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Some reflections on our old jails

John Faber had a dream, and it was simple: His life’s ambition was to have a place by the side of the road and be a friend to man.

In John’s day, the sheriff’s living quarters were in the jail, so, when he became sheriff of Alpena County in 1947, he and his wife took residence there. At that time, our lockup facility was on Chisholm Street, across from the courthouse.

In 1956, a new jail was built on Johnston Street, so John and his wife moved to that facility — the one that serves us today.

But a more modern jail’s cell-block doors will soon begin to open — and close — out on M-32, just west of town.

Within the Chisholm Street lockup now gone, and the Johnston Street facility that soon will be, there were kitchens. John’s wife prepared her family’s meals, and those needed from time to time and time and time again by others whose presence was required.

The county reimbursed the sheriff for the cost of those visitor’s meals, adding a stipend that constituted a portion of his compensation.

For the 28 years John resided in them, both jailhouses promoted his life’s goal — and more. Not only were they places along the side of the road where he could be a friend to man — they were also places where he could make a buck by being one.

No longer does the county budget provide a per-meal stipend as a portion of the sheriff’s compensation. No longer do Alpena County sheriffs and their families reside at our county jail, and no longer do their wives prepare the prisoners’ meals. John and his wife were among the last of those who did so.

John was also among the last of the old-line sheriffs: Brown, of Montmorency, Sorgenfrei, of Presque Isle, Gehres, of Alcona, men who knew their constituents so well they could tell you who, at any given time, may well deserve to be arrested — and why.

But they seldom had to. The respect that preceded them and their wits’ adaptability usually proved sufficient to the problem — or its avoidance.

When the new jail is complete, the existing old one will pass as did the one before. But memories, lots of memories — stories too — are embedded in its walls, halls, and cell blocks.

Man-made things seldom last for long, but, when they do, we say they have withstood the test of time.

Our soon-to-be-former jail has done that. Not only has it survived the passage of its own time, but also the time of those compelled to spend time within it — some of which has been “hard time.”

Nowhere on our jail’s walkways, its walls, or in its cells and chambers are more memories stored — no place has witnessed so much from which it could not turn away — no barrier has seen the hard time witnessed by our jail’s drunk tank door.

This substantial steel obstacle has stood in the way of residents’ continued travel along paths that were contrary to their own best interests. For this service, it has been spat on, pounded, kicked, maligned, and sworn at, fingernails have scratched paint from its surface.

Through it all, it has stood.

Stood as the embodiment of something sensible, temperate, and sober, opposed to something muddled, addled, pissed, and plastered. It has done duty also restraining egos intoxicated primarily by themselves.

All this assisted only by heavy hinges.

As impressive as our drunk tank doors’ performance has been, our state leader’s actions have eclipsed it. Denigrated, she had stood against threats thereby generated — of kidnap, trial by those assuredly not her peers, and threats of death — assisted by nothing of steel other than what she’s made of.

Alfred North Whitehead said:

“The art of progress is to preserve order amid change and to preserve change amid order.”

The drunk tank door preserves order until change occurs, not so much an art as perseverance.

Until progress occurs, we may have to emulate our drunk tank’s door, for like it — and like our governor — we can not allow our doors to open to ignorance, lies, and hate.

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