Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

If I’d Kept a Journal: Conversations With the Sensei


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The inauguration speech the president delivered was as eloquent as usual, it still lingers. I’ve reread it several times now and continue to be absorbed by this passage;


We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.


Drifting back into my own early history there were some significant markers, profound and perception altering events that would rearrange everything I knew, memories that remain vivid to this day. I’d like to tell these stories from the perspective of the kid I was then, try and recreate the time and the place and the mood.

I was born in 1955.

Previous Diary

As a kid it wasn’t often that I got to see my father, in fact it was rare. Silently shaved and showered he even managed to shut the aluminum storm door without the inevitable rattle, start up his ’62 white Coupe DeVille which was parked in the driveway just beyond my bedroom window and leave well before daybreak. The roar of that huge engine never did wake me up, somehow it shifted into park every night without notice too.

With so few happy experiences of the time he was home, it wasn’t long before I just expected his absence, even secretly hoping for it at the foot of my bed during my nightly prayer.  

Although it was never adequately explained (precious little was) why he was never home and what he did while he was away, the clues were there. Grease stained workboots occupied several brown speckled linoleum treads on the basement stairway, the constant low rumbling of the washing machine and my mom dutifully trudging basket after basket of oliveish green pants and shirts up the steep back stairs, hanging them to dry on the clothesline in our backyard. Sometimes she would ask me to hand her the wooden spring loaded clothespins and I would have ten at the ready, one clipped to each finger.

I always traced the outline of the

stitched red star patch of the shirts

as they hung in the warm breeze, for

some odd reason I really loved that

bright red star.

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There are sounds we came to expect as kids living exclusively on our perfect suburban street; an occasional bark from a neighbor’s dog, kids giggling or the thwack of a baseball bat. The best sound at the end of a hot summer afternoon was the instantly recognizable come and get it chime and loud generator of the Carvel soft serve ice cream truck, or the blinging bells of The Good Humor Man, which immediately set off an instant kid pandemonium.

The sound of vehicles was very distinctive and consigned to memory, if you heard your dad’s car engine you knew it was time to go home, the Carvel chime meant you had to find your mom and plead for a quarter for that chocolate-vanilla swirl cone.

What ended up in our driveway just after lunch one day was a vehicle that none of us kids recognized, the loud sputtering pierced the quiet as it sped down the street and stopped short with a screech, announcing itself with a high pitched Beeep, Beeep, Beeep! We all stopped playing, rushed over and out of the doorless vehicle jumped, of all people, my father who none of my friends had ever seen, wearing the familiar green pants and shirt with the red star patch smiling like I’d never seen him smile before.

This vehicle was a classic Army issue, Willy’s Jeep painted flat black with no top, no doors or windows except the greasy windshield, torn bucket seats and a stick shift between them and I was told to get in. So I did and instantly became the envy of all my friends and as we lurched out of the driveway, my dad pretended not to notice my mom as she stood screaming at him from the side stoop.

I spent the last weeks of that summer at my dad’s Texaco station, wiping windshields, having my head patted as I pumped gas inhaling the intoxicating gas fumes and listening for the ding…ding… as every dollar rolled by on the pump gauge.

I collected money and got plenty dirty and if there is a heaven, I was there.

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The timing of what happened after I resumed school is unclear but I do remember not seeing my dad for a long time. His sudden, unannounced reappearance on Christmas Eve, a holiday my mom revered and he dismissed, loaded with presents and luggage did not turn out quite as he planned, when at the doorway stood a short man wearing an ill fitting suit and carrying a single travel case. He was introduced to us as Sensei Ushiro, bowed profusely as he shook our hands and was escorted to the basement where we were told he would be living, indefinitely.

Predictably, all hell broke loose.

Soon after my few weeks spent at the Texaco station it was sold and with the proceeds and a plan, my dad moved himself to Okinawa, Japan. There he studied Karate and Judo with some of the masters of the two disciplines earning himself a half brown belt, which in those days under those teachers was no small accomplishment. He convinced Sensei Ushiro to return to the states with him to open a school, a dojo where the discipline could be properly taught by a master, Sensei Ushiro and himself.

Despite his many flaws my dad was decades ahead of his time, the school became known quickly as the epicenter of the sport and garnered some headlines too. I was eventually convinced and coerced to join the school because according to my dad I was too sensitive, too tentative, afraid of everything that moved.

Of course in his delusional, diagnosed violent schizophrenic mind, it hadn’t occurred to him that it was him that I was afraid of, it was his irrational outbursts of anger and violence that was the source of everything I feared. His new chiseled physical stature and prowess was a source of great pride to him, for us, the fact that he could now kill a human being with a well placed thumb to a temple was not anything to celebrate.

It came time to put my Karate training to the test in a tournament held at the school and attended by hundreds. I hated going to the school every Saturday, I hated the physical contact that often resulted in people getting seriously hurt. I learned well, I was always athletically talented and when I had my live match in the middle of the dojo with a kid who had become my friend, I broke his nose and he crumpled to the floor, unconscious. The crowd erupted in cheers as I bowed down in respect as is the custom but I was in shock and nauseated.

I remember the tears streaming down my cheeks as I accepted the half green belt and my trophy. I quit the next day.

I’ve only hit one other person since then. He was one of two twin bullies who terrorized the Brooklyn neighborhood I eventually moved to. He was twice my weight, he came at me and I struck him right in the heart and he went down in a heap and turned blue. I felt pretty sick about that too, even though it was justified at the time and the bullying from the twins ended that day.



