Standing eight count: The sensei
How the discipline of karate saved a cop from himself
A “standing eight count” is an eight-second “time out” that a referee can afford a boxer who may find themselves in serious trouble. It’s a chance for the ref to assess if there’s any real damage and gives the fighter some time to catch their breath and continue to fight on. In that spirit, this column will feature law enforcement officers or their family members who have overcome serious challenges in their lives, detailing their own standing eight counts, and how they lived to fight on.
Mandated training in a stifling classroom at a local college. Outdated videos, even more outdated guests, more videos, a break, then more of the same; meal, repeat, and then, God willing, the revered ‘early blow.’
Enter, stage left; a uniform in short sleeves, .38 Smith on his hip, carrying the largest cup of coffee I’d ever seen. Sporting a tight buzz cut over carved-in-granite features, he was of average height, yet blessed with an ectomorph’s sinewy frame; all in all, he resembled at least three of the seven Mercury astronauts.
Perching himself on the edge of the desk, he sipped as he scanned the room, impossibly blue eyes darting about. The cat that wanders on stage in the middle of the play, I couldn’t take my eyes off of him.
“Good afternoon, boys and girls; ladies and gentlemen; officers and sergeants!”
Delicately placing his caffeine vessel on the desk, he began pacing like a Vegas-era Elvis-cum-cop. The reaction of the crowd was visceral, his heat burning away their collective boredom.
“My hope is to have your attention as I try to relay some new thoughts on how better to perform your jobs within an urban environment in which not everyone might love and respect you as much as I and your parents do.”
He had us at hello, launching into a staccato tirade of everything that was wrong with society, policing, economics, the left and right, academia, politics, professional and college football, child-rearing, us and him.
At the break, I approached him standing in a corner sipping his fuel. It turned out we shared a passion for books and film, and a love of Carlin and Pryor; it was the start of a bromance currently in its third decade.
As we got to know each other I learned that after almost 30 years of daily drinking, he’d only recently taken the pledge.
“People tell me I should write a book about policing in the eighties,” he said. “Problem is, I only remember certain months.”
He’d found solace in the martial arts.
“When you put down whatever you’re addicted to, if you’re lucky, you eventually realize your best thinking got you to that darkness, that place of despair. The discipline of karate saved me. Like so many people, I got into it to become a better fighter. But really, I wanted to be a tough guy. My sensei used to say ‘Jiga Sitkyru!’ – throw away your ego. The deeper I entered into the practice I realized how wise he was; it’s all truly you against you. Like in ‘Enter the Dragon,’ when Master Bruce finally comes face to face with himself in that hall of mirrors. If you can’t beat that guy, you don’t have a chance against anyone else.”
After I retired, our friendship devolved into texts, emails and the occasional call, with first weeks, then months apart. Then earlier this year I saw a post on social saying he’d retired and moved out West after suffering a “minor” heart attack.
During one of the many long phone conversations that followed, I was thrilled to learn he’d soon be back in town for a visit. We made plans to meet at our favorite diner.
Looking fit and relaxed, his once wild eyes seemingly at peace, he gestured to a booth in the back as I filled him in on the idea for this column, finishing what I’d started over texts.
“I like it,” he said. “Attempting to keep up the spirits of the girls and boys out on patrol. Very noble, but not an easy thing.”
After we ordered, I challenged him to sum up his knowledge and experience of policing, and life, in a few sentences.
“It’s all about ego, brother, the true root of all evil. Look at me; I’ve been teaching and thinking about this stuff forever, yet I still thought I could handle moving a half-ton boulder by myself. And I had the classic symptoms; pain shooting down my arm, tightness in my chest. ‘Must have sprained something at the gym,’ I convinced myself, and kept right on going. Nothing like a few days in the hospital followed by a few weeks on the couch to reacquaint yourself with your own mortality.”
Through the window we watched an ambulance slalom through traffic, streaking toward someone’s catastrophe.
An impromptu moment of silence followed, each of us remembering ancient disasters, public and private.
“What’s up with your kung fu?” I asked, purposely naming the wrong style.
“Very funny,” he said, not laughing. “You’re still hysterical.”
He paused as the waiter refilled our mugs.
“But ironically, you’re not far off. After my ticker choked me out, I realized it might be time to try something a bit softer. Been doing tai-chi, a little yoga. I may not be as strong as I once was, but I’m more flexible than ever.”
Remembering something I once read in a book on Chinese philosophy, I pointed out how the strength of bamboo lies in its flexibility.
“Look at you, not-so-young Skywalker! Very good! Yes, there’s a lot of truth in that. I mean, my whole life’s journey has been a study in becoming more flexible, literally and figuratively.”
Now on the far side of 60, after almost 40 years of policing, I asked what he’d say if he could address all the recruits at all the academies at once.
“Pride,” he said softly. “If you can’t keep that beast in check out on the street, you’re practically volunteering to be tried by twelve, or worse, carried by six, way before your time. You can go around with your chest puffed, putting people down, knocking guys out, being that so-called tough guy. But late at night, you’re always stuck with you. And you’d better respect that person staring back at you in the mirror, or eventually he or she will beat you into submission.”