On October 13th, 1993 I realized that that was the date of my first class. It was at the old Centerfield Aikido in Graton, CA. David Keip Sensei, 4th dan, was my instructor. A group of us found Centerfield about the same time—Gene Wright and Betsy Hall, David Crotty and others.
My gi top was the wrong kind (judo) for learning how to roll and kept working open. I constantly had to retie it. That was just one problem at the start of the formidable challenge of learning how to roll. Rolls on the mat found me flopping in my kidneys. I won’t even mention how horrible my standing “rolls” were to watch, and for me to be on the rolling and receiving end.
My good fortune was that David was the perfect beginning instructor and patiently over the following months guiding me to relax and follow my breath. And that was just the rolling. The techniques were unfathomable mysteries into another universe that demanded I moved my body in ways I never imagined or even dreamed of before.
The dojo itself was a challenge. There was no heat during the winter month that first year (and in the years that followed). We bundled up and usually became warm about the last fifteen minutes of the morning classes. The brick wall opposite the shomen dripped water all winter and sometimes froze. There were two support pillars in the center of the mat (the building was an old apple warehouse). Thank heavens they were padded!
During those first years of going on faith and intuition rather than any real skills on the mat, I was fortunate to be able to attend workshops by Mitsugi Saotome Sensei, Hiroshi Ikea Sensei, Mary Heiny Sensei, Frank Doran Sensei and other senior teachers. I was fish out of water but I kept trying—showing up and asking questions and began experiencing those first, “Ah ha!” moments.
The spring of that first year training, I was walking with a friend on the beach at Salmon Creek. Like most first year students, I was jabbering on about what an incredible art Aikido was. She looked at me and said, “Well, let’s see one of your so-called forward rolls?” At this point, I was still doing more kidney rolls than anything else. But without hesitation I popped off a perfect forward roll off on that sandy beach. I don’t know who was more stunned: My friend or me?
And during the workshop with Mary Heiny Sensei, I did a koku throw from irmi nage with one of the dojo’s other instructors. Once again, I don’t know who was more surprised: her or me? Another time I was doing line throws and I threw my attacker with almost no effort—it was like she was slipping through my fingers, gliding with most invisible force that I was trying to understand. I don’t know exactly at what moment I was hooked, but it happened and I became committed to the art.
A deep bow and Gassho to those very first instructors at Centerfield: David Keip, 4th dan, Betsy Hill, 4th dan, Mary McLean, 3rd dan and Sylvia Marie, 1st dan. Thank you all for your labors of love with this wonderful art.
Next: The lessons I’ve learned during the past twenty years of training.