Friday, December 12, 2014

Stage Left to Stage Right: A Tale of Fun at DHS

This is a short recollection of an event from my 7th grade year at Duchesne High School.  It's mostly accurate, I think.

“Did you get it?” I asked impatiently while trying to keep a look out for our teacher. 

We had less than a minute before she would come back to find us.  Quickly I glanced back at my two friends, JS and MW.  They were attempting to unlock the bar on the exterior door to the high school auditorium so we could sneak back in later during our lunch break.

“Got it,” JS said, closing the door quietly.

Turning we ran back down the aisles between the seats and upon to the stage just as our teacher stepped out from the dressing rooms.

“Come on you guys.  Quit playing around.”

As I followed her I looked back at the long rope hanging from the rafters at center stage.  One more class period until lunch, then we would be back.  The rope held so much potential.

We wolfed down our lunches over at the elementary school and then hustled back up the sidewalk to the side door of the auditorium.  With a quick look around, we ducked through the door, locking it behind us.  The large room was dark and eerily silent.  Carefully we made our way up onto the stage.  Feeling around we found the light switches, bathing the stage in bright lights for our pending adventure.

MW grabbed the end of the rope.  It was thick, maybe three inches with a large knot tied at the bottom.  Rope in hand we climbed up the ladder at stage left, to the small platform about 20 feet up on the wall.  The platform was small, crowded with old, abandoned stage props from productions past.  There was barely enough room for the three of us. 

The length of the stage lay before us.  We were ready to experience it at high speed.  I was anxious for my turn.  Since MW pulled the rope up we decided to let him go first.  Holding tightly to the rope, he carefully climbed over the railing of the platform.  With a deep breath and a scream, he jumped.

He flew across the stage with a full-throated yell.  As he reached the apex of his swing at stage right, the backstage door from the hallway opened.  In walked Principal JD and another teacher.  They looked up to see MW fall from the sky right in front of them and then streak away toward the other end of the stage.

Quickly JS and I ducked behind the props on the platform, hoping to remain unseen.  MW gave one brief look at us as he came back up toward the platform; his eyes were a cross between terror and amusement. 

Passing back out over center stage, MW offered a weak greeting to our esteemed principal.

“Hey, JD.  What are you doing in the auditorium?”

The initial look of shock was receding slowly from the principal’s face as he began to realize what he was seeing.  Unfortunately the teacher with him remained confused for at least a few more swings.

“Well, hello MW!  What are you up to?”

“Not much.  Just going for a swing.”

“Really?  Just a swing?  All by yourself?”

JD looked around, expecting to find some co-conspirators.  MW was a very social person, not likely to be engaged in any mischief alone.

Coming back by again, MW answered: “Yes, I’m alone.  Couldn’t get anyone to come over with me.”

I felt JS shaking next to me, trying to keep his breathing quiet.  Neither of us wanted to get caught, even for something so trivial.  Luckily for us MW was an expert at being in trouble.  I hoped he could keep us safe, the same way he had when we built the clubhouse off campus in elementary school. 

As his kinetic energy began to zero out, MW dragged a leg across the floor to bring him to a full stop. 

JD remained unconvinced that MW was swinging by himself on the stage during the lunch period.  MW was never alone.

“Come on, you’re really in here swinging all by yourself?”

He was squinting his eyes looking around the stage and into the darkness of the empty auditorium seating. 

“Yeah, I like to come here to swing by myself sometimes.  You know, just to clear my head.”

JS forced out another controlled breathe next to me.  I realized I was doing the same thing.

MW compliantly walked over to JD.

“So, I guess we’re going to your office to talk for awhile?”

“Yes.  I guess this is worth a chat.”

As they walked away, MW looked straight ahead, giving no indication of our hiding place.  JD stopped at the door and turned to look around one more time.  As he walked out, he turned the lights out plunging the stage and auditorium into a deep darkness. 

JS and I stayed in place for a few more minutes just in case JD tried to slip back in to catch us coming out of hiding.  Climbing down from the platform was a bit iffy in near pitch-black darkness.  With a few bangs and a slip or two we made it safely back to the stage and made our way quickly to the exterior door.  We slipped into the bright sunlight and walked away safely.

It turns out that MW had to sit through a half serious lecture for about twenty minutes in JD’s office.  He talked about the importance of rules and being safe.  He asked him a few more times about swinging alone on the stage.  He never gave us away.

Looking back on the events of that day, I still think about that rope.  Part of me wishes I had carried the rope up and taken the first and only swing.  Flying across that stage with a dark auditorium to one side would have been amazing.  Looking down to see JD and the other teacher standing there would have added to the thrill. 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Swing Shift: Race, Body Cameras, and Safety in Law Enforcement

For the third time he watched the video with his captain, trying to explain what had happened.  It was simple domestic dispute.  Now his partner was dead and he was sitting in a hospital bed.  The day had started out so differently for everyone.

Sitting on the edge of the bed, he leaned over to tie his shoes.  His shift started in thirty minutes, just enough time to finish suiting up and make it to the precinct.  It was his second day back on swings.  The transition from graveyard to swing was the toughest for him, throwing his sleep pattern into disarray.  Also, for the next four weeks he wouldn’t see much of his children except for in the mornings.  He made himself wake up early enough to eat breakfast with them and see them off to school, and then he tried to get a couple of more hours of sleep.  Usually he wasn’t successful.

