Saturday, 12 October 2013

Write, right and research. Part 2

 A warning to all middle-aged women traveling on a South African passport: When arriving at Hopkins International Airport (Cleveland, OH) don’t, whatever you do, smile or look happy to have reached your destination, even if it has taken you 31 hours to get there. Smiling and looking happy will arouse an instant suspicion and will get you hauled out of the line, frisked and have every last piece of your luggage searched while you’re photographed, fingerprinted and asked a gazillion questions. Don’t ask me how I know this.

Shortly before leaving Johannesburg I received an email from my deputy sheriff friend to say that he’d been given permission from the sheriff to take me anywhere in Ohio that I needed to go. This was beyond awesome. Knowing that I’d be frazzled from many hours in cramped economy seating (not to mention the tedium of the transit lounge in London’s Heathrow) I’d booked into a hotel in Cleveland so I could get a good night’s sleep before meeting all the people I’d been corresponding with. That turned out to be a wise decision.
Promptly, at 10AM the next morning my deputy sheriff arrived to pick me up and I got my first look at a Crown Victoria, in the metal, so to speak. I’d seen them on American TV shows, of course, but never up close since they’re not used in SA. Wow. If you’ve never been in one let me tell you, they’re amazingly comfortable and though I couldn’t tell how many horses are under the hood, the smooth power of that engine is positively sensuous. As we set off I tried to maintain some sense of sophistication but what a ride.
We stopped for lunch and I had my first introduction to American food (apart from the Poptarts I’d enticed out a vending machine at the hotel) and my goodness, the portions were big enough to feed a small army! How on earth do restaurants in the US make a profit? I couldn’t eat more than a quarter of it. But it was good and I soon learned that taking leftovers back to my apartment meant that the fridge was always well stocked. My Ohioan friends, it turned out, are generous to a fault and nobody would let me pay for a meal even though, thanks to the free accommodation, I could well afford to do so and wanted to. Just another reason why I think Ohio is awesome. (Sorry Haggis.)
My first drive down the main street of the City of Wooster felt oddly familiar. Not surprising really, the large map on my study wall covered with photographs I’d printed off the internet had given me a better idea of the place than I’d imagined. It was wonderful, though, to see the actual buildings and landmarks that I’d already incorporated in my manuscript, particularly the courthouse where a big part of my story takes place. I couldn’t wait to get inside.
Wayne County Courthouse
The next few days were amazing. I was taken to the sheriff’s department and introduced to everyone and I’m willing to bet that Wayne County must be one of the safest places in the US, if their professionalism and enthusiasm for the job of law enforcement is anything to go by. I should confess something here. Before arriving in Wayne County, I never knew the difference between a Police Department and a Sheriff’s Department. Just as well I made the trip or my manuscript would have been full of jurisdictional errors. Another reason why thorough research is vital.
I got my tour of the courthouse, courtesy of Deputy Travis Hutchinson whose knowledge of the building and its history is truly encyclopaedic. From the holding cells in the basement to the clock tower, I saw it all and even had time to sit in the courtroom in which much of my story’s drama takes place. ‘Hutch’, who is now the Sheriff of Wayne County, (congrats on being elected, by the way) thank you so much for a truly memorable morning. And for the real, bona fide American hotdog. I loved it!
Perhaps the most valuable thing to come out of that visit to the courthouse was that I got to meet so many people who were more than willing to help me with my manuscript, the county prosecutor, a public defender and no less than two Common Pleas Court judges, to mention a few. Considering the huge volume of emails that went backwards and forwards between us after my visit, any errors in the legal aspects of my manuscript would be mine alone.
Throughout my visit to Ohio there were two questions that everybody asked me: Why Ohio? Why Wayne county? And because everyone was genuinely interested it would not have been polite to reply with something flippant like, “Because it’s there” or “Well, I had to set it somewhere.” So they got the whole explanation and while it may have got a little tiresome to repeat, I was humbled by the incredible kindness, concern and willingness to help that these people gave me.
What’s that you say? Where’s the funny? Coming right up.
A week into my visit I was taken to London, OH where I was invited to sit in on a meeting of the joint heads of Ohio’s various law enforcement departments. I dressed quite formally for it – navy blue skirt and jacket and navy court heels, so I felt as though I sort of fitted in.
London is about a two hour drive from Wooster. We left early and I got a good look at the countryside while balancing an incredibly hot cup of coffee on my lap for most of the trip. (Thanks to the suspension on the Crown Vic, I didn’t spill any.) Since one of the characters in my novel would be making this trip, the traveling was good research.
The meeting was held in a large room attached to the offices of the Ohio Attorney General and the BCI. My deputy sheriff friend was seated at the main table, so I found myself a chair among the other members of Ohio’s finest seated around the perimeter of the room. At the commencement everybody stood for the Pledge of Allegiance. For a split second I wondered what I was supposed to do, being something of a fish out of water here. So, along with everyone else, I stood and faced the flag, which I thought was respectful but I did not put my hand on my heart and I did not say the words. It wouldn’t have been appropriate, would it?  
Halfway through I felt eyes boring into my head and turned to my right. A woman was looking at me with what I can only describe as a death-stare. I swear, if she’d been armed she’d have shot me there and then. A mixture of pure fury, disgust and horror in that gaze. It couldn’t have been worse if I’d been wearing a burka with an AK47 slung over my shoulder and there was nothing I could do about it except smile at her and turn my eyes back to the flag.
She kept up the stare after we’d sat down and I must tell you, I was feeling quite uncomfortable, particularly in light of the way some of my pre-visit phone calls had been received. But relief came with the round-robin of introductions that followed. When my turn came I stood, introduced myself stating that I was from Johannesburg, South Africa (Americans always want to know what city you’re from) and that I was a guest of the Wayne County Sheriff’s department. Immediately I looked at the woman but she was looking away. She never made eye contact with me again but to this day I wonder what thoughts went through her mind when she spotted me not pledging my allegiance to the American flag. 
However, I do pledge to update this blog more frequently. :)

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