The land that gave me birth and raised me disappears beneath as the edifice of steel enforced by rocket fuel kicks away from terra firma and the dark, cold asphalt of Newark. I was here to bury my sensei, Raymond J. Salapka, who taught me not only how to defend myself and how to better myself, but also of honor, integrity, the warrior code. My friends I made in the dojo were there too, culled from all walks of life and socioeconomic status—a brotherhood (and sisterhood) of warrior spirit and conditioned respect. His body was thin and frail, like an old, old man’s rather than a late-middle-aged man’s. The cancer had taken him away—his warrior’s body, his indomitable spirit and joy for lite beer, sailing and discussing politics and religion late into the evenings.
His experience was unlike what I knew growing up in the rural central New Jersey farm country. He was a working-class guy from Hoboken who served in the National Guard, worked as a prison guard at a women’s penitentiary, loaded trucks overnights while collecting his pension. Always his love for karate and passing on the traditions. Always the aphorisms: “Remember where you came from” and “A man without honor is walking dead.”
I made third-degree black belt under his tutelage and guidance. I appreciated his dojo for its emphasis on discipline. He cared for us. He called us black belts his “trophies.” He had little need for plastic-metal accolades; his students—especially his black belts—were his rewards. (“You make black belt from me, you know you did something in your life.”) He never lowered the requirements for that exalted rank, maintaining always that child black belts were a joke, that there was no possible way they could stand up against teenage or adult black belts in both stature and breadth of knowledge.
He taught us to adapt to any situation. Most of us are right-handed, but what if you’re attacked from the left? (“You can’t say, ‘Excuse me, but can you wait until I get you on my good side so I can better parry your attack?’”) In the days after his passing I found myself using my left hand more: to eat, to brush my teeth, to text my various dating partners.
Be aware of your surroundings, he always said. I grew up in the country, whiter than white, where the worst danger was bullying. I was bullied often but never found the courage to fight back until I was older. Now people know better. I can disarm them with a look or a properly wittified remark. Sun Tsu once said the fight is over before the first arrow flies. As an adult I’ve lived in some dicey neighborhoods and found myself in some questionable areas in my travels. I emulated Sensei’s teachings: look like you belong, don’t make yourself a mark.
Be ready for anything. Including the fact that I might be called upon to move to a college town in the middle of a state that is flatter and colder than anything in my experience. I’m an east coaster who came to adulthood in the sunny California climes. Always a major airport at the ready to go elsewhere. Now the nearest major airport to my address is 150 miles north and two-plus hours by car. It’s not my town; it’s not where I belong.
But it’s where I am. I must accept and adapt. My blood has thickened against the onslaught of winter’s cries descending from Lake Michigan, blanketing the Plains with the wrath of winter and the snows of nuclear whiteout. Mother Nature cares not that where I grew up it was never this cold; she pays no heed to the fact that the lion’s share of my adult life was spent in Paradise, where a chilly day meant the fifties, where there was no such thing as a rain date or a snow delay.
I can elect to fight the river’s course or go with it. I can plant my feet into the mud at its bottom and curse the rapids, or I can allow it to take me to where I must be. I can look for ports along the way, for bends and twists in its marathon. When time to move, I can swim to shore or take the fork.
But for now I must remain in this university town, so far removed from what I know and expect. I must adapt.
I must pay my bills.
“Stay out of this debt shit,” he always told me. That’s one I have failed at, Sensei. Two years out of college and I was in 12 grand’s worth of credit card debt. It took years, but I killed it. Then it killed me again and returned to the same degree. Jobs were hard to come by—long-term ones even harder. I was laid off four times in less than 24 months from 2011-2013. My savings vaporized. My stomach again shrinking afore the unceasing tide of penury. It was a member of Jersey Bushido Kai who took me in, gave me a place to rest my head during one of those bouts of unemployment, asking not for rent but only for help with utilities.
“The time to strike is when the opportunity presents itself,” as the code of karate goes. A message came in back in November from this town in southern Illinois that housed the largest university in the state. Would I be interested in coming to work for them? Here was a full-time offer. With benefits. But in a place unfamiliar and unknown. Away from all and everyone I had known.
At 17 I left New Jersey for California without knowing a soul west of the Mississippi. I was younger then. I figured it out. I stayed for 15 years. I can do it again now.
I’ll keep watching for the next opportunity, continue to plug away. I will go with the current, Sensei. Southern Illinois is where I’m supposed to be right now. Maybe not forever, but for now. Paying my bills is good. Getting out of debt is even better.
I am, as Neil Diamond sang, caught between two shores—not in my home state of New Jersey nor in my adopted home state of California. I’m somewhere else, somewhere new. Finding my way and allowing it to find me.
Hours before the call that Sensei had died, I dreamt I was back in the dojo. All of the other black belts had students to promote; I had none. I have never taught, never yet carried on the traditions to others. Most of what I know I keep for myself but for the times of intercourse and intellectual discourse with others. But I have yet to “pass on” what I know or any traditions from the past. I have not married or procreated—nor do I wish to. What I am stays with me. When I am gone, nothing need be left behind.
Is that being selfish? Shouldn’t I pass on his lessons? The knowledge? The kata (forms), the art of martial science and the techniques honed over 30 years in my gi (uniform)? I look back on that dream differently now: I need not have students, but I can comport myself in an honorable fashion and rather be the example of the bushido warrior. Influence by action and deed and bearing rather than through lecture and elocution.
Like Sensei, I too am a sailor, having embarked on vessels onto both the Atlantic and Pacific. While listening to one of Sensei’s black belts deliver the eulogy, I regretted that I never had the chance to sail with him on the lake in Pennsylvania in his beloved sailboat, but I imagined myself with my bow pointed towards the horizon, the hull cutting the waves and him beside me, laughing at the tomfoolery of the other sailors nearby us who weren’t having as much fun.
I’m going to miss him. All those fun times and the workouts at his old home in Phillipsburg and all the lessons in his basement dojo and all the beers consumed in his garage in Easton. His senior-ranking student held to Sensei’s wishes and helped take everything down from his dojo walls to be spread among his black belts. My inheritance is his plaque commemorating his promotion to third-degree black belt and dedicated by his students. The other is a framed credo of the bushido warrior’s code as interpreted by Sensei. It shall hang in my bedroom in Urbana, Illinois, to give me reflection and guidance each morning and evening…to allow me to refocus amidst the rather libertine lifestyle I have fashioned for myself as an often heedless, self-centered voluptuary.
Take the dojo with you. Take the honor and his lessons, kid. You can still be yourself, but remember what you’ve learned. Take New Jersey and California and karate with you in your heart to where you now return. Place is less important than placement. What I bring to my current home is the sum of my experiences and knowledge, to be exchanged and refined and expounded upon with those with whom I interact in the Midwest. It will make me better. My education continues.
As shall my life in martial arts. Sensei promoted me to third-degree black belt in December 2006—the same degree he was when his students gave him the plaque that I now own. It was to be the last promotion I will ever take from him. I’m far less concerned with future feathers in my cap than with enjoying life and growing as a person. I’ll study more karate. More music. Learn more, converse more, travel more in accordance with one final bromide:
“The ultimate aim of karate lies not in victory or defeat but in the perfection of one’s character.”
I aim. With your help, Sensei, even shall I never achieve it, I will continue to try.