CONSIABLE HEDDINGTON’S LAST DECISION
He was 19. His name was Neil Thomas Heddington, Constable Neil Thomas Heddington of the RCMP. He'd been something of a Golden Boy in Bridgetown. Nova Scotia. Color of eyes: blue. Color of hair: light brown. The hair was almost blond, and silky. It was still a boy’s hair, and he was not the sort to let it grow to his shoulders. Height: six-foot-two.
Weight: 215 pounds. Academic abilities: average. Athletic abilities: excellent. Character flaw: occasional laziness. Distinguishing features: manly dimples, good jaw. strong eyebrows, straight nose, broad mouth, huge feet. Big Neil. He wore size 14 shoes and because of this, both at Bridgetown Regional High and later in the RCMP. his friends called him “Skids.”
At school, he was also the bigger half of “Mutt and Jeff.” The smaller half was a wiry kid named Steve Durling. There were ways in which Steve knew Neil better than anyone did; and now. more than-a year has passed since Neil's last letter to Steve and. still. Steve does not believe in his heart that what happened to Neil in Regina happened the way everyone says it did. “He’s the best kind of friend to have.” Steve says and. for a second, you're sure that he’s looking forward to horsing around with Neil Heddington in the locker room before tonight's big volleyball game.
If you had met Neil in the last springtime of his life in the old, pink, water-bright loveliness of the Annapolis Valley, if you had met him in the great, green cathedral that the elm trees have raised in the fragrant air above Granville Street, you might have sensed something old-fashioned in him. If you had happened to be chatting with him there, down among the white churches and the rambling Victorian dignity of the big wooden houses that lie just a few hundred yards west of good old Bridgetown Regional High and not far from the little tidal river (where the brown muck has given back the bodies of Bridgetown’s drowned from time to time over the past 150 years), if you were with him there, you might have noticed how respectful he was. He'd let you speak first.
He was the sort of boy older people insist the world no longer makes. Each Sunday morning you'd find him at the Bridgetown Baptist Church; each night at eleven you’d.find him at home where his mother would not have to worry about him; and each weekday dawn, if you rose that early yourself, you'd find him delivering the Halifax paper. His reliability as a newspaper delivery boy, even in weather that stopped trains, was a town legend.
He had a certain cool. too. Surely it was a sign of maturity.
You know how a lot of kids his age hate to be seen alone. They won’t even walk downtown without rounding up a friend or two. Well Neil wasn’t like that. He never seemed to need public proof that other kids liked him. He walked at his own pace. He would not hurry to catch up with the gang. They liked him anyway. At Bridgetown Regional High you could become something of a hero simply by being big. good-looking, athletic, uncruel and cool.
Duff Montgomerie remembers Neil’s cool and, when he heard what the boy had done, “It was just like a blow to the lower parts.” Until recently. Duff taught physical education at Bridgetown Regional High, and he’d coached Neil on assorted championship teams, traveled with him to big games around the province, shared motel rooms with him. He had seen Neil cool and effective under the pressure of tight competition. Duff is a bright, blond, keen young guy, and he thought he knew Neil as well as any teacher could ever know any youngster. He wondered later if he should not quit teaching. If you could be that wrong about any kid. by what right did you go on telling other kids what to do with their lives?
There happened to be a meeting of parents and teachers at the high school on the night the news came — the news of his death — and because Bridgetown is Bridgetown and people there take an old-fashioned interest in the character and welfare of their neighbors; because the high school is the high school it is, and not a massive, urban factory of impersonal, assembly-line education; because it has only 450 students and six of the teachers are themselves natives of the town and graduates of this very school; because of these things, the
people there knew Neil. Surely they did know him.
“Honest to Pete,” says Jack Walker, the Supervisor of Schools, “we just couldn’t believe it! People were walking around here just like zombies . . . Some of our teachers know every kid by name and background. We knew Neil. We really knew him. Or we thought we did . . . Whatever it was. whatever was in him. it was well hidden.” He was never one to show the older people who were responsible for him any cause for concern; and, according to a teacher who played cards with the boy, week after week and year after year, Neil had “a great poker face.”
They could not escape knowing that they had never been as close to him as they thought they had been. They were sick with an unreasonable guilt over their failure to gain even a flicker of insight into some part of him that must always have been there, some seed of the mind that had been waiting all along for a precise chemistry of pressures to fertilize it and make it suddenly flower in his head as a dark orchid of anguish. But the guilt could not possibly be theirs alone.
“Yes,” his mother says, “1 wanted to lash out at the RCMP.
