Skip to content

The Reluctant Martial Artist

May 10, 2016

2010 was a rough year. I teach Aikido and that year, in July a student and friend of mine, Thor Soderberg lost his life in the line of duty. Thor was a Chicago Police officer. When a member of your dojo passes under such circumstances, and especially me being a teacher of a martial art, the situation must be addressed. Simply something must be said. But, this was not simple.

Just about a week after Thor’s tragic end, I was teaching the Aikido class and my mind wondered off, which was unusual for me; I’m rarely distracted that way. It was our Sunday afternoon class. Earlier that week on the day before Thor’s funeral, my family was invited to a neighbors for a barbecue. The father practices jiu jutsu and we had become friends and sometimes worked out together. He had been an Assistant Cook County State’s Attorney, and I didn’t know this until that evening, he had gone to the Englewood police station for the States Attorney’s office on many cases. “Your friend Thor was probably ambushed” he said. I hadn’t thought about it in those terms. But the attacker was a gang member after all and it was feasible that Thor’s mandate to help give kids a positive alternative to gang activity was in direct conflict with the interests of the gangs. Certainly a possibility.

At any rate during that Sunday class many thoughts played and replayed though my mind, and, as I said before, something needed to be said.

At the end of the class, as is the tradition, I sit the Aikidoists down and we formally bow out to finish. I sat them down but stood up to speak:

When a member of the dojo dies, especially by violent acts, we must understand this in terms of our martial art. Thor was in an environment where you guard needs to be up 110% of the time. Maybe Thor had let it down a bit being as he was, in the parking lot of that police station. I don’t know and can only guess. What I do know is that practicing martial arts, Aikido, Karate, or whatever is more than just learning techniques. You have to train yourselves to a higher awareness. A higher awareness of your surroundings and more importantly yourselves. Learning the techniques of a martial art is the path you choose for that awareness.

It seems ironic to me now. Three weeks before this happened to Thor, he and his wife were visiting me and my family. Thor was playing with the boys in the back yard. Afterwards he told me that what he was doing in Englewood, working with kids was the best thing he ever did for the Chicago Police Department. Ironic that this duty killed him. His life was sacrificed while trying to make other lives better.

I want you all to remember that nobody‘s invincible: just because you have a rank, a black belt, knowledge of a martial art, or you have a gun really changes that fact. To be sure, studying Aikido can help you, but there is no guarantee. I do guarantee though that if you are caught by surprise, the odds will be against you. We study awareness; we study perception; we hone our minds and bodies to that purpose.

Thor practiced many martial arts, he was a professional trainer for the police academy. And, he informed my martial art inadvertently. Many times while on the mat, he would say “I could use that on the street!” or “That wouldn’t work at all.” At first I didn’t appreciate the commentary, however, after a while, I realized that that enhanced my knowledge and I could incorporate this new found learning into my Aikido. You can always learn from others; you can always grow; if you’ve an open mind.

That’s why we’re here; that why we do this; to prepare ourselves for the challenges we most certainly will encounter. Regardless of the nature of the challenge.

Let’s bow.”


Diary of a Reluctant Martial Artist

April 11, 2016

Thor- part 2

The evening of July 7th, I came home from teaching the Aikido class, anticipating the usual Wednesday night Japanese style dinner my wife usually prepared. I mused over the high energy level of the student’s practicing that night. Long ago I had somewhat abandoned the strict mannered decorum of a traditional martial arts class for a more relaxed atmosphere. Students seemed to learn faster and still remained serious about it. Never the less, I still maintained the demand for technical excellence. I’ve always believed that unless one honestly and assiduously pursued mastery, on a technical level, to the limit of his or her abilities, the salvation and profound benefits offered though martial arts training will only be a hollow self-deluding exercise at best. To the extent that one does that (or can do that) will dictate the level of self-awareness or spiritual awareness one attains. The secret is in the mastery. Technique is the path and there really are no shortcuts. One’s demeanor is merely a personality trait.

Over a long period of time I came to the conclusion that students were learning themselves through the training. It was a hard-earned observation. It seemed as if aspects of their personalities perhaps undeveloped, or gone unbeknownst throughout their lives could be allowed, expressed. Perhaps the constraints of living in this society, scrambling for a livelihood gave them little or no allowance for true self-expression. We become subsumed by daily life.

I think everyone needs self-expression, not merely the canned responses that jobs and relationships require. This is me here I’m working on says their practice. That’s what training should do. It dawned on me that martial arts differed from fine arts by virtue of the fact that when one studies a martial art, the individual becomes the work of art. A priori.

