I think I see it poking above the scraggly, dry brush lining the highway, but it’s hard to tell. The air bends into waves in the Texas heat. I hate being wrong, so I twist the focus on the heavy black binoculars in my small seven-year old hands. Is it a white roof or a mirage behind that prickly-pear cactus? Then I catch the light bar and the telltale black hood. “DR. PEPPER SQUAD” I cry out from the back seat as my dad eases off the gas and taps the brakes. Victory.
I’m now 40 years old and I’ve driven hundreds of cars and crossed tens of thousands of miles. In all this time I’ve never gotten a speeding ticket. Not in a Bugatti. Not in a Lamborghini. Not in a Toyota RAV4. I’m not a speed demon, but there are times when the road is empty and straight where I let the needle climb. More when I was a younger, less often now when my daughter is with me. Still, I’m not going to feign a virtue I don’t have. Sometimes I channel my inner Sammy Hagar.
There’s no radar/laser detector in my car. No tricky, hidden jammers. Just instinct.
It’s an instinct honed over years of trips with my father. He didn’t fly anywhere. He just drove. A lot of my family is in the multi-modal goods transport business, which is to say there are a lot of truckers, so miles have never fazed him.
When I was five, my father worked as a maintenance man for a small school district adjacent to Corpus Christi’s military base. Because he worked there, I was able to attend kindergarten at what was considered one of the better public elementary schools. It was a much longer drive from our modest house to that school than the primary school in our neighborhood, but I didn’t mind and neither did my dad. It was just more time together.
There were a lot of cops along the ruler straight South Padre Island Drive and so, perhaps to pass the time, my dad made a game out of me trying to spot them. At some level, I suspect, my dad also really didn’t want a speeding ticket.
When summer came the game went on pause. My mom decided I was a bright kid and there wasn’t enough opportunity for me in our corner of South Texas, let alone for her. So she left my dad a note on the fridge that said we had to move, packed me and my stuffed bear in our Isuzu Impulse, and drove to Suburban Houston where the schools were better and the jobs were more plentiful. It was up to dad to sell the house, find a job, and come join us as fast as he could. In the interim, I’d live with my grandparents.
We drove back-and-forth a lot. This was back when the speed limit on Highway 59 was an intolerable 55 mph for most of the way between Houston and Corpus Christi. Usually it was in the bright red Isuzu coupe, picked up as a repo and sold to my dad with the astoundingly low interest rate of 13.5%.
My dad also didn’t have a radar detector. It wasn’t a point of pride so much as a matter of thrift. A hard worker his entire life, much of the disposable income he had, on the odd times he had it, was spent on camps, lessons, and learning toys for me. There was no expectation that I did anything with the money other than be happy.
Ok, there was one expectation. When we’d hit the road, which was fairly often, he’d ask me to help spot cops. In fact, he didn’t have to ask anymore, I’d just do it. Eventually, I got ahold of some oversized binoculars, which gave me a real leg up on the heat. Before I could multiply or divide, I could spot the difference between a Goliad County sheriff’s deputy and a Refugio city cop at two miles distance.
It wasn’t enough to just see a cop, that’s easy. The real sport is in being able to call out exactly what it is first. Was it a “county mountie” or a local “smokie?” On the rare moments I’d see a helicopter I knew it was a “bear in the air,” although I’m fairly certain none of the choppers we saw were actually cops.
My favorite law enforcement officer to find, though, and most common, was the iconic black-white-and-gold of the Texas Department of Public Safety Highway Patrol, aka the DPS, aka the Dr. Pepper Squad, named for the popular prune-inflected soda created in Texas to impress a gal’s dad.
Most often they were Caprices. But on a good day I’d see a glorious Foxbody Mustang.
“Dr. Pepper Squad Mustang” I’d call out from the back seat. Then my dad would slow down and smile a big smile under his mustache–a mustache so thick it made Tom Selleck look like Moby.
It was a game, more than anything, and I loved it.
And the lessons stuck. The instinct. I haven’t (yet) handed my daughter a pair of binoculars, but I do cue her to where the cops might likely be. It’s almost a tick at this point to call out every police officer I see when I drive. And I see a lot. There’s a pattern to it. The police don’t just post up in random places.
- Town entrances: Whether a statie or a local, law enforcement loves to set up in the liminal speed zones where the speed limit dramatically drops.
- Over rises: This is a no-brainer, but the element of surprise only works when you’re surprised. Especially in the plains, these little rises afford a bit of cover.
- Forest breaks: The absence of something is often more revealing than its presence. As you look down the road and see the trees thin out that’s a good sign of a little side road where a cruiser could pop its nose out.
- Behind shrubs: Especially as it gets flatter, cover is hard to come by, a shrub or a small mesquite is better than nothing.
- Past Underpasses: I’m sure that there are police officers somewhere who set up under overpasses, but in my experience they tend to post up well past to grab people who don’t see them on the other side.
- Feeder Roads: This is somewhat unique to Texas, but the highways and byways of the Lone Star State feature long, parallel roads with numerous onramps. Why hide on the road when you can hide one road over?
Now when I drive I find myself laying off the gas ahead of these, and similar, obstacles. The longer I drive the more I get into the rhythm of it. Speeding up a little where I know it’s safe and then backing off when the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.
Sure, I can use Waze, and sometimes I do, but it takes the fun out of it. The roads are long and full of predators and using Waze is like fishing with dynamite. That’s not how I was raised.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad!