I Am Responsible

I hopped on my bike and headed for the Star Tribune circulation office across town. I was 11 years old and delivered the Morning Tribune six days a week and had a separate route for the Sunday Tribune. I was a good paperboy: I got myself up every day and finished my route on time. I didn’t miss customers. I did my door-to-door collections and paid my bills promptly. But I had spent too much money that week, and I didn’t have enough to pay my bill in full. I wasn’t too concerned: my dad was the boss and the new guy wouldn’t say anything to me, I thought.

A line of carriers formed behind the wide counter in the small office. Behind the counter were desks for my dad and the new manager he had hired recently. Benches lined the walls in the outer area. We had sales meetings at the office and the benches would be filled with carriers—all young boys.

I got to the front of the line and emptied my money bag of bills and coins onto the counter. Don Iverson was the new manager. He was a big guy. My dad had told me that he had been a Navy frogman. He counted out my money and said, “You are short.” “I don’t have the money,” I replied.

His voice boomed and his fist slammed into the counter, “We pay our bills in full! Don’t you ever be short again!”

In the 59 years since that Saturday morning, I’ve never paid a bill late.

As I reflect back over my formative years from the vantage point of 70 years, I am grateful for those adults, like Don Iverson, who used tough love (high standards plus compassion) to guide me in the right direction.

I think of the teachers who held me accountable for my immaturity by sending me to the principal’s office, to sit in the hallway and who used a paddle and a swat on the rear end to get student’s attention.

I think of the basketball coach who kicked me off the team for breaking training rules. The juvenile court judge who threatened me with a juvenile detention facility and a few police officers who made me tell my parents of misbehavior.

I am most grateful to my parents.

As I look back over my childhood, I can see a pattern in how my parents raised me: They never rescued me from my mistakes. They didn’t swear or holler at me. I was never spanked by mom or dad. But they made me face my mistakes. And they stood with me when I faced punishment.

All of those adults in my life taught me that I was responsible and accountable for the choices in my life. I learned that the quality of my decisions would determine the kind of life I created for myself.

Like most of us, I had unexpected setbacks in my adult life. Each time life threw a difficulty my way, I overcame it and made my life and myself better than before. I was able to do that, in large part, because the adults in my life as a youngster taught me that no one would rescue me: I was responsible for my life.


A Voice from the Past

With age and a bit more time and more inner awareness, I pay better attention to the voices that call me to action.

In 1965 I was a sophomore at the University of Minnesota, newly married with a child on the way. I got a 20-hour a week job in the Classified Advertising Department at the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

The art group had a supervisor and three artists and me. Terry Walker was one of the artists. I had no artistic talent but my job was mostly typing and I could type.

Terry was a terrific ad-man and an even better person: quiet, humble and caring–everyone liked him. Most of the full-time people didn’t pay much attention to the college kid who worked part-time. Not Terry. Terry was always friendly and interested in my classes. I could always go to him with a question or when I made a mistake. He always helped me and made things right. I worked for about a year and then had to quit to take some afternoon classes. When I was done, the job was open and I went back for another year and a half. I worked full-time over the summers. After I graduated in 1968, I returned for the third time for several months while I waited to become a Secret Service Agent. Terry and I were friends. I recall how proud of me he was when I became an agent. He had me over to show his young sons my badge and revolver.

In 1976 I returned to the Star Tribune as a District Manager in the Circulation Department. I went and saw Terry and we chatted and had lunch one day. The years passed. Terry retired and I left the newspaper in 1994. Suddenly it was 2007 and I no longer lived in Minneapolis. I had only seen Terry a few times since 1968. I began to wonder about him. Terry was many years older than I. Was he still alive? Where did he live? I couldn’t find him on the Internet.

I moved back to Minneapolis in 2009. I continued to think about Terry. I regretted not staying in touch with him. I wanted to thank him for befriending me as a college student. In 2011 I reached out to Human Resources at the Star Tribune and asked if they could help me contact him. A kind woman said she would call him and let him know I wanted to reach him. A couple of days later, Terry called me.

I went to see Terry and Shirley—a beautiful woman with a soul as great as his. Terry had broken his back years prior and was confined to a wheelchair and needed a lot of care. But he was the same man: warm, good and gracious. We were happy to see one another. He, Shirley and I spent a couple of hours talking. I got the chance to thank Terry and tell him how much he meant to me and how often I thought about him over the years. I had a battle with alcoholism in my 20’s and I was glad Terry could see a healthy and whole me with a life of successes after my drinking years. I admired him and Shirley and felt humbled in the presence of their decency.

I wanted to get together again soon. I forced myself to wait several weeks. I called and Shirley answered. She was crying. Terry had died just hours before (4/11/11).

I am grateful for the voice within me that kept bringing Terry into my awareness. And I am thankful I got to see Terry one more time and tell him what he meant to me.

Protect Our Leaders

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump crossed a dangerous line when on August 9, 2016 he, I believe, suggested to a rally crowd that a way to keep a conservative Supreme Court would be to assassinate Hillary Clinton or, perhaps, judges.

I was a senior in high school when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated Nov. 22, 1963. I was finishing college at the University of Minnesota when Martin Luther King was murdered April 4, 1968, and then Robert Kennedy two months later.

