…. of all things

The other day….

…. I was thinking back to the time when I first met him. A 6ft tall, well-built African American in crisply pressed army coloured clothes; short sleeved khaki shirt, darker twill trousers, black leather belt and shined up black shoes. The man was an immediate success to the eye. He bore himself with a sense of pride that immediately set him apart from any company he was with. In a nutshell, Dr. Dave was all about first impressions.

There was a casual confidence about him that made you feel instantly at ease with him. Here was a man who was self-assured, but also welcoming and accepting of others. He was engaging, intelligent and sociable. Meeting the Dr. was like meeting a long lost favourite uncle.

At our first meeting, Dave was 53 years old and working as an English teacher at the school I had just been appointed to in west Tokyo. He had strong connections to the US military and had been a practicing on-base psychologist until he was retired at the age of 45. With Dave, being moved on from the force was impossible; you could take Dave out of the army, but you could not take the army out of Dave – it was part and parcel of the man; his very essence. At his core, Dave saw himself as a battle hardened warrior, a veteran of the field. In his imagination, Dave was at war.

In Japan, with its long history of martial arts, Dave took the idea of the feudal samurai warrior to heart and crafted his self image around it. He took up kendo and would often carry the bulky protective armour and helmet with him. If not that, there was almost always a sleek bamboo practice sword strapped to his back. The ubiquitous shinai was part of his image. Sometimes, with his gear strapped to his back and the sword slung over his shoulder, Dave would put on his warrior face and jog on the road from the train station to the school; on the way passing many bemused students and teachers who would walk the distance in a casual 30 minutes. I soon learned that there was no particular reason for lugging the gear and sword with him other than a “just in case” scenario that constantly played in his mind. He wanted to be ready and he wanted to remain fighting fit. On arriving at his office, he would dump his sparring gear in the corner of the room, where it would stay until the end of the day; well mostly.

We shared an office space with about five other teachers. The desks were crammed together in a small space that competed with books, photo copiers, coffee making facilities and other paraphernalia. Not much space between desks to stretch out or move about in. On one particular day, I was returning from class and as I was approaching our office from down the corridor I heard what sounded like a kiai coming from the room. I had no idea what to expect, but thought that Dave might be at the root of it. I was right. When I entered the office, Dave had his shinai out, his warrior face on, and was practicing his kendo moves up and down the aisle between the desks in an otherwise empty office. At the end of each pass he would utter a kiai and bring his sword down for a strike to the head of his imaginary opponent. I stood slack jawed and in awe of the spectacle before me. Dave was oblivious of me and focused entirely on the battle at hand. He obviously had been fighting for some time as the sweat on his brow indicated. At the end of one particular pass, Dave was a little too enthusiastic with the sword and lifting it high, sent it slicing through the plaster ceiling tiles that popped and lifted from their suspended grid. This was enough to break Dave’s concentration and he looked up to inspect the damage he had done. Then, turning around he finally noticed my presence and offered me one of his warmest smiles. Warrior face instantly gone, he put down his shinai and sat back at his desk, wiping the sweat from his brow.

Unarmed combat was also a passion for Dave. He could speak endlessly about the technologies developed for war and how they were used to kill and maim, but hand to hand, man to man, warrior to warrior, “till death do us part” type scenarios were a favourite. In that sense karate appealed to him, but beyond that there was the gentle art of tai chi chuan. I was never sure why this seemingly innocuous dance, still practiced in the parks of Beijing today, was of interest to Dave, until I understood that the slow circular dance was developed as a fighting style by shaolin monks in ancient China and was at the core of modern day kung-fu. Tai chi utilises the opponent’s strength and turns it back to the aggressor. The warrior in this case becomes a master of the life force called chi and uses his own, plus the opponent’s, to disarm, maim or kill. At the height of his interest in this art, Dave would practice his hard soft moves at any opportunity he got. He would adopt a bent at the knee stance and consciously lower his body a couple of clicks and then begin waving his hands in front of his body in a figure eight move known as “wave hands like clouds” or another one called “grasping the swallows tail” that involved shifting the weight on to the back foot whilst reeling in an imaginary bird by the tail. One of the more memorable moments came when I was disturbed from my preparations by heavy guttural breathing from the end of the room near the office kitchen area. I got up to take a closer look, and there was Dr. Dave with his back towards me, knees bent, hands pushing against the doors of the refrigerator and emitting a dragon breath, no doubt to stimulate the power of his chi from his belly button. I left him to it, slowly edging back so as not to disturb the obvious communion taking place between warrior and whiteware.