We sat down that evening with our bowls of noodles elaborately doctored with vegetables and dumplings. The phone rang. It was after ten o’clock, the kids were asleep. We thought it must be a marketing call, “What a pain…” Stacy answered. Yelling coming from the kitchen; it’s Rob (our nephew), rushing to the living room, she handed me the phone and switched the channel to NBC. “Turn on the news, channel 5, Thor is dead!“ Rob said. “What are you talking about? What?” However, the news cast had moved on to the next tragedy already. Rob explained, “He was leaving a station, I think in Englewood or somewhere, there was a fight in the parking lot, and he’s dead. They captured the guy who shot him.” Rob and I talked for a few more incredulous minutes but didn’t really say much. I hung up thinking, “What the hell?” recalling that Thor had visited us just a few weeks earlier.

Thor had lived in Hyde Park with his wife Jennifer, a social worker who worked for Chicago Public Schools. Three weeks before the tragedy, they had come up to Evanston so Thor could participate in an Aikido demonstration that we were doing at a street fair. Thor and Jennifer came over afterwards and he was playing with my sons in the back yard. Later when we were talking he said that he didn’t know how I could this. That is: be a father. He said that all he’d ever want to do is play with them. Be a dad? Really?
He was very enthusiastic about being detailed to Englewood. “This is the best thing I’ve ever done with the Chicago Police Department.” He loved the kids.

The funeral service was held in a cathedral size chapel in Hyde Park, at the University of Chicago. The widow insisted. The Chicago Police Department paid. CPD maintains a fund for fallen officers.

I attended with a few of Thor’s fellow students and was struck by the size of the proceedings. Outside the architecturally gothic church were dozens of police vehicles, mostly Chicago, however a large assortment of cars from neighboring areas as well. The press was in attendance of course. Also, there were more than one honor guard; marching bands; bag pipe groups; fraternal groups from the fire department as well.

When we walked in to the chapel, a small group of martial artists, which easily could seat a thousand or perhaps twelve hundred people, most of the pews on the west side and half on the east side were already filled with uniformed officers and cadets.

They found seats about twenty pews back from the front on the right where they found a few more of their friends. The proceedings were dignified: the mayor, chief of police, and governor all spoke in their turn. His widow and various friends spoke as a matter of course.

I was struck by how eloquent the governor was though.

Speaking extemporaneously the governor cited passages from the Bible and various other literary sources rendering his speech more trenchant than the rest. No notes. The teacher in me thought, “How does he do that; he didn’t know the deceased; yet, he speaks movingly and convincingly… about someone he never met? I thought I was a good public speaker, but he was at a whole different level.” It dawned on me that is a large part of what politicians do: make speeches; move people; convincing others. Goes with the territory I supposed. Even the mayor who, well known for his lack of glibness, articulateness spoke well from hastily prepared notes.

The thought wandered across my mind: how can they sit there like that, these public officials, inured to the obviousness of their own failed responsibilities; their own perfidy. Why didn’t that parking lot have a fence around it? No check point monitoring the police perimeter. A chain link gate maybe makes the difference between life and death. At least in this case. Don’t they think there was something missed? A dangerous area like that, yet, no precautionary preparations? Too late.

After the service there was a small luncheon provided in an adjoining conference room next to the chapel. We accepted the invitation of Jennifer, Thor’s widow, and attended. We sat at a table with some Chicago police officers who invited us. This was odd to me. I was surprised by the invite, because police and fire fighters are usually insular groups. They speak to each other as if they possessed a common yet secretive understanding of “their world”. You couldn’t understand, nor really participate on their level. Perhaps these officers were curious about the civilians amongst them. Who were we after all?

Officer Snelling was one of the officers that invited us to sit. He was about 6’1 or 6’2 heavily muscular, about mid-40s. He was the head trainer in the police academy and was legendary in the force. Snelling and Thor had worked together at the academy and knew each other pretty well. “It was like Thor won a lethal lottery” he said, “the odds of someone attacking an officer in the parking lot of the station at just that time were probably a million-to-one. I saw the assailant’s face. He had bruises all over, Thor put up a good fight. This guy was a known gang member and claimed that ‘the officer put up such a fight that I had to shoot him in self-defense.’”

A few days after Thor passed, another policeman went down in Englewood. Officer Bailey. Bailey was at the end of his career, one month from retirement. He arrived home to find someone trying to steal his car, in front of his home. There was a gun fight. He died. He was an Aikidoist as well. All told, six Chicago Police officers died in the line of duty in 2010 in Englewood. Strangely, I had met Bailey once at an Aikido Seminar at the Chicago Aikikai. We worked out together, while talking as we went along about the esoteric aspects of the art. I had enjoyed the day.

