Jeff Jardine: Cruising era’s enforcer enjoyed the ride

jjardine@modbee.comMay 14, 2014 

The heat of summer ... OK, spring. The school year winding down.

Many years ago, this was about the time when cruising ramped up in earnest in Modesto.

It meant hot cars, hot dates and hot pavement on 10th, 11th and other downtown streets, which often were clogged with teens socializing right in the middle. And from 1955 to 1960, whenever the cars were too hot for their own good, Leroy Applequist sat astride his motorcycle with his ticket book within reach, just waiting to pounce. He cited speeders and racers, mostly, and an illegal turn here and there.

“It was the only thing you could catch them doing,” said Applequist, who retired in 1986 after 31 years as a Modesto police officer.

DUIs?

“You’d hear a beer can clanking down on the street,” he said. “But drunk drivers were hard to convict back then.”

Indeed, there were no Breathalyzers or urine tests at the time. Police would simply check the driver’s motor skills.

“You’d give ’em a test and they’d pass it,” Applequist said. “You’d make ’em stand on one foot or walk the straight line. They all practiced that.”

After being assigned to downtown, he was told he’d probably be able to write five or six tickets a day.

“I was writing 200 a month,” Applequist said. They were cheaper then: $6 for running a red light and $2.50 for a stop sign. Now they can cost $360 for a red-light violation and $270 for a stop sign, not counting traffic school fees and insurance premium hikes.

Perhaps that is why he became friends with many of the cruisers he cited.

“I’ve had people stand there and cuss me out,” Applequist said. “Later, they’d come back and apologize and I couldn’t even remember what they’d said.”

“He gave me my share of tickets,” said Lloyd Ploutz, who became a friend and a fellow Clamper. “A dozen or more.”

Including one night when Ploutz and a friend named Don Livingston were racing down 10th Street.

“We got past the bus depot and (Applequist) got me in at Starns (body shop),” Ploutz said. “Don just kept going and went back to Ceres. I said, ‘Why me?’ And Leroy said, ‘Because I got you!’ 

There was one place where Applequist wouldn’t chase them down, though: The intersection of 10th and M streets, where the Cash & Carry grocery is now situated. It was the Lucky store in the 1950s.

“They poured motor oil on the intersection almost every night,” Applequist said. “I wouldn’t ride my motorcycle through it. I couldn’t keep it upright. The cars would make circles, spinning in the intersection. I wouldn’t even chase ’em.”

Otherwise, he enjoyed his role as enforcer of the cruise, wherever it took him. One evening, he followed a driver into the La Loma area and watched the young man burn circles in a park lawn with his tires.

“I gave him a ticket,” Applequist said, “probably for defacing public property. He’d just gone into the service.”

Sometime later, the young man returned to town.

“He came up to me and said, ‘You really taught me a lesson,’ ” Applequist said. “ ‘The ticket was $79. My salary for one month is $78.”

After five years downtown, the brass moved him into patrol and eventually into the detective unit, where he investigated forgeries.

In the 1970s, his wife and daughter cruised McHenry in their twin 1974 Camaros.

“They enjoyed it,” he said.

Applequist is 83. Along with Bart Bartoni, the late Chuck Billington, Pete Hischier and Terry McGrath, he will be inducted as one of the Legends of the Cruise and his place on the downtown Walk of Fame will be dedicated during a ceremony June 4 at Tenth Street Plaza, beginning at 6:00 p.m. 

His long, white beard offers a stark contrast to the clean-cut, strapping 6-foot-3, 240-pound uniformed version of him found in black-and-white photographs. He’ll occasionally venture downtown and the memories return. But it’s a different place now and not nearly as much fun as during the cruising days, veterans of the era will tell you. Tenth Street is interrupted by Modesto Centre Plaza. Burges’ Drive-In and all of the other hangouts are gone. The intersection of 10th and M is devoid of motor oil (a good thing). And the cruise as he knew it is relegated to one weekend in June.
Applequist ran into McGrath recently at a restaurant. Others, he said, keep in touch.

“Every once in a while, some will still call me,” he said. “Some didn’t like me too well, but most of those guys were my friends.”

Friends with hot rods, street rods, youthful exuberance, mischievous streaks and the traffic tickets to prove it.

Bee columnist Jeff Jardine can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or (209) 578-2383. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJardine57.

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