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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
Sunday Journal: With speeders, officer never missed
By Marvin I. Honig, Special to the Times
Published August 19, 2007
C. Lowell Avery was as finely attired as any village policeman in New York. His gray uniform was impeccably tailored to his trim, 6-foot-2 physique. He was the first full-time police officer in the village of Nassau in upstate New York.
As the lone police officer he also was the chief, and his uniform reflected his status, replete with gold braid and the military "scrambled eggs" on his hat visor.. He referred to himself as "Chief Avery," but it wasn't long before he was called "Wyatt Earp," the legendary lawman of the Old West. The moniker probably was a compliment; westerns were popular on TV at the time.
My father once reported hearing a young boy respectfully addressing Chief Avery as "Mr. Earp" at the post office.
Wyatt upheld the law. Nassau's perceived problem was speeding. U.S. 20 formed the main street in the village, being Albany Avenue west of the single traffic light and Church Street to the east. Cars and trucks entering the village from the east descended Lord's Hill for about a mile and a half, and usually entered at a pretty good clip. The speed limit went from 50 mph to 35, to 25, in a short distance, but it was not unusual to still be doing about 40 when crossing into the 25 mph zone.
Wyatt would be waiting. He usually parked his new cruiser in the St. Mary's Church parking lot and ticketed every speeder that he honestly believed exceeded the posted limit.
There were many.
The village judge, James Lamb, was a retired New York City firefighter with time on his hands, and he welcomed the court activity that all the tickets produced. The village trustees welcomed the added revenue it gained from its share of the fines.
Judge Lamb held court one evening a week in the Village Hall, but court was always in session at his home, and Wyatt would lead out-of-town speeders directly to Judge Lamb's living room, where they would be promptly fined and sent on their way.
Nassau soon earned a measure of notoriety as a speed trap and was appropriately marked on AAA maps. Almost everyone who drove through Nassau had been ticketed by Wyatt, or had a friend or family member who had been caught. The locals quickly learned to obey the speed limit, because they knew that Wyatt played no favorites, and he had no compunction about writing a speeding ticket for "26 mph in a 25 mph zone."
I never got a ticket, but I was careful. I used to drive my father's new 1956 pink-and-black Cadillac into the village to pick up the mail, and I would put on the brakes to make sure that I was doing 25 mph or less.
I sometimes played a little game with Wyatt. If he pulled out to follow me down Church Street, I would pace myself to have to stop at the traffic light. When the light turned green, I would floor the Cadillac so that it would chirp the tires, but then immediately back off on the accelerator so that I wouldn't exceed the speed limit. Wyatt would usually follow me out of the village at 24 mph, unless he was in the process of writing a ticket for someone else.
As time passed, Wyatt's notoriety grew. He seemed to walk taller, wore mirrored Ray-Ban sunglasses and carried a long-barreled .44-caliber Magnum sidearm. He really was an imposing figure. Nassau knew that it had a real lawman.
One Saturday afternoon, a pickup drove down Church Street. It had the green light and was moving right along. A dog ran out, unleashed, into the path of the truck, which hit it and severely injured it. Wyatt was quickly on the scene, and a crowd of residents assembled, most of them coming out of the post office or Frank Pitt's General Store when they heard the screech of brakes.
The dog was whimpering, and after a brief examination, the consensus was that the dog should be put out of its misery. The dog's owner, not wanting to make the dog suffer any longer than necessary, looked to Wyatt to do the job.
With the crowd growing larger, and traffic backed up, Wyatt drew his .44 and fired. The bullet missed the dog and tore up a chunk of pavement. Again Wyatt shot, and again he missed the dog. He seemed to be grimacing and looking away as he fired. A bystander, one of the local merchants, took the gun out of Wyatt's hands and dispatched the dog with one shot, much to the relief of everyone.
After that, things changed in Nassau. Young men who hung around the Gulf gas station on the corner started calling Chief Avery "Wyatt" to his face. Teenage boys barked at him and laughed. Wyatt seemed to lose interest in writing tickets, and the court revenue dropped off sharply. Then one day Chief Avery moved on to take a job directing traffic as a foot patrolman in Lake George, and it was okay to drive a bit faster through Nassau.
Marvin I. Honig grew up in Nassau, a rural town in upstate New York. He practiced law in Troy and Albany for 40 years. He now lives in Palm Harbor with his wife, Nedda.