Amidst the publicity of this presidential race, another recent story resonated with me, prompting both sympathy and a smidge of empathy as well. The story involves the arrest, trial and sentencing of a U.S. student, 21-year-old Wyoming, Ohio, native Otto Warmbier, by North Korean officials for engaging in what, in the minds of many, amounted to a college prank, trying to steal a propaganda banner from the wall of a hotel while visiting the country in January.
The trial concluded last week, taking barely an hour for the North Korean Supreme Court to impose a sentence of 15 years in a hard labor camp for what they said was an act of subversion.
Every parent who has ever raised a child and even those who’ve never parented but can remember their own youthful imprudent decisions surely must have been touched when watching the video of a weeping and apologetic young man being taken away.
Warmbier said he tried to take the banner to give to the mother of a friend who wanted something from North Korea to hang in her church. While there are many diplomats and other politicians working to appeal to North Korean officials’ humanitarianism to get Warmbier released, there are no guarantees, and so the terrified former junior at the University of Virginia faces an unimaginable fate, one where 15 years seems an eternity.
The story also transported me back in time to my own foolishness, especially what some mates and I decided to do in the winter before our graduating from Lima Central Catholic High School.
Just a few months before we would matriculate at our respective universities, while on an unsupervised trip to a friend’s parents’ cottage in Michigan, we spied some road signs we thought we just had to have to adorn our eventual dorm rooms. They were Michigan I-69 signs, and, my, wouldn’t those be a wonderful homage to us, members of the class of 1969?
Shrouded by midnight darkness and armed with enough stealth, agility and some wrenches, we worked our way down a lightly traveled stretch of the interstate and secured seven signs, later divvying them up.
One of those along was a good LCC pal and my future freshman roommate, because both of us had already been accepted at Miami University.
Of course, we bragged about our acquisitions and even allowed some of the signs to be used on a few pages of our high school yearbook, so our purloined fruits could be viewed in perpetuity. Should you have access to a 1969 LCC Flame, thumb through the pages, and you’ll see the signs.
Despite our willingness to share the stories of our adventure with so many others, my future roommate and I weren’t foolish enough to share the sordid tale of theft with our parents, so, come the fall, we needed a way to get the signs to Miami. Surely, we couldn’t load them into our parents’ cars. However, a female student in our graduating class, also Miami-bound, had a very liberal father, who didn’t at all object to loading them up and taking them down.
As night approached the very first day we were on campus, showing the impulsiveness of youth that is often the courier for arrogance and stupidity, we couldn’t wait to get over to her dorm on the opposite end of campus, get the signs and get our trophies back to our room and prepare to be envied by all who would engender our friendship.
On the way back, we weren’t able to stick to the shadows enough on a campus we barely knew and were apprehended by campus security officers. Much of our first night was spent at the campus security station.
We were both justifiably terrified when calls were made home to tell two sets of parents that their knucklehead sons had managed to see the inside of the university police station before they’d managed to see the inside of their first classrooms. Additional calls were made to the Dean of Student Affairs and the Michigan Department of Transportation.
Fortunately, as a result of adults who saw the theft of our signs, instead of the federal offense that it technically was when we crossed state lines to get them to Ohio, as the actions of youthful miscreants who really didn’t have malicious intent, our punishments were light. We were required to send the signs back and pay shipping, and we were placed on social probation (think of a grounding when we were supposed to be in our dorm room when not in class or the dining hall) for our first quarter.
However, sadly for the young man who sits alone and terrified in a hard labor camp, these are different times than my time and his is a far different and far more hostile place.
As many of you will, I’ll pray for his release in the very near future.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News and Our Generation’s Magazine, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.