Stopping Traffic

This past summer, I described my experience with an overzealous TSA officer at the Detroit airport. It seems someone has decided that soft goat cheese is a dangerous substance that cannot be allowed on board an aircraft, and the officer had been on the verge of confiscating the stuff in my carry-on bag. Fortunately, after my explanation of its origin (and a chat with his supervisor), they agreed to make an exception. By way of update: My cousins thoroughly enjoyed the cheese when I shared it at our family gathering in Seattle, and we all got a good laugh from the story.

I had a different, and probably more memorable, encounter with a TSA officer last weekend. This one had nothing to do with cheese, goat or otherwise.

My son (almost ten) and I had traveled to Arizona for a few days, to visit my folks. It’s getting more challenging for them to come out to see us, so bringing the grandkid to them seemed like a natural solution. He got to experience all kinds of things he doesn’t usually get to see and do here in Michigan, like a day at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (an attraction I cannot recommend highly enough, BTW), attending All Saints Day Mass at his grandparents’ parish, riding around in Grandpa’s golf cart, and swimming outdoors in November. (Not to mention riding on an airplane, with a window seat.) Most of all, I enjoyed watching him get to spend a lot of solid one-on-one with his grandparents (as his siblings had been able to do more often, when they were younger). We made some wonderful memories; he doesn’t know it yet, but he will carry these memories with him the rest of his life.

There is one detail, however, that I will probably remember for much longer than he will: our interaction with a TSA officer in the Phoenix airport on our way home. We’d just dropped our luggage, and were making our way to the security checkpoint. To my relief, it was wide open and virtually empty. (Early Saturday morning is a great time to travel.) I presented my ID and our boarding passes to the first agent, a youngish and friendly-looking woman, expecting the usual cursory inspection like we’d had at DTW.

To my surprise, the agent did more than just compare me to the photo and check the names. Turning to my son, she clutched the boarding passes and said, “Okay, I have a few questions for you. Alright?”

“Okay,” he replied.

“What is your name?” she asked.

My son smiled and told her.

“And what’s your dad’s name?”

He hesitated for a second, like sometimes happens when you’re asked a question that is too obvious (and that no one has ever asked you before). My heart skipped a beat. Don’t screw this up, I thought. Then it came to him. “Chris Blunt,” he said, to my great relief.

“And where are you and your dad going?” she asked.

Again, a moment’s hesitation (or so it seemed to anxious me), before he told her “Detroit!”

The TSA agent returned my documents with a smile, saying something about how we can’t be too careful these days.

“Trafficking?” I asked.

She nodded, and related a couple of quick examples of terrible things that’d happened in the area recently. We were in no hurry, and the checkpoint was still empty, so she and I chatted for a moment. I asked if it was a special problem for Phoenix, perhaps due to their proximity to the border. She replied that, unfortunately, it was becoming a problem in every place.

I mentioned that the agent in Detroit hadn’t given us any extra attention on our way out. She shrugged and replied, “I always ask. You never know.”

I thanked her, and told her I appreciated her vigilance. My son and I sailed through the rest of the checkpoint, boarded our plane, and enjoyed a completely uneventful flight home.

The flight gave me a lot of time to think, however. Human trafficking is an issue I’d heard about and read about, but I hadn’t previously met anyone on the front lines of it. Was I a bit annoyed about being questioned, and treated (if only for a minute, and only by implication) with suspicion that I could be a trafficker? Of course. But this annoyance faded quickly. She had no way of knowing he was really my son, or if he was really the boy whose name appeared on the boarding pass. He doesn’t have a photo ID (but I’ll probably get him one before he takes his next flight). What if he, or one of my other kids, had been taken and moved somewhere against his or her will? Wouldn’t I be grateful for an alert officer, on the lookout for something that seemed out of place?

Which gets us to something obvious (but that hadn’t occurred to me immediately): my son does look out of place with me. We look absolutely nothing alike. Longtime readers know that Mrs. Yeoman Farmer is of African descent, so all five of our kids are melanin enhanced. Some more than others, but none more than Kid Number Four. It wouldn’t surprise me if this had something to do with why we were asked a few additional questions. Not to mention the fact that he and I were traveling alone.

But here’s the thing: the racial aspect doesn’t bother me in the least. MYF and I actually find this sort of confusion a bit amusing. We compare stories, and laugh. She used to get asked if she was Kid Number One’s nanny. I was once asked if Kid Number Two (almost as melanin enhanced as Kid Number Four) was my foster child. And so on. Families like ours are more common than they used to be, but still unusual enough for people to have questions. I get it. I simply choose to be understanding, and not to be surprised or taken aback when confusion arises. But I will say this: we actually draw a lot less attention than I initially thought we would. My classic car probably gets more “looks” and turned heads in one trip to the grocery store than our family has in all the years we’ve lived here.

