Ain't Nothing Free

Last weekend I went camping with my dad. I was put in charge of procuring the firewood. At first I couldn't fathom spending the sixty dollars or so my dad said a half cord of firewood might cost me. It's just wood, after all. It's just a tree somebody didn't want there anymore, for chrissakes. So I set myself to finding a freebie.

I spread the word I was looking for firewood and my boss, Kevin, invited me over to his house to take as much wood as I wanted from a growing pile of scrap the neighborhood had been dumping lumber on for years, I guess. I met Kevin at his house the day before the trip, hoping to find even just a little worth cherry picking. After about an hour digging through the pile and cutting the bigger pieces down to size, I finally capitulated and threw everything I'd pulled back. A lot of it was rotted through or just too damned wet. And most of what wasn't had those little wormy lines that I've seen associated with the much-dreaded Emerald Ash Borer - last year's 'Summer of the Shark' if you ask me. Still I wasn't going to risk it on some moldy, old wood. So I threw it all back. Every scrap.

Across the street a nosy neighbor looked on as I carefully drove my van away from the pile and back out into the road. I parked the van at curbside and jumped back out to return the gloves Kevin lent me while I was picking through the wood. Just then two police cars came cruising up the way. One of the cops flagged me down as he pulled passed and turned around. Once he'd parked he walked up to me and, with an air of superiority and accusation in his voice, said "What'd you dump back there?"

I laughed out loud as the next ten minutes of my life flashed before my eyes. I, of course, explained that I hadn't been dumping anything but instead had eyes on taking some away from the pile; that I'd finally abandoned the attempt, and all the reasons why...

If it had been a lie, it was a damned good one, really. Air-tight. It explained everything so well that all the evidence in the world couldn't have pierced the cloud of reasonable doubt it created. It's almost a shame it was true, if you think about it.

The cop had me open my van and show him what was inside. I had a blue tarp laid out, held down at the edges with a heavy chain. The tarp was covered in bits of bark and splinters of wood from the pieces I'd loaded into the van before I recanted and threw them back on the pile. It really could've looked bad if my story weren't so perfect. "If you didn't dump anything than where'd all these splinters come from? Clearly you've had wood in here," he might have queried. He didn't, but he might've! It would've been in vain though -- my airtight alibi backing me up; That I'd loaded some wood and then unloaded it for fear of bringing the ash borer into our precious state park grounds. I can imagine the single tear forming in the corner of my eye as I spoke of all the fallen ash trees, dead because of the world's thoughtless campers. "Cruel villains!" I'd have screamed, and the officer would've consoled me, wrapping me in one of those emergency blankets they have and bringing me some instant cocoa before giving me a commendation for courage in the face of eco-terrorism and sending me on my way. Oh, what a perfect lie it would have been.

Sadly, it was just the truth and so I sat in my van as he ran my license for warrants. Even though I've never been in any real trouble it still unsettles me when they do that. Just think, all it takes is one little snafu... An eensy little error in the intrastate police database; one flipped bit in a memory bank decides whether the "Known Pederast" column answers "true" or "false," and whether you'll be spending the night in jail.

Or even worse, something like a summons to appear in court that some errant clerk never sent you or that got lost in the mail might have, completely without your knowledge, resulted in an actual, "legitimate" court order for your arrest. That would take even longer to straighten out, if you ever could; if they'd ever believe you! The notion that an innocent man has nothing to fear only applies if the innocent man has four days to spend in a holding cell at county, and doesn't mind his car, his wallet, his belt and shoelaces, shirt, pants, socks, undies, and everything therein being seized, bagged, labeled, pilfered, and parked behind a six foot thick, iron wall of bureaucratic red tape that'll take two months and fifteen signed, notarized affidavits affirming to recover. Just one little hiccup in the incessant, unrepentant gears of "progress" could tear your life to shreds without even pausing to appreciate its work. Without doing anything at all any one of us might be sucked into the pneumatic tubes of what passes for justice 'round here.

Thankfully I wasn't. The officer returned my license and gave me an idea where I could find campfire wood for sale. Taking the officer's advice I left Kevin's house, following Grange Hall Rd up to Dixie Hwy where I scored a half cord of firewood for forty-five dollars. Ain't nothing free, kids.


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