Jonah Goldberg was barely 15 minutes over the border into South Dakota when Johnny Law spotted a bug-and-mud splattered 1991 two-door Fleetwood Cadillac occupied by a man, a woman and a dog. The driver, a male Caucasian, had at least a week’s worth of facial hair. The woman seemed half asleep. Perhaps because she was tired from the journey. Or, perhaps, because she was high.
The guardian of the Mount Rushmore State decided to investigate. He flashed his lights at the blue Cadillac and both cars pulled over. He approached the passenger-side window, perhaps for safety from the interstate traffic, possibly because the potentially fierce attack dog was sitting behind the driver and hence capable of lunging out the window.
The officer was polite, professionally polite. He said hello to the woman, asked the driver for his license and the registration. As the woman cautiously extracted the necessary documents from the glove compartment, she explained that the couple had picked up the vehicle in Alaska, the starting point of their journey to Washington, D.C. — or perhaps, more accurately, their sales trip to the nation’s capital, illegal sales trip that is. The trooper informed the travelers that they’d been speeding, but that he would let them off with a warning — this time. Then, he asked the driver to get out of the car and sit on the passenger side of the officer’s cruiser. The male Caucasian complied, perhaps signaling to his dog to be prepared for anything.
The male Caucasian suspect got into the officer’s car and sat in the passenger seat. The trooper radioed into the dispatcher, giving her the suspect’s information, as gleaned from his driver’s license: “Goldberg. First name: Jonah, J-O-N-A-H: Middle name: Jacob…”. And so on.
Then the officer decided it was time to begin the eternal dance, the great game of cat and mouse, the battle of wits that might end with one of them dead or the other in the stir, the Big House, the Stony Lonesome.
He turned the radar gun’s readout to face the passenger side and said, “You see, sir, I clocked you doing 82 miles per hour.”
“Oh, I believe you,” Goldberg replied quickly. “We’re just tired and in a hurry. It was my mistake.” The apology hung in the air like the dust cloud we’d created when we pulled over to the shoulder of the highway.
And, then, the first move.
“So, Mr. Goldberg. You from Alaska?”
“Actually no. I’m from Washington D.C.”
“I see. What were you doing up there then?” The lawman asked matter-of-factly. But then again, everything about him was matter-of-fact. “Well, we were visiting my wife’s family up in Fairbanks. She’s from there.” “I see. Mmm hmm,” he replied giving the big fish, ironically named Jonah, a little more line before reeling him in. “What do you do out there in D.C.?” he asked.
“I’m a conservative journalist sort of guy. I write for a magazine called National Review and do some other stuff.” Clearly, Goldberg was trying to take advantage of the officer’s law-and-order sympathies. “Conservative” indeed.
“Mmmm hmm, Mmmm, hmmm. Okay, I see.” If Johnny Law was softening, Goldberg couldn’t see it.
“So, I’ve been reading about the drug problem up in Alaska. What do you think about that? You know anything about that?”
Aha! A lunge! The parrying was over! But Goldberg was ready.
“Actually, no,” Goldberg retorted. “I don’t know anything about that. I don’t know Alaska very well. I’m not from there.”
“Mmmm hmm. Mmmm hmmm. Okay, okay. So you don’t have any opinions on that? On the drug problem up there?”
“Ummm, nope.” Goldberg was a stony place where the officer’s questions could find no purchase.
“What about D.C.? How’s the drug problem down there?”
“Well, I’ll tell you, it’s a lot better now that we don’t have a crack-smoking mayor.”
Goldberg laughed at his own comment. Johnny Law does not laugh. He cannot afford to.
“Right, right. Mmm hmm. So, nothing to say about that?” The man with the steno-pad eyes asked hoping there might be some hint of panic, some excuse for the peace officer to become a little less peaceful.
“No, not really,” Goldberg replied. “But, the crime situation is getting a lot better.” Goldberg then attempted light conversation about criminal-justice issues in the nation’s capital. And then he said: “I’ll tell you though, if you really want to know how things are going on that front, you should talk to my wife. She works for the Department of Justice.”
This time, it was the lawman who was being offered some bait.
“Mmm. Hmm. Mmm Hmm. What does she do there?”
“She works for John Ashcroft….the Attorney General.”
“Mmmm hmm. I know who he is.”
Goldberg thought this might have softened the hard man, like a day old bagel in the microwave.
But perhaps not.
Johnny Law tried one last gambit.
“What kind of dog is that?” Johnny Law inquired of the beast in the Cadillac.
The dog’s pointy ears could be seen poking up through the rearview window like some backward canine kilroy from Hell.
“Well, he’s sort of a cocktail of dogs,” Goldberg responded, worrying immediately that “cocktail” might too citified a word to use on this Justice Bringer of the Prairie. “He’s supposed to be half Australian cattle dog and half lab. But we go back and forth about what he might have in him.”
“Mmmm, hmmm. Right. I have a lab,” the officer responded.
Goldberg relaxed a bit, thinking, ah, we’re going to make small talk about dogs. I can do that. But then, in the same breath — for a good lawman never wastes what could be his last gasp of the sweet ambrosia of American freedom — Johnny Law gestured to the rear of the vehicle behind the cage which separated the driver’s side from the back seats. “He’s a drug dog.”
Goldberg looked through the checkerboard of metal in search of the man’s K-9 partner, but the backseat was empty. Goldberg wondered for a moment whether he was supposed to pretend the dog was actually there. But Goldberg decided to play it cool responding in as friendly a tone as he could muster. “Yeah, labs are the sweetest dogs.”
“Mmm hmm. Right,” the peace officer replied with metronomic predictability, once again studying his subject the way the spider assays the fly. Goldberg didn’t know how much longer he could withstand this polite questioning without cracking. Days? Months? Indefinitely? Still wasn’t it possible that even his complete innocence and goodwill might not protect him from his inquisitor’s zeal forever? And what about his impatient wife in the car? What furious chain of events — and possibly gunfire — might be unleashed should she emerge from the Cadillac looking for answers? But just then, as Goldberg pondered whether he should compliment or perhaps even pet the officer’s invisible dog, a voice crackled on the radio. It was the dispatcher.
“He’s clean,” she declared.
“Okay, thanks” the officer replied into the transmitter, using all the proper codes. “Well, it was nice talking to you,” Johnny Law offered Goldberg with a tone of collegiality, professional collegiality that is. “Like I said, you were speeding but I’m going to let you off with a warning. I know you’re in hurry, but you’ve got to be careful. Have a good day.”
Goldberg thanked the officer and exited the vehicle.
The cruiser followed Goldberg’s prairie-sky blue Cadillac for a half mile or so, both cars adhering to the posted speed limit. Then Johnny Law pulled to the left, slowing down to take a U-turn onto the westbound lane of the interstate, pointing back toward the Wyoming border. Another dust cloud rose up as this South Dakotan sentinel aimed his cruiser for Big Sky country, in search of wrongdoers — especially wrongdoers with drugs — who assume South Dakota is the Devil’s playground too.
Jonah Goldberg never saw Johnny Law again, but even now he thinks often about the man with the badge and the invisible dog, feeling secure in the knowledge that at least one corner of this blessed land of ours is safe.
EDITOR’S NOTE: You may have also read this on Jonah’s travel blog earlier this week. We reprint it with Cosmo’s permission.