The other day Cam Bergeron was standing in line at the grocery store on the Vineyard talking to a friend about Gosnold town business when he was interrupted by a man standing behind him. The soft-spoken gentleman asked if Cam was from Gosnold and Cam told him that he was. The tall, stately black man said that he had never met anyone from Gosnold but had wanted to for a long time. He needed an explanation for something that had happened to him near there. He then told this story.
Some years back he was fishing the bass derby on the sound side of the Vineyard. It was a beautiful October day, warm and completely still, and the first time he felt it safe enough to venture in his small boat to the Elizabeth island side of the sound. As he was idling up the channel with the intention of tying up at the empty fish dock and taking a walk around Gosnold, shots rang out. Six bullets skipped over the water and crossed his bow. He turned around and motored back to the Vineyard as fast as his little Evinrude would take him.
“Didn’t see a soul,” the man said, concluding the story. He had several problems with what had happened, a major one being that he was a black man venturing into a mysterious, old-school, all-white world. Bullets would not care that he was a well-respected cardiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital.
In talking to Cam, the man learned the shooting had nothing to do with racism. In actuality, there have been so few people visiting or living on the island with any ethnicity at all (other than Yankee, if indeed that is a race) that racism hasn’t had the opportunity to cross anybody’s mind. Here’s the truth of what happened.
Police Chief Biggie Ashworth got into an argument with his older brother Rummy who was visiting from off-island and always acted like he owned the place even when he was just visiting. The argument turned into a fist fight, wrestling match and scream-out all in one. To watch two men each weighing over 300 pounds get into a fight like that is pretty frightening. It was especially frightening to the chief’s wife Edna which is why she decided to take the chief’s .38 police special out of the glove compartment of the truck and fire six shots over their heads just as said doctor from the Vineyard was moseying up the channel. That’s just part of the story, but it did break up the fight because after that both men saw fit to go home and give it some thought. Nobody even noticed the poor doctor.
Chief Biggie knew he was in deep trouble over the fight and shooting. I don’t care how deserted the place looks, there are at least 30 eyes on you at all times. That day was no exception. Instead of putting himself at the mercy of 100 years of feuds and retribution, Biggie decided to put together dossiers on each of the selectmen enumerating their many crimes over the years. These included public drunkenness, (drinking at the dock), the occasional short lobster (that’s true), breaking and entering (stealing booze from summer houses when the harbor is frozen over), along with a few other rumors invented by the chief in the hopes that he could scare the board into ignoring the incident — which they did not.
Since Biggie would not tell them what happened, “family business” being his only explanation, the selectmen fired him. But that wasn’t the end of it. The chief took his case to the National Association of Chiefs of Police (the union) for wrongful termination and sent the dossiers to the state Attorney General’s office.
We were in an island power struggle, and the reason Cam knew so much about the story is because he was chairman of the board of selectmen at the time.
That spring, a lone small boat carrying the assistant attorney general for the Cape and the islands, who shall remain nameless because he did not remain just an assistant attorney general, arrived on the island. Cam was the only person on the dock at the time.
“What the hell is going on here?” asked the assistant attorney general. Cam related the story with a few customary embellishments of his own. When Cam was through, Mr. Assistant Attorney General shook his head, climbed back into his boat and left without a word.
The union lawyer did not get away so easily. He wanted nothing to do with the whole thing but finding himself between a rock and a hard place, he had to look like he did. He came up with a deal as a way out for everybody, except Biggie.
Biggie would be reinstated — for now. But in two months when his appointment ran out he would not be reappointed, nor was anyone else for another five years. The jail in the basement of the town hall remained vacant after that, used only to protect the town trash bags which became more valuable than peach brandy in March after we closed the dump and had to barge all of our trash to New Bedford.
We don’t do crime, it’s no fun. We just thought it would be fun to have a chief of police — a big guy who ate doughnuts all day and made the tourists feel safe.
Will Monast and his wife Leslei live in West Tisbury. They washed ashore after spending 25 years on Cuttyhunk raising four children, but that’s another story.