My first memory of streetlights was in a street that had very few. And the few that were there were gas lamps. The street was new in 1948. There were twenty or so brand new pre-fabs. Emergency housing designed to last a maximum of ten to fifteen years for people who had lost homes to the Luftwaffe during the Blitz and the later V1 and V2 rocket attacks. This included my parents who survived both of the latter. Many prefabs were still in use at the turn of century.

When we moved in 1955 to another not so svelte neighborhood close to a satellite village of Sevenoaks in Kent the streetlights were much the same. A few spaced far apart and as before gas powered. One of the lamps illuminated the telephone box at the top of the street where my Mother would go to enjoy every Wednesday or Thursday evening, after we had eaten, a five minute or less conversation with her sister Grace who lived twenty miles away. Often she had to wait while one or two other people had made their calls and would stand in the cold with her precious coins in her hands.

The gas lamps eventually were replaced by electric standards. But whether gas or electric they all were extinguished at midnight, and plunged the village and town into blackness. I loved it. It was a signal. As a teenager coming home from some adventure or other on foot, walking or running up the narrow lane toward home, trying to beat your curfew, and being suddenly without a shadow told you that you were in trouble. I had no wristwatch until I was nearly eighteen and depended on church and other public clocks to tell the time. Hearing those twelve chimes and knowing that upon the last the streetlight would extinguish was a powerful signal.

Fast forward to the early seventies. My Mother finally could afford her own phone and sit on the stairs in our hallway and talk to sister Grace almost at will, but definitely according to budget. There were no ‘free’ calls. The streets were now lit by new sodium lamps. They did not go off at midnight and there was no real night anywhere anymore, and our village became an orange raceway for twenty-four-hour traffic. No longer could I stand in the middle of the road at the foot of the narrow lane, glance up at the church clock trying to make out the time in the comforting quiet and darkness. No longer could a young man experience that frisson of delight and horror at midnight. We now lived in continuous light. Lux Eterna of an unheavenly sort.

Which brings me to burglary.

When one asks why we have to illuminate our neighborhood streets with enough light that a jetliner could easily land on one, or one could easily read the very fine print in an insurance policy, the usual answer is “security!”. There is this idea that thieves find illuminated premises unattractive targets for their work. As the President of the Bob Sterry School of Burglary, I say “Bollocks”. Certainly, I could agree that a thief attempting to break into a well-lit house would find it embarrassing should he or she be discovered doing so by a passerby or a policeman. Ad so the obvious question becomes, at the usual hour when nocturnal break ins occur where are these passersby and these lawmen? The odds against your being spotted as you pick a lock or force a doorway in a sodium light drenched street at 3.30 AM are large. The risks of not being able to find a lock to pick, a door to force, of tripping over a garden hose, a child’s toy in the dark however are much higher. What better environment for a would-be thief than to work on a well-lit target, knowing that the police are unlikely to patrol your location for hours and that the neighborhood are all busy sleeping or glued to a screen behind the shades and unconcerned with the exterior.

And this is why, at the Bob Sterry School of Burglary, we focus our instruction on encountering both well and poorly lit targets and in general favor the well-lit variety. In fact, most of our graduates prefer to do their work in broad daylight so as not to interfere with their family life and sleep patterns. Night work is usually practiced by our more experienced and daring alumni who understand the value of light and the absence of urban, suburban and even rural surveillance.

And now I think back with wonder and amusement to those shadowed evenings when my heart would almost stop as the church clock struck the midnight hour and darkness enveloped me. If it is midnight as you read this please remember to extinguish your porch, deck, garage, and yard lights. After all, my graduates are about and seek the challenge of unlit booty.

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Anglo-American Flag (2)As an immigrant who came to America over forty years ago, and who became an American citizen for reasons about which you may quiz me some time, I too celebrate July 4th as a national holiday. I celebrate all the great things that America has done for the world. I celebrate the leaps that democracy took in the 18th century thanks to the revolutionaries. I celebrate the scientific and medical progress made in our institutions that have led to better lives. I celebrate the burgeoning and continued growth of music and art and literature in America. As an erstwhile European I am grateful for the Americans who fought to destroy 20th Century fascism.

But I am not a nationalist. Like my Father I believe extreme nationalism to be one of the roots of much of the misery the world has endured for a very long time. Having twice lost his home to Nazi rocket bombs he spoke from direct experience.

But I don’t celebrate a past that includes the ethnic cleansing and genocide of the original inhabitants of the continent. Over three or more hundred years estimates of Native American deaths caused by European ‘colonists’ in various programs and campaigns vary between nine and eighteen million. Whatever the number it is a stain. And I don’t celebrate the commercial brilliance of a past that depended upon; and still does to a large degree; the enslavement of millions of Africans, Chinese and other minorities in its fields, its mines, railways and roads. Another stain.

On this day, July Fourth 2017, let us focus on celebrating things of which we can justifiably be proud, have the honesty to accept the truth about the past, and work on making America genuinely the Land of the Free; for everyone.