A Thursday Surprise
In boxing, the first sign of a great fighter losing touch is his proclaiming
himself to be the peoples' champion. Living in his citadel, surrounded by pumped bodyguards, and suffering from delusions of invincibility, the champion at this point knows no more about being champion of the people,
then a roach knows about the Declaration of Independence.
If there's one undeniable benefit to being a master of the martial arts, it's that you have freedom of movement. Sensei could go anywhere he wanted to go,
whenever he wanted to. Thoughts about muggings, or late night attacks, or being accosted by street people never barred him from going about his business.
To the contrary. He was popular with the people of the street, and of the night.
Sensei belonged with the people. It's as though he had chosen humility and hardship at some early stage in his life, and by so
doing, had forever appended himself to that level of society where earning a living meant struggle and uncertainty. As I recall, each day his efforts barely produced enough for the next day's sustenance. Manual labor
had become his destiny.
Destiny or not, he loved physical motion, and even when seen working a jackhammer, or rolling hot asphalt on a smoldering summer roadway, he would be making a study of the physical
motions. He experimented with everything, and struck at the opportunity to surprise and challenge those about him.
This story begins when one morning I was awakened by a pounding on my door. "Hey Mac, get
out of bed. Let's go to Seattle and see what's happening in Chinatown."
Rolling over, I found it was still dark outside. The soft glow of my night clock outlined five-thirty on the dial. It was Thursday.
When Sensei decided to do something, a timer began ticking impatiently away in his head. When he showed up on your doorstep at dawn, you'd better be ready to go somewhere, and fast.
I tried to coax him into some coffee, and perhaps some breakfast to which he responded, "No, Mac. I already ate."
I understood that to mean "Forget the breakfast, get dressed, and let's go."
Within minutes, we were on the road headed North. He was philosophical that morning, setting the tone for the day. Driving up, he bubbled over with recollections about his teachers, and his
years at the Temple (he learned his art while spending his youth in Japan, orphaned to a Buddhist Temple). The way I figured, he was dealing with a heavy sense of nostalgia, and just needed a
place to go to, and someone to spend some time with.
I was happy to fit the bill, but I was still famished.
We trekked about Seattle in the early morning, observing people dashing to work. How
wondrously detached we were. I was unemployed at that time, and Sensei chose not to work that day. On a different day, in a suit and shaved, I could have been one of those android like
creatures, rushing to or fro in tune to some distant refrain. But who am I to be judgmental? Was my plight any better than theirs?
The only time I felt "in control" of my own destiny I was heavy on the skids, out of work, and forced to make strings of decisions about what to do next with my time. Could rushing about as they were be so bad?
As morning wore on, we drifted toward First Avenue and the Public Market. This was always like going to the circus. Thrown together in one spot at one time were the wealthy, the destitute, and
the in between. I'm sure the well-to-do came in part to gloat over, or to savor the street people, the potential escorts, the street vendors and the panhandlers, while the people of the street came to
market their wares to the wealthy, whatever wares they had to offer. For those with nothing to market, there was always the chance to play some hustle, or to pick someone's pocket.
Framing the human landscape, were the middle class, who would gawk at the wealthy and sidestep the poor, in essence, filling in the spaces necessitated by commerce.
I was sidelined, looking into the window of an antique shop, when, in the reflection, I saw Sensei talking to a group of tattered characters. I overheard "... a worn out old man getting a drink this
time of day?" One of them pointed off toward the South side of the market. Sensei nodded his head, showing exaggerated thanks, swinging it up and down in a wild arc. I could see Sensei was
doing one of his ingratiating routines, playing dumb and harmless. An act!
I wondered what was up.
Minutes later, we were in the portal to the F&A tavern. Actually, you probably had to be an initiate
to even know where the entry to this place was. Sitting on First Avenue, between two vacant store fronts, was a door with a decaled "F&A" on the cracked glass. As we opened the door, our senses
were flooded by a warm bubble of moist air from below. When my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could see a row of steps dropping into the bowels of the Seattle underground. The steps veered hard to the left at bottom.
