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True Stories
True Stories
by Ross Robertson
True Stories

The following are true stories. True, that is, insomuch as I'm relaying them as faithfully from memory as I can, as they were relayed to me, a long time ago. I was not there, nor were the tellers of the tales, so I suppose this is all third-hand information.

A friend of a friend of mine -- call him Ian -- was a fireman. This fact is not relevant to our story except to note that he was at the time young and fit, and presumably strong and capable.

Ian came home one day to find an intruder in his house. Naturally Ian was alarmed, the more so because the invader was in the kitchen, with easy access to knives and such. Ian looked around for the nearest thing to equalize the situation tactically, and his hand fell upon a hammer laying about nearby.

I don't know if it was this action that provoked the intruder, or the more general fact of being surprised, possibly caught in some questionable act, but for whatever reason, the intruder came at Ian.

Down went the hammer upon the assailant's head. Still the attacker persisted, and blows to the head were repeated. Several iterations of this ensued, each time the intruder was stunned, Ian would shout "Stay down! Stay down! I don't want to hurt you!" But the cycle continued until the poor fellow lay at Ian's feet in a bloody pool.

Inquiries were made, and it turns out the trespasser was just a kid (I assume this meant a teenager or young adult) that lived down the street. HIs mother reported that he suffered from schizophrenia, and that apparently he was off his meds that day. Probably he really didn't have a clue what he was doing, or what was happening to him.

I'm sorry to say that I never learned how it all turned out. We know that Ian successfully defended himself and his property, and I hope none of us will find fault in him for that. I wish I knew how badly the kid was hurt, and if he recovered, and if he would ever be able to live and function some in approximation of a normal life, regardless of this incident.

Now for the second story:

A friend of my brother's -- let's call her Charlotte -- was awakened in the middle of the night by the presence of a stranger in her bedroom. I was told this many years ago, and I can't remember if the guy had actually made it to her bed or not, but he was certainly close by the time she became aware of him. Somehow she managed to get past him and ran into the hall where the phone was (this was in the days when the only phones that people had were land-lines, and not even cordless).

Charlotte dialed 911 and got the emergency operator on the line. She frantically reported what was going on. She would later say that the assailant came up to her and started beating her, punching her repeatedly in the ribs during the call. Somehow she managed to stay on the phone through it all, and the guy ran away.

But when Charlotte regained enough composure to assess her situation, she found that she was bleeding. Fairly profusely, I imagine, for she had been stabbed, not punched, multiple times.

Charlotte was taken to the hospital, her wounds tended, she recovered fully and lived to tell the tale. And now it has come to me to tell, and yours to hear. These two stories -- actual events behind whatever distortions of memory and transmission -- have haunted me for years. It's not that I live in fear of coming home to my house, or worry about going to sleep at night. Rather, it's something extraordinary that these episodes have in common that continues to hold my attention and fascination.

There are many paths we could go down for our armchair analysis. The gun debate is very strong in my country at the moment, and the gun proponents will assert that things would have gone very differently if only the residents had been packing heat. The liberal contingent would no doubt assert that better mental care is needed, and preventative measures should and could be deployed. We could genderize our examination, noting that the fireman's immediate recourse was to meet violence with violence, while the woman was relatively passive, only taking action to reach out to others for help. (And the attackers were both men... it's always men!) If I knew more about the ethnicities of everyone involved, we might turn a racist screw in our review. And finally, those of us with self-defense training might be tempted to shake our heads sadly and reflect how much better society would be if only more people knew what we knew.

These are all very interesting discussions, and I'm happy to have them. But none of that is what really grabs me. What I find so surprising, almost shocking, really, is just how hard it can be to incapacitate a human.

I'm well aware that these are only two stories out of countless thousands. I know that other episodes end differently. I know that there is ample evidence for the fragility of life. I know that when a plug is pulled, when a switch is thrown, that life can stop between one heartbeat and the next. I know this, but I also am compelled to see that it is not always so.

Here we have a fireman (however reticent) repeatedly hitting a young man in the head with a hammer, for a time with no appreciable effect. There is no knockout blow, no stunning and final arrest of action, except after a rather brutal persistence. Even in the hands of an untrained defender, would you have thought someone could take that kind of punishment and keep going?

