by Gavin Keenan. Photo of Middle Ground by Susan Stone
Nearly one year ago, retired Ipswich Police Officer Charlie Schwartz died in his adopted state of Florida at the age of seventy-four. His passing represented a great loss not only to his family and community, but also to the Ipswich Police fraternity who worked with him for so many years. Charlie was one of life’s originals, fully formed and brimming with lots of vinegar and that other stuff too. For the last decade or more of his career in Ipswich, Charlie was the one and only Harbor Patrol Officer. In that role from May to October (or longer if he could finagle it) Charlie was the voice of authority on the Ipswich River and all territorial waters appurtenant thereto.
Charlie ran a one-man show. And in truth, he did a very good job of keeping the peace and assuring the safety of the boaters and beach-goers who swarm Ipswich every summer. Anyone who ventures forth on a hot July weekend can attest to the number of boaters with elevated blood alcohol levels who cruise the coastline and inhabit the sand bars. (Bar being the operative word here.) Charlie’s razor-sharp tongue, deep Jersey baritone and hair-trigger wit kept the worst transgressors in line. The rest he left alone.
Sunday, July 3, 2005 grew sunny and hot in Clamtown. It was the mid-point of the long holiday weekend; which for some commenced the previous Friday or even sooner, and would surely extend to a hangover Tuesday. I was, as Joe Friday liked to say, “Working the day watch out of Bunko.” Actually, it was the 8-4 out of Ipswich. I was lucky to be working with an able and ready crew, essentially those officers and dispatchers who like me, were unable to connive the day off. Minimum staffing was the rule, or what we liked to refer to as beefing down for the holidays.
Charlie was assigned an assistant for the long weekend. This was a sought-after gig. For not only was the budget flush with overtime money at the start of the fiscal year, but the opportunity to work with “The Man” was considered by many just too good to pass up. You needed to be “Harbor Qualified” to participate though. Essentially this meant that you were able to swim and willing to do what Charlie told you to and never breathe a word about it to anyone, ever. Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote. Then there were the rest of us, the ground forces assigned to old-fashioned street patrol. The dog-faces carrying out the mundane day-to-day of small town policing; traffic control, domestic rows, parking complaints, fireworks fusillades, cattle stampedes and the like.
As part of my supervisory responsibilities, I would travel throughout the town, backing up the officers at their assigned calls, looking for potential problems, ascertaining which coffee and food shops were open to support the troops. Another essential duty was making sure the poor dispatcher got a bathroom break away from the incessant telephone calls from helpless, pesky out-of-towner’s. “How do I get to Crane’s Beach? Is it a nude beach? Are those big green flies out now? What time are the fireworks?” These doses of desk-bound delirium served as poignant reminders of why I was so thankful that we hired civilians for this job so people like me didn’t have to put up with the aggravation anymore. But once I heard the toilet flush and assured the dispatcher had washed their hands, I was out the front door and back in the cruiser faster than you could say “911, Your call is recorded.”
In my travels throughout all four corners of the community that morning, I scaled the water tower on Plover Hill to reconnoiter the coastline. Through my looking-glass I observed the waterways jammed with so many vessels as to resemble I-93 at rush hour. Thousands of ant-like people were sprawled along our white, sandy beaches, compressing every last available grain of sand. The overflow boated or floated to the sand bars and in Plum Island Sound, dozens of watercraft of all varieties and several hundred folks also of all varieties, had anchored or otherwise affixed themselves to Middle Ground. They were playing mud golf, there was a houseboat with a live band, there were grills grilling, beers chilling and multitudes cavorting. My first thought was thank God it was out there and not in town. My second thought was 4:00 p.m. couldn’t come soon enough.
Shortly after 13:00 hours (one-o’clock to you) I was called back to the station by our dispatcher to answer a complaint. Walking into the control room, I was told to call the Newbury Police as there had been a problem on the water that they needed to discuss with someone in charge right away. I dutifully called the number given and after identifying myself, was met with a tirade of invective from someone associated with their harbor patrol. It seemed, according to the person on the red phone, that Newbury Harbor Patrol had responded to a complaint of disorderly behavior on Middle Ground in Ipswich. (Not surprising) While so engaged, they were confronted by inebriated and pugnacious party-goers drinking alcoholic beverages prohibited to be so consumed on public property. (True enough) At some point in the affray, the Ipswich Harbor Patrol arrived on scene. (Here we go) However, rather than assist the Newbury Harbor Patrol, the I.H.P. had taken umbrage to this cross-border incursion and ordered the Newbury Harbor Patrol to stand down and “Go back to where we came from, and not in those words!”
In responding to this perplexing complaint, and guessing that it was at least half-true, I attempted all of the standard emoluments in my bag of tricks. These to no avail as the caller was as mad as a sea gull in a lobster trap and demanded that heads roll…..NOW! But I had been on the job a long time and didn’t get rattled too easily. I used the last refuge of scoundrels and told the complainant to call the Chief on the next business day, knowing full well that he was away on vacation for a week and that likely the callers red hot rage would have cooled by the time he got back. The exchange thus ended with no fences mended.
