The International Writers Magazine: Life Coach
Wendell R. Mangibin
Truth be told, Sam, my time away wasn’t as Kerouac as you thought. I never made it to San Diego. It was somewhere two hundred miles northwest of New York City where the old Subaru broke down, in a place called Endicott.
It’s the kind of town where the kids are addicted to Skoal and drink malt liquor under the water tower as they scowl at the students of the nearby state college. I found a job waiting tables during the day and bagging groceries at night. My days off were spent lumbering around campus, talking to myself and hanging out in the food court. I even sat in a few classes. Eventually, I found this pay-by-week rooming house blocks from the bridge and bus stop. At nights I would hear distant flow of the river along with the sounds of the number 12 bus to Conklin St. braking and pulling away. When I couldn’t make a payment for the week, I slept in the Subaru. It wasn’t so bad, I just started to feel like I was a neglected pile of damp clothes in the dryer—the result of someone opening the door to check but forgetting to turn it back on.
I guess it was out of boredom or my need to connect with another human being that made me sign up as a self-defense instructor at the community center downtown. It was volunteer work and only two days a week. For the first two weeks, no one showed. I shared the space with the aikido class (which, because of the sustainable intrigue of Steven Segal I assume, had a better turnout). As I was sitting there wearing my uniform in that dismal gymnasium, I could almost hear you and Mom laughing at me just like when I was six. ‘Oh Samantha,’ she’d say, ‘look at how cute Paul is in his pajamas—so ready to fight!’ Then Dad told you both to be quiet and he would bring me to practice at his club. And as much as Dr. Coyne would ask, I didn’t mention that it was right after Dad died when I stopped training. I remember when I was applying to college Mom mentioned that I didn’t have to put that I won the Junior Nationals because no would take it seriously. If Dad were there he’d say that it is, after all, an Olympic sport.
Anyway Sam, I was excited to train again. Unfortunately, I was sitting on the mat, next to a pile of judo uniforms, watching some aikido master telling people to grab his wrist. This went on for two long weeks. People would come up and ask if I was the aikido instructor and I’d have to point to Mr. Ponytail.
Things turned around when I met Yvette. She came in asking about the aikido class and I immediately dismissed her without looking up from my magazine. I said something like, ‘Over there,’ and she replied, ‘Well, could you tell me where ‘there’ is?’ I looked up and wanted to die, Sam. She was blind. To my credit, she wasn’t wearing sunglasses but she did have that white cane. She took a few steps, stopped and asked what I was teaching. I told her that I taught Judo and she asked if that was good for self defense. I can’t remember exactly what I said but I do remember saying that are a number of strong, visually impaired judo athletes in that compete in the Paralympic Games. There was this 100kg fight between two B1 athletes. The technique this Brazilian player used was the best I’ve ever witnessed. He dislocated his opponent’s shoulder by the sheer force of his throw. If you think about it the rules are perfect for those without sight. I told her that all you need to grab your opponent, there’s no striking, so you have to grip the opponent’s uniform to fight. You win by throwing them on their backs or once the fight goes to the ground, you win by submitting or pinning them. After that she asked when we could start.
We first worked on ukemi or breakfalls, which is essentially, learning how to fall. You get thrown repeatedly in judo, so you need to learn how to fall without harming yourself. She was a quick learner, and dedicated, almost to the point of being obsessed. I think something must have happened to her, because when I first touched her arm to show her where to position herself when she hits the mat, she recoiled like an abused shelter dog. Then we started throws. I told her that judo wasn’t about punches or kicks but more kinesthetic awareness. It’s more about feeling where your opponent’s going. If they are moving forward, you turn and throw them in the direction they were going, using their own momentum. If they retreat, you push forward and sweep their leg so they land on their back. I put her in situations on the ground taught her escapes, reversals, pins, chokes and submissions. She was building up an arsenal. We started meeting three times a week and I started testing and promoting her to a higher rank.
She worked at the nearby Elmira Center where she co-founded Computer Assistance for the Disabled, helping out other visually impaired people with the use of modified personal computers, adaptive devices, and custom software. She brought over people from work to judo and they were soon devoted students in the club. When they listened to instructions, all of their heads were pointed in different directions; their eyes rolled upwards and mouths agape. If you saw them and didn’t know they were blind, you would think they weren’t paying attention.
But they were paying attention. It was like knowing a code. When I told Yvette to add a drop on her tai otoshi or to get more hip on her harai o goshi, she knew, as well as everyone else, what I meant. When she nailed it, she stood tall and unabashedly proud, smiling in my general direction. And then came the nicknames. ‘Tommy Bill’ was Tommy Williams who was easily a contender for over 100Kg weight class, a monster of a man but also had gentle way about him. Nick Fulton was ‘Footy’ for his use of his feet for foot-sweeps. Alison Gates was ‘Gator’ for her tight ground game or ne waza.
