Commentary: If this turkey hadn't been chicken, he 'cudda been a contenda'
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 26, 2008 - The St. Louis Police Gym is on the top floor of the downtown Police Academy. Like every other institution, it has undergone changes over time.
I first walked into the place in the fall of 1973 for a pre-employment physical. At the time, it exuded a certain gothic charm.
Climbing ropes hung from a vaulted ceiling; beside the ropes were two ancient sets of gymnast rings to accommodate the more acrobatically inclined. These were suspended over a weight room with a concrete floor offering an impressive array of serious iron waiting to be displaced by those who would improve their physique through strenuous exertion.
Dingy gray and dirty white were the decor of choice. On the west wall of the weight-lifting area was a hand-printed sign that read, "If your mother doesn't work out here, pick up after yourself."
Above all this was an elevated indoor track (11 laps = 1 mile) that hovered over a regulation-sized basketball court. There, legendary noon-time hoops games were contested between cops, prosecutors, correctional officers and, basically, anybody else who could show up without being thrown out. Security back then was a sort of word-of-mouth affair -- if you knew somebody, you got in.
Today, you're electronically scanned before gaining entrance. The interior has been transformed by the miracle of asset forfeiture: an ironically appropriate program that compels criminals to contribute to the fitness of the cops who chase them.
Though the gym -- renamed "the Fitness Center" -- is now equipped and decorated like a modern health club, it's still not the kind of place where you see pert young women prancing about in color-coordinated warm-up suits.
The informal dress code might best be described as early Rocky Balboa, with combat boots and sweat pants enjoying preference over expensive work-out attire. The blue-collar atmosphere is further enhanced by the signs on the walls. Though professionally printed, the content hints at their anticipated clientele.
There are, of course, the usual motivational cliches, including the venerable LAPD admonition, "The more you sweat in here, the less you bleed on the street." Over each urinal and commode in the men's room is a small plastic sign imploring one to "Please Flush After Use."
Other signs in the locker room read, "Please Do Not Spit On The Floor." Placards above the drinking fountain and on the track ban spitting at those locations as well. Though these restrictions strike me as both reasonable and modest, you're not likely to see this sort of thing at the M.A.C.
I mention all of this because the police gym was the birthplace of tonight's "Guns 'N Hoses" amateur boxing tournament. This charitable event, now in its 21st year, has become a pre-Thanksgiving tradition in local law enforcement circles. It's held to raise money for the Backstoppers -- the nonprofit organization that supports the families of slain police officers and firefighters -- and it's open to the public.
In the months before the inaugural matches, aspiring pugilists from the police and fire departments trained together at the gym. There was a certain giddy tension in air - good-natured jocularity masking the underlying realization that all this effort was going to culminate in two men squaring off in a ring at the center of a crowded auditorium.
I was minding my own business in the weight room one day when the boxing coach came by to recruit me for the team. I immediately declined, explaining that I suffered from a life-long aversion to being punched. Any fight that I got involved in tended to be a spur of the moment affair, reluctantly undertaken and usually poorly concluded.
The coach assured me that if I followed his instructions, he'd teach me to give better than I took. I mulled that prospect but ultimately declined, reasoning that if training would minimize my chances of getting hit, staying out of the ring entirely should pretty much neutralize the threat.
Of course, being a chicken has never prevented me from enjoying the spectacle. Now that my daughters are grown, they join me at a cop bar on Hampton Avenue for pre-fight drinks and pizza. We then board a bus and travel en mass with other patrons to the Scottrade Center for a rollicking evening of beer, boxing and the bravado of others.
And the money raised couldn't go to a more noble cause. When a cop or firefighter makes the ultimate sacrifice in the defense of others, our attention understandably gravitates to the person who lost his or her life. More often than not, however, the fallen hero leaves behind a family that suddenly lacks a paycheck.
The Backstoppers -- supported solely by private donations -- come to the rescue of the grieving survivors, assuring that the kids still get an education and the family can keep its home.
This season of thanks is the ideal time to support a truly worthwhile effort. If you can't make tonight's fights, you can always send a check. But by all means try to attend. It's a lot of fun and you'll have a good time. Just, please, try not to spit on the floor.
M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon.