Wardrobe! Report to the Courthouse!

Five years ago I was invited to speak at the 25th Anniversary of ProBAR, the political asylum program I started in Harligen, Texas in 1989.  Back in those days it was just me and Jennifer Bailey.  By 2015 there were 75 advocates mostly representing unaccompanied minors, by the 30th anniversary in 2019 there were almost 200.

I began my speech at the 25th anniversary with what the British call “kidding on the square.” 

“When I was asked to make an appearance here this evening I was concerned because appearance has never been my strong suit.” 

People who know me are now nodding.  My mother loved me, but even she called me Bob the slob.

The suit

When I was a legal services lawyer in Ottumwa, Iowa in 1980 we ran a casual office, jeans and t-shirts, with the occasional shirt with a collar for special occasions.  Even when Jim Elliot and I dressed up for court we looked more like defendants than lawyers.

One rainy day I was dressed in jeans and a Hawaiian shirt as I introduced myself to an retired farmer who brought a minor legal issue for us to solve.  I led him to my office and as I got prepared to fill out the intake form I tried to draw him out because he had that delightful strong southern accent which is more Missouri than Iowa but common in Ottumwa which is in southern Iowa.

“It’s a hard rain,” I said.


“Think it’ll stop?”

“Always has.”

I went back to work and managed to get him to spell his name for me before he raised a hand to stop me.

“Are you a GENUINE lawyer?”

“Yes sir, duly licensed in the state of Iowa and California.  What is your mailing address?”

He studied me for a few moments.  “Do you have any I-DENT-IF-I-CA-TION?”

I pointed to my wall with certificates from Iowa California and handful of federal courts.  “Address?”

He rocked a bit in his chair.  “No offense, but I would feel a lot better if I was talking to a man in a suit.”

“I can understand that,” I said as I stood up, took two steps and closed my office door, behind which hung my suit. “You can talk to the suit, and I’ll just sit off to the side and take notes.  What’s your address?”

The tie

I never learned how to tie a tie.  I take great pride in that and it is the crown jewel in my “never have, never will” collection.  Other things in the collection include never having watched the Sound of Music, and not understanding a single rule in the game of Cricket. I enjoy watching reports on Cricket because it is refreshingly incomprehensible. I am comfortable with my ignorance of certain things. 

I always tell people I didn’t know how to tie a tie in hopes that when they start rounding up the the lawyers and lining them up against the wall to be shot one of my friends is going to call out, “Don’t shoot the one in the baseball cap, he’s not a real lawyer, he can’t even tie a tie!”

So along with the suit which hung behind my office door for emergencies there was a knotted tie. One morning at 6:30 in the morning I dashed into the office to pull a Clark Kent, quickly changing into my suit when I saw to my dismay that someone had untied the knot in my tie.  The office was empty, the drive to the county courthouse would be long, so I just grabbed it and raced for my car.

I was hoping to see a lawyer I knew around the courthouse so I could use his skills in the manly art of the Windsor knot, but the courthouse was empty.  Then I bumped into the judge.

“Good morning, Judge.”

“Good morning, Mr. Lang.  We are a bit casual today aren’t we?”

“I apologize, Judge, I have a problem.  My respect for the court outstrips my ability to tie a tie.”

The judge looked pained.  “Christ on a crutch, what is this world coming to?  What were you, an orphan or something?  Give me the tie.”

He tied it for me, and as he handed it back, “I’ll say this for you, you have more guts than common sense.  See you in the courtroom.  And next time, stand a little closer to the razor.”

Musical suits

When I returned from the Caribbean and started working in Ottumwa I did not have a three-piece suit so Jack lent me one of his.  When we went to trial in the Palo 13 civil disobedience case in Cedar Rapids be brought one more suit and a sport coat to complete our wardrobe.  The first day I wore suit A and Jack wore B.  Day 2 I wore B and Jack wore A. Day 3 we decided to get creative and I wore the jacket from A and the pants from B, Jack wore the opposite. Day 4 we introduced the sport coat into the mix. It started to get confusing by Day 5 because we didn’t want to repeat ourselves but the fog of fatigue after four long days of trial was kicking in.  The jury brought in a not guilty verdict on Day 6. 

It is common to try and talk with any jury members after a trial to hear from them what they based their decision on, what evidence they liked, what didn’t move them, which arguments they agreed with, etc.  The most surprising thing to hear from this jury foreman was that the jury had been keeping score on our wardrobe changes.  “We were thinking about waiting until tomorrow to bring in a verdict because we wanted to see if we could push you to the breaking point of variations with just two suits and a sport coat between the two of you.”

Credit: ebay.com


Which reminds me of this,

When I was in the army the dress uniform included a tie which was so short you could not tie a knot in it and then loosen it enough to get it over your head.  It had to be tied while it was on you.  This created a problem for a lot of the soldiers who, like me, had never bothered to learn how to do that.  The day we were to graduate from Basic Training in Fort Polk, Louisiana was our first full dress activity and a bunch of us were searching for someone who could tie our ties upon us.  Finally, a guy named Frank volunteered.  “What a bunch a knuckleheads we have here!  I can’t tie it from behind you, but if you come over to the table I can do it there.”  One at a time we lay on the table, face up, our head at the edge of the table and we looked up at the front of Frank as he proceeded to run an assembly line of people getting on and off the table to get everyone properly tied.  Somebody asked him why he could tie ties laying down but not standing up.

“I’m an undertaker.”

Credit: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/225954106278246754/

And finally,

Whenever I talk about early morning drives to courthouses my mind always goes to one particular morning.  It was dawn, wintertime, I was driving my VW bug which never seemed to heat up, and was between small towns driving on an empty two lane through slumbering fields when nature called.  As is the rural custom, I just pulled to the side of the road to pee.  As I was taking care of business Pavarotti came up on my cassette tape deck, I reached in the car for my coffee cup, took a sip, and set it on the roof where it melted a ring in the ice.  I leaned on the car, gazed across the fields, the corn stubble dusted with snow.  Peacefulness. And Pavarotti.  It was one of the most moving moments of my life.

Published by Robert Lang

Social Justice lawyer and mentor, nurturing calmness, kindness, and adventure. Just trying to leave something good behind.

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