Many people are intelligent, plenty are dumb and few are wise. The well-educated and seemingly knowledgeable may fall into any of these categories. So too can those who have gained most of their education attending the university of hard knocks. As a general rule in a world where general rules are suspect, I think that we can truly know only what we have either experienced, had done to us, or have done to others. All the rest is simply guess-work and speculation.
While speaking on the phone with my eighty-three year old Aunt recently, she lamented that the more television news she watches, the more she is convinced that the world has gone insane. I suggested that the news is always bad, especially the television variety, and that the motive for this is often profit-driven, ratings based, sensationalism. I added that she may prefer to limit her exposure to all this dramatic doom and gloom and reminded her that she had survived many personal tragedies, heart breaks and other calamities that make for a life in this world. She thanked me for pointing out her resilience and ended our conversation with the observation that the only good thing left on television today was re-runs of Barney Miller. So there.
Like my older brothers, my parents sent me to St. Stanislaus Parochial School rather than the local Ipswich Public Schools. They apparently believed that the discipline proffered by the good Sisters of Saint Chrétien was just what I needed. I did nine years of hard time there, nine years of French (can’t speak a word except eh’) got sidetracked by the “new math,” and spent most of my days gazing out the window as the canaries flew around my head. But I think that the Sisters did a pretty good job of driving a strong sense of right vs. wrong through my dense skull. They also instilled the belief that everyone counts and that no one is special.
When I was thirteen, the world I lived in crashed when my father died at only fifty-six years of age. My mother was devastated, not only by the death of the man she loved, but by the sudden and dramatic threat to our economic security. She found a job and we received Social Security survivor benefits as long as I remained in school. Life went on.
During high school, I was more or less out to lunch. This was Essex Aggie in the late 60’s and early 70’s. A former teacher there once described the place as the last stop kids made before dropping out of school. The legal drinking age in Massachusetts then had been lowered to eighteen, the illegal drinking age even lower. I took full advantage of both. The Aggie campus was loosey-goosey; and more than once we would jump into a friend’s car and spend our lunch money down at The Green Barrel, a nearby bar that served us no questions asked. When recess was over, we would return to school for the rest of the day – or not. Sometimes, we were just too tired.
When I finally graduated, the future was clouded by the fact that I had forgotten to apply to college. That’s only partly true; I really just didn’t want to go. I figured a job or the Army would be alternately more fun or give me some sense of direction in life. I was open to either. However, different opinions prevailed – especially the one expressed by my mother equating those survivor benefits to a roof over our heads. So I kept busy digging graves and mowing lawns for the local Cemetery Department. I also got into North Shore Community College Division of Continuing Education – night school, to study Law Enforcement.
North Shore’s main campus was the old, retro-fitted Beverly High School building on Essex Street. There were other rented spaces above pizza parlors and scattered locations in Gloucester and Lynn. I took five classes a week while working full-time during the day. The day job paid for the night school with a few nickels left over for some beers with Roger from Rockport at the old Barney’s on Cabot Street. I was one of the few young people in classes populated mostly by older cops studying to earn their Quinn Bill benefits. I got to know city cops, town cops and state troopers – all of them in search of a fifteen percent raise, and of course, enlightenment and knowledge.
I give full credit to North Shore for igniting the spark which eventually led me to read something more challenging than a comic book. There was a math teacher who was able to convey geometry in a way I could almost comprehend, lawyers who understood the Constitution and English instructors who encouraged writing. There was also a cute little Italian girl from Beverly with big brown eyes who was my lab partner in Zoology. We dissected a fetal pig together on Friday nights and decided we liked each other. This deserves a story of its own and perhaps I’ll tell it sometime…….. But there was something about her.
Hanging around all of those cops filled with tales of interesting experiences fueled a desire within toward a career in policing. So I asked them how I could get one. They told me to take the entrance exams. All of them. Everywhere. They also told me to turn twenty-one. This second part was a problem as I was only eighteen. So, more school and a different day job. Enter Suffolk University; formerly of Beacon Hill, now occupying all of downtown Boston. Also enter Essex County Mosquito Control. Suffolk accepted almost all of my credits from North Shore. I was able to schedule five classes on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and work for Mosquito Control on Tuesday and Thursday plus a side job on Saturday’s landscaping with Billy Poole in Hamilton. The extra money was important as Suffolk’s tuition was steeper than North Shores.
In those days, Suffolk was a small, commuter school drawing most of its working class student body from Metro-Boston and the ‘burbs along the Boston and Maine Commuter line. Suffolk had no dormitories, no fitness centers or gourmet chow halls. I took a lot of meals at Conda’s, a greasy spoon located behind the State House. They served shells and meat sauce with a roll for $1.95.
Suffolk had first-rate instructors and lots of tenured professors; true academicians in the full sense of the word. I majored in criminology, wrote lots of papers and read text books. I managed to graduate without any debt. It’s worth noting that in the mid-1970s, a young person could still put themselves through four years of college for $10,000. Just a fraction of the cost of a single semester today.
In my last year at Suffolk I turned twenty-one and started taking those entrance exams for police jobs. I followed the old cop’s advice and took the exam for whatever was open; State Police jobs in all the New England, New York and Pennsylvania. Federal exams, local exams, you name it, I took it. Sometimes I scored high enough to get an interview, but most of the “opportunities” ended there.
At that time, Massachusetts Civil Service was stalled by consent decrees, legal challenges, court decisions and counter-decisions. It was an atmosphere of judicial and bureaucratic constipation, with no laxative within reach. So I just kept working at Mosquito Control and taking exams and hoping for something. My erstwhile lab partner became a nurse and after years of courtship, rolled the dice and blessed me with her hand in marriage.
