Paper House: Four Stories from the Dojo
What You Wish For
If you were to kneel down right now, your knees on the floor, you could kneel down and stand right back up. But what about if you had to kneel down and bend over and put your hands between your knees and the floor?
We had to do that in school.
How can you do that to a kid? If I was to try to get you to do that, force you to do that right now, you'd probably take my head off. I would never get away with it. But when you do it to kids, they don't have a chance.
The closer I got to sound and music and such, the happier I was. Or the less unhappy. Sometimes it works like that.
I asked this guy what was happening in Miami, and he said that a friend of his, a premier sound man in Miami named John W. Barry, was putting together a crew, an audio crew, to do a TV pilot called The New Howdy Doody Show. They needed a tape operator who could solve this one horrendous problem that they had.
You had humans interacting with marionettes and puppets, and the voices of some of the puppets and marionettes were the voices of some of the actors who were working in this show. So they would pre-record the puppet voices, and then they would interact with those pre-recorded puppet voices played back by yours truly, and I was fortunate enough to come up with a system that worked, which allowed me to go quickly from one scene of recorded material to another, and from one piece of dialog to the next. And putting in human timing, like it was two people talking.
The man who got me into the business, John W. Barry, he was the kind of person who would do things for people. You didn't know he was doing things for you. I got a call from one of the TV stations, and they said they needed an audio assist for the Wide World of Sports championship boxing match shoot in Caracas, Venezuela. Sure, you know, what could I say?
I was doing whatever work I could do. I was doing call work at the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre, doing their Broadway shows, and I was a sound technician. I would go down there and do whatever I had to do in order to get pieces of the craft in my head. And a guy calls me up, and he says, "Danny, it's Jack Mann." He says, "You ready to go on the road?" So the guy sets me up with Lily Tomlin's show. I turned my home over to a friend, I was going to be gone for like nine months, and I packed my bags, and I'm on the road.
I go to New York City, and the first thing I do after I check into my hotel, I call the production house. They ask where I am. And I say, "Well, I'm here in the city." They say that's too bad because Lily has changed her mind. She's not going to do the tour.
I'd just given up my job, given up my home, and here I am in New York. I said, well, okay. It's a nice place to be for a while. Let me call Jack and see what's happening. He says don't worry about it. He says I can take Elizabeth Taylor out on tour.
I spent 12 weeks in LA sitting there with her show. A number of weeks in New Orleans, and a couple other stops along the way. Here I was this kid who started off as an audio technician, and I'm doing sound for a Broadway production. I owe all of it to John W. Barry, who got me into the business and gave me direction, and Jack Mann, who sent me on the road. I've been fortunate in that regard. Things have happened like that for me.
I went to the University of Miami Law School for about a semester and a half, and then I couldn't do it anymore. It wasn't me. I could not tell the good guys from the bad guys. I quit law school, sold my motorcycle, got divorced, and went to Europe.
Jack calls me up and asks how would I like to do Amadeus? A national tour.
I got to do nine months, a month in each city. I think there was two months in LA, and the other stops were one month. Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, don't remember. The stage manager was a delightful man who had been operatically trained, an old queen with a black leather jacket from the 50's. What a guy. And he knew music. Mark Hamill was our Mozart. Mark was kind of a nervous little guy.
I got a call saying they needed an audio assist for a movie that's coming to town called D.A.R.Y.L. It's about a boy who's a robot or something or other. I said, well, okay. And there I met this wonderful gentleman, his name is Simon Kaye. We did the film, and I had a good time, specifically because of this man's skill and abilities. And I thought, this is really fun, but it's a lot of work, and I don't know if I want to be involved in this kind of stuff. Meanwhile, I'm still making a living doing calls for corporate shows. Then I get a call from Simon one day, and he says, "Danny? Danny?" He says, "Are you available?"
I say, "Simon, for you I'm available. What have we got?"
He says, "Well, Danny, it's going to be a grind."
And I say, "Simon, how bad can it be?"
Well, that was the wrong thing to say, because it turned out to be The Last of the Mohicans. Twenty weeks in the mountains with madman Michael Mann as the director. We're humping up the mountain, we're walking with gear, you know, dragging it, and geez. But it was fun because of the crew. We went through four boom men. That doesn't happen, but these guys said, hey, I'm outta here. But it was me and Simon the whole time.
We did the Broadway Bound Tour, which was 49 cities in six months. You walk into a theater, and theater people, being the kind of good people they are… One girl came up to me, and she said, "You the sound guy?" For some reason, she had a thing for sound guys. But what she did was offer to do my laundry for me. We're on the road, and you're on the bus, and to have somebody do your laundry for you in this brief stop there, maybe one night, maybe two nights. It was just nice to have somebody do something like that for you.
One night, where the hell are you? Wheeled from Toledo to Boston? We had a couple days' jump, but normally you didn't get much of a rest.
I came back and people didn't remember me. I mean, you're gone for nine months, forget relationships, which was kind of bad, because I kind of like relationships.
I left Orlando with my wife to go live in the Keys. At one point, she said, well, why don't we go do that? So, here's a person who loves me enough to give me my dream. Which blew me away.
Be careful what you wish for.
I'm not one of those people who believes I'm going to live forever. You know, I figure, as they say in the martial arts, death is always over your left shoulder. Dr. Jones used to say, "Danny, you walk out the house, and the pie wagon hits you."
I have an old car which I can depend on. I have a young wife who I can depend on, and life's good. I really shouldn't bitch. But like I said, well, you know, bitch every once in a while.
Key West was the dream, and there were a lot of nice people, but overall, it's not my kind of town. People just don't give a damn.
I've been diving down there since the 60s in the Navy. Some friends dumped me in the water with a mask and snorkel, and I thought, oh, this is wonderful. I like this. It's quiet down here. That's one of the reasons why I kept going back year after year, going down there and diving during the summertime for lobster. Take that bugger out of the hole and cook him up. That to me was magical. You're focused on the task, and you only have maybe a minute or so to do this, and the minute stretches.
The nuns beat up on me when I was a kid. The priests beat up on me when I was older. And when I turned 52, I realized, wait, the Father is probably dead. And that's a damn shame. Because I had always hoped to see him someplace in one of those cities I traveled. I just hoped I would see him one time, and I would take him out.
We were in Philadelphia doing Amadeus. We had two shows on Thursday and Saturday, a matinee and an evening show. And I had to reset my console after every show, because we had all this Mozart music, and it was all recorded on tapes, and it was a pain in the neck, but it was wonderful. You know the story, God and Salieri talking. I'm at the console doing my setup, and up the aisle, as I raise my head, there's two priests walking. Two priests walking up the aisle. And I thought, "Daniel, you got a problem here. You really need to deal with this."
We can't fight back as kids. That's what frustrated me as a child. I couldn't fight.
I never had kids. I will never have kids. It was my choice not to do that. Why? Who knows?
Coming down Orange Avenue, their Catholic Church over there, traffic was just puttering along, and there was a man and a woman and a child, walking down Orange Avenue. The little girl was…a little girl, maybe, I don't know, eight or nine years old. This guy grabbed her by the hair and smacked her. And I couldn't stop it, it was too late. It had already happened.
You have kids who are scrambled, and their kids are scrambled, down through the generations.
The whole world is festering with unhappy souls. We can be thankful and tranquil and proud.
Whatever angers you controls you. I understand the words. Words are easy to say.
My first wife asked me to tell her about myself. I didn't understand what she was looking for.
What am I like? Well, I would rather have a cup of real coffee than a cup of instant.
I like it inside. It's comfortable inside.
When Katherine and I got married, one of my friends gave us a wedding present, a beautiful wooden box. On the box it says: "Trust Happiness."
I got this cell transistor radio that I made in soapboxes in seventh grade so the guys could hear a ball game at school. The plastic soap dishes with three circles on the top and three little hinges, you know, one of those things. Put the tuning capacitor in the top. I had a battery in there. We didn't have access to inexpensive earpieces. Had to get a regular pair of headphones, cut them in half. We had one headphone. It was fun to do that. Sit there and fabricate these things with a soldering iron, you know, solder drop on my boots from all this stuff. It was a lot of fun to do that. But it was always, why did this work, how does this work, can I get one to work, too?
You know, sometimes it doesn't work. Sometimes like pulling, playing around with some of this stuff, it doesn't do what it's supposed to do.
Come on guys, you tell me right here on page seven, do this and that, and this is the result you get. You're lying to me. It doesn't fucking work.
So what happens if you feel that things are unjust or circumstances are unjust or somebody's in some form or other being unjustly treated? There's not much you can do about it.
