Question for the week
Each day a different chapter from The Square Root of Someone is featured. Readers often ask if the essays are true. Every single one is.
Eating an Elephant
The application was a work of art, filled out front and back, with symmetrical black “X’s” carefully touching the corners inside the proper boxes. Earl’s signature was uncharacteristically readable.
“What do you think?” he asked as I studied the form, reading each question and its answer. I took my time.
“What do you think?” he repeated.
“I think you should go for it.”
“You do, you really do?”
“I’ve always wanted to be a policeman,” he said. “I’d make a good one too.”
“You probably would, but there’s one thing --”
“I know, I’m sixty-three years old.”
It was January 1999 when the City of Chicago announced it would accept applications for the police department. In the past, this announcement had been met with thousands of responses from younger men and women wanting to join the force.
But times changed.
The academic qualifications for eligibility were raised, so some individuals who might have previously considered applying could not. Today's economy is good, and the starting salary of $33,500 isn't as attractive as it once was. And, yes, the Chicago Police Department has had its share of morale and ethics problems.
“I’ve read all the instructions,” Earl said. “You must be at least twenty-three years old, live in the city, and have the equivalent of an Associate’s Degree. There is nothing written anywhere about an older age limit.”
"Maybe they figure older people self-select themselves out,” I said.
“Then why can’t I self-select myself in? For the twenty dollar admission fee, I’ll take the academic test and go from there.”
Earl walked his application form and check to City Hall, not trusting the mails to deliver them on time. Then he purchased several books of sample exams and poured over them as if he were trying to pass the bar or his CPA. When directions for admission to the testing site arrived, he practically memorized them.
“If you’re late, you won’t be admitted,” he read aloud to me. “No beepers, no cell phones, no excuses. Maybe we should do a dry run to the testing facility and see where I can park.”
“If you want to,” I said. “We can do dinner too.”
Half an hour later, we sat in Pegasus, my favorite Greektown restaurant, spreading saganaki on that wonderful bread and reviewing Earl’s game plan. Even under normal circumstances, Earl has a lot of nervous energy. He taps his fingers on the tablecloth, rearranges the salt and pepper, and crosses and uncrosses his legs. That night, he was really excited.
“I never dreamed I’d get this chance,” he said. “When I was younger, a cop’s pay wasn’t very good. I had a wife and child to support and needed to make more money. I also learned early in my career that I wasn't the smartest or the fastest, so I decided I would work the hardest and the longest."
This is how Earl finished undergraduate school, one course at a time, in fourteen years. It is how he became a success in the business world. He was always there, chipping away, never giving up, making one more telephone call, checking one more detail, writing one more note.
I could see him applying this principle to the dream.
He calls it eating an elephant.
"Take a task that seems insurmountable or a challenge that seems impossible and pretend it's an elephant," he has told me on more occasions than I care to count. "Don't look at the obstacles. Just concentrate on that elephant. How would you eat it? You'd eat it piece by piece, bite by bite. Slowly."
The first bite was the three-hour multiple-choice test on that Sunday in mid-March of 1999. He came home convinced that he hadn’t done well, and consoled himself with the fact that he’d been allowed to take the exam in the first place. It had been at least a passing acquaintance with his dream, if not a full-fledged love affair.
The official letter arrived the end of April.
Earl had passed the academic test with a solid 89 and was eligible for the next phase. It meant filling out more forms, obtaining college transcripts and medical records, and showing up for a physical examination that included drug testing and finger printing.
“Did you know they take a piece of your hair because drugs stay in hair longer than in other parts of the body?” he asked after a day of being poked and prodded. “Did you know they run a check on your prints? Did you know only one person asked how old I was?”
“And what did you say?”
“I’ll be sixty-four in August, sir.”
“Yes, everyone is sir.”
“And what did Sir say to that?”
“He laughed. Said I could be the first recruit who retires before ever going on the job.”
Everyone who passed the basic physical took a power test a couple weeks later. It consisted of four events with minimum standards based on gender and age. For practice purposes, Earl set his goal to qualify with the fifty-to-fifty-nine age group. This meant sitting and extending the arms towards the toes with straight legs, doing 23 sit-ups in a minute, achieving a maximum bench press of seventy percent of his weight, and running a mile and a half in 16.21. Fortunately, Earl had been a serious member of a health club for years.
