It was and still is astonishing to me that this environment was created in North Park, a somewhat dreary and rough neighbourhood several miles from the allure of the Pacific coast. Whenever I would venture out I would be met by a predictable deep blue sky, occasionally fuzzy with air pollution but even then the fierce sun would be over your head. This was for the best part of 350 days of the year and then some rain. Some I say as Blighty this was not. People were generally well tanned as I would expect and as was not the case for us. A few miles west and down from the mesa (plateau) the many beaches with their respective communities sprawled along the coast. Amongst the huts and wooden houses a different life or should I say different culture existed. Much of it also claimed alternative ways as a mix of 60’s hippiedom still persisted, together with her modern rebirth, the New Age culture. But also beach culture, the surfers and the sun worshippers. Not Los Angeles but worthy of Bay Watch nonetheless. Volley ball, beach parties, BBQ’s and no shortage of hedonism. Sometimes I would feel I was missing something, missing the chance to live that more chilled life, less intense and more frivolous. It didn’t last long as I knew it was not for me, or at least not for long. I would in all likelihood get bored and besides, friends joked, “You wouldn’t last 2 weeks!” I was “Come on, surely a few months?” They were right of course, damn them.
The coastal communities were part of California’s geography. The mountains were only an hour away by car. The Anza Borrego desert was on the other side of this, a further 30 mins. The border to Mexico a mere 17 miles or so, which allowed easy visits to Tijuana, or TJ, as it was locally coined. Los Angeles 2 hours north, and Mammoth another 4 hours. This was the vast skiing range where you could go and be back in the same day at a push. All this and much more, available to a million or so San Diego residents. Then the hustle and bustle of business, commerce, play and family. The city itself was hardly a cultural hub. No offence intended. A former Spanish mission, outgrown by the modern city. Naval bases, military camps and the presence of a massive US Pacific fleet would occupy the immediate environs. Yet despite all this, it was a village, albeit a big one. I had left London and all its history, entertainment, creativity and dynamism. A big, grey, wet but charismatic city for a spacious Southern California “paradise”.
But right now I was apart from all this and observed it from a distance. North Park was known as a drug land neighbourhood and here and there you could see Crips or was it Bloods walking past? They would nod at me, smiling and keep going on about their business. My path and theirs could not be more different. They knew that and the absence of competition meant that I got a nod. I was quite sure they knew exactly who was in the area. Their boss would have demanded that, know your territory if you know what I mean? On certain days when time allowed and a few blocks from the dojo, you could see a pair of sneakers, trainers hanging from a post – apparently a sign for the stuff they sold. Near by and in an orderly queue were the rows of BMWs, Audis and Mercedes. The occupants of these expensive cars were well groomed men (I never saw any women), in well cut suits, perfect hair cuts and money. Executives purchasing cocaine no doubt. Not my thing. Well, the drug I was pursuing was a different one, it had a different hook, a different altered reality.
At first, there were 6 or 7 Uchi Deshi of varied and diverse backgrounds. After about a year, if not less, it was reduced to just myself and Yahe Solomon. He had just returned from Japan, having spent an extraordinary 2-3 yrs as Uchi Deshi at the Aikikai headquarters. The others left for various reasons. The regime was maybe too demanding or not what they thought. We would take turns to lead the morning classes. The crew usually consisted of a farmer/gardener, a shop keeper and a few others, but no more than 4 or 5 people. We were grouchy, ratty, sore and usually just wanting to get through the morning. To make it past this early obstacle, as that’s how it felt, so the body and the mind could loosen just a little more for the day ahead, for the more energetic and demanding classes headed by Chiba Sensei. Sometimes we would make classes more vigorous, intense and rough. Actually this was most of the time, with the idea to make them tired and put them off mornings altogether. And if they don’t come back we could have an easier morning. Sometimes even get an extra 30 mins sleep. Sleep was a precious commodity and quality sleep was – I can’t remember. Somewhere down the line and for about 6 months, even this tiny bit of snooze was taken away as a new Deshi arrived to join us and to steal our sleep and whatever modicum of comfort there was. He would leave eventually, only to be replaced by another Deshi and so it went on.
