TOWNSEND -- Bill May's first book was a novel based on real life. "Billy Boy" was a humorous, self-deprecating, first-person romp through the fictionally-embellished life and times of a Catholic boy growing up in a small New England town in the rock and roll era, with echoes of just about every kid passing through adolescence, any time.
But this boy, like the real "Billy Boy," served in the military and grew up to be successful, despite adolescent angst and being such a "a pain in the neck" to his elders.
And the quasi-fictional town he painted such a vivid picture of is a lot like Townsend, where May, in fact, did grow up and where he served as police chief before retiring several years ago, rounding out a three-decade career in law enforcement.
When the book came out last year, May said he wrote it "to make people laugh" and he'd continue in that genre for his second book, which the back cover of "Billy Boy" promised would dish up details from the "humorous side of being a small town police officer."
But it didn't turn out that way.
May's new, nonfiction book, "Once Upon a Crisis" is not funny. It wasn't meant to be.
The former longtime police chief-turned-author sat down with a Townsend Times reporter to talk about his second book.
We met in a private conference room at the Townsend Library, which will host a book signing for May on Saturday, Oct. 27.
The interview was difficult.
As we spoke of tragic, traumatic events that emergency personnel and first responders such as police, EMTs and firefighters witness on the job and the anguish they may suffer when they take those experiences home, a window opened that neither of us anticipated.
I shared a personal story with May, intending perhaps to provide a "me too" moment, as interviewers sometimes do. But it was risky ground. This man can be an emotional magnet. Mostly, he listens.
Striving to stay on the lighter side of a dark subject, we succeeded, smiling, professional. But I came close to reliving the scene I sketched for him from memory, along with the "if only" and "what ifs" that have haunted me.
Gingerly, genuinely, he reached out, offered wise counsel and friendship. We moved on, but the window stayed open.
Post-traumatic closure is not easy. Which is what "Once Upon a Crisis" is all about.
Three or four weeks into writing his new book, May switched thematic gears. He found he wanted to take a serious track this time. "So many tragic events" he'd been a "third party" to during his tenure with the Townsend Police Department, as a police officer, an EMT and finally, as police chief.
From 1990 to 1991, for example, while chatting with a firefighter during a project he was working on, they discussed a rescue call the firefighter had responded to, a fatality he'd been dreaming about since. Asked if he'd received any post-stress debriefing after it happened, the firefighter said no. "I felt fine," he told May.
May describes the conversation in "Once Upon a Crisis," detailing how the man told him of his recurring dream about removing the body of the deceased. "I thought, that's not good," he said.
That was a rough year for May, personally and professionally. "I was in a downward spiral," he said. "Now I know that in those instances and environments, there's stress that goes undetected" and it took its toll on him, too. "There needs to be a way to get that (tragic incident) out of your mind" so that you can move on, he said.
Professional counseling helps, he said. It helped him. Laughter is good medicine, too.
The book took about a year to write. "I collaborated with people who'd gone through things of their own," he said, sometimes contacting people he hadn't communicated with in many years. "Reconnecting can be difficult," he mused. "Maybe that's why we don't do it."
In the book, he recalls the searingly painful reactions of people receiving news they would never want to get and nobody ever wants to deliver: The death of a child.
The aftermath of such unfathomable loss is not so much recovery as it is perseverance. May said he learned that from folks he came in contact with who were "first party" to tragedy. "I was a second party." His role, and that of any emergency responder is to "go into tragic scenes, often into places where you're not wanted," he said.
There you are, surrounded by memories of a life that has just been shattered, in a home where there are "happy faces in pictures on the walls" of people who were suddenly taken away. Standing amid tragedy, "I learned..." he said.
Asked if emergency workers need to be detached, he said yes, to do their job. But it's harder to maintain that degree of distance in a small town where you know people.
The firefighter, the cop, the EMT, must be strong, in control; it's their professional duty. May himself was an EMT, the town's first. As a cop, he approached emergency situations from the legal side but because of his training, he saw the medical side as well.
"The schools train you for your work, but how do you manage those thoughts afterward?" he said.
