He certainly didn’t look extraordinary. Tall, thin, his hair carefully combed back, he would sometimes hunch his shoulders, the way some people do when they walk. When I first met him, there was nothing to indicate anything unusual, or special.
I remember when he first stepped foot on the mat. He did so carefully, without pretense. He asked if we would accept him as a student. He seemed, in sum, what he appeared to be: an older gentlemen, gracious, with an on-off, sometimes persistent, cough.
I’ll never forget that first class. Sensei was teaching koshinage, which can be a bear for new students to pick up. I paired up with him, bowing low. I grabbed his wrist, and prepared to explain the mechanics of the throw. “Put your feet here,” I began to say. “Slide this way.”
As soon as I moved, or began to move, I suddenly found myself upended, staring into space.
Jim was above me, smiling, a twinkle in his eye. His time with us was like that. Techniques he had no business knowing, executed with a grace far beyond his experience. But other techniques, those I would have guessed he knew…nothing. During those times he looked every bit the 5th kyu he was.
Over time, Sensei and I would get to know Jim better. We’d go to lunch, hang out, shoot the breeze. But we never asked him about his martial background. Jim never brought it up, and—strangely, now that I think about it—it seemed intrusive of me to ask.
One summer the dojo took a day trip to Orlando. Jim was there, of course, and I resolved to finally broach the subject. We were alone, by the car, when I flat out asked him:
“How good are you, really?”
He looked at me for a moment, and then, quietly, gave me his martial arts resume. I was floored. Sixth dan, Kodenkan Jiu-Jitsu. Fifth dan, Karate, multiple styles. Others, too. Apparently he’d been training, continuously, for the past thirty-five years.
Yes, he was a beginner in Aikido. Yes, he smoked too much. But man, that koshinage.
About five years ago Sensei and I heard he had a mild heart attack. We tried to find him, then. We knew, in a vague sort of way, where he worked, so we went out one Saturday, determined.
I haven’t seen Jim now in about seven years. I hope he is well. I miss him.