Do we all experience the same things the same way?
Do we all react the same way to the same circumstances?
What’s it like to go to jail? How would we handle it?
I can guess. I can tell you my experience. I can tell you other people’s experiences. But what would it be like for you?
Viktor Frankl went beyond jail to a concentration camp. To a Nazi death camp. Most people died from that experience. He learned from it. He learned to survive and he watched those who did and didn’t survive. He wrote about what set the few survivors from the many that succumbed in Man's Search for Meaning
Viktor described how the survivors overcame their physical circumstances by taking joy in a blade of grass, by focussing on what they had to live for in the future once they were out rather than on the horrific present they had been thrust into.
Not to trivialize the horrific, but maybe how we handle small stuff is an indicator of how we will handle the big stuff. It really is incredibly powerful to have that ability to rip your tormentors’ tools out of their grasp and turn them into pool noodles by changing your mindset. “Take that, abusive boss!” “That didn’t hurt, snarky co-worker!” Maybe it won’t scale up, but if it isn’t there in the small stuff where will it come from with the big stuff?
Frankl wrote about events from before I was born. What he wrote rings true, but it is so far beyond my experience it is beyond comment. What I can comment on with some authority is what I have seen firsthand or have heard from close sources of people’s external reactions to external circumstances. Not “it happened to my friend’s friend” urban legend stuff, but stuff I observed or real stuff my friend told me happened that I am reasonably sure about. Sources with good enough stories for me to accept.
Let’s face it. We accept things as true all the time if they are useful to accept. The purpose of our exercise is to think about how we react to what happens to us. None of the examples are intercontinental missives about who did or didn’t gas somebody in some far-off country. And yet even those stories which may or may not be true have a useful purpose as a morality play for despots – “we’ll bomb your airfield because you killed your own people” sends a pretty strong message to more than one despot in the world that there is a new sheriff in town.
Enough backwash or is that back story or is it background? Time for some stories of our own.
Melody, a missionary friend, went to the airport a couple of years ago. She had thrown some of her stuff into her new carry-on back pack a friend gave her. Unnoticed in the backpack was the gag gift from her son-in-law, the marine. He had given her a pair of brass knuckles as commentary on the reputation for danger of the countries she worked in with her husband.
Melody had forgotten all about the brass knuckles. The TSA X-ray machine didn’t forget about them. The TSA minion asked her if she had any weapons in her luggage. Oh no. Not me. This question/denial dance went around a bit and then the music stopped. The dance was over. A drama began. They were past the no harm no foul possibility of “Silly me. I remember now I left my brass knuckles in my bag. Here. Let me take them out and throw them away. Thank you for noticing that and reminding me.”
They were into the “you had a weapon you denied having and we are arresting you” drama. She was arrested and taken to jail and went to court and was convicted and faced a year in prison in an open and shut case. I might be a little upset over this if I was her. I might blame my son-in-law. But this is not what she did.
Before we learn what Melody did when she went to jail let me tell you about my experience with going to jail.
Our wedding was not a shot gun wedding, but hand guns were involved. The preacher who married us was with LAPD. The ushers were policemen with Tuscon City Police and Pima County Sheriff’s Department. After the reception Juanita and I left to change clothes at her mother’s house. On the way we discovered a stowaway from the church youth group who was there to spy to let the rest of the youth group know where we were staying so they could disrupt our planned activities. The stowaway let her presence be known to us when we started discussing said plans before she heard things she didn’t want her tender ears to hear. I guess that is the risk of spying. You may hear things you don’t want to. But I digress.
When we got to Juanita’s mother’s house we realized we didn’t have a key. It is hard to pay attention to a spy and try and break into a house at the same time so I tied her to a tree. She complained about the ants, but didn’t receive any sympathy from me. “Should have thought about that before you hid in the backseat of our car.” Nowadays I could be charged with and convicted of forcible confinement. Probably could have then too, but that was in the States and they have the statute of limitations so I can tell you about this event without risk of jail. Don’t ask me about my misspent youth in Canada, however. There is no expiry date on stupidity and its consequences here.
