I can’t relate in a family newspaper my very first thought as I slipped on that icy stoop at JPeg Ranch and crashed precipitously into the large stone behind it. As I felt my left kidney complain about the cruel blow, my mind was in the pure reaction mode. Contemplation of the irony involved arose only after I realized I was not dead. Peg later said I must have actually landed on my head as there appeared to be no lasting damage.
But as the Good Book says, “In the beginning …” Last Friday morning’s near rendezvous with mortality began about 5:00 a.m. when I was shaving and heard Peg shriek, “Jim, get down here!” As I had experienced that tone for years I went ahead shaving thinking she probably had some task in mind for me that might be able to be avoided if I feigned deafness.
Peg stormed into the bathroom with the same attitude I remembered my drill sergeant had in basic training. “There’s a mouse in the sticky trap behind the commode in the laundry room!” I figured this was not going away but held out a glimmer of hope the mouse may have managed to escape and, therefore, so could I. I made no reply.
“You (why me?) need to get that thing out of here right now! And take it out to the burn pile. Do not even try to just throw it in the trash until the trash men come next week.” She is always at least one bad decision ahead of me.
Gentle Reader, you may recall that last Friday we still had the frozen remnants of ice and sleet from Mother Nature’s assault. Most of it was melted but some had re-frozen. Unfortunately for me the clear, invisible ice still covered the path out to the burn pile and most importantly the deck and steps leading to the path. Hold that thought.
Resigning myself to my spousal fate I checked behind the commode and found one fairly normal sized mouse looking at me with what appeared to be a respectful appeal for clemency. I picked up the trap and mouse with my left hand and headed out the three-season porch to the deck. Everything looked okay to me so I stepped down off the deck onto the large white stone step which also looked clear. Well, it was clear, clear ice.
Faster than the falling stock market I ended up crashing on my left kidney into the stoop and wishing I’d pass out. I didn’t. I first processed the similarity between the excruciating pain I was currently feeling and the only slightly more exhilarating level brought on when I broke my leg skiing. Once I finished cursing the darkness I began to contemplate why I had not just released the mouse and let it slip on the ice. Instead the mouse pulled away from the now crumpled trap and as I helplessly watched it looked back over its shoulder with an expression that appeared to me both sardonic and sarcastic. It did not hang around to offer aid or comfort.
After about ten minutes of writhing on the ice-covered ground and trying to figure out how I could parlay the situation into some advantage against Peg, I struggled my way back into the house seeking sympathy. Peg said, “I do not see any blood and, more importantly, where’s the mouse?” That was when the poem by Robert Burns, Ode to a Wee Mousie, came to mind. “The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray”, or in my case, Peg’s best laid plans for me.
Oh by the way, not only was Peg about as sympathetic as a traffic cop in Alabama when you have an Indiana license tag, but when I went to see Dr. Lee he took one brief but professional look and said, “You are not dying, it’s only an ugly bruise. But if you want me to, I’ll call Peg and tell her you cannot do any chores until Spring.” Unfortunately, he was only kidding.
There are two general categories of American law: Civil Law (statutes and other written rules), and Common Law (case decisions or judge-made law). Civil law normally comes from a legislative body such as Congress and is published in the form of statues. Common Law is derived from precedent, that is, deciding a current legal controversy by referring to how similar controversies have been resolved by judges in the past. Another way of looking at Common Law is thinking about how we all learn things from our parents, in other words, benefitting from their good and bad experiences which they share with us.
If you should be among that select few who regularly read this column you may recall a couple of weeks ago we were considering the Common Law/Common Sense guidance set forth by some of my fellow alumni and alumnae of the National Judicial College in Reno, Nevada. I find I have learned more from the wisdom of my fellow judges than any classroom. You probably feel the same way about how you have relied on the good and bad experiences of others to help you repeat or avoid similar situations.
Following are a few more “Common Laws” taken from an article in Case In Point, the NJC 2017-2018 publication concerning, Things Judges Wish They Had Known BEFORE They Took The Bench:
“Part of a judge’s developed skill, especially a rural judge, is having a feel for whether or not a particular case will actually go to trial. This helps immensely with case scheduling, jury summoning and with the possibility of a judge getting a good night’s sleep almost every night. I finally concluded that a lesson could be learned from the occupation of circus ringmaster.”
