Yesterday Old NFO put up one of his regular book promotion posts. First on his list was a memoir by Ben English titled “Black and White: Tales of the Texas Highway Patrol“.
It’s not an easy book to read if you’ve been part of law enforcement or an associated service. Ben tells it like it is, including the painful, heart-rending moments (and yes, there are more than enough of those!). However, it’s also entertaining, and rings very true.
I chose one of Ben’s stories for this morning’s Snippet.
THE CURSE OF CHRISTINE
Men who spend much time in perilous pursuits often enough become attached to what most others consider an inanimate object. They talk about them as if they have their own personality, likes and dislikes, character flaws and mood swings.
That is why airplanes are given individual nicknames, and during past wars have not only nicknames but attending elaborate nose art, sometimes a bit on the risqué side. Ships live double lives under different monikers in the military, being christened with one with a ceremonial bottle of champagne and receiving another once at sea. Often enough, for one of those particular traits mentioned before.
Same goes for a gun or a knife, usually one that has drawn more than its fair share of blood.
Locomotives, large trucks, space modules, axes, land holdings and heavy equipment can also be members of this unnatural club.
And patrol cars? Oh, most certainly, and sometimes for all the wrong reasons.
Enter Christine, a hopefully long gone 1988 Dodge Diplomat with a continual black cloud overhead, and an even blacker mechanical heart within. We named her after the Stephen King horror movie concerning a certain diabolical ’58 Plymouth Fury possessed by some sort of demon. Thirty years in age separated the two, but a diabolical old Mopar is still a diabolical old Mopar.
Much like the rest of my career in the highway patrol, we were shorthanded then. This meant we each had our own unit, save for the rookies fresh out of the academy and still being trained. During those times Christine would sit behind the area office both untrusted as well as unwanted, and probably plotting against us all.
But when our unit went down or we took one out of the sergeant area for a special assignment, Christine was brought into active duty.
You would approach her with keys in hand, putting on a brave front and telling yourself she was nothing more than sheet metal, glass and rubber. In turn she would glare back in open disdain, much like a very mean and drunk red headed woman, looking to mess somebody up. You tried to play nice because you knew that she could, if she took a notion. Yet in return she didn’t care, she was going to try to mess you up anyway.
Stories of mischief and mayhem among the area troopers abounded about that car. Brave men would visibly wince when Glen Redmon delivered his sentence to the newly condemned: “Take that black and white Dodge parked out back,” and he would toss you the keys.
Norbert Ortiz and his rookie had to use it one time and promptly blew a water hose. All those hoses had been replaced prior, save for the bypass between the intake and the water pump. Those hoses never blew, I have seen thirty-year-old Mopars with the same one as installed at the factory. Mind you, Christine was only two years old.
Guess what happened next?
That car had its own peculiar aura, you could spot it in a sea of other black and white Dodges. It squatted different, it looked different, it started different, if it would start at all.
One day Norbert spotted me completely across Interstate 10, and hollered on the radio.
“Why’re you driving Christine?”
“Headed to San Antonio to pick up a prisoner.”
“Really? (pause) I’ll go light a candle at the church.”
At one juncture Norbert was idly considering finding an exorcist. But he finally decided against the idea because, as in his own words, “It’d probably only make her mad.”
One of her other little tricks was to run out of gas when the gauge still showed fuel. Sometimes it would be an eighth of a tank, a quarter of a tank, or as in some reports from hapless troopers, over a quarter of a tank.
You just never knew with Christine. Of course, you never knew a lot of things that might occur with that car.
Finally, there was the braking system. When you hit the brakes you never had the same pedal feel and response twice, and none of them felt really good. Lay into the anchor really hard, and for some crazy reason the windshield washer would start spraying.
This was really disconcerting during some high speed, high intensity work and you learned to hit the windshield wipers in a flash to clear your vision ahead. That is, if the windshield wipers worked.
That was when the ugly rumors got started about the car having one true calling in life, and that was to severely injure or kill any unwary highway patrolman within her immediate vicinity.
And that old Diplomat would just sit there, plotting and planning to scare the bejesus out of the uninformed or unwary.
In truth, I was one of the luckier of the unlucky hands having to drive her from time to time. I had my own Diplomat, a 1989 model, that proved not only as reliable as an anvil but by far the fastest Dodge Diplomat I ever crawled into. There are some who say I helped in making that possible, but there lies another story for another day.
Then, the fickle finger of fate drifted my direction. I was chosen to attend the Specialized Performance Driving Instructor School at College Station and Glen Redmon pronounced sentence on me:
“Take that Diplomat parked out back.”
