My sole long-ago personal interaction with the Southern institution known as the Louisiana State Police was brief, courteous, and beneficial to my institution, to me, and ultimately to a driving public thousands of miles away from Baton Rouge. At the end of the day it may even have resulted in a few saved lives that holiday season. DWI fatals, and even alcohol-involved crashes, certainly ticked down that year in the Evergreen State. So it makes me sad to read of the LSP’s long-time colonel essentially forced into retirement, an evident sacrifice to the “black lives” memes of 2020.
Something to do with a high-speed chase in 2019, angry troopers thumping on a suspect after his fleeing car crashed, the suspect’s death. Initial reports attributed his death to injuries from the wreck. Now the Associated Press has released what purports to be recordings of one of the troopers who was there, talking about beating and choking him. “I beat the ever-living f — — out of him,” the AP quotes the trooper. “All of a sudden he just went limp….”
The trooper won’t be around to face questioning; he died himself, in a single-car crash, after the LSP fired him, following an internal-affairs investigation. News reports don’t say whether alcohol was involved in either death, or whether the ex-trooper was suicidal. Back when I worked in traffic safety, there was a developing suspicion those single-car fatals, for instance ramming bridge abutments, were covert suicides, alcohol perhaps the lubricant for decision.
This news out of the Pelican State in this grim year is like another social wound, as if Fate itself is subjecting our battered nation to the ancient Asian torture of Death by a Thousand Cuts. Pandemic, political unrest, racial violence — it’s perhaps no wonder depression and anxiety and simmering rage are the human responses most often reported.
Tonight I read some CNN-TV anchorwoman “went off” on air in a diatribe directed at President Donald Trump. Memorably, she ranted,“his nostalgia for the ’50s is obstructing his understanding of the present-day suburbs. It’s 2020. Lassie is not coming to save us and June Cleaver is not waiting at home with meatloaf….”
I admire clever rhetoric, but over in my corner of the world I conclude the CNN rhetorician is awfully young, and did not live through the conformist fifties. I did. Not much to awaken nostalgia in those uptight times when any book with sexual content was banned, Beatniks were considered the spawn of Satan, and “duck-and-cover” drills reminded us the Doomsday Clock was ticking down.
My own nostalgia is reserved for the eighties. The Pill had liberated everyday life into a fair imitation of Woodstock licentiousness, but in clean back-street hotels, not filthy cow pastures. The AIDs pandemic was unknown and the Evil Empire was collapsing under its own bureaucratic weight. We had time to address other social ills like drunk driving, which was how I came to have my one interaction with the Louisiana State Police.
Those of us charged with trying to stem the alcoholic highway carnage faced such absurdities as half-price drinks at “happy hour” as bars contended to capture workers headed home. The conventional wisdom was once they were home in front of the TV, you couldn’t pry them back out to spend their hard-earned money. Cheap drinks would decoy them into your parking lot, they’d drink a lot quickly to save money — and the drink would impair their judgment and they’d keep sloshing it down once prices went back up. Then pour them in their cars, and they were somebody else’s problem.
In Washington State, for instance, licensed establishments were required to evict drinkers soon as they showed signs of intoxication. Bartenders were known to assist them to their rides and even insert the key if the customer couldn’t find the ignition. I spent fifteen years dealing with such issues, first with the Liquor Control Board, then the State Patrol. Rewrote the regulation, for instance, requiring ejection of drunks, so barkeeps could cut them off and keep them around to sober up. Organized the first free holiday cab rides home, paid for by a TV station with a social conscience. Hell, some tow truck companies, smarting under motorist anger at their usual antics, even offered free tows home of the drunk’s car, so he or she could get to work (hungover) the next day.
And we advertised. Back then “public service” advertising was a requirement for TV and radio companies. No requirement such spots occupy prime-time, reserved for expensive commercials, and states could not purchase air time back then. Our solution was to create content so compelling program directors would make room in prime viewing time. Maybe get the attention of would-be drunk drivers while they were sober enough to get the message.
One year the Louisiana State Police produced one of the best anti-drunk-driving TV spots I ever saw. Hollywood-class production values, professionally directed, professionally lighted, with a gut-punch ending. Scene: blue-uniformed legs, dark stripe advertising state trooper, glossy black shoes crunching through shattered glass on dark pavement. Almost subliminal flicker of police emergency lighting pulling gleams from glass and tortured chrome. Closeup of his shoe grinding on a Chevrolet hood ornament.
Music and lyrics: “Bye, bye Miss American Pie. Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry…” New angle: cracked rear-view mirror, shattered windshield, slant of trooper’s Smoky Bear hat reflected in the mirror as he reaches inside the wreck. “And them good ole boys were drinking whiskey and rye…” Closeup of his hand on the dashboard radio. “Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die…”
Click. Silence. Then the usual don’t drink and drive tag-line.
LSP mailed VHS copies to other agencies, proud of their effort. Particularly at having created a generic trooper image that could work in many states. One of the advantages of those federally supported publicity campaigns was that we could share anything good. LSP said other Southern states were using the tape as is; levees after all were not unique to Louisiana.
But I was in the Pacific Northwest. And it was getting on for Christmas. And we needed something new, and didn’t have the budget to reinvent the wheel. That’s where the courtesy and professionalism of the LSP saved the day. Their technical people generated a master stripped of American Pie and shipped it out. I knew what song I wanted to replace it with. I assigned my assistant, a veteran newsman who came to work for the state after a purge of union activists at his newspaper, to find who held the rights to it. Right man for the job; in less than two days he had tracked down and schmoozed with the rights-holder, and received total, free, unrestricted use by the Washington State Patrol. Formal paperwork was in hand in a week.
All good so far. But — no budget for a singer, or accompanist. Time to get really creative. Just so happened I knew the pianist who played for all the governor’s balls, an employee of the state attorney general’s. Also just so happened he was, at that time, my brother-in-law. Of course he knew and could play the song. A perennial favorite of holiday parties. How about vocals I asked him. And he reminded me his older brother was a reliable choir tenor at his church. And a UFO fan, who owed me for a photo of a real UFO I’d had enlarged for him, to his delight. And he’d do the song anyway — nothing like some TV exposure!
We put it all together on a sound stage at a local company that had produced earlier TV spots for us, and threw this in as thanks for the previous contract. And released the new spot well in time for the Christmas holiday.
The identical scene: uniformed legs, glossy shoes, shattered glass, bent chrome. My brother-in-law’s clear tenor, his brother’s faerie-like brushing of the piano keys. “I’ll be home for Christmas. You can plan on me. Please have snow and mistletoe. And presents by the tree…”
The shadow of the Smoky Bear hat reflected in the cracked rear-view mirror, the uniformed arm reaching for the radio…
“Christmas eve will find me. Where the love light gleams. I’ll be home for Christmas
If only in my drea — ” Click. Silence.
Then the obligatory admonition against drinking and driving. Got some pretty good play that year. Even close to prime-time. If it had been released these social-media days, it might even have become a “meme.” (A word I detest.) That was one of the years the DWI fatals and serious-injury collisions ticked down. Did the old Bing Crosby standard, originally written for World War Two GIs at war, lonesome for home and hearth, save any lives in the eighties? If not, it wasn’t for lack of trying. Thanks to the major assist from the Louisiana State Police.
I guess my point is every era, every decade, fifties or eighties, or now, has its worries to a greater or lesser degree. A wise man is supposed to have summed this up by saying “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” We do what we can, with what we have, where we are. Fretting doesn’t help a thing.