Location: Chiang Mai
Join Date: Jan 2017
Early Aikido in Eastern USA
One recent quiet Sunday, I was recollecting my past as probably some of us old folks do. For some reason, my mind reflected upon my brief Aikido training during 1960-2. I went on to the Internet to search for the Fort Benning Aikido Club (Georgia) and my Sensei, George D. Brown. I found no references to either of them in the history of Aikido in the USA. I felt that, although I have not been an Aikido practitioner since that period, some mention should be made of the Club and Sensei Brown in respect to their place as early pioneers in the spread of Aikido in the USA, especially in the Eastern USA.
In 1960, I joined the Fort Benning Aikido Club. I was an Army brat on the post. The Club was headed by Sensei Brown, a sergeant in the military police. Sensei Brown indicated that the Club had been, at that time, the only Aikido club east of California. I don't know when the Club was actually established, but believe it may have been only a few years earlier in the late 1950s.
Sensei Brown had been stationed in Hawaii, Japan, and Korea. He was a Shodan in Aikido and had trained with Master Koichi Tohei -- the then Chief Instructor of the Aikido Hombu. He spoke much about Master Tohei and even gave one of his sons the middle name of "Koichi" in respect toward his teacher. Although a Shodan, Sensei Brown wore a white belt, as did all the students, and a hakama only during formal occasions and public demonstrations. Sensei Brown felt that formal ranking fostered egotism and competition which was contrary to the spirit of Aikido, that is, universal harmony, and progression in Aikido should be reflected through performance.
When a new student joined the Club, Sensei Brown had the student give him their white belt. He tied the white belt around his waist, untied it, and then tied it around the new student's waist. The new student now has the spirit of the teacher. Sensei Brown told us to respect our belts and not place them on the ground or wash them. He said that our belt contained all of our accumulated Aikido knowledge, experience, skills, plus the Ki of your teacher, all of your partners, yourself, and the universe. I still have that white belt among my prized possessions even now over a half century later.
Sensei Brown told us that Aikido was the Way of the union of universal energy: Union of your energy/body/mind with the Ki of those who you come into contact with and the Ki of the universe. He mentioned that Master Ueshiba, an accomplished jujitsu master, had transformed his style of jujitsu into Aikido to bring spiritual harmony back into Japanese society after the horrors of WWII.
The Club held classes three days weekly with two hours for each class. The students were primarily soldiers with only two-three Army brats. Since the class was at the base gym, it was not open to off base civilians.
Sensei Brown had a reputation among the military police, base soldiers, and the bar owners in Phenix City (Alabama) -- the local Georgia county was dry at the time. That reputation was solidified by one instance when he was called into a Phenix City bar to control group fighting among soldiers. He subdued three-four of them, and sent two others to the base hospital for minor treatment. This incident was recorded in the local newspaper at the time.
I remember a class when we had this one spectator who, during the mid-class break, was speaking to Sensei Brown. He came in later wearing a gi with a black belt. At the end of class, Sensei Brown had us all stay. The man was apparent a soldier who just returned from an airborne unit in Okinawa and was a karate black belt. He had heard about Sensei Brown's reputation, but still doubted the street usefulness of Aikido. The soldier was very respectful in expressing his doubts and was not a "dojo buster". Sensei Brown told him to attack him anyway he wished, but with strong intentions to hurt Sensei Brown. The soldier did this multiple times with hand and foot strikes, but was easily subdued each time by Sensei Brown. That soldier then came into the next class, wearing a white belt, and became a regular student in our Club.
In 1961, the US Army-produced television show, the ‘Big Picture", came to Fort Benning and did a film clip about our Club. I don't know whether it was ever shown on television.
Sensei Brown rotated out of Fort Benning at the end of 1961 I believe to another duty station. The Club was then led by senior students and continued to work on the concepts and techniques taught by Sensei Brown. Six months later in June 1962, I joined the military myself, left Fort Benning, and lost contact with the Club. In and after the military, I gravitated toward other martial training probably because of my military experience. I never returned to Aikido.
In conclusion, I hope that Aikido "historians" will accord both the Fort Benning Aikido Club and Sensei George D. Brown a place in the history of the early years of Aikido on the mainland USA. Perhaps there are some former students of Sensei Brown or the early Fort Benning Aikido Club who can contribute further to this legacy.