I maintain that true stories are the best kinds of stories.
This is a story about the time I was thrown from a cliff.
A bit of background:
Back in 1964 Mr. Norman Miller was my 7th grade English teacher at Kosciuszko Junior High School in Milwaukee. After some inappropriate classroom behavior on my part Mr. Miller took me aside after class and gave me a bit of a physical lecture regarding respectful deportment. In the course of this lecture and our rambling conversation following the subjects of gentlemanly behavior, fighting, self defense, etc. were all broached and the conversation segued into talking about his favorite sport, Judo. He demonstrated some basic martial arts techniques for me. It was that time of life when I was transitioning from a wide-eyed and curious child to a wary and more cautious adult. I was of course, intrigued by all of this.
Shortly thereafter and at the behest and urging of both myself and several of my friends and classmates Mr. Miller organized the Kosciuszko Junior High School Judo Club. We obtained appropriate uniforms (gi’s) and met regularly for practice in the school’s gym. When our time slot for using the gymnasium was somehow commandeered by the Boy’s Tech High School basketball team we moved to the then Milwaukee Boy’s Club located at 24th & Rogers.
The Kosciuszko Junior High School Judo Club was strangely if not to say amusingly about as ethnically eclectic, diverse and really, All-American as it could be. Consider: in a school named after a Polish mercenary General and Revolutionary War hero, a German English teacher taught a Japanese martial art to Germans, Poles, French, Native Americans and members of God only knows what other ethnic groups. You can’t get much more All-American than that.
I participated in several practice sessions at both Kosciuszko Junior High and the Boy’s Club and even entered a state invitational tournament; but my plate was full and the newly imposed club fees too soon proved cost prohibitive. I moved on.
Mr. Miller was my Sensei and a mentor to many, many young men. He taught us respect – respect for others and respect for ourselves. Through him many of his students went on to become ranking Black Belts and State and National Champions. He is old now, and even if he’s in a wheelchair I still wouldn’t mess with him. If ever you read this: Greetings, most honorable Sensei.
The judo club was obviously all guys but the group I hung out with on the street was also all guys since, for the most part, we had yet to discover those mysterious things called girls. We were long time playmates, classmates, friends and neighbors but we were not a gang by any stretch of the definition. We’d hang out on the corner, joke, rank, wrestle, shadow box and laugh at each other and punch each other in the arm. It’s a guy thing. Anyway . . . .
One day a group of us set out on a road trip to Port Washington based on rumors of some kind of a rumble. It seemed the locals had somehow abused a friend of a friend while he was in town and we might have to settle the score or just bring some sort of balance into play. Piffle. The friend of a friend had already left and, after a tense confrontation and standoff with a group of locals the whole issue petered out and we were freed to enjoy the rest of the day.
I dis-remember any details of the dust-up or even the time of year. It could have been late Spring or early Autumn. As I remember it, the day was warm, sunny and a verdant green.
We found ourselves aimlessly wandering about the local precincts. Strolling about we discovered we were standing atop a steep terraced bluff overlooking the local high school’s parking lot. We were just a bunch of prodigiously merry young men.
Several of us there were current members of the Kosciuszko Junior High School Judo Club. Rambunctious as ever we were, one of our number, a friend, classmate, blood-brother and fellow judokan, decided on impulse to apply a particular judo throw on me.
A Brief Explanation of Judo
While rooted in Japanese martial arts and self-defense, Judo is, by interpretation, “the gentle way”. In general practice it is a competitive athletic sport akin to Greco-Roman wrestling with its own unique set of grips, throws and pins. But more than a competitive sport or even self-defense it is a philosophy and a way of life. Among other things Judo builds character in that it teaches respect – respect for others but also respect for yourself.
While we all possess the instinctive flight or fight behavioral response to perceived danger, these fighting skills, once acquired, build self-confidence in that, in any potentially violent confrontation with others, it relegates any perceived need to actually engage in physical combat to that of a secondary option, thus freeing the mind of base fear and opening the door to reason. In the course of learning these skills you discover you rarely if ever actually need it.
