Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Crime and Punishment

I don’t know Jeremiah H. or Stephen M., but I know they hoisted a few (or quite a few) and got into a peck of trouble. Kalamazoo Circuit Court Justice Pamela Lightvoet recently sentenced both men for driving while intoxicated.

Jeremiah got 30 days in the slammer; Stephen got 75. Each also was placed on probation for several years and fined $500 plus court costs and fees. Why Stephen got more jail time is not explained in the newspaper item. Perhaps he was drinking doubles.

Things certainly have changed dramatically over the past half century in how we deal with drinking drivers in our society. There never was sympathy for those who caused injuries, deaths, or severe property damage. There was, however, a tolerant approach to imbibers whose crime had no victim, especially when it was a first offense.

My mother, a rigid teetotaler, staunchly opposed locking up drunks. Surprised? She reasoned that jail time did nothing to promote rehabilitation, and that the families of those taken out of circulation were the real victims when the breadwinner was unavailable for work. She was not alone in holding that opinion. Most people, including law officers, had little enthusiasm for punishing drunks.

In the summer of 1956, I got a first-hand look at the type of lenient law enforcement that prevailed. I was a journalism intern at my hometown newspaper in northern Wisconsin, the Tomahawk Leader. Publisher Ken Keenan thought a good experience for a fledgling reporter would be a night ride with the police patrol. He arranged it.

The trip started at 10 p.m. Nothing at all happened during my first hours in the squad car. The officer made what he said was a normal drive back and forth through the small city. He answered a few radio messages, none requiring action. About 1:30 a.m., we got behind an old pickup truck as we headed north. The truck was moving slowly and erratically toward the Fourth Street Bridge. The bridge had a single, narrow lane in each direction. The truck started to weave across both lanes, bouncing off the steel guard rails on either side.

The officer turned on his red light. The truck slowed to a crawl, pulled to the right, and stopped just after it left the bridge. We stopped right behind it. We sat for a few minutes. Nothing happened. The cop got out, walked to the truck, and opened the driver’s door. As the door swung out, the driver came with it. He fell out full-length onto the pavement.

After shaking the man gently and exchanging a few words with him, the officer got the driver to his feet and stuffed him back into the cab of the truck. The patrolman got back into the squad car, made a U-turn, and headed south toward the business district. The truck didn’t move.

“Are you just going to leave him there?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah. That’s old Charley. Most nights, about this time after the bars close, he heads for home. He drives real slow and never hurts much of anything. He dings the bridge a little sometimes, but it’s pretty old and banged up anyway. We’ll just let him sleep it off for a while. Then he’ll head out on County CC to his place.”

In 2009 in Michigan, Charley might have gotten something more like life in prison instead of a nap. My newly adopted home state has some of the toughest drunk driving laws in the nation. With New Year’s Eve coming up, we can expect a slew of reminders not to drink and drive, and a slew of arrests when the reminders are ignored, followed by many jail terms early in 2010.

In the 50s, getting bombed on New Year’s Eve was almost a requirement. Usually, it was a great party night. This year, I’m not drinking unless the bar is within walking distance of our house. Most likely, I’ll have a couple of glasses of wine in front of our TV set, wish Sandy a Happy New Year sometime around midnight, and go to bed.

New Year’s Day is my birthday. I’d rather not spend it in jail. But, darn, New Year’s Eve used to be fun.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Kindness of a Stranger

A few weeks ago, “Alan G” commented on one of my posts about the Green Bay Packers. It seems, in the 1970s, he worked with a rabid Packers fan who became a close friend. Alan thought he still might have a poem he wrote about his friend’s football mania, and perhaps also a green and gold matchbook his pal had given him.

The poem was not to be found, but the matchbook turned up. After an e-mail to get our address, Alan mailed it to me from his home in Arkansas. It has joined my small trove of special possessions. The matchbook is in the shape of a helmet, with the Pack’s 1970 home schedule printed inside. It’s pretty well preserved. Most of the matches remain intact.

Careless internet users can have bad experiences. But consider the miracle of a medium that put me in touch with a man who went far beyond what anyone would expect in searching out and bestowing a special gift on someone he had never met.

Wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if each of us made similar efforts to bring even small bits of pleasure to strangers whenever we could?

(Alan G produces a blog worth visiting at Perhaps not quite coincidentally, he recently posted a two-part message describing the real Santa Claus.)

Best wishes for a Happy Holiday Season, Alan G, and to all who read this post. May you live long and prosper, and be kind to each other.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Everybody Deserves a Little Christmas

Although there was one Women’s Army Corps unit at Fort Sill during my two years there, the U.S. Army in the late 1950s was pretty much a man’s outfit. The lower ranks, which included me, were overwhelmingly populated by young, single males.

