Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

An Arresting Tale

For Andrew
A life well lived is full of tales, some of success to be certain, but the more interesting ones are those that reveal our less than stellar moments, when our foibles as people or youthful indiscretions come to light. This is one of those stories, one that I have not told often but that is, as best as I can recall the details, absolutely true.
When I was 19 a friend gave me a jacket. Not just any jacket, though. This olive green number was one that belonged to a former member of the Canadian military, who had left the forces on less than amicable terms. In the last year of his service his habit for reading Marxist literature in his bunk had led to many altercations with his fellow soldiers, leading in turn to time spent in army prison (which according to him made regular prison look like a picnic with cucumber sandwiches and mint tea served by pretty ladies in pinafores). When asked why he insisted on continuing to read Marxist documents, knowing the reaction it would generate, his only response was that his sole joy in what he described as his "soulless life" was pissing other people off, leading to an endless cycle of bunkmate fights and prison time. The entire experience had left him rather bitter, and when he handed me the jacket in the days before he left to travel the world and find himself (later coming to understand what he had been experiencing during his final months in service was a form of severe depression) all he said was: “You should probably remove the stripes before you wear it”.

I don’t quite recall his rank – corporal, perhaps, although my knowledge of such things was very shaky back then. I knew a unique piece of clothing when I saw it, though, as I haunted vintage clothing stores, rummage sales, army surplus outlets and the closets of elderly relatives looking to score unusual fashion items. It was the 80’s, and far from the day-glo fashions of that era I was more into the blacks and safety pins of the punk rock movement, morphing into what we then called “cold wave”, with spiky hair and pointy boots with skull buckles.
I loved the new jacket with ferocity, thinking the stripes and buttons added extra flair, and the very first time I wore it I pranced out of my parents' house and into a local pizza joint. I scarcely registered the glares I was receiving from a table of young men not seated far from me, although I recall being puzzled as to the source of their discontent. I chalked it up to the appearance of the fellows I was with (proud mohawks towering above their heads, leather jackets and torn jeans).

When I left the restaurant I immediately noticed the police cruiser positioned outside the doors. When the two officers emerged I assumed they were there to settle some sort of issue inside the restaurant or in the parking lot, never once considering they were there for me.
One of the officers was older, while the other, blonde and young and handsome, was the one to first approach me.

“Ma’am?” he said, almost reluctantly. “Can we have a word?” I looked behind me, sure he was speaking to someone else, speechless when I realized he meant me.
He asked my name, as calling me ma’am, given the proximity in our ages, must have been as strange for him as it was for me.

“Theresa,” he said, “We have a problem. Your jacket. It’s illegal to wear it.”
Wait, what?

Whaddya mean “illegal”?
This was about the point when I realized I might be in trouble. Now, despite the punk rock appearance I was a middle-class kid, and had never before had an encounter with the police – and for a first encounter, this was not going well.

The officer looked deeply uncomfortable at this point, and I realized he was glancing over at the group of young men I had seen inside, who were now gathered in the parking lot snickering. I noticed the shaved heads and suddenly understood that this group was undoubtedly in the forces.
“I have to charge you with impersonating a military officer,” said the young policeman, who looked pained as he said it. That is the exact point when I began to cry, and he looked even more miserable as he turned to his partner and said: “Making pretty girls cry was not in the job description. I feel like a jerk.”

He turned to me, and as he handed me the slip of paper containing information on the charges he explained he would need to keep my jacket as evidence, but that he would not need to arrest me or take me into the station for this one. I slipped the jacket off and stood there in the chilly night air, watching as he folded it carefully and finally said to me: “I am so sorry – but they (motioning to the group of young men) will almost certainly report me if I don’t charge you.”
He then went over to that group to tell them to leave before my friends, the ones with leather jackets and mohawks, followed them home, and then the cruiser drove away into the night.

Impersonating a military officer. Me.
The next day I phoned a lawyer, one who once happened to date my eldest sister. As I told him the tale he listened quietly, and then asked one question:

What was I wearing other than the jacket?
A short, tight black leather miniskirt, fishnets, 4-inch heels and hair teased up much like Frankenstein’s bride (you know, the look of the day).

The sound at the other end of the phone sounded a bit like a strangling noise, until I realized he was trying not to roar with laughter in the middle of his staid new law firm offices.
“This is the best,” he finally choked out. “This will be incredible. We are going to court. Wear the same outfit you wore that night. And I don’t care if you don’t tell anyone else, but tell your sister as she will kill me if she ever hears I was your lawyer on this and she didn’t know.”

And so I told no one but my sister, and so a month later there I was in court, flanked by my young lawyer who kept grinning like it was the best day of his legal career thus far. There I sat among prostitutes and petty criminals, and undoubtedly the rather old and crusty judge thought I was one of them until he pulled my file out and began to read.
“Are you serious?” he said, staring at the court clerk and then at the handsome young police officer who had arrested me and who was now in court. “You do know there are people out there committing actual crimes, right?” And he shook his head in disbelief.

