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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

Hitchhiker With Police Blessing Arrives in L.A.

March 31, 2000|MIKE DOWNEY

Nothing too out of the ordinary seemed to be going on Thursday afternoon at the 77th Division police headquarters near South-Central Los Angeles. A young father with a baby in a stroller stood waiting in the lobby. A slightly older guy came through the doorway off Broadway, wearing a black fedora and an old Raider football jersey. Typical comings and goings on a typical spring day.

If you weren't paying strict attention, you wouldn't have noticed the little character standing to the left side of the LAPD officers staffing the front desk--3 feet tall, red cap, blue eyes, red shirt, blue overalls, black shoes with floppy red laces.

"Help!" read a white cardboard sign that had come attached to his hands.

It was as good a place as any to end up. After all, he had been traveling more than 1,000 miles, so some of the cops at the 77th felt the least they could do was to stick the little dude somewhere. Having shown up unexpectedly Thursday morning, he was brought to the attention of the ranking officers there at the station house. Put him in the lobby, the captain said.

So that's what they did. He was given a prominent spot against a wall, not far from the empty bins that were part of a neighborhood school drive requesting donations of books written by Dr. Seuss.

"Help!" the little guy's sign repeated in each upper corner, in handwritten felt pen. "I Am a School Project. Can You Help Me?"

*

A couple of weeks ago, Tanya Gooch's class decided to conduct an experiment.

Ms. Gooch is a first-grade teacher in Catoosa, Okla., a small town just east of Tulsa. According to the 1990 census, the population of Catoosa was only 2,954. So it isn't exactly a mirror image of Los Angeles, where at last count the total number of police officers alone was somewhere around 9,000.

The class project was this:

Suppose some of the students at the J.W. Sam Elementary School in Catoosa were to create a handmade little wooden boy--sort of a Pinocchio without moving parts--and drop him off in the middle of nowhere?

How far would he get?

Instructions would be left as to where the boy was ultimately bound. But he could not be boxed, stamped or mailed. He would simply be turned loose, like a message in a bottle being floated in the ocean.

The only thing that Ms. Gooch's students needed to decide was where they wanted their little boy's final destination to be.

Ms. Gooch thought of an old friend--a former Tulsa deputy named Robert De Armon, who was now a police officer in far-off Los Angeles.

Somebody also suggested a friend in the opposite direction, in a Georgia town called Thomasville. So the students of two teachers, Ms. Gooch and Karla Kidd, set about making two little boys. One would leave Oklahoma headed in one direction, one in the other.

Gooch got in touch with Officer De Armon to let him know what was up. After all, police departments do not necessarily appreciate surprise packages.

"I'm Joseph," a pupil printed on the wooden boy's sign, giving him a name. "I must get to Los Angeles, California. Let me ride with you as far as you can, in your trunk, in your car--wherever you will let me ride.

"After taking me as far as you can, leave me at a rest stop or truck stop so others may help me as you did."

This plea was followed by Officer De Armon's name and his police station's address.

A pouch was fastened to the boy, like a backpack. Inside were blank postcards, to be used by anybody who encountered "Joseph" (or the other make-believe boy) along the road. That way they could update the Oklahoma kids on his progress.

And so, a couple of weeks ago, Ms. Gooch took Joseph, the multicolor dream boy, to a Tulsa bus station, left him there and drove off.

*

*

For lack of a better word, Joseph "hitchhiked" across several states. Postcards did come to Catoosa, confirming Joe was still in one piece.

So far, the Georgia boy has yet to arrive. But someone--the L.A. cops aren't sure who--hand-delivered Joseph to them Thursday.

"I was afraid he'd be a lot bigger when he showed up," Officer De Armon said, looking Joseph over. "I thought we might need to call in the bomb squad."

"What's that on his back?" asked Sgt. Mark Caswell, spotting words on the flip side of the sign.

"That's the return address," said De Armon, whose next assignment is to send Joseph home to Oklahoma, the same way he left it.

Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053. E-mail: mike.downey@latimes.com

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