I did a few hours of Community Service last week. Not the court imposed kind. My life's not that exciting. This was the type where somebody phones you up and you kinda feel obligated to assist.
In the middle of carving the pumpkin on Halloween I got a call from my local church. They have one of the oldest graveyards in the country and last Halloween somebody pretty seriously vandalized it.
This year they called the cops in advance to see if somebody could keep an eye on the place and were told that the night was one of the local constabulary's busiest, so we were on our own. The only option was finding a few brave souls who wouldn't mind spending the night among the tombstones.
Now that's the sort of invitation you can't turn down.
So, as Midnight drew close, I packed the sheepdog in the car and headed over. Along the way, I passed the elementary school. They had cars backed against all the entrances and a foursome with flashlights patrolling the perimeter. Apparently, the police didn't have the staff to look after them either.
I later learned that the year previous, schools and churches in my small corner of the world had sustained tens of thousands of dollars of damage on Halloween. I don't know why those two institutional groups were singled out. For that matter, I don't see what's achieved by tagging the walls of a gym or busting up 200 year old headstones under any circumstances.
But then I also don't understand how people who set out to challenge crooked financial practices end up throwing bottles of urine at street vendors or maintenance workers and still think they're somehow "stickin' it to the man".
The church's Priest and the guy I call the Pre-Priest (he doesn't get ordained for a couple of weeks) were on duty when I arrived. They'd already put in a long night, after putting in a long day doing all the things Priests do. Which in this day and age, when most of those with a degree in theology also hold one in psychology or sociology, is a lot.
The deal was, we'd mostly hang in the church and about every 20 minutes, a couple of us would make a sweep of the graveyard. What we'd do if we actually found anybody up to something, we didn't discuss. Hopefully, anybody casing the place would see the flashlight beams and go elsewhere. And more hopefully, if they didn't, the sight of a dumpy guy holding back a sleepy sheepdog would surely be enough to make them scamper.
The graveyard was suitably spooky in the pitch darkness. Now and then, our flashlight beams would catch a rabbit or a deer foraging between the graves. But after the first few, even they didn't make the dog anxious to make another circuit. She was quite happy to curl up between the pews and snooze.
It looked like we were in for an uneventful evening. We checked our watches. The bars were long closed. We hadn't heard a car go by in at least an hour. Maybe we could call an end to the vigil.
Then the dog suddenly lifted from her spot between the pews, her head cocked. I listened too. Nothing. Then…
The chained rear doors of the church shook, yanked hard from the outside.
We weren't alone.
We grabbed our flashlights and bolted for the nearest door, running around to the back of the building. By the time we got there, who or whatever had shaken the doors was gone. The night was perfectly quiet. The dog sat down and yawned. The Pre-Priest and I shared a look. Maybe we'd imagined it.
Then I played my light across the steps of the rear door. The imprints of a pair of heavy work boots were clearly visible in the dew.
The next day, I wondered who our visitor might have been. What would he have done if the doors hadn't been chained or we weren't there? What kind of a person takes satisfaction in pointless and wanton destruction?
I was interrupted by a call from another friend asking if I could help out with the annual Legion Poppy drive. The Canadian Legion, not the faux outfit I run around here.
Like most Canadian Legion Posts, the vets are getting on and standing around a shopping mall for an afternoon isn't as easy as it once was. So I said, "Sure", put on a suit and headed out.
99% of the people you meet when you're holding a tray of Poppies and a donation box greet you with a smile. They know what that little paper flower symbolizes and that the money goes for a good cause. They even exude a certain pride when they pin it on. It's one of those things that says, "I'm thoughtful. I care. I appreciate the sacrifice".
But after about an hour of smiles, this guy strode up looking a little belligerent. "I'm not buying a Poppy! You know why?" I shook my head. "Because I don't believe in war!"
"Neither do we," I said.
He glared at me. "Bullshit! You're selling those for the military."
I glanced down at the floor, wondering what was the best way to handle this and noticed...
He was wearing big, heavy work boots.
I looked back at him. The possibility that this was the same guy was beyond remote. But what if it was…?
"First of all, we're not selling anything," I said. "People donate what they want. Hell, we even give them away free if somebody asks."
I held out a Poppy. He slapped my hand away.
I met his eyes. "All the money goes to veterans and their families. Every penny."
The muscles around his jaw tightened. By now I'd decided this was the kind of asshole who trashes church yards. And I almost hoped he'd try something. Even though there was no trusty sheepdog nearby with its dopey tongue hanging out or an almost Priest to provide me with absolution if I went into "Defender of the Faith" mode.
A guy bigger than both of us interrupted. "Why don't you piss off!" he said to the guy with the boots as he dropped some change in my box and fished a poppy from the tray. Boot boy looked up at him and slunk away. The big guy smiled and I realized he was wearing a uniform.
He pinned the poppy next to one he already had on his chest. "Good to have a spare." And he was gone.
There was a point back in the 1930's when Adolf Hitler's Nazi Party and Mussolini's Fascists were indistinguishable from street thugs. Saddam Hussein, Gadaffi, the serial rapists of The Lord's Army, the Sudanese Pirates and any number of tribal warlords were and are, when you come right down to it, no different from petty criminals.
There is an evil that walks by night, stalking a nurse just off the night shift, stomping a gay guy, snapping the crucifix from a headstone.
Unchecked and unchallenged, it becomes bolder, enjoying the ability to strike fear or cause pain or create suffering. Sometimes it finds like-minded companions and begins to feel safe in the daylight and to contemplate even larger evils.
When that happens, there have always been those willing to force the evil back into the night. Some of those brave men and women don't come home, leaving families in need of help. Some return from the battles with scars it takes time to heal.
That's where the money raised by Poppies goes. And wearing one designates you as one who understands that sometimes sacrifice is required and you respect those who chose to pay the price.
But it also marks you as one who knows that there is evil in the world and that you stand against it.