A Horse is a Horse

The now familiar Waldingfield kerfuffle that spurs a chuckle pits the interests of moneyed horsepower against that of moneyed corporate expansion, all set against the tranquil pastures of 55 Waldingfield Road. The equine crowd has formed a posse known as the Friends of Waldingfield, and has charged headlong against the ORA Corporation’s intended purchase of the property for their new headquarters. This on-going horse opera has it all; money and influence, lawyers, elitists and plebeians, allegations of conflict of interest on the part of public officials, anonymous influencers from parts unknown, and occasional grains of truth.

Admittedly, I may suffer from an undiagnosed case of myopia as I can’t envision what ORA does for business. Perhaps they create oracles, which would be a good thing as they certainly seem in short supply around here. At post time, ORA appears to hold the pole position in this steeplechase, with the Friends of Waldingfield late from the gate and hoofing it off the outside rail. The FOW wants to purchase the property to preserve their grazing rights on the open range and convert the mansion to a boutique hotel themed all things boots and saddles. Both parties appear regularly before the Planning Board, jockeying for position and approval from the judges. The latest chukker, as reported in The Local News, involves the FOW giving ORA a hook and demanding to see their purchase and sale agreement on the property. ORA cried neigh, and the drama remains, as one local attorney told me years ago, the fodder of what makes good court cases and horse races. The smart money is betting on a photo finish.

If the FOW win by a nose and are able to create their hotel, lodging in Ipswich will certainly have come a long way from the days of the original Whittier Motel, Sunnyside Cabins and the tragic Hayes Hotel of yesteryear. I wonder though, in this curious age of the great resignation featuring low unemployment yet no one seeming to work, if the FOW would be able to round up an adequate stable of wranglers and bunk house hands to serve the needs of the mounted guests. Most of the old retirees are already working at Home Depot, Market Basket, or substitute teaching and delivering flowers.

I don’t have a dog in this fight other than wanting the prize awarded to whoever pony’s up the most tax revenue to the town and drinks less water from the Ipswich River. I do know that the rich are very skilled at avoiding taxation. It’s one of the reasons they remain rich. The town deciders need to exercise a lot of horse sense in this regard. As an alternative, allow me to offer a humble suggestion.

As you recall, the Selectboard feared that any future Town Manager candidate would gallop away from the job if required to buy one of the many homes currently on the market and move to Ipswich. They then stampeded Town Meeting to alter the charter eliminating this requirement. Those of us old nags who believed the chief administrator should actually live in the town where they make hay were put out to pasture by a lopsided margin.

To right this wrong, save the mansion, and fill the Town’s feedbag, I suggest that we bushwhack both ORA and the FOW and take 55 Waldingfield through the process of eminent domain. We then advertise the property as an Executive Mansion to house the Town Manager. They wouldn’t get the whole place of course, I’m thinking along the lines of three bedrooms, two baths, a kitchenette and rumpus room. The remainder of the building and grounds we lease to either ORA or the FOW for the top dollar, or to both if we wish to. The TM could receive an extra stipend to run the hotel at night and over the weekend, or get a seat on ORA’s board of directors. Such an action would make Ipswich a trend setting outlier for all municipalities and once again put us on the map as the birthplace of something. The revenue stream would be steep and dependable, and not likely to be manipulated by sneaky conversions of portions of the property to open space. (This isn’t my first rodeo and I know how some minds work in this regard).

So chew this one over and let me know what you think. This trifecta of a solution is better than a tip from a dead jockey.

Tally ho!

National Police Week 2022

National Law Enforcement Memorial Flag

The purpose of National Police Memorial Week is to recognize and honor our brothers and sisters in law enforcement who have lost their lives in the service of the public. Although this memorial period remains largely ignored by that same public, it serves as a poignant reminder to active and retired members within the police service of the unique and sometimes dangerous challenges inherent in their chosen profession. By remembering the fallen, we can reflect upon the importance of duty in the face of danger, the sacrifice made by those no longer with us, and the burdens carried by their families and loved ones. As reminded by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, it’s much more important to honor how those officers lived, not how they died.

In my career, I was blessed and remain forever thankful to have worked among genuine, down to earth, committed cops who possessed integrity and common sense and who understood their role in society . Some were hard charges in their approach, and others were laid back, but all went about their duty just trying to do the next right thing. The occasional miscreant was as rare as a Massachusetts politician with courage and integrity.

When speaking with other retired cops of my era, we often agree that we were fortunate to serve in the period that we did – anywhere from the 1970’s through the first decade of this century. Society seemed more mature and responsible then, and displayed much less of the confusion, entitlement and insecurity I see today. People were real; they played the hand they were dealt as best they could, and were not as prone to blame the world for the misfortune that came their way or that they had brought upon themselves. It seems to me that they had more grit, and grit can get you pretty far in life. The laws seemed less punitive and much simpler to comprehend and apply, the public more supportive overall, and leadership less intimidated by politicians, “activists,” busy-bodies, and other noise makers. Materially speaking, salary and benefits were on the rise, with the health, longevity and life-span of officers all increasing over decades past. Indeed, a career in policing meant entry to the middle class, which for many of us, may not have been otherwise.

Much of this seems in stark contrast to the reality of policing today. The misdeeds and crimes of a thimbleful of officers are held against the whole and amplified by a gutless political class, motivated race-hustlers, progressive academics, social media mobsters and sensation-slinging, mindless talking heads from the press, radio and television. Once established, the condemnations play in loop fashion; continually repeated and regurgitated, sewing confusion, mistrust and outright animosity in the public. This is then followed by polls which report, not surprisingly, that public trust in the police is shattered. In this environment, it is little wonder that police officers are leaving the profession at an accelerated rate, and that recruitment of new candidates to replace them is more than a challenge.

