BY CLAUS BREEDE
Copyright is held by the author.
WHEN JIM became aware of his nickname he wasn’t quite sure how to take it. At first, he thought it was mean and hurtful. Then, when he found out that it had gathered traction and had caught on all over town, he got angry. One morning, sitting in the family room, next to the big picture window overlooking Turtle Lake he talked to Connie about it. Of all the people in town, he expected that his wife would show some sympathy. She would obviously see this nickname as being just as ridiculous as he thought it was. Adding insult to his injuries, she just sat there and smiled at him, laughed a bit, reached across the breakfast table and patted the back of his hand ever so gently. The way she always did when she thought he was being overly sensitive about something, which happened more often that he cared to admit. She though it was funny. He didn’t see the humour.
She said, “We all love you honey and they really do respect you. This proves it. It isn’t meant to be unkind. Not at all. I think it’s sort of cute.”
He really didn’t see it that way at all. But over the next few months as the nickname took hold and all his friends and even the people he didn’t know all that well started to greet him on Maine Street with a big smile, a slight nod and a respectful touch to the brim of their hat, with a “Good morning Admiral,” or a “Good afternoon Admiral” he began to appreciate it. He discovered, much to his own surprise that he would straighten up, pull his shoulders back and extend his stride, just a bit, as he was walking down to the Candlelight Restaurant for his usual coffee and toasted Danish with the other business leaders of Portsmouth.
Once the nickname had penetrated the Wednesday night dinner meetings at the Portsmouth Rotary Club, he knew it was a losing battle anyway. He would, forever, be known as the Admiral of Turtle Lake, or just plain, “The Admiral.” It didn’t take long for the incident that led to that name to become part of the “Urban Legends of the Town of Portsmouth,” and every time it was re-told, a bit more color was added. The only thing that always puzzled Jim was that the other main character in this event never seemed to get any of the blow back the he got.
It had all started the year before on a lazy, hot afternoon in late June, just a week after school was out for the summer. Jim really had no one to blame but himself. He should have known better once he realized that Velma Whiteman, the Portsmouth emergency dispatcher and the “know everything about everyone in town” police department secretary was sending that “Baby Blimp,” Constable Bill Oakwood, in response to his complaint. He should simply have walked away from it all. He knew Bill well enough to know that this was not going to end well. But he didn’t do that.
He had always seen Turtle Lake as his own little domain even though he shared the shoreline with five or six other homes, the town public school and the local library. The town had announced a few years ago that they were going to develop the lake’s shoreline into a nature reserve. Everyone knew what that meant. They weren’t going to do anything about the five or six dead trees blocking the nature trail that ran all the way around the lake. The town owned 50- or 60-feet back from the water’s edge, all the way around. That suited Jim just fine. He liked it just the way it was.
No one ever complained about his little dinghy that was pulled up on the mudflats at the bottom of his property. To the few folks that used that nature trail regularly, that dinghy had become a permanent fixture along their walk as they admired the turtles, herons and bullfrogs that made their homes along the water’s edge.
As soon as Jim had made the call to Velma he ran down the street, around the corner and down to where the main road skirted the north shore of Turtle Lake. He figured he would get there well ahead of Oakwood, well before that man would ever get his massive body away from the coffee pot down at the station and into the police cruiser. He was right.
Jim flagged Oakwood down and managed to talk him out of the cruiser. The two of them began to walk down towards the water’s edge and Jim pointed excitedly across the small lake.
“There, can you see them? Those vandals are still there, over there! See them? They’re on the flat roof of the school. You can see them from here. There’s five of them. See them?”
“Yeah, sure, I see them OK. So, what? What’s the problem?” asked Oakwood in a sort of “you got to be kidding – you got me all the way out here and away from the office for this” kind of voice. Velma had made it sound like there was some kind of major crime in progress, a crime that had to be dealt with right away. She had even hinted that he might need some back-up.
Not getting the kind of response from Bill that he had expected, Jim started to get really angry. He gestured wildly with his arms while Bill just stood there staring at him wondering if poor little Jim had lost it. The two of them had, by this time, managed to get all the way down to the narrow path that skirted the edge of the water and ran all the way around the lake.
To folks in the two or three cars that were passing by, the scene must have looked mysterious. What they saw was the town cruiser parked half on and half off the road with these two individuals standing fifteen or twenty feet away, down by the edge of the lake. Bill, quietly leaning up against the nearest tree was taking advantage of what little bit of shade it had to offer. His enormous bulk, at 5’5” and 300 plus pounds in a badly fitted uniform with his enormous belly overhanging the belt with all the tools of his trade dangling from it, never did manage to project a particularly confident picture of a police officer busy serving and protecting anything. Large sweat stains had formed on his dark blue shirt, spreading out from under his arms and down the middle of his back.
