My used Ford F150 van was tan and had antennas on it because it had been used to make geological surveys by parking on hilltops and transmitting some kind of signals. At the time I was affecting an authentic safari jacket, onto which I had sewn embroidered insignia of Glacier Park -- lupine on one side and I forget what on the other. Probably a bear. I was traveling on a quiet road leading into a town and saw a parking lot where a woman was trying to get into a car, but a man was wrestling with her, preventing her. She seemed in distress and was yelling at him.
So I made a u-turn and pulled up so that my arm out the window was next to the guy. “What’s the trouble here?” I asked, in my animal control voice.
“Nothing, Officer! No problem!” He stepped back. The woman got into the car and drove off. I left, too, feeling that I’d just saved someone. That’s about the only satisfactory example I can think of in my life when I witnessed something, made a power move, and it worked.
I’m thinking about “Atonement,” the novel and movie, which I don’t want to write about yet. A young girl sees something she misinterprets, she bears false witness unconsciously, and carries the guilt through her life until the end when she’s Vanessa Redgrave and writes a brilliant novel about it. It’s a terrific story and you should see it, not least because it might make you think.
On another occasion I was late getting home from work in Portland, marching along the sidewalk in a temper, swinging my briefcase, and came to a man wrestling with a young Asian woman, yelling at her. I figured it was an angry boy friend beating up on his girl. “Leave her alone!” I yelled.
He wouldn’t stop. I clobbered him with my briefcase. “You take your hands off her!” He wouldn’t. She said, “It’s all right. Leave us alone!” I wouldn’t. I hit him again.
A bus stopped not far away. “Come on!” she yelled, grabbing the guy by the hand and dragging him off to board the bus. They were getting away.
“Help! Call the police! Help!” No one appeared in windows. I marched on. An old Thunderbird pulled up at the curb beside me, driven by a slightly overweight blonde. I thought she was a “lady of the night,” but she wanted to know what was happening. I told her briefly and she took off after the bus. I realized later she was the wife of the chief of police (her photo was in the paper now and then), an officer herself, and patrolling in plainclothes.
I marched on. Here was a small car with its doors standing open, not so much parked as abandoned. I just didn’t give a rip. I went on home.
The next morning I was at my bus stop, slumped on the bench, sullen, still half-asleep. A young Asian woman sat down beside me but I didn’t recognize her. She said, “Thanks for last night, but you didn’t need to protect me. I sold him a car and he wanted the title, but I didn’t have it.” She laughed merrily. I just stared at her, which made her laugh more.
Building inspectors know everything so at the office that day I learned that there was an active Asian chop shop in my neighborhood and the woman probably didn’t have a title to the car because it was stolen. Oh, well.
Kids told me stuff when I was teaching. One girl wouldn’t “put out” so her boyfriend told everyone that she was an easy lay and from then on she couldn’t date because they would all demand sex. Who would I tell? She’d already told her parents and they advised her not to make trouble. The administration had the same attitude. Should I get the boy off to the side and tell him what I thought of him? Wouldn’t he take his revenge on her? Wouldn’t it just make the situation hotter?
I turned in a boy I was pretty sure was being molested. The symptoms were all there, but I had no proof. There was enough to it after official investigation that he was taken for regular counseling, but the mother brought her brother up to my classroom to threaten me. He was a big guy, tough. Simply getting groceries in that place meant driving at least thirty miles at night on rural roads with no traffic.
In Evanston, IL, in 1961 the week before I graduated, on a Sunday, I was grabbed by a drunk in a cobblestoned alley. It was raining, I was wearing one of those big stiff yellow raincoats and flip-flops. I couldn’t get my feet under me and he couldn’t grab me anyplace except my neck so he strangled me. When the police came, they found him in a drugstore buying antiseptic for his bleeding raked face. I don’t know what excuse he made.
I was asked to identify him through a small window but I honestly couldn’t -- he’d knocked my glasses off, it was a dark day, and he was black. The earnest cop was disappointed -- he’d thought he had a case. But we both knew that if I made a positive ID, it would mean staying to testify in court, not returning to Portland with my parents. And in the end my attacker was more damaged than I was. Was I rationalizing?
The most recent murder in Helena happened across the street from friends. The newspaper reported some of the neighbors’ testimony, some of which was mutually exclusive or disproven by records. How reliable are any witnesses when things happen quickly without any expectation? Suppose one were actually grasping the situation and understood it -- how wise would it be to intervene in such a case?
Take a very small incident. One day I saw a small boy from down the street come storming along. He plunked himself down on my parking strip and sat there in a snit. I wondered whether he needed help, so I went out and plunked down beside him. “Are you mad about something?”
“Wanna tell me anything about it?’
A pickup pulled up, the door opened, a man yelled, “Get in,” he did, and they left. I never found out what was going on. At least his murdered body never showed up and the man seemed to live at the same house. When I pass the boy on the street, getting to be a teenager now, he glares at me. I guess I didn’t do the right thing.