With shoes on he walked quickly down the stairs to retrieve his gun belt from the top of the refrigerator.  Along the way he paused, as he did before every shift, to look at the pictures of his family on the wall.  The picture in the center showed a happy family, posed together in matching clothing with a scenic backdrop from a nearby park behind them--mother, father and four young children.  Individual pictures of the children surrounded the larger family picture.  He and his wife had been married for eight years.  The children had come quickly, welcomed into a cheerful and loving home.  Well the home was as cheerful as you can expect with four young children keeping mother busy while father was transitioning between shifts every four weeks or so.

Tonight had the potential to be special.  His oldest daughter, Maddie, had a dance recital in an area of town that fell into his assigned patrol area.  His partner had suggested that they stop by the recital to watch.  Maddie loved to show off her daddy in uniform.  If the calls fell right, they should be able to see her dance and stay around for punch and cookies after the recital.  His wife was excited for a little extra help wrangling the two-year old Jeb.  Jeb, who hated to hold still for almost anything, was enthralled by his dad’s uniform with the various pins, patches, and accouterments.  The twins, who had followed just a year after Maddie, were now six years old.  Both Adam and Allison were surprisingly well behaved for their age, perhaps to make up for all the hard work they created for their mother during their first three years.

Looking in the mirror he adjusted his gun belt one more time, trying to shift the bulletproof vest to make it more comfortable.  Luckily the autumn weather was cool, making the vest more bearable.  Turning to the door he remembered one more thing, the newly issued body camera.  He and a few dozen other officers had received the cameras just a week ago as part of a pilot program.  Reaching back up on the fridge he pulled down the camera and strapped it to his chest.  With the heavy vest, he hardly noticed the small, light camera.

His wife was out running errands before picking up the kids from school.  With a last glance at the pictures he left the house.

Two and a half hours into an uneventful shift he was feeling hopeful that they would make it to the recital.  So far they had responded to a disturbing the peace call that was called in by an old man who hated disliked the young teenagers next door.  With the music turned down calm was restored, at least for now.  During a short foot patrol through one of the parks they had managed to nod their heads to several joggers and they gave one person directions to an elusive street address.  With just under an hour until the start of the recital, things were looking good.

Unfortunately, trouble waits for nobody, especially for police officers.

“Unit 342, Control.”

“Control, this is Unit 342.”

“342 we have a report of a 10-16 in progress at apartment 112 in the Greenbriar Complex.  Other units are 10-6.  Are you able to respond?”

He looked at his partner, feeling his daughter’s recital start to slip away. 

“Well, Daniels, doesn’t look like we’ll make it to the recital.”

“Don’t despair yet, Hansen.  Watch us work a quick miracle.”

He keyed the mike and responded:

“10-4, show us en route.  What other details do you have?”

“Caller states that her husband and son are arguing loudly.  They’re starting to push and shove with a few punches thrown.  She is unable to get either of them to leave.”

“Copy.  Are we aware of any guns in the home?”

“Caller indicates that she is not aware of any firearms in the home.  The son does have some priors for assault and petty theft.”

When they arrived, the fight had escalated and moved to the front yard.  Several neighbors were out watching as the police cruiser parked along the curb.  Both officers quickly exited their vehicle and headed in the direction of the altercation, ignoring a few of the taunts and jeers from a few of the neighbors who weren’t fans of law enforcement.  Father and son were mostly yelling, though both had blood on their faces. 

“Break it up!  Break it up now!” Hansen yelled.  For a second anger and sadness welled up inside of him as he thought of his daughter looking around the room for her daddy knowing that she would be disappointed again.

Both men were large and physically dominating.  Neither even acknowledged the presence of the officers.  Neighbors and others began to shout encouragement to the combatants and jeers toward the officers.

“Control, 342.  We’re going to need back up as soon as you can send it.”

Hansen glanced nervously at the growing crowd of neighbors.  What he saw made him nervous for two reasons?  First, there were several young children who didn’t need to be exposed to this violence.  Second, he and Daniels were two white officers in an economically challenged African American neighborhood with a high crime rate.  They were unlikely to get any help from the neighbors and may even get the opposite. 

A woman, who must have been the caller, began to scream at the officers, “Stop him!  Stop him before he beats my husband to death.  What are you waiting for?”

Suddenly he felt the weight of the body camera on his chest.  It was now clear that he and Daniels were going to have to use force to break up the fight.  Everything they did would be recorded and potentially dissected by the police department, the media, lawyers, and maybe even a jury.  His training told him what he needed to do in terms of use of force.  When he was issued the camera he was told to stick to that training.  For his own safety, the safety of his partner, and for the safety of the community, he knew he needed to forget that the body camera was recording what was happening.

But he couldn’t so easily forget.  Here he was with two large men trying to beat each other senseless surrounded by a group of people that seemed to hate him and his partner.  If this goes down badly, the video will become the focus of a public trial by the media, in social media, and by the police department.  The need to stop the violent actions of these two men in this moment was not dictated by race.  It was their sworn duty to enforce the law regardless of race.  If things were to get out of hand, however, the fallout would be driven by race and the perception of racial injustice.  Perhaps institutional racism, inequities in the past and future had led these two men to their current actions.  Even if that were the case, how should it impact the actions of two law enforcement officers trying to enforce the law?  To use force will be seen as an exhibit of racism.  To ignore the need to enforce the law in a black neighborhood will result in charges of racism as well.  What could they do but their duty? 

