As home invasions go, it wasn’t exactly traumatic.

It happened in the middle of a cold January night 14 years ago. My wife and I were fast asleep when Colby, our strapping young yellow lab, began barking loudly and, as was his habit, for no apparent reason.

Rolling out of bed, I sleep-walked out to the dining room.

“Quiet, Colby,” I said half-heartedly, wanting only to climb back under the covers and resume my slumber. Which, having barely even opened my eyes, I then did.

Fast forward to 5 a.m.

“Wake up,” said my wife, an early riser, as she jostled me awake. “You have to see this.”

A large metal dog crate – we’d used it temporarily for timeouts while training Colby how not to tear our old house apart – had been dragged from a corner of the kitchen into the doorway leading outside.

The only possible explanation: Someone had entered our home. And when Colby came running and barking like the good watchdog he was, the intruder had used the crate as a protective barrier to stop Colby’s advance and escape in one piece.

The police later theorized that it was probably a burglar looking for something portable and pawn-worthy. We sheepishly admitted that we hadn’t locked the door – living way out here in Buxton, we hadn’t really seen the need.

In short, we felt safe.

And we still do, albeit with a locked door.

Memories of that creepy night returned Thursday with the news that the Portland Police Department has posted an online survey aimed at gauging how safe the city’s populace feels.

Over the next month, in cooperation with the University of New England’s Social Work Center for Research and Evaluation, the survey will ask city residents everything from whether they’ve ever been the victim of a crime to how they feel about walking alone in their neighborhood at night.

“Some people leave their houses unlocked in the middle of the city,” Dr. Thomas McLaughlin, co-director of the UNE center, said in an interview Thursday. “Other people would never do that because someone will come in and take everything they own. It’s definitely a personal kind of perception.”

Indeed.

“How safe do I feel in Portland?” one online reader commented below the story about the survey. “C’mon, man. It’s not exactly the South Side of Chicago. If you don’t feel safe in Maine then there’s no help for you.”

Not so, opined another reader: “I stay out of Portland at all costs. Old Port is a mess.”

The survey has its utilitarian purpose, of course. According to McLaughlin, who performed the same pulse check for the city in 2013, responses will be tabulated and cross-checked with crime statistics and other data to help determine how and where Portland can best deploy its public safety resources.

Still, measuring how safe people feel is a tricky business. It reflects not just how many crimes occur on how many street corners, but also how comfortable – or not – people feel in their environment.

McLaughlin grew up in rural New Gloucester. He still remembers his boyhood days at Camp William Hinds, 300 acres of paradise run by the Boy Scouts of America on Panther Pond in Raymond.

He also remembers a Boy Scout troop from New Jersey, city kids to the core, who arrived one summer in a collective state of terror.

“They were scared to death that some creature in the night was going to come and take them out of their tent,” McLaughlin recalled with a chuckle.

One kid in particular – he came from Jersey City – fretted constantly about “The bears! The bears!”

McLaughlin reassured him, “I’ve lived in Maine all my life and I’ve never seen one in the woods. Ever.”

“But they exist!” countered the Jersey boy.

My guess is that when this survey is completed, it will show a citizenry comfortable overall with its place in the universe, much as McLaughlin roamed those familiar woods as a boy with no fear of being eaten by a bear.

Among the “major problems” cited by more than 70 percent of the 762 Portlanders who responded to the 2013 survey were street drugs, alcohol and panhandling. At the same time, 69 percent rated shootings as “not a problem.”

Meaning Portland, while far from nirvana, is like most cities its size. There’s no guarantee you won’t be targeted by a criminal – in the last survey, 27 percent of the respondents said they had been a crime victim in the previous two years. But lack of “safety” is not a concern you often hear as one of city’s shortcomings.

In the end, I believe, “feeling safe” isn’t just about our environment, however peaceful or threatening it may be. It’s also about us – how we deal with danger, how we process both perceived and actual risk, how easily we fall asleep at night.

McLaughlin, the researcher, is also a triathlete who often swims in the brisk waters off his home on Peaks Island. His daughter’s boyfriend, a lobsterman, once asked him incredulously, “You swim in the ocean?”

“Yeah,” McLaughlin replied. “It’s great.”

“I don’t know. It’s dangerous,” said the lobsterman, whose job happens to be among the riskiest on the planet. “I wouldn’t do that.”

Out here in the wilds of Buxton, I’ve never felt safer. We no longer have Colby, God rest his brave soul, but we do have Sofie, who barks often and with gusto at the slightest provocation.

Helps keep the bears away.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

[email protected]


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