The The Bear's Claws - I didn't make the people - God did
- and I suppose He had His reasons

by John Davis Collins.....© 2001 by John F. Clennan, All Rights Reserved

"Did you ever hunt or fish with the accused?" The prosecutor waived his bushy black eyebrows, as he intoned the standard question taken straight from the manual.

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As the accused and I faced the court martial panel sitting across from us in the choir box of the old post chapel, I stole a glance at the Military Judge, Judge Wentworth, the Bear. Only the triangle of Khaki at the top of his robes distinguished our Judge from his civilian counterparts. Listlessly turning the leaf of the book of standard charges, Judge Wentworth had not turned into my thoughts.

There was no need. The case was a fairly straightforward robbery of a Post Exchange convenience store. My client had stumbled through his claim of having been elsewhere. It was now up to the prosecutor to demolish the alibi witness, Sergeant Dan Miller, sitting on "the stand" in a tan uniform starched into light grey. What secret lay behind Sergeant Miller's cheery ruddy face this morning?

The last of a true breed, perhaps, I thought.

Texican Wentworth looked up and quashed the grin that came to the lips of his melon face, as he started to read my mind with detached bemusement.

I remember the first time I felt Judge Wentworth's bear claws on the back of my neck. It came on as gentle as a tickle but grasped me like a vise. And, yet, when I looked up at him sitting on the bench, he shot me a pleasant half smile. He had been only clowning around, showing off.

Today I intended to turn the gift on Judge Wentworth for a more serious purpose.

In law as in painting, we deal in images. During the accused's testimony, I had sent the Judge an image of the inept prosecutor in charge, as a Staff Judge Advocate, as a Military Judge, then as the law giver himself, the Judge Advocate General. The Judge had been tickled, but had not been persuaded. A machine functions on the regularity of its cogs, not necessarily their brilliance or even bare ability.

"I said, Sergeant Miller," repeated the prosecutor in carefully enunciated tones trying to hide a New York accent. "Did you ever hunt and fish with the accused? It's a rather simple question! Do you have an answer?"

The prosecutor was a New York boy like myself. But he was also a pick-hit, someone selected for advancement. How are some selected and not others, I still many years later cannot tell you. Yet the system does make its picks and even gifted people like Judge Wentworth conspire in these choices.

Wentworth had focused on me. I could feel the talons of his glare right on the back of my shaven neck. I had to distract him.

I filled my mind with something else: Alabamian Governor George Wallace and his favorite story about the black man who accidentally stumbled into the wrong New York neighborhood. I could see Judge Wentworth's face drawn in surprise as the name "Wallace" came to his lips. What would a Yankee know about Wallace? The question drifted to me unseen across the courtroom.

My working class neighborhood had given George Wallace his heaviest vote, outside the Deep South. I sent the Judge the 1968 return from my precinct … Hubert Humphrey 45%, George Wallace 40%, Richard Nixon 15%.

The Judge shook his head in confusion. Yet he was still intrigued.

" … Your answer?" the prosecutor demanded. I looked at the prosecutor standing at the lectern. His dark eyes searched the page on the manual for advice on how to gauge the witness' difficulty with a pro forma question.

"T'wouldn't be seemly," came the reply off Sergeant Miller's thin blanched lips. A smile, a self-satisfied one filled Miller's lantern jaw revealing the broken lines in his rows of teeth.

A look of consternation came across the olive tinged face of my adversary. Not very 'Aryan' for a pick-hit in the Army, the prosecutor fortunately also blessed with not being very perceptive as well.

I nudged my client to maintain a proper military posture, stiff in his chair, eyes straight ahead at the jury, before I glanced up at Judge Wentworth, The Bear.

I was pretty sure Judge Wentworth too missed the witness' implication. The object of this morning was not so much to convict my rather dull client, but to make the equally dull prosecutor shine. And Judge Wentworth, 'The Bear,' was fully capable of doing that: he had the gift, some might have called it 'the sight,' to read the minds of the people around him.

Right now, I was teasing Judge Wentworth with an image --- the image of the last cornpone: Wallace feted by northern factory workers singing Dixie in synch to the fluttering Rebel banner.

