Though both in Missouri, Ferguson and Langdon are worlds apart. Richard Oswald can’t imagine giving a police officer a reason to point a gun at him. But maybe Michael Brown couldn’t either.
Missouri has been in the news, so I suppose it’s natural for folks to ask me about events in Ferguson. The first thing to know is that Langdon is about as far as you can get from that St. Louis suburb and still remain in Missouri. Go any father, and you’re in Iowa or Nebraska.
We’re in the same state, but it’s different. Take for example, the composition of the people who live here.
All my ancestors traveled to northwest Missouri one by one, escaping Irish potato fields or the German empire.
One great-great grandfather, an Irishman named Casey, as family legend has it, helped escaping slaves get on up the road north 30 miles to Nebraska City, Nebraska. History recalls it as John Brown’s underground railway.
The place where it happened, grandfather’s house, still stands a mile or so from mine.
Of course, I wasn't around in great-great grandpa’s day. I never got to see it. So, near as I can remember, the first African American I saw in real life was a porter standing in the doorway of the Burlington Zephyr passenger train passing through Langdon station on its way to Omaha.
And in the ’50s and early ’60s, Gypsies came through once or twice a year, sometimes camping south of town. They sure seemed different.
That sums up the diverse racial and ethnic experience of a north Missouri farm boy.
Today our community is almost the same as we were when I was born more than six decades back. Racial mix here is status quo. And no matter how many healthy babies we birth, this is one of those corners of the world where, in spite of all the good things we have going, the human population shrinks instead of grows.
We're winning the race to the bottom, at least with the size of our population.
Not surprisingly, law enforcement issues are different here than they are in the more populated parts of the state. Occasionally, we hear of police confrontation with someone here. That may involve use of force or a car chase. It’s generally someone from out of town. A little farther away there are more shootings now than ever before in old-timey Zephyr destinations like Omaha and Kansas City.
But we don't have that here.
In the ’60s when I was a teenager, some friends and I heard a commotion half a mile away at a neighboring house in the country. It was a rental. We didn't know the folks who lived there, but they seemed to be fighting. They were pretty loud or we wouldn't have heard them.
We had to check it out.
When we got there, we saw a guy and a gal arguing. About that time an older guy came out of the house carrying a shotgun. He told us to “Git!” So we went back to my girlfriend’s house and called the sheriff. When a deputy arrived, we described what happened and followed him over in case he needed our “help.”
When the deputy arrived on the scene, the first thing he did was ask the old man if that shotgun was loaded. “No” was the sullen reply.
“You put that back in the house right now,” the deputy said.
And the man did.
I’d like to think the deputy would have handled the situation the same way if the man with the shotgun was a different race. But I can’t know for sure. And so much else has changed since the 1960s.
But when I think of the men and women who enforce the law here, I can't imagine them pointing a gun at me. That’s mostly because I would never consider giving them reason to. Maybe Michael Brown in Ferguson didn’t think he gave police a reason, either.
We just don’t have many violent run-ins with law enforcement in this part of Missouri.
The rules seemed simpler when I was growing up. Dad always said: “Never point a gun at something you don't intend to shoot. Never shoot at anything you don't intend to kill. And never point a gun at another human being.”
Words to live by – and to stay alive by.
Some of the kids around here wear a T-shirt with a single inscription in capital letters:
Maybe that’s a rural thing, too.
When I imagine my local law enforcement in a place like Ferguson, Missouri, I would want them to be careful. Cities are home to many more types of people than we have here. Police are far less likely to know individuals and families, the way they do here. It must be difficult for the officers who work there every day.
But whatever conditions they work under, I cannot imagine any of the people who keep my rural community safe shooting an unarmed teenager as he runs away, let alone as he tries to surrender.
To me, that's the difference between here and there. It's not a racial thing. It’s a human thing. Police officers are expected to protect life. Granted, one of the lives they must protect is their own. But I think if the black teenager who was shot six times and killed in Ferguson had been here in this part of Missouri, things might have turned out different.
If he stole something, assaulted someone, resisted arrest or broke the law in some other way, he would be in jail the same as anyone.
But he would probably be alive.
Rural places are not without violence, and they are far from perfect. But, perhaps because I live in a place with a dwindling population, I’d like to think we hold every life precious. That's because we really don't have that many to lose.
Richard Oswald, a fifth generation farmer, lives in Langdon, Missouri, and is president of the Missouri Farmers Union.