What started this was something I heard on “All Things Considered” the other evening. One of their reporters had attended the funeral of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq and buried in Colorado Springs. His was quite a story–raised by his mother along with several younger siblings, a high school dropout who went back and graduated later, a prankster who just wanted to have fun, a kid who loved hunting wild animals in the mountains. In high school, he got in trouble in shop class when a buddy went to the bathroom and he welded the door shut. And there was that time he stole a car and rode around town for a couple of hours. Just having fun. He got his act together, they said, and joined the military where he used his sharpshooting skills to become a sniper with our forces in Iraq. A roadside bomb ended his life a few days ago.
Memorial Day morning some boys were having fun in my neighborhood, and it cost them dearly. The newspaper says at 3:30 am, three sixteen-year-old friends abandoned a car they had stolen in order to take a beautiful new pickup truck from a fellow’s driveway. The owner heard a noise, looked out the window and saw the truck pulling out, and called the police. Within minutes, a cop spotted the bright red expensive pickup and a chase ensued. Up and down Causeway Boulevard they went, jumping medians and doubling back. The boys bursted through a blockade and almost hit an officer. Finally, they ended up two blocks from my house in the New Orleans suburb of River Ridge where they made the worst mistake of a morning filled with them. As a police officer approached the truck, the young driver tried to run him over. Bad decision. Later, the investigators picked up over 100 spent shells from the grass surrounding that bullet-ridden truck. The driver was dead and his two passengers were headed to the hospital and later to jail. “Self-defense,” said the sheriff, and who can argue. A three ton truck qualifies as a deadly weapon by any standard.
What is it about adolescents and their fun?
My friend and Southern Baptist missionary Don McCain admits that before he came to know the Lord, as a teen growing up in the Washington, D.C., area, and while his father was absent for long periods serving the U.S. military, he and his brothers would steal cars in one neighborhood and joy-ride for an hour before abandoning them across town. To their youthful minds, it was all harmless fun. And since Don turned out all right, some would agree.
When we moved to the New Orleans area in September of 1990, we knew its reputation for crime, but felt safe in the respectable suburb of Kenner where our church was located. Our second week in town, someone stole my car from in front of the church on a Tuesday afternoon. The police located it a week later in a shopping center with the gas tank dry. Joy-riders. Fun to them, misery to their victims.
Several afternoons a week, when I leave my office I run by my son’s home in order to spend a few minutes with his children. Grant is 11 and his sisters, Abby and Erin, are 8. They have a big tree with a swing in the front yard and a basketball court in the back. They live on a street with lots of children and a 20 mph speed limit and some teenage neighbors who like to drive fast. As a grandparent, it scares me more than I can say.
One day last week, I was outside in the front yard with the grandkids and a couple of neighbor children. A half block away, a white car zoomed through the four-way stop without slowing down. A moment later, a green car backed through the same intersection at a high rate of speed, then squealed his tires as he took off following the first guy. It made me angry, but since they were going in the opposite direction, there was nothing I could do.
Two minutes later, the white car sped down the small street that joins ours and tried to turn the corner without slowing down. Suddenly he realizes another car is already on that street and he skids to a stop. I stepped into the street as he resumed speed. “Pull over here! I want to talk to you!” The three teenagers inside just stared at me as they zoomed down the street. I was boiling mad.
Suddenly, here came the green car down the same street. Again, I stepped into the street and called for them to pull over, that I wanted a word with them. As they sped by, I got their tag number and called the 911 operator. “Someone will take care of this,” she assured me.
When my son Neil came home from work, I told him what had happened in case anything came from it. Then, as I was leaving, a thought occurred to me. I would drive down that side street where those cars had gone and perhaps I would see them. Two blocks away, there was the green car with a half dozen teenagers standing around it.
“Hey, guys, I’m the one who tried to stop you up the street.” They stared. “I got your tag number,” I said, “and turned it in to the cops.” They’re still staring. “Did anyone come out?” “Yeah,” said one. “A deputy did.” “What did he do?” “Nothing. Just talked to us.”
“I wasn’t driving that car,” said one of the boys. Suddenly I wasn’t angry any more. They were behaving like typical kids, not criminals. I said, “I don’t know who was driving. I just know it was that car.” Long pause. I said, “Guys, I don’t even live in this neighborhood. But my grandchildren live on that street, and the speed limit is 20 miles an hour. It scares me the daylights out of me the way people drive up and down the street. You guys be careful, okay?” “Yes sir,” they said, and I drove away.
My wife reminds me that this kind of confrontation is what gets well-meaning citizens killed. I am all too aware that the streets of any big city are filled with cars under the control of people crazed by drugs or alcohol or adrenalin or hormones. But what are the rest of us to do–stay inside and pray that the bad guys don’t take over? Someone has to stand up.
According to the local papers, the parents and friends of the three youthful car thieves from Memorial Day’s tragedy say these boys were nice guys and deserved better than what they got from the police.
I for one do not doubt for a minute they were your typical boys who just wanted to have a little fun. But the site they chose for their fun was not Chuckie Cheese, but an adult world–a universe filled with serious laws and populated by people who play for keeps.
I wonder if the adults in their lives had told them the truth about this world.