Told mostly from memory, these words are my look back to a time when dreams were formed, the future fresh, the air charged and the streets rowdy. For a naïve and inexperienced young man, the idea of donning a uniform, carrying a weapon and driving around my small town in an attention-grabbing police car was a heady experience. The excitement that I felt then, even after the passage of forty-plus years, is something that continues to conjure warm feelings and a sentimental smile.
Ipswich had a different feel then. It had to do with the large number of younger people who populated the streets and sidewalks of town in the late 1970’s and early 80’s. The protest era was winding down, the drinking age was creeping back up, and yet young adults nationwide remained dedicated to the credo of seeking intoxication, thrills, and diversion at any opportunity. And like all cops everywhere, I was on the reverse side of this dance card; responding to the rowdy parties, bar fights, disorderly drunks, bad accidents, domestic battles, and all other social pathologies attendant thereto. And although I wasn’t so sure of it on first impression, it ultimately turned out to be a great way to make a buck.
But let me digress a bit, as some background seems in order here. In the late 1970’s, not many young people wanted a cop job, nor were there a lot of jobs to be had. So what attracted a skinny, introverted and unassuming young man toward this type of work? I certainly was no tough guy, and forcefully sticking my nose into other peoples business seemed unnatural to me. A product of a parochial education from the good Sisters of Saint Chrétien, contrasted with an upbringing marked by a sometime chaotic home-life, I learned to value order in my world wherever I could find it while simultaneously rejecting most authority that found me.
When my father died I was thirteen. With older brothers busy establishing their own lives and a mother crushed by grief and worry; I was on my own more than was good for me. This led to some scrapes with my High School teachers at Essex Aggie, lots of underage drinking, plaintive cries from my mother and a close call or two with the law that is best left undocumented here. Not particularly interested in or good at school, I seemed destined for the hardscrabble life or something worse. But there remained in me both a strong attraction toward both peace and order, and after witnessing my mothers continued distress trying to make ends meet for us, a growing desire to attain some degree of financial security hitherto unattainable by my family.
When Pop died, my family had the traditional, Irish, after-wake get together back at our home. As strange and empty as our house suddenly seemed to me, that evening it was filled with aunts, uncles and cousins from far and wide, including one mostly unknown to me; Cousin Leo Gannon, a Boston cop with a gregarious personality. Leo was very entertaining that night, both lubricated by Irish Whiskey and obviously hoping to lift the mood of an otherwise morose occasion. I was fascinated by the stories he told of his adventures on the job, and to my delight, Leo piled them on. Every tale, true or not, made me think of just how interesting a cop job had to be. And although such a career seemed distant and unattainable to me then, a seed had been planted in my adolescent brain.
Among his tales, Cousin Leo also told me about my late Grandfather Patrick Gannon, whom I had never met and who was rarely mentioned to me by my mother or aunts. As I learned that night, Grandpa Patrick had also been a Boston cop and had tragically died from chemical poisoning while policing a labor strike in 1941. Ma never spoke about this to us Keenan boys and it would only be many years later that I would learn his life story and the details of his tragic and painful end in the presence of his devastated family. My mother later lost her younger sister Doris to Multiple Sclerosis, and now with the death of her husband, had certainly received more than her share of life’s grief to deal with. But Ma kept on punching to the end, because, well, that’s what you do.
After I graduated from the Essex Aggie – where my half of the class maintained no fear of failure and proved it repeatedly, I worked for the Ipswich Cemetery Department, painted houses, did odd jobs around town and waited to turn eighteen and be drafted. But as fate would have it, Richard Nixon ended the draft with our withdrawal from Vietnam and I was never called or even processed. My 1-A classification became 1-H, so I continued to work during the day and attended night school at North Shore Community College, majoring in Law Enforcement. I also read a great deal. Novels mostly, anything related to policing especially. One of the greatest cop writers both then and now was Joseph Wambaugh, who had recently published “The New Centurions,” a tale of rookie Los Angeles Police Department officers and their experiences in the early 1960’s. Beyond the entertainment value and outstanding writing quality, Wambaugh revealed to me that cops got to know things about people that escaped the notice of others. Not all of it was good to know, of course, but that’s what made it all so interesting. And like any great novelist, Wambaugh demonstrated a fine ear for dialogue, an acute awareness of the human struggle, and a profound knowledge of what made cops tick.
