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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…

One Comment leave one →
  1. Andrew Foertsch permalink
    April 11, 2016 1:21 pm

    Art, It’s hard when a student or colleague passes. We all felt it here when Don Modesto passed several years ago but we were prepared. I know, though, from experience, the shock and sorrow you must have experienced at the sudden death of your friend and student. My best to you and your students.

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