Greenwich Mean Time – First Chapter

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Greenwich Mean Time

Chapter One

Early one warm fall afternoon Sweetwater Jones drove his red ‘56 Ford pickup straight through the heart of Old Greenwich, Connecticut and south toward Long Island Sound, attracting nervous glances from everyone he passed. The truck was held together with bailing wire and rust and its three swarthy occupants were not the sort usually seen in this town of Mercedes Galendewagens and mandatory/minimum blonde-hair requirements for children. Faded stickers, doubled for emphasis, proposed that “Custer Died For Your Sins”. A metal pipe rack held a dozen noisily clattering tipi poles in loose support atop. Even the Mexican mow-and-blow workers permitted to enter town during daylight hours knew better than to crash Greenwich’s barriers in such a vehicle. 

Sweetwater’s two passengers peered curiously out windows grimed with road dust and noted a pair of spandex-encased mommies steering their Peg Pérego strollers and the future of investment banking across the street. “Fine looking women,” Lanny Watkins, said.

            “Quiet.” Sweetwater pointed to the BMW he was following. “That guy’s the only one knows where we’re going—I lose him, we’re never getting out of here.”

            The BMW scout car turned right onto Shore Road, accelerating past modest homes which Sweetwater would never have guessed sold for three million dollars apiece. The road squeezed into a single lane and arched across the water on a fieldstone bridge blanketed in pink sea roses. A quarter-mile past the bridge a small, grey-shingled guard booth impeded entrance to Greenwich’s crown jewel, Tod’s Point beach. Beyond the booth long expanses of white sand and thinly wooded fields stretched empty along the shores of Long Island Sound. Schools were back in session and Tod’s was nearly denuded of humanity. A few au pairs sat on beach chairs, trying to maintain their summer tans in the paling, post-equinox sunlight while trading gossip about their employers and ignoring their tiny charges tottering on the sand. Former Wall Street players, downsized, shoved aside or under indictment, paced with purposeless urgency along the water’s edge while they pondered the merits of Hobe Sound retirement communities and cryogenics. To the right of the guard booth a handful of small boats lay at anchor, nose to the tide, halyards slapping listlessly against their spars. Far from shore a lone windsurfer lay on his board and paddled slowly home across a windless sea. Summer was gone, and Tod’s was slipping into another seasonal dormancy.

The BMW’s driver parked in front of the booth and got out. Sweetwater stopped ten feet behind his guide and listened to the innocuous opening salvo of a carefully planned campaign.

            “Welcome to Tod’s Point, sir,” said the gatekeeper. “Do you have your beach card?” The young man in the guard booth squinted short-sightedly at the visitor standing on the pavement and recognition dawned. “Oh,” he said, “you’re—”

            “Preston Quisby, attorney at law. You remember me?”

            “Sure do, Mr. Quisby. Back for a another jog?”

            The town of Greenwich had operated Tod’s Point as a private enclave for its citizens since purchasing it from J. Tod Hipkins in 1949. Greenwich dug into its own pocket to pay for maintenance, adamantly rejecting all proffers of state and federal money (or, as its citizens interpreted it, the recovery of stolen property) so that they could forbid any but town residents and their guests from entering. New Yorkers already had Jones Beach to recreate on, went the reasoning, and there was no advantage to providing another state’s citizens with a relief valve from those crowded sands. Although this policy also barred entry to the beach by Greenwich’s poorer neighbors in its own state, Connecticut’s legislature chose to focus on the obvious advantage of keeping the Knickerbockers on their side of the border and allowed the town to keep Tod’s off-limits to everyone except those whom it selected.

            All that changed when the newly-minted lawyer Preston Quisby thought to work off some adipose tissue by setting off on a jog early one Sunday morning. Quisby left his Stamford home and, just for the heck of it, turned right instead of left and ended up in Greenwich at the entrance to Tod’s Point. Exhausted and hot, Quisby thought he’d cool down on the beach while awaiting a taxi ride home. The guard thought differently and denied him entrance.

            Quisby was a native of California and had grown accustomed to the west coast’s laid-back attitude toward beach access: don’t go near David Geffen’s place but otherwise, dude, have a nice swim. Beach cards were not required on the Pacific and, Quisby had insisted to Tod’s Point’s guard, should not be required by some stuffed-shirt New England town. He pressed his opinion so vociferously that he’d eventually been deported back to the Stamford border by a Greenwich policeman. This annoyed him. He was a lawyer. He sued.