My karate teacher, hard-core karate-do man, you wondered what he knew that you didn't know. And sometimes he'd come out and look at the students and shake his head, just a little bit. He's the one who told me to do Aikido. So, we're always talking about the ideal. What's the ideal in a situation like this? And I don't know, but one of the problems is when you get involved with something like the law and you realize that there is no justice, what can a person do? What can the man do?
I see this stuff. It's entirely possible it's always been like this, it's pretty much always been like this. You know, why in the fuck would anybody want to live in a world like this? Seriously. I don't understand.
The government built a pilot house in the Northwest Channel off Key West in 1855. A two-story Dade County Pine up on pilings. This was so that the pilots could board vessels and take them through the channel into Key West. It was abandoned in 1923, and we used to go there and hang out in this old building up off the water. We referred to it as The House. No doors or windows, but there was one hole in the roof on the second floor. There were spots on the floor where you could see somebody had built a fire. A little fire. Word was people got caught out in the weather, they'd take shelter there.
The people I was diving with would go out there, and if you were tied up and camping out in The House, and somebody came along, you'd just move your stuff over. It was for everybody.
I have a blown-up picture of The House that we took, a picture of me on the balcony of this old house. Just the idea that I can look at that and say I have been there. It was one of the few places I can ever think of, probably the only place… it was a really peaceful, quiet place. I appreciate peaceful and quiet, and I don't get much of it. It was truly beautiful.
And if you ever come to my house, you'll see this picture that I had blown up monster-size, beautiful picture, and it almost looks like somebody put filters on it to make the sky pink and purple, but no, it was real.
It burned down. Or somebody burned it. Word was junkies would go out there and shoot up. Whether that's true or not, I don't know. And Tony, Captain Tony, put out the bogus rumor that Hemingway used to go out there and write. That was bullshit, you know.
My Paper House and My Tribe
Rocco was our first Albert Ricks bear. Most bear acts are on leashes and out in the open, but Albert Ricks had a big steel cage like a lion and tiger act. Polar bears and brown bears and black bears, all mixed, and his animals were majestic specimens. Rocco, the bear I worked in the act, grew up to be a real handsome guy. But when we went to pick him up he was the size of a German Shepherd, and he was molting. He had hair on his face and paws, but the rest of his body looked like an elephant's trunk. Grey, bald and wrinkled, little hairs sticking out. But he had this wondering look on his face. Albert's wife, a big European peasant woman, she said, "I promise you his hair will grow back. You don't have to take him if you don't like him."
Rocco was outside my window for thirty years. He became the prettiest black bear I ever saw.
A couple years later we bought two brown bears. We named one of them George, after George Adler, our doctor friend. We named the other one Susan, after Albert Rick's daughter. George and Susie. They grew up to be beautiful bears.
That was the high water mark of our act.
Susie had this strange series of seizures that we had treated by everybody. The vets at the University of Pennsylvania finally put her down. George, unfortunately, would see these invisible demons and freak out and run away. And it didn't matter what was on the other end of the leash, it went with him. One night it was me.
George was not a mean bear at the time, he was just getting scared. When George got scared he would start to salivate, and you could see he was freaking out. We were at a gig in Puerto Rico, the Roberto Clemente coliseum, and there were no empty seats. Our plan was that if George got weird I would take him to the truck, and we'd finish the act without him. My brother-in-law Mike did the first trick, and then George started boiling. Mikey gave a nod. I took George up, I stood him up, and we started walking to the truck. As soon as George realized -- Oh, the truck? -- he was down on all fours running, taking me with him. I was like a tail on a kite. I bounced once on my ass, once on my chest, spinning in the air behind that bear. I didn't hit the ground for a third time until George was out of the arena and stopped.
When he got scared, he went. And there's nothing strong enough to hold back a big male bear.
Red Hartman, the famous trainer from the fifties, we went to Red Hartman one day. We said, "Can you tell us anything about training bears?"
"I'll tell you something about training bears," Red said. "Train elephants. Train tigers. Get rid of them goddamned bears. That's what I'll tell you about training bears."
When we first met him, Red looked at us and said, "Yeah, I can tell you ain't been training bears long. You ain't all chewed up yet."
Up in central New York State we broke an axle one night. It was in the trailer, and I could see the smoke coming out of the wheel. So we limped off the road, and we pulled into a gas station and slept there, figuring all gas stations have welding machines. Next morning we would jack it up, pull it, and weld it back together. When the guy came in the next morning, he said, "No, I don't have a welding machine, but right up the road is Dick VanSkiver. Dick VanSkiver is a welder. He'll help you out. He'll take care of you."
So the guy got on the phone and he called Dick VanSkiver, and Dick VanSkiver said sure, send them up. And his wife had breakfast for us. I mean a spread like a Holiday Inn buffet. He spent all day welding the trailer, and a couple other jobs for us that needed done. When Mikey started to give him some money, Dick VanSkiver said, "I'm not taking any money. It's been too much fun. But I would like to have my picture taken with your bear."
At that time, Junior, Rocco's son, was a little guy. He wasn't full grown yet, but he was mean. Junior was never real reliable. So I was in the truck, and I saw Mikey walking Junior back. He didn't put his muzzle on. I didn't want to make a scene in front of those town people, but everything in my instinct just wanted me to yell out and say, "Mike, what, are you stupid? Put a muzzle on that bear!"
We used to do a trick with the bears where we would hold their paw and say, "Foot," and they would pick one foot off the ground and pose like a dance step. So Mikey was holding Junior's paw, and he told Dick VanSkiver to take the paw and say, "Foot." Dick VanSkiver took the paw. Junior looked at him. And struck like a snake. I mean just as fast as a snake. And there was blood and fat bubbling out and muscle, and serious injury time. So they hustled Dick VanSkiver off to the hospital, and we were freaking because that was what we lived in fear of.
Here it is. The lawsuit for which we are uninsured, unprepared. Here goes everything.
Couple hours later Dick VanSkiver came back. He had this big cast on his arm. He looked like an NFL linebacker. He said, "Hold on a second. I got to go down to the fire house and have my picture taken with the guys."
It was one of his greatest adventures.
After that happened they had us for supper. Made us spend the night. And to this day we still get Christmas cards from Dick VanSkiver and family. From somewhere up there in New York State. And Junior damn near took that man's arm off.
I could have wrung Mikey's neck for not putting a muzzle on that bear. I could have wrung my own neck for not saying something. I should have embarrassed myself. But, you know, Mikey was the bear trainer, and I was the guy that stood at the back of the ring and tried to keep bad things from happening.
Mike was a very physically foreboding guy, and through him, before I got into Aikido, I learned that there's a difference between quickness and speed. It's the same difference between power and strength. Quickness and power are right now, speed and strength have to be marshaled. A weight lifter is strong, but he's got to marshal it. A guy who's powerful? Right now. Like the bears. The bears were quickness and power. Speed and strength are admirable, but they take time. Quickness and power are right now. I learned that from Mikey when we were young.
We used to play basketball in my driveway, and the guy who lived next door to us was a big old Jewish guy who had had a cup of coffee with the New York Knicks. We'd be out there sending garbage cans flying, this and that, and he'd come out and play with us. He'd say, "Much rather you be here doing this at midnight than be out getting in trouble somewhere." Of course Mikey was out stealing cars and shit; he was no purist. But I learned a lot competing with Mike. When we boxed I learned about keeping my hands up in front of my face, keeping my elbows tight, in front of my stomach. First time we boxed he bloodied my nose and knocked me down in the dirt. That didn't happen again. He was my best friend growing up. I brought him home, and he met my sister, Janice.
Mike and I competed in everything. Chess. Everything. But then, at the same time, Mikey was my main guy. When he and my sister Jani got married, it was just a perfectly natural evolution. We'd go cross-country together, camp out. When Mike was playing college football we'd go on these away games, drive out to Gettysburg, Susquehanna, all these beautiful little towns out in Pennsylvania, upstate New York, in autumn, the leaves turning and the cool air. It was like a Currier and Ives print, it was so corny. And all those days are frozen in time. And I knew, when we were going through it, I said, "Man, we are going to remember this."
Right in between Asbury Park and Long Branch is Oakhurst, New Jersey. I was born in Long Branch hospital, and I graduated from Asbury Park High School. We moved when I was a junior in high school to a new housing development that went up in right field of my little league baseball diamond. When they first surveyed it out to build houses there I pulled up the stakes. Man, I did everything I could. I pulled up the survey stakes twice, because I didn't want them turning my baseball field into a development. And then I ended up living in right field.
Growing up on the New Jersey shore was idyllic, with the ocean right there. We used to spend all day at the ocean in the summer time. It was a lot like Florida, with the snow birds, the tourists in the winter, except we were inundated in the summer. In the summer you couldn't go to the grocery store, you couldn't go to the movies. But then they would all disappear in the winter time. We used to love going to the beach in the winter. They'd stop cleaning the beach, and all the drift wood and stuff would pile up. Big piles of drift wood. You could build sculptures and stuff. We thought we were artists.
