Tuesday, August 4, 2015

I Have Measured Out My Life With Jailbirds

It's that time of life: the time when everything seems to remind you of how quickly time is getting away. Happens to all of us who are fortunate enough not to die young, I suppose. You live long enough, you get to be old. And that brings with it a whole smorgasbord of "extras," the least of which is qualifying for the senior menu at Denny's.

One of my personal favorites among the "extras" is being able to say insulting things about the younger generation which they can't possibly understand. This is getting to be too easy, I might add, because the miserable state of public education in America has created an under-30 crowd so abysmally ignorant that they think Abe Lincoln was president during WWII, that Washington, D.C. is located somewhere in Oregon, and that Albania is the capital of New York.

"At twenty I hoped to vex my elders; past sixty it's the young I hope to bother," said the poet W.H. Auden. Hee hee hee.

And of course there are the babies. I can now play with my great-niece and recently-arrived great-nephew, my sister's grandchildren...and when I'm through playing with them I can hand them back to their parents and go watch the ball game.

Well, that's all good, clean fun, but of course there are the "negative" extras as well, some of them so obvious that they don't merit mention. You know the ones I mean: the aches and pains. Earlier to bed not because you want to, but because it's a biological necessity. No more pizza after nine p.m.

The sudden discovery that The Lawrence Welk Show, at which you hooted with derision when your parents and grandparents watched it, actually has a sort of weird fascination when you catch reruns of it on public television. The show has become one of my guilty pleasures in recent years: watching all of those "Stepford People" with their unrelieved gaiety and painted-on smiles sing and dance their way through corny old routines and "champagne music" on a show that was once sponsored by Geritol has become, as I approach sixty, something like WWF Wrestling was when I was approaching thirty. I enjoy it because it's awful.

But for me, as for many of us who are in training camp for old fogey-land, one of the "negative" extras is those ever-increasing reminders of how much time has elapsed since we could claim to be young...and worse than that, how quickly that time has gone by. A wise man once wrote, "That cliches are cliches because they contain grains of truth is as much a truth as it is a cliche."*

Tempus fugit. "Time flies." Now, there's a cliche for you.

There, as well, is a terrifying truth.

This point was driven home for me rather forcefully not once, but twice just in the past week, and in each case the catalyst was something I saw in the news. And both of those news stories had to do with criminals who were facing parole after long prison sentences.

Hey, I saw these guys go to jail. Don't tell me they're getting out already.

Already? In one case we're talking almost 40 years, in another, at least 30.

The fastest 40-and-30 years I can remember.

Chowchilla kidnapping victims after their ordeal,
July, 1976
Summer, 1976. The cenozoic era to those I know who were born later than 1968 or so.  But I was preparing to start my senior year at San Diego State University that fall. I had a part-time job that summer, shelving books at the Chula Vista Public Library. I still had hair.

Then a big story broke in the news. On July 15, 1976, twenty-six schoolchildren on a field trip, and their bus driver, were kidnapped in the small community of Chowchilla, CA. Their kidnappers stashed the bus, drove their prisoners to Livermore, over ten hours away, and buried them all in a moving van which had been equipped with some mattresses and a small amount of food and water.

About sixteen hours later the bus driver and the children managed to escape. No one was harmed.

Frederick Newhall Woods and two brothers, Richard and James Schoenfeld, pleaded guilty to the crime the following year and received life sentences.

Richard Schoenfeld was paroled in 2012. (I was out of the country and missed that.)  James Schoenfeld was paroled late last spring. Last weekend it was in the news that Gov. Jerry Brown, who could have sent Schoenfeld's case back to the parole board, had decided to take no action. Woods may get a parole hearing this fall.

But I had not seen the names of these criminals in the news, any of them, since they pleaded guilty in 1977. Imagine the double-take I did when I opened the San Diego U-T last Saturday and saw this announcement regarding the parole of one of the Chowchilla kidnappers.

As the old alumni say at high school reunions, has it really been 38 years?  There was an old song called Time, in which an old geezer laments that he is now seeing buildings torn down that he watched them build. I'm seeing life sentences end which I can remember when they began. Eek.

And that was only Part I.

Fast-forward to 1985, and from thence to last week. They're (once again) considering parole for Jonathan Pollard. "Who's Jonathan Pollard?" I can hear my nephew Ricky ask. (Ricky was born in 1987.)

Jonathan Pollard was the name on the lips of everyone in the intelligence community and the news media when he was arrested on Nov. 21, 1985 and charged with spying for the Israelis. The shock value in this story at the time it broke lay as much in who Pollard was working for as the fact that he had sold classified information.  Israel is an ally of the United States--do friends spy on friends? Well, the short answer is yes, and today it surprises no one. But thirty years ago it surprised a lot of people, most of them American newspaper readers.
Convicted spy Jonathan Pollard at the
time of his arrest. I me he
looks more like someone who might
make a guest appearance on "The
Big Bang Theory."

This story had a special significance to me at the time, because on the very day of Pollard's arrest in Washington, D.C. I was in town. In fact I had just arrived the day before. I was scheduled to be sworn in at the U.S. State Department the next morning for a telecommunications-related job, one which was going to involve...handling classified information.

You can bet that this story was on the lips of just about everyone in Foggy Bottom, including myself and the dozen other members of my communications training class. It was the talk of the town that weekend. Pollard, as spies usually are, was sentenced to life in prison. It was a major diplomatic crisis for U.S.-Israeli relations. (1985 was a particularly bad year for this kind of shenanigans--when Pollard was nabbed by the FBI, everyone was still talking about the arrest of  former Navy warrant officer and communications specialist Jonathan Walker, who had been spying for the Soviet Union since 1968.)

And now, thirty very swift years later, I see that Pollard is facing a possible parole hearing.

Again, I cry, "Has it already been thirty years?" Really?

"Sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset"...In Fiddler On The Roof, the occasion of the song is a wedding. (Irony intentional.) Okay, fair enough. A lot of us get a little misty at weddings, especially of young people.

But I want to see some enterprising songwriter out there get busy and write me a real bathos-ridden, tear-jerking song about parole hearings. Bastards these guys may be, but...well, to return to Fiddler,
"I don't remember getting older; when did they?"


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