In this environment, finding hope for the future can seem a daunting task. And although we seem on the verge of some type of change, I don’t believe that history has ever revealed a particular arc toward any definitive end, but is more of a long circle of new episodes of the same play. Police Officers, like everyone else, have their role to perform in the world, and one which is far more vital than any talking head or self-serving pol. Most folks support and want the best for the police. Right now they don’t have the loudest voice, but like most bothersome noises, the squawk from the detractors will eventually fade and the will of the people re-emerge foremost in the public square.

Until that time, please hang in there, we need you now more than ever.

Rookie Days – Part Two

For the next two years I remained at the bug job – a steady pay check is nothing to swat away, and continued taking entrance exams for all sorts of police agencies, federal, state, and local. On the exam circuit, I ran into many of the same people time and again, each of us struggling to get high enough on an eligible list to secure a low paying, midnight shift job on a police department somewhere in America. It was a dream we all shared, and many of my cohorts achieved it before I did. Bruce Klinger from Ipswich made it onto the New Hampshire State Police; others found appointments on the Federal Marshals, Border Patrol and one even made the gold standard, the FBI. But getting somewhere seemed to be a problem for me; in the dozen or more exams that I underwent, I came close a couple more times, but inevitably found myself left at the altar.

The above sentence is my cute way of segueing to the summer of 1979, when Josie and I got married. As weddings go, it was a winner; a bright and sunny Sunday afternoon, the wedding party smartly attired, the bride radiant, and the bar open. Josie was the third of eight brothers and sisters in her family to tie the knot, and I was the first in mine. Being the youngest of three brothers, you want to be first at something.

After our wedding and honeymoon, there I was, a newlywed, small town boy, knee deep in salt marsh muck fighting Greenhead flies for God and Country. For this I went to college?  Frustrated but not daunted, I knew that there had to be some police department somewhere that would give me a shot. After all, persistence counts, right?  But the last place I thought my name would come up was here in my hometown. Like thousands of other Massachusetts wannabe’s, I was on the statewide civil service hiring list, which included Ipswich. But vacancies in Ipswich were rare, the town budget tight, hiring preferences harsh, and competition keen.

But what Ipswich had was a volunteer Auxiliary Police Force. Originally organized in the early days of the Cold War as part of Civil Defense, many smaller communities maintained Police Auxiliaries to both support the regular force and form the last line of defense in the event of a Red Dawn. Charlie Surpitski, himself just a young whipper-snapper then, remembers many local luminaries and long time Ipswichites, including Jerome Richardson, Paul Badgers and others, filling out the Auxie roster. The Auxies had a well-practiced pistol team, and one can imagine them blasting away in the unventilated pistol range in the basement of the old Town Hall or at various gravel pits in town.

As the nuclear threat from our frenemies in the Soviet Union abated and Mutually Assured Destruction gave way to the Summer of Love, the role of the Auxies transitioned to one of accompanying regular officers on patrol during weekend nights, assisting at large emergencies like the Hill’s Fire, and substituting for the regular force during the Policeman’s Ball and Summer Picnic. For wannabe’s like me, it was a great way to learn about the job, see real incidents and the real people involved in them, and get some worthwhile experience with genuine cops. It was worth every penny they didn’t pay us, and, I thought, might look good on a job application.

I applied for the position through Town Hall. The Ipswich Police performed yet another background investigation into my swampy past and spoke with my dwindling number of character references, who weary of the continued intrusions into their lives by these nosy sleuths, had began to deny knowing me. Then I was interviewed by Mr. David Clements, who headed the CD and the Auxies, and his able assistant Dennis Cameron. The interview was held in the Civil Defense Bunker, a suite of rooms located in the basement of the former Junior High School; now know as Town Hall on Green Street. This was one of several Civil Defense shelters in town intended for use in the event of a nuclear holocaust. Here and in the basements of the old Town Hall on Elm Street and the Memorial Building on Central Street, survivors would transit the interregnum between Armageddon and the Rapture, shielded from radiation by quarter inch drywall screwed to two by three studs, sustaining life with stale water and powder-dry crackers. Little wonder the modern concept of shelter in place holds so much appeal today.   

After a friendly conversation and getting to know each other, Messrs. Clements and Cameron gave me two thumbs up, and provided me a shiny Ipswich Auxiliary Police badge and an old uniform to pin it on. It was up to me to get CPR and First Aid training, but I already had this one covered by enrolling in an EMT course at North Shore. All that was left was to get a pistol permit, handgun, leather gear and firearms training. These came in time, and eventually I was ready to go.

Although I had no way of knowing it at the time, Auxie service proved to be my initial entry to a full time position in Ipswich. Mr. Clements, the man who provided me this opportunity and to whom I maintain a profound debt of gratitude, additionally served the community as the Emergency Management Director, and in that role did much for the Town in spite of scant political and financial support. But this was decades prior to September 11, and traditionally, unless faced with a crisis, Ipswich has always preferred to do important things on the cheap anyway. Dave has since passed, but his daughter Janice Skelton continues Dave’s example of volunteerism as a long-time member of the Finance Committee. Civic involvement runs strong in that family.

For me, Auxie time was fun time, as I got to ride with the regular officers on busy nights answering calls, stopping cars, covering accidents, keeping the peace downtown, breaking up zoo parties, and doing all of the stuff that made up the day to day of patrol work in Ipswich. The best thing was the regular cops made all of the decisions, encouraged me to ask questions, and once made aware that I was a certified wannabe, provided some valuable advice and support in my career choice. Each of the cops was different in their approach to the job, and put their very unique personalities on display during the shifts that I worked. I observed what went into making a judgment call in enforcing the laws, participated in a number of arrests, and began to read from the opening chapters of the book of human foolishness, hard luck, and sporadic evil. For a red-blooded twenty-four year old, what was not to love?

In October of 1979, Pope John Paul II made his historic visit to Boston. Those around at the time will recall this as a big event in the City’s history; with large crowds, traffic congestion, lots of media coverage and fanfare galore. The security planning was immense and personnel from many agencies were involved in guaranteeing the Pope’s safety. The Ipswich Auxiliary Police were asked to provide people for traffic and crowd control, and many of us volunteered for this unique adventure.