Hansen had been in such situations several times over the past six years.  In an effort to prepare him, thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours had been spent to teach him how to reduce the tension verbally without the use of force.  In this circumstance, however, he recognized that events had moved beyond their ability to restore order with words only.  Force would have to be applied to one or both parties.  The goal would be to avoid escalating the use of force beyond what was necessary to restore order, protect those involved, and to protect his life and Daniels’ life. 

He and Daniels would follow their training, but he would make sure they were extra deliberate about their decisions and vigilant about appropriate use of force.  Hansen wanted to go home to his wife and children and he wanted to go home without the fear of any unfair retribution for doing his job.  And, he wanted to get Daniels home safely.

Carefully both officers moved forward, hands on their holstered weapons.  Hansen’s thoughts kept returning to how the video would play out after the altercation.  Would he be able to justify what would be on the video?

“Hansen.  Hansen, tell me again, why did you hesitate here?” asked the captain pausing the video.

Sitting in his hospital bed, he could hear two other officers speaking in the hallway.

“Daniels’ wife didn’t take the news well.  The baby is only eight months old.  Won’t even remember his father.”

Monday, November 24, 2014

Crimea's Russian Destiny

Tonight I’m going to take a controversial stance on the issue of the Crimea.  Without condoning the methods employed by Vladimir Putin’s Russia in the annexation, it is my opinion that, when all is said and done, Crimea should belong to Russia, at least more than it should belong to Ukraine.  History, demographics, and public opinion fall heavily on Russia’s side of the ledger on this issue.

The history of Crimea, as with any geographic area that has hosted civilizations, is complex.  Tribes and nations have come and gone, leaving in their wake no certainty regarding ownership of the land.  How do we track right to a land that has been populated by the Cimmerians, the Scythians, the Greeks, the Golden Horde, Crimean Tatars, Ukrainians, and Russians?  The Cimmerians and Scythians would be difficult to locate today.  Ancient Greek colonies along the Black Sea coast of Crimea no longer exist; abandoned ruins are all that remain in places like Chersonesus and Feodosiya.  The Greeks obviously have no viable play left for the Crimean peninsula.  Crimean Tatars put in place the Khanate, a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire, followed the Golden Horde. 

Under Catharine the Great, the Russian Empire wrested control of the peninsula away from the Khanate and the Ottoman Empire in 1783.  In the 19th century, the Russian Empire sought to gain additional territory as the Ottoman Empire began to climb.  Using the rights of Christians in the Holy Land as a reason, Russia went to war in Crimea against an alliance of France, Britain, the Ottoman Empire, and Sardinia.  It was a shock that the Christian nations of the West sided with the Muslim authority, giving rise to the idea that Russia was the defender of Christianity and civilization.  In open conflict with the West, Russian blood was spilled on Crimean soil, tying the land tightly to Russia.

From 1783 to 1954, Crimea was part of Russia.  Today there wouldn’t be any question about ownership of the Crimea if it weren’t for Nikita Khrushchev.  For a variety of reasons, Khrushchev basically gifted Crimea to Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954.  It seems certain, that at the time, the gift seemed largely symbolic due to the expected longevity of the Soviet Union.  Nobody expected it to become a geographic pawn between the Russian and Ukrainian nations.

Demographics in Crimea make Russia’s case of territorial possession stronger.  As of the 2001 census, Russians make up 60.4% of the population.  Only 24% of the population is ethnic Ukrainians.  Russians have outnumbered Ukrainians since Russia gained control of the territory.  In terms of national and ethnic identity, Crimea is not Ukrainian--it's more Russian.

The only other argument for territorial control that is viable today belongs to the Crimean Tatars.  After World War II, the Crimean Tatars were deported from the peninsula forcibly and allowed to return en masse only after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Today they make up more than 10% of the population in Crimea.  While the Tatars could mount a convincing argument for political control of the peninsula, their current numbers and the power of the Russian state make that highly improbable.

Public Opinion
In 2008 I was in Ukraine on a business trip for the US Air Force Academy.  As part of the trip we spent some time in Yalta and other parts of the Crimea.  One evening a few others and I went to dinner at a Georgian restaurant in Yalta.  This was just after the Russian invasion of Georgia.  Neither Georgians nor Americans were popular at the time.  As we sat in the restaurant, we could hear loud cheering and chanting at a nearby public arena.  Our hostess seemed very nervous at our presence and partway through dinner asked if we were Americans.  When we answered in the affirmative, she almost started to cry.  I asked here about the noise and what was wrong.  She informed us that there was a large pro-Russian/anti-American gathering taking place at the nearby arena.  She begged us to eat quickly, leave quietly, and to lie about being American.

The meal was delicious as Georgian food usually is.  Unfortunately, our departure coincided with the end of the rally.  Walking back to our hotel, we put our heads down to try to avoid any attention.  In the middle of the boardwalk a group of young Russian men stopped us, grabbing one of my associates by the arm.

“Who are you?  Where are you from?  Are you Americans?”

An entire group of about 15-20 men stopped around us, waiting to hear our answer.

Looking up, I smiled at them, and with poor pronunciation I said, “No, we’re from Canada!”

The mood immediately lightened and several of them clapped us on the back.

“We love Canadians!  Welcome to Crimea!  We hate the Americans.”

