Sep 22, 2013

My Judo Master is Gay

Denkmann Elementary School didn't have any sports teams, so I was spared the "play a sport...play a sport...play a sport" litany.  Until the beginning of fifth grade, the fall of 1970, when Dad suddenly came home with a pamphlet advertising "Rock Island Parks & Recreation Kids’ Sports.”

"It’s not just ball games, Skeezix,” Dad said. “They have boxing, judo, and karate. Those will be better at teaching you to fight anyway.”

“Couldn’t I join the orchestra instead?”

“Orchestra won’t teach you how to use your fists,” Mom pointed out. “You’re going to have to learn to fight sooner or later. All boys do.”

I sighed.  I get punched by a Mean Boy one time, and they start a "learn to fight" kick, insisting that people will be challenging me to fistfights regularly for the rest of my life.

Or maybe they were responding to the incident at the A&W, when Bill and I became "a Mama and a Papa."  Or asking for an Easy Bake Oven for my birthday.

“How about we make a deal?” Dad said. “You can join the orchestra if you take one of these classes, too. Boxing, judo, karate, whichever you want.”

Judo seemed the least horrible – no actual hitting, and you got snacks – so when the new kids’ classes began in January, I walked four blocks west to 38th Street, to the Rock Island Martial Arts Center. I changed into my stiff white judogi with the novice white belt, and learned about bowing, falling, and randori, or exercises on the mat.

I considered sneaking through the glass doors, looking at the comic books at Schneider’s for an hour or so, then going home and lying to Mom and Dad about how much fun I had. But it was too cold to go outside without a coat, and besides, most of the other students were cute junior high boys, and if I stuck around I might be able to see them take their judogis off in the locker room.



The sensei, or teacher, a Japanese guy named Sammy, was tall and broad-shouldered, with a smooth, golden chest slightly dampened with sweat (I don't have any pictures, but he looked like Japanese bodybuilder Hidetada Yamagishi). During the break, when we got to drink tea and eat almond cookies, he took me aside and wrapped a huge hard arm around my shoulders and said “Don’t worry that you are little. Some of our greatest champions are little guys. I bet in a month or two, you will be able to throw me.”

And, in a month or two, I did manage to throw Sammy (but he helped, practically leaping over my hip). I started to look forward to my Tuesday and Thursday afternoons at the dojo, with the tinkling Japanese samisen music, the faint smell of bleach and incense, the cute junior high boys, and Sammy’s fascinating stories.

One night during break, as we were eating almond cookies, Sammy said, “I better stock up. At home all we got is peanut butter sandwiches.”

“Why don’t you tell your wife to make pot roast?” I asked. “That’s what Uncle Charlie always makes on My Three Sons.”

“We never have that,” Sammy said with a weird half-smile. “Too complicated to make, too many ingredients.”

Why was pot roast too hard for his wife? I wondered. Weren’t all grown-up women expert cooks? But. . .boys couldn’t cook, or if we tried, it had to be something easy. When Mom was in the hospital having my baby sister, Dad made macaroni and cheese three nights in a row.

The answer was obvious: Sammy was married to a man, not a woman!

I didn't know the word "gay" yet, but I assumed that Sammy was in a same-sex relationship for almost a year.  Until the summer after fifth grade, when he invited some of his best students to his house for a cookout.

When Dad dropped me off and I walked onto the screened-in porch and knocked, the door was answered by a petite Caucasian woman in a flowered blouse and Capri shorts. I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach. Sammy was married to a woman after all.

Where were all the men married to men?  Or were they all forced to marry women?  Maybe the litany "what girl do you like" shifted gradually, as you grew older, to "you must choose a wife!"  And if you refused, you would be forced.