            The would-be gate crasher received a great deal of publicity for his new law practice and a favorable hearing from Connecticut’s Supreme Court, whose members turned out to share the same simmering resentment toward Greenwich as the rest of the state’s citizens. The justices reached deep and discovered a heretofore-unknown penumbra of the First Amendment that created a constitutional right for every citizen to trod heavily around beach loop roads while dressed in vinyl sweat suits.

            The court’s decision had been handed down more than a year before but the beach guard remembered, and remembered his instructions on what to do if the Stamford lawyer should ever reappear: be nice.

            “I’m not jogging,” Quisby now said. “But my friends in that truck back there might want to. How much for all of us?”

            “Ah, no charge, sir. You and your friends go right on in.”

            Quisby shrugged to hide the thrill generated by the guard’s obeisance—this is why he’d gone to law school—and clambered back onto his leather seat. He proceeded through the gate with Sweetwater Jones following closely behind. When he approached a grassy turnoff a half-mile from the gate Quisby stuck his arm out the window and motioned the truck to exit the roadway. Both vehicles parked and Quisby walked back to the pickup.

            “There’s a meadow just past these trees,” he said, pointing. “My car won’t make it—too low to the ground—but you don’t need me for this next part anyway. Go on in and set up, and I’ll be along later.”

            “Later where?” Sweetwater asked. “You gonna bail us out or just visit?”

            Quisby snorted, amused. “The town will be too busy changing its underwear to worry about arresting you,” he promised. “Anyone gives you a hard time, just tell ‘em Preston Quisby sent you; they’ll back off.”

            “If you say so.” Sweetwater said.

            “I do. Now you do your job, and I’ll do mine. See you later.” The lawyer re-entered his BMW, waggled little sausage link fingers in goodbye and sped off to work that special magic lawyers do. Sweetwater looked at his passengers. “Here goes nothing.”

             He pushed the floppy shifter into first gear and eased the clutch, bumping down a dirt path through a grove of dark green hollies until it emerged onto a quiet, sunlit, hillside meadow. Sand beaches lay to the east. To the south tall grass swooped gracefully downhill until it reached a rocky shoreline five hundred yards away. Rabbit families gamboled on the edges of the meadow, just a quick jump from sheltering borders of raspberry vines and grape thickets. Far overhead twin Ospreys hovered, issuing staccato kiweeks as they searched for prey.  Sweetwater and his companions were less than a mile from the guard booth, but were alone here on the meadow, feeling several centuries removed from the present. 

One modern symbol intruded. A plaque bolted to a large boulder dominating the crest of the meadow proclaimed the site to be the meeting place of the first European settlers and the native inhabitants of Monakewaygo, “place of the white sands.”  Sweetwater read it and believed; it seemed fitting that the first contact between a doomed race and its conqueror should happen at the top of a hill—there was nowhere to go but down.

An ironic thought made him grin: Indian Summer, as cruel New England parents still delighted in reminding their frightened children, was named for the period when savages raced down from Canada just before winter to raid villages, rape and scalp settlers and capture small toddlers for adoption.  As the object of this re-telling was to terrorize recalcitrant sleepers and keep them quiet in bed, few parents bothered to mention that the raids had ceased at the conclusion of the French and Indian War in 1763.  And now, it seemed, they hadn’t ended after all.  The Indians were back, right where things had first gone wrong.

            Sweetwater climbed into the bed of the pickup to untie the lodge poles from the rack and clapped his hands:

            “Okay, let’s get the tipi up; everyone take a couple of poles.”           

 All three men set to work and shouldered the tipi’s frame out to the middle of the field in just a few trips. That accomplished, Sweetwater retrieved a long rawhide tether from the truck’s cab and lashed three of the poles into a tripod which he raised into the air with the help of his crew. All but one of the remaining poles were then assembled around the tripod. Sweetwater’s companions lugged a heavy pile of folded canvas from the truck to the tent site, secured it to the remaining pole and, with a lot of grunting, some sweat and a little bit of swearing, the men lifted it into position. The canvas was unfurled and tugged into place around the cone-shaped framework. Sweetwater lashed a temporary brace to the poles and scrambled on top of it holding eight wooden dowels tucked under his arm. He pinned the canvas together where its two sides met and jumped back to earth. Fifteen minutes after Sweetwater’s crew’s arrival, an Indian lodge stood on the shores of Old Greenwich for the first time since 1655, when an allied force of Dutch and English drunkards had wiped out every single man, woman and child of the Siwanoy tribe.