Monday, July 10, 2006

Flashback: My Stupid Procrastination Nearly Sinks the Ship but Superb Legal Skill and Old Boy Moxie Saves the Day

[More memoirs for my kids and grandchildren about a state far away and a time long ago].

To all the grandchildren—Thomas, Elizabeth, Catherine, Patrick, Anne- Marie, Bridget, Eileen, John, Kaitlyn, Joseph, Madeleine, Isabella and Genevieve…but especially the boys, Tommy, Pat, Joe and John (some of whom are too small to read this):

Not long ago the feminist writer Gail Sheehy (married to Clay Felker, onetime editor of New York magazine) wrote an article that once again put her on the cutting-edge of hoity-toity New York societal conversation. She said that in addition to the manifold qualities women bring, they also add a civilizing factor that has kept humankind stable for thousands of years. Her views were immediately heralded by that empress of intellectuality Oprah Winfrey. And what Sheehy wrote is true. The only problem is that this powerful insight has been part of conservative familial tradition for generations, most recently—thirty years ago—enunciated by the socio-psychologist writer George Gilder in his masterwork Sexual Suicide, a book that was later re-issued under the title Men and Marriage.

And an intriguing side-bar which also pertains to Oprah is this: Several years ago, Gilder enunciated that very idea on the Oprah television show and was not only denounced by the host but publicly ordered off the studio set and off the air, Oprah saying that she could not stand to hear the demeaning of women, declaring that by saying women “civilized” society, Gilder was specifying that they were good for only supportive roles, like mother, wife and nurturer, and not for the major tasks of society: CEOs, army generals, construction engineers et al. Later when Sheehy said it, Oprah was thrilled. So it depends on who says it, in Oprah’s estimation. But regardless of whether it’s Sheehy in 2006 or Gilder who wrote it in 1976, the idea of women’s great value—in addition to being able to qualify as army generals and construction engineers etc.—is to be the civilizers of society.

I say that at this point in these Memoirs because by 1957, as a bachelor of 29, unconcerned about personal details—bank accounts, orderliness, sending out RSVPs, taking dirty clothes to the laundry before the last clean shirt has been worn—I had been getting by, but just barely so in a harem-scarem sense: emptying my pockets and dumping everything, important bills, letters, notes, keys and spare change in a heap on the dresser before toppling into bed exhausted…forgetting to change the oil in my 1956 Chevrolet until the red light winked…wearing suits that were so wrinkled the trousers looked like I was crouching down in order to execute a broad jump…neglecting often to get a haircut until the hair curled over my back collar (a no-no in the 1950s). Grandsons, if you deduce what I mean is that this is what generally happens when there is no wife, you are right: but you are wrong if you think this is the only reason to have a wife—yet it is often this civilizing factor that not only makes endurance bearable but a continuum. (Not that marriage has made me a paragon of self-management as my wife, close friends and working associates freely testify).

All of this is preface to confessing that when I came to Minnesota, in September, 1953, I had an Illinois driver’s license. I always meant to get a Minnesota drivers license and in fact had gone to the d/l facility in St. Cloud and had taken the written exam at lunch time which I passed. But in that small city on that day, the driver examiner was out ill and no one else could administer the driving test. I hurried back to the office to cover a story by 1 p.m., tucked the notice in my wallet and forgot about it. Several months later, driving on what was now an expired Illinois license, I meant to go back and take the test but when I awakened to the need, it was on Veterans Day and the office was closed. Thus it went. Finally the slip reminding me to take the test was dislodged from my wallet, placed on the bureau with a stack of other things and lost. And frankly, due to my own terminal state of busyness and procrastination, the date expired for the driving test which meant that I would have to take the written test over again. By then I had moved to St. Paul and to an exciting job with the Republican party.

I meant to go to a driver’s facility in St. Paul but as the saying goes: one thing led to another…and I didn’t. In 1957, enmeshed in publicizing the Republicans in the legislature, striving to find a good candidate for governor for 1958 and recovering from a tough case of blood-poisoning caused by getting the ink from a typewriter ribbon I was changing into an open cut on my finger (which, neglected, necessitated a hurry-up trip to the emergency room with a hot and swollen forearm as red streaks were identifiable running up to the elbow)…I didn’t get the Minnesota driver’s license. Recovered from the blood poisoning, I was driving my 1956 Chevrolet over to Minneapolis to celebrate my release from the hospital with a glass of wine with my then girl-friend (I just thought: she may well be dead by now) I saw a police officer on the Franklin avenue bridge linking St. Paul to Minneapolis—an officer with a lighted wand stopping all the cars. I thought: there must be an accident somewhere. Rolling down my window, I asked him pleasantly: “What’s the trouble,?”