A contemporaneous news story from the late lamented Ipswich Today newspaper shows a group of eight Ipswich Auxies; Dennis Cameron, John Hubbard, Ernie Corbin, Ronnie McLeod, Don Powers, James Melnyk, Carolyn Maciejowski and me as well as Bill Buckley, an Essex Auxie who had access to an Austin Prep mini-bus and who drove us in to Boston, all in pre-deployment mode outside of the Junior High School. Once in Boston, we were assigned to the Atlantic Avenue area in the North End for crowd control. But as things evolved and the crowds grew larger, redeployment was indicated. A decrepit Boston Police cruiser pulled up to our location and the well-worn cop riding shotgun rolled down the window. He pointed to five of us standing in an intersection, shook his head in apparent dismay and cried, “Hey, you *&@#$%* Ipswich clam diggers! Get in the car, you’re going somewhere else.”

We squeezed into the smelly cruiser and off we went to our new post; the Boston cops blowing a path through the throngs of people with siren blaring, horn honking and hands waving. The crowds seemed oblivious or reluctant to move off the street, but we eventually made it to ground zero with orders from the Boston cops to keep our patch of pavement clear of people. A little while later, a line of State, MDC, and Boston Police cruisers came blaring down Atlantic Avenue escorting the white Pope-Mobile, with the Pontiff waving and blessing the crowd from his standing position in the rear. The assembled multitudes responded with a vividly wild ovation. Keeping them back and out of traffic was a job for sure, but we managed well enough. It was an exciting experience for us that I will never forget; we didn’t make fools of ourselves nor embarrass the Ipswich Police. Score one for the Auxies.

We also covered for the regular officers from the evening and midnight shift when they were relieved from duty to attend the annual Policeman’s Ball at the VFW. For sixteen hours, the Auxies teamed up two to a cruiser, prowling the town, manning the desk and monitoring the lock-up. The after-action report indicated that the town survived, and the Auxies had a fun-filled Friday night. Sadly, this went away a year or so thereafter, terminated once the Town’s municipal insurer got wind of it and had a liability cow. Insurance companies tend to be that way.

Throughout that summer and fall, I rode along many a weekend night, listening, learning and laughing. I got along great with all of the officers and sergeants. It was a close-knit group in an even closer station-house; just three small rooms in the rear of Town Hall with a “modern” two cell, cinder-block lock-up jutting from the side of the building. The basement locker room had formerly been the lock-up, ultimately closed down due to its similarities to a Turkish Prison. A bargain basement (pun intended) toilet and shower, unreliable sewer ejection pump and jerry rigged photo-fingerprint lab rounded out the floor plan. One fun fact involved the cell block toilet flush-handles. They were secreted inside a closet in the Chiefs office. But remember, this was in the day when Ipswich had a “working” chief.

Later that year, rumors swirled that Ipswich would be calling for a civil service list to potentially appoint four officers. My desperate aspirations panted that perhaps finally, somehow, maybe, my ship would come in and my career dreams realized. At the time, Dave Brouillette and Don Cole were holding down two full-time temporary spots on the job and were shoe-ins for permanent, full-time appointments. That left two permanent intermittent appointments, the type that more or less assured an eventual permanent job as vacancies opened up. Doubtless by now you have deduced that I am by nature a patient, Zen-like dude. Permanent Intermittent status was okay by me, I could wait my turn. I just didn’t want to.

 In early December, my eyes watered when a notice arrived from civil service with instructions directing me to go to the Town Hall and sign the list if I was interested in an appointment. Interested? Josie and I were living in a one bedroom, second floor apartment at Bayside then, and my 67 Olds 98 burned rubber in all four gears rushing to Elm Street so I could sign the list before Town Hall closed for the day. But of course, it’s never that easy. There’s a process; fill out another application; undergo additional interviews, yet another background check, a physical, and then swim through lots of tough competition. The application was a dozen pages or more, and was stamped returnable to the Ipswich Police Department – Recruitment Division. Of course, there was no such thing, but it impressed on paper.

The Massachusetts Civil Service physical exam was held at Lemuel Shattuck Hospital in Jamaica Plain. At that particular period in history, physical eligibility standards had been litigated down to a point where the ability to breathe and walk got you a pass, and potential candidates on active hire lists received a very cursory exam, under the theory that physically unsuitable candidates would later wash out in the police academy.

The morning of the exam, I made sure that I wore clean underwear and drove to the Shattuck. I entered a circa 1950 exam room and waited a few minutes for someone to appear from behind the curtain. The physician contracted for the exam then marched into the room, and on first impression, I thought she shared a remarkable resemblance in appearance, speech, and manner to Nurse Diesel in the Mel Brooks film High Anxiety. Then without as much as a how do you do, the Teutonic MD ordered me to drop my pants, reached a freezing hand beneath my under shorts, grabbed you know what and ordered me to cough! Being a slow learner, my initial expulsion of air proved unsatisfactory, and she repeated her command with more gusto. I finally managed to satisfy her demands, and she let go stating, “Good, No hernia.” Her attention then turned to my hands. Extending my bony fingers for inspection as ordered, she noted the less than perfect digital alignment. “Your middle fingers are deformed,” she frowned.  I responded that I used them a lot, but she didn’t appreciate my arthritic humor, failing to laugh as she wrote something on her form. I figured I was in trouble for sure, and fretted as she continued scribbling additional unfavorable impressions regarding my physicality. Finally, without looking up she growled, “You passed. Send in the next one.”

The interview was held in Town Hall on a chilly Friday. There were six or so hopefuls, all dressed in our Sunday best while hoping for the best. First up on the interview gauntlet was Chief Brouillette… again. Remembering our last go-round, I knew better than to repeat my Wambaugh inspiration and was prepared to swear that I never watched television. “The Brouill,” was and remains a sharp interrogator who never wastes words. His first question was pointed, “So, you’re back. I thought you were going to Vermont?”

