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persona-non-grata-novel-stephen-j-stirling-978-1-4621-1450-4Welcome to the official website of author Stephen J. Stirling and the book Shedding Light on the Dark Side: Defeating the Forces of Evil, A Guide for Youth and Young Adults, and the novel Persona non Grata, coming July 2014.

Persona non Grata
Paladin is way out of his depth! Sent to Crimea to bring a former student home, Paladin is soon embroiled in international conspiracy. Close calls and adventure are the norm in this thrilling tale! Find out more…

A Quest for Paladin Smith

from Persona Non Grata — Chapter One

(An unpleasant visitor from the past, Congressman Philip Chase, surprises Paladin in his classroom with news about a former student, Victoria Grant.  Guiding Paladin through a folder of classified material, the congressman explains Victoria’s peril as a diplomatic aid in war-threatened Crimea.)

Turning over the photo, Paladin found himself staring at the portrait of a king in full regalia, perfectly posed for a public relations shot. As he studied the face of the king, he saw the same kind of self-importance he recognized in Chase. But Chase at least knew how to conceal it. This man made no pretensions at false humility and obviously saw no need to. Paladin looked up at Chase.

“Pyotr Vasiliyevich, prince of Crimea. Styles himself ‘Peter the Great.’ ” The congressman laughed to himself. “In committee we refer to him as ‘Peter the Mediocre.’”

“Hmm,” noted Paladin, more amused by the man than the joke. “He’s got a crown, a scepter, and everything.” Still there was an intensity about the prince that was not to be taken lightly. This was a tyrant in waiting. He was no joking matter at all. Paladin wondered if the congressman recognized it.

“Well, his position is merely titular in a constitutional monarchy,” clarified Chase. “He really has no political power.”

Paladin shook his head. “Maybe not. But he wants it.”

“Very observant, Smith. Now take a look at the next photo.”

The next photograph was a picture of the prince, in formal wear, at some kind of a royal function, eating dinner. Beside him on his right, looking radiant, sat Victoria Grant. “Your niece always had a knack for making friends,” observed Paladin.

“The prince is actually quite taken with her.”

“And why shouldn’t he be? She looks like a princess.” Paladin dropped the photo. “So, what more can you ask for—success, romance, dreams come true. It’s all like a modern fairy tale.”

“You know as well as I do, Paladin, that Victoria is in over her head here.”

“Who’s to say that?” argued Paladin, fighting his natural instincts. “The truth is it’s none of my business any more than it is yours. She’s an adult now, Chase. Anyway, I still don’t see what any of this has to do with me.”

“Listen, Smith,” Chase confided. “Crimea is a dangerous place right now. The civil unrest is all over the news. But our sources are picking up other chatter—political conflict, government instability, military dissatisfaction. It’s a very unstable part of the world. I’ve been trying to persuade Victoria to return home. But she won’t listen to reason.”

“She always had a mind of her own. Besides, why should she come home? Obviously life is good.”

The congressman slammed his hand down on the desk. “I’m telling you life is about to come tumbling down like a house of cards in Crimea. But the only one she’ll listen to is Ambassador Ian Keller. She practically worships him. He’s smooth—almost hypnotic. Frankly, the man is lecherous—pure filth. But he covers his tracks. Victoria can’t see it.

“As for Prince Peter—his ambition is frightening, unpredictable. But Victoria doesn’t recognize that danger either. All she can see is the charm and power of royalty. I’m afraid of what a young woman in love might do.”

Paladin considered for a moment and then turned the photograph over again to study the face of the girl. He smiled. “You know the trouble with you, Chase? You never had any confidence in Victoria. But I do. She’s not stupid. I really don’t think this is the kind of ‘Prince Charming’ she’d fall for. And even if she did have a crush on him, I wouldn’t worry.” He looked at the congressman. “She’ll get over it by the senior prom.”

Chase was suddenly livid, shouting. “Are you listening to me, Smith? I want Victoria out of Crimea.”

“So order her home!” Paladin shouted back. “Revoke her passport! Send the Marines!”

“I’ve got no authority or legal justification to do any of those things.”

“So go get her yourself.”

“She has no respect for me,” Chase managed to choke out.

“Well, neither do I,” answered Paladin. He stood from his seat. As far as he was concerned, this ridiculous interview was over.

“But I think she respects you.” Chase was quiet now, almost pleading. “I think she would come back if you asked her to.”

Paladin paused, confused. “So—what? You want me to write her a letter?”

The congressman stood to face him. He swallowed. “I want you to go to Crimea and bring her home.”

Paladin froze and looked at him askew. “Are you out of your mind?”

 ###

Excerpts from PERSONA NON GRATA — From Chapter One, Paladin Smith

The classroom was buzzing in a circus of conversations as Mr. Smith entered, closing the door behind him. He slowly approached the front of the room and leaned on the lectern in the corner. An apple—his lunch—was perched on top, along with his class roll pinched onto a clipboard. With a bland smile on his face, he waited there for a long minute, fiddling with the apple and observing his students — most of whom seemed unaware of him.

