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.
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
Sensei belonged with the people. It's as though he had chosen poverty at some early point in his life, and by so doing, had forever appended himself to that level of society where earning a living meant
"struggle." As I recall, each day his efforts barely produced enough for the next day's food. Manual labor was his destiny.
Destiny or not, he loved physical motion, and even when seen working a jackhammer,
or rolling hot asphalt on a roadway, he would be making a study of the physical motions.
As sometimes happened, I was awakened one morning by a knock on my door. "Hey Bill, 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 six o'clock on the dial. It was Thursday.
When Sensei decided to do something, a clock began ticking away in his mind. 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, Bill...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 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 that of the automatons?
The only time I feel "in control" of my destiny is when I'm on the skids, out of work, and making strings of decisions about what to do next with my time. Could rushing about 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 savor the street people, the prostitutes, 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 general, filling in the spaces.
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 wornout man getting a drink this time of day." One of them pointed
off toward the South side of the market...whereupon Sensei nodded his head, showing exaggerated thanks, swinging it up and down in a wild arc. I realized that Sensei, who was of Hispanic heritage, was doing his
"drunken Poncho" routine. 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 this place was. Sitting on First Avenue, between two vacant store fronts, was a door with a decaled
"F&A" on the broken glass. As we opened the door, we were flooded by a bubbling of warm, 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 to the right 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 giant, and was slowly glissading down his 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 stepped on a load of what appeared to be human excrement. The stench was unbearable, and I felt like a complete idiot. Why was I there?
At the bottom, we turned right and entered a cavernous room, wherein stood scattered rows of tables and benches, in no recognizable pattern. I stepped forward and stumbled over the body of a down-at-the-heels, whose
torso lay stupored at the base of the stairs. The undeniable stench of urine poured through my nostrils and flooded my consciousness.
I struggled with my gag reflex to keep things under control. 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 sitting at a nearby table, hollering out
to some elderly leatherskin to bring over "Two glasses of something cold and wet."
I was getting royally pissed off!
"Bill, how do you like this place?"
"Is that a serious question?". I retorted.
"It's important for you to be here. You've learned about defeat from tournaments, but did you ever wonder what
happens to the body of a man whose spirit has been crushed? Look around you...for some people it's here. Here
lies the empty shell, after human dignity, spirit, and capacity for love have abandoned it. An empty, dark cavern, with a vile aroma...living only for the next gratification."
He continued, "Think of how you look right now...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? 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, and are planning to strip you clean. They might even kill you!..."
Sensei continued on...but when he said they might kill me, my panicked gaze riveted on the far end of the pit,
where I now recognized 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, looking
particularly at me, flashed a look of scorn, then hissed in contempt. I knew that he already hated me...or what he
thought me to be. He went on over to the counter, and as I turned my panicked face toward Sensei, I overheard "Who's the faggot with the wetback?"
"...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 ripped asunder to accomplish that. That's the nature of
sharks. They do not 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. The only objective is to eat when you're hungry, sleep when you need rest, and to walk where you please.
However, even these basic activities 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. Let them see your indomitable spirit."
"I hate this!...but I'll tell you, if I have to go
down fighting, you're the person 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. 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 though he
were floating toward us. The fourth was twirling a baton like instrument, wearing a head band, and looking like he had just walked out of a kung fu movie. The fifth looked almost
like a bear in the gray light, with a face printed over with madness, hate and pain.
I knew Sense could handle them, and was glad he stood with me. I wouldn't know what to do
if I were alone, surrounded by these five, and had to get out.
Sensei, standing beside me, admonished, "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 the impossible. This is just another step. 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 that I had survived, and Sensei had guided me through them safely.
"Sensei," I whispered, "I'm ready."
I did feel good...whole...complete. It was a new experience.
But turning, I found Sensei was gone. I mean, completely gone! He had vanished!
As I searched frantically for Sensei, leatherpants came at me, throwing a looping boxer's roundhouse. I ignored
the punch and drilled him with the iron hand twice in the forehead. He was momentarily 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 pulled from his hand and threw into the far shadows. He threw a side
kick with his right leg, but I was already on the ground with cobra, wrapping my feet about his supporting left leg
and knee. I rolled onto my right shoulder twisting and snapping. There was a scream of pain, and as I rolled, 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 pour 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 off my feet. As the man in cut offs closed to kick me, I stepped inside instinctively driving my head into his nose. Simultaneously, with a thunderous clap, I slammed my open hands against his ears.
I remembered now...only one remained. I sighted the "bear" and stood to face him square.
He moved toward me, slowly, eying carefully, stopping at attacking distance from my front.
"What brought you here today?"
"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 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 was 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 "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 around the room to find the stairs.
In time, I caught the faint beam of light trickling down from above.
I made my way up the steps, but with a struggle. Sensei was waiting 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.
"Bill," he said, "I have a present for you."
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. 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
disposal, stinking so bad I could barely breathe.
"Let's find a place where I can get cleaned up."
We snuck down to Puget Sound, where I stripped down and
immersed myself in the freezing water. The cold water soothed my wounds. 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 ran to my years of study with Sensei in the desert Southwest, 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 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. Don't ask me to explain why! Maybe I ended a past life as a fish on a 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. Now, it springs back to memory...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...s ship without power 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. 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 slowly drifted 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, where a doorway stood...as
though defying gravity. My eyes climbed to the cracked glass above, where they came to rest upon the letter "F"
and the letter "A". My reflection stared back at me in the glass...was that "drunken Poncho" waving from behind? Before I could look again, the unit toppled over, with a definitive crash.
I must remember to compliment Sensei on his sense of humor.
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.