Dave believed that the army had a role for anyone and was its best advocate. It provided guidance, discipline, sustenance and a reason for living; even if that reason was the killing of other human beings, the destruction of the environment and the destabilising of enemy economies. He was a true patriot and had the greatest admiration and respect for the members of the marine core, whom he saw as the embodiment of the values that drove him personally. In his classes at school, Dave would not really focus on his students or the task of teaching; his mission was to tell all of the glories of war and the brotherhood of blood. In one case I witnessed Dave telling a class of wide eyed 7th graders about the intricacies of anti personnel mines that were booby trapped and spring loaded so that when activated by a person’s foot they would release an explosive charge designed to explode at the level of the head and chest, thus immediately killing the victim. Tales from as far back as Vietnam to the more recent Desert Storm were told and retold with equal animated vigour as if he had actually been there himself.

Along his life path Dave was at one time married and has a son of whom he is immensely proud. Unfortunately, his marriage did not last the distance and he found himself as a solo dad in Tokyo with the responsibilities that that implies. With not a bitter bone in his body, Dave would recount how his ex-wife had decided to leave him to go to university to develop her career. She did so with his blessing, but left a man who became increasingly desperate over the years to find a new life partner. His charm and natural wit were endearing to many, but did not always work. His method of approach proved to be formulaic and involved impressing the candidate with his doctorate, the name of the university he had attended and the fact that he was writing a book; all true and impressive details that would soften up any would be mate. At one time we were on the look out for a new staff member and were in the process of reviewing applicants’ CVs. We were supposedly combing through the pile of applications to isolate the top 10 candidates for interviewing. One particular CV caught my attention, not because it was outstandingly good, but because it kept reappearing in the “likely” pile, even after it had been moved to the “unlikely” pile a number of times. Over the course of the few days that we were considering applications this happened again and again. It seemed that Dr. Dave was particularly impressed by the candidate and wanted her to be given an interview.

On the day of the interviews Dave was on his best behaviour and it seemed to me, even more smartly dressed than usual. When the candidate in question arrived at the office, he was immediately out to impress like a peacock courting a reluctant hen. He introduced himself as Dr. B, and as we gave her a brief tour of the campus, I witnessed how he took out his well polished trophies to embellish his show and tell. He told her his doctorate was in psychology; she was not impressed. He told her the name of his university; she was not impressed. He told her that he was writing a book; she was not impressed. He told her about his son and how good he was at school; she was not impressed. He even joked with her in his basic Japanese; she was not impressed. By the end of the guided tour, I was feeling almost as hopeless and desperate as Dave must have been feeling himself. In the following interview, the candidate related her surprise at being asked to come in to see us as it was obvious from her CV that she had had no teaching experience and probably her only saving grace was that her English was proficient. We did not tell her that she was there at Dave’s insistence as he was looking for someone to be a mom to his boy. She left the building without so much as a backward glance at Dave who was left standing alone at the entrance looking a little embarrassed with himself.

One final snapshot of Dr. Dave shows his immense respect for the Top Guns amongst us. Dave valued effort, education and excellence. He himself was an epitome of the heights a poor New Jersey boy could aspire to and his rank as a Lieutenant Colonel gave him the respect of many a rank and file soldier whom he related to in a friendly father like manner. Seeing Dave operating in his element made me realise the heart quality of the man. He really did care about the grunts, and they knew it. Beyond Dave’s personal achievements were those who had surpassed all; the cream of the crop, the top 2% of the top 10% and Dave had enormous respect for them. Think of the men who have walked on the moon and list them: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Pete Conrad, Alan Bean, Alan Shepard, Edgar Mitchell, David Scott, James Irwin, John W. Young, Charles Duke, Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt. Twelve men who represented the furthest the hand of humanity has stretched to date. Twelve men who not only touched the sky by standing on the shoulders of others, but left footprints on moon dust to prove they had achieved the goal. And when Eugene Cernan came to visit, Dr. Dave was bristling with pride. At the end of the astronaut’s talk to the assembled student body, Dave raced out of the building and placed himself in an intercepting position so that Eugene Cernan would have to walk passed him. As the astronaut walked up, Dave took a step out introduced himself formally with rank and name and asked if he could salute Cernan. Without a single misstep the two men squared off and stood to attention. Dave pushed out his chest, put on his warrior face, looked steely eyed in to the distance and snapped a perfect salute.

“At ease soldier,” said Cernan.

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