We were a half hour from New York City, so culturally I'm a New Yorker. When we started getting old enough where our parents would trust us to go to New York by ourselves, my sister Janice would go to plays and museums and I would go to sporting events. I grew up in Madison Square Garden and Yankee Stadium.
My parents would take us to the bus station, and we would take the bus into New York City, which left you off at the Port Authority terminal. From there you can catch a train to anywhere. Or walk. I used to walk the eight blocks up to the old Madison Square Garden. Four or five blocks away and you're in the theater district, so we could walk from there. And when we got done we'd have the return bus ticket. We'd get on the bus, go home. We'd call, they'd come pick us up. And that went on throughout our teenage years.
I was a big-time nutcase sports fan. I saw some wonderful stuff. I saw all the greats. I didn't know it at the time, but I saw the legends. I grew up seeing Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris and Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford three or four times a summer. Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor. Saw them all. Great stuff. And Janice, naturally, she saw the great theater stuff. She took me to see The Man From La Mancha, and Sammy Davis Jr. in Golden Boy. Her first year at NYU, she lives a block off of Central Park, a block-and-a-half from the Museum of Natural History. What an incredible neighborhood. But it's still New York. My girlfriend and I drove in there one night and our car got burglarized. They didn't steal the car, but they took everything that was in it. Bags of clothes and stuff like that.
I knew how lucky I was, because I saw all those people come down every summer. Living on the ocean, swimming in the ocean. Going to the beach in the winter time. Going to the boardwalk, going to concerts. I knew. I knew at the time how lucky I was.
We went to the beach seven o'clock in the morning. Every day. One o'clock we came home and everybody took a nap. And you better not wake Mom up. It would get to the point where I wanted to stay home and play softball or something, when it was time to go to the beach. She'd say, "No." And she said -- it was very prophetic -- she said, "You may never have this again. You got it now. We're going." And she'd make her PB-and-jelly sandwiches, she'd send my father off to work, and at seven o'clock in the morning we are on the beach. Every once in a while we would spend the whole day there, and my dad would come down after work and have supper with us on the beach.
I went to college in 1966, and majored in international relations because I wanted to be in the Foreign Service. That's what I wanted to do. But there was the Vietnam War, this nasty thing that complicated all of our lives. I was in ROTC. There were all these hippie protestors, and I thought they were full of shit. My dad was the guy who slugged his way across France and Germany, and did it because that's what you had to do. I admired that.
Then my brother went over there. He was a hospital corpsman. They were out in the bush. They had these teams with three doctors and seven corpsman. He spent a whole year doing that, different places. He was real close to what was going on. His letters were censored, but when he got back, he said to me, "Don't ever let them do that to you, whatever you do. Don't ever let them do that to you." It's a big shining lie. Big fucking lie.
Then I changed. My vision was changed, not by hippies and war protestors in the streets, but by returning vets like my brother. So in my sophomore year, which was 1967, I went through a major change. My parents would tell you that I turned into a goddamned hippie -- grew his hair long, started smoking that dope, and we didn't know him anymore. I didn't know me anymore.
What I always tried to get my old man to understand, and I think he did right before he died, was that I never went away from his values. I went away from his philosophy, and his being -- what did he call himself? A moderate Methodist and conservative Republican -- I went away from that, but everything I did was the right and wrong that he taught me, the way I saw right and wrong.
So now, I come to my junior year, and I had guys that were screaming at me in drill. I mean, they were morons. They were primates. I'm thinking, now, this asshole can make me charge a machinegun nest, and shoot me if I say no? So I went to see the Colonel, and I told him I was not going to continue in ROTC my junior and senior year. And he was disappointed in me.
My brother was five years older than me. There was already a William in our family, so instead of having two Billy's around we started calling him Buzz. He was the perfect scoundrel, but a great artist. He's probably the sum total of my formal art training. My sister once said he was devoid of a conscience, a slave to his appetites. Fun to be around, a remarkable guy, just very selfish.
Buzz died of the plague. I know that after he knew he was HIV positive he was still very promiscuous. He was living down in Miami. South Beach, actually, right in the middle of the scene. Wherever the scene was, he was right in the middle it. When it was Hackensack, Hoboken, across from New York City, when it was Key West, when it was Castro Valley out in San Francisco. It was always fun to be around him and all the outrageous people he hung around with. Very artistic, creative people. But he was going to take care of him. And if you were along for the ride it would be fun, but if it meant crossing the street he was apt to not do it. Which was a shame. He put a lot of pressure on my family. But he was a great guy. Fabulous artist.
He was a hospital corpsman in the Navy, and he went to Nam. Stayed there thirteen months. It was a scene very similar to MASH, but a lot more primitive. They didn't have an operating room and stuff like that. Real primitive. He fell in love with Asia and Japan. He went to Japan for a few weeks whenever he had leave.
So when Mike and Janice and I got booked to go to Fuji Park in 1981, Buzz all the sudden joins our troop. He was with us until we came off the road in '84, and then he stayed with us for a while. He never really worked. He was always on the dole, one way or another, and my dad and him just didn't get along at all. So we finally had to say, Buzz, you got to go. Got to get something going. And he did. That's when he took off to South Beach.
We had a lot of wonderful visits down there with him. Then, when he got sick -- when he finally got sick he went quickly. My sister Janice and I made that roundtrip drive every weekend. Which was pretty mournful. But at least he didn't get sick and linger on like a lot of guys do when they get AIDS. When he finally got sick after being HIV positive for years, he went pretty quick. He went in like six weeks.
Five or six miles north of Dolphin Stadium is the Miami Heart Institute, where my brother died. Where my sister and I were going.
I still hate Miami. Not a fan of south Florida.
I like the high plains of Florida. The pasture land.
My dad was looking to retire. Jani and Mikey and me, we were in the circus business and looking for a place to spend our winters. We finally drove out to see the piece of land that we're on now. We drove out in a driving rain storm, and there was not a puddle to be seen. We drove all around. We got to the back trees of the ten acres, and we heard this rushing sound. We walked through the barbed wire fence and through the woods, and there was Horseshoe Creek. Looked like a post card. Giant cypress, palms, oak trees. Big old wild magnolias. Looked like Osceola and the Seminoles just left.
So we flew my old man down, and he walked the property, and we said, "What do you think, Pop?"
And he said, "This is it."
So he and my mom sold their place in New Jersey, and they bought that ten acres and a mobile home. It's the same mobile home we live in now. That was the beginning of it.
My paper house and my tribe.
I always describe the decorating style of my house as creative middle school clutter. Nothing but art projects that are either halfway done or going to be commenced soon all over the place. We are nothing if not clutter.
My daughter, Jade, when her cats get fired up, they'll actually bounce off the walls. They'll end up on top of the books, up on a shelf, and they'll just end up there. At night we'll be in bed and we'll hear them. And then they'll knock the video cassettes down -- that whole nocturnal thing. Plus they think they have a right to any horizontal surface in the house. Kitchen counter tops, dining room table. They don't care. I'll yell at them to get down, they just look at me. I have to put the dogs on leashes when we're outside, or put them in the corral. And to think I used to be a professional animal guy.
There's a spot down by Horseshoe Creek we used to call Jake's cove. Jake was my best buddy, the greatest dog that ever lived. When we went back to that spot with Jake he would just stand there and wait for you to throw something. And if you stood there for six hours he'd stand there for six hours.
There's a tree back there that used to have these long groves in it. They're all grown over now, but for years we had grooves in that tree from our bears climbing it.
We used to have a chocolate lab named Ace that would take off from one side of the creek, land once with a big splash, and then like a prong-horned antelope he would just spring onto the other bank. He was probably the most athletic dog we ever had. He did a bunch of TV commercials. When he wasn't working he was invisible. When he was working he did what you wanted. He did one for Eckerd's that they were still showing years after he was dead. I don't see it anymore. It was a Christmas commercial. He's running through the room with these little kids and this angel falls off, and Ace caught it before it hit the deck. Then the kids followed him out of frame.
We broke down once on a Navajo reservation. Broke an axle. I mean, broke down. We weren't going anywhere. We were scared to death. Three white kids from New Jersey, on a Navajo reservation with a smoking axle. And we couldn't drive another foot, and here we are. But they helped us out.
It was like Night Of The Living Dead, when we first got off the freeway. Because what happens is, this bar is just off the reservation. They get all drunk up and then they hit each other with shovels. So they're staggering around drunk, and they got all these incredible head wounds, and hitting each other with shovels. And that's the first thing we saw.
We're sitting there in this broke down old car, knowing that we couldn't drive another foot. We see these guys careening around like zombies, and we're looking at each other. We weren't going anywhere. We had to go in there and make friends. So we went in there and just started shooting pool and being ourselves. We ended up having a great time.