“July 18, 2010 (CHICAGO) —
A Chicago police officer was shot and killed outside his home on the city’s South Side weeks before he was set to retire. Officer Michael Bailey was 62-years-old. Upon turning 63 this coming August, he would have been forced to retire, according to Chicago police rules.
Bailey was off duty at the time of the shooting. He has just arrived home after guarding Mayor Daley’s house overnight.
Officer Bailey is the third off-duty Chicago police officer to be killed in the last two months.” ABC News Channel 7

To be concluded…

Diary of a Reluctant Martial Artist

April 5, 2016

Diary of a Reluctant Martial Artist


My name is Arthur Benjamin and I’ve studied and taught Aikido (a Japanese martial art) for more than 40 years. In 2000, I was granted a 6th degree certificate from the international headquarters in Tokyo Japan. Over the years I have investigated other disciplines as well. Among them, Judo, Karate, Wing Chung, Jiu Jutsu, Taekwondo, and Kendo. My best Aikido teacher, Shigeru Suzuki, pointed out to me, that when someone comes to try Aikido and has other martial arts experience, I should have a working knowledge of what they do. At least the rudiments. This was good advice, and I believe, made me a well-rounded martial artist.

The study of traditional martial arts, in my opinion, is often times an ennobling endeavor, yet on the flipside, somewhat ludicrous. Essentially you study anachronistic systems. Needless to say, one must love it to do it. If I offend you by writing this and you are a martial artist and been in it 10, 15, 20 years, I apologize. However, I imagine that if I do offend you, it’s likely you haven’t taken a good hard look at yourself. I’m just sayin’. We have a saying among my contemporaries, which serves as conventional wisdom: the great Japanese Aikido teachers that have dedicated their live to this kind of stuff, just have to be a little off. Of course I’m paraphrasing. There are many variations of the very same sentiment. Curiously, we say that about the teachers above us, not ourselves.

When I first saw Aikido, I was intrigued by the beauty of the techniques and impressed with the philosophical concepts that were the guiding principles espoused by the art. That was 1973 and at the time, I was interested in Eastern culture and spirituality. While still in high school, I had tried meditation, (Zen Buddhism) but didn’t have a talent for sitting; always had to scratch that itch. I guess I just had to get up and move; that’s all there was to it. In college I took courses in eastern culture, philosophy, and literature.

To be perfectly honest, the main reason I was interested in martial arts at all was, in two words, “Bruce Lee”.

At that time it was the advent of the “chop/socky movies”. These were martial art movies primarily produced in Hong Kong. One of my favorites was “Kung Fu Mama”. This was about a martial arts master, Kung Fu Mama, who had three adult children, all masters as well, but not nearly Mama’s level. Of course she had to rescue her children when they were over matched or outnumbered.

The Samurai westerns came from Japan, with Toshiro Mifune being the greatest star of that genre. More about that later.

However, Bruce Lee was the penultimate martial artist and a very popular star who inspired many to try their hands at the arts. I was one of those.

It’s easy to trace back the appeal. I was an outsider, not much of a conformist. In high school I never played organized sports although I was a good enough athlete. My high school days coincided with the anti-Vietnam movement and I was anti- the-war, which put me at odds with the redneck coaches at my school, the “My Country, Right or Wrong” types. Not to mention I have very long hair. There were only two guys in the school with long hair, me and the other guy. Boy, the coaches hated me. Well, so, I hated them back. The coaches aka the Phys. Ed. Teachers were annoyed with me because I was a long hair “hippie type”. They had to give me A’s though. I could do more pushups, pullups, sit-ups, and jumping jacks than anyone in my class. That made them even more annoyed with me.

Being something of a loner, I used to go to the movies by myself. There was a movie theatre in downtown Chicago call “The McVickers”. On Saturday nights, The McVickers featured three chop/socky movies for $3.50. A value. Bruce was the best. Obviously, a young guy like myself, watching Bruce’s display of operatic violence like some Asian Impresario meting out vengeance and justice on all that was evil, was enough for me. Sign me up. The nearest place that was interesting, was the Aikido dojo. Didn’t matter that it was a Japanese art. It had its allure.

Suffice to say, after so many years, I met many remarkable people. Many people that I loved, some I hated, and some that I couldn’t care less about. Like any other quasi athletic, or for that matter, spiritual endeavor, people came in all sizes, shapes, skill levels, and potentials (or lack thereof). I count myself as very fortunate to have associated with some terrific talents as I was coming up, including a few tremendous teachers, and simply, many down right fine human beings.

This blog will be a tribute to some of the characters I’ve crossed paths with and a recounting of their stories, as best as memory serves, any inaccuracies are the fault of time’s passing by or my subconscious biases. I ask you: what’s an embellishment here or there? Anyway, stories are stories and can be fictional based on facts. My ambition is to elucidate some of the finer points about Aikido and martial arts in general and clarify the value of such practices as well as the pitfalls. I hope to stay true to the spirits of the tales; true to the spirits of the individual’s; and, the facts as much as possible. Many of these stories are tragic as some friends are gone. To be sure, some of the stories will amuse. Please bear with me; this initial post is a bit long, due to the fact I felt it necessary to introduce myself.

