Saturday, June 12, 2021

Crime and punishment in Duluth’s long past...

Jim Heffernan's 40 Ford received a ticket for mufflers
Written by By Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune on June 12, 2021

These are difficult times to be a police officer, we all know — especially the cops themselves. They’ve come under fire throughout the country due to the horrible killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. We all know that, too.

The ongoing controversy has caused me to reflect on how policing here in Duluth and around the country has changed over the years.


For one thing, there were no cops in Duluth schools back when I was a student. The faculty and administration could handle problems on their own, thank you very much. Sure, there were problems, but nothing to warrant police stationed in the high school buildings. Occasional fights had to be broken up, but the faculty handled it. Guns in school? Preposterous.


Police here used to be involved in more issues that really weren’t serious crimes. The first time a cop scared the daylights out of me, he jumped out of a squad car and confiscated the slingshot of a nearby friend, about 10 years old. He grabbed it out of my friend’s hand and broke it apart, got back into the squad and disappeared down the block.


Jim Heffernan's School Patrol certificate
from Duluth police
Whew. We were relieved not to be arrested. We thought you could get sent to Red Wing for owning a slingshot. Red Wing was a famous reform school in Southern Minnesota where some kids we’d heard of actually were sentenced, further preparing them for a life of crime once they got out.


A lot of police activity in those days seemed to involve traffic issues. For one thing, they’d set up radar on main drags and ticket drivers for going over 30. And the newspaper published the names of those offenders, along with how fast they were going, their ages and addresses. Oh, the humiliation.


Cops also pulled over cars with loud mufflers and handed out tickets. That happened to me once as a teenager in my coupe with a sweet sounding, rumbling set of dual exhausts. I’d say my pipes were about half as loud as today’s motorcycles. 


I was just sick when I was issued a ticket and ordered to report to police headquarters in a few days to demonstrate that I’d had the mufflers replaced. I took a chance and stuffed the tailpipes with steel wool, which muffled the sound, and passed my review at headquarters, after which I blew the steel wool out and was back to disturbing the peace with the sound of my car. I felt like an outlaw.


And woe betide any driver whose vehicle didn’t have a bumper either in front or back or both. Siren, lights, ticket. Now most cars don’t even come with bumpers.


The cops were also quite active in the city’s lovers’ lanes at night — places were boy teenagers of driving age would park with their girlfriends for harmless necking or whatever. The cops would sneak up on the parked cars on foot and shine flashlights in to make sure nothing illegal was going on. Nobody knew what was legal or not. Move on, the cops would demand, having invaded the privacy of young people in the early stages of fulfilling their biological destiny. 


These were some of the crimes that tried cops’ souls in that long-past era, although, of course, there were offenses of the more serious variety, even murder, robbery, burglary and so forth. There just didn’t seem to be as much as we hear about today. Now, in our time, many of the difficulties nationally have been initiated by police themselves, such as in the Floyd case.  


Later, when I became a reporter for this newspaper covering the police beat, I came to know quite a few cops, and liked most of them. Some, I felt, didn’t like me, or what I did to interfere with their jobs by writing stories about them. That’s always a problem between law enforcement and news media, even back then.


By then things were changing on the street. The drug culture hit, and policing got a lot more challenging.


In some cities — Minneapolis, for one — police are under scrutiny for perceived or actual racism. Those stories are compelling and give rise to proper criticism of law enforcement.


So far, police racial relations in Duluth seem to be pretty positive. Maybe that reflects a tradition in the Duluth Police Department. I hope so.


For most of my life I have been acquainted with a former Duluth police chief — through family, church as youngsters and cordial relations through our adult years whenever we have crossed paths.


Back when he was chief in the ‘90s (he retired in 2002), on one sunny summer Sunday, I was in my yard mowing my lawn when he pulled over in his vehicle to say hello. Our homes were in the same neighborhood. We had a nice chat during which I asked him where he’d been all alone on this beautiful Sunday afternoon. He said he was returning from a meeting of the Duluth Chapter of the NAACP.


That Duluth police chief was Scott Lyons.


I’m not aware of any change in that general attitude toward race relations by Duluth police leadership in the intervening years. Let’s hope not.


Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and continues as a columnist. He can be reached at and maintains a blog at

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Flying saucers: Serious business?

  Written by Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune on Saturday, May 29, 2021

Flying saucers were very big news when I was growing up in the years following World War II. 

