The whistle blows, and I charge across the mat figuring I will dance around like Muhammad Ali
BY DAN KLEIN
It’s June 1983, and I am sitting with 43 other cadets in a classroom at the Albuquerque Police Academy, located next to the Fraternal Order of Police lodge on Jefferson Boulevard Northeast.
The men have their heads shaved, and the women have short, cropped hair. Everyone is nervous. There is yelling.
On Day 2 of the academy, I turn 21. On this day, I find out I’m not in Kansas anymore. I have come from Topeka, Kan., to accept this job as a police cadet in Albuquerque. I make a whopping $5.19 an hour as a cadet.
Today we box. Throughout the next 16 weeks at the Albuquerque Police Academy, we’ll box or wrestle every week. To celebrate my birthday, the instructors give me a special present: I am to box the biggest guy in the class. I am 5-foot-6.
Picture 43 cadets, sitting cross-legged around a gym mat, shaved heads, white T-shirts and blue polyester shorts. It reminds me of what I looked like when I was in kindergarten. I weight in at 140 pounds and look more like a Smurf than a future cop. The cadet I am to box, Andy, who is from Michigan, stands well over 6 feet tall. His muscles have muscles. A real giant.
My squad instructor, Officer Cordova, apparently isn’t in on the birthday surprise. The serious look he gives me while putting on my protective headgear is enough to scare me. “Stay away from this guy, he’ll kill you,” he says.
So much for confidence building. But it’s good advice. Of course, being 21, I do what most 21-year-olds do. I ignore it. The whistle blows, and I charge across the mat figuring I will dance around like Muhammad Ali. What I don’t realize is that Andy’s reach is probably double mine, and he hits me so hard he almost knocks the headgear off my head.
The punch knocks me stupid (an ailment from which many say I never recovered). I stumble sideways and backwards, munching hard on my mouthpiece. Why I remember this I don’t know.
My head must have hurt Andy’s fist because he doesn’t come in for the kill. Then I remember Cordova’s advice to “stay away,” and I begin moving backward and sideways. I am still getting hit but not with the force of that first monster blow.
The lieutenant of the academy realizes what I’m doing and yells for me to get back in there and stop running. I know this means certain death, but not wanting to seem cowardly, I move toward Andy. Thankfully, some of my brain cells are still functioning, and I develop a plan.
I duck low and put my head into Andy’s waist (some say his crotch, but I say his waist). I commence to giving his thighs a thrashing like they’ve never received. He tries to move back. I drape my arms around him, refusing to let go. We look like a drunken couple, trying to slow dance.
While draped around Andy’s waist, savagely punching his thighs, I think of how proud the academy staff must be of me. Klein, the small guy, showing such bravery against this beast of a man. I imagine the academy staff and other cadets comparing me to Odysseus fighting the Cyclops. What a hero I am.
After 90 seconds, the whistle blows, and the fight is stopped. Two more cadets are called to start boxing. I stumble over to Officer Cordova, expecting to be praised for my courage. Instead, he laughs so hard that he can barely tell another cadet to walk me outside because I probably have a concussion.
Later, I am told that after the first punch, everyone thought I would be knocked out. They said that punch must have knocked me silly because for the rest of the fight my head was buried in Andy’s crotch (I say waist). While I swung wildly at his muscular thighs, Andy was beating on me the way Keith Moon beats on his drums during the climax of a performance of The Who.
They say it was one of the funniest boxing matches they have ever witnessed at the APD academy. That was my 21st birthday, the beginning of my life as a cop.
Dan Klein is a retired Albuquerque police sergeant. He can be reached through facebook.com.