As a kid it wasn’t often that I got to see my father, in fact it was rare. Silently shaved and showered, he even managed to shut the aluminum storm door without the inevitable rattle, start up his ’62 white Coupe DeVille which was parked in the driveway just beyond my bedroom window and leave well before daybreak. The roar of that huge engine never did wake me up, somehow it shifted into park every night without notice too.
With so few happy experiences of the time he was home, it wasn’t long before I just expected his absence, even secretly hoping for it at the foot of my bed during my nightly prayer.
Although it was never adequately explained (precious little was) why he was never home and what he did while he was away, the clues were there. Grease stained workboots occupied several brown, speckled linoleum treads on the basement stairway, the constant low rumbling of the washing machine and my mom dutifully trudging basket after basket of oliveish green pants and shirts up the steep back stairs, hanging them to dry on the clothesline in our backyard. Sometimes she would ask me to keep her company and hand her the wooden, spring loaded clothespins; I would have ten at the ready, one clipped to each finger.
My finger would always find the stitched,
red star patch on the shirts, and i would
trace the outline of the stars as they hung
in the warm breeze.. for some odd reason I
really loved that bright red star.
There are sounds we came to expect as kids, living on our perfect suburban street; an occasional bark from a neighbor’s dog, other kids giggling or the thwack of a baseball bat. The best sound at the end of a hot summer afternoon was the instantly recognizable, come and get it chime and loud generator of the Carvel soft serve ice cream truck, or the blinging bells of The Good Humor Man, which immediately set off an instant kid pandemonium. The sound of vehicles was distinctive and loud in the relative quiet we lived in, and subject to an intuitive body reaction in us kids.
If you heard your dad’s car engine stop in your driveway, you knew it was time to go home for dinner, the Carvel chime meant you had to find your mom, in a desperate run against time and plead for a quarter for that chocolate-vanilla swirl cone.
What ended up in our driveway just after lunch one day, was a vehicle and engine sound that none of us kids recognized. The loud sputtering pierced the Saturday afternoon silence as it sped down the street and stopped short with a screech, announcing itself with a high pitched Beeep, Beeep, Beeep! We all stopped playing, rushed over and out of the doorless vehicle jumped, of all people, my father, who none of my friends had ever seen, wearing the familiar green pants and shirt with the red star patch, smiling like I’d never seen him smile before.
This vehicle was a classic Army issue, Willy’s Jeep painted flat black with no top, no doors or windows except the greasy windshield, torn bucket seats and a stick shift between them and I was told to get in. So I did and instantly became the envy of all my friends and as we lurched out of the driveway, my dad pretended not to notice my mom as she stood screaming at him from the side stoop.
I spent the last weeks of that summer at my dad’s Texaco station, wiping windshields, having my head patted as I pumped gas inhaling the intoxicating gas fumes and listening for the ding…ding… as every dollar rolled by on the pump gauge.
I collected money and got plenty dirty and
if there is a heaven, I’ve already been there.
The timing of what happened after I resumed school is unclear, but I do remember not seeing my dad for a long time. His sudden, unannounced reappearance on Christmas Eve one year, a holiday my mom revered and he dismissed, loaded with presents and luggage did not turn out quite as he planned, when at the doorway behind him stood a short man wearing an ill fitting suit and carrying a single travel case.
He was introduced to us as Sensei Ushiro, and he bowed profusely as he shook our hands and was escorted to the basement where we were told he would be living, indefinitely.
Predictably, all hell broke loose.
I learned years later that after my few weeks spent at the Texaco station it was sold, and with the proceeds and a plan, my dad moved himself to Okinawa, Japan. There he studied Karate and Judo with some of the masters of the two disciplines earning himself a half brown belt, which in those days under those teachers was no small accomplishment. He convinced Sensei Ushiro to return to the states with him to open a school, a dojo where the discipline could be properly taught by a master, Sensei Ushiro and himself.
