Thursday, August 4, 2005

Former chief still going strong

Published in the Current

SOUTH PORTLAND (Aug 4, 2005): Jim Darling of South Portland has helped train hundreds of South Portland drivers and shaped its police force, but his local ties run deeper still.

Darling, who turns 94 today, Aug. 4, was born in Ferry Village, and has stayed in the area his whole life. He and his family lived in Portland before becoming pioneers in the Broad Cove area of Cape Elizabeth. “We were the only ones there,” he said.

Darling remembers his father trying to get a skiff off the beach to get out to the boat during a northeaster, but the waves drove him back. “His boat eventually sunk that night,” taking to the bottom all of his traps and his dory.

The family – “there were 13 of us altogether” – stayed in Broad Cove eking out a living into the 1920s.

Darling went to school at the Bowery Beach schoolhouse, now the Lions’ Den.

“We walked a mile to get there,” up a dirt road, he said. “When the snow came, we just had a little trail up to the school.”

When he finished the five grades there, he still walked up there, to catch a horse-drawn wagon to class at Pond Cove School, where the Thomas Memorial Library is now. High school classes were held on the second floor of Town Hall.

“The summers were idyllic,” Darling said. “On the last day of school we came home, took off our shoes and didn’t put them back on until school started.”

Winters were different, living by kerosene lamps and well water. “It toughened you up in a lot of ways,” Darling said.

The family eventually moved to the Riverton area of Portland for a brief stay, and then to Front Street in South Portland.

Making a new life

Just after coming back to South Portland, Darling met the woman who would become his wife. The two were at a housewarming in Ferry Village and struck up a conversation, what Darling now calls “just one of those chance meetings, which turned out to be perfect.”

Merle, a bank teller, died in March at age 90, after 69 years of marriage. She was born on Feb. 4, so the couple would celebrate one’s birthday and the other’s half-birthday on those dates each year.

He works hard to keep her memory alive. Last week he baked a pineapple pie. “I found it in my wife’s recipe book. I don’t remember her ever making it and I thought I’d try it,” he said.

He and Merle raised three sons, Peter, who died in 2000 of asbestos-related cancer; George, who is a Methodist minister in Clinton; and Dana, who lives on Two Lights Road in Cape Elizabeth.

In February 1941, Darling started work with the South Portland police.

“I was the seventh man on the police department,” he said. “We had no training, nothing. You learned by doing.”

“During the war, they discovered there wasn’t enough young men who knew how to drive the trucks” the Army needed, so the federal government started driver education courses.

“I was always interested in traffic safety,” so Darling began teaching classes at South Portland High School, where he taught 80 kids a year for eight years, while also working full-time as a police officer.

As a result of his work, he attended a traffic safety institute at Northwestern University, from which he brought back many ideas that would become common practice in South Portland and nationwide.

Formalizing the police

“I put seat belts in cruisers,” he said, recalling having to convince people during test drives, zipping quickly around corners to show how seat belts can help prevent accidents by keeping drivers behind the wheel.

Later, “we were the first to use the breathalyzer.”

Another first is “burned” into his memory: “I was the first officer on the scene of that plane crash in Redbank,” on July 11, 1944, when a bomber clipped a tree while trying to land at the Portland airport.

He remembers the challenge of identifying the 15 dead, many burned beyond recognition.

“The one person who could identify them was a blind girl” who had talked to many of the victims earlier in the day and remembered what they said they were going to have for dinner, Darling said. “She knew what they ate,” allowing authorities to identify some victims by the contents of their stomachs.

On Jan. 1, 1959, Darling became chief of police, a job he held until retiring in 1968.

“I liked the work. I liked meeting the people, but you lose a lot of faith in human nature,” he said.

The couple enjoyed their retirement as well. Darling did more of the woodcarving that had been a hobby, making the seagull that sits out front of his house, as well as models of puffins, ducks, geese, eagles and owls that decorate the shelves inside and the homes of a few folks who bought them or were given them over the years.

For their 50th anniversary, Darling and Merle, then in their 70s, took a Volkswagen camper across the country, traveling 10,000 miles in 10 weeks on a marathon tour to see friends and family.

For his 85th birthday, his sons got him a dog. And last month, he got his first computer. “I can write an e-mail,” he said.