Sunday, July 13, 2008

Burgers, Bullets and Stray Toenail Clippings

Today’s guest blogger is Doug M. Cummings, who spent eight years as a Kansas deputy sheriff and the next twenty-five as a television and radio crime reporter. He is the author of the Reno McCarthy crime novels, the most recent of which is Every Secret Crime (Five Star/Gale), just out in June. He can be reached through his website at

By Doug M. Cummings

My latest book, Every Secret Crime, is about a TV reporter who puts his life at risk to solve a series of murders in an upscale Chicago suburb.

I searched my memory for experiences that would illustrate similar risks I’ve taken, first as a law enforcement officer and, later, as a crime reporter in television and radio.

I spent my first two years of eight on the sheriff’s department riding with senior deputies. Larry was my favorite partner. As easygoing as he could be, nothing ever riled him. Until we stopped at a chain burger joint one day for lunch and the kid working the drive-up window tried to kill us.

Larry and I were talking as we waited for our food. He stopped in the middle of a sentence and said, “I’m not believing this. Check out the mirror.”

We were parked in such a way that we could see a reflection of the preparation table. The kid put a burger on a bun. I watched a little longer. Saw him take another burger off the stove top with tongs, turn around, dip it in a sink filled with soapy water, give it a swipe with a dirty towel, slap it on the bun and throw on some cheese. He wrapped both McDishwaters, dropped them into a bag and brought them to the window.

Larry was furious. He stormed into the restaurant, demanded to see the manager on duty and arrested the kid for trying to poison us. The charge didn’t stick, of course, but my resolve did. I haven’t eaten at that chain in thirty years.

Several weeks later, in plainclothes this time, I went to lunch at a new Italian joint with the department’s legal advisor and another deputy, also plainclothes. The waitress brought our orders and we dug in. I was enjoying the meal until Joe, ever the eagle-eyed lawyer, pointed to my plate, laughed and said, “What’s that? Looks like a toenail.”

It was.

This time, I was furious. Out came the I.D. wallet. The terrified waitress brought over the flustered owner. We all trooped to the kitchen and nearly gave the cook, the owner’s sixty-five year old mother, a heart attack. The owner almost wept he was so embarrassed. He apologized. He swore he had no idea where the toenail originated. In the middle of the kitchen, he whipped off his shoes to show his untrimmed nails and ordered his mother to do the same. Before his daughter took hers off, I demanded a container for the toenail, seized it as “evidence” and left muttering words like health department and newspaper.

It wasn’t until we were in the car headed back to work that I realized (a) I had clipped my nails two nights before and (b) the sport coat I was wearing had probably been on the bed beside me when I did.

We seriously considered driving back so I could apologize. Really.

Speaking of driving, as a young TV reporter I often hung out with our station’s news photographers. I wanted to learn their craft so I could add another skill to my resume. One night, I was partnered with Steve, the youngest and most eager of the camera guys. We covered a meeting and were returning to the station after getting footage of a high-school football game when an armed-robbery call came out at a local pizza place. We were only a couple of blocks from the joint so we headed there, knowing our ten-o’clock anchor loved to lead his newscast with crime stories, even run-of-the mill stickups.

As we pulled up, however, I noticed two things that would make our coverage of this robbery a tiny bit different than usual.

The crooks were just leaving the building.

We’d beaten the cops to the scene by about ten seconds.

As an aside, I should point out that television stations back then, as now, provided their photographers with vehicles that resembled unmarked police cars.

All the crooks heard and saw was a collection of official-looking Fords, with us in the lead, rushing toward them. They opened fire, jumped into their own car and sped away.

Steve, pissed at the bad guys for shooting at us and eager to get some video, took off in pursuit. What he failed to consider was the order of vehicles: bad guys’ car (with guns), followed by our car (no guns), followed by police cars (with guns).

Sirens wailed. Lights flashed. More shots exploded.

Steve grabbed his camera. I grabbed the wheel from the passenger side while he leaned out the driver’s window far enough to tape the fleeing felons, then pretzel around and catch the cops in pursuit.

Since I was trying to cram my entire body under the dash, wondering if the chili-dog I’d eaten at the game was going to come back to haunt me, I steered us over a curb, through a fence and into a muddy yard. Conveniently, that allowed Steve to get a wide shot of the bad guys banging away and the cops speeding past, with an officer in the lead car returning fire. Several blocks later, the bad guys crashed their car and the police took them into custody.

Of course, the cops were thrilled by our participation in the chase. So were our bosses.

The police expressed their gratitude for our assistance by issuing us four tickets (who knew “driving from the wrong side of the vehicle” was a traffic offense?).

The station manager barred both of us from driving station-owned cars. Forever.

The video aired on our newscasts and even made it to the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. Because Steve, professional that he was, had tape rolling as we arrived at the scene, my first astute observation was included for the entire world to hear:

“Hey, do those guys have guns?”


Anonymous said...

Too funny, Doug. (-:
I could sit here all day and read "war stories" like that.
I really enjoyed your post.
Pat Browning

Jaden Terrell said...

Great stories, Doug. I hope you'll join us again.


Unknown said...

Doug, your stories have made my day. Please come back again and share more of them. But now you've posed a dilemma: How do I follow that?

Debra Purdy Kong said...

Love the toenail story, Doug, but I'm thinking twice about eating out again.

Debra Purdy Kong

Doug M.Cummings said...

I loved writing this and joining you guys. I would be happy to come back anytime!