"Seemly?" The prosecutor chided Miller. "You've said the accused couldn't have robbed the Px. The accused was with you playing bingo at the NCO club. Yet it wouldn't be 'seemly' for the accused to go hunting and fishing with you." The prosecutor tested Miller.

A powerful build had lent Judge Wentworth the nickname 'The Bear.' And the Judge spoke a language of authority in soft, genteel, Southern tones, which did not betray a source of towering power so great that few around him could have ever imagined.

Cold steel blue eyes now riveted on me. Could the image of open rebellion and defiance entice the Texican Judge?

I focused on the parable the arch segregationist George Wallace had brought his followers to tears with. "This poor black feller in the midst of white liberal intelligentsia found himself driven off by dogs, run down by police cars and even shot at---"

The prosecutor was not a part of my private discussion with the Judge. Growing up in the suburbs, was different. Legions of suburban police enforced a separation that didn't officially exist. One never learned the deadly art that I now practiced in my silent, diabolical duel with Judge Wentworth.

The bear claws of Judge Wentworth's penetrating stare ferreted for the truth. His power was at its height when he was engaged. I held Wentworth to the parable told to audiences, which fell to a hush as they waited for the self-serving punch line.

Did the Judge as powerful as he was, realize that, through the gift messages could be initiated as well as received?

Sergeant Miller shifted in his chair uneasily. Miller may have glanced in my direction. I heard the prosecutor screech. "The defense officer does not know the answer. Look at me when I speak to you."

The prosecutor was intent on his manual and not on the witness. In what fit of whimsy does the Almighty select such people who attain mediocracy by rote and ritual and lack the feel for the situation.

I remember first meeting Sergeant Miller. He hadn't volunteered to testify, but didn't refuse either. Miller merely massaged the few remaining strands of reddish blond hair and declared in amazement. "Don't that beat all. Fifty years in the service and my last day is spent with a Yankee lawyer trying to clear a --- "

There were others who could have testified. All begged off…

"Actually, Sergeant Miller, two Yankee lawyers. The case is regarded as open and shut. They're bringing in a prosecutor up for selection to Regular Army, just to give him the laurel." I told Miller before the trial.

"A hard charger? A water walker?," asked Miller with pleasant indifference.

"No, Sergeant Miller," I grabbed Miller by the shoulders. "A prosecutor who once told me that the amount of law he knew could fit in a thimble."

"Was he boasting, sir," Miller queried with that smile stretching across his lantern jaw, "or just stating the facts?"

"A big 'X,' Sergeant is our prosecutor, a cardboard cut-out that thinks all he has to do is dress up and stand in the right place."

"Maybe, I bring him to the artillery range," Miller suggested, "and tie him to a tow."

"Seemingly, you will have that chance --- in the court-martial." I assured Miller.

"Seemly, Sergeant Miller," the prosecutor roared, "you have strange ideas about seemliness. Maybe you could explain."

Miller looked up to Judge Wentworth. "Am I ordered to answer, sir? Must I tell the whole galdarn truth?" Miller appealed directly to the panel. "I didn't think anybody is supposed to wants to hear it no more!"

Wentworth looked down at me from the bench. The Judge's eyes narrowed; his blue eyes flashed at me like bayonets.

I let the Judge in on the end of the parable. "…And the poor feller in all his distress found that only a true Red Neck would come to his aid …"

Wentworth chuckled. Slamming shut the book of standard charges, Wentworth would require an answer.

The Judge turned to the witness and with a nod or a grunt directed a response.

"Seemly, sir?" Miller said, folded his hands in his lap, as he thought.

"Your answer," the prosecutor growled in a pretended fit of fury.

I saw the Judge pivot in his chair to hide an evil smile from the court martial panel. The 'Bear' had retracted his claws.

"T'weren't proper for a white man to socialize with a colored. The Army should have kep it that way and given the coloreds their own army---" Miller paused to think before he cautiously added, "preferably one without guns." A tone of resignation crept into Miller's voice. "But today, the clubs is open to all," Miller's accent became more Southern, "--- colilds and whites alike --- and while 'taint right or proper, the 'cused was with me playing bingo when that there Px was robbed."

The judge turned slowly in his chair, with a sickly smile; he flashed me the images of the accused and his witness in reversed colors.

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