Waiting to serve, serving by waiting

The little notice in the mail late last spring summoning me for jury duty gave me a jolt, not altogether unpleasant. It had happened once before, years ago, on the eve of an overseas departure, and I'd readily been excused. Then, until recently, I milked cows every morning and could have begged off jury duty, had I been called.

But this year, having retired from commercial dairying, there was nothing to prevent me from doing my part in what I've always considered a fascinating scenario - 12 ordinary people working to reach consensus on often extraordinarily complex issues. If the trial I'd participate in weren't too emotionally charged, I thought I'd enjoy being a juror.

June was my assigned month. Each evening, I was to check a recorded message to see if I'd be needed the next day. When I talked to the jury coordinator personally one afternoon, she explained that she had a large body of potential jurors for the month and no major trials pending, so there was a chance I'd never be needed in court. But I was still to check each night. I couldn't leave town during the week without permission, and I had to be ready to report to the Justice Building at 8 a.m. on any given morning - if the recorded message announced my number.

My teenage son thought the whole idea as promising as I did. "What's the trial about? Will you be there all day?" His face fell as I explained that there was no trial yet, I didn't know if I'd actually be serving on a jury - and that if it came to pass, I wouldn't be able to talk about the details. He turned back to what he was doing with a shrug that clearly signaled "What's the fun in that?"

I began the nightly ritual of calling the recorded message for the following day's schedule; sometimes, Tim made the call. We'd signal each other thumbs down as the announcement came that no - or only certain - jurors would be needed in the morning.

Night after night, potential juror No. 687 went to bed knowing she had an open day ahead. As one beautiful summer morning after another dawned, I was grateful to be free and out of doors; but I wouldn't have minded at all buckling down inside for a close-up, participatory lesson on the American judicial system.

My number never did come up, and as June ended, so did my chances of getting together with 11 community peers as a jury. Soon, I stopped even thinking about my month in limbo, its edge of anticipation. But there are others not so fickle-minded.

Our cows, for example, still come to the barn each morning, hoofing it all the way from their back pasture bivouacs to gather where they always have. They arrive shortly after sunrise and group by the old milking parlor door. Eventually, in twos and threes, they amble to the big shade tree behind the barn to rest awhile, just as they used to do after morning milking. And, finally, they rise and wander off to the pastures for another day's grazing.

Like us, they've retired from commercial milking. A few have been raising calves. A couple have no responsibilities whatsoever. Yet all 10 of them (as well as four draft horses - a jury with two alternates, if you will) report to the barn like clockwork. Never mind that the milk room doors don't slide open for them anymore.

I appreciate their faithfully recurring presence, symbolic of all of the things I love and find comforting about these creatures of habit. Maybe there's something else going on here, something I might be more sensitive to now, given my recent experience as not-to-be juror No. 687.

I did my part for the American judicial system. The cows may be doing what they feel to be their part for the farm. Didn't poet John Milton once write something wise and wonderful in a sonnet about the likes of us? "They also serve who only stand and wait."

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