We met this one kid, maybe seventeen, eighteen, he was a sensational artist. He would just take a pencil and draw these fabulous southwest Indian scenes. Sheep with the herdsman, the mesas and the twisted rock formations. On billboards and the sides of buildings there would be these little pencil drawings. It all turned out to be this one kid. It was all his art work. Amazing, natural talent.
When we got back to New Jersey, my sister sent him some art supplies. But we never heard from him again.
I went to San Francisco, and found out you can be real good and starve real easy. That was my first lesson about trying to make money as an artist. I'm glad I learned it right away, because it kept me from making a lot of other mistakes.
Somebody said, why don't you be a street artist? I went down and checked that out, and it turns out you got to be screened by the art commission, and you have to have a license. So I got screened for my art work and my leather work. I had two crafts. I used to go down to Fisherman's Wharf. Right across from Alcatraz where all the ships are, that was my office for three years. That was where I went to work.
When my stock got low I'd buy a couple hides and I'd sit home and just tool belts. Christmas time I'd make them a couple hundred at a time, because Christmas time was make or break, and you don't want to go home because your stock is low.
I finally found out that selling original art work was stupid. I had to sell prints, have them reproduced and sell them cheaply. That's when I started to make money.
I did a pastel drawing of Chief Dan George, the old Indian actor, and his sister came by. She complimented me about it. You think later about saying the right thing or doing the right thing. She was gone about fifteen or twenty minutes, and I said to myself, "You cheap bastard. You should have just given her that. You should have laid that picture on her." But I didn't. And that was one of those times I didn't get a second chance. I did a big poster, a montage of The San Francisco Warriors. I took it to them, but they wouldn't buy it. So I just had it printed up and I was selling it out there on the street. Daryl Garrison, the NBA official, came by. He stopped and looked at it. I was starting to say, "Hey Daryl, every time I play they call travel on me when I make this move." And he cracked up, laughing. Buffalo Bob Smith of Howdy Dowdy, he came along and bought three or four belts from me. He used to have these little cards that were a photograph of him and Howdy Dowdy. He gave me one.
There was a whole little sub-culture of the street artists. The merchants wanted to get rid of us. People that were coming there with money were spending it on the sidewalk with us instead of in all those swank shops. So it was a real political dog fight. They kept trying to get rid of us, and they kept restricting where we could sell. We got amazing support from this guy George Moscone who ran for mayor. He came down and spoke at the lottery we used to have at six in the morning to select our selling spaces. To me it seemed like political suicide. What was in it for him to support the street artist? But he did. He came down there and spoke, and he made sure the merchants didn't shut us down. And there was this fireman named Dan White -- right after I moved to Florida in '77 is when I heard about this -- he walked into city hall in broad daylight and shot George Moscone and this gay councilman named Harvey Milk. Walked into city hall and killed them both.
I was in love with that city, and I thought I was never going to leave.
Mike and Janice were at Circus World in Florida at the same time that I was in San Francisco. Mike worked with the elephants, and my sister worked with the leopards and tigers. They were basically shit shovelers. They were just building their own act. Every time I talked to them on the phone, they were always saying, "When are you coming to Florida? When are you gonna come join the circus? When are you gonna stop being a hippie artist?" I'd never even really considered it until they both got hurt. Jani got attacked by one of our bears, and ten days later Mikey got knocked through a plywood wall by an elephant. I started thinking, well, I'm not a big strong guy, but when you want somebody covering your ass who's better than family?
I had all these belts, and hundreds of prints, and mats and everything. I cut my prices, and had a going out of business sale all through the autumn of '77. I left on Thanksgiving morning, and arrived in Florida right after New Years.
Theme parks are pretty fascist outfits. Mattel owned Circus World. Even though it was Ringling, Mattel actually owned it through some kind of strange corporate interlock thing. So each year it became more and more corporate. At first it didn't even have security guards. That didn't last long. They got security guards.
On a conventional circus the elephant department runs the circus, the elephant man is the boss. No circus is any better than its elephant guy. The elephant guy at Circus World was a bigger than life guy, who was also a big man, named Buckles Woodcock. His father was one of the most famous elephant trainers that ever lived, back in the 30's, back when circuses were huge. Buckles was in charge of the Ringling herd at circus world.
Buckles was everybody's hero. Corporate Circus World wasn't going for that, so they did everything they could to undermine Buckles and pump up the security department. What brought everything to a head was that Buckles and his entire herd went on the road with one of the traveling Ringling units. So all of the sudden there was this giant power vacuum, and the guy that they brought in to take care of the new Ringling herd was a corporate Ringling survivor. He was a mediocre elephant guy, but he knew that the Ringling show was going to be his meal ticket for the rest of his life, so he would do whatever the Ringling show asked him. So all of the sudden you have this giant turnaround where this powerful independent flamboyant presence was replaced by this little corporate weasel. Jani and Mike, as members of the prior regime, had targets on their backs. And they got fired.
All this happened while I was on the road traveling from San Francisco to join the circus, to join my family in Florida. I knew none of it. I showed up, and they had been fired.
When you got three people in a travel trailer, with something as immediate as wild animals -- a lot of stress. For years. No matter how much we loved each other -- every once in a while that stress is just going to take over, and you're going to end up hating each other.
We'd put our costumes on, go in there and muzzle the bears, get them all brushed and ready. And we wouldn't speak a word to each other. Work the act, not speak a word to each other. Most of the time, when the bears blew up and really tried to embarrass us and do something extremely really naughty, it was when we were pissed at each other. And they knew.
Or if things were going so good, and we're out there winking at each other and snapping and dancing to the music and everything, was just then them bears would blow up. One of them would attack one of the other ones or one of them would run away. They never did it when we were ready. They never did it when we were watching.
I learned so much from being around bears. They knew. When our guard was up they never, ever messed with us. They always waited until we were distracted, by either being angry at each other so our energy was disjointed, or when things were going so good that we were overconfident and therefore, again, distracted and diffused. And they'd pick up on that. They knew us. They read us.
The old rednecks would tell us that. Bears will give you no forward sign. They just explode. And they were right. Lions and tigers, they'll lay their ears back, they'll twist their tail, they'll show you their teeth. They're much more stupid, much more primitive than bears.
Bears just sit there, looking around. All the sudden you got fat bubbling up out of your arm, and you're wondering, "How'd that happen?"
We got booked with our little bears on the Hunt Circus for the season of 1978. The Hunt Circus, back in the old days, competed with Ringling. And they were huge. The Hunt Brothers Circus was huge.
The surviving members of the Hunt family were this insipid uninspired fat girl named Marsha Hunt and her arrogant stupid husband Don, whatever -- Don Jones, I think it was. They figured they could sleep until noon, and pull into a town, and just because it was the Hunt Circus people would come. They had no promotion, no front end, nothing.
I was in charge of the menagerie, such as it was. Which was this beautiful white llama named Flossy, and this little elephant, Dolly. Just a single little female elephant that I took care of. Mike worked Dolly in the show because he'd worked elephants with Ringling, but I was the day-to-day guy with Dolly. There was a mule and there was a bunch of geese. And an emu. I put this shit on display every day. All these misfit circus animals.
We're playing all these little towns, and I found out what a mud show was, because the day of rain -- we didn't know. It was our first. It was the famous Hunt Brothers Circus! We didn't know.
There was this old timer, Herbie Weber. He did a low wire. He had done Vaudeville, he had done everything. He told us, "Don't trust this. This show's gonna fold." We used to see Herbie in the phone booth with stacks of quarters, calling his agent. He was trying to get work because he knew the show was being mismanaged. He knew the show was going to fold.
Then we started getting paid in stacks of one dollar bills from concessions.
It folded in Binghamton, New York. We set up the tent, we opened the show, and nobody came. Nobody. We were all standing there in our costumes. Nobody came.
That was the end of the Hunt Brothers Circus. We were there to bury it in Binghamton, New York. We limped back to winter quarters, and everybody that could got work. Because they knew.
We didn't know. What the fuck did we know?
When Junko joined me here, my lifetime companion was an old golden retriever named Jake. He was the lead dog in our dog act when we were in Japan, when Junko and I first got to know each other. So when Junko got pregnant she had her heart set on having a boy, and we were going to name him Jake after that great old dog. Well, the second sonogram turned out that we weren't having a boy. So now were wondering, oh, what are going to name this girl? And we're thinking about all these things. I was kind of inclined toward Shenandoah or Cheyenne.
