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Archive for Friday, April 12, 1996

S SAFERIDE HOURS ARE SAFE BET

April 12, 1996

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Carl Erickson's late-night schedule suits him just fine.

Special to the Journal World

Late in the night, when the majority of Lawrence residents are asleep, Carl Erickson is wide awake, making his way around town as the eyes, ears and safety of the city.

``I am the quintessential night person in Lawrence,'' Erickson said. ``I know where everything is and how late every place is open. Even when I'm not working, I'm out driving around at 1 a.m. to relax.''

As a driver for the SafeRide program, Erickson's love of the nighttime hours comes in handy. Erickson works Saturday nights from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m., picking up Kansas University students who need a ride home.

In addition to his knowledge of shortcuts through Lawrence, stemming from his experience as a pizza delivery driver, Erickson is a former Russian linguist for the U.S. Army. Erickson spent two years in Augsberg, Germany, listening to and translating Russian military traffic for U.S. military intelligence.

His fluency in Russian and his ear for other foreign languages entertain some of the international students he drives home, while his skills startle others.

While on duty last fall, Erickson picked up four students who spoke nothing but Russian in his car.

``I started speaking to them in Russian, but as soon as I mentioned I knew Russian from the Army, three of the four shut up completely and did not say anything else.''

Car 68

``Base to car 68. Could you be en route to Colony Woods apartments for one passenger?''

The first call of the night crackles over the dispatch radio, and Erickson's car, a light blue Mercury Topaz, car number 68, is off. Wearing a green, maroon and blue sweater, his ``favorite to wear when doing SafeRide,'' Erickson shifts into drive and pulls away from the Kansas Union, where the SafeRide drivers wait for their night to begin.

Owned by the Lawrence Bus Company and funded by a package from KU's Student Senate, SafeRide uses fives cars purchased by the company.

Upon arrival at the apartment complex, Erickson pulls up at the curb, puts on the car's inside and parking lights to wait for his passenger.

As the minutes on the car's digital clock pass by, Erickson admits to one irritation of the job -- when SafeRide callers do not keep a lookout for their ride.

``We are only supposed to wait for seven minutes,'' Erickson says, yet he allows a little leeway, and waits a bit more. ``Patience is a big part of this job. I'd much rather be driving; it's more fun that way.''

When a young man finally gets into the car, Erickson greets him with a friendly, ``How's it going,'' but the passenger has little to say, so Erickson drives on.

``I'm always perfectly happy to talk to anyone,'' Erickson says, after dropping off the silent passenger. ``But this one didn't seem willing to talk.''

Finding a path

Born in Fargo, N.D., Erickson and his family moved to Wichita when he was 8 years old. When Erickson was 12, his mother and father divorced, and Erickson and his younger brother moved in with their father.

``I lived with my father for stability,'' Erickson said. ``He was a good provider, but there was nothing fancy. The majority of his income went to charitable organizations. He was always a father, not a dad.''

Before his graduation from Wichita's Heights High School in 1988, Erickson, senior class president, had decided to enlist in the Army.

``I guess it was weird for me to enlist,'' Erickson said. ``I had a 3.67 GPA in high school, but I had to prove something to myself. I felt I had to grow up a little.''

In June of 1994, Erickson's Army years were over. He considered re-enlisting, but the Cold War in Russia was ending and his unit would have been scaled back. Erickson then decided to enroll at Kansas University and major in economics.

``I am a huge basketball fan, and I love Lawrence,'' Erickson said. ``There is so much to do at night, and there is always a big influx of people my age. I'm 25, but I feel maybe 22 because coming here out of the Army is just like coming out of high school.''

In the fall of 1995, Erickson applied to be a SafeRide driver and worked three to four nights a week, despite his father's skepticism of the program.

``My father is a very strong Christian and thought the program would promote drinking among students,'' Erickson said. ``A lot of people think SafeRide is a drunk cab, but it's not like that at all. I get very few people who are really drunk. The majority are students working late, needing a ride. I do tend to respect people more when they aren't out for just partying reasons.''

Now employed full time during the day by the Student Loan Marketing Assn., where he handles rejected student loans, Erickson continues to drive for SafeRide one night a week. He believes what he is doing is a valuable service.

``This is the best job I've had,'' he said. ``Probably why I'm still doing SafeRide is because of all the people I get to haul around. It's a very social job, and I am proud of what we do.''

A little compassion

Listening to the dispatch, Erickson is able to hear other drivers receive their assignments, and he predicts that 68 will be the next car called.

``Base to car 68,'' the dispatcher's voice breaks in again and requests Erickson to go to the Virginia Inn, 2907 W. Sixth St. Erickson grins as his prediction is correct.

When his car pulls into the lot, a young man on a second-floor balcony waves to alert Erickson that he has been spotted. Three girls accompany the young man in a hurried approach to the car and pile into the back seat.

Erickson apologizes and informs them he is only allowed to carry three passengers in his car. Seeing their faces fall, he eventually consents to driving all four, and they assure him it is a short ride to the girls' sorority house. The four thank him repeatedly as they ride with the security of a sober driver.

``Let it never be said that I don't have any compassion,'' Erickson says, smiling.

The limits of Erickson's compassion are tested again on a later call to Maine Street, where he is to pick up two passengers. A man opens the car's rear door and a large, white dog hops in, sniffs the seat and licks Erickson.

``Sorry man, I can't take your dog,'' Erickson says. ``It's against the company policy.''

This time no one complains, and the man and his dog walk off into the night.

``I love dogs, but we can't have them in the SafeRide cars,'' he says. ``I got my ear licked though. It's a good night.''

Erickson said that he actually had never had a bad night nor had he ever felt he was in danger while driving SafeRide.

``I'm a big guy, and as soon as someone gets in my car, I'm talking to them,'' he said. ``I can deal with someone, no matter how awful they are, for five minutes. Besides, I'm in charge of the destination.''

Destination unknown

While the destination of Erickson's passengers are in his hands, his destination, he says, is unknown.

Erickson said that he would like to remain at his current day job because of its insurance benefits and flexibility. Marriage and a family, however, are another story.

``When I was in high school, I used to think that 25 was the best age to get married. Now that I am there, it's more difficult. This is not the 1950s,'' Erickson said. ``I want to be in a good financial situation, and I want to marry for life.''

Where to meet the future Mrs. Erickson is a mystery. One thing is certain, he is not in any hurry.

``She probably won't be in the SafeRide car,'' Erickson said.

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