This Small-Town Cop Set a Prisoner Free. Here’s the Heartwarming Reason He Came Back.
The policemen assumed their prisoner was long gone, but dad knew best.
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My dad’s name was George Bullard. He was born in a rural area, right up in the northeast corner of Mississippi that most folks call British County and the locals just call paradise. My dad was about 50 when I was born, but I was very fortunate to have had him.
He raised and trained bird dogs his whole life. If the bird dog business got a little slow, he’d paint a house or two, but after he got up in his 60s, someone persuaded him to get into politics. He ran for the board of aldermen, and he was elected by a landslide. Everybody loved him.
His assignment was fire commissioner. Now, the only things the previous fire commissioners had done were go to meetings and make political decisions. My father liked to get involved, though, so he went to the telephone company and said, “Can’t y’all hook my telephone up with the one at the fire department?”
So they did, and every time the fire department telephone rang, our phone rang—one long, continuous ring until you picked it up—and then you didn’t talk; you just listened to see where the fire was so he could go. And he went to all the fires, day or night. He knew almost nothing about firefighting, but he knew how to encourage young men, so he’d go and encourage ’em.
I got involved because my father had almost stopped driving at night because of his age, and as a teenager with a driver’s license, I’d drive him at three o’clock in the morning.
After his few turns as board alderman, several people, myself included, persuaded him not to do that anymore. But when he left, he found that he missed the camaraderie he had formed with the firemen, and because the firemen and the police department were in the same building, he missed the policemen too. So he would just go down there to visit every now and again. And this being a small town, they worked out something which might not have been real legal, but they taught him how to operate the police radio, and anytime anybody wanted a day off or was sick, he’d go in and work an eight-hour shift. (Along with experiencing violence, being overworked is one of the hidden crises facing police officers.)
But one day, he got to his job down at the police department, and he discovered, to his amazement, they had a prisoner!
I did say it was a small town. It was most unusual.
And that morning, he really didn’t have much to do. He’d wander back and talk to this young man, and when he went out for lunch, he brought a couple hamburgers back for him. Well, by one or two o’clock, he had made a decision about this young man, and he always trusted his instincts about people. He had decided that in spite of being long-haired—way down to here, which my father hated—he was a decent young man, so he’d see if he could help him.
He started to inquire of him, “Why are you still here? You seem like such a nice young man. Won’t anybody come get you out of jail?”
And the young man told him, “Well, I had a little too much to drink last night, and they arrested me for drunken disorder, and here I am.”
My dad said, “Well, what would it take to get you out?” And he said, “Well, I have to pay a two-hundred-dollar fine.” My dad said, “Well, why can’t your family pay the two-hundred-dollar fine?” He said, “Well, I think if I could talk to my father face-to-face, I could get the two hundred dollars from him, but I don’t know how he’s going to react to a collect call from the Boonville jail.”
My dad mulled this over a little while, and he said, “Well, do you think if I turned you loose, you could go find your father and get two hundred dollars and come back?”
I’m going to remind you that my father’s only duty was operating the police radio that talked back and forth with the cars.
So the young man said, “Well, see, I’m from Corinth, Mississippi, and that’s about 20 miles north. They impounded my car. I got no way up there.”
And my daddy said, “Well, is it a blue Chevrolet?” And he said, “Yes, sir.” And then my daddy said, “It’s parked out in the parking lot. I can probably find the keys.”
So he scrounges around in the desk drawers and finds the keys, and he not only releases the prisoner, over whom he has no authority, he gives him a getaway car.
[pullquote]”What happened to the prisoner?” asked the policemen. “I turned him loose,” Dad said. [/pullquote]
Well, as the kid leaves, my father says, “Now, son, I believe if I could borrow two hundred dollars from my daddy, I’d borrow another five to get me a darn haircut.”
At about four o’clock, the policemen started coming back to change shifts, and as they came in, they check in on the prisoner. And they discovered, to their dismay, that they didn’t have one. And they said, “Mr. George, what happened to the prisoner?”
My daddy was busy doing his closing-up paperwork, and he said, “Oh, yeah. I turned him loose.”
And the police officer said, “You did what?”
“Turned him loose.”
“Mr. George, why did you do that?”
Daddy said, “Well, he just seemed like a nice young man, and he’ll be back in a little while with his two hundred dollars.”
And the police officer was kind of taken aback. He’d known my father all his life; my father was like a grandfather to most of those guys. The officer said, “OK, well, we’ll take care of this,” and he went back to the other policemen to try to figure out how they were gonna get out of this without my father losing his unofficial job, and one of them says, “Well, we ought to remind the chief that George Bullard helped get him elected.” But another of ’em said, “Oh, I got a better idea. Let’s just tear up the paperwork, and we’ll just pretend we never arrested that boy.”
Well, my father wouldn’t hear of it. He said, “Oh, no. I know that boy’s coming back. I know he is.”
And the police officer said, “How can you be so sure? You don’t even know him.”
And my father’s answer was simple: “He told me that he would.”
They waited around, and 4:30 came and five o’clock, and of course, no young man returned. And at about 5:15, they’re trying to get my dad to go home, ’cause his shift ended at five.
He’s kind of stoic, and he says,“No, I’m gonna wait around until he comes back.”
One of ’em observed, “Might be kind of a long wait.” But no, my dad didn’t get discouraged.
All of a sudden, the door opens, and the young man walks in—shaven, short hair—walks up to the counter, and they don’t even acknowledge him, ’cause they’re still mulling over what they’re gonna do to save my dad, and finally the young man says, “Excuse me; I’d like to pay my fine.” And that kind of got their attention, but they still didn’t recognize him, and one of ’em walked to the counter and said, “What fine is that you’re talking ’bout?”
He said, “Well, you guys arrested me last night—locked me up. I owe two hundred, and I’m here to pay it.” Started counting out 20-dollar bills. When he got to 200, the police didn’t say a word, but they wrote him out a receipt. They thanked him. The boy started to leave. When he got to the door to go out, he turned around and—almost as if he knew what the situation was like there in that office with my dad—said, “Oh, by the way, Mr. Bullard, I’m sorry I was late getting back, but I had to wait in the line at the barbershop.”
A teacher for more than 42 years, Wanda Bullard worked with emotionally disordered kids in Brunswick, Georgia. Her famous Sunday-afternoon cookout included the Moth’s founder, George Dawes Green, among many others. Telling stories on Wanda’s porch inspired him to launch the Moth.