Our homelife eventually settled down and the familiar pattern of my father’s absence was again the norm. The Sensei was home more often and much of his time was spent with me, in my bedroom. It was my sanctuary, the place I felt safe and it was chock full with everything to do with war. I was a Civil War and World War II afficianado, devouring every book I could get my hands on, every model I could build, every plastic soldier army I could amass. There were battle enactments permanently set up on the floor, planes hung from the ceiling and all my plastic rifles and gear was conspicuously displayed, everywhere.

The Sensei  would sit crosslegged on the floor while the battles raged, the sound effects of every gun, tank and plane added by me perfectly mimicked the sounds I’d heard from so many war movies. He would occasionally talk with me about how I felt, why I enjoyed playing war so much. He was never judgmental but his broken English would inhibit his conversation.

One of my favorite soldiers was a Marine armed with a flame thrower, he was all green and had the tank strapped to his back. The Whhoooosh! that I learned from movies was my favorite sound effect, it was also the weapon I used when I wanted to kill all the Japanese soldiers hiding in the makeshift caves I built.

Whooosh! Whooosh! I felt a tap on my shoulder, the Sensei raised both his hands as if to say stop, so I did. He got up and began removing his shirt, then his undershirt and pants. He stood there for a moment then bent down and picked up the flame throwing marine and pointed at his body. I sat there with my mouth open shocked at what his skin looked like, even now it would be near impossible for me to describe the scars that covered every inch of his exposed skin.

He explained to me that he was one of the last Japanese soldiers to be taken out of the caves on Okinawa near the end of World War II. He opened my Encyclopedia Brittanica to the pages describing what happened so I would fully understand. He showed me his feet that barely had toes and his hands that barely had fingers.

I remember his leathery hands cupping my face.

Sensei Ushiro was the fiercest man in the dojo, a black belt master in the discipline of self defense. He was also the most serene human I have ever met. When he performed his Katas or forms like the one in the video posted above, he used the wooden staff too with virtually no fingers or toes. To watch him perform was a miracle, he was a master at his craft and an incredible human being who showed that little boy firsthand, the horrors of war.

It’s a lesson I hold deeply to this day.




  1. trs

    That’s all I can say – wow. You have a gift with words, and this is a well-done piece of work. Thank you for a window into your life.

  2. Cheryl Kopec

    The whole diary held my attention, not a small feat these days. I wasn’t tempted to skim over any of it. One sentence really jumped out at me, though:

    I collected money and got plenty dirty and if there is a heaven, I was there.

    It took me back to age ten, when my dad dropped me off at a Unification Church commune in Denver. While I bravely maintained my private delusion that he would someday return for me, that he couldn’t have just abandoned me there, it was still heaven on earth for me. I had a job making and selling candles, I was part of the community, and I didn’t have to go to school (fact was, I would later learn, they couldn’t enroll me in school due to the lack of any legal guardian, which became a problem for the church vis-à-vis the local authorities). Months later, when a church official told me my grandparents had been located and were on their way to come get me, I broke out in sheer panic, having been told by my mother that they were dangerously insane and banned from my childhood home in Chicago. Yeah, so much for Mom’s issues with her folks — they turned out to be some of the kindest, sweetest people I’ve ever known.

    Chris, a line from your comment struck me, too:

    There were congratulations that followed… Each one just made me sicker and more ashamed of myself…

    This is how many returning veterans who happen to have sensitive spirits (a strength, not a weakness, IMHO) feel when congratulated and fêted for their combat service. It doesn’t feel like anything to be proud of, honestly.

    Great stuff here, Meese! Thanks for an uplifting start to my day.

  3. cassandracarolina

    in your future, dear occupant. This is seriously riveting, beautifully evocative writing.

    I had the good fortune of studying Shotokan karate in college under a Sensei Kazumi Tabata, a 5th degree black belt from Japan whose further advancement was apparently dependent upon teaching in foreign lands. He gave classes at several Boston-area colleges, and to make ends meet, worked as a night security guard at one of them. When students asked him what he did when danger threatened (imagining that he karate-chopped or kicked the offenders senseless), he would reply with his delightful modesty: “No. Must follow proper procedure. Put feet on desk. Dial “O”. Ask for police.”

    He took no crap from any students, and I delighted in being a 5’4″ female survivor of his rigorous training regimen as the boisterous jocks dropped out, one after another.

    While I only advanced to yellow belt, what I took from the class was the power of focus: an ability that has served me well personally and professionally ever since. I’ve never had occasion to fight in self defense, but many who know me have said that I’m someone who doesn’t take any crap from anyone. Perhaps its the confidence of knowing that if needed, I could surprise someone even with the ferocity of a well-timed scream.

    Thank you for drawing me back to those times, and giving me yet another fascinating glimpse into the developmental years of a very dear occupant.  

  4. kishik

    The red flying horse gas sign? That was the station down the block from me… With the old fashioned soda machine where you had to pull the soda out by the neck of the bottle?!

    Just one of the memories you brought home tonight as I read this

    Thanks, dear o….

    As always,


  5. Lorikeet

    to read your diaries, and when I poked around here tonight, I realized I hadn’t read any for a few months. So I’m glad I’ve found your new home, and look forward to reading more diaries.

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