I then commenced to gather the skinny on what had happened. Some details dribbled in with the tide, supported by blurry eyewitness accounts, innuendos, bravado’s, whispers, knowing looks and sealed lips. Sources refused to go on record, but clearly, something of note had occurred with nary a complaint from the vox populi. Call it collusion, call it obfuscation, call it whatever you want. But by the time the wheels were done spinning, nothing was officially assigned to paper, any recorded conversations were edited by Rose Mary Woods and the black box destroyed in the crash. Furthermore, as predicted by your sagacious sergeant, a few days of contemplation, and likely a back channel mea culpa of sincere contrition by the admiral of the ocean sea, assuaged any bruised feelings of our neighbors to the north. And after the appropriate passage of time, the matter was assigned to Davy Jones Locker.
There was one document of the event that survived though. I found it washed up inside a sealed bottle of Ipswich Ale on Pavilion Beach one foggy morning while walking my Pot-Bellied Pig (on a leash with doo-doo bag in hand per regulation). The author is unknown, but clearly possessed some knowledge of what happened. Written in blood on bonded parchment, it purports a full and detailed account of this mud wrestle on the sand bar. I presented it to Charlie for examination just before he high-tailed it out of town to Anna Maria Island. After looking it over, he declared its contents, “Mostly true,” and thought it best that sleeping dogs lie until all the players were either “retired or expired.” I offer it below, and include a trigger warning that its contents are a bit ribald for family reading. The fact is, Charlie Schwartz was a beloved and local legend. And as the saying goes, “When the facts become legend, print the legend.” Enjoy.
THE BATTLE OF MIDDLE GROUND JULY 03, 2005 A.D.
A mostly true account of a Momentous Naval Action on the waters of Ipswich Bay
Glossary for those unfamiliar with certain terminology:
I.H.P. – Ipswich Harbor Patrol.
The Chrissi – A twenty-three foot Boston Whaler Jet-Propelled Harbor Patrol Craft purchased without municipal funding but made possible by a generous donation from Ipswich Shellfish and the proceeds of numerous yard and bake sales held throughout the community.
Middle Ground – A sandy, hedonic playground and mini-golf range located in Plum Island Sound between the Yacht Club and Fecal Cove. Under water half of the time.
Gather all ye noble men
And listen to my song.
I know you have more pressing things
But this shouldn’t take too long.
Our tale occurs on slippery sand
At a place called Middle Ground.
Where a hostile force came face to face
With a fierce, avenging sound.
The sun was high, the sky was blue
on that tidal spit of land.
The placid seas, a gentle breeze
And the Orville Giddings Band.
Boys to men and back again
Stand waist-deep in the spew.
To empty bladders swelled with Bud
And other potent brew.
Sun-tanned girls with bleach blonde curls
In thongs expose their wares.
Move to and fro in splendid show
Of little clothes or cares.
A man from distant waters came
With wife and kids in tow.
He thought this was a family beach
But little did he know.
The crowd was chill at least until
The booze got out of hand.
It’s July 3rd, so drunks the word
And a fight broke out on the sand.
The bewildered stranger called for help
But his signal went unheard.
Except by the Newbury Harbor Crew
By his plaintive cry were lured.
They soon arrived to quell the mob
By this orgy on the bay.
And grappled with some local drunks
To send them on their way.
“We’ll show these bums just who is boss
And make them keenly feel their loss
Lets board the boats and kick the asses
Of all these drunken, Ipswich masses!”
But then the savage fight grew pissy
For someone hailed the good ship Chrissi.
That a foreign navy stalked our sea
Sans clearance from the I.H.P.
Our Captain and his loyal hand
Were tied off eating, far from land.
When the May-Day from a drunken sailor
Reached the skipper of our Boston Whaler.
“How dare they breach our shinning sea
Those inbred mutes from Newbury.
It’s lunchtime, and I’d like to add
I’m watching mermaids swim unclad.”
Our Captain was transfixed with rage
A pent-up lion in a cage.
“Cast off all lines and make full steam
There’s asses that I have to ream!”
So full ahead at five knots easy
But not so fast to make you queasy.
The good ship Chrissi roared away
To action on the Ipswich Bay.
Our Captain’s eyes grew hard and steely.
“I’m not to much for touchy-feely.
I’ll show them just who runs this place.
They’ll wish they never saw my face!”
“Heave To! You slack-jawed, inbred yokel!
For I’m in charge, and you ain’t local.
Shut down that blue light-do it fast.
Before I keel-haul your ass!”
The Newbury helmsman legs did quiver.
This wasn’t like the Parker River.
“Hey, there’s no need to have a cow.
We’re here cause you was eatin’ chow!”
Our Captain gave his final order.
“Get your leaky scow across the border!
For if you’re seen here one more time,
Your scrawny, worthless ass is mine!”
Before another shot was fired,
The beaten pirates had retired.
For you know they didn’t want a piece
Of our most famous, savage beast.
The buzzing crowd broke out in cheer.
And raised two dozen kegs of beer.
To the foreign harbor master’s ban
From Ipswich waters by The Man!
Our Captain glowed with satisfaction
On his victory in this naval action.
A humble man, known coast to coast
He allowed himself this modest boast.
“Well, I guess I showed those two dumb twits
They came unarmed to this battle of wits.
For I always have the final say
I’m the law and order on Ipswich Bay.”
Featured image: Middle Ground by Susan Stone