Orbiting the Springs and its surroundings for hours at a time, avoiding accidents while monitoring dispatch and listening courteously to passenger after passenger, can wear on you. Sometimes toward the end of a shift, even the kindest among us find ourselves unwilling to give a storytelling passenger the benefit of the doubt.
I was approaching the curve near I-25's Cimarron exit recently, heading south, when my rider claimed to have been present at the attempted assassination of former President Ronald Reagan.
Looking out over the nighttime highway, I warily offered, "I heard that he was never actually struck with a bullet."
"No, actually, he was," the rider assured me, a bit defensively, as if he'd heard the rumor many times himself and was tired of it. In the motion and darkness, he reminded me of Merle Haggard, with a deep, authoritative voice and a neatly trimmed beard. He leaned forward in the seat behind me, his hands resting on his knees to tell the story and defend the truth. Flashes of streetlight passed over his brow and hard-edged face.
"He was shot, uh, the bullet actually pierced, it, uh, when they pushed him into the car, the bullet, he was hit broadside by, it deflected off one of the, uh ..."
His recollection wasn't very convincing, and a sporty coupe with tinted glass shot by on our right, startling me.
The curve on this stretch of highway, as locals know, is treacherous in either direction. The speed limit is posted at 65 mph, but experienced drivers slow down. Six-passenger taxi vans can lose control at the curve, and brakes have to be applied every time. Automotive daredevils grin maliciously as they speed past. Accidents are common.
I carefully eased through, and then found myself thinking about how credible people disbelieved the assassination, and how I've maintained a small degree of skepticism about it myself. The story goes that the aging Reagan was showing signs of dementia, and the John Hinckley attempt, though genuine, was used as a cover and stroke of luck to get Reagan into the hospital for examination without revealing his mental condition. There was no displaying of Reagan's wound for all to see, no visible proof, like LBJ raising his shirt to show his scar from mere gall-bladder surgery instead of the life- or term-threatening cancer many believed he had.
Returning to the conversation, I tried to hide my doubt. "So what was your capacity there? What was your function?"
"I was starting out as an EMT, and I was maybe 15 feet away. This was just before they had metal detectors. My dad knew him, and I knew him before when he was governor."
"You knew Reagan?"
"Yes. As governor of the state of California. And just as he was coming out he was waving, and shots rang out and the guy who was protecting him got shot in the stomach and I worked on him."
"When you say 'worked on him,' you mean gave him air, or what'd you do?"
"Well, as an EMT, I assess the injuries and I put pressure on the stomach until the medics arrive."
"To stop the bleeding?"
"That's right. And then I identify myself to the medics and transport him to the hospital."
Suddenly, we were nearly at the interchange with Highway 24. I glanced quickly at the passenger side mirror for anyone else on my right, accelerated slightly, hit the signal, and jumped into the far right lane. Made it.
"I see," I said, unconvincingly. "Wow. I'll bet it all happened so fast, didn't it?"
He ignored my comment. "It's on YouTube, you can see me there. I got a citation for it. The whole nine yards."
"Well, congratulations. That's great."
"Ah, it's no big deal," he said, drawing the topic to a close.
Safely on the off-ramp, I tried a more pedestrian course of conversation.
"So what do you do now, in Colorado Springs?"
"Ah, I'm gonna have a liver transplant," he replied, leaning back in the seat. "But as soon as I'm OK to go back to work, I go back as a training captain, and I get reinstated to go back to all my other jobs, like in Homeland Security or as a Treasury agent."
And we were picking up speed again.