I was a cop for fifteen years, but I took my first ride in a scout car long before that, on a beautiful spring day in 1959. I was 10 years old, in fifth grade at Bennett Elementary School in southwest Detroit. Leaning against the tall chain-link fence that enclosed the playground, my two friends Randy McCoy and Jimmy Smith and I were singing Wilbert Harrison’s new hit song “Kansas City”:
“Well, I might take a train, I might take a plane,
but if I have to walk, I’m going just the same.
I’m going to Kansas City, Kansas City, here I come . . .”
The song was so cool, and the fenced-in playground made us feel so trapped, the three of us decided right then, the hell with just singing about Kansas City—we were going!
With more than a hundred other kids in the playground, we wouldn’t be missed. We knew that Kansas lay to the south, so off we went, southward. If Wilbert could walk there and stand on the corner of Twelfth Street and Vine, so could we.
In three miles, we came to the Ambassador Bridge, the gateway to Canada. It was pretty clear that this wasn’t the way to Kansas. Windsor, Ontario, even though it’s in Canada, lies south of Detroit. But we didn’t know that—only that Kansas had to be in the opposite direction. Decision making is simpler when you’re 10. We knew that the sun set in the west, so as long as we kept it on our left, we had to get there eventually.
Walking along the roadside, we collected pop bottles for the two-cent deposit and cashed them in at a grocery store. Then we sat down in the Coney Island restaurant and each had a twenty-cent hot dog and a nickel glass of Coke while we discussed whether we should continue our grand road trip. Jimmy quit right there, but Randy and I kept going until we reached the corner of Livernois and Grand River, three miles north of home. It wasn’t Twelfth Street and Vine in Kansas City, but it was way past dark by then, and Randy said he had had enough, and headed home. I trudged on and made it another three miles to Six Mile Road before a Detroit Police scout car pulled over and two cops picked me up. Apparently, after my frantic parents reported me missing, Randy had told the police where he saw me last and what direction I was heading.
It was nine o’clock when the police walked me up the front steps of my house. My dad had been driving all over Detroit in his heating and air-conditioning service truck, looking for me, while my mother waited at home, crying nonstop. When the police handed me over, she grabbed me in her arms and just sobbed. It made me feel sad that I had scared her, but I really didn’t understand what the big deal was.
* * *
Fourteen years later, on Wednesday, February 21, 1973, after working two years as an undercover narcotics officer and a year doing jail security, I was assigned to uniformed motorized patrol. That afternoon, I reported to the squad room for roll call. Inside the room were rows of lockers and a tall wall-mounted mirror alongside a life-size picture of Patrolman Wilby Pistor, a distinguished deputy from our department. The portrait was there to illustrate proper dress for an officer, including placement and appearance of uniform brass and belt-mounted accessories. Above the mirror, in bold capitals, was the proclamation “YOU REPRESENT THE SHERIFF OF WAYNE COUNTY!”
After working Detroit’s streets undercover in grungy motorcycle attire, I was proud to wear the uniform of one of the finest departments in the state. I was assigned districts 4 and 5, which meant all of southwestern Wayne County. I got in the scout car, and Officer Joe Doloncic drove us out of the parking lot. The weather was horrible, with high winds, heavy snow, and icy roads, and we handled three traffic accidents. Then a guy ran a stop sign, and because he mouthed off instead of just taking a warning, he received my first traffic citation. At dusk, we reached the outskirts of Willow Run Airport just as a twin-engine Learjet descended through the clouds from the southwest at 150 miles per hour, making its final approach. Piloted by Alfred Israel, 36, and Larry Armstrong, 34, and carrying one passenger, Albert Richards, 59, as it touched down, the aircraft slid off the runway, flipped over, and broke apart.
Joe and I were dispatched along with other cars, but when we arrived it was obvious that both pilots were dead. The passenger survived and was transported to Beyer Memorial Hospital. Joe and I assisted until federal investigators arrived. Then we weren’t needed anymore, so we headed back to the station to end our shift. The snow started up again, and as we made our way east on Michigan Avenue, Joe said, “What a trip! Those guys flew all the way from Kansas City in this shitty weather just to come here and die.”
“They were from Kansas City?”
“Yeah, all three of ‘em—hauling auto parts to Ford’s Wixom plant.”
“Jeez, that’s something,” I said, looking out my window at the passing road signs, unable to get Wilbert Harrison’s song out of my head:
. . . going to Kansas City, Kansas City, here I come . . .