So this is going on. Junko is in her late third trimester, and I'm working down at the Bob Carr Theater, which at that time had so many women on the electrics crew that among the traveling Broadway crews Orlando was known as Electric Lady Land. So they come up to me in a bunch one day, about six of them. They're all sisters, they're all family friends. They say, "You know, there's only two things you can do for that little girl. You can name her Jake, and just tell the whole world to go to hell. But we think you ought to name her Jade." And that's where our daughter's name came from.
Right now in our home there are these dolls on display. Junko puts them out every March. They are ones her parents had when she was a kid. All of the little kimonos are hand embroidered. You have the emperor and the empress, and then another tier down you have the counselors. The folk belief is the longer you leave the dolls on display the later in life your daughter will get married. So we leave them up until July.
Junko is like a little Japanese beatnik, but you don't have to scratch her very deep to find a traditional Japanese girl. She reads her Buddhist prayers every night. She observes all the Shinto festivals. And some of them are really trippy. There is one in the spring where you throw beans out of the house and curse the bad spirits, and then you throw beans into the house to bring in the good spirits. She used to do that with just regular beans, and then for the next three weeks we would be picking them up all over the house. But she found some salted beans that the dogs will eat, and now when she throws them into the house our three golden retrievers go around cleaning up everything.
There are little offerings. There are little plates in front of the doll display. I love all that.
I fell in love with Japan while we were there with our animal act, and it was three months into that gig when I met Junko. We had this swinging swirling love affair. She was only twenty-two years old when I met her, and then we had to come home. And I knew we were going to come home and be dirt poor. My family is telling me, "Oh, you loser, you're never going to meet anyone like this. You better marry this girl and bring her home." But I knew what was going to happen. I knew we would come home and be looking for two nickels to rub together. I couldn't take her out of her home and family and do that to her. So we said goodbye to each other, and we didn't see each other for seven years. Until she came over for a visit. I married her the day before her visa expired. I didn't let her go home.
When I went back to Japan in 1990 to meet her family, it was because she had virtually taken a vacation and eloped. She took a vacation to America and never came home. I asked her if her father lost face. She assured me, no, they love me. And they do.
I didn't find martial arts and then go to Japan to further it. I spent six months in Japan, I met Junko, fell in love with her, and fell in love with Japanese culture. We lived in the culture, and we came home forever changed people in 1981. I didn't start Aikido until 1989. So the Japanese culture had a significant influence on my entire family eight years before I ever started Aikido.
Japan changes you. I do believe it changed me, and my entire family feels that way. We don't scream at each other in public like we used to. Of course, not being in the circus business has a lot to do with it. Having people not throwing rocks at our bears has a lot to do with that. I haven't had a real, animated, physical fight since I left the circus -- you're on the road, shit happens -- haven't had anything like that.
I don't know how much of that is due to Aikido calming me down, but it has. There are situations where I can feel it come up the back of my neck, and then I'll not. I'll not do it. Aikido hasn't done much as far as fighting techniques, but my reaction to situations -- I've made changes in my reactions to situations because of seventeen years of Aikido.
Otherwise, it's just going to the gym and lifting weights. Some strange medieval custom.
The one change that Aikido has made in my life in the outside world is stepping outside of the confrontation of the situation when conflict arises. They keep saying that's what you're supposed to be getting out of all this. I may be a failure at Aikido technically, but that I have learned, because of coming to the dojo.
I've watched Dennis try to do it. Now I don't know anybody who has more of a hair trigger than Dennis has, but it doesn't make what he says on the mat untrue. He believes it. But when we're out there, when we're up to our hips in the bullshit, and the demon takes over, we do it the best we can. It's like being in a car accident, or like when a bear attacks you. You can't anticipate it because it happens too fast. All you can do is survive it. Then later you think, holy shit, this could have happened, or that could have happened. Same thing with us, with other people, trying. Trying to get better at being human.
I had a situation happen to me. I ran afoul of the political leadership in my union. I was doing real well, and all the sudden I couldn't get a gig with an unnatural sex act. I was walking around gritting my teeth wanting to choke the shit out of people. That was one of the reasons I started doing Aikido. It's because I knew there was an element of compassion for your enemy, getting rid of anger.
We built this pyramid that had seven seats on it, and we used to run our dog act up and over. They'd sit there, and then they had to do a sit up. We'd guide it out with wires, trying to take all the shim and wobble out of it. Every day we were working it.
I remember this old animal trainer telling us, "You kids don't have to try so hard. Just let 'em sit there and think about Aunt Tillie. Animals can get used to anything."
And they did. We left the wobble in, and we just let them sit there. We didn't make them sit up, we didn't make them do anything. We just let them sit there and, like he said, let them think about Aunt Tillie.
After a couple of days they'd run right over it, sit down. They'd sit up. It was still moving, but they got used to it.
We had a real pretty act. We didn't know what we were doing, so we didn't do a lot of tricks. The old circus trainers held that against us, and why not? But my sister made beautiful costumes. And we might not have had the greatest act in the world, but we prettied up any show we were on.
Then Mikey got diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease. We worked the season as his symptoms got worse. I would zip up his boots for him. We made him a leather handle for his stick.
There aren't many places you can hurt a bear, but their elbows and the underside of their jaw, they're vulnerable.
My dad had Alzheimer's. We didn't know it. We thought he was just a mean-spirited old drunk. He had depression. He was never happy in Florida, but my mother was in heaven. She loved every day of being down here, just loved it. When they came down here she got a horse. She hadn't had a horse since she was thirteen. My mother was in heaven, my old man fought it.
He used to fight his insomnia. He used to think that he had to stay up for the late news and then get up at seven in the morning. He was falling asleep at eight o'clock at night and waking up at four in the morning. He's fighting it. I kept telling him, "Dad, you got a different rhythm. When it's time to go to sleep, go to sleep. If you wake up at four in the morning, read." But he fought it every day.
He was so unhappy it was awful. His Alzheimer's got to the point where he was starting to wander. We wouldn't let him drive anymore, and that broke his heart. And then he took a big fall one night. I was working as a stage hand. I got home at two in the morning, lights were on all over the place, I said, "This ain't good." He was in the hospital, my mom was sitting with him. My sister Jani and I went over there. We sent my mom home, and we stayed with him all night.
My mom came back the next day, and then he passed away while she was with him.
We were spared the whole prognosis of Alzheimer's. When I showed up at the hospital with my sister, the doctor sat us down, and said, "Now, we can operate, but we need to do it right now." And he told us what my dad's chances were. And even if his chances had been brilliant, what did he have to look forward to? The end game of Alzheimer's? So then Mom said no.
She was the same way with her ovarian cancer. When the doctors wanted to put her on chemotherapy, she talked to us. She took us one by one and talked us out of it. "What? I'm gonna have them beat me up to spend another year? I'm eighty years old. I've seen you kids become great people. We've had a wonderful time together. I'm not doing it." And she didn't. She died at home. She joined us for a glass of wine on the back porch, and she sat with us until she fell asleep. She slept for three days before she passed away.
You seen pictures of Mt. Fuji in the sun? That's very rare. That's maybe one out of five or six days a year. So naturally, with a lot of down time, I got cabin fever.
It's three months into the gig and I'm used to the rhythm. And this day the sky was purple and green and it's raining sideways, you know, no way we were going to work. But we had to wait. We had to wait until the last show was canceled, then we could do chores and go home. So I had cabin fever, and I just decided I would go up to the cafeteria and get a bowl of rice and a cup of tea.
The place was totally deserted except for this real pretty Japanese girl sitting all by herself. So I sat down an appropriate distance away from her table, and we looked at each other sideways for about twenty minutes. And I decided then, well, I'm no stranger to making an asshole of myself and at least this is for a good reason. So I went over and struck up a conversation with Junko.
I had a little notebook with me, and I was drawing pictures and everything. She was shining me on, because she spoke functionally good English. At that time I didn't realize I was meeting somebody who just gets a thrill out of fucking with people. And is a master at it.
That's how I met Junko. We just found that notebook a couple months ago in a cabinet under our TV. The very notebook, with the picture of a golden retriever. I would have said, "Wanna come up and see my etchings?" But having no etchings with me at the time, I used eight golden retrievers instead.
So we took a walk. I took her back to see the dogs. I made a pass at her, and she caught it real good. We had a really nice three-month love affair.
She was a weirdo, even for the Japanese. She was very different. She wore, basically, black and white, usually some form of white lace and black leather. She had been working as a manager in a department store, a single girl, so she had a lot of disposable income. And she disposed of it. She had a hell of a wardrobe -- most of it is still in our closet -- that she can't wear anymore. So she was quite the fashion piece.
When we loaded all our animals and drove home, she was in a bus in front of us. She was in the back window of the bus. She's laughing and we're having a good time. And we made a left turn, and her bus kept going straight. She told me later that keeping it together, to laugh at me in the back window of that bus, was the hardest thing that she ever had to do. Cause she was fucking dying. As soon as our vehicle made a left turn she started crying, and she didn't stop crying for six weeks. That's one reason why her parents are very happy we're together, because they saw the breakdown that this kid went through when we were separated, when that little fling we had came to an end.
