Lessons well-learned

When it came time to sacrifice personal glory to save his dojo, William Eagle used his Aikido training.

Published September 18, 2005

BROOKSVILLE - William Eagle was late for class on this night - he was dealing with a medical emergency.

When he's not teaching students the martial art of Aikido, Eagle is saving lives as a Hernando County paramedic.

He enters Brooksville Aikido Academy on Cortez Blvd. in his scrubs and bows to the Kamiza sitting on the left wall's mantle. His students, who had noticed Eagle pulling into the parking lot, quit their warm-up exercises and stand in a line against the mirrored wall.

"Hey, what's with the midget?"

Darrin Burger is a deputy sheriff and, usually, the class comedian. He's inquiring about a miniature human skeleton that Eagle brought to class, its limbs flopping wildly in every direction.

"I want to show you guys some things about pressure points," Eagle responds. "You'll really be able to see it well with all the flesh and muscle stripped off."

Tonight is a nice-size class. About 10 of the dojo's (Japanese for house of study) 14 or so members are present. There's a lot of sweating, grunting, floor-mat slapping - and many smiles. Perhaps grateful smiles, since less than a year ago, Eagle gave up his coveted and hard-earned black belt to keep the Brooksville location open. That struggle is what makes this classroom just a little different. "You know, so much importance is put on your belt. And it is important, don't get me wrong," Eagle said. "But I showed everybody that in some instances, the belt is just what holds your uniform together."

* * *

Eagle put his belt on the line when the Brooksville dojo was about to be closed out from under him.

The owner, Go-Dan Steven Weber, was moving to Arizona last year and wanted to shut down the studio and combine it with another he owned in New Port Richey. He said the Brooksville location was losing enrollment and in financial trouble. So he shut down everything. "I ended the lease, took my mats and closed," Weber said. "It was a business decision."

Eagle objected. He thought the drive to Pasco County would be too far for many of his students. So he went over Weber to Shihan Richard Bowe, national head of Nihon Goshin Aikido Association.

In Aikido circles, this amounted to insubordination.

Aikido teaches more than just self-defense techniques such as "muggers throw" and "slap to the side of the face."

Some of the most important lessons seek to influence the student's psyche and personality. Honor, loyalty and virtue are cardinal qualities cultivated by students and taught by Senseis. Order and rules are pervasive. From the mandated 12-step process of folding a uniform, to the eight-step procedure for tying a belt loop that is to be exactly 2 inches below the navel, to hygiene rules and attendance requirements.

Not surprising then that advancing through 12 levels of belts ensures a rank-centric culture in Aikido dojos.

"Mr. Weber is a fifth-degree black belt," Eagle said. "So, if you're going against a fifth-degree black belt then..."

Then there will be some consequences.

Eagle wanted to keep the Brooksville dojo open and sanctioned by the Nihon Goshin Aikido Association. He didn't want to branch off and run a "rogue" dojo.

So after approaching Bowe and requesting the association's approval to reopen his own Brooksville dojo at the same location, against Weber's wishes, Bowe left it up to Weber to determine what disciplinary action Eagle would face. The punishment: Eagle had to put his belt where his mouth was and relinquish it for six months. "They wanted to see if this was an ego thing or if this was really about the students," Eagle said.

So, he sacrificed. It wasn't easy. Unlike many martial arts, in Aikido rewards are less like a deluge and more like Heinz ketchup slowly dripping from the bottle.

"There aren't any tournaments, and it takes years, years to move on to different belts, a lot of times," said Jim Holbrook, a purple-belt student at the Brooksville dojo.

It took Eagle close to 10 years of tests, essays and combat-simulation before he became a black belt. His final test was getting locked in a dojo and fending off 140 consecutive attacks. Ultimately, belts are the only trophy that an Aikido student can get.

"It was a hard pill to swallow, but I had to control myself," Eagle said, recalling his six months instructing in a brown belt.

"But see, even if I was in the midst of having that difference of opinion with Mr. Weber, I was also taught by him, too," Eagle said. "And I used Aikido to help me get through that situation."

Aikido dojos are supposed to be as far a cry from life's chaos as possible, and Aikido teaches its students to seek their "center," one's spirit, so to speak. Locating and keeping your center can calm even the most frayed nerves and de-escalate tense situations or relationships that can easily spiral out of control.

"And that's what I did," Eagle said. "I tried to never get to upset. To use what I've learned in Aikido to keep things between me and Mr. Weber from elevating. If he's pushing, I pull. It works in the dojo, and it works in life."

* * *

Now, he and Weber have mended any relationship scars and seek to put the past behind them.

Weber even applauds Eagle for displaying the humility to undergo his discipline in order to keep the Brooksville dojo open and under the association. And Eagle is back to teaching in his black belt while the dojo thrives.

His students are thriving, too. On this day, Thursday, Eagle presents Kurt McCathron with his yellow belt - the first advancement from a beginner's white. For the last bit of class, Eagle breaks out the mini-skeleton and the students gatherin a circle. He starts pointing to the various striking points: jaw, skull, rib. The class is taking mental notes as Aikido teachings continue in Hernando County primarily because Eagle put his ego in check.

"You know what?" he said. "This is a hell of a bunch of guys. I don't regret it at all."