You wouldn’t know it to look at me now, but I once lived a life of crime. In those days, I was arrested and sent to jail so many times I lost track. From local lock-ups to county work-farms to state penitentiaries – I saw the inside of all of them. I was fingerprinted, mug-shot, strip-searched and hand-cuffed. I was put into solitary confinement several times and I can still recall – word for word – the obscene graffiti on the walls of my cell.
For all the drama of my arrests and imprisonments, however, my criminal offenses were mild. Blocking An Entrance. Trespass. Unlawful Assembly. Yet always, I like to think, for some noble cause.
In my mind, I was arrested for protesting the arms race, abortion, capital punishment, nuclear power. But to go by court records, I was arrested for more mundane reasons: blocking an entrance? Really?
No matter what I thought about what was really going on, the law doesn’t differentiate between the entrance to an abortion clinic or an arms factory or the corner grocery store. It’s an entrance. Don’t block it.
Now that I am 53, the logic of the law has more beauty and order than I was willing to acknowledge at the ripe old age of 19 or 20. Then, everything was black and white and the thrill of being (or feeling) morally superior was compelling. The law represented everything we protestors were against and those who represented the law were simply beneath our contempt. We had no words to describe the pity we felt for their ignorance and lack of conscience.
Enter Harold Dean.
Harold Dean was the Prosecuting Attorney in New London, Connecticut when I was arrested for protesting at Electric Boat, the builders of the Trident Submarine, one of the deadliest weapons ever devised. he was the scourge of our movement and the epitome of all that we despised.
At this particular protest (there were many) I had, along with several others, dressed as a Spectre of Death and peacefully blocked the entrance to Electric Boat, in a bid to prevent further work on the construction of the Trident.
Harold Dean was not impressed. Mr Dean, a veteran of World War II, had little patience for the likes of me – pacifists, anti-war activists, draft-dodgers – what was wrong with us??? He believed in the law and in his country. He did not believe in people like me who chose to insult and defile the nation’s heroes, men who had paid with their blood and their lives to protect people like me.
He believed in the law. And we would have our day in court. He was, even then I had to admit it, fair and honest. And not, I knew for certain, likely to be swayed by emotion or sentimentality.
So when I received my summons in the mail, telling me that my trial was scheduled for May 8, 1979, my heart sank.
Because my wedding was scheduled for May 13. My in-laws to be, whom I had yet to meet, were arriving from India on the 6th. My parents had arranged the caterer and the venue. The bridesmaids had their dresses. The invitations had already gone out. How to explain to the guests, to the in-laws, to the GROOM that the Bride was going to be spending her wedding night in jail?
Luckily the Groom, 12 years older than the Bride, was in on the discussions. “Call the prosecutor’s office,” he advised. “Explain the situation. Maybe he’ll understand.”
I tried to explain to him that I would be calling HAROLD DEAN, that Harold Dean wouldn’t listen to anyone. that Harold Dean ate protestors like me for breakfast.
“Call him anyway,” my Groom advised. “I’ll bet he’s got kids of his own. I’ll bet he’s not as hard-boiled as you think he is.”
With my heart in my mouth, I dialed the Connecticut Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. Explained things to the receptionist who transferred the call to the Assistant Prosecutor.
The Assistant Prosecutor heard me out. “Just a moment,” he said. “I’ll have to take this to Mr Dean.”
A few minutes later, a different person came on the line. “Miss McGowan?” It was Harold Dean himself – the voice was unmistakeable. “This is Harold Dean. The State of Connecticut would like to give you a wedding gift. We’ll see that the charges are dropped.”
Something changed in me that day, something I didn’t understand until many years later. That day, I began to see that human beings are seldom as rigid or as heartless as we think they are, that most people are doing the best they can given the particular circumstances they find themselves in and that most of them are looking for the honorable, decent, loving way through.
Harold Dean, the man I thought was my arch enemy, was certainly doing that. The loving, honorable right thing to do. A wedding gift from the State of Connecticut indeed.