How to do Justice to Memory?

by Ellis Amdur

When I was on my way to Japan, Terry Dobson told me I should look up Donn Draeger. I scornfully said that I really wasn't interested in meeting arm-chair scholars who collected data and wrote books rather than lived the life themselves. Terry suppressed a smile (the tolerance of the mature for the testosterone addled) and said, "You'd be surprised. Donn's been around a bit."

And so he had. It would be tedious to try to enumerate all of his genuine achievements in any number of cultures' martial traditions. He was not, as some uninformed people imagine, a specialist in koryu. He was not only a generalist, but an expert in everything he generalized. He was a martial individual who's only questions of a fighting discipline were:

*Where did this come from?

*How did this come to develop?

*What do they claim to be doing and can they do it?

*What is this for?

He took the arts on their own terms--but this included examining their fantasies as well as their realities.

The measure of Donn's worth was this: The finest men and women I met in Asia, AND the strongest men and women I met in Asia all held him in the highest admiration. Without doubt--without reservation.

One of the benchmarks of Donn's character was that he had a grappler's confidence. This is something far different from arrogance--it simply means that when he touched you he knew you: knew your balance, your capabilities, and your weaknesses. He might not have been able to evaluate your spiritual worth, but he knew what would make you stumble and fall. And he could transfer this to the touch of weapon on weapon as well. Donn was a man with whom, body-to-body, you couldn't pretend.

The other benchmark was his sense of privacy. For example, Donn was a fifth dan in Tomiki Aikido. I once saw a video of him, and it was among the very best aikido I have ever seen--there was no moment where he did not have three points of body contact with his partner (this is the essence of effective grappling.) This single viewing changed the way I have done, not only aikido, but every body-to-body martial art I have practiced. At any rate, I called Dobson up, raving about what I had seen, and Terry said, "I never knew he did aikido. He used to always tease me about doing it!" What is significant here is that Terry, after his years as an uchi-deshi at the Aikikai, lived in a house with a number of Western martial artists--among them Donn, and he never saw fit to either mention it or "compare notes."

This privacy very much extended to his personal life. We who had any level of relationship with him (I was an acquaintance rather than a close friend) were all stunned by some of the details of his life that we only learned at his death. And far more of such details died with him. He had a box of his personal papers burned. Those who did so could see, as the flames devoured them, that these papers held many of the secrets of his life--but it was his wish that these go with him in death--and his friends kept their promise to him.

He was, although confident, also sanguine about himself--modest, in fact, he knew his abilities, and I'm sure he knew most of his flaws. But he wasn't a "24-7 sensei,"--off the mat he was given respect because he was a man worth respecting, not because of any title. And if you trained in any discipline with him, you trained as if your life depended upon it, not out of terror (although he could offer that), but due to his example. You would be shamed to offer any less--because he never did.

I've recently heard that certain individuals have floated the idea of holding some sort of memorial demonstration at his grave. I knew Donn well enough to say this: If somehow he could see that people had quietly, without any fanfare, gone to his grave and offered an embu, he wouldn't have liked it. Were his friends to do so, and he had the opportunity to reach us from beyond the grave, he would knock us upside the head and tell us to get a grip. How could one, from that point on, laugh and tell horrible jokes--as we did--with someone you assassinate by treating like more than a friend--a demi-god. If they were people he didn't know, I believe he would cringe with distaste, because these people would be using him for their own fantasies. The man he was would not have desired such behavior.

But the discussions I've heard about are still worse. People have talked of getting together and doing a public embu--announcing this as a "special event"--even filming it. As far as I know, most of the people allegedly involved never knew him, much less trained or studied with him. I will say this as plainly as I can. There is nothing more vulnerable than the dead, because we can do what we want to them and they are powerless to object. To make any sort of a public exhibition at his gravesite, and worse, to disseminate any sort of film or other record of this, is pimping off his name. It is obscenity.

And if such a "embu" is not in the works, take this entry simply as a mark of respect for the man, and an exemplar of how such men truly desire to be remembered.

Ellis Amdur is the author of Dueling with O-sensei: Grappling with the Myth of the Warrior-Sage and Old School: Essays on Japanese Martial Traditions.

Copyright ©2004 Ellis Amdur. All rights reserved.

Classical Japanese Martial Arts
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Classical Japanese Martial Arts