Today, workers have the option of post-incident stress debriefing sessions aimed at helping them deal with those thoughts rather than simply taking them home in silence.
Communication specialists -- his preferred title for emergency dispatchers -- also have stressful situations to deal with. In his view, they are "number one" in the line of succession when there's an accident or emergency situation. "They, too, must stay in control, do the right thing, know who to call, where to send them and what's needed.
It can be frustrating. "While an EMT may feel guilty because a person died on his or her watch, those feelings may also plague a communication specialist who took the call, perhaps stayed with someone on the phone, talking them through an attempt to save someone else's life that ultimately did not succeed.
Everywhere along the emergency front lines, there are stories of regret, loss and lingering doubts about whether they did enough by doing their jobs.
When a home burns down or there's an accident in which someone dies, the firefighter may go home and talk about it, but not in detail. "They bring the work home but lock it in," he said. "It's natural."
"That's what the book is all about," May said. "I felt some good could come of it," especially for someone going into a law-enforcement or emergency-services career, or someone with a family member in the field.
Bad things happen
Horrible events happen, even in a small town. Crimes so horrific they make the TV news, items for 24 hours or so. "But if you're part of the story, it doesn't go away."
One wonders then, did he tread carefully with crimes that made headlines at the time, some so chillingly awful that anyone who lived in the area then would not be likely to forget? Did he change people's names to protect their privacy?
A generation ago, two young children and their mother -- pregnant with a third child -- were murdered in their own home. A teenager who had lived in town all his life was convicted for the murders and is now serving life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The crime is mentioned in the book.
How do surviving victims ever recover from such a loss, such a horrific crime?
May acknowledged that some might say, "why bring it up?" But that's not what the book is about. Not a true crime expose, it's about survival, about being a third party to tragic events, recognizing that "there were people who went through this" themselves.
The murders, for example. "I didn't set that standard, the killer did."
The husband and father in that long-ago case, bereft of his entire family, somehow came back from the brink. He still lives in town, May said. "He's a wonderful person," with a lot to teach others about survival.
It was not the only major crime in Townsend while Chief May was on the job. He gets into some of them in the book, he said, and yes, he did use people's real names.
"Major cases, yes, I used their full names," he said. In some cases that were "interesting, but might be historically obscure, he used first names only. But if he used anyone's full name, he contacted them, he said. Nobody should be surprised.
Asked if his wife, Jeanne, was his first-base proofreader/editor, as she was with the last book, May said yes. Was she surprised? Only that he'd changed direction.
Around the time that "Billy Boy" was published, May indicated that one unsolved crime, in particular, bothered him. It still does. "The profession never leaves you," he said. Not that it should. It's how you handle it that matters, if you can achieve peace. "Our minds have no delete key," he said. "Cut and paste, maybe..."
All of that's in the book, May continued. "A lot happened here in the 1980s." And in the decade that followed, he had "a tough time" dealing with it. That's when he started seeing a therapist.
In therapy, he began to see things from a new slant. He'd say things like, "I feel I haven't done enough for my people." Asked (by the therapist) who those people were, he said, "The people of Townsend."
While there was nothing wrong with taking an important job seriously, he had not compartmentalized his work such that he could separate his personal life from his professional role.
Absent that, it was key to understand that it is, after all, a job, and does not define you. No matter how well you perform or your level of expertise, you are always likely to have unresolved issues. Call them failures. "Nobody wants that!" May said.
He knows folks who've lived through loss, accidents, deaths of loved ones in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. One of them shared a bit of wisdom. "Time doesn't heal, but it soothes."
Rather than endlessly replay the past, which can't be changed, May started getting involved in the here and now. Civic projects, for example, like serving on the library building committee. But he also learned that you can "bring happiness to others" in simple ways, he said. Like dropping in at the new Senior Center to play cards, socialize.
Retired now and living just over the border in New Hampshire, Bill May has plenty to do. When he's not at work, writing his next book, that is. He plays in a band, takes walks. Connects with people.
It sounds like a satisfying life. The idea is to live in the present as he looks forward to the future. And as he writes about the past, coming to terms with it. "I've had a wonderful, rewarding career," he concluded. Somewhere along the line, he learned that, too.