“And we hate the Ukrainians,” yelled another one to the cheers of his fellows.

Over a period of three years I traveled to Crimea on four separate occasions.  There was an overwhelming sense of belonging to and support for Russia.  Russian national flags flew from dozens of buildings in Sevastopol alongside the Russian Black Sea Fleet.

One poll in 2008 indicated that over 60% of the population in Crimea was open to the idea of seceding from Ukraine and joining Russia.  The same poll revealed that a significant portion was willing to stay with Ukraine if given greater political autonomy. 

The fall of the Yanukovych and the rise of Russian attention on Ukraine lead to a popular uprising of support in Crimea to join with Russia.  Calls for a referendum on annexation arose almost at once.  Polling prior to the referendum, by local and third party sources, again indicated overwhelming support to leave Ukraine and join Russia.  The credibility of the actual referendum is questionable because of the percentage voting in favor of annexation—over 96%.  Such results indicate that results were manipulated to some degree or another.  Even without the manipulation, it is likely that the vote would have shown overwhelming support for annexation to Russia.

Among all of the issues impacting the question of territorial control of Crimea, the only one that is not on the side of Russia is the legality of the annexation.  The referendum and seizure of Crimea was not done in accordance with international law and norms.  Without the assistance of a legal expert, I’m limited in my ability to hit all of the relevant issues.  I would venture to guess, however, that Russia would not recognize a similar vote for independence in a place like Chechnya or Dagestan.  The annexation of Crimea flies directly in the face of Russia’s claims of control over its own territories populated by non-Russians.

The legality of the annexation is made more questionable by Russia’s role, perceived or real, in aiding and abetting separatists in eastern Ukraine.  

Ukraine's Need for Crimea
Crimea is important to Ukraine for two primary reasons.  First, it provides a strategic location for the basing of naval forces in the Black Sea.  It provides a method for Ukraine to protect the rest of its Black Sea coast and establishes a degree of legitimacy in terms of military projection.  Second, and more importantly, the annexation of Crimea by Russia represents a direct threat to Ukrainian statehood.  If Russia can seize Crimea from a sovereign state, using historical arguments of national ties and based on a referendum that was conducted illegally and outside of accepted international norms, then Ukrainian statehood is under a real and direct threat of extinction.  

The annexation of Crimea is Russia's gate on the path to seizing greater swaths of Ukraine if they so desire, starting with east Ukraine where they can (and are) fomenting separatist movements with political and military support.  Further if the Russian government and military can weaken the Ukrainian government sufficiently and cause enough violence and instability, then President Putin may well use it to justify sending in forces in order to protect Russia from the expanding chaos.  Essentially, President Putin will pull regurgitate bastardized versions of NATO arguments for bombing Serbia and for the US invasion of Iraq.

With all of the factors weighed, Russia has much stronger ties and stronger claim to Crimea than does Ukraine.  Unfortunately, Russia used a political crisis in Kiev to gain control using illegal and questionable methods.  With greater patience and willingness to play by the rules, Russia could have regained control of Crimea legally.  Instead Russia showed the world that the rules only apply when they want them to apply.  It’s interesting this is a charge that Vladimir Putin often throws at the United States.  Russia’s actions and methods in gaining Crimea, and its continued effort to sow chaos in Ukraine, heighten concerns throughout Europe about further territorial aspirations.  Crimea has become the poisoned fruit that increase distrust and uncertainty in Russia’s international relations.

Russia's seizure of Crimea also highlights the weakness and lack of preparedness of the West.  NATO and the EU failed to foresee Russian reactions to events in Ukraine.  They failed to react in any meaningful and timely way.  The result is an emboldened Russia.

See additional posts regarding Russia and Ukraine:

Thoughts on Ferguson

There is a definite racial imbalance in this country. Most of us who don't have overt racial biases or tendencies, especially those of us who are white, don't notice it as much as those who are in the minority. Unfortunately, there is often a negative interaction between some minorities and law enforcement. In the vast majority of these cases, race isn't driving the issue, but poor decisions by people. Race, too often, is claimed as the cause. Usually these interactions occur in economically disadvantage areas that are overwhelmingly African American. The economic conditions of these minorities in many cases are the result of the past's institutionalized racism. Find a way to invigorate these communities economically and crime will drop. If we can drop crime, these types of interactions will decrease. 

Riots in Ferguson are not merely a sideshow cause by a few nut jobs. It's much larger than that. This involves thousands of people taking advantage of the situation in order to steal and commit further violent acts. There are individuals and groups that gain from fanning the racial flames beyond what is necessary or helpful. Going after a cop and an institution before getting the facts of what happened doesn't help a bad situation. When the truth came out about what happened, it merely made people angrier when things didn't turn out the way they demanded. They made a terrible situation much worse. Instead of heightening the awareness of racial problems among other parts of society, they instead have drowned out the voices of those with reasonable concerns. There is a massive gap in the methods and purposes of today's protesters as compared to those in the days of Martin Luther King, Jr.

If these same "concerned" citizens focused on the issues that are having a widespread and devastating impact on the black community, then the rest of the world would take them more seriously.

Institutional racism exists today, but it is largely the result of what happened in the past. Fixing economic imbalance isn't an easy thing. Both parties have failed at it. Many would argue that Johnson's War on Poverty did as much to maintain and exacerbate the imbalance as anything that Reagan attempted. But, it's important to understand that neither of these presidents implemented policies with the intent to disadvantage the minorities. Simply, it's a complex problem with no easy fixes.