And then there is this woman who kept her head enough together under unspeakable duress to make a telephone call while being repeatedly stabbed. Clearly nothing vital was hit, but multiple stabs at close range with a target that is not fighting back, and no lasting physical harm. At the time, she wasn't even aware that she was being knifed in the ribs.

I guess that people who work in ER or on the battlefront see this sort of thing all the time. But with pretty much all my exposure to violence being of the Hollywood variety, I find it surprising and just a little bit exhilarating.

If I were inclined to extract a moral from all this, something pertinent to our self-defense awareness, it might be that we are a lot tougher than we think we are. But so is the opponent.

When we throw someone in aikido, we usually do it with trained partners who know how to fall. For the moment, we have defended successfully, but in some sense nothing has been accomplished. Theoretically we may have bought ourselves a little time in which we might escape, but we've done nothing to neutralize an aggressor.

A real attacker might not know how to fall as well as we do. Still, it can take a lot to disable someone with just a short fall. Of course, they could hit their head, they could break their neck or spine, they could dislocate a shoulder or elbow or break a wrist. Or not. Maybe they just get a skinned knee and an amplified bad attitude.

If you take the tactical nature of our art seriously (and I hope you do), you need to make a study of what is really involved in incapacitating someone. There are a number of ways to do this, and I won't try to detail them all here. Mostly they fall into categories that reverse the protocols of Boy Scout first aid training:

Start the bleeding.

Stop the breathing.

Induce shock.

A lot of our aikido has nothing to do with any of this. That's not necessarily a bad thing, if our orientation is towards minimal harm. Instead, we mostly aim to maximize our own liberty. If we cannot (or should not, in the case of a third-party intervention) escape, then we may have to engage an assailant and bring them down. Assuming we can avoid harming their body, we may still need to compromise their ability to function. This is where our controlling techniques and pinning arts come into play.

In any case, I think it's easy to become bewitched by action-movie fantasies. In some cases weapons are treated like magic wands. People die instantly from a single gunshot wound, and often with only momentary pain. Throw a knife from across the room and hit a victim in the back between the shoulder blades, and again, they fall down dead. Like I say, violent death can be instantaneous, but I've come to believe that far more often than not, it's slow, messy, and horrible.

In other words, it's not just Bruce Willis who's a Die Hard, and it's not just Steven Segal who's Hard to Kill. It's you and me.

This is not to say that our training is useless, irrelevant, or totally unrealistic. Let me leave you with one final story, this time from my own direct experience.

One day I was out scrambling along some cliffs. Not actual rock-climbing, just some goofing off and exploring some interesting places. I won't bore you with the details, but I miscalculated a jump and took a thirty-foot free-fall.

I had by then some few years of aikido training. I remember thinking on the way down that I was sure to break something, but I also put all my best breakfall training to work. The upshot is that I landed feet first, tucked my knees, sat back and spread the impact along my back as much as possible.

The force was such that I bounced forward, more or less onto my feet, then over onto my hands and knees. I stood up, shook myself off, and waited for the inevitable pain to pierce its way through the shock.

The pain never came, and I checked myself over, and discovered to my astonishment that I had nary a scratch nor bruise. I did a lot of things very right, but I also was very very lucky. I walked away completely unscathed.

Well, maybe. Years later I had an MRI for some other concern, and the results showed that I had some old evidence of fractured vertebrae. I'll never know if it was from that fall or the repeated stress of years of training breakfalls, or just what.

Regardless, I'm happy to be alive and mostly functional, even if a bit of arthritis has slowed me down.

To bring it all home, let me just conclude that our training matters. It can help you in the most unexpected ways in situations that you never actually thought you were training for. But try to be as vigilant as possible about unrealistic expectations or fears.

We are more fragile, and more resilient than seems possible. At the same time, we vacillate between fantasies of invulnerabilities and overestimations of weakness -- our own, or that of whatever threatens us.

Train hard, and learn how to survive both success and failure. Your pain and your downfall is not the end of the world, and your triumph is never happily-ever-after. (At least, not until it actually is, and then it is only once.) The same is true for whatever you contend with, or against. What you secure in the moment may come back ten times the threat in the next.

At all times, in all situations, just remember to be alive.

Ross Robertson
Still Point Aikido Systems
Honmatsu Aikido
Austin TX, USA
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