I came in first place only once in my life. That was for physical fitness at the Wayne County Sheriff Police Training Academy. It was fall 1971, and I had already been working as an undercover narcotics officer for nearly a year when they sent Gerald Scotti and me from the Narcotics Bureau for training. When we were hired in 1970, there wasn't a state law requiring academy training. We were young officers of not purely Caucasian ethnic decent, and that's what the department urgently needed to make narcotic buys in the spiraling drug culture in and around Detroit. The county and feds trained us in two criminal and narcotics investigation courses, and when space came available in the next police academy class, they sent us, with the understanding that we would return to the Bureau upon completing our training.
But enrollment in the academy created complications. We still had to work cases we had been developing, and for that, the two of us needed to look a little scruffy—which meant not shaving. That didn’t cause problems with the other recruits, but it did cause a big problem with Sergeant Richard Koch. Koch was a very knowledgeable, tall, professional-looking officer. He had applied for the Narcotics Bureau but was turned down because of his age. In his mid-thirties, Dick Koch had a reputation for being a prick's prick to new officers. He didn't quite fit the needs of the Bureau, but he was the perfect choice to instill discipline at the academy. Koch had never been in the military, so it gave him the opportunity play the drill instructor role that he seemed to yearn for.
What with our assignment to Narcotics and our unshaven faces, Dick Koch saw Scotti and me as living the life that he never could, so we became his two prime targets. It was easy for him to find fault because narcotics officers aren’t chosen just for their ethnicity and age. They’re also freethinkers—even borderline criminals, in a way—who don’t always follow the book to get things done. Throughout the two months of training, Koch did his best to flunk Scotti and me. I even got suspended for accumulating four demerits.
But Undersheriff Loren Pittman allowed me to continue training because two of the infractions were for making undercover telephone calls for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, to purchase weapons that a federally licensed firearms dealer was selling unlawfully to motorcycle gangs.
So Koch turned his spleen on Scotti, ostensibly for his lack of running endurance. Scotti was bright and fun to work with and had a degree in English from the University of Detroit. He and I had made a lot of raids together, covering each other’s rear. And whenever we had the chance, I’d stop at his house, and his mom would make Italian food; or he’d stop at mine, and my mom would make Arabic dishes.
My weakness at the academy was English composition (I had only a ninth-grade education and a GED at the time), and Scotti’s weak spot was running. So Scotti helped me with grammar, and after I finished my five-minute miles, I’d run back to encourage him. “Hang tough,” I’d tell him. “You quit now, you’ll just make Koch happy, and nobody wants that.” Koch stood at the finish line, scowling as we swept past him in our black Converse high-tops that we bought together after working a narcotics investigation. Fortunately, Koch wasn’t in charge of the academy, so we both completed our training, qualified as experts with a revolver, and returned to the Narcotics Bureau.
I became a runner out of necessity. I was raised in southwest Detroit, where I learned early on that survival depended on speed, strength, and headwork. Since I wasn’t the biggest or strongest guy in the neighborhood, my way of surviving came down to outrunning the older guys and predators from other gangs. Running fast was vital because I had a smart mouth with jerks like that, and it was also profitable because I could outrun merchants I had shoplifted from. And more importantly, I could outrun the cops. Police response time was rarely less than three minutes. Knowing that I could be down an alley and three blocks away in that time instilled no end of confidence. In the high population density of Detroit, being three blocks away was like being in another universe—in other words, gone.
Confidence and long-distance running served me well as a cop. In a foot pursuit, most suspects would have a sudden burst of energy and then burn out. I always wore double-soled boots when working narcotics (for kicking in doors) or when working uniform (for subduing violent mentals and tweaked-out, amped-up druggies). When I was in an Army airborne outfit in Europe, we ran in Corcoran jump boots, and in Vietnam, after our long-range reconnaissance patrols, I did laps in jungle boots to stay in shape.
When I returned from Vietnam, I used those same boots with ankle weights to run laps around Patton Park and Woodmere Cemetery, eventually working up to twelve miles. My jump boots and jungle boots finally wore out, and when I started wearing Adidas three-stripe running shoes, it felt as if I were suddenly defying gravity. In fifty years of roadwork, I’ve literally run through nearly 250 pairs of running shoes. I now wear ASICS GEL-Nimbus, which are made in Vietnam—quite likely by the children and grandchildren of men I fought.
For me, running was never just about working out. It’s always been about freedom and escaping. The high is a bit like the one you get from pounding beers, but it’s cheaper and healthier, and it doesn’t impair my thinking.
I run in all weather, from below zero to well above a hundred. As I get older, I find more and more that I love running in heat. I feel alive, and the heat acts as a natural lubricant for the joints. So far, I’ve run 130,000 miles, many of them in faraway places such as Stalingrad, Moscow, Leningrad, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and Okinawa.
Because of the freedom and mental clarity it provides, running is sacred to me. My running paths are like old friends, and my running shoes are family. Once they get old and lose their cushioning, I machine-wash them. Then I carefully restore the worn heels and soles with Freesole liquid rubber, spray them with Scotchgard, stuff them with paper towels to give them some of their shape back, and store them for months so the cushioning improves. Then I retrieve them and follow a flowchart. I use them first as house shoes since they provide better support than slippers. From there, they become casual-dress shoes, then side-door shoes, garage shoes, and yard shoes. But even that isn’t the end. Their last watch is as “one-way shoes.” Those veteran soldiers go on holiday, and we get one last hurrah running together.
I never throw away running shoes. Once the last life is out of them, I tie them together by the laces and swim way out into the ocean, let them go, and watch them drift away. Other times, I tie them together and leave them at low tide till the ocean comes and gets them. I have also flung them onto trees in the Okinawan jungle or buried them in my dog’s yard, where my old running dogs rest.
It’s a tradition, something to hang on to. In a world where lifelong loved ones pass at different times, leaving broken hearts behind, I find peace knowing that at least my running shoes can go out together.
1. Gerald Scotti became an agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Los Angeles. In 1984, he was assigned to the John DeLorean case. DeLorean, a multimillionaire who founded the DeLorean Motor Company, was charged with trafficking a hundred kilos of cocaine into the United States. For whatever reason, Scotti testified in favor of DeLorean and helped him win an acquittal for entrapment. Later, during another major drug importation case, Scotti gave confidential government information to a defense attorney and resigned from the DEA. He then completed law school and became a successful criminal defense attorney. On Wednesday afternoon, March 28, 2003, in a Redondo Beach law office, Scotti got into an argument with his business associate, Barry Feldman, whom he accused of embezzling money. Frustrated and enraged, Scotti pulled out a .38-caliber revolver and fired three bullets into Feldman's chest, killing him. Scotti then turned the weapon on himself, firing a fatal shot into his head.
2. Lieutenant Richard Koch died of cancer in 1977. He left this world a bitter man who felt betrayed by members of the Wayne County Sheriff's Department. He left instructions with his wife, Betty, to preclude attendance at his funeral by anyone from our department. The only member allowed was Pete Wilson—the Wayne County Sheriff's Department Police Academy Administrator.