Right next to him was scrawny little Jim, at about the same height, but weighing in at fifty pounds less than half of Bill’s mass, hopping up and down, clearly agitated, with his arms frantically waving and pointing across the murky brown waters of that little lake. The passersby parked their cars across the street to follow the drama. Within a few minutes there were more than a dozen spectators, all with front row seats, enjoying the unfolding of a real, live episode of “Law and Order”.
“Well, do something. Go and arrest them!” yelled Jim. “They’ve been running all around the lake for the past hour making all kinds of rude noises and gestures. Now they’re up there, on the roof over there, at the school. That’s got to be against some kind of law, or something. Go after them! Arrest them before they damage anything. They might even hurt themselves.”
Jim skipped along the path, trying to hurry the constable along, constantly looking over his shoulder to see if he was following him. Just to keep the highly agitated little man happy, Constable Oakwood pushed himself away from the tree and reluctantly followed. It was a hot day and he sure could use a cold soda just about now. Once in among the trees and away from the mild breeze on the dirt path, Bill started to sweat even more. It was just a matter of minutes before his shirt was soaking wet and he began to gasp for air. He really had to lose a bit of weight.
By the time they had made it half way around the little lake, approaching the flat roof of the school, the kids were long gone. Looking around, they spotted them standing over on the opposite bank looking across the water at the “Odd Couple.” They were at the foot of Jim’s property, right below his family room window and next to the little skiff pulled up on the shore.
He wasn’t sure, but Jim though he saw Connie looking out the window at him. She was probably following this criminal pursuit with the binoculars. The ones they kept on the windowsill next to the table. Just in case she was there looking at them, he waved. The kids thought he was waving at them so they waved back crying like a bunch of hysterical hyenas. “You caaa-n’t catch us!” You caaa-n’t catch us! You caaa-n’t catch us!”
Their loud chant carried right across the still waters of Turtle Lake. The ever-growing crowd that was forming at the north end of the lake could hear those kids clearly. They were taunting the “strong arm” of the law. Bill and Jim stared at the kids and shook their fists. Bill, in his very official voice, the one he had learned at the police college years ago, yelled across the lake and commanded the five delinquents to obey the law.
“You just stay there! I want to talk to you. All of you! You all just stay there!” And with that clear command, the constable and his “deputy” started off, not at a trot, but a purposeful slow walk, with the little man in the lead frantically waving and yelling encouragement to the exhausted constable following.
Five minutes later they had reached the spot where the kids had been order to wait. Jim was really starting to be deeply concerned about Bill’s health. The constable looked like he was about to have a coronary, leaning forward panting for air, his face the colour of a freshly boiled lobster. The gallons of sweat pouring out of his massive body had now stained his pants. He clutched at his patrol belt with its radio, nightstick, flashlight and gun to keep it from sliding down around his ankles. He hated all the junk. Police work would be so much easier if he did not have to drag all that equipment with him wherever he went.
Bill sat down on the gunwales of John’s little skiff trying to catch his breath. As he slowly managed to get his heart rate to slow down and started to breathe normally, they heard, clear as a bell, that chant coming from across the lake, from the very spot they had just left.
“You caaa-n’t catch us! You caaa-n’t catch us! You caaa-n’t catch us!”
Sure enough there they were, still laughing and taunting their pursuers. The audience at the north end of the lake broke into a spontaneous round of applause. By this time they were clearly rooting for the five young men.
“That’s it! I’ve had enough of the bullshit!” said Bill, standing up and throwing all caution to the non-existing wind.
“Push that boat into the water!” he ordered. “You row me across. I’m gonna catch those little punks! Get your ass moving.”
As far as Jim was concerned, orders were orders and this one was pretty direct. As stupid as he looked, standing there totally sweat soaked and fuming, Bill was not to be played with when he got that angry. With a sardonic glint in his eye, Jim dutifully obeyed while thinking, “This should be good. Does that fat oaf even know what he’s telling me to do?”
Jim’s skiff was not a large craft. In fact, it was tiny and he wasn’t even sure it was his. When he and Connie had bought the house on Turtle Lake, eleven years earlier, the skiff had come with it. It had been pulled up on the narrow beach between the shoreline and the nature trail and he had sort of adopted it. At one point he had even thought of turning the thing into a planter with some nice Petunias in it. Right now he wished he had done that.
