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I don't know if any of us knew Harry-san's original name, he was registered at New York Aikikai as Harry Yorku. As he was an older gentleman, we called him Harry-san. He could be fierce at times, on the mat, especially with yonkyo or his specialty which seemed to be sankyo and nikyo at the same time. I never knew how he did that. But he was a complete gentleman. He would take a group of us out to dinner just because he felt like it and refuse to let anyone pay their own way. He said he made enough money in the craft of upholstery and could afford to treat groups of us to dinner. (It turned out later it wasn't just people, but that's later in this story )
By the way, a legend about him which I'm sure is true, I heard it from very sincere dojo friends who would not lie, but I wasn't there that day. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had been practicing Aikido on the West Coast and when he visited New York he visited New York Aikikai. At the time he was known as Lou (I'm not sure of the spelling) Alcindor. Imagine Kareem as tall as he is, practicing with Harry-san, who was not tall .... especially shiho nage if indeed that's the technique I heard about.
Harry-san had been a star in his own right, in the theatre. He knew Pearl Buck, he acted in plays she wrote. He also remembered June Havoc, and other stars of many years ago. When we met him he told us that university presidents used to send limos for him to do upholstery work for their furniture and he enjoyed his trade very much. But the big screen beckoned him to become an actor again for one or two movies.
It was the mid eighties and I had been doing some gardening for a friend from swimming class at the YMCA and my parents told me a friend of theirs needed help with her garden. I felt the need of a change of pace before starting a new project, and saw a movie listed here in our town called Summer Rental with John Candy.
Mom had read the reviews and said she thought it would be a silly movie. I remember telling her that's the point, to relax and laugh a little...
The theatre was dark and I decided to go all the way to the front where it wasn't crowded (the rest of the theatre wasn't very crowded, I think it was daytime but I was just tired, probably wanted to pretend I was watching TV)
I fell asleep before the movie started and woke up thinking I was still asleep. There, several feet higher than my head in very large letters was the name Harry Yorku. Oh no, not again, I thought. One of those dreams in which various parts of my life are all mixed up, I'm dreaming that one of our friends from Aikido is in the movie I was going to see.
Well. I found the movie very interesting, especially since my father's first cousin was an air traffic controller at the time, and I quickly got into the story line. The last vacation the hero took was his honeymoon, and the boss said, "And your oldest child is a teenager." The movie is about the enforced vacation he and his wife and kids take to Florida. I shouldn't tell the story of the whole movie, you can rent it or ask me in the comments, but no I wasn't dreaming. About halfway through the movie I saw our friend: There on the big screen was Harry-san, with that little mysterious smile of his, while the very young Drew Barrymore was saying as she braided his hair," Oh Yorku, your hair is so soft," and tied ribbons on the ends of the little braids. This blew my mind. It was one of the funniest things I have ever seen.
The location was a restaurant made out of an old boat, and decorated as a pirate ship, which eventually takes part in a race, but you'd have to see the movie to believe it.
Harry-san taught us Japanese folk songs a few of which I still remember, and he would talk about the Japanese movies at the Buddhist Academy. He would even pull the collar of his coat over the lower part of his face and try to look fierce, imitating a Ninja.
So we heard about Ninjas from the movies long before the Ninja Turtles became famous. He hadn't been back to Japan since he left at about seventeen years old, I think I remember him saying, so one day he told us he was going back for a visit, and when he got back he said his relatives, especially the young ones, took him sightseeing all over and never left his side they were so fascinated by him.
We were happy for him, and glad to have him back . A couple of times I stopped by his and his wife Edna's apartment near Columbia Teachers' College, where some friends of my husband's were practicing karate. He and Edna were quite elderly at the time and kind of like an aunt and uncle in a way and I was grateful to them. Harry-san always had said I was eccentric, being interested in Japan, but judging by the number of people studying Japanese martial arts and culture not so eccentric now,at least not about that!
I am very grateful for their kindness and understanding. Oh, and what I mentioned before "not just people".... Harry san was cooking a whole batch of lamb shanks in the oven, but they were for the homeless dogs in Morningside Park he fed regularly. Another senpai who loved and cared for animals was Cassandra, but that story is for another day.
Maybe his original last name sounded like his adopted city, New York, but I don't know if anyone ever found out. Maybe Sensei knows. I think there is a Japanese word that sounds a little bit like it, meaning happiness. He certainly was devoted to spreading happiness and good cheer.
Me, I'm just returning a favor. We used to kid about it, calling it Ongaeshi kotegaeshi.