Three boys entered the room, clearly late, and sat by some friends. Another conversation began. Smith gradually straightened to his full height of five feet eight inches—not exactly, as he was well aware, a stature of commanding attention. The students continued to largely ignore him.

He cleared his throat at mid-volume. “I, uh—I’m not interrupting anyone, am I?” The student noise diminished slightly, but most of the classroom hum went on. This was, after all, the first day of school. He knew they were all pretty excited to see each other.

“Good to see you, Mr. Smith,” said a student on the front row.”

“Yes, isn’t it though!” Paladin answered amiably. The chatter continued.

The class of thirty-two students was pretty evenly divided between former students and students who had never seen Mr. Smith before. The initiated knew enough to settle down by now. That wasn’t to suggest that they had any idea how he intended to bring order. No one ever knew what the history teacher would do from moment to moment. He was never that predictable. They simply knew from experience that he would do something. The others were oblivious to this reality and kept talking. After all, class hadn’t really begun yet.

Smith casually strolled over to the side of the room and picked up a black baseball bat that was leaning against the wall. “My dear friends, I can tell you’re excited to be here on this, the first day of class.” Not much change. He smiled and hefted the bat in both hands. “This is a Louisville Slugger, thirty-two ounces of perfectly-balanced, crafted, polished maple.”

Poising the bat vertically, he scanned it with admiration. His eyes rested on the logo and, below it, the monogram: Presented to Paladin Smith—Midwest Baseball Challenge—2001. He continued. “In the hands of someone who knows how to use it, this stick of lumber can send a baseball soaring four hundred feet over the garden wall.” The bat arched down as he leaned on it like a cane. “It is a symbol not only of the national game but also of American society itself.”

Paladin had their partial attention. But since they never really paid full attention in any other class, why should they here? With the bat still in hand, Smith walked to the opposite side of the room where a huge, beautifully decorated pot stood four feet from base to brim. “This is a vase, a reproduction from the Ming Dynasty, dating from approximately the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries. It represents the greatest in art, culture, and technology which the world of the Orient had to offer that corner of the globe.”

Mr. Smith glanced up. As he fully expected, his introduction to World History had left them nonplussed. Less than half of them were even looking at him. “Okay. What do you suppose would be the result with the inevitable meeting of these two cultures?”

No answer. Smith smiled and took a deep breath. The students who knew him braced themselves.

“LET ME REPHRASE MY QUESTION!” Paladin suddenly raised his voice to a level that could be heard throughout the building.  He strode to the front, center of the class.  “LISTEN CAREFULLY,” he shouted, hefting the bat again in both hands as he stepped deliberately over to the huge vase. “WHAT WOULD BE THE OUTCOME WHEN THE MODERN WESTERN WORLD EVENTUALLY CLASHED WITH THIS LESS-SOPHISTICATED ORIENTAL SOCIETY?”

He hadn’t even finished the question before he settled into a perfect batters position a few feet from the vase. Without waiting an instant for the imaginary pitch, his face tightened, and he swung the bat toward the fences in one flawless and powerful motion. As he made contact the vase shattered into a thousand pieces that showered around the room.

Mr. Smith stood amid the dust and wreckage, covered with shards of clay. Wide-eyed students were too stunned to speak. Even the veterans had never seen anything like it. He certainly had their attention. Conversations were frozen in mid air.

###

Excerpts from PERSONA NON GRATA by Stephen J. Stirling

Prologue

            The American stood erect on the forward deck of the Russian yacht. Cloaked in the shadows of the night, he stared silently over the dark expanse of the Black Sea. Impeccably attired in a dinner tuxedo, he wore the confident expression of a man in control of his world—with the cynical smile of one who intended to retain that control at any cost. He laughed softly to himself and gripped the railing. Under his feet the yacht churned at leisure through the water as waves lapped against the bow. Breathing deeply of the Crimean air, he felt himself at one with the luxury craft—the perfect blend of elegance, power, and heartless drive.

He shifted his weight ever so slightly as the yacht rocked on the surface of the water. Like himself, the ship had no sympathies or loyalties. Built of cold steel and lifeless wood, it was designed for self-indulgence, pleasure, and the display of ambitious superiority. And anything that lay in its course beyond the bow it would crush and send sinking to the bottom of the sea. He smiled again and peered contemptuously into the black distance, defiant of anything that would come into his path.

Behind him a steward cleared his throat. “Sir, the secretary will see you now.”

The American turned emotionlessly and walked past the steward to the staterooms. He knew his way to the cabin occupied by the Russian official who waited for him. He opened the door and entered without knocking.

A distinguished, gray-haired Russian stood behind a large desk. He was only slightly surprised at the insolent air of his American guest. “Mr. Ambassador,” he greeted him without smiling. “Sit down, please. I apologize for not welcoming you sooner. I’ve been on the telephone with our patron.”