I arrived at College Station in one piece and began to breathe a little easier, maybe Christine was going to behave herself for once. That single ray of hope disappeared into the black cloud that always seemed to hover around her, the moment she planted the first Goodyear Eagle GT on the track.
It was kind of like trying to ride an outlaw bucking horse in a steeplechase, one with the unpredictability and uncanny intuition as Ol’ Fooler in the classic modern cowboy film, The Rounders.
This was a demanding course, as any instructor course should be. Short straightaways, decreasing radius curves, chicanes, emergency lane changes, cone weaves, you even had to come to a complete stop within a certain number of inches and then run part of the course backwards, before coming to another emergency stop at the end.
You ran this course over and over, day and night, with and without ‘rabbit’ cars and occasionally the layout changed to keep you on your toes. And through it all, Christine was doing everything she could to make it tougher, and at the most inopportune times.
Remember everyone’s complaint about the brakes?
Then there was the backing portion, if I managed to get the car stopped before plowing into the cones. To properly back the car and be able to see where you were going, the technique was to brace yourself as high as possible above your normal sitting position.
Right arm on the back of the front seat, left foot hard against the floorboard and left hand on the wheel, all three points providing leverage to keep elevated as you looked through the back window. But every time I’d try, the tilt steering would give way and slam into its lowest position. And you never really knew exactly when it was going to do this.
So there I was roaring around the track half blinded by wiper fluid, steering wheel in my lap and fighting the brake system from hell. Oh yeah, Christine was starting to cut out too. But you never knew exactly when or where this would occur.
This led me to overdriving the car, trying to make up for time being lost due to the unpredictability of available power. Like any other instructor course, there was a maximum lap time to qualify and I was dangerously close.
Later I was told that one of the chief instructors turned to the other during one of my performances and exclaimed, “You know, that Trooper English drives like a crazy woman slings s—!”
“Yeah,” countered the other. “But he sure ain’t getting anywhere very fast.”
Then Bobby, the prior instructor, declared that no car could be that bad and elected to give Christine a try himself.
He lasted one lap before easing off the track and gingerly coming to a halt. A near chain smoker, he opened the car door and immediately lit a cigarette. Or more accurately, he tried to light a cigarette.
“That sonovab—- is trying to kill someone!” he finally announced after getting his first couple of puffs.
By the beginning of the third day, Christine was dropping cylinders and they weren’t coming back. I had seven, then six, then five, and then only four before she gave it up completely and I coasted to a dead stop in the middle of the road course.
Any attempt to restart the engine proved futile, so we pushed Christine over to the side until the wrecker could come from the local Dodge house.
I had joked with my fellow students on the morning of the first day about Christine, and why she was named that. At first they scoffed, thinking it was another one of those highway patrol tall tales.
Now they were really starting to wonder, too.
We all watched warily as the wrecker driver hooked up and towed her away. No one waved a fond farewell as the rear end of Christine disappeared from view. One of the older troops took pity and allowed me the use of his 1990 Chevrolet Caprice for qualification. When my turn came, on the first pass I knocked nearly a half minute off my best run in Christine.
I received my instructor certification.
However now I had another problem, how was I going to get back to Ozona? Ours was a very small class and our home stations were scattered across the state. One of the guys who lived near Lubbock volunteered to drop me off, but it would be a substantial detour for him to do so.
And if I did that, someone was going to have to come all the way from the Ozona area to pick up Christine, once she was deemed fit to drive again.
Which was always relative in her case.
But again, everything having to do with that car was unpredictable and on Friday morning, we received word she was ready to go. Instead of having to travel all the way to Ozona, my Lubbock ride only had to take me to nearby Bryan. Yet he would not leave until he saw Christine rolling under her own power and me giving the thumbs up.
When I walked into the service area for the dealership, the manager met me with keys in hand.
“Try it,” he advised.
The Diplomat cranked up immediately and settled down into a nice, even purr, hitting on all eight and tying each bundle. Christine never sounded better.
“What did you do?” I asked incredulously.
“I could lie to you” he responded, shaking his head. “But truth is we don’t really know. Yesterday afternoon one of my mechanics decided to try one more time, and it started just like it did for you.”
He shook his head again. “Never could figure out what was wrong, before or afterwards.”
They refused to charge the Department for anything, even for the tow so I signed the release form and pointed that Pentastar hood ornament home. Christine continued to tick over like a finely made Swiss watch.
The trip remained uneventful until I was some miles west of Junction, Texas. Traveling down Interstate 10, I started receiving some garbled radio traffic from Randy Hall, one of our communications operators and a friend of the family.
He was calling my unit number repeatedly, trying to make contact with me. You work long enough with a man who provides a lifeline in occasional deep water, and you can tell by the tone of his voice when something is wrong.
I tried to respond but he could not hear me, and Randy continued to call out my unit number. Checking the gas gauge, I saw the needle on half a tank and we were only about forty miles out of Sonora, my next gas stop.
Sticking my foot into that Quadrajet four barrel, I switched over to the hammer lane and we commenced to passing traffic. Climbing above the Roosevelt area where we could finally hear each other clearly, I learned that Cathy had been rushed to the hospital in San Angelo. Ethan L’Amour [Ben’s son] was trying to come early.
Christine still registered about half a tank so I punched that Dodge up to 110 MPH, and let ‘er roll. About three miles east of Sonora and with the gas gauge still showing a quarter of a tank, the engine lost power, fluttered and died, and I coasted to a stop.
I had no clue as to whether it was the same problem as before, or if that gas gauge was playing the same periodic game as it had on other troopers, or if it was something else. I tried a restart to no avail, said some choice words and picked up the mike to advise Randy of my situation.
Don Van Zandt came back immediately, saying that he was patrolling to the other side of Sonora and would bring some gas to me. This was the quickest, simplest possibility of all the options available, so I hung my hat on the idea and waited.
The weather closed in and I waited some more. Soon enough the sound of rain began sounding on the roof of the Dodge. Still no sign of Don.
I have often thought one of the saddest sights in the world is a highway patrolman alongside the road, broke down or out of gas. Cars went flying by and then braked hard by the dozen, realizing too late that the vehicle they just passed was actually a black and white.
It would have even proved a bit entertaining, if my mind was not upon what was happening with Cathy. That and thinking black thoughts about Christine, who likely cared not the least.
And still not a sign of Don Van Zandt, which was highly unusual for him. Finally, the radio crackled the life again and Don said he would be there in a minute.
True to his word, Don was pulling up soon enough and started putting in gas from a plastic container. As he did so, he explained the reason for his delay.
“Ben, you’re not going to believe this. I already picked up the gas and was headed your direction when this drunk came out of no place, and nearly ran smooth over me. I finally got him stopped and had to find a deputy to transport, so I could get here.”
He paused, looking more closely at the Diplomat. “Say,” he added, “Isn’t this Christine?”
Considering the root cause in this circumstance, I more than believed him. Started to say so in emphatic language too, but Norbert’s words about making her mad came to mind. Right now, I needed this rolling piece of junk to do me one favor, and that was to get me to Ozona.
I thanked Don for his help and we saved the last of the gas to prime the carb. I hit the ignition switch and that small block V8 came to life again. Don, who did not trust Christine any more than anyone else, followed me to the nearest gas station to make sure I made it.
Drunk or no drunk.
I filled the tank and hit I-10 west, once more setting the needle on the 110 mark. Wheeling into the DPS office in Ozona, Randy Hall clued me in as to what he knew about Cathy’s condition. Randy did me many a kindness in the years we worked together, but never more so than that evening.
Pulling into the driveway of our home, I hurried to the front door to pick up some clothes and change into civvies before starting for San Angelo. That was when I realized my house keys were on the same ring as those for my regular patrol unit, laying on the nightstand beside the bed.
I was faced with a decision: trust Christine to get me all the way to San Angelo, or break into my own home for the keys to something else.
I broke into my own home.
But as they so often say, “All’s well that ends well.” Ethan ultimately came into this world a month later and at the proper time, though Cathy had to stay with her parents. Due to everything that happened over the past several weeks, the doctor wanted her close to the hospital. So, I bached it in the interim, and I can’t remember having to ever drive Christine again.
But she was still around, and still raising mechanical mayhem.
Not too much longer, Steve Torres arrived to take over the substation in Mertzon after Tom Usery left. Tom, one of the best officers I ever had the pleasure to work with and learn from, had resigned from the force to pursue a career as an attorney. He was one of those rare sort of gifted individuals who were exemplary in whatever they chose to involve themselves in, and this proved to be the case in law school.
Steve Torres was another cut above, and a wonderful human being who always seemed to have a smile and a positive spin for most any occurrence. In police work, you need a man like Steve around to help balance out the ugliness and negativity, and anyone who knew him would say the same.
But when Steve checked into the area, guess what patrol unit Glen Redmon assigned him?
My first memory of Steve Torres was him standing at the back of the Ozona office with Christine’s hood open, peering questioningly inside. I introduced myself and we shook hands, and began talking while heading into the building.
