Vice Squad: Friday Night Lights

Vice Squad here. A lot of folks have been asking what the requirements are to join the Squad. There’s one: You’ve got to be willing to get your hands dirty. And if you want to be the Bureau Chief like yours truly, you’ve got to be willing to get your hands real dirty. Even if it means causing collateral damage to the ones you love.

Which leads me to this past Friday night. Just as quittin’ time rolled around, the Editor-in-Chief of Abnormal Use Jim Dedman — called. I swore under my breath. This was not going to be good.

“Buck, it’s Dedman. I need Vice Squad on assignment. Tonight.”

“I’ll bet you do, Dedman.”

“Listen, playboy,” he says. “I don’t want any attitude from you. This is on a short fuse, and so am I.”

I chuckle at his melodrama. “I’m listening.”

“I need you for a special assignment. I need you to go to the fair — the Upper South Carolina State Fair.”

“Yeah, I’m familiar with the fair, Jim. But I’ve got better things to do. Why don’t you send your sister’s kids or something?”

“Not a chance, Buckingham. First of all, I love my sister’s kids. Second, I need professional boots on the ground. Unfortunately, you’re all I’ve got.”

“If it’s so important, why don’t you go?”

“Buckingham, don’t test me! You know I’m afraid of clowns! Besides, I’ve got a wine-tasting at The Commerce Club in half an hour. You’re going.”

“I’d love to, Jim. I really would. But I’ve already got plans with my girlfriend. Maybe next year.” I felt good about this response. The girlfriend card usually worked.

“That’s just it, Buck. She’s going with you.”

“Ohhhh no,” I protested. “Catie’s a good girl. She’s got an innocent heart. She can’t handle this. She’s from Massachusetts! She’ll never be able to handle a Southern fair.”

“She’s got to grow up sooner or later. Turns out tonight’s the night.” My blood was boiling. “You probably want to get there around 7. Oh, and Buck?”

“What’s that, Jim?”

“Be careful out there, Buck,” Dedman laughed as he hung up the phone.

God, I hate him.

I headed back home to break the news to Catie. At first she thought I was kidding. But as I explained this wasn’t a joke, Catie broke down in tears. “Please don’t make me do this,” she pleaded. “I’m sorry, honey. Dedman says we have to go.” Her tears were pouring now. “God, I hate him!” she cried. I know, baby. I do, too.

I do, too.

We got to the fair around 7 pm. Catie and I immediately made our first pass through the attractions. It smelled like funnel cake and cow manure. I was instantly taken back to my days as a young man growing up in East Tennessee going to the Appalachian Fair. Back in those days, I would look forward to August with eager anxiety. Not for the beginning of school. But for the arrival of the fair. I could not be kept off the Pirate Ship, the Gravitron, the Tea Cups, or whatever new ride had been set up for the sole and express purpose of making me sick. I couldn’t get enough. And neither could the tens of thousands of people who showed up from the “metropolitan” area. I use the word metropolitan in quotation marks because there is very little metropolitan in the Upper East Tennessee / Southwest Virginia / Western North Carolina area. The only more inappropriate word choice for my homeland would be cosmopolitan. But I digress.

So I used to ride the rides with reckless abandon. It was not possible for me to care less about who was operating these rides, or more importantly, who was assembling them. Had they received training in proper operation and safety procedures? Who was responsible for inspecting the rides? Was this a drug-free work environment? It didn’t matter. The only questions I cared about were: (1) how long was the line; and (2) did I have enough tickets. Beyond that, the only training I required of my ride operators was the taking of tickets.

Flash forward to Friday night. There I stood in the middle of the thoroughfare grappling with the more safety-conscious questions I never bothered to ask in my youth. I decided very quickly that it would take a lot of money—a lot—for me to get back on those rides today. In fairness, it probably wouldn’t take that much money for me to get on the Pirate Ship. It was probably more dangerous for me to be standing on the ground looking at it than to actually ride. By contrast, if you want me to ride the county-fair knock-off version of the Tower of Terror, you had better bring your check book and a deed.

