judge dean

I read in my hometown paper that the honorable Judge James P. Dean passed away recently.

I went to school with both of the Judge’s daughters, the youngest graduating top of my class.  His wife taught me about cooking and sewing in a junior high home economics class geared for boys called Personal, Social, and Community Living.  Judge Dean was the Municipal Judge in my hometown for 30 years. In his tenure on the City Hall bench, he presided over 3,200 cases per year; some 96,000 cases all told, the simple math tells us.  While reading Judge Dean’s obituary that detailed his lifetime of commitment and service to my home town, I couldn’t help but laugh as my memories took me back to one fateful summer morning in May, 1981.  In particular, the morning I finally got to meet Judge Dean.

My Pop was a common sense disciplinarian.  He wasn’t a belt swinging guy;  he was much to cerebral for corporal punishment.  He was never a micro-manager, always picking and criticizing and butting in.  Much like a few bosses I have had in the past, he expected common sense to rule in the discharge of daily duties.  And as a reward for functioning a few levels above numb nut, he stayed out of your business, pretty much.  If you didn’t hear from him, you were doing well.  But may the good Lord be with you if he sought an audience/evidence review at the kitchen table.  Pop’s cut and dried, “my way or the highway” approach served him well.  The trail to your offense was generally laid out like a road map, with the forty-seven routes to a semi-acceptable outcome highlighted in excruciating detail.  There was the lightest smattering of words to acknowledge the fumbling, poorly planned transgression.  It was of no real consequence now.  There was only value in understanding the life’s lesson learned.  Confessions and admissions to the colossal size of your stupidity were never coerced.  You gave them freely and hoped not to disappoint.

For you see, while fetching my sister from a piano lesson, a shapely bottom and a tanned pair of long legs attached to a girl pumping gas distracted me from my driving duties.  My heart sank to my knees as I looked back to 12 o’clock just in time to see the gigantic, steel business end of Howard Anderson’s wrecker looming just a few yards in front of me and closing fast.

I stomped the brakes as hard as my Converse-shod foot would allow, but it was to no avail. The tow bar appeared to hover, as only something covered in rust and weighing 400 pounds could.  It was hanging off the ass of that wrecker and arranged perfectly parallel with the roadway. The little white Toyota coupe never stood a chance.  I force-fed it a good two rusty feet of that tow bar.  The hood crinkled and faulted into a foot tall vertical fold, shedding large flakes of white paint on the way. Coolant hissed into steam and sprayed from underneath the car in a growing puddle. Steam floated into the air and condensed on the windshield. My sister began to shriek in panic fearing jail or worse.

I had managed to skewer my Mother’s little Toyota right through the radiator – on the tow bar of a wrecker, no less, just a mile or so from home.

It was a helpless feeling of dread that washed over me when Pop’s red truck made the turn on to Shiloh Road. Briefly, I considered fleeing the scene, leaving my little sister to her own fate, and taking my chances with the wild animals in Sharp’s Bottom. Unable to call up the nerve to run, I stood my ground and tried to second guess the outcome as the truck swayed to a stop and the driver’s door swung open.

Pop never acknowledged my existence, really. Instead, he made a beeline for the cop and the car. The officer on the scene gestured and pointed here and there and at me. I stuffed my hands farther into my jeans pockets and swept a few gravels aside with my sneaker.

Then Pop steered for the damaged car. He peered under the hood, now shaped much like a Scout pup tent. Digging his pen knife from a front pocket, he rocked up on his toes, exerted some force, and momentarily emerged with the fan belts in hand. The belts got tossed in the back of the truck. He took my sister in tow and told me to take the Toyota, even though damaged, and follow him directly home.

Once we got home, he lectured me briefly on what my future goals would be regarding the actual distance my head might venture up my ass. There was some finger-pointing, a bit of yelling, and a cost analysis sheet, as I recall. I thought a time or two he might reach back and pop me, but he never did. Not that I didn’t deserve a fat lip, mind you.

Then he left it alone.