Somehow poverty rates among minorities have worsened under President Obama and a Democrat controlled Congress. Should we assume that he is racist? Absolutely not. Rather we should realize that the problem is beyond his scope of abilities and understanding, just as it has been for so many other presidents. Large government programs, tough new laws, or billions of dollars won’t fix this problem. It can only be fixed in individual homes.

Here's my biggest problem with the terrible death of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the terrible death of Trayvon Martin in Florida--two young men died who shouldn't have and those deaths brought down the condemnation of millions of people in this country, people with good and some with bad intentions. But, when young black men are killing other young black men nearly indiscriminately in places like Chicago, those same voices are largely silent. That is where we see the true cost of institutionalized racism, not in these handfuls of sensationalized cases where the media and people on both sides of the racial equation distort the truth. What are Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, President Obama, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Mitch McConnell and others doing to stop the type of violence that is killing hundreds and thousands of young black people? Instead, everyone goes crazy when an isolated incident occurs. We pat ourselves on the back and convince others and ourselves that these are the real issues and that by tackling these issues we're going to impact the problem. We're not; we're making the problem worse.

At the same time we can't dismiss the reaction of protesters.  For some this simply is a reason to run rampant, be violent, and steal a few items they may want.  For many they are reacting to a situation that symbolizes the oppressive reality of their economic condition and their interaction with authority.  People, at all levels of society, must use this unfortunate event and the needless fallout, as an impetus for meaningful dialogue.  This issue is a behemoth, something that will not be fixed quickly or easily.  

Addendum - The Day After
 As I was driving home from work last night, I was listening to local talk radio as the nation waited for the results of the grand jury decision.  One of the callers hit the nail on the head with his description of what is happening at the street level, where law enforcement and minorities interact.  The caller described himself as a large, black man.  He said he weighs around 260 lbs and has several tattoos.  Each time he's been pulled over he can sense the nervousness of the officer making the stop.  As he said, here is an officer who deals with terrible things and terrible people every day.  Unfortunately, too many of those criminals happen to be young African American males.  The caller expressed his understanding of the source of the officers nervousness.  Society's economic and criminal realities are what they are--that officer on the street is not responsible for making them what they are and in most cases doesn't want the interaction to be about race, but about protecting and serving the public by enforcing laws fairly.  

The caller wasn't trying to justify this type of interaction at a societal level, but at an individual level.  Neither that caller nor the officers that pulled him over created the current situation.  They are dealing with an unfortunate reality that sometimes negatively impacts good and honest people.  The caller went on to explain how he acts in situations where he has interacted with police officers.  First, he recognizes that they deal with terrible people and terrible things on a daily basis.  Second, he does his best to show respect to the officer for two reasons--one good and one bad in my opinion, but both make sense.  He respects the officer and the job he is doing and he wants the officer to respect him as a person.  He also shows respect out of fear because he, the caller, doesn't want to be a victim of an escalating situation.

Our citizens and our law enforcement agencies can do a much better job of communicating and interacting.  Citizens of all social backgrounds need to feel ownership for the legal system.  They need to know that their voices will be heard on issues important to them.  By bringing those on the fringes of the system in to participate, law enforcement will gain greater support which is invaluable when terrible tragedies occur.

Many of those who feel disenfranchised in our country don't realize it, but we do have one of the best legal systems in the world.  It's not perfect, but it works better than almost anything else being used.  It works better when everyone understands it, supports it, and is engaged with it.  The reaction to Ferguson shouldn't be to further marginalize either side.  Instead we should find a way to have a deeper, more meaningful dialogue.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Louis L'Amour - The Wisdom of a Pulp Fiction Writer

"If you write a book set in the past about something that happened east of the Mississippi, it's a 'historical novel.'  If you write about something that took place west of the Mississippi, it's a 'Western'-and somehow regarded as a lesser work.  I write historical novels about the frontier."  
     - Louis L'Amour
Many is the time I found myself lost in the desert fighting the elements and other men for survival.  In fur and self-made clothing I have traveled the length and breadth of Siberia on foot.  I have descended into the kiva on a haunted mesa and entered the Third World.  I have stepped onto new shores, crossed mountain passes, and rivers.  Ancient cities have housed me.  I have built new towns and communities.  Treasure, love, and challenge have called out to me.

The power of Louis L'Amour's books are palpable.  His stories capture important aspects of the human experience.  They are simple stories about struggle, striving, failure, and triumph.  His plots are simple, yet direct.  To me they transmit important historical and cultural mores and values that define part of America and part of who I want to be.  A couple of his novels took place where I grew up.  It was easy for me to place myself in his novels of the west, of the frontier.  There, where I was a boy, the frontier was in the not too distant past.  Old roads and trails, dilapidated buildings gave evidence of the closeness of the wilder days.

L'Amour captured the American drive to become somebody, to create something of lasting value.  His characters were men and women who willingly suffered hardship, risk, and misfortune in the pursuit of something better.  They exemplified personal responsibility, ambition, and, in the midst of the wild, the value of civilization.  These ideas of civilization and the opportunity offered by the frontier today seem a paradox.  Many have given in to the pull of collective responsibility where risk is avoided, responsibility belongs to "them", and ambition is a sin to be covered and hidden.