My first story is about Thor Soderberg. What follows is an imagining, based on news stories in the papers, on television, as well as conversations with his wife, fellow officers, and conversations prior to that awful day. More importantly, Thor’s voice in my mind.

Thor July 7, 2010

It wasn’t what he saw that day that mattered; it’s what he didn’t see. How could he know about any certain moment, he was a cop after all. What might occur, might not occur, whatever. One has to deal, operate in the moment. No way to know and playing “catchup” is a very treacherous game to play, especially when the stakes can be ultimate. Walking out into the parking lot of the Engelwood police station, about 3:30 that afternoon he was oblivious to the warm dank city air. He ceased to be aware of it anymore. After all, the sun was shining; work day done; the kids had been just…awesome. He thought: kids always are. They are so much better that adults. Funny, eager, open, alert.

43 years old, yet he still had a semblance of a sense of play. Although he was a deadpan professional, on the job; now he’s on the way to the volleyball match. He always enjoyed playing down by the lake, it was for the fun of it of course. He was cajoled into playing by the female cadets that he trained. The hooting and hollering and how uncomplicated it was to watch the young cadets on his team play, all eager and intense. The guys so mock serious about vanquishing the opposite numbers. Wow. Uncomplicated: that’s what it was, just…just fun. A welcome relief from the job.

Earlier that summer he had been detailed to this dilapidated station from headquarters to work with kids; that was just fine by him. Imagine: this station didn’t even have lockers to stow your personals during a shift? He mused, “Kids at Risk”, why should that even be?” There had been an instance a year earlier where he was called out on an attempted robbery. It was a small retail store. When he arrived, he found the perpetrator, a 10 year old boy. The kid was caught trying to steal “a belt”. The boy was sitting on the floor, waiting. Sitting down next to the kid, he started with, “What did ya think you were doing, mister?” The boy answered back, “ I don’t gotta a belt, got no money for it, ma got no money for it” Taking his hat off he tilted his head back, laughing that way he laughed. It was that there could always be a light side, if you look for it. “First of all, friend, that belt, it’s 4 sizes too big for ya, that one would be too big for me.” Even though the officer was laughing, the boy was scared. The man, so big, and he had a gun. Shit. The blue uniform shirt never meant good news in his neighborhood. Somebody been shot. Some older brother beat up, taken away. Stench of stuff and violence always, when this guy come around. The officer stood up and perused the belts on display all in a row by sizes. He returned the belt the boy had taken and guessing, chose a smaller belt. He handed it to the boy, saying “Try this on.” The boy hesitantly wrapping it around his waist not knowing exactly what to think. He didn’t have belt loops that day but it would work with his special pants. “OK,” the man said, taking a some money out of his wallet, “go to the counter and pay for it, and bring me back the change.” The boy, puzzled, obeyed. When the kid came back, the man said, “Now get out of here and don’t do this again.” The boy left quickly.

So July 7th had been a good day. He had had fun with the kids, playing with them, teaching things that might be useful and a detour from the grimy mean streets. Strolling out to his car in the police parking lot, feeling a little lift in his gait, he went to the trunk of his car to stow his gear while he would be hopping around at the volleyball game. He didn’t see the guy coming up behind him, perhaps the assailant had been hiding between the other parked cars; maybe he had just darted into the open lot entrance in a blind spot. As the officer bent over his trunk an arm reached around his right side grasping his gun which was wrapped in its holster. The officer stood up straight quickly as the assailant turned his back and walked away quickly with the gun, unwinding the holster; then agitatedly struggling to remove it from the holster. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” the cop shouted, “Are you crazy?” The officer ran the few steps as the thief spun to face him. They collided as he said in a fury, “Give it back asshole” as he struck him in the face repeatedly. The assailant stumbled back a step under the onslaught of blows to his head. The gun was out of the holster now though. The situation becoming very different. As they continued the fight, he yelled into the station for help. They wrestled as both tried to possess and control the weapon. As they spun each other around the force of the struggle broke them apart. The gun was in the hand of the thief. The officer lunged towards him, not daring to relent. The first bullet struck the officer in the neck; the second the chest; third, again the chest. He was floating down now. His breath an expiration.

The assailant ran out of the lot disappearing from the scene almost as quickly as he appeared. There was no one to see him now. The gun his new ally.

“Thor Soderberg, a Chicago police officer working a detail dedicated to addressing youth violence, was slain July 7, 2010, when a man grabbed his gun and shot him in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. Soderberg was one of six Chicago police officers killed in 2010, the deadliest single year since the early 1980s.”
Chicago Tribune

To be continued…