I write this for my fallen friend and comrade now gone ten years this day. I also wanted to take the time to thank those special people I have meet through this site who's humor, wit, and determination continue to daily inspire me. I thank you all for the support and open hearted sharing. Something; that for me, has always been difficult...... I would caution those browsing this that it is primarily written for me and to hopefully acknowledge a very old and personal wound. Boring at best, and not relevant to this site other than as a call to face your pains head on and find a way to put them to rest; or at least to make peace with them.... here goes.
I will call my lost partner "Buff" in this writing as it was his military acronym. He always said (in public anyway) that it stood for Big, Ugly, Friendly, Fella. Buff was a special operations pilot in the Army's 160th group for over twenty years. His fellow pilots gave him the nickname, (a little imagination will tell you the original version) as he was also a lifelong martial artist, competitive body builder, and topped out at 6' 2" at around 245 lbs. To expedite this story, I'll skip a lot of details, but I first meet him (to my knowledge at the time) as an introductory student in my dojo. I was the instructor teaching his "Intro" lesson. It became quickly apparent that this was no beginner and after speaking to and working with him, that he was a complete professional and control freak. Because I'm a former soldier, this rang all my personal bells and with a little co-sharing we discovered we had a lot in common. Buff explained that he wanted to start training again and that he also had five children, ranging in ages from 6 to 20. He went on that while he'd like to train as a family, money was tight and could we work something out?
He'd brought the entire gang with him and I'd group trained them after his intro. Lots of raw talent and his wife was a doll. Clearly the mastermind behind the curtain! After prying the details of his M/A experience out of him, (its traditional to start @ white belt when entering a new style or art, something I personally don't agree with) I told him if he'd do some private training with me, we'd start him @ brown belt (one below black) as a junior instructor. When he opened his mouth to protest, I told him we'd not pay for his services and we'd give the family a deal in exchange for his time. (5 for the price of 1 & 1/2) Grinning like a wolf, I told him not to worry, he'd earn it!
Thus began a friendship...one that was soon tested, when shortly after starting; I dislocated his shoulder during a sparring session. Buff was 11 years older than me, (I was in my late twenties then) and with the warrior mindset, sometimes we both went to fast and too hard. An accident, but one that I felt terribly responsible for. He argued all the way to the hospital.....when his wife and kids arrived, I shame- faced; told them what happened...they all hugged me and told me it was alright????!! It was then that I discovered just how deeply devoted to their faith and to each other that they were.
Later, after his surgery, we were talking in his room about guy stuff. Army stuff, in general. I was telling him in broad terms about a mission were some of his crazy comrades swooped in and literally saved my young life and the lives of my teammates...he starts laughing and wincing, (from the shoulder) and repeats a most embarrassing phrase I once uttered on said mission over the common push. (I THOUGHT I was on internal headset only!) We look @ each other and laugh...”YOU!!!" I point and grin. "Are one CRAZY S.O.B.!!"
That sealed our friendship. We became closer than brothers. Over the next few years we built up the school, shared dinners, tragedies, and failures together, and he came to me one weekend with a dream he wanted to enable. He wanted to complete his doctorate, write a book (co-author with me) about a "new" martial arts system (KKR Kenpo) that used the arts as a tool or vehicle to bring people to Christ and to train them to be "better human beings" as he put it.
"Buff" I said. "I believe in the kenpo system we've been working on; but bringing religion into it? I'm not sure that'll work."
"We do it as an outreach. Non-profit and incorporate scripture and life lessons into the training doctrine!"
He's excited and with a master in business, I know he's looked at all the legal angles. Buff's wife home-schools their children and knows a lot of "Encouragement deprived" folks through her associations with that and church, ect.
Buff has also just been promoted to a WO/4 slot. (The highest warrant officer rank at that time) He's the planning and operations warrant for his entire unit. Sigh....I know when I've been out maneuvered. A word here on military professionals. We all have goals and task with which we become focused on. A military person see’s these “tasking” as a mission. When on a mission, EVERYTHING else takes a back-seat .Your family, health and in some cases your very life is secondary to completing the mission. A common radio report and reply would be to update command and close with, “Request permission to Charlie Mike, over.”