They were getting better every class and progressing so fast. At the end of every class we had some open mat time for self-defense situations. What if you’re in a fight? The best self-defense don’t get involved, I said. Walk away. What if they have a knife to your throat? Do this, I said, and I had everyone pair up as I described the escape for it. For each team, I would orient and adjust them until they nailed it. They drilled it until it was automatic. What if they are on top of you? Do this, I said, and they would drill it. What if they try to choke you? You know that escape, just like the escape for the rear naked choke, or the Hadaka jime. What if they have a gun? If they are close enough and you’re certain they’re going to harm you and you feel the barrel, you do this, but under no circumstances do you engage them otherwise, understood? I was close to shouting. I became that coach that yelled because I needed them to know that they aren’t invincible. I wanted them to run like hell and yell fire when they got in that situation.
Tommy Bill’s brother was a mechanic so when he fixed up my Subaru, I started taking them to tournaments. First local tourneys and then out of state championships for the visually-impaired. They were cleaning house in every weight class. On our way home they joked we needed a trailer for all our trophies. I called up local clubs and dojos to see if we could train with them. At first, the coaches were hesitant. It seemed as though they didn’t want their star players wasting their energy on a bunch of blind people. Regardless, they thought it would be a good easy workout for the club. When it finally came time for sparring, I paired Yvette with their top women’s player. When the coach yelled,”Hajime!” to start the match, Yvette quickly got a grip of their top-ranked junior national champion, laid out a textbook tomoe nage and threw her for Ippon, which ended the match. I kissed Tommy Bill who had no idea what happened. Soon they all wanted a piece of us. They wanted to see Tommy Bill, who was no slouch either. He and the other heavy battled it out until Tommy got him to the ground and choked the other heavy out cold with his own lapel. I was so proud of these guys I almost wept right there on the mat.
We started training with other clubs in other cities. Our reputation followed us and we slowly became respected in the judo community. They were taking us seriously. The local news started interviewing us in their human interest stories and labeled us the ‘Blind Judoka’. Yvette started seriously talking to Alison about going to the salon for a makeover. I got a call from the USJA President. Then I got this crazy idea for team patches. I told them the story Dad used to tell me about Kato Kiyomasa, one of the most powerful and well-known lords of the Sengoku Era (stay with me, I could see you yawning). He commanded most of Japan's major clans during the invasion of Korea. Eventually when the opposing armies would see his helmet and mask shining in the horizon, they would simply lower their weapons, kneel and surrender. Such would be the case when they see you guys and your patches, I said.
It was two weeks before the State Championships when I heard about Tommy Bill. Alison phoned me from the hospital. She said that Tommy Bill took her niece out to the movies and a few jerks outside the theater started making cracks about him ‘seeing’ a movie. He ignored them and started walking faster. They followed Tommy Bill and her niece to her car. One guy made the mistake of grabbing Tommy Bill’s niece. Tommy Bill slammed him to the concrete and bent the guy’s arm about 90 degrees in the opposite direction. Then the guy’s friend took out a gun and shot Tommy Bill twice in the back. Tommy Bill was rushed to the ER and after six hours, remained in critical condition. Two days later I was home.
Well, you know what happened next. But I’ll tell you a secret that I couldn’t tell Mom or Dr. Coyne: The three months at home I couldn’t stop thinking about Dad. It would’ve been too easy for Dr. Coyne if I told him that. He would've loved it. He'd have pages of notes if I told him I had hour long conversations with him. Do you remember how Dad used to tell us that there was a bear off Route 25? It’s hilarious now that I think about it. There are no bears where we live or in a five hundred mile radius of where we’re from. But he used it like the Boogeyman; if you’re not good, the Route 25 Bear is going to get you. ‘Do you hear that?’ he’d ask. Of course, when he saw the terror in our faces, he’d give us a wink. Then you and I eventually called the bear Baloo. Dad would threaten us repeatedly when we were brats (and we were, I’ll admit) and we’d put on the fear act for him. All the while we knew that sweet Baloo wasn’t going to do a thing. Dad kept trying that old gag on us, even when we were old enough to drive ourselves. ‘Did you hear that?’ Dad would ask. Oh yeah, we’d think, it’s that bewildered beast bolting at our approach.
I’m thinking about Dad and Baloo because, despite Mom’s and Dr. Coyne’s advice, I’m taking the Subaru across the country. Yvette called and she said Tommy Bill just got out of the hospital and is going home. They’re going to the Paralympics trials in Colorado Springs and they decided on two things: they need a coach and they need to bring home the medal for Tommy Bill. I can see your face right now reading this (and I know that Mom is standing by the door wondering, ‘What’s with the face?’) Tell her there’s no cause for concern. This time I know the Subaru won’t break down. It’s going to make it up those mountains and endure the elevation. There’s no stopping us, Sam. Don’t be alarmed when you get a call at night. It will be me telling you to close your eyes and listen. Listen very closely. Do you hear that? It’s the sound of a nation’s army dropping to their knees to concede.
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© Wendell Mangibin August 2011