It started with a phone call.
I was asked some years ago to host a weekly pro bono local legal call-in show for a radio station on a Sunday afternoon from 3-4 pm to fulfill the station’s required public service FCC requirement. The questions of the callers were generally straightforward, such as when can you trim limbs of a neighbor’s tree which grow onto your lot, or who has the authority to change the name of a country road in a rural county where the caller lived. These matters of regular people about the most common legal concerns would not be written up in NC Lawyers Weekly, but they were important to them. Which was the point of it all.
After a few years on Sunday afternoon, the program picked up a following, and the show was moved to a weekday morning. I brought no special knowledge to the program, of course, but nothing much beats free, as my non-lawyer dad used to say. I am guessing talking without a lot of lawyer-speak probably helped the medicine go down. (Clunky words – herewith, etc.- and Latin derivative phrases are not normally the language on the street, it seems.)
And the moniker many people still call me, “The Lone Lawyer,” came to be, coupled with a highjacked recording of the William Tell Overture from the old Lone Ranger tv show the station somewhere found, which I am sure violated multiple copyright laws. I hosted the show for 25 years, until the station switched to an all-sports format. *
I got a call on the radio during this time from a WWII Marine who had his Marine flag, given to him at the completion of his service to our country in the South Pacific, stolen. He had it on a flagpole in the front of his house one Memorial Day, along with his American flag on the other side of his door, and some vandals had torn down the flags, torn off the pole holders, and taken the flags.
The old veteran wanted to know what could be done, other than call the police, which he had done. Short of witnesses or other evidence, his options were limited, I told him.
As it turns out, a few veterans were listening that morning, too, and they called to get the name and telephone number of the old veteran. One contacted the Marine later that morning, and the listening veteran, a Vietnam War Marine, offered to buy the new pole holders and poles, get two new flags for the WWII veteran, and even install them.
That afternoon the vandalized Marine was at a local Lowes Home Improvement store wearing his Marine cap. Marines call other Marines “Jarheads,” and when the listening Vietnam Marine saw a fellow Marine, he called out “Hey, Jarhead.” They talked, and the call-in vet said he thought he recognized the older Marine’s voice. Just by chance, the old WWII Vet and the helping Vietnam Vet, at Lowes to buy his repair equipment, met for the first time.
Our local newspaper caught wind of this unexpected act of kindness of this Marine. The Journal ran the story on July 4th about the friendship which developed between these two Marine veterans, each of whom had served our country in different wars, yet who had been received by the public in much different ways when they returned home.
I think about that Vietnam Vet these days. He cleared the hurdle of frustration and resentment because of his generation’s largely unappreciated service in an unpopular war, where one also faced death or catastrophic injuries. There were no parades for his service. But he got past his anger and resentment. To the Vietnam Vet it was the need that mattered, and he could do something about it. They were comrades in arms on this common but important effort.
We could sure use these days that jump-over-old hurts and anger attitude of that Vietnam Vet to focus on the right thing to do, and the issues at hand.
I wonder aloud how we are going to gather our nation’s necessary collective will to address a hundred-year pandemic virus, a Depression-era like economic downtown, and now a challenging national debate about whether, some say, the most important word in our most important formative declaration does, or will ever, mean what it seems to mean.
Malcolm Gladwell, an award-winning author(Blink, Tipping Point, Outliers, others) who is one of our nation’s best thinkers, observes that the most successful problem-solvers among us are people who can “thin slice” the facts to find the most important and controlling facts, and who spend no time on factors which matter little, or not at all. (Such as, on all sides of the debate, mindless name-calling, angry posts on social media, and casting others into these broad and dangerous tribes of those perceived to be for or against our respective opinions on issues.)
The way home on this issue, Malcolm Gladwell says, is to keep our eye on the prize.
Historians tell us the same thing about actions and words which divide us. “Divide and Conquer” has been a successful strategy in war and in peace for centuries. And before that an ancient text calls to us to realize that a nation (house) which is divided against itself cannot stand.
Our mortal enemies know this well, of course, which is why their systematic, focused and well- funded social media strategy is to continue to divide us into warring camps. No surprise here, you may say. But the surprise is that as otherwise thoughtful people we continue to fall for this stoking of the fire of conflicts among us.
Historians these days, now more than ever, talk about the leadership of one who many say was our greatest President, Abraham Lincoln. He lost a Senate election in 1858, emphasizing this ancient text. But in time the body politic matured, and he was elected president two years later. In our nation’s greatest crisis, this core concept brought us through.
If this ancient wisdom, spoken by our greatest president in our time of greatest challenge, carried the day, maybe we should try to harness its keen insight into the reach of the human experience and do so, too.
Our dividing anger dissipates our energy and collective intellect. Thoughtful columnists of different political persuasions get it. This is why they sound the alarm and write about the erosion of the American Century if we continue to stumble over this caustic rhetoric.
Our role as a nation that is the shining city on a hill, to borrow Ronald Reagan’s inspirational phrase, is earned from one generation to another. Many sense this is not a given these days. And like TR over a century ago on one of his famous naturalist excursions, we stand on the banks of our own River of Doubt for the first time in the modern era.
What are we going to do about it?
I hope what we will do is park the anger part of our legitimate-at-the-core positions and focus on the solutions. Because our bitterness is being turned back on us. Ironically, it could be our own drifting to angst and bombast which does us in.
There are few if any times in the history of our country when more important issues are at more important junctures as they are right now. If we avoid dissipating our energies on our differences but focus our strengths on the very hard challenges we face now, including examining fully the meaning of the main word in that main declaration, we have the chance to be the second Greatest Generation.
Here is what I have learned on the way to the courthouse:
It is not an exaggeration to suggest that if we continue to be divided by our own fiery and combative rhetoric, we are doing real damage to our chance to solve these hard, hard challenges. We are, in words if not in fact, becoming a house divided against itself.
This story about our Vietnam Vet friend, who had the courage to put down an old hurt to find a kinder and problem-solving path as a comrade in arms, tells us what we can do. If we avoid on all sides falling for the resentment-spirited rhetoric trap, we could be the first generation which is also first in peace, first in prosperity, and the first generation of a great nation to discuss thoughtfully what that main word means. If we do that—well, we may be on to something.
As comrades in arms.
Because that main word seems to mean you and me, too.
The story about how the Lone Ranger theme and the Lone Lawyer came to be is another story for another day. But thanks to the kindness of a follower of the show, I am presently a lifetime member in good standing of the Lone Ranger Fan Club.
On the Way to the Courthouse:
Over the last several years our partner, Mike Wells, has written nearly 200 widely acclaimed “On the Way to the Courthouse” pieces. Many of them are published in various state and local publications as well, including the North Carolina Lawyers Weekly, the Winston-Salem Journal, the North Carolina State Bar Quarterly, and the Clemmons Courier. Selections of them have also been recorded for the Winston-Salem affiliate of National Public Radio and for the North Carolina National Public Radio network.