It Had to Be Felt #37: Dennis Hooker: This Has Never Happened Before. This Will Never Happen Again.
I met Dennis Hooker too late to know him well. A good part of my picture of who he is comes from stories told by and about him. Some may be true, but none help me do what I've been asked: tell you how his aikido feels. The good stories are already out there anyway, many here on AikiWeb. They were my introduction to the man, and my reason for starting aikido.
My first night at the dojo, I sat on the sideline for a long time getting introduced to a string of people, getting tired of it. At one point, I stood up to be introduced to a short old guy wearing a leather vest and an unfortunate hat. I shook his hand, turned my back to sit down again, and the old guy was gone. Steve Fasen, who'd done the introducing, had a strange look on his face. When the old guy returned, got on the mat, and taught the class, I began to get a clue. I trained for two years before Dennis talked to me again.
The clarity of his classes engaged me. Bayonet techniques, Irish stick fighting, Ranger choke hold, pressure points, knife fighting -- "turn your head when making the cut, so the blood doesn't blind you" -- aikido, didn't matter; he was clear, and intensely specific on what he was teaching in any given class. Just this, right now, nothing else.
For long as I've known him, a combination of age and illness has hamstrung him. Were he to face, for real, someone skilled -- he's said this many times while teaching -- he would most likely lose. "You see an old fat man. I see myself, and I'm six feet tall, beautiful, and move like Baryshnikov." When I started, I was two years removed from the Marine Corps. I didn't get the techniques, but I understood attack. I got to train a lot with the black belts. I'd crash to the mat, then I'd hear Dennis say to the rest of the class, "It's okay. Keep training, keep training." The first time I took ukemi for him, he called for me to hit him... and I tried to hit him. He did his thing, then paused, turned to the class, and said in mock complaint, "I just got out of the hospital."
His hands are mushy soft. Forearms and stomach, too. And sticky. The skin sensation is soft connection. The business end of his aikido arrives elsewhere in the body. My sense of his face and eyes is from off the mat. When it's just the two of us, his eyes look tired. When we're in a group -- Dennis sitting in a corner, back to the wall, people around packed close and talking loud -- his eyes look like a man ready for a fight coming. Or looking for a way out. And not really caring which, long as either comes quick.
And none of that tells you how his aikido feels.
When Dennis closed in the small porch on the back of his house, I joined the friends and dojo mates helping out. I didn't stay long. While I was there I watched an old aikido man, a long-time friend to Dennis, push a board through a table saw, then brag about how dangerous that was and how aware and sensitive he'd been. A little while later, after Connie brought us all sandwiches, and we sat in the back yard to eat, the old aikido man looked up at the roof and said to Dennis, "There's a chimney up there."
"Yep," Dennis said.
"You got a fireplace?"
"Well," Dennis said, "sure I do."
"Huh," the old aikido man said. "How many times I been in your house? I never seen a fireplace. Where's it at?"
I said, "Under the chimney."
There were a lot of ways it could have gone from there, some of them not so great, but soon as I said it, Dennis just smiled. Like he knew all about every way it might go. Like any way it went would be fine with him.
That wasn't the last time I annoyed somebody in his circle. Been a lot of times I annoyed him, I'm sure. And still, every time I showed up, he called me up.
Has he sent me flying, crashing, skidding across the mat? Has he somehow not been where I hit him? Flattened me? Tied me in a knot? Yes. Has he turned me perfectly upside down, soles of my feet parallel to the sky, my scalp hovering shirt pocket high, standing suspended, inverted in the air like some kind of cartoon? So it seemed. All without my knowing how. Often without even realizing, until later recalling and sometimes confirming with those who saw, what, exactly, had happened. But I've also injured him -- shoulder, hip, a bone in his forearm.
Who was the beginner Dennis stopped class for that one time? There were a lot of people on the mat that night, and a lot of energetic training. Dennis stopped the class and walked over to the kid, very new to the dojo, new to martial arts. I doubt Dennis knew his name; he'd possibly not even seen him before. The kid was sitting in seiza, all of us watching. Dennis put his hand on the kid's head and said, "This is precious. This has never happened before. This will never happen again."
None of that says how his aikido feels.
His technique -- I don't recall his ever being in my middle range. Seems he's always either way out on the edge, a far distant, improbably connected fulcrum, or very near, a greatly compacted alfalfa bale I'm catching somewhere between my ass and obi knot.
And that doesn't say how it feels.
Dennis is in my structure, my bones. I carry him around and feel him in my middle, and I don't know when that started or if it will ever stop.
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