Hon. Jess B. Clanton, Jr. (Ret.), 12th Judicial District, Oklahoma;
“How much this job would change how I view the world. I had spent 30 years as a police officer prior to being appointed, and I thought I had a good view of the world. This job made me step back and really look at everything-everything I did, everything I posted, everything I said to friends and how I acted in public and around my family. I really wanted people to look at me and respect me for the job I was doing. In doing so, I had to step up and make sure I was worthy.”
Hon. Kevin L Wilson, Justice of the Peace Court, Kent County, Delaware;
“How hard it is to be firm and uphold the values and rules when the person in front of you has been so beaten down by life that it makes it feel like you are kicking a poor wounded animal. … Somewhere in the middle you have to find justice.”
Hon. Jeanette L. Umphress, Municipal Court of Yuma County, Arizona;
“You are only as good as your worst hearing.”
Hon. Samuel A. Thumma, Arizona Court of Appeals, Division One; and,
“Never, NEVER go on the bench with a full bladder!”
Hon. Peter H. Wolf, Superior Court, District of Columbia
It may not be the “Constant variety of sports” or the “Human drama of athletic competition” as promised by ABC’s Wide World of Sports, but Jim and Stephanie Spann’s New Harmony Soap Company provides a fun learning experience and great smells. Peg and I now know how to make soap and we have the aromatic masterpieces to prove it.
When Peg told me she had signed us up for a three hour soap-making class for this past Saturday my first thought, which I prudently kept to myself was, “Well, there goes my day off”. It was held at the New Harmony Soap Company on Main Street and was taught by the Doctor of Saponification, Jim Spann.
Saponification is not a misspelling of the great Italian sausage, soppressata, which is what I secretly hoped when Professor Spann started his lecture with the term. Turns out it is an ancient Latin term for soap-making. According to Jim we humans have been trying to remove the grit and maliferous substances from our bodies with homemade soaps since, at least, Babylonian days about 5,000 years ago, probably about the time that human population began to increase.
My first memories of soap-making involve our Pawhuska, Oklahoma neighbor lady, Mrs. Caldwell. I do not know her first name as when I was a child adults did not have first names. Today, complete strangers address everybody by first names and even the President of the United States is “The Donald”. But the demise of polite society is stuff for another column. For now, we are addressing the wonderful world of soap-making.
Whereas Mrs. Caldwell brewed her lye soap in a galvanized tub over an open fire in her yard next door to my family home, Peg and I were carefully and skillfully instructed in the use of electric hot plates and stainless steel pots.
Instead of hours of stirring her concoction of sodium hydroxide, water and lard as Mrs. Caldwell did, Peg and I had the use of electric mixers. And our lard was supplanted with coconut oil, palm oil, sunflower oil and shea butter mixed with distilled water and a cornucopia of interesting scented oils, such as clove, nutmeg, cinnamon, eucalyptus, rosemary, peppermint, etc., etc., etc.
Once I accepted my fate of a Saturday without football or simply vegetating on the couch, my next fear was of falling into the remedial group of soap makers. No problem. The process was so easy even a judge could follow it. Although Peg was always at least one step ahead of me, no one else seemed interested in my progress. It was truly a lot of fun.
If you are looking for something different to do right here in Posey County, I highly recommend the Spann College of Saponification in New Harmony. The New Harmony Soap Company has 4 more soap-making classes coming up; 2 in February and 2 in March. And while I am in no way intimating you might have a need for it, you might smell better too.
The National Judicial College teaches thousands of judges. As a faculty member for 22 years I have learned a great deal more than I have taught. The student judges’ collective experience and wisdom have often been what I have looked to when I was not sure where else to turn with a difficult situation.
For instance, when I feel myself getting angry at someone in front of me, say a recalcitrant spouse in a divorce, an unfeeling defendant in a child molesting case or an attorney whose style is of the button-pushing genre, I remind myself of what Socrates said:
“A judge’s duty is to do justice, not make a present of it.”
In other words, the power I can wield is not Jim Redwine’s power; it belongs to the people.
And when a problem such as lack of resources or a need for courthouse renovation becomes so severe people are denied justice I remind myself of what Robert Kennedy said:
“Some look at things and ask ‘Why?’, I dream of what things could be and ask, ‘Why not?’”
Or more prosaically, my quote the National Judicial College just published in their magazine, Case In Point, page 35:
“It’s better to go ahead and do good than to fear the lack of authority.”