We would send each other letters, and I could tell that she was using a dictionary to write her letters. I have them still, and they're really dear. They're very stilted, but they're just… they're really touching.
She has very deft fingers. She makes some of those little origami cranes that are only a quarter inch big. Three times she has made me full bunches of a thousand cranes. One of them, my dogs chewed up. One of them I still have. I forgot what happened to the third one. I think my sister might have the third one.
In '82 we went to Mexico. In '83 and '84 we went to Puerto Rico. Wilkes-Barre, Harrisburg, Scranton, we played all those towns. Then Mike, during the '83 summer, started slurring his speech and being real sleepy. Nobody knew what to make of that. When we came in off the road we went to see an allergist, because we thought that's what it was. But it was the beginnings of Lou Gehrig's disease.
We finally buy new equipment. We buy a forty-two-foot trailer. We buy a flat-bed one-ton dual-wheel GMC truck. I go to Lakeland to pick up that truck. I drive home, and there's Mikey and Jani and Dr. George Adler standing in front of the bear corral. I drive up, tooting the horn, flashing the lights. I drive up and the three of them are crying.
So we did the '84 season, as Mikey's symptoms got worse. Our last gig was a lobster festival in St. John's, New Brunswick. I remember walking down the street with a case of Labatt's beer under one arm and a box of lobsters. We pigged out on all the fresh lobster we could eat, and then we ate lobster Newburg, lobster bisque. For the next two weeks it seems my sister was doing something with lobster every day.
We thought we were going to go back on the road, but Mikey's symptoms got worse. No viable work came through, so we came back to Florida. We came off the road. With four bears and seventeen dogs.
It was devastating. Especially for my sister, because she was Mike's primary caretaker. She was the one that had to lift him off the toilet, lift him out of the shower. Every day. But like so often happens in terrible grim situations like that, people that you never expected just turn out to be guardian angels. And other things happen that you could have never predicted.
Mike started painting with a brush held in his teeth after he lost the use of his arms. He started doing these various kinds of water colors with a brush held in his teeth, and I mean beautiful stuff. During that time we planted our bamboo. The groves of bamboo we have now were all individual plants, like about the size of a rose bush. Mike would be out there, rolling around in his electric wheel chair with five or six dogs, studying this bamboo. And then he comes back in the trailer and he paints. He got a great deal of pleasure out of that. And spiritually… something. At the same time he was just shitting the bed physically. I mean every day he lost something.
People would come to see us. This friend of ours, Scott Riddle, who has this elephant farm up in Arkansas, he and his wife came, put their costumes on, and did their whole act right outside Mikey's bedroom window. We put the torii gate where it is because Mike could see that from the bed he died in. Stuff like that.
It was awful.
It was dreadful awful, but a lot of beautiful things came our way. And it was very revealing, because a lot of people who we thought were soul mates bailed on us. And we never saw them again. Kurt Vonnegut had a term, a granfaloon: somebody you think is a soul mate or kindred spirit who turns out to be paper. They turn out to have a heart of water. Mike would tell people, "Don't dare try to come for a funeral. If you don't respect me enough to come smoke a joint with me now, I don't want to see you. I don't even want to hear about you coming to see us after I'm dead." He was dying, he didn't care. My family has always been a little bit disrespectful like that anyway. So Mikey just says, "You're a shit-heart? Hey, I'm dying, but you know what? You have to stick around and be a shit-heart. Fuck you." And he said that to people. He said that to people who were close to us.
A lot of people think that we're disrespectful. But we always find a way, my family does. We're kind of strange like that. We always find a way.
That time we jack-knifed our trailer up in New York State, and the back of the truck ripped the front of the trailer open like a fucking soup can. I mean there is insulation and clothing and all kinds of shit going on, and my sister is crying. We call this old circus broad on the phone, and she goes, "Okay, so you been through your first jack-knife. Get over it. What do you gotta do to roll? What do you need to do to roll?" Meaning, what do you have to do to get down the road. As if to say, "Snap out of it!"
My family, we do that for each other. We do that for each other all the time.
When Rocco was still alive we had this tremendous guard dog named Duke that lived in the bear corral. Duke would keep people away. If you showed up and you were a stranger, he would come up to the gate and bark and hair would stand up on the back of his neck. He would look like he was fixin' to eat you.
Duke used to love to dig out. We were always patching the fence and putting cinder blocks in his holes, and it was an ongoing game. The problem with that -- and we never knew -- is when Duke would get out he would kill stuff.
My mom used to live across the way. She had this black cat. He was a wild cat, and I could never touch him. Never got close to him. His name was Kuro, the Japanese word for black. We found Kuro dead in the yard. None of us knew what happened. Well it turned out, of course, it was Duke.
Our family vet, who knows all the rednecks because he takes care of their cattle and their horses, he found a place for Duke. He won't tell us where it is, which is good. But he found a place where Duke can just run, get in all the trouble he wants because there's nobody around to give a shit. So Duke is somewhere. Living the perfect life.
But Rocco, we had to put him down.
When my sister and I became full-time town workers, Junko became Rocco's primary caretaker. Doing the chores every day in all weathers. She used to make Rocco move by putting treats and meals just out of his reach. But in the end he just lay there.
He just couldn't get up any more. He wasn't really a bear any more.
He'd been outside my bedroom, on the road or at home under the oaks, since 1984. Until he got really gimped up, he would always come over to see me when I showed up outside the corral. And he never tried to hurt anybody.
When the act would blow up, and we'd be chasing bears or pulling them off each other, Rocco never left his chair. He wasn't real smart, and he had some unsavory personal habits -- my sister said we were perfect for each other. But he did everything we ever asked of him. In Kennywood Park in Pittsburgh he walked upright across a metal grate bridge with kids in rowboats setting of firecrackers right underneath him. At Caesar's in Atlantic City he walked through the crowd and never tried to eat anybody. He was a seasoned professional.
He always had this wondering look in his eyes. And for years, after supper, he'd hang his chin in his tire swing, cross his paws, and watch the sunset.
Rocco's last gig was in 1985, the totally forgettable Band of the Hand. He walked upright through a campsite, and chased the actors up this banyan tree. He knew what we'd stuffed in the tendrils of that tree. While the actors were screaming in fright, Rocco was gorging himself on grapes.
The bear corral is empty now. And it is very strange.
Let Me Try Something Different
I forget exactly the year I left Vietnam. I came to America when I was about nineteen or twenty, and I had to live in a camp in the Philippines before that. I've never been back to visit. I don't want to either. I'm very sensitive. Even watching movies, now, I cry. My wife says, you're a man, you don't cry over movies. But I do.
My wife, she is a good mother. We try our best.
I had a family sponsor me from the camp in the Philippines. They were from a church, an American church. The pastor, he came around, and he sponsored people in the camp.
They put you on a list, and then they interviewed you. Then the sponsor picked you from a list. You didn't meet the sponsor until they came to pick you up at the airport. You had to be clear, no drugs used, no criminal record. The interview was very hard. Had to be very okay before you came to America.
My mother and my father came with me from the camp. My brother, he had an American wife, so she sponsored him. He met her back in Vietnam. Her father did something with the government. My sister, she married an American. We all come to America.
My family has a lot of people. My wife's family and my family, put together, we have close to eighty. Eighty people. They cannot be trusted. I trust somebody, but not them.
A lot of secrets in the family. We see some very weird things in life.
When I was very little our next door neighbor, she had a daughter. Every night she cried. Cry, cry and cry. We didn't know what was wrong with her. We took her to the doctor. We couldn't explain. She never stopped crying. Every night she cried. Every day they bring her outside, she sleep. Every night she doesn't sleep. She cries. This happened so long. Then one night her mother and her older sister, they see the shadow of a lady. The shadow lady says, "Do you know why your daughter is crying? I speak to her. That's why she is crying."
My mom, she finds it very odd, a story like that. But my mom, she told that story.
You go through life and you say things. I don't. A lot of times I don't. Maybe a family member, somebody I trust, I tell them. People at work, they don't even know that much about my life. They don't even know where I come from.
I've had a couple persons teach me. A little bit different from what we train here. It's still samurai, but a little bit different. If some day you come in early and you want to see some different art from different style samurai, I show you some.
I had to give a promise to person who teach me. I can do demo, I can do showing stuff, but I'm not allowed teaching.
I forget his last name. He change his name for American name. But his Japanese name -- I'm not sure his real Japanese name.
Family style. We no have name. I call it monkey style, because the way we fight it is like monkey. Jump up and down, almost like making fun, but it's not.