1 mean, he did cry out for help, and he didn’t get it ... He should have been in a hospital . . . But we’re all of us human.
1 mean, no one’s infallible. 1 mean ... God, I was there myself the day before, and I knew he was nervous but I didn’t know he was that ... I mean, 1 wouldn’t have left. If I’d known, I would never have left him . . .”
For a while, Bridgetown was so confident it had known Neil as a normal, healthy high-school kid that it was sure the reason he killed himself was hiding at the RCMP training
camp in Regina. The RCMP were so confident they’d known Neil as a normal, healthy recruit that they were sure the dreadful reason was hiding in Bridgetown. But the Mountie who brought the body home to Bridgetown talked with a dozen local people, and then he was no longer certain where the secret lay. And the Bridgetown people heard the Mountie out on Neil’s career in Regina, and they were no longer sure either. There was nothing any of them could know. They could never be sure that they had not failed him in ways they were unable to understand.
And that was why the thing that Neil did inspired not only the comprehensive grief that small towns feel so much more than cities do, but also a stunning of the community that was related to fear. And perhaps, too, it is the chief reason why the terrible puzzle of his story is worth trying to set down. For, if you can’t know a boy inside-out in a place like Bridgetown then maybe, just maybe, you cannot really know anyone anywhere; and God alone knows what sleeping psychic demons and simmering volcanoes of potential agony await their arousal deep within even those we think we know best, and care about most.
The town was the larger family beyond his own family. The town was the larger house, out there under the near trees, beyond his own house. There have been about 1,000 people in Bridgetown for as long as anyone can remember. It’s as though another baby had arrived each time a kid grew up and moved away. Or each time somebody died. The people care about all the births and all the deaths. They close in on the bereaved. Some of those who close in have a macabre curios-
ity, but most come out of some urge to protect the mourners from pain, and they bring food, take the children home for the night, speak with care. Their behavior is honorable and old.
The first people to rush to the side of Bridgetown’s suddenly grief-struck are those who’ve not yet recovered from the blows of their own losses. Neil was part of an awful pattern. A young Bridgetown housewife sits in the soft light of the Captain Crosskill dining room in the Bridgetown Motor Hotel, and tells you, “There’s a curse on this town. I really believe it.” Every six months for several years now, a young Bridgetown boy or girl, in the full Valley bloom of health and promise, has met sudden death. A ghastly car crash here. Another equally ghastly car crash there. A one-chance-in-a-billion hunting accident. A mysterious heart failure strikes a girl student. She falls down and dies.
You ask Bridgetown people what Neil’s death means to the town and, under the shadow of their time, they do not know. What does any of it mean? In the five months from late November, 1972, to early May, 1973, four Bridgetown fathers died unexpectedly. Not one was an old man. One choked to death at the dinner table. One killed himself. One died in a car crash. One succumbed to a lightning heart attack. Together, they left 31 children. A fifth man, on a dark and recent night, just disappeared off an old pier, and drowned in the murky waters of the Annapolis River.
Only about four years ago, Neil’s own uncle, Gary Abbott Cook, one of the finest athletes in the high school, caught an impossibly rare kidney disease and died at the age of 24. Other deep and sudden sorrows lurk in the background of Neil’s
mother’s family; and you wonder if there can possibly be a connection between the leafy seduction, the living bliss of the Annapolis countryside, and the fact that this county has the highest suicide rate in Nova Scotia.
Bridgetown has more than its share of sunny, lush, riverside beauty; more than its share of creamy-skinned girls who should all be queens of the Valley’s annual Apple Blossom Festival; of local boys who became Rhodes scholars (three); of rock-ribbed conservative thinkers; of rich people who neither talk about their money nor spend it rashly; of respecters of the Union Jack; of trust and friendliness. Some Bridgetown people leave their cars out on the street all night with the keys in the ignition. Others may leave their doors unlocked so that, when they’re out, their friends can drop in and pour themselves a drink.
Bridgetown has more than its share of town characters, too, and uproarious yarn-spinning about the adventures of the eccentric is a major social pleasure. The stories are affectionate, and it’s possible to be the person you want to be there. There are no ciphers in Bridgetown.
Bridgetown was Home and, out west, Neil missed it. It wasn’t that he was aware of disliking what was happening to him at the RCMP training centre. Oh sure, he did complain in his letters home. He said you had to get everything exactly right, 100% perfect, or you’d really catch hell. He wrote that once he’d stood up during a typing class to get a drink of water, just as he might have done back at good old Bridgetown Regional High, and the RCMP penalty for this offense was an order to do 600 lines of flawless typing. “Boy,” he wrote, “I’ll
never do that again!” His letters about such indignities were cheerful enough but, still, the RCMP training centre has an emphasis on the cold virtue of discipline in the details of daily living that may be fading even from the military, and if there’s one thing the boot camp is not it is warmly personal. He remembered Bridgetown.