The Ambassador nodded and sat in a cushioned chair. “Please relay my compliments to your president. His yacht is magnificent. I’ve been admiring the horizon.”

“Indeed?” The man behind the desk cocked an eyebrow. “What horizon can you possibly appreciate at midnight?”

The guest smiled. “I’ve learned that the cover of darkness always provides a superior view, providing one knows precisely what lies in the waters ahead.”

“You come to the point quickly,” said the Russian, taking his seat. “That is, of course, the reason I am here—to verify that we do know what is just ahead. We venture into perilous ‘international’ waters.”

The American leaned forward. “Mr. Secretary, our course is perfectly set. We know exactly where our vessel is going. Every detail of our voyage has been flawlessly arranged.”

“As per our discussions, I am sure.” The secretary shifted in his chair. “Your services and contacts have been invaluable. My president merely wants to make sure that there will be no interference from NATO or from the United States.”

“Your president should know better,” the visitor soothed. “He is well aware how the wind blows in America these days. There will be no intervention from the United States, the United Nations, or anyone else. In seven days the Russian Federation will be some two percent larger than it is today. And I will be some five hundred percent richer than I am today. But how uncouth! Who can put a price tag on patriotism or other noble aspirations of the heart?”

The Russian was stoic. “Setting aside the American sarcasm, my friend, Alexander Trotsky seeks a final assurance that we will encounter no unforeseen obstacles.”

“You may give Alexander Trotsky my personal pledge,” said the American as he casually lit a cigarette. “Every element in our little drama is in place—like the pieces of a brilliantly played game of chess. The checkmate is certain. There is no man on earth and no power in the universe that can stand in our way.”

 ###

 

A Crimean Afterthought on Independence Day

Before we get into deep-thinking here, I want to answer the frequently asked question – “What are your qualifications to write on the affairs of Crimea?”  Well, in addition to my own personal study, I have sources on the ground in Eastern Europe that keep me well informed on current international events.  This snapshot of me conversing with three of my most intimate Russian contacts should quell any grumbling on that account.

 

The author (Stephen J. Stirling) with Vladimir Lenin, Karl Marx, and Vladimir Putin (standing) at a recent meeting on Red Square in Moscow.

The author (Stephen J. Stirling) with Vladimir Lenin, Karl Marx, and Vladimir Putin (standing) at a recent meeting on Red Square in Moscow.

Having said that, I genuinely feel it is a civic responsibility and patriotic duty for us to keep ourselves informed on the affairs of an ever complex and increasingly interconnected world.  That is a particular challenge in a national and international atmosphere charged with so much misinformation.  All of this brings us to the subject of Crimea.

 I reprint this excerpt from page ix of Persona Non Grata – “An Author’s Note.”

“In the autumn of 2008, I began to write an action adventure novel which I christened Persona Non Grata. The story had a simple message: God is still interested in the affairs of men and continues to guide our lives.  As a backdrop for that ponderous thesis, I needed a stage on which my players could perform. That theatre turned out to be Crimea – a nation which I created out of whole cloth.

Located east of the Crimean Peninsula and north of Georgia and Azerbaijan, my “fictional” Crimea is a constitutional monarchy nestled between the Black and Caspian Seas in what is today 120,000 square miles of southern Russia.  It’s actually quite small as fictitious countries go.  I didn’t think Vladimir Putin would mind my borrowing it. (I had no idea how sensitive and aggressive he was about Russian real estate.)

As this novel was about to go to press, a banner headline splashed across the newspapers of the world:  “Russia Invades Crimea.”  Of course, it wasn’t exactly the same Crimea which I had manufactured for this novel.  But a few of the similarities were staggering.

With that in mind let me say a word regarding the real Crimea and [up until recently] her actual national status.  An “autonomous republic”, Crimea has been recognized as part of the “independent nation of Ukraine” since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Of course, we’re beginning to discover that Vladimir Putin, in his own way, doesn’t believe the Soviet Union ever broke up.  But that is another issue.

Written five years ago, this novel does not pretend to reflect the intricate elements of the current Crimean crisis.  However, true to the narrative of Persona Non Grata, the Red armies of 2014 did invade Crimea, and did so at the request of the republic’s ambitious “would-be” rulers, in an occupation that took the world by relative surprise.  And that world was prepared to do little more than look on, in helpless impotence.

The scenario in Persona Non Grata presents the story of a common man who steps into this maelstrom to stand for what is right and to do uncommon things.  It is one pleasant outcome of a real situation – all part of a complex world that is not so fictitious after all. One thing is certain. . . the current international situation in Eastern Europe is an ominous sign of the perilous times in which we live.  And there will be more to come.”

And with that short commentary, the book begins.  It is a good book – one of my proudest accomplishments.  But there will be time to discuss that in the coming weeks.