Getting back to the Phoenix airport: I didn’t catch the name of the TSA officer, but I do want to give her a shout-out for being on the ball and bringing a sense of mission to her job. I’ve done my best not to think about human trafficking, or to worry that one of my kids could fall victim to it. It’s certainly never occurred to me that one of the adults on a flight with me might be trafficking a child. I’m just glad somebody is thinking about it, and doing something to interrupt it. If that means my son and I have our trip interrupted for a moment, to answer a few questions, I don’t mind the inconvenience.

Just leave my goat cheese out of it!

Greatest Chase

For an avid cyclist, country life beats city life hands down. The roads are wide open, have little traffic, and there are virtually no stop signs or lights. The few times I’ve visited big cities and rented bikes, I’ve come home with an even greater appreciation for country roads.

However, there is one downside to riding in the country: dogs. We tend to have a lot more of them running loose, and even those “invisible fences” don’t always work. We’ve gotten a pretty good idea of where every loose dog lives along our favorite routes, and are usually prepared for the inevitable chases. It’s usually not a big deal at all. The dog gallops along, barking, making a big show of ensuring you exit his personal territory as quickly as possible. As soon as you reach his invisible border line, he breaks off the chase and trots home. It’s virtually always more theater than genuine threat.

Last night, we had a very different experience. I don’t think I’ll ever forget this one.

My seven-year-old son and I were out for a nice, easy, evening ride on our tandem. Just pedaling along, enjoying a wonderful rural road, canopy of trees overhead. I was somewhat familiar with this road, but hadn’t ridden it in a long time. I chose it for our tandem ride in part because it was especially isolated and low-traffic.

About a half-mile down this particular rode, we came upon a run-down house, with four State Police vehicles parked in front of it. Cops everywhere. My first thought was “meth lab,” but there was no hazmat team. More likely, they’d tracked a fugitive to the house. I commented to my son that there sure were a lot of police cars there, and somebody dangerous was probably inside. We smiled and nodded at a young state trooper, and kept cruising along at about 15 MPH.

We pedaled on for a bit, everything seemingly normal. I heard and saw nothing out of the ordinary. Still, I got an uneasy feeling. Something told me to look over my shoulder; in retrospect, I’m sure it was my guardian angel (and my son’s). Lo and behold, a huge dog was closing in on us like a heat-seeking missile. He immediately struck me as different from the typical “country dog” who’s just making a show of escorting us through his territory. For starters, he wasn’t barking. He was just running, and doing so with a sense of singular purpose. The way he was looking at us, and the intensity of the way he carried himself, he appeared to be a deadly serious professional. He wasn’t going to quit until he’d taken us down.

germanshepard

Stock photo. No, I didn’t take this picture from the bike.

I noticed something else that was different from the typical country dog: he was dragging a leash. That’s when I put two and two together, and realized this must’ve been an escaped police dog. He’d somehow confused me for the fugitive, and broken away. This dog actually had the skills and training to take me (and my seven year old) down hard. And that really scared the hell out of me.

Behind the dog, I could see a blue police car already joining the chase, but I doubted the cop could call the dog off in time. My son and I were on our own. I stomped on the pedals, and cranked like our lives depended on it. Problem is, it’s not easy accelerating a tandem with a young kid on the back; his power-to-weight ratio just hasn’t developed enough to be of much help. Still, thanks to a crazy adrenaline rush, I managed to get up to about 29 MPH, all the while glancing back. The dog closed to just behind our rear wheel, and was in the middle of the street, looking like he was trying to find a way to strike.

Fortunately, the police car was closing in as well. He was blowing his horn wildly over the PA speakers, doing everything he could to get the dog to break off the chase. As the dog got a bit winded, I was eventually able to pull away a little, and it looked like the cop pulled his car in front of the dog to cut him off.

I glanced back a couple of times, to make sure everything was contained, but otherwise hightailed it out of there and went straight home.

We never did find out what all the police activity was about. Coincidentally, just as we reached our driveway (several miles away, along a more major feeder route), the first couple of state police vehicles came cruising past. I thought about flagging one of them down, and asking if they’d caught whoever they’d been trying to catch — and, more importantly, how in the world they’d let that dog get loose.

But I supposed it didn’t matter, and it wasn’t worth raising a ruckus about. We’d made it home safely, and my son and I got some excitement we’ll never forget. This was definitely a dog chase for the books.

Don’t Call the Cops

They won’t come. Not for a long time, anyway. Unless it’s a real emergency. And even then…who knows?

That’s essentially what’s happened here in our county. While most people are aware of the dramatic police and firefighter layoffs in big cities like Camden, NJ, there is a somewhat different — and more interesting — dynamic at work here in our little corner of Michigan.