I mumbled something stupid about my heart belonging to Ipswich and the VSP being an inferior agency, to which he countered, “I’ve heard they’re pretty good.”

This got me wishing that I was back in the physician’s office, but then he lightened up a bit, noting with favor my local roots, my time with the Auxiliary, and my obvious desire and persistence in seeking a police career. He shared his philosophy of what made for a good Ipswich cop; namely someone who knows the town and the people, understands the law but develops sense enough to apply it with discretion, and who conducts their life with a degree of honesty and discretion.

I didn’t know where I lined up on that scale, but I was sure willing to give it my best shot and told him so. He remained non-committal, telling me that I would also be interviewed by the Town Manager, Mr. George Howe, who as the appointing authority had the last word on hiring. He then wished me luck and said he would let me know what happened one way or the other.

I then walked down the corridor to meet with the Town Manager in his tiny office wedged between the Town Treasurer and Third District Court. Mr. Howe was a bundle of energy; very bright, inquisitive and decisive. He had me sit as he read over my application, results of my one hundred and third background investigation and looked at my college transcript. He asked a lot of questions, listened with interest, and gave me no reason to think I would be appointed. I left knowing as much as I did when I walked in.

Josie came home later that afternoon and asked me how it all went. I told her about the interviews and concluded that her guess was as good as mine. I then flopped on our Barbos sofa, opened a Wambaugh novel and switched on the TV. Around 5 P.M. we were making dinner when the telephone rang. Josie answered and handed the receiver to me. It was Chief Brouillette congratulating me on my appointment as a Permanent Intermittent Police Officer in Ipswich. I jumped for joy at least thirty inches off the kitchen floor, clearly exceeding my miserable performance in Nashua years before. As I landed back on earth, the Chief added a codicil. “We’re short handed on midnight’s tonight. I would like you to come in.”

And thus began the beginning of the beginning.

Rookie Days

   Part one

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.

A Sissy Society of Social Sneerers

Recently, a friend who owns a business hereabouts reported the following to me. After responding to an anonymous internet inquiry describing an automotive problem accompanied by a request on the scope and cost of the repair, my friend and the now identified owner reached an agreement that the vehicle would be brought to the shop and duly examined with a repair estimate to follow. Lo and behold, the vehicle was found to be in a state of long neglect and in need of serious work to make it safe to operate. But before turning a screw or loosening a bolt, my friend then called the owner and conveyed the bad news that the cost would be in the multiple dollar signs (ouch!) and asked the owner their pleasure. After the standard hemming and hawing that any of us would engage in, the owner apparently decided that their forthcoming stimulus check would come close to covering the work and reluctantly gave the green light for the repairs to go forward.

We all hate those unexpected repair bills and even if we possess the foresight to set aside a budget for such things, who wants to break it out for car repairs? It’s like having to cough up four large on a root canal and crown after biting into that delicious, gooey, chocolate caramel turtle with cashews. Wouldn’t we rather lavish the money on ourselves with purchases of other foolish stuff that will eventually break and need costly repairs as well? Admit it, you know you would. But some days you’re the windshield wiper and other days you’re the bug, so shell it out we must.

All well and good so far. The vehicle was under repair and would be back on the road soon. However, my friend, who spends way too much time on the internet than is advised, noticed the appearance of a mewling, indignant, self-righteous screed on the not-so-social media denouncing the rip-off grade cost of local car repair shops (none named of course) and pleading for support in this injustice from the cyber-mob. Of course the cyber-mob responded immediately with an angry array of similar gripes, grumbles and denouncements which apparently made the poster feel validated and supported in a safe environment. It will not surprise that the poster was none other than the owner of the vehicle currently on my friends hydraulic lift. After reading this post, my friend, who has undergone years of anger-management training, took a deep breath, completed the repairs as requested and then called the owner. The ensuing conversation was a contemporary example of meaningful dialogue between two stakeholders resulting in understanding, consensus and commitment to a path forward. Actually, the owner / poster was awash in guilt-ridden anxiety when confronted by their perfidy and unable to muster much of a defense for the whinny whimpering that was posted. My friend, being an honest and righteous business owner, did not tell the vehicle owner where they could insert the post or the vehicle for that matter, but simply sighed and released the vehicle after accepting payment in Bitcoin. End of story, sort of.

Have you noticed that social media has reduced human interaction to a level resembling (I will date myself now) to that once found in Junior High School? We all recall the passing of nasty notes about that certain someone, spitting out cutting remarks behind their backs, seeking support and solace from other ill-intended gossips, rallying the mob, and the lapping up of passive-aggressive pettiness like mothers milk – sorry mom. The back door back-stab is generally employed by those hoping to avoid a retaliatory punch to the jaw, and flipping the cyber bird is merely the latest version of this old saw on steroids. Humans being human, it should not surprise that what was initially purported to be a new way of building social good and universal understanding has precipitously devolved into viper pit of vicious, vituperative hog wash, my friends experience just being one of millions. This bold new leap into the future has set humanity back decades, and I’m not so sure we will make a timely return.

All right, I’m done here. I’ve had my say and you must get on with your day. In closing, please note that any pronouns in this screed were scrupulously scrubbed by your scribe to protect the identities of the righteously innocent and the villainously guilty. It is my hope that I got rid of them all and that my friend will knock a few bucks off of my next oil change in appreciation. In addition, your affiant recognizes the sublime irony and his own hypocrisy (and hopes you did not) in writing a post condemning social media by the means of social media. Doublespeak is all the rage today, and I just couldn’t resist.

