1971. G.T. and I are at his uncle’s place on the Missouri River. Uncle Ben has a great old white two-story clapboard farmhouse on a hill overlooking the wide, muddy river, tight against the railroad tracks. Sometimes we fish from a sandbar for Jurassic carp, tossing globs of nightcrawlers on large treble hooks, sunk into the lazy brown flow with golf-ball-sized lead weights, or G.T. and I walk the tracks with our .22s and plink whatever looks interesting. This day’s one of those late-summer days: all sun, cumulus, and cicada-song. Carefully placing my feet on the ties, I tread the tracks then spy a Pepsi bottle lying empty on the ground. Tossing it into a dry creekbed, I shatter it with a .22LR.
Just then I sense movement in my peripheral vision. I look up and see three guys sprinting down the tracks toward us; one has a pistol drawn. What the hell? When the trio reaches us, the one who is obviously in charge keeps us under control while the other two run around like pinballs. Then the accusations, staccato-like, “We saw you shoot at a deer.”
“We didn’t shoot at any deer.”
“Then you shot a rabbit out of season!”
“You’re full of shit, I picked up a soda bottle, tossed it in the creekbed, and shot it,”
“Ahh, littering! You guys are under arrest, follow us into town to the courthouse.” The look of satisfaction on his face is palpable.
What we have here, it turns out, are a state conservation agent and two trainees he is trying so hard to impress. We follow their vehicle in ours.
The Warren county courthouse looks like something from the Deep South, am imposing brick structure, foreboding. Inside we are led to a small room and asked to enter a plea. Waiting in the anteroom with us is another young guy, a repeat littering offender, facing a $150 fine and a year in jail. G.T. and I are given a court date and told to be prepared to pay our fine.
When we return I am asked how I plead, “Not guilty!” I reply.
“Then you must post a $500 bail and return for trial.”
Mmmm, this is getting interesting. I don’t know much about the law, and five hundred dollars is probably more money than my parents and I together have in the bank. Sheepishly, I ask, “Can a change my plea to ‘guilty’?” Technically I did toss the soda bottle in the creek.
“Twenty-five dollars and $12.50 court costs, check made payable to the sheriff (is this standard procedure?) With payment of the fine made, the judge turns his attention to G.T. He pleads “not guilty, and, let’s face it, he is not guilty, never having touched the litter-object in question. He posts bail and we leave.
G.T. hires a lawyer and over the next year or so he and I make a couple trips to that courthouse, giving testimony, being grilled like we’ve stolen the Mona Lisa. The judge sits elevated on his bench, like an altar in the temple of justice, bees buzzing through the open windows. Finally, with the passage of time, the conservation agents’ memories of the event have become so tenuous and contradictory that the judge, weary of the whole thing, finally dismisses the charges against G.T. A victory, although pyrrhic perhaps. G.T. feels vindicated but $600 poorer in attorney fees.