It was a magical night, at 3 AM. Fog drifted across Lake Berlin and the campground where Zak, Ian and I walked and shared our lives. We could hear lions roaring and even wolves howling nearby. (Noah’s Ark Exotic Animal Refuge was next door, which I didn’t know the first time camping there, which caused great confusion!). Suddenly I remembered the teenagers we left behind—yet another breed of wild animal, not so exotic, and far more dangerous.
“We’d better get back there before they burn the place down,” I said, chuckling.
It was unusually cold that night, so returning to our campsite we found the teens had a warm campfire blazing from some pallets they bummed off nearby campers. It was so cozy, one of them was curled up in a hammock, dozing off. They told me my son scratched a car carrying a pallet away from the other site (he is a klutz), so I sent them back to apologize to the 20-something guys camping there.
“But they’re drunk!” they told us. I assured them I had their backs.
“They’ll kill us!”
“Just yell if there’s a problem,” I said. Not entirely convinced, they went anyway, clumped together.
Meeting a Killer
The next day I stopped by the other campsite and noticed a brand new Ford F-150 was scratched. It was obvious. The guys camping there were country boys, one of them being active-duty US Army on furlough from Afghanistan. He owned the truck, and was not happy. I offered to pay for the damage, which changed his attitude, so I tried changing the subject by asking his opinion about the recent turmoil in Iraq—then he came alive.
“I say kill them, shoot them, any of them!” he growled, adding it was easy and satisfying to “kill those [expletives].” (I think he meant enemy combatants, not just anyone, but I didn’t question him—this guy was touchy.)
Connor sure knows how to start trouble for me, I thought, and so does his buddy Jason—two peas in a pod.
As though reading my mind the soldier added, “If those boys hadn’t apologized last night I would have been really, really pissed!” (I wondered what that meant exactly, but dared not ask!)
Two rangers later kicked me off the campgrounds “for destruction of US Army property,” they said. The US Army Corps of Engineers owned the campground, so it was army property. Burning the pallets also burned part of the beams containing the drainage gravel around the site. Expect a citation, they said, and then banned me from Lake Berlin.
So this morning, August 7th, I’m on my way to US Federal Court in Youngstown after receiving a summons for my “arraignment” for “Destruction of US Property.” It should cost no less than $1,000 because the damaged beams were clearly too big to replace without a crane or bulldozer, and refilling the site with gravel involved a dump trunk, no doubt. The heavy equipment, labor costs, court costs and fine together meant…I was screwed.
Those of us with court experience know you can’t leave without paying the fine, right? Which meant jail time for me, since we just blew most of our money on family vacations stretching from the Alleghenies to the Rocky Mountains. At least I had a good time before incarceration.
Youngstown adds to the gloom. If you’ve never been there, it’s one of the most God-forsaken, Mafia-dominated, rust-belt cities around, and it looks empty. I’m also 10 minutes late because there’s no parking lot…no active business downtown except courts and, finally, one obscure gravel parking lot I found.
There comes a point with every trial—the spiritual ones, not government trials—where you just give up and pray, finally. So I did, and I felt fine. If I went to jail, “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,” I remembered.
I was delayed another 10 minutes by security (I look like a terrorist, I’m told, which is why those guys were all over me). I finally prance into a near-empty courtroom 20 minutes late. Only a stenographer and bailiff are there—and four rangers from the US Army (army park rangers, not the buff, killer-type Army Rangers). I am outnumbered, out-gunned, and the only defendant in this court room. They can examine my crimes all day long.
“US Government versus Keith McCallum!” he barks, looking up at me. “Are you Keith McCallum?” His eyebrows are 80-years old, long, bushy and fierce. He brings the full weight of the US government against poor little old me.
“Who, me?” I want to say. “It wasn’t me judge, it was the teenagers! Do you have—rather, did you have teenagers, judge? Can you remember…” What’s the use, his memories that far back would not be fresh enough to empathize.
It was a blur, a jumble of words between the judge and prosecutor. All I said was, “Yes, I’m guilty.”
Then the judge said, “It will be $50 to repair the site and $25 court costs—$75 total. Don’t pay it here. Pick up an envelope upstairs and mail it in.” Gavel. And that was it. The US Government was gentle with me.
“We’d better get back there before they burn the place down,” I once said, laughing. It was no laughing matter today, until I left court with just a little envelope. I could smile again. After court, the army rangers said I was welcome back to lion country any time. They knew it wasn’t malicious, just an accident. It comes bundled with the joy of teenagers.
Oh yes, I am still convinced the greatest joy comes from working with students. Maybe I’m too old for this crap, and although I’ve regained my svelte figure after losing 30 pounds, I’m not as buff and tough as I was. They don’t give much in return, true, and they do take a lot and cost a lot and cause a lot of trouble, true. But they also listen a lot, care a lot and respond a lot to God’s love—more than most—which means the most, I think.
- A Persecution Primer
- Fond Philippians Memories