The elms, the apple blossoms, the small river, the wet morning sparkle, the noon-hour surge of life on Queen Street, the evening shadows, the streetlights, the brick high school with the unusual curved corners, the road over the mountain to the Fundy shore, the road to his girl in Middleton, the handful of calm streets that he knew as well as he knew the smell of his mother’s kitchen, or the warmth of his old bed, or the voices of his younger brothers, or the habits of his own thought . . . they were Bridgetown and he had a place there, and no other town could ever again be quite so far inside him, and this was the first time in his short life that he had been away from it for long. And on his own.
So just once, he did confide to his mother by letter from Regina that it was kind of tough being out on your own; and she replied that he didn’t know the half of it, that he’d had it pretty easy compared to a lot of people. Her letter was not harsh. She hoped to buck up his spirits. Many parents have said the same thing to their distant sons. But, you can understand, it is one of the thousand things to which she cannot stop her mind returning, it is one of the thousand reasons why she may turn her desolate face to you and say she should never have been a mother, and why there’s still a dark swelling under her eyes.
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HEDDINGTON from page 29
Her name is Shirley Taylor. Her first husband, Neil’s father, left the family when Neil was a small boy, but do not leap from that fact to quick Freudian conclusions about how his being fatherless at home unbalanced him. Neil loved and respected his stepfather, Arch Taylor. He loved and respected his mother’s uncle, Harry Abbott. They’re good men. He was a good boy.
A curiously gentle boy. Roughhousing at home with his younger brother Joel, the care he took to avoid hurting the smaller boy was noticeable. In sports, his play was clean. Once, in a basketball game against graduates of the school, a man in his twenties had taunted and fouled and harassed him until, finally, he turned and floored the older man with one fast crack in the face. Blood all over the place. But this act, like the final violence he did to himself, was memorable because it was uncharacteristic.
He did not shine at hurting people and, during the hand-to-hand combat in his RCMP training, he suffered nasty blows to his nose and ears but still, his mother gathered, “he wouldn’t want to be thumping the little fellows.” The RCMP “self-defense program” involves collegiate wrestling, karate, elements of judo, jujitsu and, in RCMP language, “special techniques that are required in the peace officer’s repertoire.” (In the boys’ book, Dale Of The Mounted, recruits learn “tricky police holds that could render criminals helpless and obedient.”) Neil’s mother remembers, “The only time he was ever hauled up on the carpet was for holding back in this self-defense.”
But the dressing down, so far as anyone will ever know, did not deeply upset him. Patsy Baumgartner, a friend in Regina, said, “All he ever wanted to be, he had mentioned several times, was in the RCMP. He just loved his training, and there was nothing about it that he didn’t like at all, and he had no trouble with anything from what I gathered talking to him.”
In Bridgetown, he had never run with a gang of troublemakers. He had never been in a scrape with the police. He had never tried pot. In every respect, he appeared to be made of RCMP clay, and you may not understand what a career in the Mounties means to a small-town boy who knows he’s not going on to university. It means security, romance, virility. In Bridgetown, the Mounties are not “pigs.” Each year, “Scarlet Fever” still afflicts a dozen Bridgetown kids. At least 25 Bridgetown boys have tried to join the Mounties in the past 15 years. Only nine or 10 got to wear the red coat. Neil was the only Bridgetown boy the RCMP accepted in the spring of’72 and, the moment they told him he was going
to their training centre in Regina, he inspired the pride and joy of his family, the envy and backslapping congratulations of his friends, the special admiration of the girl he hoped to marry, farewell parties, farewell handshakes, farewell kisses for a celebrity.
There were a lot of people to remember. And to not let down. Even if he ever let it cross his mind that some part of him might not like being a Mountie, it wouldn’t have mattered. He was going. The sign on the outskirts says BRIDGETOWN, THE FRIENDLY TOWN, GREETS YOU. It says good-bye, too.
Six months later he went completely to pieces in just 18 hours. Those hours, hours of his agonizing bewilderment and his grim shame over the bewilderment, denied the logic of a whole young lifetime of being normal. It was as though the engineering experts had somehow got the specs wrong for a piece
of wire cable and. under a wrongful strain, the strands of the cable had begun to snap and unravel and then they had to snap faster and faster until, at a moment no one had time to see, the entire line had parted and something big crashed to the ground in disgraceful air.
