Tuesday, July 19, 2005


"The Lord is my Probation Officer"- a beautiful little poem, if you can find it anywhere.

There we find an idealized image of a benevolent and effectual probation officer for alcohol offenders, a role which I attempted to fulfil from 1966-76. On one occasion I had 183 poor, confused 'drunks' under my supervision.

Under such circumstances each relationship of necessity became fairly cursory. When the new probationer walked into my office for his first interview, I had about 15 minutes to size him up (always males thankfully) and adopt a general strategy. The general strategy usually boiled down to an option of "a pat on the head" or a "kick in the pants", depending upon whether it seemed to me that his ego was in need of encouragement or of control. Some of those probationers I had a strong tendency to ride hard.

And so it went-- for ten years. You may recall that I had been a parish minister for the 8 years prior to this assignment; it was given to me by my bishop at my request. Of course it involved wrangling for myself a secular salary. A young reporter from the daily paper interviewed me once and then printed one of the nicest things anyone ever said about me: "he came down from the pulpit to do this work". (The general consensus was that I had deserted my vocation.)

NC had initiated an experimental progam in the courts to try to do something for the thousands of alcoholics who come through court beside mere incarceration with criminals of various stripes, an unfailingly demoralizing experience.

The state director of Probation had recently been promoted from a supervisory position near where I was living to the office in Raleigh. He found himself with the assignment of hiring five men for these specialized jobs.

Although a minister was about as far from his concept of a P.O. as it's possible to be, he was forced in desperation to hire five of us, basically because no one else with any qualifications at all seemed to have the slightest interest in the job.

Mr. C, as we called him, was what the Armed Forces used to refer to as a mustang, that is to say a person who had advanced to the professional level from the ranks and often without the usual academic credentials, and I have to say that like most of us in bureaucratic positions, he had risen to his level of incompetence.

After many years working as a P.O. Mr. C had become such a conscientious officer that he had 'become the role', a terrible thing to say about anybody, but sometimes true. What I mean is that he only knew one way to relate to anybody.

His modus vivenda was to accuse the person of 'this or that' and watch carefully to see how the person reacted. He did this with everyone--his wife, his children, his P.O.'s, me, especially.

For example my initial interview with Mr. C. lasted about six hours-- off and on the entire work day. Near the end, as we were driving to our part of the state he began on the theme that, he had found that people who were academic types and made high grades in school usually didn't do very well as P.O.'s.

I had to break in at that point and say, "you must be aware of the fact that I was phi beta kappa at Duke (he had never been within ten miles of Duke academically).

Later he told several people that it was at that point that he had decided to hire me-- because I had convinced him that I was honest. (How little he knew; I wasn't really honest at all; I was just out thinking him (not to brag, you understand). He really had a heart of gold underneath about two inches of concrete.

Now after some five years on that job I looked at myself in the mirror one morning and had a frightening vision: "My God; I'm becoming just like Mr. C." (It was at that point that I started plotting an exit strategy.)

When I finally got away, I spent two years at a dreamy place recovering from that awful experience. I was privileged to get in close relationship with a number of good, bright (I called them) young people-- 20 and 30 somethings. Like the best and brightest everywhere they had been attracted to D.C., the power center of the country.

They had also wandered into the C of S. searching for spiritual values.

That was back in the 70's. Now, in my declining years, I find myself in a similar happy position writing in blogs. But ever so often, especially with the people I most value, I suffer a recrudescence of that awful "P.O. malady".

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