The sound of voices arguing in the darkness floated upward.
We descended the steps, and with each downward step, the scent of raw humanity grew stronger.
I felt I had entered the mouth of some beast, and was slowly glissading down its digestive passageway. How far down would they lead me?
I lost my footing on one of the steps, fell, and in the dim light, saw I had slipped on a load of what appeared to be human excrement. The stench was unbearable. As I got back to my feet, I felt like
a complete idiot. Why was I there? I stared questioningly at Sensei, who said nothing.
At the bottom, we turned right and entered a cavernous chamber. I could barely see scattered rows
of tables and benches, in no recognizable pattern. We walked forward and after a stop or two I stumbled over the body of a down-at-the-heels, whose torso lay propped against the wall at the
edge of the stairs. The undeniable reek of urine poured through my nostrils and flooded my consciousness.
I struggled with my gag reflex to keep things under control. I could see now it was fortunate I
hadn't eaten that morning.
"Let's get the hell out of here," I said turning to Sensei, but he was already taking seat at a nearby
table, hollering out to some aged leatherskin in the distance to bring over "Two glasses of something cold and wet."
I was getting royally pissed off!
"Mac, how do you like this place?"
"Is that a serious question?" I retorted.
"Don’t be so touchy. It's important for you to be here. You've learned about defeat from
tournaments, but did you ever wonder what happens to a man whose spirit has been crushed? Look around. For some, it's here. See them first hand. These are the empty shells after human
dignity, spirit, and capacity for love have been orphaned. An empty, dark cavern with a vile stench, inhabited by worms and vermin living only for the next indulgence."
He continued, "Think of how you appear right now. To them you could just as well be a camel. You are so different from these creatures. But what makes you so different? Do you deserve a
better destiny? Do they deserve worse? Is it fate, karma, cosmic coincidence, God’s favor? Now you see it, now you don't. When you leave here, they're gone. Forgotten! These are the mysteries
of life which continue unanswered forever. Look. The five men in the corner have already spotted you. I’ll bet they’re planning to strip you clean. They might even kill you! No one would ever find
out if it happened down here."
Sensei continued on, but when he said they might kill me, my panicked gaze riveted on the far end
of the pit, where I made out the shapes of moving bodies, where before there had been only shadows. One of them, a bearded man wearing leather bottoms and no shirt, began to drift in my
direction. He walked close by, taking notice particularly of me, flashed a look of scorn, then hissed “shit” in contempt. I knew he already hated me, or what he made me out to be. He went on
over to the bar, and as I turned my panicked look toward Sensei, I overheard "Who's the faggot with the wetback?"
Though I missed some of his words, Sensei had still been talking, "...and you can't be angry with a scorpion if it stings you when you pick it up. In the same fashion, a shark is a shark. They can't
be hated or despised because their conscience is different from ours. For them good is a full stomach. It doesn't matter that some living being has to be shredded to accomplish that. That's the
nature of sharks. They don’t live by our code. The animals here are like sharks. When hungry, they will strike. Right or wrong is not for us to determine. They have no choice. That, my friend is
the ultimate knowledge for a martial artist. That, plus we have the right to react. The right to defend ourselves. It all reduces to eating when you're hungry, sleeping when you need rest, and
walking where you please. I’m sure you know, for most, even these simple things sometimes pose great risks, and for that reason you have worked all these years to develop your discipline, your
courage, and your skills."
"Good Lord!" I cried out, "The
bastards are headed this way!"
Sensei flashed an admonishing glance at my casual use of profanity.
"Stand beside me here, where they can see you better. Let them see your indomitable spirit."
I thought I saw where this was headed. Man was glad he was with me. "I might hate this, but I'll tell you, if I have to go down fighting, you're the one I want beside me."