My classes at North Shore were populated with a lot of local cops and state troopers seeking a college degree in order to attain educational incentive pay. In class discussions, these older guys – all of them were guys then, brought their stories and viewpoints to the floor, animated the classroom and served to further fuel my interest in the profession. They were amused with the quiet, young kid sitting among them and curious as to why I was there. Finally assured I was a true wannabe, they eventually opened up and urged me to stay in school, take police entrance exams wherever they were held (you never know, kid) and avoid getting arrested. All good advice, I might add. The problem I had was that most police departments required applicants to be at least twenty or twenty-one years of age, and for me that was still two or three years down the road.
North Shore was good for me in many ways; affordable, challenging but not too hard, and to my great surprise, inspired in me a life long interest in furthering my education. However, by far the best aspect of the whole show was meeting my petite, brown-eyed, lab partner in Professor Lou Anoli’s Biology class. Who knew that dissecting a fetal pig together would lead to a life-long love affair and two kids?
After NSCC, I spent another eighteen months at Suffolk University. A friend then helped me get a job at Essex County Mosquito Control, which was a step up from digging graves and trimming headstones, and also paid a little better. When I hit twenty, I began taking police entrance exams everywhere, because well, you never know. This led me on a grand tour of New England police agencies; crammed with dozens of other people into study halls, station-houses and academy buildings, hunched over various test papers and filling in the dots with a standard number two pencil in hopes of getting on the list for the one job somewhere that might open up in a year or two.
Most of the exams were of the general intelligence variety, with an added psychological assessment piece thrown in to weed out the obviously psychotic. These psych exams were variants of the Minnesota Multiple Personality test, and after working through a few I got the pattern of the questions down pretty well and bluffed the testers rather thoroughly if I may so boast.
Passing the written exam with a high enough score enabled you to take the physical agility / strength / endurance portion. These tests varied in difficulty, but one would have been a fool not to train as hard as possible to get into shape before attempting them. Some of the test “modules” seemed downright silly. I was washed out of the Nashua New Hampshire exam when I could not jump eighteen inches into the air and mark the wall at the apex of my of my orbit. I had known this was on the exam, but had not practiced for it, arrogant in the belief that a trained monkey could easily pull off this trick. Maybe a monkey could, and I hope it got the job.
The closest I came to grabbing the brass ring, at least the out of state variety, was with the Vermont State Police. The summer before I turned twenty-one, I joined a couple of buddies for a road trip in the country, which included a parachute jump in Orange, Massachusetts. Surviving this experience, we headed north to the Green Mountain State where the drinking age was still eighteen, to celebrate. Near Brattleboro, we passed a State Police station and I asked my friends to pull in. Once inside, I told the dispatcher of my interest in joining. She was very friendly, and as it was a quiet Sunday, asked the station commander to speak to me. He informed me that an exam was planned for the following winter, handed me an application packet, but cautioned I needed to be twenty-one to apply. I completed the application within a week, and then waited another four months until my birthday to mail it in.
The exam was held in the very cold winter of 1977 at the Vermont Police Academy in Pittsford, a town just north of somewhere else in the beautiful Vermont countryside. The academy had once been the site of the State Tuberculosis Sanatorium. As hospitalizations for tuberculosis declined, penny-pinching, Yankee politicians saw an economical opportunity, and the imposing brick buildings were then converted to a training facility for state and local cops.
Early that morning, I stood with another hundred wannabes outside in the arctic air waiting for admission to the building. As instructed, I carried my high school gym clothes and sneakers for the physical portion of the exam in a paper bag under my arm, as well as several number two lead pencils for the written test in my pocket. Sometime after I lost all feeling in my arms and legs from the cold, a very tall State Police Corporal appeared outside and admitted us singly to the building by alphabetical order. I noted that he was not wearing a jacket against the cold and that his corporal chevrons were worn upside down. Neither of these peculiarities appeared to bother him.