Despite his many flaws my dad was decades ahead of his time, the school became known quickly as the epicenter of the sport and garnered some headlines too. I was eventually convinced and coerced to join the school because according to my dad, I was too sensitive, too tentative, afraid of everything that moved. Of course in his delusional, diagnosed violent schizophrenic mind, it hadn’t occurred to him that it was him that I was afraid of, it was his irrational outbursts of anger and violence that was the source of everything I feared. His new chiseled, physical stature and prowess was a source of great pride to him.
For us, the fact that he could now kill a human being with a well placed thumb to a temple, was not anything to celebrate.
It came time to put my Karate training to the test, in a tournament held at the school and attended by hundreds. I hated going to the school every Saturday, I hated the physical contact that often resulted in people getting seriously hurt. I learned well though, I was athletically giftted and when I had my live match in the middle of the dojo with a kid who had become my friend, I broke his nose and he crumpled to the floor, unconscious. The crowd erupted in cheers as I bowed down in respect as is the custom, but I stood over him in shock, nauseated.
I remember the tears streaming down my cheeks as I accepted the half green belt and my trophy. I quit the next day.
I’ve only hit one other person since then. He was one of two twin bullies who terrorized the Brooklyn neighborhood I eventually moved to. The person they happened to be ridiculing that day was my younger sister, taunting the way she spoke. Of course they couldn’t know that it was a minor miracle that she spoke at all, she was deaf. My mom, in a stroke of brilliance and devotion, found the only school in the state, maybe the country whose teachers were committed to teaching deaf children to speak, as well as use sign language.
He was twice my weight, thick necked and stout and as I stepped between him and my sister, he came at me. Always better at protecting others than I was myself, and only a few years removed from my Karate training, I intuitively struck him right in the heart and he went down in a heap and turned blue. I felt pretty sick about that too, even though it was justified at the time.
But at least the bullying from the twins, ended that day.
Our homelife eventually settled down, and the familiar pattern of my father’s absence was again the norm. The Sensei was home more often and much of his time was spent with me, in my bedroom. It was my sanctuary, the place I felt safe and it was crammed with anything to do with war. I was a Civil War and World War II afficianado, devouring every book I could get my hands on, every plastic model I could build and paint, every plastic soldier army I could amass. There were battle enactments permanently set up on the floor, planes hung from the ceiling, and all my life like plastic rifles and gear was conspicuously displayed.
The Sensei would sit silent and cross legged on the floor, his back perfectly straight in a classic lotus position while the battles raged. Many times I’d look up only to find his eyes closed, as the sound effects of every gun, tank and plane were mimicked by me, the sounds I’d heard again and again on the endlessly aired, black and white war movies on TV. He would occasionally speak a few sentences, ask me why I enjoyed playing war games so much, but his broken English would inhibit his conversation.
One of my favorite soldiers was a Marine armed with a flame thrower, he was dark green, taller than the rest and had the large tank strapped to his back. The Whhoooosh! of the flames shooting out from the nozzle, was my favorite sound effect. My flame thrower Marine was also the secret weapon I used, when I wanted to kill as many Japanese soldiers as I could.
Whooosh! Whooosh! as scores of Japanese soldiers fell victim to the flames, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned to see the Sensei standing raising both his hands as if to say stop, so I did. He began removing his shirt, then his pants and socks. He stood there for a long moment, then bent down and picked up the flame throwing marine and pointed at his body. I sat there with my mouth open shocked at what his skin looked like, even now it would be near impossible for me to describe the sinewy scars that covered every inch of his exposed skin.
He spoke in a hushed tone as he explained to me, that he was one of the last Japanese soldiers to be taken out of the caves on Okinawa near the end of World War II. He opened my Encyclopedia Brittanica to the pages describing what happened, so I would fully understand. He showed me his feet that barely had toes, and his hands that barely had fingers.
I can still remember the feel of his leathery hands cupping my face, consoling me as I cried.
Sensei Ushiro was the fiercest man in the dojo, a true warrior, a black belt master in the discipline and art of self defense. When he performed his Katas or forms, he grasped the wooden staff and sword with virtually no fingers. The incredible, frightening ferocity that he swung those weapons made a Whooshing! sound, that if you were in the vicinity, would scare you out of your shoes. To watch him perform was like witnessing a miracle.
And to this day, Sensei Ueshiro remains the most serene human, I have ever met.