While his plot lines may not have some of the complexity that we enjoy in our literature, he shared a vision and a sense of wisdom that is classic and, if applied, still valuable today.  For an entertaining and inspiring read, pick up a L'Amour.  Follow the story of the Sacketts, come to know Bendigo Shafter, learn of the difference between healthy ambition and unbridled greed.  There is something to be said for men and women who do, and those are the type of people that L'Amour created.

To whet your appetite here are few of my favorite quotes from Louis L'Amour.  (I have to admit that a number of years ago I started reading some of his books with a pencil in hand to underline a few things.)

"A mistake constantly made by those who should know better is to judge people of the past by our standards rather than their own.  The only way men or women can be judged is against the canvas of their own time."

"The trail is the thing, not the end of the trail.  Travel too fast, and you miss all you are traveling for."

"Up to a point a person's life is shaped by environment, heredity, and changes in the world about them.  Then there comes a time when it lies within their grasp to shape the clay of their life into the sort of thing they wish it to be.  Only the weak blame parents, their race, their times, lack of good fortune or the quirks of fate.  Everyone has the power to say, 'This I am today.  That I shall be tomorrow.'"

"The way I see it, every time a man gets up in the morning he starts his life over.  Sure, the bills are there to pay, and the job is there to do, but you don't have to stay in a pattern.  You can always start over, saddle a fresh horse and take another trail."

"Violence is an evil thing, but when the guns are all in the hands of the men without respect for human rights, then men are really in trouble."

"Too often I would hear men boast of the miles covered that day, rarely of what they had seen."

"We are, finally, all wanderers in search of knowledge.  Most of us hold the dream of becoming something better than we are, something larger, richer, in some way more important to the world and ourselves.  Too often, the way taken is the wrong way, with too much emphasis on what we want to have, rather than what we wish to become."

"Books are precious things, but more than that, they are the strong backbone of civilization.  They are the thread upon which it all hangs, and they can save us when all else is lost."

Finally, for all those stories that he took with him to the grave:

"I have told many, yet when I go down that last trail, I know there will be a thousand stories hammering at my skull, demanding to be told."

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Reed Van Wagoner: A Life of Service - More to Come

I’m having a difficult time with my father’s retirement as a police officer.  For thirty-three years he has been involved in law enforcement.  That covers the bulk of my life.  

Here’s a quick timeline of his service:

-       1981: Police Officer, Duchesne City Police Department (Who remembers when Duchesne City had their own police department?)
-       1983: Deputy Sheriff, Duchesne County Police Department
-       1988: Master-at-Arms, United States Navy active duty
-       1991: Deputy Sheriff, Duchesne County Police Department
-       1995: Police Officer, Provo City Police Department

He still continues to serve in the US Navy Reserve.  During all of his time in law enforcement he has been a trainer, an investigator, chief deputy, sergeant, and lieutenant.  For twelve years in Provo he worked as detective investigating sex crimes.  His conviction rate and service set a new standard for the City of Provo.  During those years he was activated and deployed by the US Navy Reserve three times, two of those to active war zones where Islamic militants rained mortars down on his installation.  He had one brief period where he worked in the private sector for a friend, but continued to serve as a reserve deputy.  Often during his career he did extra construction jobs and things on the side to bring in enough income to provide for his growing family.

When I returned from serving my LDS mission in Russia, another officer in Provo asked me if I was ready to apply to the police academy.  There was no way, I told him, that I could do what police officers do: shift work, working holidays, missing family events, dealing with blood and gore at accident and crime scenes, dealing with belligerent and foolish people on a regular basis, insufficient pay.  I think I made the young police officer question his decision to join the long blue line.  In short, I wasn’t willing to make the same sacrifices my father had to serve others.

I won’t attempt to speak for him regarding his career or for those he served and helped along the way.  I will share some of what I observed, experienced, and felt.

Being the child of a law enforcement officer is exciting, frightening, annoying, humorous and sometimes painful. 

It’s exciting because your father is out there protecting you and everyone else from the bad guys.  Growing up in the home of a law enforcement officer you learn that the bad guys are real.  You also learn about the fragility of life and the sadness that comes from accidents and sickness.  On a regular basis I was able to ride in his police vehicle with a souped up engine, flashing lights, and siren.  When he was a deputy sheriff in Duchesne County, he would prepare me for what could happen during the course of a shift.  He would make sure I knew where we were located in case something happened and I needed to call dispatch to get help.  I had specific instructions to hide if anything dangerous happened.  During those early years I mostly saw him pull over a few speeders, saw a few self-inflicted gun shot wounds caused by hunters who had decided that extensive drinking and firearms were a fun mix, and went on a few search and rescue missions. 

Another deputy was killed while he worked for Duchesne County, shot on accident by another deputy.  It brought home the reality of the risks associated with his work.  More than once I saw worry on my mother’s face when my dad was late coming home from a shift.  At the beginning of my dad’s career we had a police radio scanner in the house.  It was fun to listen to it and know what was happening.  After awhile my parents got rid of it with the excuse that it was nice to take a break from work.  It was also nice to relax and not worry about what you were hearing when dad was on duty.  My poor mother was a dispatcher for a short period while my dad was working for Duchesne City or the County.  She listened on the phone while my dad was at a domestic dispute.  The caller kept telling her to call out backup because the officer was getting the crap beat out of him.  I think she moved on to something different shortly after that.  While all of us face risk going out the door every day, law enforcement officers face it even more, knowing that they might have to put their life on the line for someone else all while dealing with thoughts of their own loved ones at home.