He had arrived at the RCMP training centre at Regina in May of 1972 to join several hundred others in the Mounties’ sometimes grueling crash program to turn young men and high-school boys into instant lawmen. The training lasts six months and the recruits put in roughly 80 hours a week in some fairly ferocious courses. Until recent years, the training period was nine months and some Mounties quietly acknowledge that the force is not only accepting recruits who are too young to face police work but is also churning them out of the training centre too fast. It’s a long way from the volleyball courts of Bridgetown High to the wheel of a patrol car and, in his last days, Neil said he wasn’t sure he was ready.
And yet the Mounties who knew him
and taught him say that, all during his training, he was “a rather average type of young man,” that he was an “average trainee,” that he was happy to be officially average, that he’d never had serious trouble with any of his instructors, that he had not once exhibited “unusual behavior” of any kind, that he’d never complained about anything and that, although he was a quiet chap, he got along well with just about everybody. To his dying day, he insisted he wanted to spend his life in the RCMP.
He wrote to his mother, to Bridgetown high-school teachers, to Steve Durling, to his girl friend, Gini Cornell of Middleton, NS; and, in the letters, there was as much pride over what he was enduring in Regina as there was complaint. They all gathered he liked the direction of his life. He was saving for a car. He was sending Gini money so that when the great day came, the day he graduated as a Mountie, she could join his family on the trip out to Regina to share the glory of his red coat. The Mounties would allow them to marry after he’d seen two years’ service.
His family begin to arrive a week before Graduation Day, November 14, 1972 and, by everything they can see and understand, it is a fine, thrilling time for him. It must surely be the highest point in his life. He’s made it. He’s a Mountje! He has exactly the posting he wants, to Stephenville Crossing, Newfoundland. He’s young. He’s strong. His mother, his two younger brothers, his great uncle, a woman chum of his mother’s, his girl friend Gini, the voices of memory and home, they’ve traveled a couple of thousand miles to be with him, and they’re all right here at the Regina Inn. A solid encampment of love. And love’s obligations.
Neil is one boy who knows you should care for those who care for you. He sees them whenever he can escape his Duty to the RCMP. They all go out to the Chinese Kitchen. They go to a place called The Paddock. They throw a party for him in Room 467, and his troop supervisor shows up with his wife to meet the folks from down east. (Later, Neil’s superior officers said Neil had told them the confusion that settled on him during his last hours had actually begun with the arrival of his family; Inspector E. J. Ard speculated that “it was this duplication of responsibility,” the last-minute compulsion to worry about both preparing for his troop graduation and looking after his relatives “that triggered his ... difficulties.”)
Surely the sweetness of the time is enough to smother the one sour note of these days, and perhaps the note is not all that sour anyway. Neil asks Inspector Ard if the force will kindly allow him to go part of the way to his posting in New-
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HEDDINGTON continued foundland with his closest friend in the Mounties, Constable E. S. Coughey. Coughey’s got a car and he’s driving east anyway, to his own posting in Glace Bay, and Neil wants to ride along with him. Perhaps he’s thinking how fine it would be to drop in on Bridgetown in his uniform. It’s a romantic plan but, to the RCMP, an administrative nuisance. Thé answer is No. Neil must fly Air Canada from Regina to Newfoundland.
But by the time Tuesday, November 14, rolls around, no one in Troop Number 5 has time to worry about small disappointments. Graduation exercises begin at 9 a.m. They include swimming, physical training, self-defense displays. They last all day and carry right through to a banquet and dance for hundreds of people in the evening. It is a day on which punctuality is God and, in Neil, the fear of making a mistake and the pressure to be in the right place in the right clothes at exactly the right time seem to create an odd and secret stupor. No one sees it. His family notices only that he is “nervous.” He gets through the day without disaster. One more red coat. But the following morning he won’t be able to remember. On Wednesday, he will not be able to recall the sequence of his actions on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, for the first time, RCMP officers notice a strangeness in Neil. He separates himself from his troop mates. He sits by himself. He stares at nothing. He can’t figure out what to put in his suitcase, what to put in his trunk, what he’ll need the moment he sets foot in Newfoundland. He can’t fill out a simple transfer form. He tries to explain his confusion to his superior officers but then his hands shake. He can’t stop them. He trembles and stammers. He can’t find the words he needs. He can’t find his cigarettes. He bursts into tears. No sir, he says, he doesn’t know what’s bothering him. Yes sir, he certainly does want to be an RCMP officer. No sir, there’s nothing wrong with his personal life at all. Yes sir, maybe he does need a little time here at the base to pull himself together. No sir, he hasn’t been able to sleep for days. A psychiatrist? Yes sir, that would be fine.