The Problem with Plans

Some days it’s wrong to expect things will go as planned, assuming of course, that one has made a plan for things to go by. Plans, as the philosopher has observed, are merely ideas that fly into our heads to support the mistaken assumption that we have control over things outside of our own thoughts. This craving we have for plans is spurred by our innate fear that without them, our lives will rocket out of control and crash to the ground in a loud explosion, just as we realize that we hadn’t planned for this to happen.

Plans are seen as useful in that they purport to provide us mere mortals with the favorable direction and guidance needed to accomplish our mundane goals and lofty aspirations. This is both ironic and comical as we fail to realize that these plans are made by the same flawed human beings (us) compelled to create them in the first place. Similarly, it is often noted that one mans’ plans are another mans’ tyranny. Just ask anyone who lived in the former Soviet Union. Under the yoke of various murderous dictators, the masses suffered a dreary succession of Five Year Plans, which in reality were discarded every other year when they failed to produce anything beyond perpetual, unplanned misery.

Plans come in all shapes and sizes; battle plans, peace plans, master plans, building plans, vacation plans, business plans, financial plans, career plans, wedding plans, treatment plans, and ultimately, funeral plans. These sundry plans are subject to the ambition, authority and supervision of naturally bossy people and those stuffy, regulatory bodies such as Planning Boards, Wedding Planners, Financial Planners, Planned Parenthood, IKEA Closet Planners and Plan 9 from Outer Space. Further, as plans have been around since Noah built his Arc, why is it that we insist upon making them anew, generation following generation? Can’t we be satisfied with those recorded millennia ago, or were those plans written in disappearing ink and lost to history?

Bureaucracies seem to thrive on profligate plans, much like lawyers thrive on frivolous litigation. When I retired from the police world and took a job with Elder Protective Services, lazy me was much chagrined to learn that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Regulations required me to formulate and submit to my bosses a detailed “Investigation Plan” prior to meeting any Elder reported to be the victim of neglect or in need of assistance in some way. Originally, these plans were elaborate constructions of the old “who, what, where, when and why” questions; workable for sure, but largely discarded in the normal course of human interaction. As administrations changed, and a carpetbagger rocket-scientist type from the left coast was hired to revise the rules, this document “transitioned” to an inchoate slurry of impenetrable, sociological psychobabble, detailing a whole lot of nothing and absorbing needless time and effort. After writing a few hundred of these, it became an enervating exercise to create ones with anything new or documenting even vaguely interesting inquiries. In growing frustration, I reverted to the straightforward simplicity mastered by a former colleague; “I plan to meet the Elder, get him / her to trust me and find out what I can help with.” If anyone in authority ever noted disapproval of my retrogression, they kept it to themselves, and I leave it to you to decide which approach was more effective.

Another form of errant planning I am familiar with concerns those made by people planning to be naughty in some way. Now, I realize that naught behavior assumes dishonesty on the part of the planner, but I have found that some folks are capable of deluding themselves into the belief that their actions are righteous, so please hear me out on this. When we determine to do something that we would not want our mothers to know about, our minds shift to high gear plotting the various steps needed to accomplish our deliciously illicit goal. Our misguided ambitions compel us to believe that we have clearly weighed the pro’s and con’s of each move, crossed all of the T’s and dotted the respective I’s. Ever more motivated by our lust for whatever it is we would be better off without, our eyes blinded and affixed solely on the presumed prize, we fall prey to tunnel vision, discarding all of those red flashing lights signalling “Danger, Danger, Stop NOW!” When the inevitable happens and the Judge announces the verdict leaving us destitute and friendless, we sit in stupefied wonder of how things unraveled so completely and just didn’t go according to plan.

Confidentially, I must confess to you the hypocrisy of my seeming anti-planning attitude. In truth, I am an inveterate planner and list maker. I have voluminous lists of things to do for every day, week, month and year, written upon color-coded pads, spiral notebooks and various sized sticky notes. I meticulously record these plans in pencil only, never ink, as I reserve the right to change them at will and don’t wish to feel beholden to any of them. Writing in pencil allows for easy erasure, thus eliminating the potential guilt associated with the failure to execute any or all of my plans. It can be the best of both worlds.

So by now you realize that most of my plans aren’t worth the paper they are written on. Such is fate of the frivolous minded. But perhaps some day I will remember to reevaluate my current practice and either eliminate planning altogether or embrace it without reservation. Stranger things have happened for sure, but at this age, I wouldn’t plan on it.

A Rocky Republic Indeed

So much to choose from, so little time. Riots, insurrection, Covid death count, lockdowns, lock-ups, unemployment, billionaires, catastrophic, unprecedented, monumental, unacceptable, incomparable, typical. What did you expect? Where are we going? Are we there yet? Haven’t we been here before? Is it cold outside, or is it just me? Lot’s of questions, so few answers? What a week, period. 

Browsing the headlines can make ones’ head ache these days, even crusty old craniums like mine. But tough times make for tough people. Resilience, they say, is the coin of the realm. Shag it out and let it dry. Eventually, it will regain its original shape. Or will it? Might the fabric be stretched, the corners upturned and the thread worn down just a degree or two?   

Why all the shouting on a cold January day? Why can’t we all just get along? Is it something about us, an inherent human flaw, deeply embedded into our beings that prompts so many to reach for the sword before the tumult dies, the question is understood, the answer considered? When did we leave the reasonable harbor of civil disagreement and sail into the angry sea of accusation, demonization, and ultimately, hatred of those who have a different idea than us? Beats me, I don’t know much about these things. I guess we never saw it coming. But did we see it coming, and just choose to ignore what was right in front of us?

For at least half of my time on earth, the temperature in America has been rising in ways not attributable to climate change. Pick your poison, name your cause; endless war, taxes, migration, economic disparity, job loss, debt, too much education, too little education, racism, elitism, liberalism, conservatism, progressivism, fascism, socialism, patriotism, environmentalism. Did I miss an ism? Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, All Lives Matter. It doesn’t matter. Stake your ground; plant your lawn sign, fly your flag and flip the bird to those who see it differently than you. It’s the new American way.

