Red Lights, Big Trouble

Red Lights, Big Trouble

By Claire Wolfe

November 15, 2003

The Young Curmudgeon had a slight mishap a while back. One night his old pickup slid on ice, skidded into a ditch, bounced a couple of times, rolled itself up in a coil of barbed wire, sailed over the back of a cow, and landed upside down in a patch of cactus.

Mudge himself, who needless to say wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, also ended up in a patch of cactus, but right-side-up. As it happened, he was so relaxed from a 12-pack of beer that he just sort of flopped like a Beanie Baby when he hit the ground and didn’t break.

He hiked back into town, where, shortly after dawn, Janelle-the-waitress laid him out on the counter at the Hog Trough Grill and Feed. After she tweezed out a few hundred needles and served him a cup of what passes for coffee at the Hog Trough, he was just fine and went off to reclaim his truck from the cow herd.

Those who were there for breakfast say it was quite a spectacle. Unfortunately I missed it.

Even more unfortunately, nobody could miss what came next.

And now I have a confession. Forgive me. All these years, I’ve told you my little mid-nowhere town of Hardyville is the last remaining land of the free. I’ve told you it’s got (almost) no politicians, hardly any laws, no patience whatsoever with government-type fools or the people who love them, and lots of self-reliance and defiance and just plain Don’t-Tread-on-Me-ness. Well, that’s true. Almost entirely true.

But until now I couldn’t bring myself to mention the Hardyville Committee to Make Everybody Do What’s Good for Them, Whether They Enjoy it or Not.

Yeah, even here. They’re everywhere. Wherever two humans gather, one will likely decide to fix the other one. There was probably even a Committee to “improve” every paleolithic cave and pre-historic jungle compound. (“All persons are required to wear half a coconut shell to protect their heads while playing fnoogle.” “Mastodons may not be hunted with high-capacity spears measuring more than 10 gnughfs in diameter …”)

So anyway, after Mudge’s roller-coaster ride, our particular Committee (THCTMEDWGFT,WTEION, for short) decided we needed … a red-light camera. Never mind that his flight over the cows had nothing to do with red lights. You’re just thinking logically, silly you. You’re probably the sort of person who, if you got attacked by Arab terrorists, would start looking for Arab terrorists, instead of confiscating knitting needles and investigating library books.

The reason they chose a red-light camera instead of some drunk-driving law or seatbelt nanny thing was that right after Mudge went sailing they got a letter from the famous corporation, General Snoopomics Unlimited.

I don’t have the letter in front of me, so I can’t quote it exactly. But a really good paraphrase would go like this:

Hey, you gummints, you wanna make a gazillion bucks for your cops while snookering your citizens into getting more tickets and having more accidents? Then plot with us to have your traffic enforcement done by merciless, unthinking, privacy-invading cameras placed at stoplights. We’ll install ’em and only take half a gazillion in profits for helping you pull off this scam. What a deal, huh?

That was the gist of it, anyway.

Hardy County sheriff’s deputy Emin Borgo was the fella who got the letter (what with the sheriff himself being way off on the borders of the county, firing warning shots at ATF and IRS agents trying to cross over from the adjacent Kingdom of Deseret). Too darned bad Borgo’s a THCTMEDWGFT,WTEION-ophile.

He put his head together with Committee members and they figured that if they cut the yellow light on our one-and-only stoplight down from 6 seconds to 3 seconds, they could cause twice as many people to run red lights and with the camera catching everybody, even at 3:00 am. when there was nothing for anybody to endanger, the county government, such as it is, could make big bucks off a whole mess of suckers.

Borgo and the Committee managed to buy and put up a camera at Hardyville’s stoplight before the rest of us even plucked the feathers or lighted the kindling under the tar vat.

We didn’t even know what they’d done.

The first sign was when Mudge pushed the light as he’s done ever since he was 12. He always knew exactly how long that light stayed yellow. But with the shorter light, Mudge and his old pickup got only half-way through the intersection before getting broadsided by a tourist in an Infiniti. Mudge was very relaxed again and nobody got hurt. But there was no profit in ticketing Mudge. That boy hasn’t got even a funny-money government dime to his name. When Borgo finagled around and tried to ticket the Infiniti owner, it turned out the deputy had tangled Hardy County up with a hot-shot and mad-as-hell Denver lawyer. Uh oh. No profit, there, either.

Next thing that happened, once we found out what was going on, was that, somehow, every morning, that camera just wasn’t working. It was malfunctioning due to perfectly natural environmental factors, like spray paint. Or .22 LR bullets.

Even after Borgo climbed the pole (the regular Hardyville maintenance crews said they’d be happy to watch and maybe even think about trying to catch him if he fell) and fixed the camera, somehow it kept failing to catch good images of licence plates so they’d know who to mail the tickets to. This was possibly due to reflective sprays and reflective films on the plates that made the camera catch nothing but glare.

The camera-foilers were on the license plates of tourists and truckers. Hardyvillians, of course, don’t have government licenses on their vehicles. The government doesn’t own their pickup trucks; they do. The lack of local license plates for the camera to photograph was another major miscalculation. Deputy Borgo was reduced to studying pictures of vehicle grilles, saying, “That Chevy with the hoof-shaped dent must be Nat’s” and “There’s a ‘Semper Fi’ bumper sticker on that one, so Carty gets a ticket.”

And you know what? Not even Borgo or the most dedicated THCTMEDWGFT,WTEION-er was all that enthusiastic about delivering red-light tickets to Nat, the county’s toughest old horse-breaker, or Carty, a 250-pound all-muscle dude who looks like Jesse Ventura.

Sorry, no big cash flow there, either.

By this time, though, Hardyvillians were getting tired of playing games and decided to end the nonsense. So one night everybody agreed to cool it with the .22s. Instead Bob-the-Nerd got boosted to the top of the pole in the county maintenance crew’s cherry picker. He made a few adjustments.

The next morning, with Bob and his laptop computer keeping watch from half a block north at the Hog Trough, every member of The Committee who passed by discovered that, instead of the nice, short yellow light they wished on everybody else, they got a light that changed to red (strictly due to unforeseeable malfunction!), the second they put wheels into the intersection.

Carty and Nat were waiting just ahead to make citizens arrests for reckless driving, running the red light, and being generally a nuisance to other folks who just want to mind their own business.

That morning, every true Hardyvillian — that is, everybody not on the Committee — discovered that the yellow light stayed on just as long as he needed it. Then finally Mudge came screeching down the highway with Deputy Borgo in hot pursuit. Somehow (another unexplainable malfunction!) the light stayed green a long, long time to let Mudge through. Then – BAM! — it went red right on the squad car.

You know something else? In Hardyville, law enforcers don’t get special immunities. Nat and Carty were waiting for Borgo, too. Fifty citizens were ready to testify that Mudge had done nothing wrong and that Deputy Emin Borgo had shamelessly endangered the public safety through an unjustified hot pursuit, carelessly running a red light with dozens of children, old ladies, and small pink poodle dogs in the crosswalk. And if anybody doubted it – why, there was the red-light camera photo to prove it.

A weekend spent crammed together in our one-and-only jail cell made Borgo and The Committee a lot less fond of each other. During that weekend, Hardyville maintenance crews changed the timing on the yellow light from 3 seconds to 8 seconds, since every study shows a long yellow light is the way to make an intersection safer.

The next Monday, as all Hardyville cheered in the street below, Bob-the-Nerd was lifted back to the top of the pole. He detached the camera, brought it down, and handed it over to Mrs. Nat. She runs the annual Tots and Pets with Santa photo fundraiser. The camera is now actually making money the old fashioned way. By earning it.

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