He said, “Oh, nothing, sir. This is a routine driver’s license check. Perhaps you’ve read that the Minneapolis city council has ordered spot checks in order to catch those few drivers who may be driving on a suspended or revoked license. Rather silly because there aren’t that many. But we have to do it. May I see your license, sir?”

He looked at it and waved me to the side where his patrol car was parked and signaled that I should join him in the front seat. Where he radioed headquarters.

“It appears we have a real scofflaw here,” he said to the microphone as I listened uncomfortably. “This man is driving on an expired Illinois license—a license that expired four years ago [pause]. That’s right: No, FOUR YEARS EXPIRED! I’ll spell it: f-o-u-r. What? That means what? Okay, I’ll book him.” He turned to me and said, “You’re being booked for driving this vehicle without a license. I’m going to do you a favor—no, two favors. One, I’m going to give you this ticket which requires that you show up in Hennepin county municipal court on a specific date on the charge of driving this vehicle without a license. Second, I’m going to give you some advice. The Judge who will be hearing your case is named Tom Bergin. Does that mean anything to you?”

Yes. Judge Tom Bergin was known as the hanging judge. An absolute devotee of traffic safety, as a DFL state legislator he wrote the Minnesota drivers license act amendments during the time of Governor Floyd B. Olson. Bergin was--.

“Let me tell you this,” said the officer. “It’s unsolicited advice. Get yourself a very good lawyer because the chances are very good that Bergin will find you guilty and sentence you to one hundred days in the Minneapolis Workhouse. You know what just happened to Ron McIntyre. ”

I did indeed. McIntyre was a highly respected evening disc jockey who played classical music late at night in the same mode as the late Franklyn McCormack did on WGN with a soothing voice that went on all through the night. Well, what nobody knew was that after he finished at 4 a.m. after five straight hours of moderating classic music he would go to his satchel and pour himself a stiff drink or two which he mixed with soda. He had just marked his tenth year on the air as a champion money-maker for the station when, in league with his engineer and producer, they poured many drinks instead of two. As the dawn came up and the morning news crew trouped in to prepare the AM broadcast, they were still drinking but adjourned briskly. When McIntyre started his car it jerked forward and he struck a parked vehicle in the parking garage. Then he backed up and hit another one. Then he started down the ramp and missed a turn, hitting the wall. A night watchman called the cops. Whereupon McIntyre swore at him, aimed a blow so inexpertly that he himself lost his balance. A stiff fine was deserved perhaps. But he was stunned when he appeared before Judge Bergin and was sentenced to one hundred days in the Minneapolis Workhouse.

“Don’t think that because you’re somebody on the radio you won’t pay the maximum price for driving drunk!” thundered Bergin. McIntyre protested that it was his first offense, that he never had so much as a parking ticket before and that his career was at an end which it was because the station said they would have to let him go rather than endure the embarrassment of featuring him. Bergin responded, “That’s too bad. Maybe you can listen to WCCO in the Workhouse and resolve to change your ways.” He rapped the gavel and barked: “Next case.”

I had not been drinking but the utter ridiculousness of going four years without a Minnesota license chilled me since I would appear—as a Republican to-boot—before this ex-DFL partisan. The odds looked desperately grim for me. A Republican staffer appearing before a former DFL legislator now a county judge, a judge with close ties to Governor Orville Freeman whom we attacked almost daily, driving with--.

“I want to repeat,” said the officer. “You’ve been in this state four years and never got a license. Four. That’s Workhouse for sure. So get a good lawyer.”

They took the car and I took the bus. I canceled the date that night and called my guru, Mrs. Heffelfinger at the mansion. She sent a driver for me and when I walked in she was furious. I got there at about 8:30 p.m.

“You inconsiderate whelp!” she shouted, frightening me that she would burst a blood vessel in her forehead. “You have let me down!”

Pardon? I have let you down?

“Yes! With you in the Workhouse, I’ll have to find someone else! We can’t have you after you come out of the Workhouse! That was terribly inconsiderate of you!”

I never thought of it that way.

