Observer | November 10, 2003
Michael Kelley throws open the car door and takes off running.
His shoes leave tracks in the cold, wet grass. His duty belt sags on his hip. The orange cone is a hundred yards away. To him it looks like half a mile.
Behind him, in trainer Bobby Buenings hand, the stopwatch spins.
Michael aced the firearms tests. He’s solid with the books. Through six months of training he has proved he can do everything else it takes to be a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer.
Now he must conquer the obstacle course.
He has to run, drag, climb, crash, push, bend and crawl through a course built to weed out those who lack the strength or speed or will.
And he has to do it in seven minutes and 20 seconds.
He rounds the orange cone now, heading back toward the rest of the course. From a hundred yards away he could be anyone. But with each step closer something new is revealed. The skin is seared. The feet won’t flex. Pieces are missing. Two fingers. An ear.
Nine years ago, Michael Kelley was swallowed by fire. He went through 37 operations. He crawled through his house until he could walk. And every day he inched closer to the man he used to be.
He has seven minutes and 20 seconds to make it all the way back.
* * *
1:01, 1:02, 1:03?
Michael hobbles back to the car, opens the passenger door, pulls out the slumped-over body inside.
Fellow trainee Kris Kodad plays the victim because he’s the right size — 150 pounds. He makes himself dead weight. Michael reaches under his arms and drags him backward.
Buening shuffles beside them, right in Michael’s ear: “Drive! Drive! Drive!”
Michael bends deep at the knees and rears back. Kodad’s heels bounce along the ground. Buening holds his hand out at the 50-foot mark. Michael's shoulder touches.
“Stairs!” Buening shouts. Five steps up one side, five steps down the other. Up and down three times.
The bones in Michael’s toes are fused. He can't spring up on the balls of his feet. So his shoes smack flat on every step.
“Six months, Mr. Kelley,” Buening says.
“This is six months of training, right here.”
Up and down three times. He spins to his left and runs toward a red door in a wood frame. The door is attached to a pulley with 50 pounds of weights.
He lowers his shoulder and lunges. The weights jerk up off the ground. The door flies open and Michael leans through it.
* * *
He had nightmares for a while after it happened. Dreamed the whole thing over again.
That day in 1994 at Pope Air Force Base, when a freak airplane collision caused a huge explosion on the ground. Michael was there with his fellow paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne. The blast let loose a fireball that ran right over him.
More than 100 were wounded, and 24 died. Of the survivors, Michael was hurt the worst. He was burned everywhere but his left shoulder and part of his left side.
Doctors and physical therapists worked on him for three years. He is covered with skin grafts, striped with scar tissue.
“I went through a lot of training in the Army,” he says. “I never trained for having a plane crash on top of me.”
But his training helped him heal.
And his training made him think he had a shot to make it through the police academy.
“I know this sounds strange,” he says, “but I don’t think there’s any significant difference in me between now and back then. The accident didn’t change my views on life. It didn’t change whatever strength is inside me.
“I don’t have the nightmares anymore. When I dream now, I never see myself the way I used to look. I am what I am now.”
* * *
2:06, 2:07, 2:08?
“Don’t do it fast, do it right,” says training supervisor Dave Gehrke. “18? 19? 20. Good.”
Finished with the push-ups, Michael flips over and starts on sit-ups. At the top of each one he shoots a plume of breath that fogs his glasses. Up, back. Up, back. A metronome. He does 20 in 20 seconds.
“Yeah, Mr. Kelley,” Gehrke says. “Go get it.”
Back to the steps. Three times up, three times down. He strains on the third climb. His mouth droops open. The other trainees have stopped warming up. Everybody watches Michael now. They pound their hands on the 40-foot-long concrete pipe in front of them.
Kelley jumps off the last step and makes a hard right. He unclips a flashlight from his belt and turns it on. The pipe is just big enough for a man to crawl through.
He drops to all fours and dives in.
* * *
On the fourth day of training he wrote:
My weaknesses would primarily be physical? I will need to put forth an extra effort to correct this.
The day before, as part of a routine physical-fitness check, Michael could do just 23 push-ups. After the bench press, the run, the flexibility test, the trainers put his results into their formula. He scored a 33 out of 100.
Six months later the class goes in for its last checkup, 11 days before the obstacle course.
Trainer Glenn Jones turns on a tape player with a recording of a metronome. The class has to do push-ups with the same thock-thock rhythm.
The tape runs for a minute. Michael does 42 push-ups without slowing down.
In six months he has gained 6 pounds of muscle, lost 4 percentage points of body fat, added 30 pounds to his bench press. He improved everywhere but the mile-and-a-half run. His final score is 56.
Still, that’s barely average. A police officer has to be more than just healthy. Suspects run. Then they fight when you catch them.
“Look,” Gehrke says one morning. “Michael is never going to be the guy who chases down the crook. But he’s got stamina and he’s tough. Our tests are set up to screen out people who can’t fulfill the physical requirements. He’s met every one.”
* * *
3:42, 3:43, 3:44?
Jeff Williams, the class president, yells through a crack in the concrete pipe.
“Go on, Hollywood! Get on through there, Mike!”
