Wednesday, October 23, 2013

WOMEN WHO ROCK : A Friendship Series - #1 - Boadicea in a Black Robe - a Tribute to Hon. Victoria Cameron

Judge Victoria Cameron, courtesy of  Idyllwild Town Crier
Victoria: Cameron is the last person I would have envisioned as a Boadicea or a Judith had I been casting  a drama about Women Warrior Queens  instead of supervising a satellite branch of the San Bernardino County District Attorney's office.  The addition to my staff was an  exceptionally pretty and petite woman whom I met as she was claiming the office next to mine, busily distributing tasteful personal items on its surfaces and walls.  Up to that point, we had only communicated by inter-office email and what I knew of her came second hand, much of it from the lawyer she was replacing, the inimitable and legendary attorney known in some circles as Hurricane Camile. Camelia Mesrobian  had let me know in no uncertain terms that "You are absolutely going to love Vicki. She is not at all like me!"   She explained that Cameron was refined and soft-spoken and would not use the "f" work even if she got assigned to a trial with acerbic defense attorney Richard Crouter sitting at the other end of counsel table. Camile  first met Vicki when Vic and her husband Ron rode up to our  Joshua Tree  office to check its location relative to their home 'down below'. In desert vernacular down below is Palm Springs-Rancho Mirage, any place with restaurants with table clothes,  theaters with upholstered seats and streets named after movie stars:  where I live is 'up the hill'. We have Joshua Trees and the movie set replica of the original O.K. Corral.). They got lost looking for the office and decided that they should stop for directions before they got to Tombstone, Arizona, so they asked at the Sheriff's Office. A deputy pointed to a small door with a logo that Vic recognized as the same one as on her  coffee mug..  It was after hours but the deputy knocked anyway. "Camile is always here," he said.  After forty-five  minutes of the grand tour while Ron waited in the car, Vic and Camile were friends for life. Months later when Camile learned that Vic was being treated for cancer at a  hospital near Camile's Palm Springs Animal Rescue, an establishment which she disguises as her private residence, she visited every day and has remained at Vicki side through the good times and the not so good for the next dozen years.  
I came aboard the friendship wagon later when Camile went down the hill to Central and Vic came up the hill. ( I almost started to write 'to take Camile's place'  but deleted it.  No one ever has and no one ever can take Camile's place.)

Camile,Vic and I had much in common. We were what was called 're-entry women,' which has nothing to do with NASA, but a term used then for women who had embarked upon second careers in their thirties (them)  or forties (me). Rumor has it that Camile had been working  at a swank salon in Westwood or Beverly or some similar high ticket address in West Los Angeles County when  one of her clients told her that anyone who could talk like she did should be a lawyer, not a manicurist. I had been working for lawyers for most of my adult life, often sitting beside my employer at counsel table disguised as a legal assistant.  Then  judge in San Diego passed me a note  requesting my presence in chambers."Come alone," it read. After I arrived in his inner sanctum, he asked me if I thought he was too blind to see which of us was the ventriloquist and which of us was the dummy.  "Get ye to a law school!' he thundered.

Like Camile and me, Vicki's adventure with law school was a midlife choice. Hers came after her highly successful surgeon husband developed debilitating health issues following a brutal mugging. At the time they were living in Maryland. When it seemed that their move from the East Coast to the desert near Palm Springs for health purposes was not to be a short term miracle cure, he encouraged Vicki to pursue a career of her own. They picked up stakes and leased a residence in San Diego near Cal-Western School of Law. She was off and running, hesitating just long enough to battle her own health issues before taking up the pace again..

The three of us joined the San Bernardino County District Attorney's Office following an era when   the  office appeared to have been staffed solely with male graduates of  USC or UCLA who were  sworn Lakers fans. I heard the term "Consent Decree" mentioned but I never knew for certain if that was why so many of the newbies wore skirts. (Even in the '80's  there were rules against women in trouser suits in courtrooms. Hillary would not have had  a chance. ). Camile came a few years after me, and Vic arrived at the millennium cusp. When she was hired she had requested eventual assignment to the Morongo Basin office because it is only a forty minute drive from Palm Desert to Joshua Tree, albeit on an entirely different planet. (Palm Desert has El Paseo Drive, the desert's answer to  Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills: Morongo has a Super Walmart. Restaurants in the Low Desert have valet parking. The only valet parking parking service in Morongo occurs when a tow truck driver gets called to the scene of a DUI arrest). Her request for a Morongo placement  was greeted by management with the same enthusiasm as if she had been offering the RNC a foolproof plan to carry California in the next election. Morongo had not been a preferred assignment until they changed the rule that was in place when  I joined the staff . Back then, you had to live here in order to work here. Most lawyers preferred a site near concert halls and sports arena. Our  idea of team sport is when it's Cowboys vs  Marines in touch football at Luckie Park in 29 after the bars close.

So much for  a thumbnail sketch of  what I knew of Vicki when I entered her office to welcome her to our staff.  Her reply was startling. She took my hands, both of them,and stared at me with her beautiful and incredibly liquid aquamarine eyes. "I hope you do not think you are getting damaged merchandise," she said. In an instant I realized  how profoundly Victoria's fight with cancer  had redefined her image in her own eyes. Then she smiled. "I am a fighter," she said, as much for herself as for me.

That afternoon the presiding Morongo judge called me to chambers. When I entered he was grinning. "What a lovely woman!" he exclaimed. "She visited with me for half an hour and did not use the 'f-word' even once." Later than day she took over the case that was the office hot potato - a child murder that I was criticized for issuing.  The attorney who handed it off to her nearly kissed me on his way out the door that evening. The next morning Vic appeared waving the file.  "I can win this," she said.  And she did. It was the first in a parade of tough cases that Vic took to trial and won. Her style was different from mine. I used six-guns. She swatted them down with a velvet glove. In all other respects, we are sisters of the spirit..

When I retired I knew that things would change for her and I hoped for the better.  She left to go to Riverside County where she soon was named Prosecutor of the Year. Not long after, Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed her to the bench. Even with her assignment to a busy Indio court, she always made time for me. She and Camile and  colleagues Laura and Karen  made sure I had regular dinners out when I became my husband's care-giver. She and Camile did not laugh at me for embarking on a new career as a novelist at age 70.  Below is a prototype cover of a book I tentatively call Hurricane Camile and the Morongo Blonds. The finished cover has the faces blurred on the innocent. Camile and I are willing to bite the bullet or fall on  our swords .I will finish it as soon as I am certain none of the others plan to sue me. (Relax, David Simon. The hero without the cape is not you.  I modeled him after Woody Allen).

Now my soul sister is fighting a rematch in her battle against cancer with the same dedication, enthusiasm for the challenge and constant grace that is her hallmark.  As you read this,  say a prayer or send your good thoughts and wishes to Hon. Victoria E.Cameron, the champion of so many child victims and  my constant friend.  My wish for all who read this is that you each have a Victorian Cameron in your life. 


Becky, Linda, Camile, Vic and Laura  at The Yardhouse in Rancho Mirage.2012


Once a month  I am going to post a tribute to a special friend of mine. Tune in next time for a view of the  Hurricane from the eye of the storm.  Look for it!



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