He asked me if there was something wrong with that car.
Two notions dawned on me simultaneously. Steve wasn’t using Christine temporarily due to dire circumstance, as was the area custom. She was going to be his issued unit, and Glen had told him nothing about her sordid past.
I stuck my head inside the sergeant’s office.
“Sarge! You didn’t give him Christine without warning him, did you?”
“Shutup, Ben English” was Glen’s reply.
“But Sarge, that’s terrible.”
“I said shutup, Ben English.” He reiterated, a tad more forcefully.
I shook my head in disbelief and told Steve some of the high, or more accurately, low points concerning his new patrol car. Glen glowered as I did so, the idea of assigning me night shifts forever dancing in his eyes.
Soon enough Steve started reporting on what we referred to only half-jokingly as ‘The Curse of Christine.’ Mostly the same old repertoire of gas gauge troubles, inexplicable leaks, drained batteries and that spooky braking system. But since Steve had to live with her on a daily basis, those weird incidents were a far more common occurrence.
One Tuesday morning Steve came in late for our area meeting, sheer consternation on his usually smiling face.
“Where’ve you been, Scoop?” someone hollered. ‘Scoop’ was his nickname among those who knew him, because his favorite line was “What’s the scoop?” With this, he began to relate yet another personal tale of woe linked to his assigned unit.
Seems that he was enroute to Ozona and checked a speeder running 70 in a 55, heading the other direction. Engaging his emergency lamps, he turned around and gave chase to write a quick ticket before continuing on.
Problem was, Christine would only run 67 miles per hour. No matter what he did or how loud he yelled at her, that was her top speed for the day. He chased the violator for miles and miles, and then finally gave up in disgust.
Next morning he limped her over to the Dodge house in San Angelo, and she ran fine. The mechanics in the shop could not find a single thing wrong with that Dodge.
Coincidentally this occurred on US Highway 67, so we figured that Christine managed to get a highway sign mixed up with the posted limit. 67 MPH sounded like a nice, leisurely speed to go somewhere that morning.
And the next day? Why, that was a brand new day with brand new ideas!
The last time I can recall a story about Christine was when Steve and I attended in-service school together. It was winter time and New Year’s was only a few days past.
And Christine’s heater was not working.
So rather than spend Department money on having her fixed in San Angelo, Glen Redmon told Steve to take the car to Austin and have it repaired at DPS Shops. An ice-cold northerner was blowing when he left, and Steve was half frozen by the time he reached our academy.
Next morning, we dropped off Christine at the shop. While there I went in and visited with some of the mechanics I knew. We shared the same fascination with anything to do with cars, and they always had good information on what was happening at Fleet Operations. One was in a particularly jovial mood; the holidays had been very good to him and he was ready to get to work.
By Wednesday afternoon, Steve had received no progress report on the repairs so we went back during a classroom break. Walking into the building, we ran into that very same mechanic again.
However, he now appeared as the unhappiest of all and near beside himself in gloom. Slump shouldered and moving along listlessly, he paid no attention to me or much of anything else until I hailed him.
“Hey, what’s wrong? You look awful!” I exclaimed.
“I feel awful” he replied ruefully, “I tell you, I’m at my wit’s end.” He held his two hands up, fingers taped by several band aids.
“There’s a Dodge in there I’ve been working on since Monday morning. Should have been done that afternoon, but everything that could go wrong, has gone wrong. It’s like something possessed!”
Then he walked on, mumbling something about a heater core as it all came into focus.
I walked into the main part of the shop and peered around the corner. Sure enough, there sat Christine about three stalls over and backed against the opposite wall. She was on a floor jack, doors open as was the hood with the front seat laying alongside, mixed in with most of her instrument panel and dash.
But she still had that same look to her grille, like she was thinking up something really special. I backed away quietly as to not attract her attention.
That was many years ago, and Christine has almost certainly gone on to where all bad cars with worse attitudes belong. Yet if she is still around someplace and if I ever see her again, I’ll probably entertain the thought of buying her, if I can cheaply enough.
Then I’m going to fill her full of fresh sheep manure, set her on fire, and run her off the highest bluff that I can find in the state of Texas.
However, I am also certain that whatever little good sense I still possess will have me passing on that particular idea.
Like Norbert always said, it’d probably only make her mad…
I’ve (fortunately) never owned, or had to drive, a vehicle like that. However, I’ve heard enough horror stories from others to be aware that they exist.
Have you, dear reader, ever had an automotive “Christine” in your own life? If so, please tell us about her in Comments below.