Then of all people, a new guy arrived in the form of a retired Navy Seal and asking for private sessions. There were FBI agents, Swat Team, marines and the police, including the sheriff’s department amongst the regular civilians, but I never expected a former Seal Team 6. That famous outfit of Commandos, killers trained to serve their country and based nearby. He was retired and starting a new stage of his life outside of the military. 2 times a week I was given the honour of teaching him straight after the regular morning class ended. He was incredibly strong, fit, although I am sure he would argue, “You should have seen me a few years earlier”. I don’t doubt. How the fuck do you teach Aikido to a former Seal? Well, you do as any other class and get on with it. He enjoyed training and would hang out for breakfast with Yahe and me.
After the morning classes, the rest of the day would follow. I would be more awake, I think, and ready to throw myself into dojo chores, work and then more classes. This was, without doubt, a time of growth as the new space gathered attention and the training population shot up. A far cry from where Aikido finds itself today, unable to convince people of its value. The afternoon sessions and early evenings were full of Aikido, weapons, Iaido, Zen and later Shodo, Japanese calligraphy. I could feel myself shifting gears as the afternoon became evening and the classes would begin again. Overall this would be 4, 5 or 6 hours a day not including seminars of every kind when they took place. I was, however, drowning in the regime as it became more and more claustrophobic. Everything was tight and close with little space to manoeuvre. This was the product of the psychology of the dojo, which affected me including my training. How can I feel claustrophobic in this huge space? How can I feel that close in Southern California where there was seemingly no shortage of space? Working with Chiba Sensei, in the dojo, it was the case.
Seeing and dealing with the regular membership was also tight as I came more to understand that I was dealing with Americans and what that meant. In their country but seeing them through the lens of a Brit and in the most unusual of circumstances. There were some who didn’t like a foreigner telling them what to do. This, of course, could be true anywhere in the world. Then there is the name, which some would think, where is he from, adding to alienation. The fact that I was in the senior most position, together with Yahe after Chiba Sensei would accentuate all that, often bringing out a more authoritarian side of me. When frustration gripped I didn’t care. There was a sense of “whatever”. “I am in a difficult situation and you just don’t get that.” If that was it, it would be understandable, but in fact, it was more like, “I don’t care if you get me or not”. A great way to make friends and influence people.
The classes could never be second guessed. Aikido, beginners, Iaido and weapons training. It didn’t matter. Chiba Sensei knew how to orchestrate a class and you never knew what was coming, even if you thought you did. All you could do if you were prepared to play was to simply go with it. Go where the storm took you and …..do your best. 3 hours of Chiba Sensei every evening was no small thing. This was the daily regime except when he went away on courses and Mondays.
The evening would come to a close and as the bulk of the students headed off home, the dojo and mats cleaned, we would head to the back where dinner was due. It was normal to see Mrs Chiba buzzing around whenever classes were on. She was busier than anyone including Chiba Sensei. Keeping the invisible parts of a dojo going, while supporting her husband and family left her with little or no time. We would have dinner waiting for us every evening where Chiba Sensei would join in, at first all the time and later, to ease things for himself and us, a few evenings a week. We were as much as possible in his family as could be. This would have been the old ways in Japan but I was never sure it transplanted into a foreign culture and in particular with us, the Uchi Deshi. Contending with this was one thing but add to that your “raison d’être”. You are here to prioritise Aikido and to that end your relationship with Chiba Sensei. As the night progressed we moved onto beer and wine. He liked his Cabernet Sauvignon and if any other students stayed over for dinner that evening, we would end up in conversation well into the night. By this time it would have been an 18 – 20 hour day with most of it filled with activity. I was also thoroughly knackered.
I would drop into the futon and as tired as I was and if the mood strikes, I would plug my head phones into a small ghetto blaster and play various rock tracks. These were mainly classic rock, punk rock, David Bowie but most regularly was London Calling from the Clash. I played it a lot more than I did back in England, which was often enough, but here I was hanging on to my London roots. It was true enough to me by now that for all the impact of life as a deshi, life in the US, the old city was well ingrained into my bones. It just simply would not go away.