I could say that the five approaching figures looked threatening, but it wasn't that. They were bizarre, like something out of a drunken trance, or a nightmare. One man with leather
bottoms and a bare top, the other with cutoff shorts and a sweat shirt, another, skinny as a rail but whose movements exuded feline grace, as he seemed to float toward us. The fourth
was twirling a baton like instrument, I couldn’t make out what it was. He wore a head band, and looked like he had just walked out of a kung fu movie. The fifth lumbered
like a bear. He could have been one for all I knew. When he stepped from shadow into gray light, I saw a face printed over with madness, hate and pain.
I knew Sensei could handle them, and counted myself privileged he stood with me. I wouldn't know what to do if I were alone surrounded by these five, and somehow had to get out.
Sensei, standing beside me, cautioned, "Keep cool, clear your mind, have faith in yourself and your technique. Trust yourself, trust your discipline, trust all those years of commitment and hard
work, of doing what you deemed impossible. This is just another step, no different. Tell me, how do you feel?"
With his words, a train of mental images flashed across my mind. I had recollections of walking
across hot coals, lying submerged in iced over lakes, climbing out of abandoned wells, and being buried alive. These were all terrifying experiences I had survived, and Sensei had guided me through them safely.
"Sensei," I whispered, "I'm ready."
I did feel good. Whole. Complete, even integrated. It was a new experience.
But turning, I found Sensei was gone. I mean, completely gone! He had vanished!
As I searched about frantically, leatherpants came at me, throwing a looping boxer's roundhouse. I
ignored the punch and drilled him twice in the forehead with the iron palm, I wasn’t taking chances. He was momentarily stunned and blinded when the tail of the dragon smashed against the
back of his right knee him slamming to the ground.
Kung Fu came next with his baton, which I ripped from his hand and threw into the far shadows.
He threw a side kick with his left leg, but I was already on the ground with cobra, wrapping my feet about his supporting right leg and knee. I rolled onto my shoulder, twisting and snapping.
There was a scream of pain, a few choice profanities, and as I rolled to clear, I was distracted by what appeared to be a two foot long rat, staring at me with moon eyes from under the table. Whose nightmare was I in?
I slid beneath the table, to spring up on the other side, where instantly, I was seized from behind
by leatherpants, now back on his feet. To my front, a spark in the darkness told me the tip of a knife was headed toward my midsection. Instinctively, I stepped with my right foot across the
front of my left, and moved leatherpants from behind me, forward and into the incoming knife. He made no sound, but I knew he was hit. I felt the stream of life pouring from his body.
With both hands, I reached past the falling body to grab the thin man's head. With a corkscrew twist, I drove him headfirst into the ground. His fight was over!
I struggled to remember how many were left. Counting quickly, I knew that three were down, but who remained? My right eye glimpsed a hand about to strike, but I was too late to block, and took
a hard head shot, almost knocking me from my feet. As the man in cut offs closed to kick me, I stepped inside instinctively driving the top of my forehead into his nose. At the same time, with a
thunderous clap, I slammed my open hands against his ears.
I remembered now. Only one remained. I sighted the "bear" and stood ready to face him square.
He moved toward me, slowly, eying carefully, stopping at attacking distance from my front.
"What brought you here today?"
Stunned speechless, I gaped at him. Was he talking to me? I advanced threateningly but he never moved. I knew to attack was pointless, no way was I going to penetrate his defenses. In fact,
unless my eyes deceived, he had taken the dragon stance.
"Circumstances," I answered. "My friend is trying to get rid of me!"
"Was that Sensei I saw you with?"
"Yes," I replied, not believing what I'd just heard. Could he too have studied the arts, yet ended here? In a flash, I realized all things were possible. Good and bad, that nothing stood guaranteed,
and that I too might someday find myself at home in one such hopeless pit.
He backed off, turned about, then walked away. As he dissolved into the darkness, a "You’d better
get out of here!" reached back to my ears.
Only then, did I begin to feel the aches and to notice the briny taste of blood rolling about in my
mouth. I stank, and was filthy. For an instant, I was lost. I was disoriented, and it took me several turns walking aimlessly about the room to find the stairs.
In time, I caught the faint beam of light trickling down from above.