For today, I want to present one final afterthought on Crimea — appropriate to the 4th of July.  In March of this year, the Russian government sponsored a referendum, a vote by the Crimean people which seemed slightly out of character with a military invasion and occupation by foreign forces.  That referendum, shielded from the watchful eyes of international observers, returned a result of 96.7% of the Crimean populace in favor of annexation to the new mother country.  Those voter returns were a heartening sign that right had prevailed.  But by any account, the numbers were always dubious.  A referendum of the United Nations General Assembly went so far as to declare the referendum invalid and affirmed Ukraine’s territorial integrity.  Russia, of course vetoed the Security Council version of the declaration.

In May, both Forbes and the Washington Post reported the official report of Russia’s Council of Civil Society and Human Rights.

According to the Council’s report about the March referendum to annex Crimea, the turnout was a maximum 30%. And of these, only half voted for annexation – meaning only 15 percent of Crimean citizens voted for annexation. The fate of Crimea, therefore, was decided by the 15 percent of Crimeans, who voted in favor of unification with Russia (under the watchful eye of Kalashnikov-toting soldiers).”

And let’s make no mistake about it: This scenario is not the chronicle of a benevolent neighbor coming to the rescue of a benighted and oppressed people.  Reports are already surfacing which detail the decision to “liquidate” the pro-Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the region, the persecution of groups opposed to Russia rule, and “numerous restrictions” on freedom of speech and press imposed by Russian law.  No, this is the resurgence of the former Russia we so loved during the cold war.  Just like old times.

Persona Non Grata offers us a different ending – an ending which would suit us in a slightly different world where the scales are tipped in favor of virtue, where good men take a stand against political despotism and where right can prevail, even against the strength of invading armies.

That isn’t always the world we live in where there is ‘opposition in all things’ and where the forces of evil still hold sway.  But in the meantime, today, Independence Day, is a reminder that once, not all that long ago a little band of good men and women did fight against tyranny and emerged, against all odds, triumphant.  America was the product of that miracle and was and still is a miracle in itself.  Never before in the history of mankind had there been anything like the United States.  And in spite of the cynicism and the pessimism and the distrust that characterize the age we live in – America is still the shining city on a hill that good men still look to and cling to.

We must maintain that shining city as the miracle it was meant to be.  Today’s lesson from Crimea is an illustration of how easily that freedom can be lost if we are not vigilant to preserve it and courageous to raise our voices and our might in defense of it.

We are still part of that miracle.  We can still make a difference.

###

 

Persona Non Grata — A Synopsis

Paladin Smith seems to be an ordinary high school history teacher and seminary instructor.  But Paladin’s checkered past comes back to haunt him when an unexpected visitor shows up in his classroom with news about a former student, Victoria Grant, who’s all grown up – and in trouble.

Now Paladin is going to Crimea, in former Soviet Russia, with an uncomplicated task: find Victoria Grant and bring her home.  But when his simple mission thrusts him headlong into an international conspiracy and a countdown to invasion, Paladin finds himself on a collision course with the corrupt American embassy, the Royalty of Crimea, and the powers of Eastern Europe.

Dive into a world of unscrupulous diplomats and ambitious tyrants as Paladin follows the Spirit to not only rescue an old friend, but also to save a free people from the jaws of dictatorship.  Paladin Smith and Victoria Grant are about to change the world.

 ###

Persona - post card

A Little White Reminder of What Life is About

We have two dogs at our house.  Dobby is a rough and tumble little brown mongrel.  Diane found her on Interstate 10 about fifteen years ago, running across the freeway with a pack of other dogs. (She was just a puppy with a head too big for her body.)  Diane chased her down and brought her home where we spent the rest of the evening washing the fleas and ticks out of her fur.  ‘Dobby’ had found a home.  Her body eventually grew into her head and we’ve had a great time ever since.  Dobby is my kind of canine.  Fun dog.

We also have a white dog – a miniature Maltese that used to belong to Diane’s mother.  ‘Hannah’ is a pure bred – no doubt spawned in a puppy mill.  Like a lot of pedigree dogs, she has genealogy of finely defined defects.  At about fifteen years of age she can’t hear, she can’t see, and she can hardly walk.  She has thyroid problems and perhaps two teeth left.  That means she has a specialized diet and needs to be on daily medication.  Almost any handling causes her to yelp in pain.  She is also incontinent – or so senile that she has lost any concept of what it used to mean to be housebroken.  Hanna cannot do what other dogs do.  In fact, she excels at only two things – sleeping and serving as a source of veterinary bills.  Plus, she is a little, white, curly-haired ‘froofy’ dog – who is losing her curly hair.  She is not an appropriate dog for a manly fellow like me.  She is a dog for sissies and little old ladies.  When we take the dogs for a walk, we need to carry Hanna in a baby carriage.  (Get the idea.  Very embarrassing!)  She is not my kind of canine.  Very boring.

We also have a third dog.  A miniature boxer/bull dog mix with a huge personality and a larger underbite.   ‘Clover’ belongs to Brooke and we’re caring for her while our youngest daughter is on tour with Lindsey.  But since this dog is merely a temporary houseguest we won’t say much about her – for now.

