A recent blog was focused on how us Vail, Iowa, kids got our exercise during the day. We didn’t stop there; we also exercised at night. Nighttime exercise was more vigorous than daytime exercise.
The town of Vail hired nightwatchmen for years. My grandfather, John Ryan, was a nightwatchman for Vail. I’ve heard stories about him, but I never knew him. Supposedly, he had a blackjack sap, a bludgeoning weapon, and he wasn’t afraid to use it. But things were more peaceful as I was growing up.
Nightwatchmen’s principal duties were to make sure doors were locked, and to keep municipal ordinances from being violated. One of the ordinances in Vail was a curfew for minors. Every kid under 18-years of age was to be off the streets at 9:00 pm.
Curfew “comes from the Anglo-French ‘coverfeu,’ made from the words ‘coverir’ (“to cover”) and ‘feu’ (“fire”).” In other words, put out the fires and go home.
Vail had some reasonable nightwatchmen that knew kids could do anything at 10:00 am as well as 10:00 pm. They ignored the curfew and chatted with some of us boys. One nightwatchman shared his dirty books with us. He was a little on the pervert side, but he never touched a kid. There were no problems while he was there. Another nightwatchman was supplied with a car and had a uniform. He would drive you home if you were too drunk to drive. Vail was a quiet place in those days.
However, there was one nightwatchman who was intent on upholding the curfew ordinance. J.C. McCullough was a retired heavy equipment operator. He had a faded-blue Ford pickup with a topper. He was the nightwatchman during the height of my early teens, and he provided a great source of entertainment and exercise for those of us who loved excitement.
On a good clear night, about 9:30 or 10:00 pm, some Vail kids would sneak out of the house and get together at a meeting point. We had several. We would head downtown where J.C. would have his pickup parked in front of the firehall/city hall. Depending upon whether he was in the pickup or on his rounds would determine what our action was going to be.
If J.C. was on the rounds, one of us would run across the street close to where he was checking doors. He would move fast (not run) to his pickup, get in it, start it up, and begin driving to where the kid crossed the street. By that time, the kid was back on the other side.
We kept poking up like a whack-a-mole in certain places all over town, waiting for him to spot one of us and drive his pickup in that direction. We knew where every clothesline and hole in a yard were situated. He never caught any of us. However, one night he was homing in on me. I laid down in a shallow ditch near a few rows of sweet corn someone had planted behind the hardware store. He drove his pickup within a couple feet of where I was lying. You would think an incident like that would have adrenaline pumping. No, I couldn’t keep from laughing. I’m surprised he didn’t hear me.
On more than one occasion, J.C. would be in his pickup. Often, he would be sleeping. Once, while he was sleeping, one of us (not me) let the air out of two of his tires and tapped on his window. If he wasn’t sleeping, you could count on one kid or more running past the front of his pickup and scattering up between buildings.
I don’t remember what occurred first. Either J.C. quit or we stopped having fun with him.
The last nightwatchman Vail had long after my childhood was a real prick. The town had furnished him with a cruiser that belonged to a real police force at one time. I came into town one evening after working the night shift and saw the cruiser parked on the side of the road next to the park. The front door was open, and no one was around. I heard the next morning that someone had taken a shot at him with a shotgun. After that, Vail entered into a contract with the county sheriff to patrol the streets of Vail.
I have often wondered what J.C. would have done to one of us kids if he actually caught one. On the other hand, I can’t imagine that he would have stepped out of his pickup to actually chase one of us. We would have had to jump into the passenger side of the pickup if the door was unlocked.
Someday, I will write about why I think someone fired a shotgun at the police cruiser, but that story is too painful to tell – even after all of these years.