Peter Michaud was one of those people you weren’t afraid of once you got to know him.

He’d walk around downtown Waterville with a bayonet at his side, wearing a wide-brimmed hat and tall boots and pulling a wagon with two or three kerosene cans inside, along with groceries and other necessities.

He lived off College Avenue behind the car wash in a grove of trees that served as his outdoor home, where he wore paths in the grass that meandered through the complex. His belongings included a small tent where he slept, summer and winter, piles of blankets and sleeping bags, a few clothes, some pots and pans he hung from tree branches, and a chair or two.

Peter had chickens perched in the trees around his compound. He gave them French names and called to them as he led me on a tour one summer day because I was writing a story about him. They laid a lot of eggs, and Peter would give away the ones he couldn’t eat himself. He liked fresh eggs, but he loved his chickens more.

Often you’d see him walking down College Avenue, back erect, waving to cars passing by. Whenever he turned to the east, he bowed as if he were meeting the queen.

Most people who lived in Waterville knew him, though visitors eyed him suspiciously and sometimes the uninformed would call the police to report a middle-aged man with a sword heading toward downtown.

That was many years ago, when the police department was in the basement of City Hall and had an entrance off Front Street across from the Morning Sentinel office near Head of Falls.

I often met Peter as I sat on the bench in the hallway of the PD early mornings, waiting for an officer to deliver the police log from the night before so I could copy down the complaints. The bench and communications center where the dispatchers worked were a couple of steps down from street level. Peter would open the heavy door off Front Street, descend the steps, bow to the dispatchers behind the glass window and ask for Chief John Morris.

When Morris appeared, Peter would salute and say, “Permission to come aboard, sir.” Morris would reply, “Permission granted,” and emerge from the locked door to greet him.

Morris, who now is the state commissioner of public safety, and Michaud were retired U.S. Navy men and respected and understood each other.

When Peter faced challenges from people who misunderstood or were afraid of him, Morris would intervene.

He was a police chief who believed in community policing, getting to know the people he served and, especially, befriending and looking out for those who were “different.”

An education expert told me many years ago that one can not teach effectively without knowing his students — their backgrounds, histories, interests, strengths, shortcomings and the like — and I think Morris understood that concept well and used it successfully in many cases that required de-escalation.

Peter infrequently would address the City Council about an issue of concern, and sometimes he’d get agitated and raise his voice. All it would take to calm him was for Morris to approach the podium and stand with him.

Peter was lucky to have had a landowner who allowed him to live the way he did for a long time and, I’ve heard, even offered to build him a house, but Peter didn’t want to be confined by four walls. He loved the outdoors.

But the time came when he was asked to leave the property and he did, albeit reluctantly. He moved to Augusta for a while and then to a homeless veterans shelter in Boston.

From there, he wrote letters to let me know he was OK, and then he moved to Canada to another veterans home and continued to write, though his letters eventually stopped and we lost touch. I often wondered what happened to him.

When an obituary appeared recently in our newspaper for Peter Arthur Michaud, I did a double-take. Could it be the same Peter Michaud I knew in Waterville so many years ago?

The dateline was Leamington, Ontario, Canada, and the young, dark-haired, bearded and mustached man wearing a checkered shirt and smiling in the photo was surely he, many years before he came to live in the trees off College Avenue.

He had died April 27 at 72 after finding his peace, living in Ontario for the last nine years of his life, the obituary said.

It said he graduated from Waterville High School in 1964, attended Southern Maine Technical Institute and earned a 2-year degree which certified him as a machinist. He then enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served more than four years during Vietnam on the ship the USS Hector.

During his time in the Navy, he earned a National Defense Service Medal, a letter of commendation and the Vietnam Service Medal with a Bronze Star, his obituary says. Later, he earned a degree in mechanical engineering from University of Maine, Orono.

I searched the obituary to try to find some clue as to why he might have abandoned the traditional life for the one he chose and could find only one: “Peter’s life was not without tribulations. He did his best to surmount his challenges.”

I sensed that he was loved, this man who seemed alone in the world, but whose obituary said he is survived by four sisters and several nieces and nephews. I am comforted in knowing he had family who cared. And it’s clear they understood his wishes in the directive, “In lieu of flowers, please support your local veteran’s services.”

Once a regular figure in downtown Waterville, Peter disappeared one day, never to return, but he is part of the fabric of this city we call home, a thread in the stories we carry around with us and pass on, some surviving through time and others dissipating like a summer rainstorm that arrives in a rush and thins away, slowly, to vapor.

I have a feeling Peter’s presence will be felt downtown for a long time by those who remember him.

As summer nears its end, I see him clearly in my mind’s eye, marching east on Common Street by Castonguay Square, bayonet swaying from his hip, gold tooth gleaming. He halts at Front Street to salute, bows to the east and continues north to the police station.

He served his country well, something for which he was proud and spoke of often during his life.

Now we may salute and bow to him in his death.

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter for 30 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to centralmaine.com.

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