Once inside, a stout State Police Sergeant wielding a swagger stick (his chevrons were upside down too) barked orders directing us to a classroom where the written test was to be given. We were warned against cheating, talking, taking excessive bathroom breaks and committing other indiscretions during the exam. The corporal joined in, providing a brief history of the state police, the academy and an outline of how the day was to unfold. Eventually, we were given a test booklet from the early 1960’s with corresponding answer sheet, warned against marking the ancient booklet and at promptly 09:00, given ninety minutes to complete the test. Memory fades, but my impression was the exam wasn’t the most difficult one I had taken, and while still in Suffolk at the time and used to taking exams, I managed to get through it twice before the time expired.
Exactly ninety minutes later, the sergeant shouted at us to close our test booklets and hand in our answer sheets, in the correct order of course. We were then evicted to the main hallway and told to stand-by until further notice while our tests were scored. Following a surprisingly short interval, the sergeant stormed back down the hallway and directed us to return to the classroom. Once we were seated, he stood at the podium and announced, “The state of Vermont thanks all of you for your participation. The following people do not have to stay,” and then read the roll of those who had not passed the exam, which I noticed, included most of the people who didn’t look like me. He went on to direct the remainder to get lunch somewhere and be in our gym clothes for the physical test at 13:00.
The physical agility portion was mostly standard stuff; timed sit-ups, push-ups and chin-ups, and a very challenging timed mile. Challenging, as it was held outside in freezing temperatures on a snow-covered driveway which intersected with the highway. This required runners to execute a pin-point U-turn on an icy patch at the end of the driveway to avoid being struck by a passing vehicle on the highway. I guess it was part of the elimination process. This was followed by a dummy-drag up and back down three flights of stairs while carrying a 150 pound medical mannequin rigged to shed its arms and legs as you moved it. You were eliminated if you failed to complete the drag in time with all four limbs of the dummy accounted for. Mine came back downstairs with one arm stuffed into the dummy’s pant leg, but that got the job done, and at the end of the day, I was told I would be notified to return for a polygraph test and oral board. Whew!
I returned some months later during mud season, sporting my best, cheap sport coat and tie and waited in the barren hallway until a plainclothes trooper called me into a small room. He introduced himself and indicated he was a polygraph operator who would be administering the exam. I sat in a hard wooden chair next to a rugged oak table upon which rested the polygraph machine, also known as a LIE DETECTOR! Facing this intimidating beast with its wires, cords and meters, my heart beat and respiration’s immediately soared as the palms of my hands shed perspiration like a hog in August. This was unfortunate as the polygraph is designed to measure these exact physical indicators of deception.
Looking me over, the trooper scowled and said, “Jesus, Keenan. Calm down! I haven’t even asked you a question yet.”
As I tried to compose myself, he whistled a tune as he readied the machine, fiddled with some dials, strapped the monitors across my chest and on my hand and muttered to himself, “This ought to be good.”
As it turned out, it wasn’t too bad for me. After cautioning that he wanted the whole truth and nothing but the truth, the trooper offered some reassurance that any criminal peril I could face would be restricted to confessions of murder and treason, “We still execute people for those crimes,” he smiled.
A quick check of the conscience for recent indiscretions left me fairly certain I wouldn’t get the chair for my responses, and in fact the questions were gone through with only minimal embarrassment, which is always extremely embarrassing. But I passed. Following this ordeal, I cooled my heels in the hallway for my turn at the Oral Board; an interview with senior members of the State Police, and the next-to-last step in the hiring process. Duly summoned, I walked into the interview room to face my inquisitors. They were an intimidating group; comprised of a distinguished looking Lieutenant, grizzled looking Sergeant, and a skeptical looking Detective Corporal, all seated behind a long oak bench facing yet another hard wooden chair that the Lieutenant directed me to sit in.
Undoubtedly used to interviewing mature, military veterans who had seen something of the world, the Oral Board members seemed poised to challenge and quickly dismiss this flat-lander college boy who thought he could become a Vermont State Trooper. I gained this impression when the Sergeant asked the first question, “What makes a flat-lander college boy like you think you could possibly make a good Vermont State Trooper?” I managed to give my best, pre-rehearsed answer, and as my words surprisingly matched the thoughts in my head, readied myself for the next question. After a series of penetrating, sweat-producing exchanges, where I think my conservative responses on the controversies of those times seemed contrarian enough to impress them that I was not some pinko – commie infiltrator looking to destroy from within, the inquisition ended, and the Lieutenant gravely told me to return to the hallway and wait for further instructions.