Having a parent or relative in law enforcement in small town enhances the experience in some aspects.  You tend to find out a lot more about people than you really want to know.  Also, friends, neighbors, and others like to blame you for their troubles with law enforcement, especially when it was your relative who was involved.  I don’t know how many times I was told that my dad, and by association me, was a terrible person because he arrested so and so for doing such and such and it was none of his business anyway.  Usually I would just shrug it off, realizing that people don’t like to be caught doing something they shouldn’t.  Several of these types of complainers would assume that I knew what had happened…usually I didn’t until they informed me of all the wonderful details, some of which was occasionally incriminating.  In rare instances, I did feel that perhaps my dad had been too harsh with the offender and would ask him about it and he would patiently explain why he had take that course of action. 

Here is one of my favorite complaints from friends and others in the small town environment.  Duchesne is a small, mostly agricultural community with the occasional oil boom.  It is common for teens to start driving on the farm at a very young age.  Many of these teens and others, usually with their parents’ permission, will decide it’s okay for them to drive on the roads with regular traffic.  Invariably, my dad would pull these youth over and usually send them home with a warning and occasionally a written citation.  Once caught these people would whine and complain to me about how stupid and unfair it was that he would dare to stop them.  So, finally I asked him about it.  His response?  If they caused an accident driving before they were licensed, there would be serious consequences.  First, they might be delayed in getting their drivers licenses.  Second, their parents may have to pay for the accident out of their pocket with no help from the insurance company.  Third, unprepared and unqualified drivers are more likely to cause serious accidents that result in harm.  It wouldn’t fair to allow them to drive putting themselves and others at greater risk.  Anyway, I’ll get off of that soapbox now except to say that I never got to drive on the roads by myself before I had my license, so who had it fair?

Law enforcement officers interact with some of the most bizarre people and situations on a fairly regular basis.  Some of them are disturbing and some are extremely funny.  Listening to my dad’s stories is one of my favorite past times, especially when there are other officers there to share their stories.  Here are just a couple of stories that I remember.  (Of course, my memory may not be completely accurate.) 

I’m reasonably certain the first one happened to my dad.  If not, that’s okay because it’s still entertaining.  Back in the early 80s it was common to hear my dad tell stories of the latest arrests for DUI and public intoxication.  For one of these they had arrested a woman who was very drunk and larger than my father, who is not a small person.  In the booking room at the Sheriff’s Office, this lady backed into my dad and sat on him.  Before he could get up and before the other deputies could rescue him she proceeded to urinate all over him.  Good times. 

Another story I love occurred when he was in Provo.  He and another officer were called to a lady who was complaining about aliens performing experiments on her while she slept.  When they arrived she related how they were sending microwaves up through her floor into her bed.  Because of these microwaves she couldn’t sleep.  She wanted to be left alone.  My dad said,  “Now, I’m not saying I believe you and I’m saying I don’t, but I do know how to stop microwaves.” 

Thrilled that someone had finally listened to her, she asked, “How?”

“Do you have any aluminum foil?”


“Go get some.  We’ll lay it shiny side down under the bed and it will block the microwaves and reflect them back down.”

He spent the next few minutes helping her lay the aluminum under the bed while the other officer watched in disbelief.  As far as I know they were never called back to help with the alien experiments again.

Okay, we have time for two more stories that involve me directly.

As I mentioned I loved to ride along with my dad when he was on duty.  Sometimes he would have me wait in the vehicle while he ran into different places.  Often the wait would be extensive.  On one occasion he went into the Duchesne County Courthouse.  I waited forever and became bored.  Looking around I found a partial roll of breath mints.  My dad wasn’t a big breath mint person so I was sure he wouldn’t mind if I took one.  One wasn’t enough so I took another.  Finally, as I was unwrapping the packaging for a third one he got back in his vehicle.  He looked at what I was doing and smiled.

“Did you eat one of those already?”

“Yes, two already.  Why?”

“They’re not mine.”

“Who’s are they?”

“They fell out of the purse of the extremely drunk and dirty lady that I arrested last night.”

“No, it didn’t.”

Laughing, he responded, “Oh, yes it did.”

They tasted clean, kind of minty.

Fast-forward several years to when my father was in Provo.  I had been home from my mission to Russia for just a short time.  I was riding with my dad on the swing shift, which is when all the fun, crazy stuff happens in Provo.  Dispatch contacted my dad.  The night clerk at a local motel suspected that some teenagers were about to have a drinking party in one of the rooms.  We drove over to the motel to take a look.  The clerk pointed out the room.  Some of the teens saw us when they opened the door, and went back inside quickly.  As we were standing there, a case of beer was suddenly thrown on top of a solid brick fence on one side of the motel.  Putting his finger to his lips, my dad motioned me to follow him quietly to the wall.  Reaching up he took the case of beer.

A voice whispered, “Is that you?”

“Yes,” my dad whispered back.

“Good.  Hurry, take it.”

Quickly they set several more cases on top of the wall.  We took them, setting them quietly on the ground.   Finally, one of the two young guys handing us the beer jumped up on the wall to help carry the beer to the party.  As he looked down at my dad, his eyes got huge.  He looked at us and at the room where his friends were staring through the window at what was happening.

Still whispering, my dad asked, “Is that all of the beer?”

