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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…

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Kay Blume permalink
    April 5, 2016 4:23 pm

    Nice piece, Art. Looking forward to the next!!

  2. Russ Latko permalink
    April 10, 2016 5:22 pm

    Thank you for sharing this. Keep it up.

  3. April 10, 2016 10:31 pm

    Nice article, can’t wait to see how you bring the two stories together.

  4. Ted Kendris permalink
    April 11, 2016 7:19 pm

    I’m very glad that you’ve decided to share your thoughts in this way, Art. After you told me about Thor’s tragedy, I searched the Internet to find out more. What you have written is far better because it helps to bring out some very touching details about his life. I’m looking forward to reading more of your diary.

  5. Cam Gunderson permalink
    April 19, 2016 12:56 pm

    Good voicing in your story telling, Arthur. Keep ’em rolling.

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