If I didn’t go to jail for forcible confinement what did I go to jail for? Well, we left the reception and went to Juanita’s mother’s house and tried to break in but other people showed up and took custody of the spy and freed her from the ants and left her with something to joke with us about on our future visits to Tucson. I got changed and I barged into the room Juanita was changing in and encountered Juanita’s sister in a state of undress neither of us were comfortable with and quickly spun around and left the room and then Juanita came out and we headed north on our honeymoon and to live in Canada happily enough ever after.
Once or twice a year we would return to Tucson to visit. Often on those return visits I would ride along with Garry, one of the wedding ushers. He was with Tucson City Police. In the course of the ride-alongs we took a number of people to the Pima County Jail and had encounters with many people that I thought deserved to be taken there and a few that I thought I would like to beat half to death with a flashlight before taking them there. But Garry has a much better temperament than me and made a much better policeman than I could ever be. Nevertheless, it was all interesting. I could write for hours about these experiences, but will just tell you about two young ladies we took to jail on two different occasions.
Juanita was a church secretary at a large Baptist church in Tucson when I met her. A couple of days after I met her we went to lunch with her boss, the pastor, and a few other people at an upscale restaurant called Ye Olde Lantern. Lunch prices were okay, but you might not want to go there for dinner unless it was a special occasion. In any case it was definitely a respectable establishment. The sort of place you would go to lunch with the pastor of a large Baptist church and his secretary and other staff members and their wives.
A few years later I was with Garry riding along in his police cruiser. It was early in the shift and he had been given a list of people with arrest warrants in his area. The information included their addresses and license plates of their cars. Sometimes people pretend to not be home, but their car gives them away. Even if they park it around the corner. We went to one of the addresses and Garry knocked on the door of a nice middle-class home. A young woman came to the door in a halter top and shorts. It’s Tucson, in the summer. What else would a young woman wear at home?
Garry asked her if she was herself and she was and he explained he had a warrant for her arrest. This surprised her somewhat, but the ensuing discussion sorted it all out. She had a dog. The dog did not have a license. She got a ticket for having a dog, but no license for said dog. She bought a license and thought that was the end of the matter. It wasn’t. The ticket had a fine that was required to paid by a certain date. It hadn’t been. Not being paid in time the fine escalated and a warrant was issued for her arrest. That’s the way criminal enterprises work. You pay us our money or we send people with guns to your door. Try it sometime. Don’t pay what the government says you owe them. And here we were. Well, only one of us had a gun. Once in a while in a tense situation Garry would loan me a big flashlight but other than those times I was only armed with my wit, but learned at an early age not to be too witty around cops so was pretty well armless as a ride-along.
The young lady appeared respectable and harmless, but rules is rules. If you have the money ($250 IIRC) we can take you to city hall and you can pay the money and we will bring you back home. Nope, not the kind of money a coffee hostess at Ye Olde Lantern keeps at home. Her parents weren’t home and didn’t keep that kind of money in the cookie jar. ATM’s were not commonly used those days. She phoned around to friends and they were mostly not home or didn’t have that kind of money either individually or cumulatively. Since you don’t have the money, we will take you to jail and tomorrow maybe somebody will sort it all out for you. Being so eminently respectable Garry cut her some slack and allowed her to go to her room and change into something more respectable than shorts and a halter top. Apparently if he had any concerns at all about the risks of her going to her room it wouldn’t have happened. So off we went to jail. We got to leave after processing her there. She didn’t.
When I last saw the respectable young lady she was standing there waiting for a matron to come and take her somewhere more private and have her remove her respectable clothes for a cavity search before putting her someplace a lot less private with people she probably wouldn't encounter at Ye Olde Lantern. She had a tear running down her cheek. I said “Bye”. She said “Bye”. Garry and I left. I relaxed my no wit rule and teased him a bit about how he must feel good about his job, making the world safe from crime, etc. But not too much teasing. You can push it too far. Once he left the jail and had the jailer prevent the ride-along from leaving for a while. I guess even mild-mannered cops can get too much of donut shop jokes.
