A few hours ago I went into the Courthouse Athletic Club’s karate room, where for nine years I used to train with some great guys and gals—and where I still like to work out several times a week, enjoying the wood floor and the memories. When I started to take my shoes off, and put my sweat towel down, I saw a sheet of paper on the counter with Gordon Waite’s photograph, and a caption “In Memoriam.”
Gordon was a good karate buddy. He died unexpectedly Thanksgiving morning, at the age of 72. That is just so wrong. And yet, it must be so right. I don’t understand such things. Because I don’t, I hit the heavy bag as hard as I could for three minutes with tears in my eyes. And then I felt better. That was my eulogy to you, Gordon. I’m sure you would have appreciated that gesture better than any sorts of words, but I feel like I have to write about you as well as hit the bag for you.
Gordon had spasmodic torticollis. This is a neurological disorder that, in Gordon’s case, caused his head to twitch uncontrollably most of the time, and also kept his head twisted in one direction. He had to go up to the medical school regularly for botulinum toxin injections in the contracting muscles on his neck. Gordon would joke about this. I never heard him complain about his condition. He was 100 times braver than I am, and he shouldn’t have died at 72.
Gordon used to be in the Special Forces, in Vietnam. He was a colonel. I’m sure he did some nasty stuff; but Gordon never backed away from a fight, especially with what life gave him. He was a paratrooper, and a ski soldier. He told me that he raced cars in Europe. He took up karate about the same time I did, but he was seventeen years older than me. And he could only look in one direction—not an asset, to say the least, when you are sparring. Even less of an asset when the training drill is to stand in the middle of a circle of six or eight karate students, who attack you one at a time from any direction.
But Gordon kept training, along with me and our other comrades, and we all became close—not because we shared our deepest feelings in words, but because we did something really difficult together, and sweated our way through unbelievably tough times. When I wanted to quit, because I didn’t think my body could do any more, I’d sneak a glance at Gordon, and I knew that I could keep going as long as he could.
Gordon would go down to Ashland every summer for the full three days of an intense karate training camp that I could barely stomach for a single day. I’d arrive for the last day and Gordon would come up and greet me, his feet wrapped in bloody bandages from the constant wear and tear on a hardwood floor. And I’d say to myself, “If I could only be as tough as Gordon someday.”
Probably nobody reading this knew Gordon, the individual. But in a way we all know Gordon, the universal Gordon who we recognize all the time, in others as in ourselves. Gordon is the best part of us, the part that carries on and doesn’t quit no matter what the pain, because that is what duty and honor demands. Gordon would break his hand. And he’d keep on training. Gordon would break a rib. And he’d keep on training.
Gordon was determined to earn a black belt from Sensei Nishiyama, the leader of Shotokan karate, no matter how long it took. Spasmodic torticollis. Broken bones. Other injuries. Turning sixty-five, and then seventy. Didn’t matter. Gordon kept going. Earlier this year, I was told, Gordon became a black belt. I knew he could do it. But I also felt that Gordon always was a black belt, not in karate, but in life. I only saw Gordon once, I believe, after I started training in a different martial arts system three years ago. So why do I miss him so much? Go figure. All I can say is that people like Gordon don’t enter our lives very often, because lions are rare, and sheep common. Keep on fighting, guy. I will never forget you.