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A Journey with friends: A Baptism of Fire

A Journey with friends: A Baptism of Fire

I wrote this article several years ago as I recalled my early days in San Diego. It was a testimony to the sometimes punishing regime we had accepted and underwent as Chiba Sensei’s students. I felt it worth re-posting as Yahe Solomon was due to join me in the Aikido of London Spring seminar in just a couple of weeks time. All going well, we hope to reschedule this for next year.

It was early morning on an autumn day in San Diego, California. Called “The Fall” in these parts. I was still very much on London time and tired from a long flight. Lacking  quality  sleep and trying to deal with the pressures of my new dojo setting, famously referred to as “The Pressure Cooker”. The San Diego Aikikai was tucked away, behind Arthur Murray’s dance school of all places. The dojo had no windows, no air and an oppressive and stuffy atmosphere. As 6.30am approached I would find myself facing and then bowing to a young man I had met only a few days earlier.  He had struck me as the quintessential all American jock. Big, strong and athletic. With no one else in class that morning we would spend the next 60 minutes trying to pulverise each other into the tatami. Big throws, followed by hard throws followed by fast throws. This was repeated endlessly and without pause. I was overwhelmed by the sheer force of it. Doubting I could finish the class as I would peel myself off the mat at every throw and pin. After what felt like an eternity I took a quick peak at the clock up on the wall. This was a very bad idea as barely 5 minutes had passed after the brief stretching and warmups. Only 5 minutes of exhausting Aikido. It was as though the clock had conspired against me, moving at a deliberately slow pace to teach me a lesson.

Somehow, somewhere inside I dug in, picked myself up and tried to give as good as I got. Call it attitude, spirit or bloody mindedness but I wasn’t going to be beaten or dominated even though it felt like I was losing. It seemed that 7.30am would never arrive. The impact of the throws were hard. Getting up was harder as the legs and body grew tired and exhausted. The end of the class did arrive and somehow I had made it.

The young man was Yahe Soloman. He was an established member of Chiba Sensei’s dojo and already an Uchi Deshi at the age of 18 or 19. I was the foreign new comer with at least as unusual  a name as his. Yahe went straight off to work that morning, at a bakery near Ocean Beach. For my part I tried to rest and catch up on lost sleep and the latest sessions exertions.  There was 4 more hours of training later that day which I could barely bring myself to think about. I sat on a chair to gather myself and noticed  that steam was coming off my legs, arms and mid riff as though I had completed a marathon. It was like those famous Nike ads where the solitary athlete – a runner or football player was stooped on a bench with barely the strength to raise his head after a run or a game. Shortly after, I dropped off right there. When I woke up for lunch time class I found myself frozen, set  in almost the exact position I fell asleep in.

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It was that evening (or was it the next day or two, or week? I can’t remember….) when I got to have a chat with Yahe. I  grumbled at him that he was trying to kill me. His reply was matter of fact,  “I thought you were trying to KILL ME!”. I told him I was literally steaming, smoking after the class and fell asleep hardly able to move. He in turn admitted that he also fell asleep exhausted on a chair at the back of the bakery. The staff at the front wondering what happened to him. There was something perversely gratifying in that admission, that this strong and powerful guy sounded as challenged to keep up with me as I was with him. This was the beginning of many trials and tribulations at the San Diego Aikikai for me. That morning session was to epitomise the challenges faced for the next few years. We were crazy but that experience was the start of a rather unique relationship between us, both as training colleagues and as friends.

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