After 30 glorious minutes of carousing at the fair, we decided we’d had enough of that and headed over to the demolition derby. I know what you’re thinking, ladies. Yes, I am that classy. And no, I am taken.

The derby was everything I had hoped it would be, and more. Ten cars entered the event—bearing names like Widowmaker, Doom, Kat Dog, Family Tradition, Trailer Park Bandit, and (crowd favorite) Christine. One car made it out. Let me take this to Serious-Town for a minute: Winning a demolition derby is an impressive feat. Whether you believe it or not, there is strategy. The best drivers will charge at their opponents in reverse. That way, the charging drivers can cause damage to the engine blocks or frames of their opponents without risking damage to their own. Consequently, some of the best cars in the derby are ones with long frames and low profiles. This is almost certainly something that Cadillac designers in the 70s didn’t think about when they made a car with lots of trunk space, but now, in 2011, it’s an extremely useful feature.

More than winning, though, the most impressive feat from Friday night was avoiding arrest. Yes, arrest. It seems there was an altercation during the demolition derby. For an event where motor vehicle collisions are encouraged, it is almost inconceivable that a collision during the race could cause a fight. But cause a fight it did. I’m not entirely sure what happened, and not surprisingly, eyewitness accounts vary. But after the first round, the driver of “Doom” got out of his vehicle and sat in his window Bo Duke style pointing back at one of the other drivers. I immediately rose to my feet. Catie turned to ask what was going on. Oh, dear, sweet, innocent Catie. If you knew anything about racing, you would know that when a driver gets out of his vehicle during a race, there is going to be a fight. It’s a law as universal as gravity. This law is true whether we’re talking about NASCAR, indy car, go cart, or Mario kart. It’s especially true when there’s pointing involved.

Friday night was no different. The driver who got pointed at eased himself out of his car and extended his arms in a “You want a piece of me?” gesture. Turns out, the pointing driver did want a piece of the other guy and went charging at him across the arena.

Now here’s a practice pointer for any would-be race participants out there. If you are ever driving your car and you find yourself in a situation where you have asked another driver if they want a piece of you, and the other driver indicates that he does, do yourself a favor: Do Not Remove Your Helmet. I have no idea whether racing helmets are designed to withstand crushing fist blows from opponents. But I have a sneaking suspicion that racing helmets are better designed for absorbing such blows than, say, the human face.

This information would have been helpful for the guy who asked if anyone wanted a piece of him. Like a gentleman, he removed his helmet before the fight. He then promptly received a swinging punch to the left jaw, which he took like a gentleman—a gentleman that had just been shamed with a fist in front of a live studio audience. The 2,000 or so in attendance collectively groaned “Ooohhh,” affirming the everyone’s belief that the punch did, in fact, look like it hurt. Then the crowd erupted in cheers.

Somewhere in this mess, the pit crews charged into the arena. This is never a good sign, yet simultaneously, always a great sign. More punches were thrown. Then the cops ran in. Again, the crowd went wild. South Carolina’s finest subdued one of the punch-throwers by twisting his arm up his back. It is at this point that I witnessed one of the greatest acts of bravery / loyalty / stupidity I have ever had the privilege of seeing. One of the pit crew (I think) charged at the guy who had been subdued by the cops and delivered a punishing uppercut—while the cops were holding his victim back. I wanted to scream “Finish Him!” and start typing in a code for a fatality but couldn’t find a gaming controller anywhere. Fortunately, the cops read my mind, grabbed that guy, and before anyone knew it had him cuffed and stuffed, ready for intake.

After that, the race was pretty mundane. Sure, there was a crash that nearly took down a light pole. And there was an oil fire. But you know, no big deal.

After the race, I looked at Catie and asked, “Well, what did you think of your first Southern fair?” Her response was two words: “I’m horrified.” Fair enough.

Vice Squad out.