That morning, a May Saturday, when Fernando “Fred” Norstrand first put on the police uniform, solid blue deep as a line of defense, bright buttons shining gold-like running down the front straight as ideas cemented in his mind, his wife stood in the bathroom doorway in open admiration of the new spectacle. He had only recently taken off a Navy uniform, discharged from service because of injury. They loved each other that morning with a new and silent abandon, their baby son still asleep, the day already lopsided in their favor, and the man of the house about to start a new job. He had been appointed as a special policeman of the town, assigned to the lone local theater to keep the kids in line, Saturday being the toughest start of all; popcorn, noise, kids away from parental control, let loose from their homes, very different from the few homes he’d visited during Pacific duty and the home he had grown up in.
Later that day of original assignment, after the precious morning session of sworn devotion with his wife, Officer Fred Norstrand strode down one aisle of the State Theater shushing kids in their unabashed and eruptive glee, pointing at noisy occupants in corner seats who were tossing pop corn at others, then he sauntered up the other aisle. He’d remember faces, voices, the tones that twirled or sailed in some of them, not like gladiators on the Roman freeway, but the massed audience of revelers.
It was May 11th, 1946, the second Saturday of the month, and many veterans were home from the war that didn’t end all wars, and his early enjoyment at the younger brood on the loose soon swung into a quick realization that the job could be in a better environment, such as tending a legal offspring of a beano or bingo game, mothers and grandmothers prime examples of gambling on the high hog. It wasn’t that he tired of the kids … he just felt crime prevention would take him to another venue and would require more attention; he wanted to serve his town in the most serious manner, be of importance no matter the distance between the irregularities, the sins, the illegal torments upon the soul itself.
Fernando Norstrand realized, that first day on the new job, that another calling was coming his way, but in the same uniform: they just had to use him better, that’s all there was to it. Gladys had hinted at it, even in the throes of their late morning passion, knew something was missing, knew what her husband wanted and needed. He had paid his dues.
“Fred,” she said, in unprovoked admiration and anxiety, “I’ll bet someday you’ll catch gangsters or kidnappers or robbers right in the act of their crimes. This town will know you, celebrate you as a hero, run a parade for you. Banners will snap and flow for you. I don’t just dream that, I feel it in my bones,” and she nudged him and added, “and you know my bones don’t make any excuses for anything good, or bad…” and she laughed as only she could laugh, caught up the way she was in the midst of a love flooding her senses. “You look splendid in your uniform. It fits you like a model or a hero’s wearing it, like you just hopped out of a comic book into my lap.” Her head shook in wondering admiration and the hug following was as delicious as it was spontaneous, and energetic, filled with all the extras she carried about with her.
In a softened voice, a voice of adjudication, of the most relevant sort, she added, “I am most happy to be yours.” She let it settle for a while, before she added, “All yours.” It was enough for a month, and July came with a small vacation and then extra heavy days, and more kids and more noise and the manager of the theater demanding “more be done” to quiet the little monsters.
The officer of the day, of the theater, of the matinees upon matinees, came to know many of the attendees, especially the very quiet and the very troublesome …the noisy one or the noisy group. the scramblers, the seat stealers … and they came to know him, as the theater went from noisy to an attendant silence, by his hand and presence, by a really good movie, a new character taking hold of the audience, on and off the screen.
He sometimes told Gladys about the children of her friends, how they responded to him, how they showed manners and civility, and managed to be discreet about the troublesome ones. This approach of his settled on her with a question that sat in her mouth, being twisted before she asked it, a small doubt making way with her: “Is it so quiet that there’s no trouble at all? That it shall always be quiet when you are in place in your blue uniform and the shiny badge? You’re all the law they know in the theater besides what they bring with them,”
That discussion, those harmless questions, happened the same day everything went topsy turvy for them. It was late in August, the theater calm and quiet for the suspenseful hour of a film, when the silence was shattered by screams from the back door of the theater, the emergency exit, the exit where he knew a few of the boys managed to sneak into the theater.
Terror itself came affixed to the screams. Help! Help! Teddy fell in the brook and he can’t swim! Help! Help!”
Norstrand realized that Penny Brook, originating at Stevens Pond high off the Turnpike, ran right under the theater and came out on the opposite side of the street, across from the theater’s front entrance, and headed off to the Saugus River and the Atlantic Ocean. Across the flow of the brook, somewhere under the theater, in those deep confines, there was an iron grate that the boy might never get through … if he got that far.
