I am cataloguing unexpected moments that created indelible memories and influenced the way I see the world. Looking back, events that seemed anecdotal at the time grew in importance as they resurfaced, forcing me to reconsider them, perhaps learn from them. Here’s one I am thinking about now.

On a lush spring morning in Beckley, West Virginia in the early 1980’s, I was discussing a client’s purchase of coal mining rights and tipple fees with a local lawyer. It was a friendly negotiation, and we had lunch together at his club, a reserved table at a busy diner on the main street, with a view of the town square and courthouse. The courthouse steps filled with excited people halfway through the meal, and a waiter soon came over to announce that Clem was acquitted. Conversation in the diner paused, then rose to air brake volume.

The lawyer excused himself, chatted with a new arrival at the diner, and returned to tell me this story. I don’t remember the exact words, but it’s accurate and has the additional benefit if being mostly true.

The defendant in this murder case was a young man, born and raised in Beckley, who followed his family tradition and worked as a coal miner. He was a star football quarterback in high school, an accomplished hunter, and generous to a fault, always willing to share what was in his well-stocked game larder. He lived with his parents when he began working in the mine and helped with family finances. After a while, he found a run-down cottage on a knoll overlooking evergreen timber lands and a pond. It was close to town and bordered little used railroad tracks at the bottom of the hollow.

Clem bought the cottage, fixed it up, and decided the one thing it needed was a girl from town that he’d known since high school. Busy as he’d been working and helping his parents, he wasn’t aware that Lilly was involved in a series of romances in town, none of which resulted in a diamond ring. She said she loved the cottage and him, and they soon married.

A witness at the trial confirmed that Lilly had a flexible approach to marriage vows and a continuing attraction to one of the McMillan boys. He and Lilly decided they would both be better off without Clem, but with the cottage.

Lilly told Clem she was going to visit her mother for a couple of days, and the McMillan boy with two brothers and a friend decided that a good time to visit Clem would be real early the next morning.

Clem admitted Lilly’s departure was unusual, mainly because she couldn’t stand her mother, and had a nagging doubt about her fidelity because she always had a headache or something when he felt romantic. Without thinking too much about it, he camped out on the hill above the hollow that night to enjoy the full moon and soft breezes. He took along his deer rifle.

At about one o’clock, Clem noticed four figures carrying rifles silhouetted against the moonlit silvery rails at the bottom of the hollow heading toward his cottage. He rubbed some spit on the front sight of his Winchester so the reflected moonlight would help define any available target. The figures below rushed toward his cottage with rifles raised. They were as clear as fireflies at dusk.

The coroner reported that of the three McMillan boys, two were shot clean through the head and one through the chest with .30-30 rounds. The friend, Jake Miller, was shot through the left buttock, mainly because he was running away down the tracks. He testified at the trial about the night’s proceedings and noted that his left leg didn’t work so good anymore.

The prosecution said it was out-and-out murder, and the defense said it was preemptive self-defense. I had never heard of such a defense before, but that didn’t bother the jury. They acquitted Clem.

The man my lawyer friend spoke with was a juror. He explained that the McMillan boys were trouble since Jesus was a pup. They’d caused more misery, heartbreak, and ruin than befell Sodom and Gomorrah. Those boys deserved killing. Aside from being in the right, the jury believed Clem had provided a public service. If they could, they would have awarded him damages, but that just couldn’t figure out how to do that. They decided on a speedy acquittal instead.

I admit to being bemused by this story. Had rough West Virginia justice prevailed? I thought considered the facts of the case. Clem had gone to the top of the hill that night on a hunch and was safely out of harm’s way from any attack. The local jury was influenced by the McMillan boys’ past misdeeds, but they were dead and couldn’t defend themselves. The defense lawyer made up a non-existent legal excuse to bamboozle the jury. Was this justice or the act of vigilantes? Was this a precursor of what passes for justice in some jurisdictions today?

Answers are not coming easily.

Life Hack – Tolerance

In spring of 1965, I worked on a project in Ecuador. Discussions in Quito took longer than usual, and I unexpectedly had a free weekend. Earlier, a friend who worked in the District of Columbia for our government’s agency for international development (USAID), suggested I visit one for their projects north of Quito while I was in there.

I’d worked with USAID officials on a few public-private ventures in other locations. I respected their mission and dedication and was curious to see my tax dollars at work in South America. Our Quito embassy arranged the visit, and, on a brisk Saturday morning, a junior attaché from the embassy and I headed north in an open jeep-like car.