The matter of the moving violation I received for slamming my mother’s car into a wrecker at a stoplight came due just as the silence was getting comfortable. Following too closely was the charge.

“Hey, Pop,” I said as I entered the kitchen one morning holding the ticket, “This thing is due in a day or two so I thought I’d go down to the City Hall and pay it. Can I borrow a car today?”

He smiled shrewdly across the top of his half glasses.

“Oh, no, boy. I’m afraid that I cannot help you with transportation for some time,” he said. “In addition, there will be no payment of the ticket. You’ll be going to court to see what Judge Dean has to say about this situation.”

“Court?” I gulped.

“Oh yes.  Court.” he said softly

Pop had a plan.  His plan was to actively teach me a real world lesson about the consequences of my actions.  I would stew and brood over my fate for the better part of two weeks more. To a fifteen year old with no prior contact with the local law or experience with legal matters, you could have told me that I would shortly be on my way to the Mississippi State Prison at Parchman just as well.

I rose and dressed in my Sunday clothes the morning of my date with the court. Pop kept sticking his head in my room as I prepared, casting looks of gloom and doom. He asked me to hurry up. Apparently, it was a bad omen to be late for your very first – in his humble opinion –  would be a long line of court dates. With breakfast done, Pop and I were off to see Judge Dean.

We were an hour early for my appearance time. Pop lead me to a ringside seat on Judge Dean’s right hand side and motioned to a chair. There, we sat while Judge Dean processed the drunks, the wife beaters, the drug dealers, the car thieves, and the other flotsam from the night or perhaps week before.

Most were compliant. They hung their heads low in shame and only had a scattered “Yes, sir,” or a groveling, “No, sir,” in response to Judge Dean’s examination of their wrong doings. Others were vocal; defiant, even. One boy was arrested in town on some small infraction, then arraigned on other outstanding charges, and bound over for a bigger court, obviously well on his way to the penitentiary. He lashed out, the anger pronounced heavily by the flecks of spittle flying from his mouth and the fire in his eyes. He loudly denounced his treatment while Judge Dean’s bailiffs drug him backwards on his heels.

I was rattled to the core. The nonstop parade of my locale’s most wanted and their foolish behavior before a person with the power to send them to jail popped every rivet in any idea I might have ever had about a life less than the moderately straight and narrow. And if I had a moment’s clarity, I could have glanced to my left and realized that Pop could barely contain the joy he was experiencing as his plan came to fruition.

The bailiff called my name. Pop elbowed me in the ribs and told me to get moving. I complied and weaved my way through the seats and rows to a worn spot on the granite floor in front of Judge Dean’s bench. My legs felt wobbly and my head was swimming in fear. There I was. All legs and arms and zits, at a loose stance of attention. All I really needed at that point was a cigarette and the blindfold.

Honestly, I don’t remember a word that Judge Dean spoke to me on that morning. I was too busy trying not to pass out on the man’s floor to pay any attention to what grains of wisdom he might be imparting to me.

Finally he swung the gavel down on his bench and the sullen thump snapped me to my senses.

“I’m going to assume for your sake, Mr. Madden, that I shall not being seeing you in my court room again. Is this a true statement, sir?” said Judge Dean as he leaned over his elbow and affixed my wide eyes with his.

“Yes, sir,” I stammered. “That would be a true statement.”

“See that the charges are dismissed ,” said the judge.

Pop stood up and motioned me towards the double doors in the back of the court room. I wheeled around and bee lined for the hall. The cool air in the dim passage hung heavy with the scent of pine sol and floor wax. I loosened my neck tie, wiped the remaining beads of sweat from my forehead, and shouldered a section of wall to compose myself.

Pop sauntered out shortly and I followed him to the car, humbled but relieved.

I don’t recall what transpired on the drive home. Time has erased our conversation – if there was any – from my memory.  But I can tell you with no great amount of certainty, that for the rest of my time at home with Pop, I never again wrinkled another fender on one of his cars.

He knew how to teach young folks a memorable lesson.

 originally publish in Smoking Toaster, May, 2009.

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