I want to talk about the little white dog.  Like I said, Hanna is not my kind of dog. She just doesn’t do much.  She can’t.  Now Dobby!  There’s a dog that will run and jump and play – even at age fifteen.  However, as I’ve contemplated the meager capabilities of that crippled little white dog, (and as I have been reminded by my good-hearted wife), Hanna does have one dazzling, glorious virtue.  She is the sweetest, most forgiving and good natured dog I have ever known.  Her life has not been easy and she lives in constant pain.  And yet, she always greets anyone – even me – with a hop in her tottering step and a wagging tail.

Hanna was Jean Jensen Leigh’s dog.  And up until the time that this little woman was confined to bed a few years ago, Hanna was the joy of her life.  The little white dog gave an elderly lady a soul to care for, a companion to visit with, and a reason to live.  Jean Jensen Leigh was my wife’s mother, and a good woman.  Her life was filled with discouragement, trial, failure and pain.  She struggled and suffered and endured.

She brought three children into this world, each of them great people who have had children of their own.  (Her progeny includes attorneys, teachers, artists, a world-class trumpt player, a horse whisperer, and a dancing violinist.)

She married the love of her life, and then in the prime of their youth sent him to the Second World War and then to Korea. Like so many of the greatest generation, the price they both paid was inestimable. War took it’s toll. Life took it’s toll. The pressures of time, family, and companionship – all took their toll and eventually cost them their marriage. And yet, that old soldier, her life’s companion, continued to pay her a visit every week in her confinement until he died in his ninetieth year a few years ago. (Such is the mystery and miracle of love.)

Over her lifetime she became well acquainted with sorrow, with discouragement, and with loneliness – with physical pain, with anxiety, and with heartache.  But in spite of it all she was one of the sweetest individuals I have ever known.  She had great reason to be bitter, to be angry, and to be just plain mean.  We have known elderly people, who in response to tragedy of life, surrender to a brooding acrimony that contaminates everyone around them.  Jean Jensen Leigh made a decision not to go there.  And she fought that battle valiantly.   My personal visits to her in her nursing home, particularly over the past few months were filled with joking, teasing, and laughter.  We had a good time.  She could no longer lift herself from bed, she couldn’t see very well, and I had to speak loudly and distinctly to be heard.  But we still had a good time.

Jean Jensen Leigh waged the war we all must fight.  And she fought it with courage, an open heart and a smile.  And this morning, a month short of her 95th birthday, she emerged victorious, peacefully taking her last breath as she etched her final mortal expressions in the book of life, surrounded by her loved ones.  She was a good woman who made a quiet, lasting contribution to lives of others.  And she left behind a tiny memorial of who she was in the personality and attitude of a little white dog, who continues to hobble excitedly at meal time and wag her tail at total strangers.  In spite the pain, the struggles of life, and the dimness of vision, there is always a hopeful sparkle in her eye.

That is Hannah’s gift to all of us — a gift that Jean Jensen Leigh left us as a reminder that life sometimes hurts, but there is still something worth living for.

Grandma Leigh

 ###

Lost – and Found. Vladimir Stirling Apprehended in the Deep South.

Well, he wasn’t exactly apprehended.  But he did turn up.  According to wire service reports -

“After a massive manhunt that spanned the continent from Georgia to California, Vladimir Stirling surrendered to authorities after being sighted driving very fast on Interstate 85 northeast of Atlanta.”

The following transcript is kinda almost exactly as it actually happened:

Officer:  May I see your driver’s license please.                                                                  Stirling: Vy certainly officer.                                                                                                 Officer: Say, isn’t that a Russian accent?                                                                              Stirling: No, officer.  I haf neffer been to Russia.                                                                   Officer: (Looking over the license.) Hmm, hmm.  And I suppose the name Vladimir is Swedish.  Stirling: No, sir. Vladimir Stirling.  Ve are from Scotland.                                                   Officer: Uh, huh.  Don’t try to fool me son.  I’m a trained peace officer.  You’re that handsome           Russian kid everybody’s looking for — with the APB out of Arizona.  Now, please                         step out of the car — slowly.  And put your hands behind your head.                    Stirling: Vat gave me avay?                                                                                                   Officer: Well son, there’s a Xeroxed picture of you on every telephone pole in Buford.  And               a very nice ‘Have You Seen Me’ portrait on the milk carton sitting on my kitchen table.             From there it was easy.  Say, is Lindsey Stirling really your sister?

The rest was history.  Vladimir received two citations – one for exceeding the speed limit, and another for not calling home on Mother’s Day – and was then released on his own recognizance.  A very repentant Russian called to wish me a Happy Father’s Day me on Monday night, (a day late), but just in time for Family Home Evening.  It was a tear-filled reunion right out of a Hallmark Christmas special.  “Vy vere you vorried,” he justified.  “Ve had just wisited in April.” Very true.  He certainly had me speechless there.