Charlie, Mike (Continue/ing mission) in the mil-speak alphabet. To be brief, we spent the next three years of our time, (we both worked full time jobs and ran the school, taught classes, ect) every spare minute working on techniques and starting two outreaches in separate churches. Halfway thru all of this Buff was diagnosed with throat cancer. He attacked this affront to his body with the same laser like intensity with which he did everything, all out. Am I leaving things out of this? Yes. Like a bitter divorce..mine. Like a move of 90 miles away and a new town to begin an outreach in and to put me closer to my “real” job. Like a man and father struggling to complete his dreams and trying (and failing) to make enough time for his family. This and hundreds of road blocks that would take a novel to tell about, tried to stop this mission from happening…..We stayed focused…and it was working.
I became saved during this time frame, mostly due to buff and his family. I’d always believed, just never really understood… (STILL DON’T) Anyway, the little church I started in had a membership of 54 people. Our outreach grew to a total of 87 folks in a year’s time, only ten of which joined the church. More on this later, but some may see were its going. (I didn’t) My honey cleaned the church, taught there, and gave free yoga classes to all who asked on top of working as a police officer full time.
In the meantime, Buff’s health was worsening at an alarming rate. He’d undergone surgery and chemotherapy. Both times the roller-coaster ride of optimism followed by the reality of the cancer coming back somewhere else. Our book was nearing completion, the outreaches were in place and his doctorate was close at hand…. Our training sessions involved black belts from around the country, but the sicker and weaker he got, he only allowed me to train with him. He was afraid in his weakened state someone else might accidently hurt him...his trust in me still chills me to my core.
After one of the finishing sessions was complete and everyone else had departed (even his family had gone home) we sat in seiza (a most uncomfortable formal sitting position, denoting honor, respect, ect) facing each other. I could see his exhaustion and was trying to hurry our training review to get him home. He says,
“You’ve been pissed off and distant all day. What’s going on with you?”
His questions annoy me even more because I thought I was hiding my emotions pretty well. Shaking my head, I reply,
“Nothing. It’s just been a long day. You about ready?”
He gives me what I call his “paternal scowl.”
“Bull***. I’m gonna sit right here until you cough it up.” He crosses his arms across his chest to wait.
After trying to wait him out a few minutes, my anger and annoyance get the better of me.
“You really want to know!” I growl at him. He nods and I continue, “All this work!” I spit vehemently, opening my arms in a wide circle. “We’re working our asses off, and YOU!” I jab a finger at him “Are F***ing dying! Twenty years of service! All this good work, for WHAT!” I’m nearly yelling now. “Is THIS Gods master F***ing PLAN!”
I don’t even see it coming. One minute I’m cursing his fate and the utter futility of it and the next my eyes are watering and my head snaps back as his massive hammer fist hits me right between the eyes. My hands come up reflexively and I start to rise when his meat pickers reach out to hold me in place by the shoulders and I look into his eyes. We’re nose to nose and he says in a fierce whisper,
“Jim, you’ve been an operator your whole adult life, not a policy maker. Just what in the hell do you think has changed?!”
I’m too stunned to reply at first. I know exactly what he means; I just don’t want to accept it… In the dimly lit training hall, hot tears of frustration, sorrow and rage course down my cheeks.
We’re both “fixer’s” we take charge and by force of will and relentlessly hammering away at problems, either solve them or make them irrelevant. Neither of us can fix this…Dammit all to hell….It is sometimes said real men don’t cry…let me tell you, warriors do…privately yes, but they do….Time passes and I regain my composer, sucking in a large lungful of air and gritting my teeth. I can hear Buff doing the same, and in a gravel filled voice I say,
“My damn nose hurts.”
His reply is simple. “Cry-baby.” I can’t help but grin…looking up and meeting his gaze I tell him,
“You’re an ***.” My legs and feet have gone numb from being in the uncomfortable kneeling position so long. I don’t let on as I struggle to my feet and feel the hot, tingling daggers pin*** my entire lower body. Looking down At Buff, I can tell he’s in the same condition. Grimacing, he says,
“You’re gonna have to help me up, my legs are asleep.” As he reaches up to take my outstretched hand, I tell him,
“You big sissy! Serves you right sucker punching me!” As he comes to his feet I can tell he’s in far more pain than the legs account for. He pales a bit and I reach to steady him. He accepts my help; as he will come to do often in the coming months.
