My Criminal Past
As with all good crimes, it began in innocence.
Mike and I drove my ’52 Pontiac straight-eight down to Daytona Beach, Florida for spring break one year in the early sixties. We’d been friends since our days on the ninth grade football team, and we were a couple of decent kids. We both did well in school, worked to make whatever money we had, tolerated or endured the kind of dysfunctional families that were so prevalent following World War II, and we’d both seen and sighed over Where The Boys Are, a truly awful movie starring Connie Francis that promised dreams untold to any adolescent male willing to make the trip.
While our trip was fueled by cheap gas, cheap food, and undoubtedly a great deal of testosterone, our intent was not to go down there and sleep in the car or on the beach. We rented a motel room in a motel thoroughly stuffed with “our kind,” and managed to eat an occasional real meal in a restaurant.
Mostly, we just wanted to “be there,” to experience this relatively new thing called spring break and see what all the fuss was about. If wild parties and charming young ladies happened to push their way into our lives, well, we’d cope with that as best we could. But keep in mind this was before television crews roamed the current “hot” spring break venue, or rock bands could be found on every corner or any vacant parking lot. Mostly, the agenda involved hanging out – the meet-and-greet as mating ritual.
Our first full day there we spent on the beach swimming in the ocean and sunbathing. That night we endured a horrendous bout of sun sickness, our winterized Illinois skins no match for those hours beneath the Florida sun. We hurt, we burned, we itched. For a time I lay in bed literally shaking with chills, so cold I finally ran to the bathroom and got under a hot shower. That wasn’t a good idea. Eventually, I think, we slept, and the next day the sickness was gone, leaving behind only a great deal of tenderness shielded for the remainder of our trip by shirts and sweatshirts.
One evening, a Friday (our plan was to go home on Monday) after a certain party had failed to materialize, we decided to go for a walk on the beach. With both of us being fairly contemplative types, we appreciated the soft beauty of the Atlantic in the fading light. With both of us being fairly bored as well, we noted with interest a bonfire some distance down the beach and what looked like a gathering of festive folk.
We drew closer to the bonfire and were a bit puzzled that a bunch of kids seemed to be throwing lawn furniture on it. Too, as we approached we seemed to be walking into a half-circle of cars there on the beach. It all just seemed kind of odd.
It grew odder still as the lights on those cars suddenly went on and a whole crew of cops suddenly spilled out of those cars. That bonfire, indeed, had been fueled by lawn furniture and it seems the locals didn’t much care for it. The cops had been called and they began rounding up the vandalizing partygoers.
Actually, they rounded up anyone and everyone in the immediate area, including Mike and me. We were put (no handcuffs) into vans and taken down to the Daytona Beach jail where we were photographed and fingerprinted. Since it was late at night there would clearly be no court services until morning, so it became obvious we were about to spend a night in jail. Worse yet, the jailers had pretty much just stuck “the college kids” into whatever cell had some room, so Mike and I were stuck not only with our compatriot vandals, but also some pretty hootchy dudes from Daytona Beach. They were scary.
As was our breakfast of oatmeal and baloney and, scarier still, the news that, since it was the weekend, there would be no court adjudication until Monday morning. Since these were misdemeanor charges, however, we could be released for the weekend by posting a hundred dollars bail – that’s two-hundred dollars for the two of us. We didn’t have that much money left.
I was outraged, but the prospect of spending the whole weekend in jail was awful. Who to call? My parents? Mike’s parents? Frankly, although neither one of us was suicidal enough to do that, we also knew that neither family had that kind of cash lying around to be wired to Florida. What I did then I have always thought was a marvelous blend of boldness and genius.
I called my girlfriend’s mother who cheerfully wired us the money. She has also been, pretty much equally cheerfully, my mother-in-law for a good many years now.
By Monday morning I was ready to contact the American Civil Liberties Union, though I’m not sure I knew back then quite what it was. But we’d been railroaded, Mike and I, lumped in with a bunch of evildoers who had no respect for private property (the lawn furniture), and processed into a judicial system that had no respect for a presumption of innocence.
I said as much to the judge that Monday morning, my rage barely under control since, when our case was called, Mike and I found ourselves standing before the judge with the entirety of the crew that had, in fact, been naughty Friday night in front of the beach house. The judge polled each one of them and heard their subdued admissions of guilt.
When he got to me, however, I made a speech. I think I fancied myself a cross between Clarence Darrow and Oliver Wendell Holmes. I decried this “mass” trial and these “mass” convictions, this lumping in of two innocent beach walkers with a bunch of drunken partyers. I think I may have quoted the Bill of Rights since I’d been preparing for this moment all weekend.
The courtroom audience applauded when I finished. I was pumped, prepared perhaps to move on to the Supreme Court. The judge, however, simply smiled and said, “Ten dollar fine. Next case.”
Causes G.K. Wuori Supports
American Civil Liberties Union, The Authors Guild, Finnish North American Literature Association