column: Convict savors life and freedom after almost losing both
On this day after Independence Day, I was thinking about all the freedoms we take for granted, but are so important. In the United States those freedoms are a right that has been preserved for us by countless brave men and women since our forefathers declared their independence from England.
I learned a valuable lesson about individual freedom from a very unlikely source about 10 years ago. It is not often that a career police officer finds himself in the company of a convicted felon on the eve before he reports to prison to start serving his sentence. It seemed surreal to me that evening.
This man had been one of my wife’s neighborhood pals since grade school. He is a burly fireplug of a guy who would give you the shirt off his back and would be the first to lend a hand if you needed help — as he did the day he and I buzzed up a tree that had fallen on my sister-in-law's house. He loves to laugh and loves to spin a yarn. However he made a serious mistake and was going to have to pay the price.
The best advice I could give him was to take one day at a time and not let the future overwhelm him. I told him to settle down and confront one problem at a time and as an old squad car partner used to tell distraught citizens, “A lot of things could happen — it doesn’t mean that they will.” Take things slowly, as they come and deal with them.
He was convicted of the crime of which he was accused. He was quite distraught the night he was convicted. He was at wits' end, and everything seemed hopeless and overwhelming to him. I was really worried about him. I had been involved in police work, and more specifically death investigations — long enough to know that when normally good people do really bad things, they sometimes self-destruct.
He had not mentioned suicide but I knew that it was a very real danger. On the phone I played the “legacy” trump card. I told him that no matter what he was thinking his children would be watching him. His kids would learn from his example good or bad. He had made a terrible mistake, but he was still a dad. He had a responsibility to play the lousy cards he was dealt and keep moving forward.
I reasoned that in years to come when his children were faced with a huge, seemingly insurmountable problem they would think about how dad solved his biggest problem. I told him therefore suicide was “not an option.” It would teach his children the most incredibly wrong, selfish and irreversible way to deal with a problem.
His last night before prison, my wife and I visited him at his home for the first time. It was beautiful. It was a 10-acre farm on the side of a small lake. Michigan was showing off that night. The moon was full enough to walk around to his out buildings and it must have been spring because there were no mosquitoes.
My wife and his remained in the house, and he wanted to show me something in his barn. We walked out to the barn, and I was looking around at what he would be giving up. This beautiful home and waterside property he could stroll around on. All this freedom to move around he would surrender for a prison cell.
I thought about how different it would be for him in just 24 hours. How on this evening if he got up in the middle of the night hungry, he could pad down to the kitchen and get a bowl of ice cream. The next night would be a different story. I have never been sentenced to prison, but I doubt that corrections officers provide room service and ice cream for a midnight snack. We walked out into the barn and he reached up in the rafters and palmed something into my hand and said, “Thanks.” He had palmed me a “speed loader” containing six mismatched 38-caliber cartridges. For the uninitiated a speed loader is a plastic holder used by the police in the 1970s and '80s so they could load six rounds at once into their revolver instead of loading one or at most two cartridges at a time by hand.
“What is this all about?” I said.
“You read my mind that night on the phone. One of those was the bullet I was going to use to make a permanently bad decision.” He thanked me for reminding him that no matter what he had screwed up he was still a dad and maybe capable of teaching his kids a good lesson.
I would like to tell you that he lived happily ever after, but that is not the reality of incarceration. He did his time, but in doing so lost a good job, his wife, children, home, and his health.
He is a survivor though, and today he walks around a free man. He works his tail off as a handyman and laborer. He lost a lot, but he earned his freedom. He still laughs and can still spin a yarn, and I’m proud of him because he is a survivor who will not jeopardize his freedom again.
The morale of the story is: Never take the freedom you enjoy for granted and never put yourself in a position where your freedom could be taken away.
Lock it up, don’t leave it unattended, be aware and watch out for your neighbors.