Shortly thereafter, the Corporal informed me that I had passed the oral board and would be referred up the chain of command for a background examination.
The following summer found me out of school and making a living diligently spewing deadly Malathion into the midnight sky in a vain attempt to rid Essex County of accursed culicidae aggravate – you know, pesky mosquitoes. Hey, it was a job, and to this day the little bastards and I maintain a mutual hatred for each other.
At any rate, in late August a midday telephone call stirred me from my fitful half-sleep. It was a Vermont Trooper informing me that he would be in town the following week as part of the background investigation to meet with me, my family, fiancé, and anyone else who had the real dirt on my personality. I was to accompany him on this tour, bring him to my haunts and hideouts, and sit passively by as he grilled those willing to admit their association with me. On the appointed day, a sparkling clean, midnight blue, Plymouth Fury Police Interceptor pulled into the driveway with a husky-looking trooper behind the wheel and a twelve year old kid in the passenger seat. Twelve year old kid! What the hell? I suspected a set-up of some sort, thinking the kid was a diversion to get my guard down. It turned out the trooper had brought his son along for the ride, and I guess to keep him company. The trooper introduced himself, and after chatting with my mother for a bit, told me to buckle in and off we went.
The first stop was at the Essex County Mosquito Control. I was later told on good authority that my boss was eager to see me move on and provided the trooper a glowing review of my work ethic, character and honesty, while asking him how soon I would be leaving. We then went to the Ipswich Police Station where the trooper spent a good hour with my, unknown to me then, future boss, Chief Armand Brouillette.
Meanwhile, I sweat out the hour in the cruiser with the kid, still suspicious that he was part of a set-up. When the trooper finally emerged from Town Hall, he stated cryptically, “That chief is a smart guy.” I wondered what he meant by this, as earlier in the year a group of us locals had competed for a single opening on the Ipswich Police. Many were called, but only one, Guy Saulnier, was chosen. He beat the competition hands down, and until the day he retired, remained the one and only Guy on the Department. Chief Brouillette had interviewed me then, and when he asked what drew me to a career in law enforcement, I stupidly answered that from what I had read – Wambaugh again, it seemed to be an exciting and interesting career. He scoffed and gave me a skeptical look which I would later come to grow quite used to, and asked me if I watched a lot of television.
Now back to the background ride. The trooper drove us south to Beverly to meet my fiancée Josie and her family. This proved to be my Waterloo. You see my in-laws are full-blooded Italian, which was the trooper’s ethnic heritage as well, so he made himself right at home; food, wine, the whole shebang. The visit was going well, I thought, while still suspiciously eyeing the kid. My fiancé was due back from work at 3:30 pm, so we all made small talk to pass the time. The trooper was good at his job, engaging and respectful toward my future in-laws. The wine helped, I’m sure. At half-past three, Josie walked in from her job as an LPN at Lynn Hospital. I must admit, she looked quite fetching in her nurses’ uniform. After I introduced her to the trooper, the three of us adjourned to the living room for a private conversation. The kid remained in the kitchen with the others.
The trooper knew a thing or two about closely-knit Italian families and the reluctance of the oldest daughter to move too far away from the homeland. He questioned her gently on that issue, and Josie, knowing how much I thought I wanted the job, held her poker face and bluffed a neutral answer. He then went on to explain the hardships that a cops wife and family would experience, especially away from familiar settings and family love. At this point I must remind you that when I met Josie, I was smitten by her big, beautiful, brown eyes. Over the years that we dated I learned to read them for signs of trouble or impending turmoil. As the trooper doubled down on the family card, Josie’s eyes grew wider and more luminous, then moist, and then a single tear ran down her lovely cheek. Sensing he had perhaps gone too far, the trooper assured her that it usually was not as bad as he made it seem, but this did little to assuage her, and possessing twenty-twenty vision myself, I saw the writing on the wall.
When he dropped me back at my home, the trooper looked me squarely in the face and offered some sage advice. “It’s important for a cop to have a happy home life. I don’t think your fiancé wants to move to Vermont.” I got his drift, and as the blue Plymouth backed out of the driveway, I waved goodbye the trooper, his son, and the Vermont State Police.
I never liked upside-down chevrons anyway.