Monday, October 30, 2006

The Saga of Ethel's Moped: A Wally Crankset Tale

They looked to be a tough bunch of flight attendants, willowy and coiffed, but Wally and I were just drunk enough to think that we could take them. The bar fell silent, waiting for the fight. We were a couple of middle-aged desperados with nothing to lose. Then Ethel walked in.

The events that led up to the confrontation started long ago. The swirling currents of small town life brought Wally and me in contact with Ethel, the flight attendants, a large quantity of alcohol, and the unusually tense atmosphere of Larry’s Café on that Friday night.

As I’ve explained previously, Fred is our chief of police in Broken Elbow. When the town council hired a deputy named Rufus Mertz, he just had to be nicknamed ‘Ethel’, a nickname that stuck. Ethel hated it. He was fond of giving out speeding tickets, jaywalking tickets, and even ran down all those threats to public order and decency who had overdue library books. Ethel was not liked.

In grade school, Rufus was known as "Rufus the Dufus". He hated that too, and in the usual unkind way of kids in the schoolyard, his displeasure only reinforced the name-calling. He was “The Dufus” all through his school career. Ethel was a pudgy kid, but as an adult, the rigorous life of a law enforcement professional and the high-calorie diet of late night coffee and donuts combined to see that his already ample waistline increased a bit more. Naturally, when he became one of our local cops, it was payback time.

Events conspired to make Ethel our first moped officer after the tragic Twinkie plant explosion. The loss of the factory took out a substantial portion of the town’s tax base. At least the town's arteries were healthier even if its finances were not. Ethel had been driving a wheezy old Pacer that was pressed into duty as a patrol car after our first – and so far, only – drug bust. So there was a certain sense of justice and even a bit of rejoicing when the Pacer went away and Ethel was demoted to that moped.

The car had belonged to Harry J., a retired chemistry teacher and now a professional alcoholic. Harry built a moonshine still in his backyard and one of his neighbors complained, probably because Harry wouldn't share. One night, Fred and Ethel busted him and told him they confiscated his car as “illegally obtained proceeds from his nefarious activities.” Harry knew a good thing when he saw it, and rather than pay someone to haul that ratty old car away, he gladly allowed our police officers to confiscate it.

Actually it had more to do with the simple fact that he routinely drove while intoxicated. But Harry was a conscientious and careful drunk driver. He didn't weave or speed. He stopped at every stop sign, sometimes falling asleep peacefully while the car idled until it ran out of gas. His ancient Pacer seldom got above 15 miles per hour.

After the bust, Harry promptly switched over to growing marijuana in the backyard instead, claiming it was his 'arthur-itis' medicine. This time he shared and the neighbors kept mum. But Harry took the Twinkie factory explosion very hard. He was a big fan of the product. He actually cried when the supermarket ran out of Pepsi over the Fourth of July weekend.

Despite it’s faults, Harry loved that old Pacer. He'd wander down to the station house now and then just to sit behind the wheel making "vroom-vroom" noises. The car was so decrepit that Ethel often left the keys in it, hoping someone would be dumb enough to steal it. Harry could have since he had a knack for getting the beast to start, but he never did. Even in his addled state, he knew better than to drive that heap. The Pacer wheezed and rattled above 35 miles per hour, making it less than ideal as a pursuit vehicle. Ethel loudly regretted seizing it.

After the Twinkie plant explosion, the town council decided to sell the Pacer for “budgetary reasons”. This was only an excuse for the real reason, that Ethel had ticketed far too many of their friends and relatives, and the council thought that by taking away his patrol car, they could rein him in. He became Broken Elbow’s first moped officer. They’d initially offered a bicycle, but after listening to Ethel whine and moan for half an hour, they gave in and bought him a moped. The puny electrical system powered either the emergency lights or the siren, but not both. And keying the radio killed the moped altogether. Ethel was not a happy patrolman. No one commented on the fact that the moped cost more than the Pacer would bring at auction.

Within days, Ethel had a plan to get a new patrol car. As part of it, he stopped me for speeding on my bicycle. In fact, he stopped nearly everyone in town for one infraction or another.

"You were 2 miles per hour over the limit in a school zone!" he purred.

"Ethel, school doesn't let out for another hour! That sign was blinking, but its not supposed to do it until 10 minutes before the bell rings. You know that."

The rash of tickets was his under-handed plan to raise enough money for another car, a big, powerful cruiser with enough electronic gadgets to contact the space shuttle. I gave some thought to simply taking off, figuring that I could probably out-run the moped. On second thought, if he caught me, I'd have to call Wally to come down the station and bail me out. This was definitely not an attractive option. Wally and Ethel were not on speaking terms and hadn’t been for years. Besides, even if I did outrun Ethel, he'd just putt-putt over to my house and wait for my return. It was his usual way of apprehending speeders in Broken Elbow.

“What would Wally do?” I thought to myself. This was always instructive, though slightly maddening. The premise was to anticipate what Wally would do in a similar situation, and then do something entirely different, something reasonable and rational. Reason prevailed. I accepted the ticket and paid the fine before the due date. But it rankled.

On that fateful Friday, I rode out to the airport to meet Wally. At the time, he was working as a ticket agent/baggage handler/fueler/wing walker for Amiracle Airlines. You’ve undoubtedly heard their advertising slogan: “Amiracle Airlines - if it's on time, it's Amiracle!”

