Monday, June 29, 2009

Spicy Traffic Ticket

Okay, that's over. Now all there's left to do is to tell the story.

Mary Ann is suffering a successful garden. Harvest is producing more than we can currently eat, so she's hauled out all the old canning jars and scoured the local stores for some of the more obscure canning supplies. The pickles were excellent and probably there are more to come. She has more yellow squash frozen in bags than we'll likely use all year. And sunday evening, she decided to convert a bag of tomatoes into salsa. She sliced the jalapenos and the onions and the garlic and before it was done, her hands started to burn. They were sensitive to heat and I had to be brought in to help ladle the salsa into the jars and help put them into the boiling bath.

She googled and found numerous home remedies for jalapeno burns, but nothing seemed to be working. I found her washing her hands in cooking oil and coffee grounds and she asked me to squeeze lemon on them as she scrubbed. Still, nothing was working. From her description, her hands felt like they were inside an oven.

A search for the poison control center brought up their cute, easily memorable 800 number, 1-800-222-1-222 and this was familiar problem with them, but one with no easy solution. The sympathetic lady suggested maalox or milk soaks and aloe vera jell, none of which we had in the house.

By this time it was well past my bedtime, and well past the store hours of anyplace local, but there was a 24-hour Walmart down the way. So shortly before 2AM, I got in the jeep and headed off.

Highway 79 parallels the train tracks and everyone in the Hutto area is familiar with long waits for the passing of the trains. The last one I counted had ten locomotives and about 120 cars. One like that was heading toward town from the direction of Round Rock as I approached the crossing. But, the light up ahead was green and the crossing signals were still dark. In my mind I was thinking of several things. The first was looking at the Walgreens on the other side of 79. If they were still open, then I could get everything there and get the supplies back to Mary Ann much quicker.

Approaching the rail crossing, I was well aware of the train. My father worked for Santa Fe Railroad all his life and he trained his kids to never trust the crossing signals. I knew how far away it was, and how fast it was going. There was never any question of safety, but rather speed and efficiency. I glanced down the track as I my wheels rumbled over the rails and saw it coming several hundred yards away. Before I reached the green traffic lights, I heard the ding ding ding of the rail signals coming active.

Walgreens was shut down for the night, so I turned left and headed toward the Walmart still a few miles west on 79.

It was a puzzle when flashing lights came up behind me, but I was past the toll road intersection and the road was deserted so I had no problem pulling over. The lights followed me, so yes, they were signaling me, although I had no idea why.

I waited patiently until the policeman approached the passenger side and I flipped the latch so he could talk to me. He told me I had run the railroad warning signal, and asked if I had an emergency. I explained about Mary Ann, the poison control center's directions and furthermore that I had not seen any lights. He took information and after going back to play with his computer for a few minutes–long enough for me to call Mary Ann and explain I'd be delayed getting her the materials–he came back with the ticket. It was a polite and quiet exchange. I suspect that from his position and angle, probably on the north side of the tracks, he saw my jeep leaving the tracks with the lights flashing behind me and just assumed I had run the lights.

Tired and frustrated, I continued on and made my stop at Walmart. I played the sequence in my mind several times. There's no doubt the signal had not lit by the time I crossed the tracks. Technically, I had legally beat the signal. But should I contest the ticket. $297 is a lot of money. Plus, the last time I'd gotten more than a warning ticket for a burned out headlight was years ago, maybe 15 to 18 years ago. If was an affront to my honor.

Silly, I know. By the time I returned home I knew I had to make some decision so I could get much needed sleep. I could contest the ticket, but with nothing more than the statement of a citizen against the statement of a policeman, there was little chance I could win. It might make me feel better. It might not, depending on how the situation played out.

Or, I could accept that I was pushing the limits on the rail crossing. It was indeed a tight decision. Rail crossing lights don't have any 'yellow signal' to warn you that you are about to make an illegal crossing. It's all up to your judgement and the judgement of the policeman watching you.

I can't prove anything, and it was my decision to cut it close. I'll just pay the fine and go on. Life is too short to spend time and emotional energy on something so unprofitable. Let it go and let it show up in some story line later on.

Next, the execution. My ticket materials list a website, www.huttotx.gov and sure enough, there's a menu item for paying tickets. Unfortunately, once I entered my driver's license number and my date of birth, the ticket entry didn't show up. Sigh. It is less than 24 hours since it happened. I'll just have to wait until the ticket gets entered into the system. It would be nice if I could get this behind me.

UPDATE: Tuesday. It appears the Hutto website was just shifting gears. Today I was able to pay the fine and put it behind me.

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