I struggled my way painfully up the stairs. Sensei waited at the top, with a big smile on his face, and a hug.
"I see you survived."
I had no words in response. I was too exhausted to be angry, and was just hoping to make it back to the car. "You're gonna have to drive us home," I said.
"Mac," he said, "I have a present for you."
Looking Looking over to Sensei, I saw him holding a
black sash out to me with two extended hands. "Today, you've earned it! You are number five. Four others have received it before you."
With his worn hands, he tied the belt around my
waist. I saw my reflection off a storefront window. Passers by wondered what we were up to. I felt like I was on a different planet, thinking about what had just happened. Seeing myself in the glass looking like
I had come out of a garbage can, stinking so bad I could scarcely breathe.
"Let's find a place where I can get cleaned up."
We went on down to the water front, where beneath a
secluded dock, I stripped down and immersed my aching body into the freezing Puget Sound. The cold water actually soothed my wounds and quieted my pain. I closed my eyes and let go. A soothing minute
passed, when a sound from nearby startled me, my eyes sprung open.
As I turned right, I could see that it had again become
dark outside, as I once again focused my eyes on the glow. The soft light of my night clock outlined six o'clock on the dial.
My thoughts then ran to my years of study with Sensei in his “ninja hideaway,” hidden within the Black Hills outside of Olympia, Washington, and the countless challenges I had faced under his guidance.
Once, he asked if I trusted him, and I answered that I certainly did.
Then he asked, "And if I took you to the middle of a bridge and ordered you to ‘Jump!’ would you?"
"Yes Sensei, I would!"
"And why would you do that?"
"Because in the years that we've spent together, I've learned to trust you, and that you wouldn't tell
me to do something, unless there was a reason. But regardless, you would be there to help me, if I needed you."
Well Sensei didn't believe in giving rank. Our students were white belts, except for four, who of the thousands trained by Sensei, were privileged to wear the color black.
I would have been the fifth, had Sensei not met his tragic end in an ill fated mountain rescue.
When he left, I was alone. The light was turned off.
Aimless years of following the harvests, living hand to mouth, factory labor in San Francisco, laid off, drifting north again to Seattle, in and out of business, up one year, down the next, no time to
be happy, but always making time for practicing the art. His art. Don't ask me to explain why! Maybe I ended a past life as a fish on his hook, and it carried over!
I remember now. It seems long ago, but it was only last night. I returned home from work exhausted, as usual, and had a couple drinks, as usual, and as the warm glow enveloped my body,
my arms and legs lay tightly against the mattress. My thoughts ran to Sensei, and how nothing in my life seemed so important as wearing his black belt, but it could never be. He left before he had
finished. Now, it springs back to mind ... my last thought before sleeping was that he had abandoned me.
Suddenly, awake, my realization is that he had not! The dream was a test! As real as fire! I was his
unfinished business, a ship adrift on a turbulent sea. And he had come to make it right. Now I could be whole!
After passing the test, my life found direction of its own. Shortly thereafter, I moved on. I ended
in Santa Cruz, it’s where I always wanted to live, why not just go there and see what happened? Gradually, success followed, with an end to following the harvests and living hand to mouth.
Following my "Thursday Surprise," I visited Seattle only once again. It was years later, on a business trip.
While there, an impulse seized me as my cab drifted slowly past the market place. I turned my
head sharply right, and with a mind of their own my eyes locked onto the rubble of an empty lot. There a doorway stood, as though defying gravity. My eyes climbed their way to the cracked
window above. I could barely make it out but imprinted on the glass was the letter "F" and the letter "A." I had the cabbie stop for a moment. My reflection stared back at me. I looked younger,
and wait; was that the old man waving from behind? Before I could look again, the unit toppled over with a definitive crash of glass shattering all to pieces.
I must remember to compliment Sensei on his sense of humor, and his timing.
Knowing the "F&A." existed brought me full circle. From that day onward, I ate when I was
hungry, slept when I was tired, and was free to go wherever I wanted. The chains were broken forever.