When the Founders were endeavoring to create a more perfect union and not a perfect union, James Madison, both knowledgeable of civilization and human nature, pondered failed governments throughout history and noted the horrors that had befallen nations divided. He feared political parties and saw them as the vessel of factionalism and disunity. Madison knew a thing or two. 

We have willingly climbed under our rocks of ideological, myopic atrophy, comfortably sated by a media that thinks just like us. Change the channel and find your ideology. Hug your Rachel, kiss your Tucker, make them rich, but who’s the sucker?  Social media war zones fuel the mix. Add in a generous dash of pandemic-laced isolation, resistance and paranoia. Don’t forget the special sauce offered by our politicians. Rest assured they are just like us, only smarter about how to promote division and monetize discord. The message is always the same; support us and save the country from them. And yet we wonder how a January 6th could ever have happened here.

Perhaps things will level off, temperatures cool, wisdom prevail. Ah, wisdom, that sublime quality we seem quite short of these days. Apparently it can’t be taught in school. We’ve never claimed to be more educated nor acted more stupidly. What matters most to me is that we right the ship and change our misguided course. Dump the extremists, who hate us for our flawed history, and toss them overboard in the same bin with the hustlers and the ideologues who promise to make us all great again, just like we were before. They only offer another reason for us to hate each other, pipe dreams of a past that never existed, and the shallow promise of a future that will never be. The water is always deeper in the center, that’s where the big ships go.

This would be an excellent time to just be good to each other – plain and simple. Especially to those who look, speak, think and claim to be different from us. We all share the same space and time, and that time is very limited. Our only guarantee is our final destiny, and we all get the same one.  And were this the last day, would we think about things differently?

A Year to Remember, A Year to Forget

It has to end sometime. Twenty-twenty that is. What more can be mentioned about this troubling, tragic and confusing year that hasn’t already been said? Your humble scribe offers nothing here of earth shattering insight, but perhaps I can manage a few thoughts worth a sip or two of coffee or another favorite beverage as you read and consider something better to do. Like many of you, the annus horribilis that was 2020 seems to me to have passed in a whirlwind, or better still, a cyclone. The year began more unsettled than usual in America, which is saying something. This might be attributable to having a President who seems incapable of just having a quiet day, one without bombast, controversy, and cross-fire ridicule that dominates the daily news and where deemed safe, adult conversations.

I could recount the myriad of sub-crisis controversies that fired through the preceding months up to today, but I’d just as soon not. It would be too much like binge-watching a tag team of Air Disasters and Tragedies at Sea, where almost everyone dies and the survivors are left to tell the tale and question why they were spared. Anyway, these pale in comparison to the pandemic that continues to rage across many parts of the world, sickening millions, taking countless lives, upending economies and accelerating a societal disconnect and isolation that already seemed well in play. So let’s just say that if you’re still here, you get a gold star. You lived it, saw it, and dealt with it one way or the other. Life has always promised a ying and a yang, and this pandemic is no different. The important question is what is taught by it all and how do we think about and respond to it.

Retirement (also known as voluntary indolence) allows me ample time to observe the ebb and flow of daily life and reflect on how the pandemic has impacted human social interactions; our abilities to effectively communicate, feel and express empathy, as well as establish and maintain trust in others. In short, the things that grease the gears of sociability and glue us together as people. To varying degrees, we are all social beings who require a certain level of intercourse with others (no, I’m not referring to that type specifically) but the day to day interactions among humans that helps make the world go round. Shaking hands when greeting each other, holding the door for others as you run into Cumberland Farms for a cheap coffee and a scratch ticket, looking each other in the eye when speaking and noting facial expressions and body language for unsaid nuances of meaning. Add in maintaining appropriate boundaries of speech and behavior in the workplace, practicing patience with others and those golden human qualities once referred to as manners. Note that the words other or others appear six times in this paragraph, indicating the presence of someone outside of the self.

My sense is that many of these positive social attributes have been in decline for sometime, with the pandemic and accompanying “social distancing” rules only accelerating their erasure. I do not dispute these precautionary rules at all. During the Great Influenza pandemic of 1918-1920, isolation was one of the few means of slowing the wildfire of infections. It’s more than a fair trade, but will there be long-term, detrimental effects? Masked for safety, we currently step aside when encountering other people, eye contact is minimal and few stop just to chat on the sidewalk. Will these practices, when repeated for months at a time, establish a more fixed mindset of self-preservation in society? Will self become primary, and concern for the other be an afterthought that is mostly ignored?

The pandemic has also rocketed a quantum leap in telecommunications and a stunning reliance upon technology, resulting in the abandonment of many traditional worksites for people engaged in certain classes of work and the deterioration of traditional classroom learning. Work and social meetings resemble something once seen on a Jetsons cartoon of yesteryear. Computer screens have replaced faces of real people, imbuing voice with an electronic tone and reducing humans to a two-dimensional image. For many, this new normal is easy to navigate and a preferred way to communicate and work. For others, it’s a pesky, unsatisfying aggravation. Still others, by reason of their occupation, are exempted from participation in this new environment. If still employed, they operate on a traditional, person to person basis, experiencing first hand the widening class distinction and social differential in an economically skewed and politically divided nation.

I also believe that accelerated technology has resulted in a redoubling of group think, with people insulating themselves within their electronic bubbles, reinforcing their preferred notions and opinions, shutting out and shouting down divergent viewpoints they disagree with, all to the derogation of independent thought and the stunting of intellectual freedom. Modern life has revealed that technology has outpaced our abilities to think through all the effects it has had on our society, as well as how to effectively identify and limit the harmful ones. To where all this leads, I do not know.

