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Police lights

Kids who grow up in the city don’t know how good they have it.

Provided you have transportation and a little disposable income, you can choose a different activity for every single day of the year if you live in a large metropolitan area. In the city, there are museums, aquariums, zoos, amusement parks, professional sports, shopping centers and even dinosaur-themed restaurants from which to choose. In the city, there is no excuse to ever be bored, even though my son might sometimes disagree with me.

For kids who live in smaller towns, it’s different. Sometimes you have to make your own fun. Sometimes, that fun may be ill-advised.

I was luckier than most. I grew up in a mid-sized town called LaGrange that had a four-year college, a large recreational lake, golf courses, tennis courts and about 10 months of good weather each year. When I was in high school in the late 1980s, they opened up a six-screen cinema in my town, which was a social and cultural game-changer for me and my peers. I saw my first R-rated movie in that theater (Fatal Attraction with Michael Douglas and Glenn Close), even though my friends and I were under-aged. The new Cineplex brought a little bit of big-city daring and decadence to the town of LaGrange, Georgia.

Still, it could get boring at times. We had to make our own fun. My friend Jason and I swore off drinking for our high school careers, and we didn’t quite have enough nerve to swing though the school parking, where a lot of our classmates hung out on Friday and Saturday nights. Some evenings, we just drove around town in Jason’s Volkswagen Jetta, blasting U2 on the tape deck and somehow hoping that Bono’s words would inspire us to drive into the high school parking lot and talk to the cool kids.

One night, just to try something different, we grabbed a flashlight, a roll of duct tape, and a large, blue plastic cup from Jason’s house. Our hope was that, by taping the cup over the flashlight, and turning the light off and on rapidly, we could simulate the kind of pulsing blue light that police officers mounted on the dashboards of their patrol cars. To test our experiment, I stood on the side of the street and watched Jason whiz by in the Jetta a few times, his right arm holding the flashlight over the dash and turning it on and off just as fast as he could. Sure enough, it looked a lot like a police light.

When you are a pair of bored 18-year-olds who suddenly have invented your own police light, your next move is obvious. We hit the road on a warm Saturday night, patrolling the unlit rural routes that wound around and across West Point Lake. At about 10 o’clock that night, we pulled behind a red Chevrolet pick-up that was going about 10 miles above the speed limit. Jason turned the volume down on the Midnight Oil album we’d been listening to. Riding shotgun, I turned on the blue light and held it to the windshield, my thumb doing double-time over the switch to create the perfect effect. I might have even been whistling siren noises at the time.

After a quarter mile or so, the truck slowed and stopped on the gravel shoulder. Jason and I stared at each other in amazement. Did we just pull this guy over? What do we do now?

Jason gave it half a second of thought, then stomped the accelerator. The red pick-up was a blur as we sped by. Jason did not slow down until we entered the city limits. Along the way, I looked nervously in the side-view mirror, expecting to see the Chevy’s headlights cresting the hill behind us, its driver furious at being snookered by a pair of skinny, wanna-be cops in a 1985 Volkswagen Jetta.

Fortunately, we got away. Jason and I took the blue light out on the road a couple more times that summer, but we made only half-hearted attempts at enforcing the county’s traffic code. My friend and I were just a few weeks away from going to college in different parts of the country. Neither of us wanted any trouble when we were so close to our first tastes of freedom.

I sometimes think about that summer and how we might have been charged with a felony if we’d been caught using a flashlight and a plastic cup to transform Jason’s Jetta into a Georgia patrol car. If that happened today, of course, we’d be on the six o’clock news, and all over social media. Our lives would be ruined, at least for a while.

That’s why I feel for the kids growing up in the smaller towns, and maybe even the kids in the cities, too. The tolerance level for teen-aged mistakes is a lot lower these days, and the amount of public shaming is at an all-time high. One act of stupidity, and a kid could be in serious trouble. And who hasn’t done something stupid when they’re young and bored and aching for a little bit of adventure, like pretending to be a patrol officer for a night?

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