Another time we were back in Tucson and I was riding along with Garry. We got called to a convenience store. Thieves will walk into a convenience store, grab a 24 pack of beer out of the cooler and run out of the store with it and drive away to sell it to others at a less than market price. These thieves ran out of the store into the presence of a police car just happening to pull into the convenience store parking lot. That officer was going to process one of the thieves. We were called to take the other. She was a tiny, twentyish Latina who could have passed for fourteen. In processing her we saw a rap sheet that included arrests for thefts, prostitution and a few other common crimes. She sucked up to us and told tall stories about having cancer and other things that would cause sympathy in a more gullible pair.
We left the research location and took her to Pima County Jail. The jail was a newer version of the one I had been to before, but it still had a crowd of people waiting around to be processed. In we came with our little Latina. She squealed in delight when she saw some of her friends from past incarcerations. “Oh! How are you! Haven’t seen you in a long time!” and so on. No tears running down her cheek when we left her. She was home with friends. Basically the same jail. Much worse circumstances in terms of likely length of incarceration, but far different reaction.
Back in Canada I dealt with a local money lender. He would loan money on second mortgages to my clients when I sold real estate in my early adulthood. He was said to have gotten his stake running a dance hall out in the country. The dance hall probably wasn’t especially profitable, but the liquor he sold without the benefit of a license was quite profitable. Hugo was a successful bootlegger.
Every once in a while, he would be arrested for bootlegging and go to court and be convicted. Upon conviction he had the option to go to Oakala, the provincial jail, or pay a fine. You don’t build up capital by wasting money on fines. He would opt for the jail time and meanwhile back at the dance hall his wife and daughter could run the business as usual for a few months. “I’ll take the jail, your honour” was always Hugo’s response to the choice. No problem.
One time Hugo did have a problem. His manner was basically non-confrontational. Years later once he was out of the dance hall / bootlegging business if a loans customer or a tenant didn’t pay him, this little white-haired Swiss man would sit on the doorstep of the debtor. He would sit there all morning and leave for lunch and come back for the afternoon and go home for dinner and come back tomorrow. If you didn’t want a little white-haired Swiss garden gnome on your doorstep and the neighbours talking about you, you found the money somewhere even if it meant stiffing another creditor for a while.
Hugo explained his problem to the judge. He had tickets to go back to Switzerland for a visit. He didn’t want to cancel his trip and lose the value of the tickets, but he didn’t want to pay the fine either. “Go to Switzerland, Hugo. Serve your time when you get back. We know you are good for it,” the judge is rumoured to have said. Gotta love small towns. Gotta love a diminutive Swiss man who knew what he wanted out of life and was willing to sacrifice a little jail time to move towards his goals. I might or you might not share those goals or those trade-offs, but you have to admire the focus and clear thinking and the calmness to accept both ends of the stick you pick up. They are a set after all. When you pick up one end you get the other.
But what about Melody? Melody went to jail too. She’s pretty respectable as missionaries tend to be. She might have been upset like the respectable coffee hostess from the respectable restaurant. She didn’t have any old friends there. She wasn’t amassing capital like Hugo. Oh. Did I tell you? Hugo was an opportunist. It is said that one time he was standing at Main and Hastings in Vancouver. He had a paper grocery bag, with enough money in it to buy a three floor walk up apartment building the next day. It was supper time. He was dressed in his normal grubby old clothes. Somebody gave him some money because they felt sorry for him. Hugo was surprised but adapted and overcame and he panhandled enough money for supper while tightly holding his shopping bag of money.
Melody adapted and overcame as well. She didn’t have old friends there, but she made new ones. She worked that mission field effectively and helped people. She wrote a funny story about her experience here and her lawyer gave it to her sentencing judge who said it was the funniest thing she had ever read and that led to a positive outcome that she wrote about here.
Jail is what you make it. So are a lot of other things in life. Do you know what you want out of life? Can you adapt the indigenous materials that life hands you to building that vision?