THE past few days were given over rather much to contemplating the laws of the state of California, where things seem dreary enough. This began with one of those courtroom dramas on television, which had a disclaimer at the end saying the laws in some states may differ from those in California, which seems to me to be a hopeful sign. True, the shows are taped in that good state and everybody has to make the best of that.
The way I saw it, this honest-enough fellow was walking along the street minding his own business and a gentleman with a little box of tools approached him and said, ``Would it be all right if I removed some parts from that abandoned Volkswagon there in the field?'' Testimony revealed that the honest-enough citizen looked at the abandoned VW and said, ``It's all right with me.''
Now we are in court. The VW didn't belong to the man who gave permission, thus, to dissect it, and he is charged with contributing to a felony. The man with the tools didn't know the difference and thought the permission was reliable. California law, you see, has no place for the logical positivist.
In Vermont they used to have, and I hope still have, a legal light known as a ``side-judge.'' It's a good idea. The real judge sits in legal splendor and applies the law as it comes to him plain and raw. The side-judge is supposed to suit the decisions more kindly to the issues at hand, dealing in common sense as well as statutes.
Orlando Martin, who for many years was a respected side-judge in the Washington County superior court, used to tell a Vermont anecdote that is illustrative. He said a farmer was standing by the side of the road at Maple Corners and a tourist drove up in a snappy convertible with Massachusetts plates. The tourist called, ``My good man - I want to get to Montpelier!''
It is not considered good breeding to speak to any New England farmer with, ``My good man.'' So this farmer said, ``I don't know of a thing to hinder.''
Judge Martin had a lot of fine Vermont things like that, and used them adroitly the summer he stumped the country for his friend Calvin Coolidge. Some of the better ones were even attributed to Cal and readily believed. Here in Maine, we tell essentially the same farmer stories. For instance, the tourist stops to say, ``My good man - I'd like to get to Millinocket!''
This time the farmer expresses great interest, and says, ``Why?'' Or, in a story that more closely relates to the California incident, the tourist comes upon a fork in the road where signs point each way with ``Farmington.'' Leon Bard, a dear friend and close neighbor to us, was there at the time loading a pile of pulpwood onto his truck. The tourist, puzzled by the two signs, stops to say, ``My good man - does it matter which road I take to Farmington?''
Leon said, ``Not to me.''
It should frighten us to realize that any of these eastern reponses would land a farmer in jail in California. The poor joker who didn't have a thing to do with that derelict VW shouldn't have attempted wit and humor, but should have explained carefully that he was merely passing by, was a stranger in the neighborhood, and was in no position to speak with authority.
The judge, being a California judge and lacking the support of a side-judge, had no choice but to fling the book - the rascal had perpetrated an illusion of ownership that beguiled the man with the tools and made him an involuntary thief. It is a terrible thing to have crime thrust upon you by somebody who thinks he's funny.
Years ago an early tourist spoke to Elmer Todd on the sidewalk in front of the Brunswick Town Hall, and in the superiority of his self-esteem he said he hadn't seen too many people in town who looked at all bright. Elmer said ``Eyah,'' and the man went on, ``I'd guess I could talk almost any of them into buying the town hall!''
Elmer said, ``What makes you think I want to sell it?''
In California they'd clap poor Elmer in the pokey for dabbling in real estate without a license, but here in Maine they just began calling the town hall Elmer's Gazebo and for quite a few years they joshed him when ``his'' steeple clock didn't keep time. Elmer would say. ``I'll attend to that first thing in the morning.''
It's a long step from here to California, and Leon Bard, along with others, will tell you that suits him just fine.