My friend owned a coffee shop. I used to work and help him in the coffee shop. He had a beautiful wife, but they not sleep together. He had to sleep in the coffee shop. I do my job, every night we get ready, and we sleep inside the coffee shop. One night it rain so hard we close early. He's smoking. Then one lady, she old, she had a little bag. She walks up. She says, "Can I have a cigarette?" So my friend, he gives her a cigarette. She stays there, hangs out with us. My friend, he very polite. He starts talking. He says I am poor. He tells a story, she tells a story. Almost for an hour, we're talking. She says, "Let me tell you guys a story. A scary story happened to me when I was catching frogs." She says she went catching frogs after it was raining. And then someone is following her. She says, why you following me? And he says, you want me to carry your bag? And she says okay, you can carry the bag. So he held the bag, and he helps her. And she would catch a frog, and he would keep it in the bag. She says they walk far away, then it was time for her to go back. And he says okay, goodbye. She turn around and she says, where is the bag? And the bag was empty. She says, what's going on with you? Where's all the frogs? Are you devil or something, eat all my frogs? And she says, she says to me and my friend, "He look like this." Her tongue that long, her eyes big and wet. I can't breathe. My friend, he can't breathe. I crawl. My friend, he crawls behind me.
Do you believe in things you never see? The things I see and I hear all the time -- people say some things so different. I don't believe. I don't know who I believe.
When I grow up I promise myself, one day when I get married there will never be a time to argue with my wife. Never. And we don't. We never argue. Never. When people say, you guys ever fight? I say, what does that mean anyway?
I say, do what you're supposed to do. Be a straight up person.
My wife, she takes care of little one. When I get home I cook for myself. I take care of myself. When her father was still alive, we cooked a lot. We'd invite him to come over and eat all the time. After he passed away, I don't want to cook anymore. When I cook there's nobody around to eat with me.
I don't tell her where I go or what I do. I don't ask her where she goes either. Before we got married, we sat down and talked about everything. We both come up with the idea. And she's fine with it.
I think trusting is important.
When bamboo is small, they cut it. Right on the bottom. And they cut it out. It's very sweet, and very soft.
Years ago, my favorite drink was lemon juice. Squeeze a lemon, put some ice in it. And maybe a couple spoons of sugar. Now I can't drink it. Any time I drink lemon or lime my throat gets like I cannot breathe. I don't know why. And I used to like pepper. Not any more. Now any time I eat a little bit of it, I choke. Or something like that.
I didn't plan on getting married. My mind's not there, into marriage, relationships. I want to sleep by myself on the bed. I don't want anyone around me.
Right after my wife got pregnant, I started sleeping in my own room.
I didn't plan on having a baby either. I had a lot of things going on for the future, all kinds of things I planned on. But things happen.
I'm kind of glad we have that little girl. She's pretty cool. She just start karate class. She love to read. Every weekend we come to book store and buy books. She read most of the time. I guess she smarter than me, so that's good. I love my daughter a lot.
I never explain to my wife. One time she asked me, I wonder why you don't want to sleep with me anymore. I say, I just don't want to. It's not like she's a bad person, or I don't like her. I just want to be free, to be by myself.
I could say I got forced into getting married, and that's why my mind isn't there. But a lot of times I explain, I'm not a decent person. The marriage doesn't work out, you have to have a story. I take the blame. I'm not a good person. That way I don't have to explain anything to anyone. I'm not a good person. That's how we get used to it.
I think we try to do the best for our little daughter.
I don't want to hurt someone's feelings. That is the weakest point about myself. And it keeps going farther and farther and farther. So, that's why my mind is not there. Not because I don't love her, or whatever. I do care. I do love her at some point. But for marriage, loving, maybe, is not there. But it's not like I look for someone else. I don't. Not like I'm unfaithful, or whatever. But it's not there. I say, just forget about my life. Focus on my little daughter, work. And that's it. Almost, like, put it on a scale and try to balance it.
The old lady with the big eyes and the tongue? That story isn't real. Just an old lady. She pretend. Some weirdo, come around and scare little kids.
I left everything behind. Sometimes you sit, you think about the past. But I don't. I drop it. Like an old car. I need new car, I buy a new car. That's it. Said and done.
Sometime I feel like I'm missing something. I don't know what. I have family, I have daughter, I have work. I have so many things. What am I missing? But I know I'm missing something. And I cannot figure out what I'm missing.
In town, I have a lot of friends. One of my friends, he like me a lot. He wanted to do something cool for me. So he come to the grave yard, and lifted up a body. He cut apart a human bone, and gave it to me as a souvenir.
He got caught. And they put him in jail.
So I keep that, and I take it to one artist in town, and he carves it into a skull. I use it to make a necklace, and wear it for a long time.
I think it was an elbow of a human. That thing smelled very bad. I mean, worst smell on earth. When I slept, I had to take the necklace off. Every time I took a shower, the water got into the bone. The smell was very bad.
I didn't want it, but he already dug it up.
What can we do?
I don't have a girlfriend. I stay with my wife at home.
A lot people say they make a mistake. I don't say I make a mistake because I'm the one get myself into it.
I think the reason my marriage didn't come out very well is because I have a lot on my mind at times. My wife forced me into marriage. I was afraid to be too hard and not respond, and hurt her feelings. That's how she ended up with me. I guess that's what it is. But my mind's not there.
We make a pact that we're going to stay together for our little daughter. It doesn't matter what is going on between me and her, we have to remain in that life in that house for the little daughter. That way, she'll have a family. Have a father come home every night for her. Have a mother with her, every night.
I'm pretty much free to do whatever I want to do. But I don't want to hurt my wife. Kind of a respect thing. That why, when she go somewhere, I never ask her where she go or what's going on or when she's coming back. So my time to go, she never ask me.
Sometimes I be afraid to say so many things, it not right, or whatever. Like, the information is wrong. You don't need to hear all that junk. I can talk ten days, and you cannot get at the information you like.
I already said I don't have a girlfriend. I feel kind of guilty about that, because a lot of people know I have a girlfriend. If you found out I'd feel very bad. You'd think I'm a liar, and I couldn't take that. She's from California, and she's twenty-five years old. My friend is her uncle. That's how I met her. She wants me to move to California, live there with her, and pay child support for my daughter here. But I don't want to lose my daughter. And I couldn't bring my daughter there to California. My daughter, she's eight-and-a-half now. She needs her mom. So finally I come up with solution. If she loves me, she'll have to wait, at least about a year or two, and see how things work out. And she kind of agreed to that. So right now we talk on the phone maybe twice a week.
I asked her to move here. If she moved here, we could work things out.
After I left Vietnam I never sent letters, never called back.
I just block out everything behind me. Almost like I always say, let me try something different. Almost like my mom always say, your blood is not warm.
The camp where you wait to get a sponsor from different countries, the camp in the Philippines where they keep people, you have to live there and face the music. Some people live in that camp for years. Never have a chance to go somewhere else. Stuck there. Have family, have kids. Some people stuck there for a very long time.
Just How It Was
Maybe a leaf lying in the water. Or down at Miss Oakley's, on Paris Avenue. As a kid, sometimes -- nothing to do with class, nothing to do with income. It has to do with the humanness of a person -- sometimes, even as a little kid, when I would see something, I'd think, I'll remember that.
I think it used to be a feed and grain store, but all Miss Oakley kept was a little piece up front where she sold snacks and meat and stuff like that. The back was a great big empty room with a wooden floor and an old pot belly stove. Sometimes she'd allow us kids, in the winter time when it was snowing and really cold outside -- she'd build a fire in that pot-belly stove, and we'd all go in there and buy a bag of peanuts and sit in that back room. Little gang of guys, sitting there and eating peanuts.
One morning I walked up there to Miss Oakley's. It was cold, and it was spitting snow. There was snow on the ground. And you could see the brown grass coming up through the snow. On the side of the building it said: West Terre Haute Wagon Works. You could just make out the faint painting of a sign.
I was about nine or ten years old. And I thought, that's something I'm going to remember. I'm never going to forget that.
We lived in a little three room house, my mom, my five half-sisters, and me. My mom's youngest brother, John, lived with us, and so, eventually, we added on another little room. That was the room where John and I stayed. It didn't have any heat, and in the winter time it got really cold. It didn't bother John, but it bothered me some. I wasn't very big.
The folks who had a little something lived north of National Avenue, and most of the folks who had nothing much of anything lived south. And we lived pretty far south.
We grew up there. We played along the Wabash River. Spent more time there than we did at the house, like every other kid in that town. Everybody lived outside. You didn't stay in the house except to sleep and, by chance, to eat.
I was categorized as being slow. I was kept in that certain group of kids -- they're going to keep you together, and all the way through school they just move you on. Nobody trying to help you -- nobody even cared. You were slow, or you were stupid. If your parents had some money, and they could hire you a tutor, maybe not. But for us, for us throwaways, nobody cared.