There must be a plus side to all the mess somewhere, right? This pandemic, like all through history, will eventually end. Deaths will return to a pre-Covid level. Our face masks will come off, people will gather, the restaurants and other establishments that survived will return to greater capacity, schools will re-open and some of the people working at home will return to the businesses that employ them. But when the masks go back in the drawer, will people feel gratitude for their survival, or just remember the inconvenience imposed by the pandemic? Will we return to a more open, honest and personable manner of human interaction and cooperation? I am hopeful that this will be so, based mostly on my conviction that this is the only way that people and societies survive. No person and by extension, no society maintains itself indefinitely when isolated from others. We are created to cooperate with each other, difficult as that is at times. If we are able to recover this notion and behave accordingly, the year 2021 may truly be one to remember.

Happy New Year

Duty Meets Savagery – Murder in Massachusetts

You don’t expect to run into much trouble at 7:30 on a Sunday morning. The Saturday night drunks, fights and domestic disturbances have been dealt with, accidents investigated and any OUI arrests either bailed or sleeping it off in a holding cell. No, for a midnight shift officer, the minutes are winding down to when he or she can sign off, punch out and go home to see the family and catch a few hours sleep. But policing is often unpredictable and occasionally very dangerous work. This seems to hold true no matter the locale of the job; a big city, a small town, or anywhere in between.

Perhaps these thoughts were foremost in the mind of Weymouth Police Officer Michael Chesna as he responded to his last call on Sunday July 15th. In those moments following a report of an erratic operator near a local hospital and Officer Chesna’s encounter with a savage murderer whose name will never appear in this space, there was certainly time for both to consider their actions and prepare themselves as best they could for what would come next. That’s the thing. Action precedes reaction. The bad guy’s get to act, but the police can only react to what is happening in front of them.  The bad guy knows what he wants to do, no matter how brutal and depraved his decision may be. The police officer can only guess and then respond in an instant. In many circumstances, an instant is just not enough time.

Officer Chesna must have known that he was in for trouble. Observing his murderer vandalize a home after crashing a car he was diving, Officer Chesna drew his pistol to defend himself and control the threat in front of him. The encounter could not have ended more tragically. The murderer somehow managed to strike Michael Chesna in the head with a rock. While Michael Chesna lay disabled on the ground, his murderer took possession of his pistol and fired ten rounds into his head and torso. Another responding officer then shot and wounded the murderer as he tried to run away. The murderer then fired an additional three rounds at a nearby home, striking and killing Mrs. Vera Adams, a widow who was sitting in her sun room, simply enjoying another Sunday morning.

Allowed to live, the murderer was taken into custody and transported to the hospital for life-saving treatment. Michael Chesna and Vera Adams were transported to the Medical Examiner for forensic autopsies. Michael Chesna, a veteran, a husband and a father, leaves behind his wife and two children. Mrs. Adams leaves behind a community of friends and family. They both leave behind a vanguard of decent, caring, law-abiding citizenry who today are shocked by this savage act of depravity.

I don’t wish to speculate on what motivated this murderer. Society has debated cause and effect since the dawning of criminal law, and we continue to do so to this day. Guns, drugs, poverty, mental illness, a breakdown in civil behavior, judicial leniency, parental neglect, violence in media and entertainment, etc., etc., ad nauseam. I am sure there are reasons aplenty for what happened; but none in my mind which justify, mitigate or excuse these acts.  Sometimes things are simply as they appear to be. Murder is murder, evil, just evil.

I do know that Michael Chesna is the second Massachusetts Police Officer murdered in the line of duty this year, and the third in the last two years. Ronald Tarantino of Auburn and Sean Gannon of Yarmouth preceded him; all killed with a firearm wielded by another angry, explosive monster with a criminal record. This disturbing cluster of violence against Massachusetts Police Officers, to my experience, runs far above the norm for our state.

Our nation sees a good deal of deadly violence every day. Mass shootings, random killings and many other depraved acts fill the news. We grow weary and immune at times, preferring to look the other way as we whistle past the graveyard. It’s understandable. We are good people. Violence disturbs us. We seek certainty and meaning in our own lives, security and safety for our loved ones. Yet the truth is that two good people are dead for no good reason, and their loss robs us of our belief in a just and fair world.

Most of the cops I know and worked with have never had to fire their weapons at another person. A few close calls during their careers, perhaps, but nothing approaching what befell Ronald Tarantino, Sean Gannon or Michael Chesna. As cops, you think about this stuff constantly, and contemplate on how to avoid it happening to you. Or you just put it out of your mind and think about something else. An officer’s spouse, family and loved ones think about it too. But their fear is different as they can only guess at what their loved one might experience and encounter during an eight hour tour. It adds an odd sort of tension to a marriage and a family. It’s mostly unspoken, but as real as the elephant in the living room that no one dares mention.

Good people know that the best society is one in which the citizens can mostly police themselves. Yet wise folks also know that barbarity and inhumanity bubble just beneath the surface of our civilized world. They empower their police with the necessary authority and responsibility to act as the guard rails of lawful behavior. It is a complex task carried out by fallible human beings who do their best to fulfill their duty.     Sometimes that’s hard, but bad people only seem larger when good people pull back and retreat into their own selves. The act of a good person is a thousand times greater than that of a coward. And although the guard rail of decency may have been damaged on July 15th, it was not destroyed. It’s the duty of good people everywhere to ally when tragedies like this enter our lives and remember that we are all in this together, and there are more of us than there are of them.

 

The time with the Ancient Mariner

On this humid third day of summer, the air was heavy, the skies threatening, the bugs, bugging. So what better way to spend a day off than to take the tin can out for a shake down splash in the local waters of Ipswich Bay. One problem though, this shaky skipper was nursing a bum shoulder, and wimp that he is, didn’t want to press his luck hitching up, pushing off, and hauling out. So a call was made to the Ancient Mariner.

“Up for a boat ride?”

A thoughtful pause precedes a skeptical query, “Today?”

“Sure, why not. Hot day, flood tide, weekday traffic at the Wharf. I’ll even spring for a sandwich.”

“Beer too.”