In any event I want to post a nation-wide thank you for helping me to get young Vladimir’s attention.  I’m sure the age-enhanced photographs from the holidays helped in his identification.  But facebook and divine intervention were the key factors in getting our son to break radio silence and come out of hiding.  So the internet works – and so does prayer.

However, if Vladimir should vanish again – which is highly likely – let me post a couple of snapshots in order to be one step ahead of him this time.

This picture brings back one of our fondest yule tide memories – the year our son convinced his three sisters to sell our Christmas tree for some extra holiday spending money.  He is so enterprising.  Vladimir is the one wearing the red ‘hammer and sickle’ T-shirt.

This picture brings back one of our fondest yule tide memories – the year our son convinced his three sisters to sell our Christmas tree for some extra holiday spending money. He is so enterprising. Vladimir is the one wearing the red ‘hammer and sickle’ T-shirt.

Triplets 001

We used this high school graduation picture on our highway billboard campaign. It garnered a great deal of public attention, including several anonymous calls on the whereabouts of Vladimir’s sisters, Brooke and Marina – although they were never really lost.

Stirlings 025

 

 

In Search of Vladimir Stirling

There is, in the folklore of my family, the story of an ancestral cousin who, in the 1700s, followed his spirit of wanderlust, went to sea and was never heard of again.  It happens.  Especially in a family whose genealogy boasts a seeming disproportionate share of pirates, horse thieves and gypsies.

But this discussion could well divert me from my intended purpose.  June 10 was my son, Vladimir’s birthday.  I love Vladimir.  He has been blessed with a great soul, a good heart – and sometimes a soft head.  And he is one of the joys of my life.  And I wanted to take this opportunity to wish him a happy birthday.  So Happy Birthday Vladimir!!!

Now the connection between these two public and random thoughts is this: Vladimir, my pride and joy – like a seagoing sailor, a wandering gypsy, and an occasional vice-president of the United States – has vanished without a trace.  As a matter of fact, this blog entry is kind of an ALL POINTS BULLETIN for America to keep be on the look-out for him.  Last seen in Atlanta, Georgia (and according to the best information available, still there) Vladimir is a good looking young fellow, 25 years of age, about ‘this high’ and weighing about ‘so much.’ He smiles contagiously, laughs frequently, speaks with an endearing Russian accent, and will, if pressed, answer to the name ‘Vova.’  He is also the brother of hip-hop violinist, Lindsey Stirling.

If seen, members of the public are advised to give him a big hug, (after all, it is his birthday) and then tell him to borrow a cell phone and CALL HIS FATHER!  (His Mom would also be pleased to hear from him.  His sisters might register some mild interest as well.)

Anyone with information regarding Vladimir’s whereabouts – or who possibly find his baseball cap washed up on shore, please notify Stephen J. Stirling.  (Unlike my Russian son, I’m easy to find.)

My Day in Court.  Reflections on Jury Duty

Jury duty.  Consider the sound of those noble words.  Under the law every adult citizen in good standing has the responsibility, and will probably have the opportunity to serve as a member of a jury. The obligation to participate in our nation’s judicial system is one of the great privileges of our free republic.  And last week I was invited to jury duty — to take my place in the ranks of genuine civic service – to stand as a representative for truth, justice, and the American way.

Yes, yes, I know.  I tried like the dickens to get out of it, but no luck!  The evening before my appearance date I crossed my fingers and called the jury office hot line, hoping against hope that my group number wouldn’t be called in.  Another disappointment.

So, next morning, after confirming that I had a substitute for work, I grabbed a good book to occupy my spare time, and drove to the Maricopa County Superior Court in Phoenix. The system had provided me with a map.  Much to my delight they had also arranged for free parking, and a shuttle bus to carry all juror candidates several blocks to the courthouse.  To say the least, we were getting the royal treatment.

Thus began my day, which included orientation, comfortable seating, and a nifty badge to identify my unique status as a potential participant in the machinery of justice.  There were also plenty of television screens playing reruns of “Days of Our Lives” for us to watch while we waited for our group numbers to be called. However, to my chagrin there were no refreshments, party games, or ice-breaking activities to help us get acquainted with boat loads of other jurors.  And contrary to what I’d been told by satisfied patrons of the past, there was no buffet lunch provided.  (I was apparently misinformed as part of a cruel deception.)

But of course, such amenities are not important.  I was there to offer my heart and soul to the process – to volunteer to become one of society’s “twelve men, good and true.” A short explanation of that fabled description of the jury is momentarily appropriate.

According to sources:

“When this phrase was coined, in the early 17th century, ‘good’ implied distinguished rank or valour. These days people aren’t required to be valiant or of high rank in order to be part of a jury.”

This was obviously true, since I was there.  I continue,

“Jurors are no longer required to be men, as women have been called for jury duty in both the UK and USA since around 1920.”

Well, enough fascinating history.  There were literally hundreds of us (men and women) anxiously waiting for our “name to be drawn”, so to speak.  When my group number was announced, there was a mass exhilaration scattered throughout the huge room, as if 60 people had won a judicial lottery.  (Well, kind of.)  We were assigned numbers and arranged in lines.  (I was number 53, and proud of it.)  And while I got acquainted with numbers 52 and 54, the officers of the court prepared to meet the day’s key witnesses – us.  The real process of elimination was about to begin.