My name came up twice for the local constabulary and in 1980 Chief Brouillette offered me a job with the Ipswich P.D. The last place I ever thought I would land was in my own back yard. I felt like a man on a roll and couldn’t have been happier. We put a hard-earned down payment on a little house and I then left my pregnant wife to go off to the State Police Academy for fourteen weeks of basic training.
Those early years were forever challenging. Working the upside-down life of the midnight shift, being young and very naïve, trying to figure out what being a husband and father and cop was all about. The party was definitely over. I was just a kid wearing grown-up pants. I’d respond to domestic disputes involving people twice my age with the expectation that I should solve the intractable problems they had been living with for twenty years. On one such call, after ten minutes or so of my feeble attempts at intervention, the husband looked to my older, wiser partner and said, “Next time, bring someone with you who knows what he’s talking about.” Flushed with embarrassment, I silently agreed with him.
Time moved on. We joyfully welcomed another child, sadly bade goodbye to Josie’s father and my mother when cancer took them within a year of each other, and tried to live a life of respectable adulthood. The kids grew up, left home, began their own lives and hopefully forgave the mistakes I made as their father. My beloved has forgiven me much as well. We still kiss each other first thing every morning and the last thing every night.
In the course of nearly thirty years in the police world, I had many of those unique experiences the old cops at North Shore talked about. Like so many other police officers that I worked with, I made a lot of arrests, mostly for misdemeanors like drunk-driving and disorderly conduct. More importantly, I learned how arbitrary life and death can be and witnessed the worst moments in many lives; often involving the death of someone by accident, suicide or otherwise. I tried in vain to save some with CPR in the back of an ambulance. I held a beautiful young girl as her life slipped away inside a crushed automobile. I’ve stood on doorsteps looking into the eyes of parents or spouses who knew before I had even spoken a word to them that their lives were about to change forever. I developed great respect for the survivors of these moments and wondered how they managed to move forward. I think of them still and hope that they have found some peace.
I spent a lot of time bored and isolated, too. Police work is, more often than not, simply a matter of driving alone through the darkness waiting for something to happen. Cops talk to themselves, talk to other cops, listen to talk radio, and stiffen themselves for the next encounter. The longer I stayed on the job, the more it became who I was. Opportunities to get outside of myself for a good look inward were rare and if they did happen by, I usually ignored them.
I did the many things ambitious cops do for higher wages and greater security. I attended a diploma mill for a graduate degree in Criminal Justice, but learned little if anything useful. I studied diligently for the promotional examinations and passed them, getting kicked up to sergeant and then many years later, chief. I got better at the job as time passed and my perspective changed some. But by and large, I adhered to the instincts and ethos inherent to the trade and in many ways, still do.
Spinning my wheels in mid-life and seeing the end of my time as a cop on the horizon, I decided to go back to school again. I didn’t want to kill myself with work, but I definitely wanted to learn something useful. So after twenty-four years of working nights, evenings and split shifts, I got enough seniority to bid straight days and enrolled at Cambridge College – night school again. I studied Counseling Psychology, figuring it would be good for what I did for work then and what I might do later. In fact, it was very good for both.
I met all sorts of people at Cambridge, both young, like my kids, and old, like me. The professors and instructors worked in the real world by day and taught at night. The students all had full-time jobs and were mostly looking to get ahead in their lives. One man I remember distinctly was a dignified and erudite refugee from Haiti. He was currently employed as a driver for a group home and was perusing a graduate degree in school counseling. We’d get to chatting at night and he once told me that in Haiti, he had been a lawyer, professor of law and a judge. When the terror came, he was targeted to be killed by the government and barely escaped with his life and his family. He was grateful to be in the U.S. and working hard to rebuild his life. He was a survivor and I was astonished by his strength and resilience. Some things you just can’t learn from a book.
After I retired from the police service, I got a job at a non-profit doing investigations and interventions in elder protection. It’s considered brief work; you get a report of something wrong, investigate the circumstances, make recommendations and referrals and then get out. I thought that after so many years in policing, even in a small town, I had probably seen most of the bad that was out there and that little would surprise me. But you live and you learn.
Much of what I see now is loneliness, isolation and resignation. I never knew that there were elderly people living in homeless shelters or that others exist on no more than $680.00 in Social Security a month with zero in the bank. And I couldn’t comprehend what would motivate a son to leave his demented mother sitting alone in a filthy kitchen day after day, her oxygen line disconnected, her diaper soaked in urine, the doors locked to keep her inside while he slept in the next room. I sympathized with the cop who responded and wanted to punch out the little creep after the ambulance had taken her to a hospice so she could die with some shred of dignity.
On the plus side I get to work with a group of dedicated nurses and social workers – women mostly, who knock themselves out each day trying to make someone else’s life a little easier, their health a little better, or their inevitable landing a little softer. I’ve also been blessed in meeting elderly couples who have stayed together for decades, caring for and loving each other no matter what; their only fear being left alone or how their survivor will manage without them.
My uneducated guess on all of this is that most of us get to make some choices in this world, no matter how small, and that these choices give us the illusion that we exercise dominion over our lives. Then real life comes along disguised as fate, disease, an accident or unexpected event. Our bubble bursts and we are finally left with the only choice we truly have – how we will deal with it all. All of our moments here add up to a life. I hope that when my time comes I have some of the stuff I’ve seen others display. For they are the true grow-ups.