The kid on the other side, who hadn’t seen us, whispered, “Yes, that’s all of it.”

Coming to his senses the kid on the wall slid back over before my dad could grab him and yelled, “Run, it’s the cops.”

We didn’t even try to chase them.  Calmly, amidst our laughing, we put the confiscated beer into my dad’s vehicle while the kids watched from the hotel room.  Before we left he went to the room of crestfallen, would-be partiers.

“It looks like you won’t be having the fun you had expected.  Hopefully you didn’t lose too much of your money.  I suggest everyone go home now or I’ll start calling parents.”

My dad loved to serve and help other people.  That was why he loved being in law enforcement.  His goal was to keep people safe and help them wherever he could.  He was never quick to write a ticket or arrest someone if it wasn’t necessary.  He would rather give out friendly advice than a ticket.  Friends and neighbors knew they could ask him for help at any time.  It was a life that impacted me deeply.  Because of his service, I joined the Air Force and served for a short time.  His example causes me to question my motives on a daily basis.  It makes me want to make a difference in the lives of my family and in the lives of others. 

A quick word about my mother.  I don’t speak or write about her publicly very often.  She is a private person and I get emotional when I speak of her.  For almost forty years of marriage my parents have supported and loved each other.  I think of all the nights and days when my mother was on her own with her children or by herself.  I think of those times when my father was called out in the middle of the night to go provide aid to someone else even as they dealt with their own struggles.  While she wasn’t always quiet and cheerful in her support, because that’s not who my mother is, she made him a better person and allowed him to bless the lives of so many other people.  They will be off to new and exciting adventures that will involve more service.

One of the last times I rode with my dad was just after he had been promoted to lieutenant.  It was a couple of years ago.  An elderly neighbor from his ward called to ask him if he could help find his daughter, a middle aged women with a disability.  She was due to return from a trip on a bus but didn’t arrive on the bus.  They had no idea where she was and had no way of getting in touch with her.  My dad promised to find her.  For the next couple of hours my dad went to the various bus stops where she may have gotten off early.  We asked people if they had seen her.  Finally, we pulled into the McDonald’s just off of University in Orem and saw here sitting in at a booth.  She was frightened and scared.

As we walked in my dad called her name.  She looked up and her face brightened.

“Reed, you found me!  How did you know to look here?”

“We just kept looking until we found you.”

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Government Regulation: Lowering the Bar

For eleven years I was an employee of the Federal Government.  Eight of those years I was an active duty office in the Air Force and for three years I was a civilian employee of the Air Force.  My work, and those of my colleagues, was very satisfying.  My efforts, in particular, contributed to the training of Air Force pilots and future officers.  It should be no surprise to anyone who has experience with the government, especially the military that I experienced the frustration that comes from the inefficiencies inherent in a large organization.  At times those inefficiencies and contradictions were overbearing in their nature, but a necessary mission and sense of team offset them. 

Since leaving the Air Force four years ago, I’ve worked for two different companies.  The first worked primarily with local and state governments, providing them software as a service.  My current employer provides workforce training.  Much of the funding for our students comes from local, state, and federal agencies.  As a result we are required to go through extensive licensing processes and regular audits and evaluations.  The experiences of the past four years have highlighted the inefficiencies that exist at the state and local level of government as well.  I understand that if we are going to rely on funding from any organization, then we must abide by their rules.  It’s reality.  If I give money to one of my children, often I will tie certain requirements to that money.  It’s the cost of dependence. 

It amazes me how some states and municipalities make doing business difficult, if not impossible.  Somehow we’ve reached the point that it feels like the state is granting us a favor by allowing us to pursue a livelihood.  Now, I understand the arguments for regulation…protecting the consumer, standardization, etc.  I’m not convinced, however, that the benefits of regulation outweigh the costs, at least not to the extent to which we regulate.  How many businesses are never started because of the red tape in front of them?  How many businesses shut their doors and let their employees go because of ever more restrictive and costly regulations? 

Deeper than these costs is the cultural shift.  This shift is towards greater dependence on the government to look after our interests and welfare.  As a result, I believe we are suffering the following consequences:

First, we have been reduced to the lowest common denominator when it comes to many of the services and products businesses provide.  This is especially true in areas where the government has a heavy hand such as education and healthcare.  So much time, effort, and money is spent meeting the requirements set by governments that little is left to pursue innovation and excellence.  Just enough to meet the requirement set by government bureaucrats is sufficient.  These government bureaucrats in most cases are not experts or experienced in the areas where they are setting regulations and guidelines.  As a result the regulations often increase inefficiencies as solution is developed to fit everything or everyone has to meet multiple, often harmful regulations.  We are becoming accustomed to lower qualities of service and products because that’s the best we can get with the government protecting our interests.

Second, as we become dependent on the government to determine who is qualified to operate a business, we fail to take the time and effort necessary to make good and informed decisions.  When something goes wrong, instead of holding ourselves accountable we blame the government agency responsible for regulating that business.  If the business was in compliance, then we demand more stringent regulation.  As more stringent regulations are put in place and enforced, more companies and providers shut their doors, decreasing competition and lowering the common denominator further. 

Dependence dulls our ability to make choices and it reduces our overall choices while lowering quality.  While I sit here wishing for less government regulation, increased competition, and improved quality, I’ll see if I can finish figuring out how to put this license packet together for the state.