“This sucks.” He says quietly. Looking in my eyes and giving me an awkward quick hug, he slaps my back and stands back continuing, “I’m glad you’re with me.”
“All the way.” I tell him hoarsely.
Over the next few months, Buff finishes his doctorate and we copy- write and publish our first tiny run of books. (100 copies) The outreaches grow exactly as he predicts, but his health deteriorates quickly. The cancer has spread beyond the ability of healing and he is now on constant pain medication. He can no longer teach his classes, (We get a senior student to do so.) and in his pain and frustration, he becomes short tempered and depressed.
He is frantic to complete the “mission” and we scramble to get organized. I ask him often during our talks if he’s taking time to talk to his children and wife, and he assures me he’s handling it. I only find out much later that “handling it” meant his life insurance policies and all the million other mundane details of his impending death were attended too. Like me, (most men) he found it nearly impossible to express what he really wanted to for those closest to him.
None of us are saints…we all strive to do our best…rarely is our best good enough for everyone……faster than I would have imagined; he is unable to work and is bed-ridden. His unit promotes him to W5, (a newly adjusted rank) and gets him retired with full benefits. His pain has become so great that hospice is called in and the medications keep him unconscious most of the time…. Ten days before his death, we have our last coherent conversation together…he is racked with pain and dripping sweat…struggling to hide it and focus at the same time… his voice is a raspy growl being held in check by sheer will from becoming a scream of agony…
“Sorry I haven’t been seeing you.” He tells me.
“Not a problem. Hey, we sold out our first run.” I see just a wisp of a smile ghost across his features.
“Can I get you anything?” As usual, his wife is nearby and we both know I simply don’t know what else to say. He shakes his head slightly.
“I just wanted to thank you for always being there.” He lifts his hand from his chest and I reach out and clasp it. His eyes go to his wife.
“I know my family appreciates it too.” His wife is stroking his head and trying very hard to stay composed.
“Never a problem.” I squeeze his hand. I can see the pain in his eyes. It’s stretching his face tight with the effort it takes to suppress it.
“I can’t do this long…we did it right, didn’t we?” He asks. My tears stream down my face, but I manage to keep my voice nearly steady.
“YOU did it right Buff.” The hand I’m holding is quivering like a high voltage wire. He looks at his wife and ask,
“Can I rest now?”
She kisses his forehead and looks at the hospice nurse, who injects the medication to allow him to sleep. In a few moments his breathing shallows out and he’s as comfortable as is possible. I release his limp hand and quietly leave the room. I really didn’t think at the time that, that would be our last time together. His wife comes out a few minutes later and strong as she is, she cry’s and I hold her until the sobs taper off. After all the years in her home, we’ve become (and still are) friends. She thanks me and I go back out into the world as it continues to turn, oblivious to the heartache unfolding inside.
On my drive home I am struck with the realization that while I have a great many acquaintances, Buff is one of three real close friends that I have. The other two are (at that time) still actively military and I see them rarely. Scant days later, on my way to work; I get the call that he’s nearly gone and time is very short. I immediately head that direction, knowing in my heart, I won’t make it. I arrive 15 minutes after he’s passed and the hospice team is just finishing loading the bed and preparing to leave. His wife and children are tearfully gathered at the front door.
I’ve lost comrades before. I’ve seen more bodies than I wish to remember, but the site of his sheet covered form chills me deeper than anything I’ve ever experienced. I stop briefly by his side and offer a kenpo salute and bow my head, lightly touching his shoulder; before turning to face his family. We huddle together as people the world over do at times of loss…..
I give his eulogy to an over-flowing ceremony. All of my out-reach families make the 85 + mile trip even though most have never meet him. Our kids program had made him a video and demonstrated in front of the packed church several weeks before. I am moved to see many of these solemn young people comforting their peers and the adults in attendance. His graveside service is of course military in style, befitting his lifelong commitment. I shed no tears that day..Instead I feel hollow and tired….
I return home at the end of a long day and am shocked and honored to have many of the outreach folks bring food and personal condolences to my door. This is on a Tuesday. The training schedule for classes is Tuesday, Thursday, (evenings) and Saturday mornings, held in the churches “recreational building.” Arriving there as usual 30 minutes prior to class time, I am met by one of the senior board members to inform me that our program has been cancelled and they will only allow us to finish the week out.