In less than an hour, we escaped the confines of Quito and found a lush and fertile landscape surrounded by snow-covered peaks. My guide (I don’t remember his name, so I’ll call him “Fred”} pointed to the bushy fences that glided by our badly paved highway.

“The people here cut branches from the guato tree, stick them in the ground, and have those growing fences in two years,” said Fred. “They control the livestock and mark boundaries. The soil is rich right up to the timberline.”

I looked across dark-green fields and thousand-year-old terraces to the mountains. The view alone was worth the ride.

Fred concentrated on navigating the rutty road, and I enjoyed the scenery until the over two-mile-high altitude caused a knot of pain between my eyes. Fred handed me a bottle of water and suggested I take deep breaths. Gulping down the chilled air helped.

A village of frame and adobe buildings next to an ice-blue lake appeared, and Fred drove to its center square, the church opposing the mayor’s office across a park with paths, flowers and benches where a few villagers sat. Fred said I could stretch my legs while he went into the mayor’s office. He found me on a sunny bench when he returned with a young woman who was a teacher at the USAID school. I was relieved that her English was much better than my Spanish.

Within ten minutes we arrived at a single-story school building of concrete and timbers that resembled the homes in the village and a smaller building that the teacher explained was a clinic and infirmary used by a visiting nurse twice a month. There were no classes on Saturday, but a few children kicked a soccer ball in a playground, and people were at work in the adjoining fields and at the lakeshore. We toured the buildings, and the teacher proudly showed four tidy classrooms with small desks, cabinets, shelves of books, and the children’s art on the walls. Bathrooms, a small kitchen, and a teacher’s meeting room completed the schoolhouse which was powered by a diesel generator standing beside the infirmary.

I was impressed with the quality of construction and the obvious benefit the school provided to the village. I considered my tax dollars well spent.

A small group of villagers gathered near the playground as we left the building, and we walked toward them. I thought they were curious about the gringos examining their school, perhaps wishing to express their gratitude for the new school. A woman stood out from the others. A short brimmed brown fedora covered her glossy black hair, and her wrinkled face was the color of weathered mahogany. Most of her teeth  had found other homes. She wore a checkered gray shawl over a red blouse and a dark blue skirt that swished across the dust at her feet. She angrily pointed a finger and moved toward me and asked something in Spanish. The teacher said, “She wants to know where you are from.”

I knew enough Spanish to answer, “Estados Unidos.”

“Ladrón,” she shouted, reached down to pick up a handful of dirt, and threw it at my face. She stood grimacing at me as I pulled back and tried to brush the dirt away. I was speechless which, in my case, is rare. Some men from the group pulled her away, muttering Spanish deprecations. The teacher handed me a tissue to wipe my face, and I tried to make light of the matter, saying something like, “Well, so much for Ecuadoran gratitude.” Perhaps I laughed a bit.

It was now midafternoon, and Fred offered us a cold beer. We drove to a terraced restaurant in the square.

Beer in hand, Fred said, “It’s not usually that dramatic, but I’m accustomed to what seems like ingratitude for the things USAID does. It took me a while to get it, but I understand that these people have a cultural history of exploitation, and it’s not part of their makeup to believe that any outsiders do nice things out of the goodness of their hearts. Even if they can’t figure out what our angle is, they know we’re gaining a benefit at their expense, so why should they thank us for it?”

“That is true,” said the teacher, “ever since the conquest, when the Spaniards enslaved us, slaughtered us by their cruelty and diseases, and took away our natural bounty, we have been dehumanized and exploited. You Americans haven’t been angels, either. You have invested in mining and timber here, exported raw materials, polluted our waterways, and clear cut our forests. The British did the same. Our people see red-faced people as looters or worse.”

Our conversation turned to other things. We said goodbye to the teacher, and Fred drove us back to my hotel in Quito.

Having a handful of dirt thrown at one’s face stimulates internal conversation, and I had a long talk with myself that evening. No one had so radically challenged one of my core values before. That crone’s action shocked me because, based on my background and culture, one was supposed to be thankful for other’s good deeds, not resentful. I was ashamed of my arrogance in supposing that woman’s thought patterns were the same as mine. And humbled that I didn’t try to understand her motives rather than just brush her off.

My work evolved to help with negotiations between American and foreign businesses. I never forgot that woman and tried my best to put myself into my negotiating partner’s shoes. It took longer to understand the individuals involved, but tolerance had excellent results.

And it turns out that approach works with friends and relatives too.