I see that UFOs (unidentified flying objects) are back in the news. U.S. Navy pilots filmed them in 2019 but the Navy kept the encounters under wraps until recently, according to The New York Times. Now, the Pentagon is going to release a full report next month.


Well, if you saw it in The Times it must be true.


I have a long history with unidentified flying objects, more commonly known in my ever-lengthening lifetime as flying saucers. They were very big news when I was growing up in the years following World War II. Flying saucers were being spotted zooming through the heavens all over the place, including here in the Northland. This paper even ran a photo of a couple of them hovering over Moose Lake, which turned out to be faked, much to editors’ embarrassment.


One clear summer night about then, when my family was vacationing at a lake cabin in northern Wisconsin, my father, older brother and I were standing in the yard just after sunset when suddenly either my father or brother exclaimed something like, “Lookit that,” pointing skyward. Something flashed across the firmament right over the lake. They both saw it.


The object disappeared so quickly I missed it. But there’s no question they saw something. My father was not given to embracing fantastic notions of the supernatural or extraterrestrial, but the incident resulted in increased interest in flying saucers in my family. Interest, but not really belief.


The only flying saucer I ever saw was in a movie, “The Thing from Another World,” which usually was billed simply as “The Thing.” It was so frightening to me I regressed in my psychological/emotional development at that stage in my life. I was about 10 and had been used to staying home alone in the evening when others in the family were out.


No staying home alone after “The Thing” lumbered into my life aboard a flying saucer imbedded in the Arctic ice, dynamited out by U.S. Air Force personnel at a remote, snow-swept base, where it proceeded to attack all living things, killing and drinking the blood of sled dogs and going after humans. Yikes. Plus, it was impervious to things like gunfire because it was vegetable, not animal. Oh the horror.


I got so scared I started to go to church with my mother, organist and music director of our church, in the evenings to gatherings like the weekly Prayer Meeting in the church parlors. She played an upright piano (of course the piano was upright — it was in church) for hymn singing between extemporaneous praying by the audience, and lengthy readings from the Good Book.


It was attended mainly by about a dozen elderly men and a few wives whose idea of a roaring good time might be sitting around re-reading Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians. One time a guy read lengthily from the begats, which describe who’s related to whom in the good Old Testament. I think the preacher might even have holy rolled his eyes at that.


I was the lone child there but I didn’t care. It beat staying home alone worrying about The Thing coming to my house and drinking my blood.


Of course I grew out of it, but news of flying saucers always gets my attention and reminds me of “The Thing from Another World” and how it scared the living daylights out of me as a kid. (There’s a better word than “daylights” but this is a family newspaper.)


Segue now to the 1960s when I was working at this newspaper as a general assignment reporter. The nice thing about general assignment was that you would get involved in different things every shift. I worked nights and could end up covering everything from boring government meetings like those of the city Charter Commission (at least nobody read the begats) to dashing off to a house fire to get the scoop first hand for the morning’s readers.


So one evening the city editor assigned me to cover a speech on flying saucers (we covered a lot of speeches) by an astronomer who had been invited to visit Duluth by Frank Halstead, the who was in charge off the old Darling Observatory at 910 W. Third Street, west of downtown. Halstead was a respected astronomer.


Well, the guest astronomer appeared before a respectable crowd in a downtown hall and started out with what sounded like a serious speech on  unidentified flying objects, but soon he changed his demeanor to more resemble a gospel preacher, invoking the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel and his vision of wheels rolling in the heavens.


Many people might remember the song, “Ezekiel Saw a Wheel A-Rollin’ Way in the Middle of the Air.” The so-called astronomer was talking about THAT Ezekiel and claiming the wheels Ezekiel saw were actually our flying saucers. And God was sending them back today as a warning to sinners and prophesying the coming End Times starring The Beast. Whew. Well, at least it wasn’t The Thing.


I was flummoxed about what to do. It sounded crazy but I didn’t want to return to the paper without a story. Nevertheless, I felt I couldn’t put that nonsense in the paper. I’d noticed that Halstead was inexplicably absent from the speech, so I telephoned him. He’d had dinner with the speaker and realized he was a religious zealot and not a serious astronomer at all.


I didn’t write a story.


Finally, years later, recalling my family’s encounter with the UFOs over the northern Wisconsin lake, for Christmas I gave my brother a book titled “Flying Saucers: Serious Business.” He immediately said he wanted to return it unread.


“I thought you liked flying saucers,” I remonstrated.


“I don’t like them THAT much,” he said.



Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and continues as a columnist. He can be reached at and maintains a blog at