We were finally admitted into the courtroom to sit before the judge.  Actually, he was very professional and very engaging.  He cordially introduced himself, the bailiff, recorders, and other courtroom staff, and even the attorneys and their clients.  (The atmosphere didn’t in the least resemble  “Judge Judy” – which was not at all disappointing.)  He then gave us an instructive summary of the case and a ‘heads-up’ that it was to be a long trial – scheduled through the end of the month.  All in all, jury duty was turning out to be very educational.

As I began to look around me, another education began.  Sixty potential jurors had gathered from the depth and breadth of Maricopa County.  As I said, we didn’t have names.  We were specifically assigned numbers, for convenience in the process.  But individually, these  60 numbers constituted a fascinating cross section of America: men, women, old, young, rich, poor, well-dressed, casual, and every color of the rainbow.  And after spending an hour in their company, and watching them talk and laugh and mingle – I realized I could probably call any one of them ‘friend’ (with a proper introduction).  These were decent, good people who had come, albeit reluctantly, to do something decent and good – and important.

Paring down this nice bunch of individuals from a group of 60 candidates to a final jury of 12 became the immediate order of business.  The judge’s amiable interrogation began with general questions to the group.  These included particularly damning questions like “Is anyone here an attorney?” (Ouch!) But most questions were more harmless, such as, “Is anyone here a non-citizen?” “Has anyone here been convicted of a felony?” “Does anyone have a problem understanding English?” Other questions continued. “Are you employed by anyone assigned to this case?”  “Are you related to anyone assigned to this case?”  “Have you ever committed a violent crime against anyone assigned to this case?”  One lady – number 27 — seemed to qualify for every single exclusion, including having danced with a mailman, (which until then I had not realized was a federal crime).  She was dismissed.

Finally, the judge asked the candidates if the length of the case would present a hardship to any of us.  Several raised their hands with very reasonable considerations: demanding occupations, final exams, vacation reservations, or health problems.  And then there was number 53.  I pondered the merits of my personal concern, and finally raised my hand.

“Yes, number 53?” Asked the judge.

I cleared my throat.  “I am fully aware that there are far more important things in the world than my wants and conveniences, particularly where justice for one man in a court of law is concerned.  But I am a high school teacher.  And the length of this trial will extend for the rest of the month.  Having taught my students since September, I would be reluctant to miss these last few weeks and the end of the school year.”

“What and where do you teach? He asked.

“I teach seminary in Mesa,” I answered.

“Thank you,” he said.  And the questioning moved on.

Within a short time we were instructed to take a break.  When we were recalled a few minutes later, the judge read the numbers who were excused from jury duty, having fulfilled their obligation to the court.  Lo and behold, number 53 was among them.  I was actually, positively and completely surprised.  And to be honest, a part of me was a little disappointed.  Go figure.

Like many of us, I have, on occasion, become cynical with regards to the state of the nation.  We are not in a spiritually and morally healthy condition.  We cheat each other, we lie about each other, and we hurt each other – with monotonous regularity.  And it seems sometimes as if the legal system is in many ways responsible for the cheating, the deception and the pain.  We are a litigation-crazy society.  We make a man an offender for a word.  We call evil, good and good, evil. We rewrite the laws of civilized nations in favor of popular whim.  And we work much of this magic through the courts.  Smoke, mirrors, and new legality.

Little wonder many are losing faith in the justice system.  But such an attitude of doubt and fear, gloom and doom is counterproductive – and misleading.   This is particularly true in a nation where judges and juries have recorded far more triumphs than tragedies of justice throughout our history.   And they continue to do so.  No, the system is not perfect.  Neither are we as individuals.  But we keep trying.

Oh, I’m sure I’ll backslide into my cynical moments where corrupt  courts and partisan judges will seem to be the greatest threat to American freedom.  But then again, I will always have a picture in my mind of the good and conscientious people who I met on my one day of jury selection.   The simple, decent, and caring men and women who serve as officers in the system and as jurors of our courts are still the foundation of a people’s government.  And they may still be our best hope.

I almost wish I had been selected.

This Easter Morning

I vividly remember one Easter morning many years ago.  I was a teenager and had been out on a Saturday night, being stupid with my friends.  Oh, nothing illegal, or immoral, or particularly irresponsible and destructive to society at large.  Just your basic, aimless, waste-of-time, 16 year-old stupid.  That night I drove.  My car was an unimpressive, blue, 4-door Chevy II that probably wouldn’t have beaten a skateboard in a downhill race.  But it got us from here to there in the Southeast LA semi-ghetto where I grew up. That night it had taken us from here to there on our last free night of Easter break and we had enjoyed the ride. But eventually, somewhere around 3 am, we decided to call it a night.  After dropping all my buddies off, I hung out with my best friend, Tino for a while, and then walked out to my car a few houses away on the residential street.