Like most counties in our state, the territory is divided up into large townships of about 30-35 square miles. Within these, there are pockets of incorporated municipalities which are administratively separate from the surrounding township. Our particular rural township has about 2,400 rural residents, and there are about 2,300 people living in its one incorporated municipality.

Most of the incorporated municipalities, including the one we live just outside of, have a small police force. (They seem to spend much of their time camped out with a radar gun at the municipal line, where the speed limit suddenly drops from 45 to 25.) However, that police force will not respond to crimes on our property; their responsibility ends at the municipal border. We and all other rural residents are under the jurisdiction of the County Sheriff, whose services are paid for by our property taxes.

Last summer, the County announced that they would need to slash the Sheriff’s budget by $2.2 million for 2011, and that they would no longer have the resources (i.e. deputies) for routine patrols or response to non-emergency rural calls. If we wanted more police coverage than that, we would need to approve a special millage on the November ballot. The money raised would be used to contract with the county sheriff or a local municipality for police coverage, or to form a new rural police force.

The assessment would’ve been about $150 per residence and $250 per business. Of course, Mrs. Yeoman Farmer and I voted in favor. We tend to oppose most millage proposals, but police coverage should be a no-brainer. Public safety is one of the few truly essential and appropriate functions that government provides. I simply assumed it would pass, and didn’t even bother checking the election results for several weeks.

As it turns out, the millage in fact failed. Miserably. Each of the thirteen townships voted separately, and the measure only (barely) passed in one. It came close (49%) in one other township. Five other townships were in the low forties. None of the remaining seven townships, including ours, could muster a “Yes” vote in excess of 37%.

Interestingly, the one township which passed the millage has chosen not to contract with the County Sheriff for services. They are instead going to hire a local municipality’s police force to cover them.

Mrs. Yeoman Farmer and I have been scratching our heads and trying to understand the election outcome. MYF’s working theory is it’s similar to the “boy who cried wolf” one too many times not getting taken seriously. She reasons that voters have gotten sick of being told the sky would fall down if they didn’t approve an additional property tax hike, and finally decided to stop listening. That’s a plausible explanation, especially given that our property taxes are supposed to be covering police protection in the first place — and that, according to some locals we’ve spoken to, the county commission has proven itself less than trustworthy on some occasions. No doubt, some voters thought the County was playing “chicken” with us, and would blink if we didn’t.

The County didn’t blink. The first week of January, they in fact cut the Sheriff Department’s staff from 223 to 187 employees. That leaves exactly two deputies on duty at any given time to respond to calls in the entire 440 square miles they are responsible for.

What does that mean, exactly? We’re starting to find out. Earlier this month, when a student took a loaded handgun into a rural middle school, it took deputies 20 minutes to get there.

Fortunately, our townships are not high crime areas. But many of us are concerned that could now change. If you’re a burglar, what better place to ply your trade than one where, even if you’re surprised by a homeowner, it takes the cops 20 minutes to show up?

Of course, burglars know that most of us here in the country are fairly well-armed. Few would be stupid enough to break in when a rural resident is at home. Our family is especially fortunate in this regard; because we homeschool, and because I work on the property, someone is nearly always here. We’re also on a fairly well-traveled blacktop road that’s not far from a municipality, so lots of eyes would be upon someone carting property out of our house. But that’s not true of most other rural homes; many sit empty all day, and are on isolated lanes. What better target than a house where it’ll take a deputy several days to come out and even file a police report of your burglary? Just imagine how contaminated the crime scene will be by then!

Already, there is talk of putting another police millage on a future ballot; it’ll be interesting to see if, as residents experience the reality of life with reduced sheriff coverage, support for a special assessment increases.

In the meantime, what’s especially heartening is the grassroots response in some townships. People aren’t just sitting back and waiting for the criminals to strike, or for government to act on our behalf. In the true American civic spirit, they’re forming voluntary associations to address the problem themselves. Residents of one township, for example, have been extremely aggressive in forming a neighborhood watch. Signs like these:

have popped up all over the rural roads. The churches, including the Catholic church in that township, have been especially active as centers of coordination. Down in the church basement, there’s a big stack of these signs that the Knights of Columbus and others have been working to distribute.

It reminds me a lot of something that happened when we lived in Illinois, and someone in our rural county began setting fire to barns on isolated properties. As the size of territory was too large for police to keep an eye on, a group of locals began organizing active patrols of roads with likely targets. I myself started taking a different route into town, just so I could drive past and keep an eye on more isolated structures. Anyway, after just a couple of weeks, one of the local patrols caught the arsonist fleeing the scene of a fire. They held him until the cops could arrive.

I’m sure hoping it doesn’t come to that here in Michigan. But we’re all ready to step up for our community if it does.