The NJC collected such guidelines from 50 judges from all over America for the most recent edition. I find several of their thoughts helpful both for judges and those who may need a judge. The college asked us for brief statements of, “What we wish we had known before we became judges”. I will set forth a few.
“That I was giving up my individual identity. Your personal opinions and views are restricted in context at all times. Pretty soon you can begin to forget who you are.”
Judge Jan Satterfield, 13th district Court, KS
“The job doesn’t pay enough to be a jerk! Mistakes in applying law or reviewing facts are expected. Arrogance from the bench is inexcusable. Litigants will often decide how all judges act from their contact with you. Don’t get us a bad review.”
Judge Gregory D. Smith, Municipal Court, TN
“That folks would really believe that my court would be just like Judge Judy’s show.”
Judge Cynthia L. Brewer, Chancery Court, MS
“How dangerous it is to walk down stairs in a robe!”
Judge Stephen D. Hill, Kansas Court of Appeals
Perhaps we can look at some other gems of judicial learning later.
Say you finally found the time and money to go to Hawaii. It is a beautiful day. Slight ocean breeze. Swaying palm trees. Smoke from Kilauea Volcano languidly wafting into the sky. The aroma of a whole hog slowly roasting in a pit of sand while poi is being prepared by graceful hula dancers. A Mai Tai with a tiny umbrella calling your name as you lift the coconut shell to your lips. Life is good. Then, just as you finish your Mai Tai and head to the first tee you are accosted by a cacophony of blaring shrieks from every electronic device within earshot:
“BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL!”
Now you have a dilemma. You have already spent more money on airline tickets than you paid for your first car. A round of golf, paid in advance and unrefundable, cost more than the birth of your first child. You have schlepped your heavy golf clubs from Indiana to “an island sitting in the middle of the Pacific Ocean”.
You bought new golf shoes and enough $5.00 golf balls to lose one on each of the 18 holes. Your plaid shorts and black socks with little tassels look super cool with your flowered golf shirt.
You think to yourself, “Self, what should we do?” Options are cascading through your brain. Take cover. Dig a hole next to the luau pit and pull it over you. Run to the beach and hope the water doesn’t boil you alive. Find a basement not leaking full of seeping water. Curse. Pray. Beg. Scream.
After much negotiation with the gods over the unfortunately miasmic circumstances you make your decision:
“Well, at least the golf course is now devoid of other people. I think I might as well tee off and when the round is over, if I am still alive, follow the advice my drill instructor gave in Air Force Basic Training to prepare for a nuclear attack:
‘Put a chair in the middle of the room, bend over and kiss ….!’”
Oh, by the way, after 38 minutes an announcement came out, “Just kidding, someone pushed the wrong button”.
My Mom’s three brothers and one of her three sisters served in the Army during World War II (1941-1945). Aunt Betty was a nurse, Uncle Bud, who was a rodeo cowboy, was in the cavalry, Uncle Buck flew close air troop support over Europe and Uncle Bill killed and saw killed way too many men from Anzio to Germany. Mom sent any extra we had, and some not so extra, to support her siblings and their comrades.
My Mom’s Mom’s Mom’s father, my great-great grandfather immigrated with his parents from Bern, Switzerland in 1852 when he was fourteen. His father served as a career soldier in Switzerland for 21 years. They settled in LaGrange, Indiana.
My great-great grandfather, John Giggy, enlisted in Company H, Forty-Fourth Indiana Volunteer Infantry on August 28, 1861. His first major battle was Fort Donalson then he was wounded at Shiloh and sent to the military hospital in Evansville to recover.
After a short furlough he rejoined his regiment in Murfreesboro then at Chickamauga was wounded in the hip on September 19, 1863, after which he walked back to Bridgeport, Alabama using a bed slat for a crutch and having nothing to eat for 3 days but 3 crackers. He was then ordered to the hospital in Nashville before being furloughed again until he rejoined his regiment at Chattanooga on December 31, 1863 (Happy New Year?)
He continued fighting and marching, marching and fighting until mustered out at Indianapolis in October 1865. He became a farmer and a stone mason and fathered 9 children including my great grandmother, Agnes (Giggy) Vulgamore.
Thereafter he simply went about his life without thinking his country owed him anything more than a fair opportunity to raise his family and be left alone.
I never had the chance to meet him but I am confident his toughness helped buy me and my siblings a better life. Thanks to Grandpa, Aunt Betty, my uncles and all the other tough and non-assuming veterans who did their duty so the rest of us could do things they could not have dreamed of.