“Young lady,” he said. “Young lady, do you admit you wore the jacket?”
“Yes,” I said.

“What else were you wearing at the time? Was it a full uniform?” he asked.
“No, I was wearing this outfit,” I said, and his gaze travelled down from the spiky blue-black hair, a shade that had taken me months to achieve, to the miniskirt, fishnets and heels.

“Military officer,” he snorted, glaring at the young police officer who looked like he would rather be anywhere on the planet but in that courtroom.
“Young lady, I assume you will no longer wear military apparel unless you are actually IN the military, which seems unlikely at this point?” he said.

I nodded my head solemnly.
“You have admitted guilt, and since this has been brought before me I need to do something. First, we are going to reduce the charge to unlawful use of a military uniform, and I am going to ask you to do four hours of community service. Since you seem to have a fondness for fashion, I am going to suggest an afternoon sorting clothing at the local Salvation Army, after which time this charge will be removed from your record. Now, get out of the courtroom,” he said, looking not at me but glaring instead at the poor young police officer who promptly fled.

My lawyer, who I think lost sight of the fact that I had in fact been found guilty, took me for lunch to celebrate what he considered the pinnacle of his law practice to that point, and told me later that he told the story at cocktail parties for decades.
The aftermath?

I did my stint at the Salvation Army and met a group of lovely older women who, for as long as I lived in that city, saved vintage pieces of clothing for me, calling me to share their finds of original pieces from the 1950’s they knew I must have. It was the first time I spent any time volunteering (although in this case it was involuntary) but led to my ongoing love of agencies like the Salvation Army.
I shared the story almost immediately with a small group of coworkers, and shortly after work one day a colleague I only knew slightly said his father wished to speak to me. As I approached his dad I saw the shaved head and fatigues and was terrified the army had come to collect their pound of flesh, but was instead humbled when he apologized for the young men who had insisted I be charged. He explained to me that this was not how individuals in the forces were meant to treat civilians, and that they should have instead told me why I should not be wearing the jacket and the significance of the stripes and other d├ęcor. His son, my colleague, later told me that those who reported me paid for their actions during a month of drills operated by his father, who intended to teach them how to treat civilians with kindness and respect. I became friends with my co-worker and his father, and in my time spent with them I learned a great deal about the armed forces and what they do, coming to not only respect them but develop a genuine appreciation and affection for those who serve our country and often make the ultimate sacrifice, willingly laying down their lives even for complete idiots like me.

And about a month after my court date the doorbell rang at my parents' home. We were sitting down to dinner and my father got up to answer it, returning with the oddest expression on his face as he explained there was a police cruiser in the driveway and an officer asking to see me.

I flew to the door, shutting it behind me firmly to avoid the listening ears of the parental units, and there was the handsome young blonde officer holding the olive jacket, carefully folded and inside an evidence bag. He explained he noted that I had not picked the jacket up from the evidence locker after the court date, and he wanted to return it to me.
Then he laughed and gave me a sheepish grin, and further explained that was an excuse, and what he really wanted to know was if he could take me out to dinner sometime soon.

I stood there, realizing the story had come fully around now, and told him I would have loved to say yes, but that I had a boyfriend.
He smiled and said: “Girls like you always do,” handed me the jacket and climbed back into his cruiser and drove away.

I stood there holding the jacket, collecting myself enough to go back inside and tell my parents that the nice officer was returning a jacket I had left at a coffee shop downtown. The holes in that story were so large you could drive a police cruiser through them, but they never asked, and my parents died never knowing the story of the time I was charged with impersonating a military officer.
It has been decades now, and while so many experiences in my life are fuzzy memories this one stands out in sharp detail. Maybe it was because even then I knew the makings of a good story, or maybe it was because I always understood how absurd it was, from start to finish. Even now I laugh when I recall it, wishing I had told my parents the story and wondering what would have happened if I had said yes to the officer’s dinner request (imagine the story we would have had to tell our kids!). For the most part, though, the story reminds me that life is not – and should not be – solely about our moments of triumph and success but about those ridiculous moments when you find yourself standing on your parents' doorstep holding an evidence bag containing an olive jacket that was a gift from a soldier who read Marxist literature and found he didn't fit into the army. It is about those moments in a courtroom with a judge who probably shared the story that night at home with his wife over a glass of scotch, and a lawyer who kept giggling in the courtroom. It is about the smile of a charming young police officer who almost arrests you and then asks you to dinner. It is about new friendships founded in the most unlikely of ways, like the ones between me and a group of ladies at the Salvation Army, and with a co-worker and his armed forces father. It is about learning new things, developing a new understanding and respect, even when the experience is not only unexpected but a bit painful.

It is about the moments you remember the most, even the absurd ones.

Life is about the stories that you will remember until the day you die – and this arresting tale is one of mine.

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