I figured he would be fairly safe and might actually hang onto the job because the flight attendants loathed him. Wally’s second or third ex-wife had been an Amiracle flight attendant. They were strong women because they were out on the tarmac hefting bags right alongside the guys. Forget high heels. Amiracle flight attendants sported steel-toed boots and more tattoos than most men. Wally feared them. We all did, but he had a special reason for doing so. They knew all about him because of the ex-wife angle. They didn't like him and made it plain that he was beneath contempt.

Wally and I intended to go fishing over the weekend. We decided to have dinner down at Larry’s Café and plan our assault on local trout streams. Like all good plans, it didn’t survive that initial contact with the barstools. We wanted to sneak onto the off-limits federal land up in the mountains, figuring that the trout streams didn’t get much fishing pressure. Locals called it Area 52 – meaning that it was just a little more secret than the more famous Area 51. Regardless, we figured it would be good fishing.

Larry’s Café is the only bar in Broken Elbow. It’s also the largest meeting place in town, so every civic group from the Lady’s Book Nook (all of them notorious tipplers) to the amateur radio club use the big meeting room in the back. Wally and I didn’t get along with the amateur radio bunch since they’d developed a snotty, elitist attitude after the Twinkie factory explosion and I wrote a few disparaging articles about them. Sure, they prevented the town from being deluged in marshmallow filling, but that didn’t excuse their atrocious table manners, spotty personal hygiene, and annoying habit of communicating in Morse code even when face-to-face. The worst was when they tapped out code on their automobile horns. I hated that.

Larry’s has a front door on the street, a side door to the parking lot, and a back door to the alley behind the kitchen. When you went somewhere with Wally, it was a good idea to know all the exits.

We were sitting at the bar finishing our sandwiches and our third or fourth beers when a group of flight attendants walked in. There were six of them, and while I know their names, it would be better not to add those details here. I’m not looking for any more trouble.

The group stayed well down the bar from us, though the occasional rude remark could be heard. They were drinking boilermakers, as Amiracle Airlines flight attendants usually do.

Wally began trading barbs with them, getting progressively nastier and profane. Larry tried to intervene but the biggest and toughest of the stewardesses silenced him with just a look. Larry backed off.

Flight attendants can smell fear just like wolves and other predators. And like most predators, the females are the ones who do the hunting. These ones were no different. Their long pointed nails and extremely sharp teeth intimidated the most hardened tough guys but had no effect whatsoever on a couple of deep-in-their-cups fools like Wally and me. I was worried about Wally. He was having too much fun insulting the women, in particular one mean-tempered brunette. Wally was attracted to dangerous women. I was worried that by the end of the evening, he could be beaten senseless or married again.

In a moment of blinding insight that comes to those who are only moderately inebriated, I realized that losing a bar fight to some flight attendants would not look good on my tough guy résumé, and there would be no way to keep it quiet in a small town like Broken Elbow. I hesitated only a moment, then quietly went to the pay phone back in the meeting room, covering the move by excusing myself for a trip to the men’s room.

Five minutes later, Ethel came through Larry’s side door, directly between the unruly stewies and us. He was in civvies rather than his uniform, and as usual, he hadn’t brought his gun. When roused from bed late at night, Ethel had been known to show up still wearing his pajama top. Thankfully, he left the bunny slippers at home. Actually, catching Fred and Ethel in uniform was a rare event. They generally wore them only when a lot of people from out of town were expected, like for the Fourth of July, Homecoming, or the wildly popular Broken Elbow Turnpike Festival, which celebrates the turnpike that leaves town to the east, turns north and west through the mountains, and re-enters Broken Elbow from the west. Oklahoma towns are not complete without a turnpike.

“Someone called the station to say there was a fight going on here!” Wally sneered. “I don’t see no fight. Just a bunch of hors de combat!” Ethel laughed. He mispronounced the French phrase, mangling it as only a native Okie would. That’s what you get for reading military novels, or in Ethel’s case, old Sergeant Rock comic books.

The bar went silent as the wolf pack gave their full attention to the deputy. Ethel’s face changed as he realized too late he had just become their intended prey. The pack spread out and closed in on both flanks.

The brunette threw a bowl of nacho dip, catching Ethel full in the face! He howled as the jalapenos blinded him. The wolves fell on him. The brunette screamed, “Police brutality!” as the rest of the flight attendants beat the crap out of Ethel.

Another bowl of dip flew by, narrowly missing me. Figuring correctly that we were next on the menu, Wally decamped quickly, running out the side door into the parking lot. I headed toward the back. By the time I circled around to the bike rack, Wally was long gone.

In the distance, flashes lit the mountains around Area 52. I could hear small arms fire and the thump of impacting artillery rounds. Aircraft droned overhead in the darkness delivering heavily armed commandos on night parachute drops. State officials said it was specialized training for post office inspectors, but I wasn’t entirely sure it was the truth. Regardless, I was off to the hills, figuring that bombs and bullets were less dangerous than irate flight attendants and a doubly irate Ethel. The noise from the bar fight was winding down as I hid my bike in the bushes. I didn’t want to be there when the flight attendants rolled out into the parking lot. I stole Ethel’s moped, riding it off into the night.


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