“I’m hiring a personal trainer to help get me through this,” he told me. “Someone who can show me the right way to lift the weights. I’m going to start running regularly at the club too.”
“Sounds like a plan,” I said. “Are you going to tell anyone you’re trying to become a policeman?"
I already knew the answer.
"Let's wait and see. If I make it, I'll have to quit being a real estate broker, because you can't have a second job for the first year. If I don’t make it, nobody needs to know, but I'll be in better shape."
And so it went for almost a year. Although Earl often came home uncertain of the outcome, he passed each phase of the admission process. By the time Officer Bradley came to our home for a personal interview, Earl's sixty-fourth birthday had come and gone.
"Why are you doing this?" Officer Bradley asked, as he sat in our living room and stared at the spectacular view from our tenth floor condo. “My supervisor will want to know.”
"Life has been good to the Misch family," Earl said. "I want to give something back."
What other soon-to-be-eligible-for-Medicare person gives back by dusting off the dream of his twenties and going after it? What other soon-to-be-sixty-five year old believes a dream is the pilot light under your fire, and you should -- as the commercial urges -- just do it?
Officer Bradley told Earl that new classes were starting at the Police Academy all the time, and that he could anticipate receiving a letter to join one of them.
"Do you think you ought to tell your family what you're doing?"
It was a question I now asked after each hurdle was cleared.
"Not yet. Not until I get that letter in my hand."
Finally, just as we were going on vacation to San Francisco, the letter of admission to the Academy came. We read it over and over, first skimming paragraph by paragraph, then studying sentence by sentence, finally digesting it word by word. Earl was to start at the Academy on Monday, February 28, 2000.
"Maybe it is time to tell the family," he said.
The harbor wore its winter look as we sat in the dining room of the Columbia Yacht Club with Earl's son and daughter, her husband, and his grandson. It's times like these, when gray has become a permanent resident, that it's difficult to remember how exciting the lakefront is in summer.
Earl's announcement caused its own excitement.
"Dad, you've been your own boss for a long time. Do you realize what you're doing? You'll have to take orders," said Son Rich.
"Can we call you 'Officer Grandpa'?" asked Grandson Alex.
"I think it's great," said Daughter Adaire. "You're something else."
But the most telling reaction came from Earl's son-in-law who loves to talk with anyone about anything. When it finally registered that his father-in-law was about to become a police recruit, Mark's mouth dropped open, but not one word squeaked out.
And so began the next phase: actual training.
Generally, a class of recruits stays at the Academy twenty-two weeks learning what it takes to become a police officer. There is the physical training, the weaponry, the study of law, handcuffing technique, practice in simulated situations, and ethics classes. From time to time, there are tests that must be passed before the PPO, probationary police officer, can move to the next level of instruction.
When he came home at the end of the first day, Earl said that graduation would be on June 30. I grabbed a calendar and counted off the weeks.
“But that’s only eighteen weeks away,” I said.
“If we don’t graduate by then, we’ll lose some federal funding,” he explained. “So they’re going to extend each day an extra two hours till further notice.”
I shook my head.
Fortunately for Earl, we lived close to the Academy and his commute was easy; but he still rose at 3:45 each morning to study and prepare for the first class at 6 a.m. When he came home between four and five in the afternoon, there was not much energy left. The couch was his only destination. I made dinner and woke him for it.
Afterwards, Earl watched whatever cop program the television offered: NYPD, reruns of NYPD, Homicide: Life on the Street, even the ten o’clock news. Then he’d drag off to bed to begin the routine over again.
Week One became Week Two, which eventually turned into Week Five, and then Week Seven. By Week Nine, Earl -- and, I’ve got to believe, the other recruits -- were operating on adrenaline. They’d been doing ten hours days at the Academy, five days a week, on top of getting there and getting home. Weekends meant cleaning equipment and studying for tests.
Approximately ten percent of the 112 members of his class dropped out. Some didn’t like it, others had unexpected problems -- like a death in the family or a broken leg -- that made them eligible to repeat the training at a later date. Those who stuck it out developed a sense of camaraderie. They helped each other survive the rough parts and endure the boring ones.
“Okay, on a scale of one to ten, how was your day?”
