It was in August some years ago when Brenda and I walked into a small movie theatre in Alexandra, Virginia, making our way past the concession stand, past the usher holding a penlight, and to a movie that told a story that was difficult to watch.
There were only 17 or 18 other patrons in the theatre; cowboy movies weren’t necessarily on the minds of movie goers at that time — particularly in the Washington, D.C. area — when the prologue began to roll.
With a backdrop of the burnt orange sky and the sun setting on a small clump of hickory trees, we see a silhouette of a man from a distance in a large cowboy hat, shoveling dirt on a grave, in a tiny family cemetery somewhere near Big Whiskey, Wyoming.
The words began to slowly roll up the screen: “She was a comely young woman and not without prospects. Therefore, it was heartbreaking to her mother that she would enter marriage with William Munny, a known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition. When she died, it was not by his hands as her mother might have expected, but of smallpox. That was 1878.”
As the first scene opened with Munny standing over the grave of his deceased wife, Claudia, with a small bouquet of flowers, we sat spellbound throughout the next two hours. As the camera zooms in, we see Clint Eastwood, but the man we see isn’t the usual, squinty-eyed, dangerous, macho cowboy with a week’s growth of whiskers.
Instead, we see a father of two young children, a farmer falling on his face in the mud in the hog pen. He is an unpretentious aging man in his twilight years. And we later see that he can no longer shoot. He can no longer ride.
We soon learn that his wife helped him change. He stopped drinking, swearing, and in his words, “she straightened me up.” He couldn’t understand now how he could have been so vicious in the past.
As the movie ended and we walked into the humid summer heat of the city, the movie stayed on my mind.
I’m not a violent man, but the movie underscored the fact that for many years I lived in a violent, sometimes vicious world. Every time I walked through the door and left home to go on duty, in uniform, carrying a gun and other weapons for self-protection, I entered a world, known to every other law enforcement officer, a world more often than not unfamiliar to the public.
My hands tell stories of those times. I carry four permanent wounds that will never completely heal, wounds that remind me of the crime I saw and the violence I attained while enforcing the law.
Most law enforcement officers, whether in New York City or Wilmington, Ohio will have a similar story. They will speak of the danger, the close calls and the times they thought they might never return home to enjoy their families.
Clinton County doesn’t have the volume of crime as New York City, but crime is relative. We have similar crimes, only occurring less often.
Recently, I saw comments on social media citing a crime report that local petty crimes and “nuisance” crimes have increased substantially in recent years. A friend asked me for my reaction.
“Wilmington certainly isn’t the town now that I grew up in, that’s for sure,” I replied. I told my friend I had found out, the hard way, that, “If you want safe streets, you must take the criminal off the streets.”
Mayor John Stanforth recently outlined new initiatives in response to the growing vagrancy concerns throughout the city.
“I must take action to address the legitimate health and safety concerns of our citizens regarding the increase in the vagrant population and the criminal activities associated with their lifestyle,” said Mayor Stanforth.
The mayor understands crime reduction takes a unified effort on the part of the public, city administration, police, prosecutors, courts, ministers and many others in the community to make effective, substantial change.
Some say compassion is the highest virtue; all else must be subordinated to it. Our community has a long history of compassion, but there comes a time to do what is best for the majority, not the individual.
The movie, “Unforgiven”, ended with these words: “Some years later, Mrs. Ansonia Feathers made the arduous journey to Hodgeman County, Kansas to visit the last resting place of her only daughter. William Munny had long since disappeared with the children… some said to San Francisco where it was rumored he prospered in dry goods. And there was nothing on the marker to explain to Mrs. Feathers why her only daughter had married a known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition.”
Crime is nothing new. Psalm 11:5 tells us: “The Lord tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.”
People can change. Mayor Stanforth, a good man, is determined to help make those changes.
For the betterment of the city.
Pat Haley is a former Clinton County Commissioner and former Clinton County Sheriff.