When I was at Indiana State, we had Larry Bird playing basketball, we had Kurt Thomas in gymnastics, and we had Bruce Baumgartner in wrestling. I did some karate, and met some world class people. Gerry Blank, Chuck Norris, and Bill Wallace. Those guys were pretty incredible. You meet those people, they kind of stand out.
Probably the strongest man I ever saw was an old farmer named Ned Cook. Always wore bib overalls. Only had two pair. He'd wear one pair in the summer and one pair in the winter. Always had a pint bottle of whiskey in his back pocket. And he still plowed with two mules down there on the Sugar Creek.
And of course you meet people who are supposed to impress you but don't. Those ones who try really hard. Martial arts is full of them. They never really acquire any personal or spiritual understanding of what they're doing. They never go beyond just the physical activity of it.
I know guys who are expert beginners. Been doing it 25, 30 years, but they're still doing it at the beginner level. They never go beyond that.
A good mathematician, or a good writer, any good scholar, they got to go beyond what they're taught. They got to expand their own mind and go out there and explore what they're doing and why they're doing it and why it's valuable to them. So many people are willing to get locked into it. Especially if somebody gives them praise for it and their ego kicks in.
That happens a lot in martial arts. People get told they're good. And they think, "Okay, sure, I'm good, but I've been doing the same thing for 35 years. Maybe I ought to quit. Well, no, maybe if I quit, nobody will tell me I'm good anymore." They get caught up in it.
I've had guys in Aikido come up and say, "You know, I'd really like to quit, but I'm afraid I'll miss something."
You want to quit? Quit.
I done it many times.
My great-grandfather was a circuit riding preacher. The only picture I've got of him, he's standing in a log cabin bar with a jar of whiskey sitting on the counter. A whiskey drinking circuit riding preacher.
My mom drank a lot, but Jack, my stepdad, he was a mean drunk, and he'd beat up on my mom, and he'd beat up on me, and he'd beat up on John. He hit my mom once, knocked her across the kitchen table. And I guess I was about twelve. Eleven or twelve. Knocked her across the kitchen table. All my sisters who were there at the time, three or four of them, they were crying and screaming.
And, day before, Jack had beat me up.
So I'd had all I could take. And I went into my room and got my twelve gauge shotgun, went back in and put it up under his chin, and said, "I'm gonna blow your head off."
And about that time Jack's brother came into the house and started talking to me. He was pretty calm, and not drinking. So I finally put the gun down.
Next day, I got the shit beat out of me again.
The following day, when Jack walked in the house, I hit him with a two-by-four and knocked him back out through the front door.
They put me in jail for three weeks.
You could do what you want to your kids, but the kids and the wife couldn't do anything back to the father. And in that little town, that's just how it was with everybody.
All the men, on Friday, when they got paid -- they had more bars and churches than they had anything else -- all the men would go to the bars come payday night. Most of them would drink up the paycheck. That's why the families never had much. And in that little town, that's just how it was with everybody.
I determined that I was going to get out of there somehow.
I never remember one time in my whole childhood did I ever hear the words "I love you." Not to me, not to my sisters, not anybody. Not one time being hugged, or seeing one of my sisters be hugged. But then again, I don't remember seeing any of the other kids get that either.
Every man in town had been a veteran of World War II. Most all of them had been wounded. My real dad had part of his skull blown out, and he had a steel plate in it. I didn't meet him until I was in my twenties.
He lived out in a place called Ferguson Hill with my grandmother. They had a little house, two bedrooms, a front room, and a kitchen. Grandma Hooker, when I met her, was quite old. We hit it off right away. She always had a corncob pipe in one side of her mouth and a chaw of tobacco in the other. And she'd sit by that potbellied stove and spit into a can. She sure took to me. My dad, too. My dad took to me, too.
I'm glad I got to know him, cause I found out -- when he died, he died of kidney cancer. With all the problems I have with my kidneys, it's good to know that. I can tell the doctors.
There are a lot of bullies in Aikido. They know they're not going to be retaliated against, so they injure or hurt their students and their friends.
These guys have done nothing in their life but Aikido. They haven't been tested, they haven't been pushed, they've only been in Aikido. They haven't been beat. They haven't been smacked in the mouth. They haven't had any bones broken. They've only done Aikido, and they've been allowed to build on that ego, to believe they're something they're not. I think if, in their young life, they would have got out there and experienced defeat a few times, if they would have tried their Aikido on somebody better than them, instead of somebody weaker than them, they would have learned.
One lesson I learned a long time ago from one of my karate teachers is when you want to test yourself you never pick somebody weaker, you always pick somebody stronger. That way you're going to find out where your weaknesses are and you can come back and work on them. And I thought that was a very valuable lesson. Unfortunately for Aikido, especially all these high ranking guys, they pick on weaker people all the time. And they pick on willing subjects, who won't retaliate against them.
I'm not like that. If you're going to hit me, I'm going to hit you back. If you're going to take a cheap shot, I'm going to cheap shot you back. And if I ever took a cheap shot on you, I'd expect you to take one on me in return. I don't want to risk the trust that we've established together. That's something I'm not willing to risk. I'd rather get hurt than risk losing the trust.
If people could understand what it means -- it's not a game. And to me, so many people -- they think, so much, it's a game. They make believe.
Their house had no floors at all, just dirt, and the kitchen counter was a hand pump with a table. Welfare people came by one time, just to check on the kids, and there were fish guts on the counter. They came back a week later, and the fish guts were still on the counter.
One morning, that little shack caught on fire. They all got out, but their dad couldn't walk. Cliff went back in. I ran down the street to see what was going on, and I saw Cliff go back in. And his brothers were yelling at him. And he never came back out. I heard him and his dad screaming, but they couldn't make it back out.
I've heard stories, people talking about burning human flesh, how it smells. And they say it's sickly sweet. They don't know what they're talking about. It smells like roast pork.
We all went to his funeral. Everybody. They closed the school down, and we all went to Cliff's funeral.
A few months after that my uncle died, and we had the funeral for him.
My dad, my mom. A whole slew of aunts and uncles.
Johnny Hines, they named the American Legion post after him. Johnny was in the Army, stepped on a land mine, and it killed him. Johnny and I grew up together. Johnny, me, and Gerry Fuller would all ride around in Gerry's old Mercury. Great old car. But Johnny died.
I was lying in the hospital about a year ago -- I've done that several times. But the last time was about a year ago. I went in to have some routine work done, and I stopped breathing. They put me on a ventilator, and I'm lying up in that damn intensive care. I finally wake up, and there's my son and my wife and my daughter, all standing there looking at me, crying.
I guess it's better that I lived than died. But every time I go through that, every time I put them through it, it's awful. It's not as bad on me as it is on them. I don't know what's going on. I don't see no bright lights out there anywhere. All I know is I'm waking up later and there's a tube down my throat, and everybody I love is standing right around there, all just heartbroken.
Somebody's going to care, even if you don't want them to.
There was a ping-pong table down in the basement, and during the cold winter or the really hot summer, they'd let us go down there and play ping-pong. And they would come sometimes with covered dishes and stuff, and we'd get a good supper, good hot meal. And if I needed a clean shirt, new shoes or something, I'd go up to the church, and they had some clothes up there you could get. I could get a practically new shirt, new pair of shoes. But always you could go up there and get something to eat.
Sometimes we would go up the hill on Sunday morning, me and one of my sisters, maybe two of them, we'd go up the hill on Sunday morning. We'd walk up the steps, and one of the old deacons would take us by the hand and lead us in and set us down, treat us like we were just as good as everybody else.
Down the hill was an old beat up house. That's where we lived. The church maintained a real nice lawn down to the edge of our property. It got real scruffy after that.
I'd go out there in the fall -- the weather was just nice and crisp -- and I would play on the side of that hill. The windows lit up, color in the stained glass -- people inside the church. I could hear singing -- on the hillside, in the green grass at twilight.
Paul Schweer is a student at Shindai Aikikai in Orlando, Florida. More about Paul can be found here.
Re: Paper House: Four Stories from the Dojo
We model the life we live by the stories we tell and how we tell them.
Fact or fiction, life is our narrative and we are the author.
Everyone's life is a story of courage to be told and listened to with empathy and compassion.
Re: Paper House: Four Stories from the Dojo
Lovely, Paul. I hear these voices.
Re: Paper House: Four Stories from the Dojo
But eventually it was the voices I noticed, or more, those with a unique voice. A story somebody told, sometimes just a sentence, would stick with me. Was trying to capture that.
Appreciate your saying that came through for you, Susan. Those folks gave me a lot of their time and a lot of themselves. Means a lot hearing it succeeded on some level.
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