Only As Good As My Word
A few days ago, in the middle of my shift, I got a call from my boss. “You need to go to Burnaby,” he told me, and from the tone of his voice I could tell he had his eyes squeezed shut and was rubbing his forehead, as he often does when something is frustrating him.
“Uh, okay,” I said. “Why?”
“The protests, man,” my boss said. “Burnaby needs help with the protests.”
For those of you who aren’t in British Columbia, there is a small matter of a bunch of very angry people on Burnaby Mountain, protesting a company called Kinder Morgan who is doing test drilling for oil. The protestors had blocked the oil company’s access to the test site, but a Supreme Court injunction ordered them to get out of the way and allowed the oil company to get back to work. This decision, predictably, had not been met with much acclaim and a few people were deeply upset with the whole deal.
Which is where I come in.
When I arrived at the protest site I was sent to “hold the line”, which, really, sounds a whole lot more exciting than it really is. By the time I showed up, everyone was pretty calm. I stood on the road, on one side of a line of police tape while a group of protestors stood on the other. As you can imagine, some of the people were pretty angry, and there were a lot of insults hurled in my direction. I was called Pig, Nazi, Fucking Fascist, Pillager of the Earth, Government Goon, and a Fucking Asshole. But that was a very, very small minority of the people there. For the most part, people asked questions – most of which I could not answer – filmed me with their cell phone cameras, and took selfies which I was happy to photo-bomb. The highlight of the experience was when a woman stood directly in front of me and sang me a folk song – and sang it bloody well, too – to “ease the violence in my soul.”
The song felt like a kind of gift, like she was giving me a piece of her personal story, and I was happy to receive it.
At one point during the proceedings, a young man with a sparse beard and rain splattered glasses stood in front of me, rocking back and forth on his heels. He grinned at me, and grinned back at him.
“Do you think what they’re doing here is right?” he asked me.
“I’m not convinced the oil company is right, and I’m not convinced you’re wrong,” I said.
“Then why are you here?” he asked.
I had to stop and think about that for a minute.
I can honestly say that I have never had to do anything in the course of my duty that I believed was wrong. I have never been called upon to undertake any action that sat in contradiction of my personal beliefs. Everything I have ever done, be it as simple as telling a group of revelers to keep the noise down, or as dramatic as arresting a man for murder, has always been what I believed to be right. It’s kind of like I get to be the hero of the story my life is writing around me.
When I’m dealing with people – usually when I’m depriving them of their liberty or issuing them some manner of punitive fine – I get questions like “Is your mother proud of you?” Generally I ignore such questions, but I felt like this young man, who was standing in the rain and looking at me with genuine interest, deserved an honest answer.
“It comes down to keeping my word,” I told him, after I’d thought for a few moments.
“How so?” he asked.
“When I finished training and was handed my badge, I had to take three oaths. One of those is the Oath of Office, which basically says that I am to uphold the laws of Canada. The Supreme Court issued an injunction saying the oil company can go back to work, and I have been sent here to uphold it. The Oath I took supersedes any personal beliefs I have about this particular event, and I’m only as good as my word.”
The young man looked at me for several breaths, then nodded. “I can accept that,” he said.
The two of us were separated by a uniform, a line of yellow police tape, a generation, and one very scraggly beard, but I felt like we reached an understanding.
As we were looking at each other, reaching an unspoken state of mutual respect and agreement to disagree, another young man, who was holding a sign that read “No Pipelines”, walked up and stared at me with undisguised hatred. “How do you live with yourself?” he asked.
Before I could respond, my spectacled young friend put his hand on the other man’s arm and shook his head. “No. Leave him alone. He’s gotta do his thing and we’ve gotta do ours.”
In the days since I have thought a lot about that conversation.
When I was a kid, I lived in a household where your word was your most valuable currency. My Father firmly believed that a man who could not abide by his given word was utterly useless. As I grew I came to understand what my old man was talking about as I saw myriad examples of people who both kept their word as seriously as any contract signed in blood, and those who cast their promises about as carelessly as a piece of well chewed bubble gum.
As a man, remembering the lessons of my father, I take my word – my oath- as a very serious thing. And as I stood across a yellow line from a young man holding fast for the cause he believed in whole-heartedly, I could see he felt his word just as valuable. Regardless of where he stands, whether it is in opposition to me or not, he believed that he was doing the right thing. And this gives me hope.
I have often lamented that the stories are disappearing from the world, or, as Roland the Gunslinger would say: The world is moving on. But if two men who are miles apart can both hold fast and keep their word, while coming together over a hard line, then I think I can stop worrying about the stories of the world. They are alive, and people like myself and the slim kid standing with me in the rain are going to tell them, and hopefully learn from each other.
Now, get to work, my fellow word warriors, there are young people out there who need to learn how to stand, and it’s up to us to teach them.
As always, thanks for reading.