It was my new question
“Today, was a five. We ran from the Academy to Sears Tower, dropped on the concrete to do calisthenics, and then ran back to the Academy. I thought I’d die. But I bet the tourists and office workers on their lunch hour enjoyed the show.”
The day they made the east Academy lawn into a mud pit and the recruits crawled through it on their backs was also a five.
“We had our sweats on,” he said, “By the time we were done, there was mud everywhere, inside and out. Of course, we had to be at our next class in ten minutes, so you should have seen the race for the showers.”
He handed me a plastic garbage bag filled with muddy blue clothing.
The Chicago Police Department seems uniform-happy. Besides sweat clothes which are “monogrammed” with his last name across the chest, Earl purchased khaki uniforms for classes at the Academy. Then there were the official blue uniforms for on the job, rain gear, hats, and blues for dress occasions. Add to this the requisite weapon, duty belts, handcuffs, a bulletproof vest, as well as other incidentals; and the bill came to almost four thousand dollars. To be honest, that includes the shirt he bought me which says “Be safe tonight, sleep with a cop.”
“I have to holster and unholster my weapon at least two hundred times just to break it in,” he answered before I even asked. I had come upon him standing in front of the mirror, feet apart, hands at the ready. Little did I know that we would soon have a paper target above our fireplace for what he called “dry firing.” Nor did I know Saturday mornings would be given up to visiting a private range for practice.
“We have to get a score of seventy to pass range,” Earl kept holstering and unholstering. “I’m having problems. I just need more time and more practice.”
So Earl spent lunch hours at the Academy range until the day he called me mid-morning on a break and said he’d passed.
That day was a ten.
At the April meeting of the Chicago City Council, Mayor Richard M. Daley introduced a proposal that would require all firemen and policemen to retire at age 63. TV and newspaper reports of this proposal noted that it affected approximately sixty to seventy police officers immediately “and one sixty-four year old recruit currently in the Academy.”
That night our telephone rang.
“Yes, sir,” I heard Earl say. “What do you want me to do?”
It was Mr. Gary Schenkel, Assistant Deputy Superintendent (ADS) of the Academy, who probably doesn’t make a habit of calling new recruits at home. But he alerted Earl that a television reporter wanted information about the sixty-four year old recruit. How did he get into the program? How did he feel about the mayor’s proposal?
The ADS told Earl he could decide whether to be interviewed or not; it was up to him.
“What about classes,” Earl asked. “Am I still in the Academy?”
“As far as we are concerned, you are to report here every morning, business as usual.”
We didn’t answer the telephone the rest of the night.
The public face on the retirement proposal was that the mayor believes policemen over the age of sixty-three are not capable of the rigorous physical activity associated with their jobs. He hasn’t met Earl.
The private face on the proposal is probably a lot more complicated. Wouldn’t most policemen that age have been promoted to desk jobs? Are they among the higher paid? What about people who are almost sixty-three but haven’t served enough time to be eligible for pensions down the road. Why have mandatory retirement when natural attrition is reducing the police force?
In the middle of May, the Chicago City Council rubber-stamped the mayor’s mandatory retirement proposal. Word in the newspapers was that all policemen over sixty-three must retire on December 31, 2000. In the meantime, Earl continued to work toward graduation.
What you’ve probably realized is that Give Up and Quit are not in Earl’s vocabulary. He waited forty years to follow his dream, and now it seemed he would only get to be a policeman for a few months. Re-evaluation wasn't even a consideration, although once in a while he would whisper to me, “If I’d known then what I know now, I’m not sure I would have done this.”
You want to know something?
He would have done it anyway.
Today is June 1. He just walked in the door, smiling from head to toe, rather than sighing with exhaustion.
“We had to vote for the recruit we’d most want to be partnered with in the real world,” he said. “Everyone wrote their choice on a piece of paper. Then we collected them and tallied the vote. Earl Misch won.”
It’s the closest I’ve ever seen him come to absolute elation.
The mayor personally participates in every class’s graduation, which is held at Navy Pier; and I can’t wait to see his face when he shakes Earl’s hand. Then we will party.
We’ll take photos and listen to Earl tell cop stories. We’ll shake our heads in amazement and pride. Mostly, we'll celebrate that one “senior citizen” saw a chance to realize his long-held dream, even if he has to “retire” with only six months on the job.
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