Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Some Signs of the Times

Signs, signs, signs. There are signs everywhere. Signs for this. Signs for that. It used to be that a big event in a cowboy’s day would be to see a cow plop along the trail, a sign a wagon train had passed this way at some point.

Or maybe something really exciting, like finding a dead guy hanging from a tree limb, a sign local ranchers had caught a rustler.

We don’t see many signs like these anymore. There are no wagon trains to speak of, and although I understand there are still rustlers (they haul ‘em off in semis and cattle trucks these days), they are never hanged. However, in some western states, it’s still legal to hang rustlers. And if I’m not mistaken (perish the thought), a guy can still be hanged for robbing a bank. Horse stealing, mistreating a woman, killing someone (other than self defense), most cases of theft, were all hangable offenses. That was a sign of the times back in the 19th century and for some years into the 20th century. Now, it’s real hard to get executed, no matter what you do. A sign of the times.

My youngest son, Earl, is dead-set against the death penalty. I was a staunch believer in it. As you might imagine, we’ve had some heated discussions, and Earl always backs up his arguments with facts and figures. I am very proud of him for his principled pro-life stance (we are both against abortion). His well-reasoned arguments have forced me to be wishy-washy. Every time he just about swings me over, some crazy s.o.b. breaks into a house, tortures and kills an entire family, and I’m asking myself why we shouldn’t be hanging this guy. Earl believes locking him in a cell for the rest of his life is punishment enough. Also, I’m wishy-washy because twenty-some years ago, (about the time DNA evidence became admissible in court) the governor of Illinois put a moratorium on the death penalty until every condemned person had his case reviewed, using the new techniques. Twenty-five percent of the condemned men were found to be innocent. Twenty five percent! Put yourself in the place of one of those guys.

Of course, back in the 19th century, most of those guys wouldn’t be around to have his case reviewed. Commit a crime on Monday, you’re getting your neck stretched on Friday morning, back in those days. They weren’t going to let you lay around in jail, getting three squares a day, on the taxpayer’s dime for very long. Oh, how the times have changed. The sign of the times, now, is there are dozens of lawyers making a good living filing appeals for condemned inmates, over and over again. I used to think that was a bad thing; now, I’m not so sure. Like I said, I’m wishy-washy. Sometimes I have a nightmare about being on death row for a crime I didn’t commit. And the clock’s ticking. Tick. Tock. (For a real-life account of just such an incident, read The Innocent Man by John Grisham. You’ll read all about how a district attorney can destroy a man’s life. And it happens all too often.)

There are signs of the times that are very confusing. Pull up to a busy intersection in almost any city, and you’re hit with a bewildering variety of signs. Signs saying “to 86” and “to 21”, signs indicating a hospital is nearby, turn here to go to the state park. This is a bicycle trail, this is a hiker’s trail, this is a wine trail, this is a deaf child area. It is impossible to read all this stuff, unless you sit through a couple of lights and take notes. Signs of the times. A hundred years ago there were no traffic lights, and the only sign you were likely to encounter at an intersection would read “Denver 200 mi,” and it would very likely be tilted or laying flat on the ground, covered with buffalo dung.

A hundred years ago, telephones and the telegraph were the only instruments used for long-distance communication. If you’d have shown an early 20th century person one of today’s smart phones, they’d have fainted on the spot. Think for a minute what you would be showing this person: Making a phone call to someone with a handheld device, and actually seeing the person, in some cases. Taking a picture and sending it to someone halfway around the world in less then a second Go shopping at any one of three dozen department stores, or a woodworkers store and having your new table saw sitting on the front porch when you got home. Google something (which is still the most remarkable function ever invented). The internet. The person would absolutely flip. And there’s liable to be some crazy old coot accusing you of doing the devils work and shooting at you, yelling he’s doing the Lord’s work. Showing off a sign of the times isn’t always a good idea. Be careful.

Meanwhile, back to road signs. I heard a story about a liberal guy who wanted to go bear hunting. He jumped in his SUV and as he was backing out of the driveway, his wife yells, “Hey, put your pants on. It’s not hunting bare naked!” So he decides to go bear hunting in the mountains and come to a sign that says, “Bear left.” So he turned around and went home.

Isn’t this sort of the way the country has been run lately – stupidly?  Hopefully, a new president is a sign of some good times that began last Friday. It's about time for some guys with smarts.

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