Wednesday is a long, strange, hopeless time. He sees corporals, a sergeant, an inspector, corporals again. He goes out for a beer. He comes back for more talk. They reason with him, counsel him, grill him, lecture him. turn fatherly with him, keep an eye on him, remain utterly baffled by him. He cannot tell any of them what it is that’s swept this fog into his head; and packing his luggage remains a monstrous challenge.
He has a farewell beer with a couple of his troop mates at a place called The Vagabond, and they talk there with Patsy Baumgartner of Regina. Neil does not tell her it now looks as though the
RCMP is holding him back for three days. Instead, he says he’s catching a plane to Newfoundland the next day at noon. “And he was really glad to be going,” Patsy says, “and then we left the table about half an hour later and, just before they left, we were talking to them again, and he just sat there and he was sort of staring into space, he just seemed depressed or worried about something, and he didn’t talk hardly anything at all, just as if he wasn’t there, and that was within about half an hour.”
He returns to the base. His superior officers sense in him a condition so serious that they ask him to turn in his service revolver. His ammunition is in his Sam Brown belt, which is too big to hide, and they do not want to embarrass Neil before his troop mates. He gets to keep the shells. They take him out to Regina General Hospital for an injection of sedative and a supply of tranquilizers. Near midnight he falls asleep.
On Thursday Neil rises from sleep directly into Wednesday’s pain. He talks with corporals again, the sergeant again, the inspector again. He reports on sick parade to the doctor at the base. His troop mates are pulling out. They know there’s something odd about him. The troop treasurer, Constable D. R. Tranquilla, asks Neil if he wants to go downtown to the bank with him to withdraw the troop’s money but, as Tranquilla recalls the moment, “I looked at him, and he was crying, and he said, ‘No, I can’t go this way.’ ” Neil turns to his troop supervisor and says, “Oh, Corporal, I feel just terrible. I have a problem. I need help.”
He learns he has an appointment with a psychiatrist. He learns that he must stay at the base not just for three days but for at least 10. Does it cross his mind that, in just one day, at the exact moment his life as an RCMP officer has officially begun, he has somehow' blown it all, besmirched his career record forever, irrevocably betrayed Bridgetown’s faith in him?
Bridgetown has left Regina. His mother is gone. His brothers are gone. His great uncle is gone. His girl has gone. In a few moments, his troop mates, the surrogate family of six close months, will all be gone. His friend, Constable E. S. Coughey, will be gone in the car in which Neil once hoped to be moving east. Moving home.
At noon on Thursday, Coughey and Neil talk for a few moments. Coughey would remember those moments for the inquiry into Neil’s death:
“I can think of no reason why he would take his life. He was very excited about his parents and his girl friend arriving in Regina and he would forget little things like leaving the keys in the car and this would bother him and he appeared nervous. This nervousness was apparent during the last three or four days of training. There were three things that appeared to bother him ... the fact that he was being held back three days; that he wouldn’t be able to travel east with me; and that they thought he was mental and he was being sent to a psychiatrist. He broke down and cried when he mentioned the latter. This happened the morning of November 16 ...
“The last time I saw him was about twelve noon after he had been with Inspector Ard. He told me then that he was being held back 10 days. We talked a few minutes and he asked me to notify his parents that he would be a few days late getting down ... He said he would write me when he got to Newfoundland. He was crying when he was talking to me.”
Coughey sets out for Nova Scotia.
In our time, anyone can kill himself painlessly but Neil has no cache of sleeping pills, no access to a secret walkup flat with a gas stove and, though Albert Camus has written that “an act like this is prepared within the silence of the heart, as is a great work of art,” Neil’s anguish gives him no time for artful preparations and, at roughly two-twenty on the afternoon of Thursday, November 16, 1972, at the age of 19 years and 196 days, he chooses the way of some 19th-century British army officer — some poor, mad, young military gentleman who is far from home in a fetid colony and unutterably alone with an imagined disgrace — and, decisive at last, he breaks open a recruit’s locker, takes out the Smith and Wesson service revolver, loads it with his own shell, and puts the muzzle in his mouth.
He pulls the trigger.
The lead passes through the roof of his mouth, out the back of his head at a point below his hat, and into the ceiling of the barrack room. Ceiling plaster sprinkles the bed beside his falling place. When they find him, he has $194.05 in his pockets, and the Mountie hat is still perched on his head. ■