Because no one was available to verify or cast doubt on tales of sexual exploits “back home,” a lot of lies were told about conquests of young ladies. More than one teenage private, in his own mind, evolved from novice to great lover. Others hatched more or less elaborate plots to gain real-life experience with the fair sex.

Often, nothing came of plans for new romantic experiences. That was especially true for my little buddy circle. For more than a year, I and two pals discussed in great detail how we were going to drive through Texas and cross the Mexican border. There we would woo numerous beautiful senoritas, taking time out only to guzzle as much tequila as we could hold. We selected the route. We picked “the best” border town. We even saved a little money. We never made the trip.

Just before Christmas 1959, an opportunity popped up much closer to our barracks. A veteran soldier in our building said he had found a bar that doubled as a bordello near a small town about 90 miles away. He claimed a half-dozen lovely young ladies were available, prices were low, and the beer was good. He was one of the few married men we knew fairly well, and therefore we believed he possessed special knowledge in such matters.

When we offered him free bed and booze at the sporting house, the soldier agreed to guide us to the place. We arrived about 8 in the evening. After a round of beer, our host asked the bartender where the girls were.

“Oh, they’ve all gone home for the holidays. We always shut down the upstairs action for Christmas vacations.”

We never went back. To my knowledge, the three of us left the Army without gaining any additional experience in dealing with damsels.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Little Behind the Times

I thought I knew a thing or two about communications theory and practice. I've spent almost a lifetime working with various ways to get messages from one person to another.

After a decade in retirement, I went back to nearly full-time work for two years. My work space was smack in the middle of a sophisticated technical communications group; I had plenty of chances to catch up on the latest developments.

As one of the gainfully unemployed now, I don’t strain to keep up with advances in my field, but the interest is there. I pay attention to reports of progress and change. Why then, was I unaware of some important results of communications research that have appeared in recent years? Perhaps I've begun to get too much of my information via computer.

A few weeks ago, I said that research would be useful to explain why we miss more errors reading text on computer screens than we do reading words on paper. A Nov. 23 article in Time magazine informed me that researchers were way ahead of me. They have been looking into that and related questions for some time. One authority, Jakob Nielsen, has written a dozen books on how people interact with computer technology. He has developed plausible theories that speak directly to my question.

According to Time, Nielsen described the bottom line thus: “The online medium lends itself to a more superficial processing of information. You’re just surfing the information. It’s not a deep learning.”

Nielsen tracked human eye movements. He concluded that we focus on screens in an “F pattern.” We start scanning horizontally as we would read a message on paper, but soon we drop down to see what else is on the screen. About halfway down a screen page, we start tuning out the message. In other words, we don’t plant firmly in our memory what we read on a computer screen.

Of course, another authority interviewed by Time writers said, we could print out important documents, such as bank statements. We then would learn more about where our money goes than we do by just scanning a number or two on the web page. The trouble with that is several user surveys show most people who subscribe to paperless statements do not print the pages out.

The new knowledge about communications should be part of a strong argument for keeping paper books, magazines, and newspapers alive. If we do not, we could become something worse than the classic generalist, the “jack of all trades and master of none.”

Going completely paperless, as some misguided folks advocate, might ultimately produce a whole universe of people who know almost nothing about anything.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

One Call, That's All

Never having been incarcerated, I don't know for sure if new prisoners actually get just one phone call before their cell door slams shut. If they do, most probably would not call a sportswriter.

Years ago when I was sports editor of the Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune, Dick Knar, basketball coach at Assumption High School, phoned me from the local police station about 12:30 one Saturday night. He was sloshed, and he was headed for the slammer.

Knar was something of a wild man. He started games attired rather nattily in a coat and tie, but soon ripped off the tie and was known to toss the jacket on the floor, rip his shirt, and actually jump up and down as the contest progressed. We once took advantage of his antics by doing a photo sequence.

Tribune photographer Bill Kiefer aimed a telephoto lens at the coach throughout a Royals' game. We picked out five scenes showing Knar's transformation from a calm gentleman into a raging maniac. As Associated Press members, we gave the sequence with captions to the AP. It went nationwide, appearing in many papers, including the Los Angeles Times.

In his late-night call, Knar asked if I would keep his arrest on a drunk and disorderly charge out of the Tribune. He had lost control in the bar of the Dixon Hotel, where the sports crowd hung out, and finally had to be removed by the police. I told him that since I now knew about the incident, I had an obligation to tell our managing editor. Anyway, I said, one of our reporters would pick it up on the police beat early in the morning.

Managing editor Ollie Williams decided the story didn't merit any special treatment on the sports page, but we would run it as a normal police report item. A bit later, the high school principal appeared in chief editor Carl Otto's office.

After the priest left, Otto emerged with a broad smile, and said. "He wanted me to kill that story about Knar getting arrested. I told him if the Pope was here asking us to kill a story, I wouldn't do it. But I would print the news that he asked all over the front page. Our little talk ended right there."