“Okay. You gotta help me with the trailer though.”

“Add a cookie. When do we shove off ?”

“Oh nine thirty hours, or thereabouts.”

Now the Ancient Mariner knows a thing or two about boats. We both grew up on the river of course, but unlike this land-based flat foot, the Ancient Mariner earned his bread piloting The Howard Fitzpatrick – the celebrated  Massachusetts Port Authority Fire Boat. He spent years cruising the turbulent waters of Boston Harbor and its environs, dousing pier fires, trawling for former close associates of James Bulger, and escorting political wannabes’ through the choppy seas of Bay State politics. Such experience, to say the least, has provided the Ancient Mariner with an uncanny ability to accurately read the waters and thus avoid the treacherous shoals of life.

To prepare for our journey, I keep my promise and pony up accordingly at Ipswich River Provisions. One TCBLT (no onions please) a six-pack of Lighthouse IPA (the Ancient Mariner has expensive tastes with other people’s money) and a ginger snap safely stored with water and sunscreen. A final scan of the skies as the trailer clanks onto the hitch, and we’re off on the quarter-mile journey to the boat ramp.

We’re greeted by the ever popular Dock-Master Ed Walsh, and my heart swells to see him wearing an Ipswich Police Association ball cap. Ed knows me well enough to mention that it’s always a good idea to install the drain plug and ignition key  before backing down to test depth. But I’m on my game today and managed to do these things independently. The ramp is quiet today, so we will avoid the intense scrutiny of other trailer-backer-uppers. The Ancient Mariner is expert at this and in seconds, the Lund is in the water, it’s forty horse Mercury purring like a kitten.

We cast off and make our way down river, passing the milestones of our shared youth. Carl Nordstrom’s old home, lovingly restored and cared for by Barbara Ostberg and her late husband Dick. The flat rock where we would dive into the multi-colored waters of yesteryear (depending on what industrial material was released upriver from the Sylvania plant) and the final resting place of the Nancy II.Things have changed in the last fifty years, but much remains as before.

I’m distractedly fiddling with the cable to the depth finder when the Ancient Mariner casually suggests a course correction to avoid striking the rocky end of Nabby’s Point. I take his advice and bear to starboard. There’s plenty of water, so who needs a depth finder anyway? With a wave to the Green Homestead high above the riverbank, we clear the no wake zone, steer through the short cut and in no time enter Plum Island Sound.

The light wind and calm surf makes a run to the outside irresistible. A curious seal marks our progress along the beachfront. Cape Ann glimmers through the morning haze against the deep blue of the ocean. Clouds roil above, and turning past the spit, we enter the Essex River.

“Hey, I finally got the depth finder to work,” I exclaim.

“Good. Try not to hit that Boston Whaler in front of us,” chides my elder.

Another seal bobs along the surface, this one with white markings on his head.

“Grey hair, like us,” observes the Ancient Mariner.

We back down for the mooring area and glide slowly through Conomo Point. Passing a small charter boat bearing a half-dozen anglers trolling for strippers, the Ancient Mariner ruefully observes the slackness of their lines.

“Amateurs,” he chuckles between bites of his cookie. “Who else would pay good money to go fishing so close to shore. Just stand on the dock and do it for free, for Crissakes.”

We power up, continuing  toward Essex Harbor. The flood has drawn floats of marsh grass into the river, requiring sophisticated and repeated maneuvering on my part to avoid fouling the prop.

“You got trouble going in a straight line?”

“I’m taking reasonable preoccupations to avoid a catastrophic failure of the engine.”

Noting that the sun was crossing the meridian somewhere, the Ancient Mariner helps himself to an IPA.

“Not bad,” he observes.

Essex Harbor swells with power boats of all description.

“If you fired up all these oversized outboard motors at the same time, the noise would be deafening,” I’m told.

“True. It would likely draw all the water out of the river as well.”

We turn and glide downstream. I relinquish the helm to the Ancient Mariner and try an IPA.

“Agreed, these are pretty good.”

“Why don’t you break out that sandwich,” he suggests.

“A splendid idea.”

As we jointly rave over the culinary talents of Chef Markos, the Ancient Mariner suggests a course correction.

“Let’s go through the creek behind Hog Island.”

“They call it Choate Island now.”

“Who said?”

“I don’t really know for sure. The Trustees, I guess.”

“Why the hell do some people think they have the right to change everything? No one ever asked me what I thought. I’m not sending them any more money. Screw em’.”

You send them money now?”

The silence is deafening.

Observing the effect of the flood tide, the Ancient Mariner notes, “It’s hard to find the channel when you can’t see where the sea grass is.”

Looking over the side into the water below, I mention that I can see the grass very clearly.

“Oh, shit. You’re right. The depth finder says two feet, two inches. Guess we should get out and push us clear.”

“We? You gotta mouse in your pocket? You’re the one who put us here.”

“I thought the channel was to the left of the Osprey nest.”

“I think you are wrong. And I’ve heard that the Osprey kill wayward boaters and feed them to their young.”

“Hope not. There’s one circling above us now. But it looks deeper over there. We’ll just ease it slow,” he says as he trims the motor.

We eventually wind up where we belong, but not without an invasion mutant gnats from hell.

“Jesus. What are these things? You can’t slap them fast enough. Get us in open water and make full steam,” I plead.

Finally, we break out into the Castle Neck River and leave the gnats to the couple struggling on their SUP’s.

Recovering our stoic composure, we find the entrance to Fox Creek and slip under the road Argilla. The Castle looms ahead, the marsh a pastel of emerald greens, the egrets and herons magnificent as they volplane to grassy landings.

Noting the obvious, I say, “Funny, we never strayed too far from Ipswich.”

“Look around. Why would you want to.”

“Your right. For the price of a couple of gallons of gas, a beer and a sandwich, it’s a little bit of heaven.”

“That’s what I just said.”

“Okay. You get the last word.”