The oars were always kept in the boat. Jim had always, secretly, hoped that one day someone would steal the thing. There were only two things with that skiff that Jim had ever spent any money. The first was a new set of oar locks when, on one of his first ventures out onto the lake, the old ones had fallen into the water. The second, a few years later was when he and Kenny, his next-door neighbor, had hauled the thing into Jim’s garage to give it a new paint job and fix the rotting bottom. While he had it up there in the garage he had put a new plywood bottom in it just to make sure he would not step though the rotting parts. He never really felt safe in that thing, not even out in the knee- high water just off the shore. He hardly ever used it. Every now and again he would go out a few feet just to look at some of the bigger turtles that you could only get a decent look at from “off shore.” He had never been foolish enough to row right out to the middle of Turtle Lake, let alone make a full crossing of that body of water.
The skiff was one of those really small ones with a square stern and a square bow. It actually looked more like half a boat than a whole one and it wasn’t much bigger than a large bathtub. He had never measured it, but when he fixed the bottom with Kenny, a single sheet of half-inch plywood did the trick.
“Push, let’s get this craft launched.” Jim gave his boat one hefty shove, under the watchful eye of the constable, while the ever-growing audience over by the road looked on in amazement.
Jim had the craft floating on its own with the bow pointing to the shore. With a great deal of effort the policeman climbed in over the square front without getting his boots wet and, carefully holding on to the gunwales on both sides, he made his way carefully to the stern. Stepping over the middle seat he managed to get his massive bulk turned around and as carefully as possible, plumped himself down on the back seat while watching Jim trying to board. The only reason the skiff didn’t flood was because with Bill’s enormous weight, it was firmly grounded at his end resting squarely on the hard mud bottom of the lake. The skiff still managed to provide them with about four inches of freeboard. The stern stuck way out of the water revealing about a third of the underside of the bottom of the boat.
Jim had to walk a couple of feet into the shallow water getting his shoes and socks and the lower edges of his pants soaking wet. It was the only way to get around the elevated bow and climb into the skiff at the midpoint. That gave just enough counterbalance to drop the bow down a bit and move the skiff off the lake bottom at the stern. They were now floating. Jim carefully picked up the oars and placed them in their locks. With his superior seamanship, honed by several minutes of practice over the past ten years, Jim managed, ever so gently, to get the blades of the oars dipped far enough down to make contact with water. Reverse sculling, he managed to get them turned around and began a slow and careful row out towards the middle of the lake. They had begun the dangerous journey to the other side, more than five hundred feet across open water that was fortunately glassy smooth. One false move, Jim knew, would send them to the bottom faster than the Titanic.
This was the very first time Jim had ever ventured more than just a few feet away from the shore and here he was, making a trans-lake voyage. Not only that, but he was doing it with a three-hundred-plus pound live weight cargo. They only had an inch and a half of freeboard. This was not the time to squirm or try to turn his head to see just how far away from the safety of that other shore they were. The only thing to do was to try to get the oars down far enough into the water and get a decent pull and move the craft ever so carefully forward. The slightest move from side to side brought the water ever closer to flooding the boat.
“Pull, man. Get this thing going. They’re getting away. Pull for God’s sake! Can’t you make this thing go any faster?” was all he heard from his cargo.
By the time they were half way across the lake Bill started to wave his arms around, shouting to the perpetrators to stay where they were. They were only moments from an arrest if only Jim could manage to keep them afloat.
“Don’t you run away now! You stay right where you are!”
As with all the other orders Constable Oakwood had been issuing to those teens, they just kept chanting, as they slowly began to walk away, “You caaa-n’t catch us! You caaa-n’t catch us! You caaa-n’t catch us!”
With Bill’s movements they began to take on water and Jim pulled harder on the oars. When they were within a few feet of the opposite shore the skiff grounded on the mud and seconds later was filling with water. The constable stepped out of the sinking ship, in water well up over his knees and waded to safety while grumbling just loud enough for Jim to hear him. “That was the lousiest bit of docking I have ever seen. I’m soaked.”
By the time Jim stepped out of the boat it was almost completely filled with water and he too made the last five feet through the oozing mud on to dry land. The kids had long gone and melted into the crowd at the end of the lake where their audience gave a huge sigh of relief and offered our two heroes, in pursuit of law and order, a loud cheer of “Well done! Well done! But they got away!” followed by a round of applause. Some of the spectators were heard shouting, “Well, at least no one drowned.”
As the two mariners made their way back to Bill’s police car the audience, realizing that the show was over, had long gone but for the next few weeks the coffee klatsch at the Candlelight Restaurant was buzzing with the Saga of Turtle Lake.
No one ever volunteered the name of the five kids and no arrests were ever made. Constable Oakwood’s official Incident Report made no mention of his commandeering of the skiff and the five hundred feet of watery pursuit. But poor Jim, from that day forward, was always known as the “Admiral of Turtle Lake.”