When I ask why, I am told “It isn’t generating the new membership we’d hoped for.”
I’m beyond enraged…. It takes all my control to nod and walk away, looking for the pastor. Honey is angry and teary eyed…she is the “rock of faith” in our household. I find the man in his office, looking sad and waving me in, he shrugs and tells me he’s sorry, the board over-ruled him and he knows the timing is terrible….. I’m stunned...
”This is about membership for the church?” I demand angrily. He blushes and continues,
‘That…and some of the senior members think it’s unchristian to teach people how to hurt others. I don’t agree, and I’ll tell you because I know it will come out, that some also think that yoga and martial arts meditation is a “cult” teaching.”
I freely admit that “military me” came to the forefront,
“You gotta be F***ing kidding me! None of those people have EVER come to our classes or events and they were ALWAYS invited! Several HAVE come to yoga and praised my wife for their increased mobility and strength, but NOW it’s a damn CULT!” I jab my finger at him and point,
“You or those board members are going to explain to those children exactly WHY they don’t have a place to train anymore!”
To his credit, he sighs deeply and replies,
“That sad task has already been given to me. I will tell the parents and field the questions. Again, I’m very sorry.”
And so over the protest and testimonies of all the outreach families, the program was ended. I tried and failed to find another facility to keep it rolling… Honey was my rock during this trial, she was deeply hurt; but her faith remained intact. Mine didn’t.
I heard sometime later that the pastor resigned and moved to another church. It didn’t do much to comfort me. Honey has tried several other churches over the last few years..small, large, mega and tiny, it doesn’t seem to matter, the leadership seems more concerned with money and membership than anything else. No, I never approached any of them for another outreach…Buff’s outreach suffered the same fate a few months after his passing. Not because the church (his family attended there) shut it down, but just because the instructional staff were re-deployed.
Honey now studies @ home or with a group outside of “organized religion.” She (to me) embodies what a “Christian” person should be. With her horrid childhood, she “knows” there’s a God. Oddly enough, Buff’s wife is now a pastor and working toward her doctorate. They both are still working on me….If there is (A God), I’m still mightily pissed at him….
I know and have experience true evil and goodness in the world…can I say there are opposing outside forces? No. ALL of BOTH characteristics are perpetrated by men, no demons, no angles……I have my Yin, my balance and soul- mate. I still teach, though not on as large a scale…so I often ponder (as many folks I think do) what’s the point of it all? Where indeed is the master plan?
Have I learned anything by rehashing what I consider to be one of my greatest accomplishments and failures? I dunno…. Do I believe life is meant to be lived to the fullest? YES. For each of us, this day could be our last…love fully, embrace and realize your “closet dreams.” I do believe if you never try because you’re afraid of falling down, then you set limits for yourself and your happiness.
Are there bigger tragedies in the world? Of course..Japan, Haiti, Somalia, just watch the news…locally and internationally; people are suffering and experiencing tremendous trials. Do these things change the scale or scope of our own personal baggage? Not one bit. The press rarely gives the good news as much air time, but it’s there too..every day..if you look.
For me, the greatest challenge is to forgive when I feel I’ve been done wrong. The outreach program ending the way it did soured my children on religion; period. They are now adults, and absolutely refuse to step foot in a church. I am, for the most part; a very closed person..I rarely share personal pain with anyone…even honey. I guess the point of all this is that we all have things and events in our lives that we carry with us and that we harbor from the world for various reasons. I’m not advocating we all hold hands and sing “Coome-by-yaw” (ICK!) only that we use our varied life experience to help each other on the journey. No matter who you are, or what you do, each of us has valuable knowledge to share, along with perspectives those closest to you might not have.
Face your demons…agree to disagree, without it dissolving into a personal peeing contest. Will you like everyone? Hell no. Is religion the answer? For some, just not me at the moment. Be afraid only of hiding from yourself…I truly believe each of us CAN BE a beacon to others if we’re willing to reach out and accept the risk of being hurt.
As for me, I’m going to make an effort to be more open and to unveil my own light a bit more…do I like it? Hell no.(Honey grins and smacks my head.)
Buff, I miss you brother...I’m Charlie Mike’n…