Every time I drive past a certain corner in Hampton, St Francis Rd and Westellen Rd, to be exact, I think about something that happened there in 1968 and I wonder how far we have come since then.
I was in the Fire Department then, and we got a call for a woods fire at the location shown in the yellow oval above. When we arrived, we found, not a woods fire, but a large pile of yard debris - about the size of the foundation of the average house. A very large pile of felled logs, trimmed limbs and old branches, burning merrily on a humid Saturday night, and a man standing there with a rake.
He told our captain that he was burning off yard materials, although he had no burning permit, and that we needed to leave his property right away because he was a close friend of Spiro T. Agnew, who at that time was the former Baltimore County Executive, current governor of Maryland, and was just a few months from being chosen to run with Richard M. Nixon as #2 on the Republican ticket for the White House.
Our captain used the radio to call for police. While we waited for the cops to arrive, I recognized the man as a big shot from our church, the father of a girl who used to go to school with the rest of us but somehow had been transferred to the newer high school, the dreaded Dulaney High. I had heard people talk of how connected he was, what a fine, staunch family man he was, a local businessman, with a sterling reputation and on and on and on.
Yet, here he was, throwing his influence around, illegally burning in violation of county law and bothering his neighbors with his smoke and soot.
The cop came and told the man he needed to go inside and let us put the fire out. The big shot stepped right up to the officer and said the question that all public officials love hearing: "Do you know who I am? I could have your badge for this!"
The cop said: "You can have my badge, but you still can't break the law as long as I'm wearing it. Now step back, sir, or you're going to get awfully wet."
We put the fire out and went back to the station feeling like we had overturned a rock and seen something sort of...slimy. Or like we had been walking past a house whose walls suddenly fell down and we were seeing a nasty family fight in progress.
Spiro T. Agnew went on to serve almost two terms as vice president before resigning from office in the face of a bribery scandal. Like some two-bit local highway official in the middle of some backwater village, he had been taking canvas sacks full of bribe money from paving contractors in the county courthouse, in the State House in Annapolis, and in his White House office. Shortly after his resignation, he was disbarred in our state for being "morally obtuse" in the eyes of his fellow lawyers, and he claimed that Richard Nixon and Alexander Haig, another top White House factotum, had planned to assassinate him.
These are the sort of people that I was expected to respect.