Big versus little

I've been a journalist in one form or another now since 1977, when I was a feature writer and book reviewer for the University of Cincinnati News Record. I've written and edited almost every type of journalism, but my two specialities in the middle of my career, when I still believed the only thing keeping most Americans from being well-informed was the lack of a good newspaper, were crime and sports.

After covering more than 100 murder trials in Cincinnati, I'd formed quite a few opinions, based on my own experiences, about cops and criminals. Then I moved to small-town Idaho and had many of my preconceptions turned upside-down.

About the only idea I brought to the Rockies concerning crime that still existed when I moved to Seattle was that there was more stranger-to-stranger crime in cities. The anonymity and the lack of a homogenous population base almost guaranteed violence in situations that in a small town, because almost everyone knows each other, might be talked or at least blustered through.

Set aside murder, rape and armed robbery, and small towns have every bit as much crime as most cities. A lot of simple assault cases made in a place like Seattle just never get prosecuted in a small town. The victim himself often sees the beating he got as nothing more than a whipping stemming from a fight. And wife-beating, at least where I was in Idaho, might have been more common, per capita, than in a place like Seattle.

Small-town folks protected each other even if they knew certain citizens were bad eggs.

After writing about one such local-a construction worker who seemed to get arrested every weekend for fighting, in bars with other guys, and at home with his wife and kids-a so-called pillar of the community, business guy, took me aside.

"You were too hard on Homer (not his real name). He's always been kind of a rough-edged guy. But he has a heart of gold when you get to know him. And I've known him forever."

This clown was serious, and his opinion wasn't necessarily a minority one. "Close ranks!" could be the small-town citizen's motto. Whereas in the cities, even your next door neighbor is fair game for arrest when he or she acts up or acts out.

All of this became crystal-clear to me after four or five years in the mountains.

Once, late for a city council meeting, I ran three stop signs and the town's (then) only red light. When I pulled into the city hall parking lot and jumped out, the town's assistant police chief exited his car and jumped right behind me.

"I thought that was you, assh#@*! You aren't drunk, are ya?"

"No, just late," I said, heart pounding.

"Next time, stop at every other one," he said. I was no longer that East Coast jerk. I was a local. It felt good.

Months later, racing home for work on a Monday morning about 5 with my then-girlfriend after a weekend in Boise, she-an Autobahn-trained German-was doing 85 miles-per-hour or so on an icy, two-lane mountain road, when we heard a siren. Had to be for us, so we pulled over.

It was a state trooper. Short-haired, short-tempered, short (but weight-trained square) in stature.

"Do you know how fast you were going, young lady?" he barked.

"My fault," I said, leaning over the seat. "I was afraid I was gonna be late for work."


"Hey, Troop, how ya doin'?"

"Nice story about the troopers a few weeks ago." He was smiling. Then he reassumed the stern look. "Tell your girl to slow down," he said, and then he was in his car, U-turned and heading back to Boise. But it was the third and final incident involving driving and cops that convinced me I couldn't get arrested in Idaho unless I killed somebody.

My girlfriend and I were eating at Boise's best restaurant. Some kind of celebration. We drank almost two bottles of wine. She said she was tipsy, so I decided to drive the four blocks back to our hotel. And turned at the last block without the benefit of a turn signal.

Red lights. Sirens. Female cop leaning in my window.

"Hey, I cover cops for my paper. (Name town.) One of them is a Boise cop now. (Name officer.)" I say this in a jumbled rush. The officer gets out of my face, walks back to the patrol car. Small-town cop friend ambles up, shoves me over and drives us the last block to the hotel. "Drink and walk, not drink and drive," he says, and then winks.

Never happen in a city, unless your name is McIver. Locals protect locals in small towns. Cops become buds. Strange and definitely not my way in the urban scene. But too true to deny.[[In-content Ad]]