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Akst: When car picnics go wrong

I had planned to write about the DeKalb County Landfill expansion this week, but unforeseen events happen, and ya gotta go in a new direction when the muse says so.

That happened Tuesday afternoon when my family’s car picnic went awry.

Our 7-year-old son, William, loves trains, so for us, a car picnic is when we park at a public lot in downtown DeKalb, eat a picnic lunch and watch the trains go by. Usually, it’s just William and me. He climbs into the front passenger seat to see the trains better. On Tuesday, Mom came along, so that was an extra treat.

Anyway, at some point, William pushed his right arm between the door and the door grip, all the way up to his bicep, and got it stuck.

He became upset, but neither parent is prone to panic. I couldn’t pull the door grip far enough away from his arm to free him. We tried ice packs from the picnic cooler to reduce swelling. No luck. We poured cool water to lubricate. No luck. I thought about running to Walgreens for vegetable oil, but that seemed iffy (and being a guy, I feared the spillage would ruin my interior).

The situation became both serious and ridiculous. Calling 911 seemed like overkill, so I called a friend who is a firefighter. He said we should call 911 and reassured me that police, fire, etc. get calls like this all the time.

So I called 911. The operator answered immediately, but just as I was starting to explain, a DeKalb police cruiser happened by. I waved it down and told the 911 dispatcher we were OK. She confirmed – twice – that an officer was with me before disconnecting.

Enter DeKalb police officer Fred Busby. He was friendly, calm and professional. He took a quick look at the situation, then produced a tool that saved the day: His totally old-school, wooden police baton (so old school that the first several hundred Google images of “police baton” didn’t show anything this old).

Within a couple seconds, Officer Busby and his baton had William’s arm free. Using the baton as a crowbar, he produced just enough leverage. No damage to arm; no damage to car.

Obviously, we were relieved and happy, but so was Officer Busby, not just because of the job well done, but also because he said his colleagues like to razz him about being the last police officer to carry a baton.

We thanked him and headed to Starbucks: Mommy and Daddy needed caffeine.

I spent the rest of the day appreciating the efficiency and efficacy of our system of dedicated public servants. Sure, there are flaws and failures – sometimes epic ones – but there are in the private sector, too. The difference is that CEOs continue to earn ridiculous salaries.

Regardless, if my house catches fire, I really don’t want to worry about free market competition.

So many (but not all) claims of the supposed superiority of privatization and outsourcing (that they save money, that private firms do a better job than the public sector, that they allow government to anticipate and control costs better, etc.) are demonstrably untrue.

How’s that parking situation in Chicago going? That Starbucks coffee I had? It was hot and tasty, but expensive, and the last swallow was so full of grounds I nearly gagged on it.

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. You can reach him at ­ or follow him on Twitter (@jasonakst).

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