Then I noticed her — a woman sitting alone on her front steps, illuminated by the blue light of a street lamp.  Well, she wasn’t really alone.  She was sitting with a dog.  And it wasn’t just any dog.  It was a huge german shepherd leaning devotedly against her.  But for the moment I wasn’t much aware of the dog.  I was too enraptured with how good my life was to notice those kinds of details.  After all, I was young, the night was fresh and mild, and Spring was in the California air. In general, I was feeling pretty pleased with existence.  So, as I opened the car door I cheerfully said, “Happy Easter.”

Her answer took me off guard.  “Ha,” she said.  “To you maybe.”

Now, I was just empty headed enough as a teenager to think that this was an invitation to discuss the matter.  So, stepping from the car, I shut the door and leaned over the hood. “Why would you say a thing like that,,” I said, “on this of all mornings?”

“Oh, yea,” she slurred bitterly, “Easter!”  She took a long breath and a deep, deliberate pause. “Well, Easter means nothin’ to me.  Just another day that was worse than the day before.”  Now it was obvious to me that the woman was drunk.  But in my teenage brilliance, I thought to myself, “What a marvelous teaching opportunity!”  So I boldly rounded the car and marched up her walkway to share with her the joyous reality of what little I knew of Jesus Christ and God’s Great Plan of Happiness for his children — drunk or sober.

That’s when I noticed the dog.  Because it was precisely at that moment that the woman ordered the dog to attack me.  Instantly Maslow’s heirarchy of needs kicked into operation, In my case my thoughts transformed from those of a 16 year-old who wanted to share the Gospel, to those of a 16 year-old who wanted desperately to be a 17 year-old.  I reached the driver’s door of the car one step ahead of the bounding German shepherd.  As my hand touched the door handle, I realized in a burst of inspiration, that if I took the time to open the car door, I wouldn’t be getting into the car alone.  So, I chose the next best alternative.  I sprang with all my strength on the handle and hurled byself on top of the car.  

I lay there panting for a good minute before I struggled up to peer over the edge of the roof at the growling dog, and then at the stone-faced woman on the steps 20 feet away.  I spent the next hour an top of my Chevy II on that deserted street 3 in the morning.  Just me, and the lady, and the dog.  Every time I made any effort to get down from the roof of the car, or even raised my voice, the dog made an excited attempt to devour me.  Neither was there any reasoning with the woman, who was quite content that I remain there.  And since the dog was in perfect agreement with her, I finally gave up the argument and sat cross-legged on the roof of my little beat-up Chevrolet, while our teaching experience continued.  

I don’t remember much of what was said.  I’m sure it wasn’t very profound. (I was 16 for crying out loud!)  I do remember we talked the world, about life, the Savior and Easter.  After I’d been captive for quite some time she finally unloaded on me.  “Look,” she drawled, “you’re a just a kid.  You haven’t lived as long as I have or as hard as I have. You don’t know anything about me and you don’t know anything about life.  But I do.  And it all means nothing.  And that’s why I’ve done this tonight.”

“So,” I asked her, “is drinking the only way you can think of to give any meaning to life?”  The night grew quiet.  i waited self-righteously, thinking I’d said something very clever.

Then after a long pause she began to laugh.  “Drinking?  You think I’ve been drinking!  I’m not drunk,” grew serious.  “I’m dying.  A little while ago I swallowed a whole bottle of sleeping pills.  And in a little while longer it will all be over.   And you get to sit up there on top of your car and watch.”

Suddenly all  my words were vain, and empty, and meaningless as I was struck with the horror of what I’d been watching.  And it was all the more horrifying and ironic that on this morning celebrating the event which gave life to all humanity, this woman was taking hers away.

With far more at stake that a few hours of lost sleep, I watched the dog more carefully as the woman became more disoriented.  Within a few minutes I siezed my opportunity, leaped to the ground, wrenched open the car door and jumped inside, just ahead of the snarling dog. I sped away and was fortunate enought to find a policeman.  (There was a donut shop only a few blocks away.)  I breathlessly told the officer about the woman — and the dog.  He thanked me, called for backup, and with his lights flashing, raced around the corner.

I sighed and drove wearily home where I fell into bed, only to awake a few hours later, thinking differently about Easter and about life than I ever had before.  I never did find out about the woman, whether she lived or died.  But what stuck in my mind was the burning question, “What does Easter mean to us?”

To some it is merely a vacation day. To others it is a work day. To children it is an innocent fantasy.  And to the cynics it is a stupid tradition, an “opiate for the masses”, mired in a bog of religious superstition not far removed from their own relative morality and political correctness.  Through it all, most of the world has lost sight of the simple reality that changed the world one spring morning  some 2000 years ago — that Jesus Christ lives.  And because He lives, we shall live also.  And we will live forever.

May we all enjoy a Happy Easter.  And may we ponder for a moment what that reality truly means for all of us.

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