These men transcended politics: they had greatness in their visions, fire in their words, and magic in their personas. So many hopes and dreams flickered when those men died – aspirations never extinguished but their energy dampened.

These tragedies inspired me to become an agent in the United States Secret Service. The image of a brave and desperate agent Clint Hill as he tried to save President Kennedy that dark day in Dallas moved this young man. Nobility resides in those willing to die to safeguard democracy.

I was trained to protect our leaders.

For half of my first year in the Secret Service, I protected former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey. I also worked at the White House and traveled around the world in 1969 as part of President Richard Nixon’s security detail.

I know two things from these and other experiences in the Secret Service. First, courageous and determined women and men protect our leaders. Second, no one can be protected completely. If someone wants to get a shot at a leader, they probably can.

I fear for Hillary Clinton. As the first woman nominee for president with a long political history, she brings forth deep fear and hatred in extreme conservatives’–often prey to manipulation by talk radio and Fox News. We watched physically repulsive rage fueled by Republican pseudo-leaders toward Clinton at the Republican convention. We see and hear vulgar and rabid people—even young children—at Trump rallies. As Trump slides in the polls, what else might he say? Or, how might his “jokes” be interpreted by unhinged people? Aside from politics, many people in America are angry and afraid—legitimate anxieties exacerbated by Trump and other politicians. And we know that guns—even military automatic rifles—are readily available to deranged people.

Hillary Clinton faces danger. She and the Secret Service know it. I imagine her protective detail has grown since Trump’s reckless comments. I am sure hundreds of threats have been made against her life and many twisted and dangerous people are being watched and accounted for as she travels.

The agents of the Secret Service will do all they can to protect her and all our leaders. People who attend political events can keep their eyes open. And all can say a prayer for the safety and the well-being of those who want America to be her best self so our hearts will not be broken and our spirits disillusioned yet again.

Context Matters

Tell me who you walk with, and I’ll tell you who you are. Esmeralda Santiago

Shane Bauer, senior reporter at Mother Jones, worked undercover as a correctional officer for four months in 2014-2015 at Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, Louisiana. The Corrections Corporation of America runs the prison.

Read his story here.

Bauer wrote:

Studies have shown that personalities can change dramatically when people find themselves in prison environments. In 1971, psychologist Philip Zimbardo conducted the now-famous Stanford Prison Experiment, in which he randomly assigned college students to the roles of prisoners and guards in a makeshift basement “prison.” The experiment was intended to study how people respond to authority, but it quickly became clear that some of the most profound changes were happening to the guards. Some became sadistic, forcing the prisoners to sleep on concrete, sing and dance, defecate into buckets, and strip naked. The situation became so extreme that the two-week study was cut short after just six days. When it was over, many “guards” were ashamed at what they had done and some “prisoners” were traumatized for years. “We all want to believe in our inner power, our sense of personal agency, to resist external situational forces of the kinds operating in this Stanford Prison Experiment,” Zimbardo reflected. “For many, that belief of personal power to resist powerful situational and systemic forces is little more than a reassuring illusion of invulnerability.”

UPDATE: The Justice Department announced on August 18, 2016 that they would discontinue using privately owned prisons.

The Dalai Lama wrote: “We are all capable of cruelty and hatred.”

Later in the article, Bauer wrote of his own behavior changes while a guard:

Like I do every night when I get off work, I take a breath and try to remember who I am. Miss Carter is right. It is getting in my blood. The boundary between pleasure and anger is blurring. To shout makes me feel alive. I take pleasure in saying “no” to prisoners. I like to hear them complain about my write-ups. I like to ignore them when they ask me to cut them a break. When they hang their clothes to dry in the TV room, an unauthorized area, I confiscate the laundry and get a thrill when they shout from down the tier as I take it away. During the lockdown, when Ash threatened to riot, I hoped the SORT team would come in and gas the whole unit. Everyone would be coughing and gasping, including me, and it would be good because it would be action. All that matters anymore is action.

Until I leave. When I drive home, I wonder who I am becoming. I feel ashamed of my lack of self-control, my growing thirst for punishment and vengeance. I’m getting afraid of the expanding distance between the person I am at home and the one behind the wire. My glass of wine with dinner regularly becomes three. I hear the sounds of Ash unit as I fall asleep. I dream of monsters and men behind bars.”

Dysfunctional families and workplaces can have similar anti-human impacts on us. Occasionally I observe a person who can stand true to themselves against the forces of compliance to negative norms. They are courageous people who, as my friend Eleanor Velarde wrote me “…develop a secure relationship with the best within ourselves.” How does the world we choose to live and work in affect us?

The Dalai Lama wrote in Ethics for a New Millennium: “…when we mix with those who clearly indulge in negative behavior, seeking only their own benefit and ignoring others, we risk losing our own sense of direction.” He wrote of such behavior in all areas of life, not just in the most negative of places, like a prison.

A Tibetan proverb says when we lie on a mountain of gold, some of it rubs off on us; the same happens if we lie on a mountain of dirt.

The context we choose to live in will do much to decide who we become.

Choose wisely.