Most people don’t know the difference between an argument and a fight and are loathe to loose either. Unaware of the benefit of occasionally loosing an argument they would rather fight in order to win their weak argument – enforcing the simplistic idea that might alone makes right.
As club members we performed our kata or practice on each other, alternating between tori (the person performing a waza or technique) and uki, (the person receiving the technique).
O tomoe-nage is a sutemi nage waza, or self-sacrificing throwing technique. In translation O tomoe-nage means “Great Circular Throw”; but as it is a sutemi nage, in the end both tori and uki wind up on their backs on the ground head-to-head with tori quickly moving for a pin.
In execution tori grips uki by the lapels, pulling his opponent forward and off balance, dropping to the ground while simultaneously placing his foot on uki’s hip, lower belly or center of gravity and, thrusting upward, uses his leg like a spring to launch uki over his own (tori’s) head. The net result of this throw is for uki to flip forward 270 degrees heels-over-head and land slap on his back on the ground. Sometimes both feet are used and, as I recall, this was referred to as “The Great Flying Dragon”.
Back in Port Washington, as we were lollygagging along, on impulse, my friend, who’d often done so before, decided he’d practice a waza on me. When he did so he happened to be standing facing me but with his back on the brink of a steep precipice. Using both feet to apply his o tomoe-nage waza, he wound up on the ground as tori (and uki) normally would, but this time I, as uki, having just been tossed high into the air, had nothing to land on but more air.
In mid-air I did better than a full-forward somersault – a turn of about 405 degrees and landed momentarily prone and head downward against the face of the cliff. It was a glancing blow rather than a flat-out fall; more like skipping a stone across water. My body was stretched out and perfectly parallel to the cliff face; my face and hands pressed deep into the grass. I clutched at the grass in an instinctive but fruitless attempt to stop my fall. There was no impact as such (or as one might expect), instead, because, I suppose, my center-of-gravity was well above my head, it felt like a great invisible hand had shoved me face-down tight to the cliff face only to jerk me skyward once again.
I did a second turn of 360 degrees, having the sensation of helplessly flying twixt earth and sky and rebounded off the turf once again. Again I was pressed tight to the earth only to be jerked skyward once again.
I did yet a third 360 degree turn heels-over-head and rebounded again off the cliff face.
After three-and-a-half full turns rebounding off the cliff face I came to rest seated with my back against the grass-covered slope, but with my butt on the concrete curb and my legs protruding over the asphalt parking lot paving.
I did a quick assessment of my condition – no bumps, no bruises, no broken bones – not even a scratch; I lay there looking up at the sky with tufts of grass still clutched in my fists. No blood – no foul as we were wont to say. While my friends with some difficulty scrambled down from the cliff to where I lie I decided to feign unconsciousness – I closed my eyes and played dead.
Arriving first, tori, in his usual manner of doing things, trod on my ankle to see if I was still among the living. I was, but remained still just to worry him. I finally got up and we went on our merry way; no questions asked or answered, not then and, after all these years, surely not now.
Decades later I revisited Port Washington and tried to locate the very spot where I was thrown from the cliff. In thinking about this incident I sometimes entertained the thought I might be able to repeat the same feat because, with a little more momentum, I would have landed square on my feet, sticking the landing as Olympic gymnasts would say; or I could have simply strolled away.
Things change over the years and in visiting what I think was the very spot I discovered there were single-family homes built at the bottom of the cliff. Oh, well.
I didn’t recognize it then, but over the years my being thrown from a cliff became a sort of retrospective omen – a portend of the future course of my life.
That great invisible hand pressing me ever so tightly against the earth.
My futile clawing at the turf trying to gain, maintain or retain control.
That great invisible hand jerking me skyward – rootless and helpless and out of control.
The crazy sensation of spinning helplessly, weightlessly, somewhere twixt the earth and sky.
Landing once again – still unharmed.
In looking back, I can say, try as I might, I’ve never really been in control of my own fate; my own destiny. Time after time I’ve been left with nothing but fists full of grass. I have no hold – I have no roots in this world. I am detached from everyone and everything. I do not so much happen to life as life happens to me.
I am but a sojourner here.
True stories are the best kinds of stories.