nelson has been in town. "Some were broken into, in the evening," he said. "They went after beer."

Tough situations?

"Taking guns off people - that gets the adrenaline going," he said. "Taking a knife away from a guy. Dealing with accidents - a real good friend of mine and his dad were killed in an accident; I had to notify the family. It was the toughest thing I've had to do. All those situations hurt, but not like this did."

We'd put on another ten miles already. We were passing in front of Hardware Hank downtown. All manner of merchandise gets left out in front of the store overnight. "That never gets stolen," the chief said.

All of a sudden, we had excitement. A 521, a missing dog in town, a Dalmatian named Pookie. Now we had to keep our eyes open for Pookie.

And the chief got philosophical. "Everybody knows you, pretty much," he said. "I don't know everyone, but everyone pretty much knows me. I haven't figured out if that's good or bad. I had kids in school here, one of them was a super athlete, so I suppose that helps."

I'd been riding with the chief for two hours or more. We'd been up and down and back and forth and over and back. An endless stream of drivers waved hello. We'd circled and re-circled. I'd seen every street in Smith Center, every house, every empty lot. Most of them more than once. I'd started to feel as if I'd been spinning in a washing machine, with only a missing Dalmatian to challenge us. We were driving towards Ingleboro Mansion again, where I was staying.

"Well?" said the chief. He knew what I was thinking.

"Yeah," I said. "Drop me off." I'd go get a late supper.

Boring is good, I told myself as I walked into house. Boring means you have a successful police department and a safe community. But I don't think I could be a cop, with the endless hours of boredom interspersed with random moments of sheer terror.

When I came out of the restaurant after I'd finished supper, there was Chief Nelson cruising Main Street yet again. I waved at him. He waved at me.


(501 W. Third #12, Smith Center, KS 66967)

"Dennis Reinert is kinda like Rodney Dangerfield," Ivan said. "He don't get no respect. One morning last week, Dennis was sittin' at the front table at Paul's. Everyone who came in said to Dennis, 'How much rain did you get?' Dennis said, 'Forty hundreth.' Everybody who asked him said, 'I didn't get near that much. Are you sure you emptied your gauge?' Dennis just sat there and took it. While all this was going on, I just sat there and listened. But, you know, Dennis' reported rainfall amount was about what I had."

"All the years she was in school," Ivan said, "Arloa Barnes was always at the back of the line. They lined up in alphabetical order and since she was a Veh she was always last in line. She made up her mind that wasn't going to happen to her kids, so she married a Barnes. That's not the only reason - I don't think."

"One day last week I got upset with my computer," Ivan wrote. "So I used the names Depperschmidt, Schwertfeger, and Windscheffel all in the same sentence. Drove the spell checker nuts."

"My gosh," Ivan said. "did you see those skimpy outfits those beach volleyball players wore. I didn't at first, then someone called my attention to it."

"I can't reveal my source for this," Ivan said, "but Doc Gibson has the right idea. A usually reliable source said that Doc and Audrey would drive up to the high school track. Audrey would hop out and walk briskly around the track several times. Meanwhile, back in the vehicle, Doc would unfold a newspaper briskly, then sit there and read the paper without ever looking up to check on Audrey's progress. I don't know how many laps Audrey can make on one newspaper but if it is the Echo she would be hard-pressed to do a hundred yard dash."

"Mike Hughes tried to get into a ballet troupe but he couldn't wear a tu tu," Ivan said. "He required a three three."

"Last week was moving day for college students," Ivan noted. "Parents and grandparents were wondering where the years have up and went."

"It's getting to where you can't talk about anybody at the Barnes Aerobic group anymore," Ivan said. "With the Weltmers, the Meyerzzes, and the Ratliffs, every time you say something you are talking about somebody's relative."

"Remember," Ivan said, "Leonardo Da Vinci invented scissors and Stay Ahead of the Posse."

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