As she raved on, I sat there and thought: So this is the end of Tommy Roeser! My mother will hear that I am in the Minneapolis Workhouse and she will say, “This is what we sent our only child to college for, sent him to Minnesota and he ends up in the Minneapolis Workhouse. What in the name of God happened that our son who left here four years ago didn’t have the civil responsibility to get a Minnesota Drivers license. When he gets out we will have to send money to get him home where as an ex-convict he will probably not be able ever to hold a job again. No decent Catholic girl would ever marry him. He will stay here at home with us for the rest of our lives. Do they even allow ex-convicts to vote? I don’t think so! We will have to support him until we go and then God knows--.


True, I had been pondering first what my mother would say and second how I would fare for one hundred days in the Minneapolis Workhouse. Thus all the while Mrs. Heffelfinger was shouting I was not hearing. And I should have because after she wreaked her wrath on me she was specifying in a stentorian tone an orderly step-by-step basis what would happen. First, she ordered her husband Peavey to call the general counsel of the Peavey Grain Company. The general counsel lived nearby in Wayzata and was just preparing to go to bed since he had a heavy cold. He was ordered to come over immediately. Then he was to refer me to the best criminal lawyer in Minnesota.

“All of this doesn’t matter, of course,” she said. “Judge Bergin being Judge Bergin.” She glowered and kept striking her clenched fist into her open palm. “How very inconsiderate of you!”

He came over at about 9:30 p.m. He listened to her shouting about what an ingrate and insufferable ass I was. Then he interrogated me and took notes, calmly. He said, over a heavy cough and sinus attack, Peavey and Brad, I’m not going to get him a criminal lawyer. I’m going to get--. And he named a man not prominent in the bar. But he was known to both Heffelfingers.

“Why HIM?” expostulated Mrs. Heffelfinger. “He’s a nobody! I think he’s a drinker!”

No, Brad, said the general counsel. He used to be.

“Wasn’t he suspended some years ago?” asked Peavey, mildly.

Yes, but he’s been reinstated.

“But,” she said, “this is a serious case! If this kid goes to stir, we’re out a lot of experience! Why THIS LAWYER NOBODY EVER HEARD OF?”

Because, he said, this man knows what he’s doing in this particular case. Trust me.

“Arnold,” said Peavey Heffelfinger softly but with the air of command I have noticed all rich people seem to have from the day they were born, “Arnold, you know how important this is to us, don’t you?”

I was cheered a bit hearing that I was important.

I do, said the general counsel, blowing his nose into a monogrammed linen handkerchief. Which is why I’m recommending him and I’m calling him this minute.

“BUT!...” said Mrs. Heffelfinger.

But then Peavey intervened.

“My dear, I have complete faith in Arnold. We’ve worked together for twenty years. He knows the court system. Have faith and calm down, dear.” And then directed to him not to her, “We have all relied on Arnold down through the years at the old grain mill and he-has-never-failed-us.”

The general counsel seemed to be unnerved at hearing this, probably reflecting that so much for him personally appeared to be at stake. He gave me a thoughtful, unfriendly look as if I were a specimen under a microscope. Then he got up went to the phone in the next room. He spoke softly but, straining, we managed to overhear.

The conversation concluded. Whereupon she arose, pointed at me, shouting, “At least you could have said you’re sorry!”

I said, I’m sorry.


We’re going to meet him at his office now, said the general counsel. He’s opening it up just for us now.

“Opening it up!” she shouted from another room. “He’s ecstatic! You’re probably the first case he’s had in a year!”

Let’s go said the general counsel. As we got in his car, I thought: After that time in stir, I would be good for nothing but to work as a clerk at Goodwill Industries. Perhaps a job at the Safer Foundation in Chicago for rehabilitated criminals.

But perhaps there was some hope left. I mentioned this, brightly, to the general counsel as we drove along. After all, Tom Bergin was known to be particularly vitriolic about drunken drivers and I had not been drinking. I had not insulted the policeman and certainly didn’t aim a blow at him. Partially to build up my morale, I observed that perhaps I wouldn’t be going to the Workhouse after all.

Don’t get your hopes up, he said grimly. I wouldn’t give you but one chance in hell to avoid the Workhouse. I didn’t tell them that in there but: four years with no license? Four straight years with no license? And you a Republican? And he a friend of Orville Freeman?.

Then, may I ask a question?


Why are we going to him?

Because, he said with finality.

I was schooled that answering a question with one word “because” was a kid’s answer. But that was all I would get.

We drove silently. He was sullen between his coughing. He was possibly thinking of what could happen to his career when this lawyer failed. I was imaging the first day in the Workhouse, when they issue you the uniform. It was 10:45 p.m. when we arrived at the lawyer’s rather bare office he evidently shared with many others.


The conclusion of this traumatic episode next time.

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