Tearing off his blue uniform jacket, his blue tie, Norstrand screamed to all in hearing distance, “Call the police! Call the fire department.” Then he dove into the brook and went out of sight under the building. Momentarily in the water he thought he should have shouted, “Call my wife and call Teddy’s mother!” But he knew he couldn’t yell it out now because little room showed above his head and the bottom of the structure above him, perhaps no more than six or eight inches in which to catch one’s breath. He wondered if Teddy realized it, if he had tried to breathe or scream in the scramble and the tight casing about him. His prayers were silent on that point as he drew in a mouthful of foul air, felt a stick floating near him, making him wonder if such debris piled up under the theater. He had never heard of any flooding within the theater, not in his two dozen years in the town, minus his two years in the Pacific.
The movement of a few rats caught his attention as they ran along a gutter-like swale on top of each wall carrying the water, providing additional free passage for an extra high flow of Penny Brook bound for the Atlantic Ocean. He splashed wildly at the rats, trying to drive them away; neither him nor the boy needing foul bites from them, curse on top of curses.
Somewhere, from out of a weird origin that glowed in his past, like multi-fast action slides, he saw himself in another body of water, perhaps off Okinawa or Eniwetok or Saipan, scrabbling to find a grip on a floating device of any kind, his breath in-drawn and scratching for room that wasn’t there, his feet stretching to find the sand under him leading to a beach covered with death, the silence about him thick as a drum beat, heavy as sin, and blood leaving his body in a frenzy. Now, beside all this, beside the new job and its responsibilities, there was Gladys and his new son; now there was this lone boy and he was the lone savior. In the lot of those he knew, those he served with, he had been chosen for this duty, him alone in the whole lot. No other possibility existed; he had been tagged; he was it!
He was, except for Teddy, alone in all this, but a surge came upon him, a supreme sense of energy, a rush, and company was at hand; comrades make way for comrades in spite of aches and pains and the awful straits life imposes on a single soul.
And from an immeasurable distance, faint as a whisper, he heard shipmate Brasko call his name, as he had done on that other situation, “Pull, Teddy, pull. I’ll have you in a few seconds, but pull! Pull!” And Paulie Brasko was long gone past that swim, lit up by an explosion that could have been a mile wide and a mile deep, but without measure was forever and then some, taking Paulie with it into the forever.
The new energy came on him, a surge of it hustling through his body, through his arms and his legs where the endless weights hung on like leeches. But the blue he wore was holding its own in the new part of his new life.
As he splashed, his hands, sometimes his bony elbows, hit the overhead in the tight confines, the rats continuing their dashing runs, as he finally caught a sense of bright light far ahead of him … which he calculated in haste to be somewhat more than the width of the street … and he couldn’t even begin guess its width …and which, because of the grate, meant little to either of them. Salvation was behind them, not ahead.
And in that splash of light he saw the boy clinging against the grate, and splashing in his panic.
An excellent swimmer, in the water off two vessels in the Pacific remembered now in a dark light, the special police officer clutched at the boy, caught him in an iron grip, and took in a full deep breath.
“Keep your head up, Teddy,” he said in quiet command. “Keep your mouth above the water. Breathe when you can regardless of the smell and keep your head up, keep it away from the water. I’ll have to haul you back out the way you came in here.” A picture of Teddy’s mother came to him quickly, and left as quickly as it had come. He didn’t know the boy’s father who was still someplace in Europe, part of the occupation forces in Germany.
With one hand holding the boy under an armpit, he hauled his way along the slow flow of Penny Brook by grasping the edge of the curved swale at the top of one wall. The rats continued their scurrying, their threat, and the boy started paddling with one hand, pushing with the flow. By degrees the pair struggled into the light of day at the back end of the theater, three firemen jumping into the brook to aid them, the crowd, now by the hundreds, cheering them on.
So, just to cheer you up on the occasion of this summation, I ought to mention here that Fred Norstrand became, in due time, the Chief of Police, after faithful and bounden service, after studying the book on his work, after catching several thieves at their tasks, after his son also became a policeman, and adding the further note that the State Theater is long gone down the road though Penny Brook, where a dear friend lost her life in a midnight tragedy, where my growing sons learned to “leap tall buildings at a single bound,” and leap the brook from bank to bank, still ambles its silent, twisted and torturous way to the Atlantic Ocean.
Banner Image: By Dickelbers (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons