Monday, August 30, 2010

Treasure Mountain

It is about a mile to the top of the mountain. The trail is rocky and narrow, so narrow that two people cannot walk side-by-side. In late summer the thick canopy of trees offers little in the way of shelter from the fleece-like heat, but a few of the trees have already started dropping leaves, most of them red, like paper napkins blown off a picnic table.

I’m climbing this mountain not because it’s beautiful and not because it’s wonderful exercise, though it is both of those things. I’m climbing this mountain because Katherine asked me to climb it with her.

It was 35 years ago this month that Katherine and I met – she a naive freshman, I an experienced sophomore. Only it wasn’t really anything like that. Katherine was then, and still is, the daredevil, the risk-taker. I was, and still am, the planner, the caution light, the holder of the safety net. It was an unlikely friendship, but all these years later very easy to explain – Katherine has always made sure that I didn’t take life too seriously while my job was to make sure that she took it seriously enough. Two sides of the scale perfectly balanced.

Like most people who have maintained a close relationship for that long, we bear scars – some self-inflicted, some inflicted by other people, and, the hardest to admit, some inflicted by each other. Both of us have lines at the corners of our eyes that were not there when we faced off against each other on the soccer field. Both of us have hearts marked by disappointment and discontent. Our stories are, simultaneously, different and the same as the years have overlapped at odd and interesting angles.

Where they have overlapped on this particular Sunday morning is the mountain just down the road from where Katherine has recently moved to take a new job. We’ve undertaken more than one physical adventure together (including the white water rafting trip in which three of us – Katherine, myself and our girlfriend Robbie – navigated an eight-person raft through a hydraulic in Class 3 rapids to our guide’s cries of "Textbook! Simply textbook!"), but it’s been a while. Still, it is easy to fall into a rhythm of walking and talking that I have experienced with few others.

"Keep your eyes on the ground," Katherine warns me as we cross the short bridge that lies near the bottom of the trail. She’s been doing the mountain every day for several weeks now and knows the terrain. "It’s rocky and it will be easy to turn an ankle if you’re not careful." I don’t like this idea; I want to see the trees and whatever birds might be around. And it feels odd to have Katherine be the cautious one – she who climbed the water tower at Wesleyan in the dark, she who stopped her car in the rain and pulled a bleeding truck driver from his vehicle and stayed with him until the ambulance came, she who knows no fear except that of a mother.

At the summit we rest for a few minutes, make friends with the dogs – a boxer and a golden retriever – of a couple of other hikers and then start back down. Katherine reminds me to keep my eyes on my feet and I squelch the protest that rises in my throat. She is, after all, only trying to protect me and it’s not as though I’ve never seen a tree.

About halfway down the mountain Katherine stops to point out something at her feet. A handful of nuts, dark and shaped like tiny figs, lie atop a cushion of fallen leaves. Nearby are a scattering of chartreuse-colored acorns, longer and bigger than any we’ve ever seen. A careful examination of my Audubon book will later reveal that the acorns come from a chinkapin oak and that the nuts are chestnuts. Only when my visit is over, when I am driving myself down the interstate toward home does it occur to me that we never would have found the treasures had we not been looking down. Had we not been moving slowly. Had we not been being careful. What an unexpected lesson for me to learn from Katherine.

Thirty-five years is a long time, but not nearly long enough. I get the distinct feeling that there are more mountains to climb, more treasures to find and more lessons to learn.

Copyright 2010

Monday, August 16, 2010

"We'll Cross That Bridge ... "

Start across the Sidney Lanier Bridge from either direction and, just before you reach the crest, you will become convinced that you are going to drive straight into the sky. On a hot July day – when white puffy clouds approach like meringues, seductive with soporific sweetness, clouds that look like the blow-up slides used to rescue passengers from airplanes – that’s exactly what you want to do.

But you don’t. Because at just the moment that you would let go of the steering wheel and be drawn into the ether like the black-and-white in "Car 54, Where Are You?", gravity and engineering overrule the temptation and you are towed back to earth. Saved and safe.

One of the first books I ever bought through the TAB Book Club was "The Bridge of San Luis Rey" by Thornton Wilder. The plot is simple and made perfectly clear by its first sentence: "On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below." Father Juniper, a Franciscan missionary, witnesses the collapse and it becomes his quest to discover why these five people should have been the ones to die, whether their deaths were "God’s will" or just bad luck. Toward that end, he spends six years compiling a book of interviews of everyone who knew the victims. In the end, his quest, as is so often the case, costs him his life.

It is hard not to think of the Marquesa and Esteban and the others as the car I am driving rushes down the incline, hard not to think of them and be grateful that bridge-building is so much better 400 hundred years later. Hard not to lose myself for a moment in wondering, like Father Juniper, how much of what happens to each of us is God’s will or luck or, hardest to accept, the unavoidable result of our own often-poor choices.

At the bottom of the bridge the broad blue vista gives way to rusty metal buildings on one side of the road, mid-summer marsh on the other. I can’t decide if it is the air-conditioning or the thought of driving off into the sky that makes me shiver.

I cross bridges all the time. The Ogeechee River separates Bulloch County from each of the other three counties in this judicial circuit, so at least five or six times a month I find myself balanced for a few seconds on a span of concrete and iron stretching over its dark brown water. There is a short bridge over a creek about four miles from home and I cross that one twice a day.

Those bridges are different from the 480-foot high "cable-stayed" version that stretches across the South Brunswick River, the one on which the imp of the perverse arrived unbidden to suggest to me that driving off the bridge into the clouds was not only possible, but pleasurable. Crossing those bridges is like playing connect-the-dots: With a distance so short, it is easy to draw a straight line. Crossing the Sidney Lanier Bridge is like learning plane geometry.

It reminds me that the in-between is a place of its own and not to be hurried through. It demonstrates that the longer the distance between two points, the greater the likelihood that something exists between them. It teaches me that connecting two of anything, be it pieces of land or PVC pipe or people, requires great attention to detail.

A couple of days later I am home from my brief trip to the beach. In one of those unexplainable moments of synchronicity, my eyes light on my copy of "The Bridge of San Luis Rey," over 40 years old, pages faded to the color of weak tea, the glue in the paperback spine grown brittle as dead leaves. I think that maybe I will read it again. Perhaps Father Juniper’s search for answers might help me with my own.

Days pass. I finish the book I am reading. I pick up another one. Not "The Bridge of San Luis Rey."

More days pass. I am looking at the notes I made about the Sidney Lanier Bridge, thinking about Father Juniper. I start, with the amazing assistance of Google Search, looking things up. I learn that "The Bridge of San Luis Rey" has been made into a movie on three separate occasions and that it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1928. I also learn that Tony Blair, at a memorial service for the British victims of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, read the novel’s last sentence: "There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning."

I suppose it’s no wonder that both Father Juniper and his book were burned.

Copyright 2010

Monday, August 02, 2010

Continuing Education

The table is large and round. The food is good. The conversation is warm and inclusive. We laugh a lot. Some of the laughter is directed at each other. Some of it is directed toward the unspeakable matters with which we deal every day and which we can’t share with the people we love, the unavoidable dark humor of those who see the worst in humanity and manage, somehow, not to fall into the abyss themselves.

It’s just dinner, but after a long day of cerebral exertion on matters as weighty as the death penalty in Georgia, it is more than that. It is a safety net, a pressure valve, a decompression chamber. It is a couple of hours in which to forget the darkness.

A couple of days later, on the final morning of the conference at which we receive the continuing education training that the State Bar mandates, the speaker concludes his presentation by showing a clip from "To Kill A Mockingbird." It’s not the first time any of us have seen it. It is a staple in such presentations, but it is particularly appropriate this year, the 50th anniversary of the publication of the book by Harper Lee.

The jury comes in and delivers the unavoidable and unexpected verdict. The judge, not quite as stone-faced as he might like, offers not a word of thanks for their service, but simply says, "This jury is dismissed." The defendant is taken off, silent, in handcuffs while his lawyer – Atticus Finch, the only man in town brave enough to take the case – says something to the defendant about talking to his wife, making an appeal, receiving no response save a blank stare.

The courtroom is empty now and Atticus carefully places his papers inside a battered briefcase. Every person in the balcony stands in respect for the man as he walks out without looking at them. And I, of course, cry. It is what I do every time I see Tom Robinson convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. Every time I see Atticus Finch walk out of that courtroom alone. Every time I take long enough to reflect on why I, why we do what we do.

Many of the juveniles that I prosecute have mental evaluations performed to ensure that they are legally competent to address the charges against them. The standard form of those evaluations includes inquiry into the role of the various players and I always read these evaluations with some trepidation. The juveniles are generally pretty good at relaying the role of the judge ("Decide if I did it or not.") and their attorneys ("Help me tell my side of the story."), but not one, not one in the ten years I’ve been doing this work, has ever gotten it right when it comes to what I am there to do. They say things like "She there to send me off." Or "She want to make the judge believe I’m lying."

My job and the job of every prosecutor at every level of the judiciary system is the same. We are charged with one thing and one thing only – to find the truth. And if the truth is that the man or woman, boy or girl charged with a violating the law did not, in fact, violate the law, then we are delighted to see that person walk out of that courtroom. If he or she did violate the law, then we are there to make sure that the appropriate consequences are meted out.

I look around the conference room at the hundreds of men and women from across the state who do what I do every day, who read those same evaluations and know that we are often misunderstood and not always appreciated and I see that I am not the only one with tears in my eyes. Despite the evil and violence and destruction to which we bear witness every day, we are still touchable. It makes me sigh with relief.

There are a lot of reasons I became a lawyer. One of them was a real young man named Sam Brannen who came to Career Day at Statesboro High School, leaned against the teacher’s desk and, as he talked, made me think, "I could do that." And one of them was a fictional young man named Atticus Finch who, brought to life by Gregory Peck, made me think, "I have to do that."

So I did. And 29 years later, I am reminded that there are a lot worse ways to spend one’s days than looking for the truth.

Copyright 2010