A Singular Life

A Short Story by Bill Garwin

A Short Story of the Life of Dan Ivan Sensei

They’ll come. I need them. I left a light on as a beacon or maybe more like a flame. They can’t resist. It’s what they do. Inflict injury on the weak. Humiliate and take a life’s accumulation. They’ll come in numbers preceded by their stench and the spittle from their bikes. They’ll be loud, wearing leather in the night heat; unafraid of a single old man floating in the isolation of this desert shack. It’s taken me a lifetime to get here. A lifetime of violence. A lifetime of honor.

The Great Depression and I were born within hours of each other. I was raised, if that’s what you call it, in Alliance, Ohio. My dad, an immigrant from Eastern Europe, was twice as old as my 16-year-old mom when they married. He left six months after I was born. Mom waitressed to survive, leaving little time for mothering. We lived with my grandmother; the house language was Hungarian. I bathed every Saturday night in a large, galvanized tub. I can’t remember having toys, electricity or phones.

I began riding the rails when I was ten. Hop a moving train from here to there. The hobos were decent, the guards brutal if they caught you. At thirteen, I took the train to California. Slept in boxcars, ate when I could, usually at the kindness of the hobos. Kept a club and never, ever, let anyone see I was afraid. Stoic. I’d steal vegetables from gardens, shoplift groceries. Did some work when I could get it, sweeping floors, washing dishes. Never panhandled. I’d rather steal than beg. When I came back, I think my grandmother was glad to see me.

Sammy, Frankie and I were the worst kids in town. I carried a blackjack until the police took it away. They never did find the brass knuckles. I fought. A lot. So did everybody else. But I was never a bully, except maybe when we were rolling drunks.

I’m fifteen, driving with Sammy, we see a guy who turned us in to the police a week earlier. Maybe for stealing from the market, robbing drunks, fighting. I can’t remember. I tell Sammy to pull over, jump out and beat the crap out of the guy. Next day, Sammy, Frankie and I are picked up by the cops. They take us to court and the judge decides it’s Juvie or the army. I complain I’m only fifteen. Judge, pen in hand, allows as how he has my birth certificate in front of him and I’m eighteen.

Boot camp’s great. Bed, clean sheets, indoor plumbing and all the food I can eat. There’s nothing better than hiking, drilling, camping out with a can of sterno and K rations. Tough guys back from the war taught me discipline and respect. I learned to kill.

I did a tour in Guam, was discharged and went back to Alliance. I started to slip into the same destructive cycle. Not who I wanted to be so I re-upped. They sent me to Japan where I met my wife and the love of my life, karate.

I courted my wife floating on the canals of Tokyo. We couldn’t be seen together on the streets, so our romance was limited to the low-tide stench of the canals or a well-hidden small café. Surprisingly, her family mostly accepted me. Maybe she’d have been better off if they hadn’t.

I’m at Camp Zama in the Criminal Investigation Division, CID. A military cop with a mandate to “Do what has to be done”. It’s a violent job for which I’m perfectly suited. Just another extension of a life of fighting.

I managed to spend some time learning judo. I’m paying for my lessons by selling my GI cigarette allotment on the black market. I will eventually have black belts in karate, judo, aikido and kendo.

I studied judo at the Kodokan, a large gray building which had evaded the American bombing. Wide steps led to an always open double door, behind which as many as a hundred students could be found training. Beginning students would show up early practicing falls to warm up the frozen straw tatami mats for senior students. Training would last 2 or 3 hours.

I’ve spent my life fighting, dominating. It’s who I am. I hear about this karate dojo. I grab an interpreter from the Provost Marshall’s office and tell him what I want. He’s so busy shaking his head in the negative, he doesn’t even notice we’re on our way.

Off the train at Ueno, through the underground where entire families live in stench and poverty. We emerge to the smell of charcoal hibachi fires and lean-to living. Through the destruction to what seems like the uninhabited bones of a bombed-out building. Yes, he’s certain this is the place. I move towards the basement and sounds of men screaming. I follow the smell of sweat into the dojo of Gogen Yamaguchi Sensei, the Cat.

There stands a short, but massive man. Shoulder length black hair, commanding in a deep guttural voice. Gi clad students matched off in pairs down the length of the room. Each strike, each block emphasized with a shout concentrating the energy of the blow. I stopped halfway down the stairs, sat and watched. Yamaguchi Sensei approached. We communicated through gestures. If I wished to train, I was to leave and return with my uniform.

I come back the next day, gi in hand. Training was brutal, especially for a gaijin. A senior student took me to the back and taught basics. But soon, I did much more. Other dojo’s practiced kata and staged sparring. Yamaguchi Sensei introduced free fighting. Manners were observed, control required, but blood flowed. Blocks hurt as much or more than strikes. The injured, the truly injured, could lean against a wall to recover.

My wife and I returned to the States. The Army sent me to learn Japanese at the language school at the Presidio, Monterey. After my discharge, I begin establishing dojos. At one point I’ve got eight of them. I bring instructors from Japan. I start the Japan Karate-do Federation. I’m the American Director of the first World Karate Championships. I’m elected to the Black Belt Magazine Hall of Fame. I write a book, invest in real estate, get involved in movies and Las Vegas productions. I travel and teach. In Japan, they award me eighth dan in karate for a lifetime of achievement. I receive it from a Zen monk who is a descendant of Ieyasu Tokugawa, a 17th-century shogun.

I’m hurting. The VA docs tell me it’s cancer. Not much they can do. Eventually, it’ll eat me up. I’ve got this isolated, little place in Whitewater, California, population 892. A shack painted loud pastels. Maybe 500 or 600 square feet that never saw a building permit. Concrete ramps between small rooms with mud walls. And this is where I sit. A bird on a perch waiting for vultures. For one last fight. The coda of a lifetime of violence, achievement, and honor. A singular life.

In memory of Dan Ivan Sensei

Bill Garwin received a B.A. from UCLA, an M.S. in Journalism from Boston University, and a J.D. from the University of San Diego. He studied martial arts for 20 years, holds a 3rd dan karate black belt, and practiced and taught fencing. He is the author of the soon-to-be published, City of Schemes.


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  1. This is a roller coaster of life and emotion. It’s the story of strength and fearlessness eventually overpowered by time and life’s natural order. The body waiting to succumb to disease while the mind relishes the challenge of a last fight. Makes one appreciate the neutral times and the urge to live a consistent life. But struggles are given to those who are blessed with the power to tackle them.
    Beautiful writing. 🙂

  2. Thank you! Dan was an amazing man driven by adrenalin. I appreciate your kind words.

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