I’m retired after serving 41 years in law enforcement (20 years NYPD, ending my career there as a lieutenant, then put in another 20 with a small town on Cape Cod as its chief of police). Before becoming a cop I was in the USAF, from 1964 through 1968. The Vietnam war, around that time period, went from being a fairly controlled conflict to the brutal, meat grinder of a war it became. All the while, once out of training, I was stationed in Berlin, then West Germany, as a Russian linguist in military intelligence. The greatest danger I faced at work was paper cuts.
My little Cape Cod town was another world after being a New York City cop. I had had a pretty wild ride while with the big-city department; deep undercover, robbery squad detective, also worked in homicide and narcotics among my assignments. Ran the department’s Firearms & Tactics Unit Police Firearms Instructors School, Heavy Weapons Training and Research and Testing. Even flew department helicopters. I’d joke and tell people I just couldn’t keep a job. When I was hired as Wellfleet’s chief of police the comedians around town commented that the selectmen had hired a Jewish Rambo.
Wellfleet, back when I got there in 1990, was already well into its transition from a blue-collar community on the Outer Cape (we’re just two towns below Provincetown) to an upscale getaway and retirement destination for the upper-middle class. Make no mistake, such a mix of diffuse backgrounds can make for significant cultural clashes.
Nonetheless, Wellfleet is a beautiful town, bucolic and protected from development by its being mostly a federal property, the National Seashore.
The “old” Wellfleetians were, even when I first came to town, beginning to die out. Their kids could not afford to live in the town their families had been in for well over a century. Not only were house prices high, but, with few exceptions, the non-professional jobs that there were did not pay all that well.
A goodly number of “characters,” some merely eccentric and a few downright nuts, made their home in Wellfleet. This story is about one of them, a guy named “Joe Tweet.” Not his real name, but that was what everyone called him. He was an oysterman, digging up the much-sought-after Wellfleet oysters for a living. Joe was not a big man, but he had a temper and, the sense I had was that people didn’t cross the guy. He wasn’t a friendly man and my best guess is he hated the fact that his town was being taken over by “outsiders.” One story I heard, and I have no idea whether it was just town myth or had some basis in fact, was that a man who died out on the “flats” (the low tide area where oystermen went to dig up their shellfish), a death reported as a heart attack, had, in fact, had an altercation with Joe while the two were out working and wound up dead.
Joe was a World War II veteran, having served as an infantryman in Europe. I believe he had held the rank of sergeant. One day I’m walking around the middle of town (in a small Cape Cod town the chief of police had better go out and see the folks if he wanted to keep the job. They call that community policing now.) when I bumped into Joe. We were by the Lighthouse Restaurant on Main Street and I invited him in for a cup of coffee. At first he demurred, not wanting to take anything from anyone. I assured him that my buying him a cup of coffee wouldn’t mean we were engaged or anything. He laughed and we went inside and sat down.
The conversation was general, we just jawboned about town stuff. I suppose we were there for 20 minutes, probably no longer than a half hour, when he said, and these are his exact words, “He was the best scout I ever had.”
I had no idea what the man was referring to. I looked at his face. He wasn’t looking at me, his eyes were somewhere else. They had the “thousand-yard stare.” I shut up and listened.
It only took me a second to realize that while I might be sitting in a restaurant on Cape Cod, I was next to Sgt. Joe Francis, United States Army. And Sgt. Francis was, at that moment, somewhere in Europe. It was around late 1944, maybe early in ’45.
He repeated the words, “He was the best scout I ever had.” Then, “All the other scouts, they’d get killed by machine gun fire or something. They never lasted. Never more than a week anyway. But this guy was something else. He was an Indian (Native American). He could find the Germans wherever they hid. He was amazing.” Joe then took a deep breath and with a tone of obvious admiration added, “He lasted six weeks.”
I don’t remember much else about that conversation, which took place over 20 years ago. But I’ll never forget having a cup of coffee with that old soldier, still in a war that hadn’t left him after half a century.