I trudged toward the 100ft turntable ladder, my fire gear already heavy from a combination of sweat and water from our struggle with the still burning building to my left. I glanced towards the driver. He returned a quick thumbs up as conversation was at a premium over the groaning and whirling of the numerous fire appliances that covered the street.
Their flashing blue lights gave a surreal show against the yellow street lights. I climbed up the side of the TL stopping only to squeeze the excess water from my fire gloves before replacing them to start my assent up the metal staircase. From the base of the ladder, its imposing and hulking power gave a deep sense of security. Right foot left hand, just as I had been taught all those years ago at the training centre, my weight distributed equally. Through a combination of exhaustion and trepidation, my progress was slow. I had never liked heights, I still don’t but as a firefighter it’s an occupational requirement to at least respect them.
The acrid smoke halted my ascent momentarily as the building in the throes of death dragged its last breath. As I climbed higher the chaos below drifted further away. The steel staircase gave way to a narrowing struggle as my elbows struck the sides and a gentle swaying of the ladder that now supported my weight each step gave an equal and opposite reaction.
Reaching the top, a crackling voice came through the speaker on my right, “you ok Les”? The drivers voice failed to comfort me but furthered my anxiety as he was now a dot in the distance and safely on the bloody ground.
“Yep John”, I replied with a press of the button. I clipped my safety belt which was around my waist to the ladder. “OK let’s see, heels and right arm”. This was the basic safety drill for a turntable ladder which required the fire fighter to step onto the small step at the apex of the ladder showing a pair of heels and placing the right arm out to show your feet were clear of the extending ladder mechanism. I followed the orders to the letter and no sooner than I had placed my arm at 90 degrees the ladder vibrated into life. Each clank of the ladder elevated me higher and higher, the street below faded away and its sounds gave way to silence. The massive ladder swayed in the gentle but cold night air making me draw my neck into the damp collar of my fire coat. Water dripped from the edges of my sleeves and fell away into the darkness.
I was now moving slowly towards the centre of the building. The tiled roof belched a dark grey green smoke that stung the eyes and nose as if the fire knew I was about to reach into its heart and pull it out with the water monitor that both my hands gripped with an intensity I had rarely experienced before. The ladder came to a sudden stop adding to my motion sickness. I once again pressed the button to my right and issued the request “water on”, a robotic reply came back “water on”. A rumble came through my metal prison and through my legs and spine as the monitor in front of me coughed out massive bouts of air from the hose running up the length of the ladder before spitting out a powerful stream of water which struck the building with such force that the ladder appeared to push itself away from the structure before moving into a steady motion resulting in a sway which although rhythmical was not unpleasant.
As I moved from side to side the spray of water added to my already soaked clothes. I looked up at the cloudless night sky and my eyes followed the sparks and smoke which escaped from the weakening roof. I was completely alone. The only sound was the hiss of the jet.
I made a mental estimation of my ladder shift and wished my time upon this soulless beast would come to an end sooner than later. Below in the distance I could hear the faint shrill of the fire service issued “acme thunder whistles”, only to be used on the suspicion of building collapse, warning the fire crews inside to evacuate quickly. I watched as amongst the flashing of machine lights and spaghetti layers of hose, helmeted fire fighters ran in various directions.
I had just returned my attention towards the roof of the building when before me, what was once a recognisable structure began to fail. The collapse, falling into itself belched out a massive ball of heat and flames which struck me and the ladder. I dragged the monitor control to spray just in time covering the tip of the TL in a powerful ball of protective spray. My breathing knocked out as I gulped for air and my lungs filled with smoke and dust resulting in shearing pain, my eyes closed trapping the tiny particles of grit clawing at my pupils.
As I collected my senses I looked at the scene below. I was staring into a living hell. The fire now roared its contempt at all who fought it. I felt it reaching out to me, I clutched the ladder with all my strength as I now knew if this failed I would, steel and all, fall into its waiting mouth. It was then that I had one of the strangest feelings wash over me. I felt alive, more alive than I had ever been before. My mind and body worked in conjunction, there was no room for hesitation. I was “Living on the Edge”.
I returned to my Aikido study with a different perspective. My teachers had filled my mind with stories of practicing with the great T.K.Chiba Sensei. Of how he would draw them into “Living on the Edge” through taking ukemi with him and his philosophy of the dojo being a battlefield. They informed me, the way to draw the most out of what I was experiencing was to step closer to my fears, almost to the point of failure, as being in that moment is what enriches our experience.
I have two points of reference to draw upon.
My dear teacher Mr Alan Keithley Sensei, who was himself an early deshi of Chiba Sensei when he first came to the UK had fought a losing battle with chronic heart disease. Despite knowing that each practice could result in his life here being taken, he never missed a practice. For him there was no “cold” or “sore muscle” which prevented him from putting his hakama on. He simply chose to live on the edge. His love for his chosen path had him for many years having a monastic approach to study through “Hitori” or “alone, by myself practice”. He would arrive on numerous occasions at a sports hall, silently dress and then practice jo and bokken. This dedication to the “self” resulted in an extraordinary level of ability with these weapons. I for one was grateful for his devotion as he chided me gently to improve.
This great servant to the message of O Sensei passed away in my arms at a training course. He died before Mr Bill Smith Sensei MBE also present at the course was able to award him a promotion from none other than Chiba Sensei. He lived and passed how he wished. On the edge.
The second is no less relevant or important to me. I have been very fortunate to meet many wonderful people during my years of study. Even to this day I view a new member as an opportunity for friendship and my life has been greatly enriched by such experiences.
It was due to this outlook that karma presented me with a life long friendship of two gentlemen whose drive and thirst for progress in the study of Aikido inspired me to reopen the Tenshinkan dojo. They were Carl Hughes and Alan Howells both of who went on to open their own dojo. I thank them and all my dear friends and students who inspire me daily.
It is with this in mind I wish to draw the reader to one particular student who at the end of a vigorous keiko happened to mention that he had to have a few erroneous cells in his groin removed but he assured me he would make a full recovery. Sadly, the erroneous cells turned into aggressive tumours that attacked his body in such a violent way it made me question the purpose of life. He had raised his bokken against a foe whose purpose was to to end its life by consuming its host. Alan took the fight to the cancer in such a way I have lost all superlatives to express the courage and devotion of this man.
Not only did he resume his Aikido study progressing into Yudansha grades he became a Buddhist and counsellor to his friends and family.
I remember the times he left the practice to vomit into the toilet up to 14 times in a session. During this period due to his radical treatment his feet started to bleed. Now most of us would have remained at home. Not Alan, he would push his body and soul to its very limits. Exhaustion racking his muscles and sweat pouring from every pore he would again and again drive himself forward.
The Japanese have a phrase which I often use, ”ichi-go ichi-e”. It means “every time is the last time”, its purpose is not to dwell but to move forward.
Alan is still fighting his battle. He has been for many years and it’s one he will win as the sheer life force within this remarkable man will not allow for anything else.
We often speak about his journey and the lessons although painful, are there for us all to study.
I often wonder in some strange way that the universe and Alan took this experience to teach us about humility. The fragility of life and the ability to live on the edge. I am eternally grateful for the time I have had with these great teachers and as my body ages and the pains increase I choose to live in the moment and always strive to “live on the edge”.