Ten seconds later Michael eases out the other end. Two trainers are waiting with a mat. Twenty more push-ups, twenty more sit-ups.
This time everything is slower. On the push-ups his arms quiver. On the last few sit-ups he can barely lift himself.
Recruit Richard Jones runs over and squats next to him.
“It’s all you, man. All day. One at a time.”
Michael's arms are streaked with dirt and sweat. His lips are coated with white flecks. He breathes so hard his shirt comes untucked.
One last sit-up. He staggers to his feet. He has to run out to the cone again. But he heads in the wrong direction, way off at an angle. It takes him four steps to stumble back toward the right line.
Buening warned them weeks ago. The class had come out to practice the obstacle course. They didn’t go full speed. Some in the class didn’t think it was so hard.
Wait and see what it’s like on test day, he said then. Wait and see when it’s for real.
* * *
4:59, 5:00, 5:01?
The class started out with 20. One quit the first week. Another blew out his knee playing volleyball on the weekend. Williams came up with a slogan for the rest: One machine, 18 parts. They had it sewn on the class flag.
The slowest part of the machine has two minutes left. He trudges out toward the cone.
Jose Aguirre waves him in with both hands, like he’s pulling a rope. Billy Kiley yells until his voice cracks.
Buening, the trainer, keeps checking his stopwatch.
Michael rounds the cone.
Kris Kodad takes his spot next to the police car. He gets to be dragged away again. It’s the last physical task on the obstacle course.
Michael runs toward the car, and all of a sudden the shouting stops. No one says anything. The class leans forward in a line against the concrete pipe.
Thirty steps away.
He comes up behind Kodad, reaches under his arms again, stands there for a long second.
Then he pulls.
And the noise explodes.
“Straight back, Mike!”
“One more time!”
“Be strong, Hollywood!”
Michael doesn't hear any of this. Instead he hears a voice in his head:
Maple and Monroe?
Monroe and Maple?
At the beginning of the obstacle course, Buening told him two street names. At the end Michael has to repeat them in order.
If he gets them wrong, he has to run to the cone and back again.
If he has to go out there again, he’ll run out of time.
Maple and Monroe? Monroe and Maple?
He resets his grip around Kodad. Pulls hard one last time. Backs into Buening’s waiting hand.
“Gimme your street names!”
Buening holds his finger over the stopwatch button.
“MAPLE AND MONROE!”
“Wooooo!” Buening hollers, doing his best Ric Flair.
He looks down at the stopwatch.
Michael pulls off the duty belt. The whole class crowds around him.
But after a second or two he walks off by himself, near the edge of the woods.
He leans over, hands on his thighs, and he stays like that a long time.
Out on the obstacle course, Sean Parker struggles through the second set of sit-ups. He lies on the mat until he musters the strength. He finishes the course with five seconds to spare.
On this day Michael Kelley is not the slowest.
He walks back toward the obstacle course, over where Michael Davis is standing. Davis is a former Forsyth County deputy. Everybody calls him Sheriff.
“You OK, Hollywood?” Davis says.
Michael looks out at the obstacle course, draws in a deep breath.
“It’s all over, man,” he says. “It’s all over.”
They spend most of it waiting. They had one last uniform inspection in the morning, when they all turned in their patches that said POLICE TRAINEE.
They split up to meet with the officers they'll be teaming with on patrol. Every new officer rides with a veteran for 14 weeks. Michael has been assigned to the Baker 3 district in east Charlotte.
Afterward, the recruits talk about cop shows.
“Baretta,” Jeff Williams says. “He was the man.”
“I liked ‘Adam-12,’ ” Billy Kiley says.
“Starsky and Hutch.”
“You know,” Ben West says, “the sci-fi network is remaking ‘Battlestar Galactica.’ ”
“Hang with us, Ben,” Ron Webster says. “Focus, son.”
Before long the families start to show up. The recruits mingle for a while, then go back upstairs to the classroom where they met every morning.
Buening stands in front of the group for the last time.
“What else is there to say?” he says. “I wish you all the best. Always be safe. Make the right decisions out there. Stay motivated. Do the right thing.
“In about 20 minutes here, we’re going to be brothers and sisters. Be proud of that badge. Don’t bring any disrespect to it.
“All right. Line up.”
They go down the hall, wait in the stairwell, walk past the photos of the officers killed in the line of duty.
They sit in the front of the auditorium. They get three standing ovations.
The choir sings and the chief of police gives a speech and the chaplain says a prayer.
Then they are called up one by one.
When it comes Michael’s turn, he climbs the stage and shakes a row of hands. Buening is the last one in the row.
“This is a real honor, for me to be able to give this to you,” Buening says.
And he hands Michael Kelley his badge.
* * *
One other thing about that day on the obstacle course.
It happened after Michael staggered to his feet for his last run.
After the accident, he didn’t run at all for eight years. Since he started back, he hobbled around every corner, limped with every stride.
But for a minute there that day, he caught a second wind, or something popped loose, or his body was too tired to hurt.
The awkward stride planed off. The clomping feet hit the ground smooth.
The obstacles were almost done with.
Michael Kelley ran free.
Reprinted with permission of the Charlotte Observer.