My Ronin Friend

My Ronin Friend

By Art McConnell

            The first time I saw Lou Correa was on a sunny September morning in 1955, we were ten years old. It was the first day of the fourth grade at Queen of Peace Grammar School in Kew Gardens. We stood around meeting our new classmates, when there was a dust-up in the yard that everyone turned to see. There were two boys trading punches-the one gaining the upper hand was a kid named Lou Correa.

A week passed by and I cautiously approached him and we soon became near life-long friends. He had moved from Rockaway Beach and I had just been transplanted from The Bronx. We lived on opposite sides of Main St. by the Parish Church. I hung out at his family’s apartment after school where we played chess, listened to 45’s, and talked about the priesthood and the three major league NY baseball teams at that time. We were altar boys together under the beloved father William Scanlon (our father figure until Mr. Slocum came along).  We also played on the basketball team and sang Gregorian chant in the church choir at the Christmas midnight mass. When eighth grade ended we went our separate ways to high school, with Lou going to Westinghouse and myself going to St. John’s Prep. Lou got into football, where he found his foundation for the karate training that he would later undertake. I became a hardball catcher for my cousin Larry, the fastball pitcher. I joined the Air Force in 1963 and when I came home on leave, I returned to the Samurai Dojo in Flushing where I had been training for a year, to find Lou Correa working out in Sensei Slocum’s class. We then began to practice karate together. Lou was the fighter and I focused on forms. I remember training together one afternoon in the dojo. He would help me with my sparring and I, in turn, would work with him on kata (forms). We were doing the form ‘Bassai Sho’ and in the middle of the form there is a double punch. I looked over at Lou and mentioned that he had a loop in his punch. He said he knew, but when he hit someone, it always came out straight; that was Louie.

Sensei Slocum brought his teacher Tomasaburo Okano to the NY Samurai Dojo in Flushing, Queens from the master’s home in Hachioji City, Japan in 1964. Lou and I were training in the school while we waited for Sensei Okano to arrive. We heard the front door open and sounds of the spirited Oss! Sensei Okano appeared with Mr. Slocum, Mr. Pierce and Mr. Najdek. Correa and I stopped training (feeling a bit like deer in the headlights) Sensei told us to continue and do Ippon Kumite. Lou attacked and I countered, sometimes punching high and shaking my fist after the kiai. Okano Sensei said to stop the punch or pull it back, but not to shake the fist because focus only lasts for a second- that was the lesson. Lou and I were the first karate students of the Samurai Dojo to be seen by Master Okano. It was quite an honor for two dedicated teenagers.

Sensei Slocum held a tournament against Peter Urban’s school at our dojo. It was the classic Shotokan vs. Goju style. I was managing the dojo that day and did not participate. Sensei Slocum sometimes had students wear higher ranking belts then they actually were. That day Lou Correa wore a brown belt. He injured his hand in the course of one of the matches. Lou put his arm behind his back and stood laterally facing the open mat across from his opponent. He was in that rough horse riding stance of his. As I watched from the sideline, down by the office, something about his spirit reminded me of a warhorse. As far as I remember, he won the match. Back in the day he was always good in the clutch.

Then there was the black belt test. Mr. Pierce was already a black belt and we four were going for the grade of Taigu Shodan (apprentice or deputy black belt). The candidates were Fred Hamilton, Tony Prudente, Lou Correa, and I, Art McConnell. Hamilton had some physical limitations from an accident in the army. He was like fighting a big bear that would drop his knife hand down at your head and throw a lot of heavy, fast, annoying jabs. Prudente was a weight lifter with a big barrel chest and a lot of power. Correa liked to mix it up and had many of Slocum’s favorite techniques down, and then there was me, the kata guy. We each did our forms, demonstrating our loyal spirits and then we did some wild energy sparring. I drew Tony Prudente for my first match. Later on I fought Lou Correa and Fred Hamilton together for a long, long time. Fighting these two simultaneously proved to be quite the baptism of fire. We passed the tests and came to understand a small part of the ancient samurai spirit- all made possible by Sensei John Slocum. Lou and I also learned a great deal from Mr. Berny Pierce and Mr. Bob Najdek who were our seniors at the dojo. We could ask them certain questions that we would not ask Sensei Slocum. They were hard for me to fight as I would always get hit by them, but I kept coming back and eventually I came to understand. They were our ‘Senpai’ and we were proud to be their ‘Kohai’.

Class was held on Tuesday and Thursday nights. Saturday was optional, the other two were not. One Thursday night before class Mr. Najdek told Lou and I about the opening of the film “Samurai Assassin” starring Toshiro Mifune at the Toho Cinema in Manhattan. We were hesitant because it was on the next Tuesday, a class night but when he told us that Japan’s greatest actor would be there, we agreed to go. We also invited another student named Tom, but he declined, and true to form later ratted us out to the Sensei.

The three of us stood first in line as we waited for the theater to open. Then down the street, through the darkness we saw the outline of Mifune walking next to a Japanese man in a business suit. The crowd started to crane their necks as the line spread. Najdek, Correa and I stood tall with our hombu lapel pins proudly displayed. Mifune stopped in front of us, looking us in the eyes. We bowed ‘Osss’ in unison and Toshiro Mifune returned our bows with three loud ‘Oss’. After everyone was seated Mifune took the stage and did a free style type of sword demo.

Then it was Thursday night and Bob, Lou and I returned to the dojo. The tension was so thick that you could cut it with a katana. We herded ourselves downstairs to the training room we called ‘the sweat box’. When Sensei Slocum walked down the stairs you could feel the energy coming into the training room like a tsunami wave. He walked down the line, looking through each one of us like a Paris Island Drill Instructor. We bowed in and the class from hell began. For one plus solid hour we did non-stop drills. I remember the insane pace and intent of each move. There was no kata and thank God, no free sparring, because someone would have gone to the E.R. that night. It was ‘full-on’, ‘all flags flying’ in that small, windowless room where the ‘kiai’ sounded and re-echoed like crashing waves inside your head. When Sensei Slocum ended the class we bowed out. We’d had many high intensity psyched up workouts before but this one was a spirit changer…thank you Sensei Slocum.

Some years later Mr. Miyazazki came to New York to teach. I lived in his and Mr. Pierce’s ‘Tokutai Dojo’ for a while. I was one of the first black belt students from the Samurai Dojo to train with Sensei. His training was the other side of the coin for me. Later on Lou Correa would also train with the Japanese master from Hachioji City. Many other black belts from NYS would also polish their skills with Sensei Miyazaki including Doug Wiseman (the dojo mascot with an undying spirit) and Frank DeSalvo, one of the strongest fighters in Slocum’s school. Frank also attended the memorial for Lou.

In September of ’69 I ended up in the Okano School in Glen Cove, a town that helped me become a teacher and consequently a better student. I taught in that town for a solid twenty years. We all have good memories of great training both in Shotokan Karate and Iai-Do. In 1970 Lou Correa came to the dojo after spending time in California where he taught karate in ‘The People’s Dojo’. He had taken a break and I helped him get back into it when he lived in Port Jeff station. Years later I would coax him back into it again when he lived in Rocky Point. He even told me at one time that I was put on Earth to get him back into Karate. He didn’t give me much but I thought that was generous and genuine. We would both become AAU Refs and enter into the arena of martial arts politics. During that time I was partners in a dojo with someone who didn’t get alone with Lou and vice-versa. We didn’t talk for years, and then one day he called me. I drove out to the dojo in Rocky Point and set up the hardware for some heavy bags, as I was a carpenter at the time. Afterwards we went to the bar nearby. He drank some shooters and I had a small glass of beer. As we sat there he began to open up, asking me if I’d seen the manuscript he had written about The Samurai Dojo, both here and in California. I told him that I had read it, not mentioning that I had been omitted from and replaced by Tom. This was because of the turbulent times in the AAU. He told me that he’d put me in if he re-wrote it. I told him that it didn’t matter, that I was there- I lived it. Sometimes you don’t understand certain things a friend will do, but that’s what the test of friendship is about. True friendship lasts a lifetime.

Lou’s teaching was a journey through the terrain of Shotokan Karate. He taught thousands of students and produced many excellent black belts both east and west while learning from many top ranking teachers. Lou’s style and approach to the way of karate was pragmatic. I watched him teach a private lesson to a beginner once. Instead of showing the traditional down block first, he taught upper guard (high block). I realized that he was preparing the student for self-defense and sparring, where I was getting the white belt ready for the initial kata (taikyoku). He used straight in attacks, strong, basic kick punch combinations, or what we called ‘bread and butter” techniques. I think his motto was “The best offense is a good offense!” I was more into countering and then later on, counter throwing and take downs. Throughout his career Lou Correa stressed the importance of basic technique.

I attended his memorial service in an old church with a wood beamed ceiling much like the hull of the boats he loved to sail, both on the west coast and the east. He had many adventures in his life and was a bit of a Jack London character to me. I was disappointed at the turnout of his students although I heard from someone close to him that he was given a military send-off on the west coast with his daughter, grandson and granddaughter present. He deserved this honor, for he was a true ronin soldier in his own right. I will always remember him though in the school yard on that first day of fourth grade.

Art McConnell

Tozai Iai Kai

Abayo my dojo brother and childhood friend. 

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Memorial Service for Sensei Lou Correa

We regret to announce the passing of Sensei Lou Correa. A memorial mass will be given on November 6th 2011 from 3-5 p.m. at Saint Joseph Church located on 99-10 217th Lane Queens Village, N.Y. 11429.

For more information please visit : http://kyodaidojo.com/

We send our deepest condolences to Senei Lous family and friends.

NEW YORK SAMURAI DOJO ALUMNI

Remembering Mel

“Remembering Mel”


            Even though he trained with me longer than anyone else ever had, I would never introduce Mel as my student. I respected him as an elder and a mentor. Whether he was firing a high powered hand gun, playing classical guitar, or cutting with a samurai sword he embraced the essentials. Mel was proud of military traditions and would occasionally speak of the “O” course (obstacle training) in the Marine Corp Boot Camp. He enjoyed practicing the Japanese sword katas of the Toyama Ryu, a set of forms from the bayonet school at Camp Zama, Japan. He exercised a quiet assertion in all matters, and when problems sometimes became tough, Mel Benson would find solutions and “soldier on”. More than just a dealer in rare coins, he was a devout, seasoned collector of Asian artifacts and had an extensive background in rare oriental antiques.

Mel Benson was the patriarch of our Tozai Sword Club, housed in the Empire State Dojo for over 30 years. He took on the task of teaching and helping the new students in this archaic, lethal art steeped in mythology and tradition. He made 3rd Dan in Iaido, one of the first to attain this level. Mel selflessly gave his time and knowledge to all the students that he helped, during his 70 years. Sensei Mel taught the basics with understanding and patience. Aside from doing Iai-do, he and I also practiced empty hand forms such as Karate, Wing Chun, Wu Tai Chi, and Hsing Yi which was developed by a Chinese general for the purpose of making his troops better soldiers. He spent countless days in the hospital during his last two years. When others had given up and accepted their demise, Mel stood strong practicing Chi Kung in his room with a quiet determination. He soldiered on in a valiant effort to overcome his adversary, meeting it head on, day after day.

Due to the nature of his business he had to carry a permit for a .45 automatic pistol. I remember him taking off the holstered weapon before we’d practice Wu Tai Chi…a perfect balance of war and peace.

Someday in the future we’ll catch up to our point man, until then we’ll be training hard and remembering Mel.

–Art McConnell

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Welcome to the home of Tozai Iai Kai.

Dear Fellow Martial Artists,

Thank you for viewing our new website. We will be adding even more pictures and videos soon. We will also be selling our new instructional Iaido Videos.

I have been teaching Martial Arts for 50 years and Iaido for 35 years and welcome your interests. We always welcome new students who are interested in learning THE WAY OF THE SWORD.

This is an interactive blog and look forward to your comments and questions.

Sincerly,
Sensei Art McConell

Chief Instructor: Art McConnell, 5th Dan


The Tozai Iaido School is run by Sensei Art McConnell.

 

Art McConnell has trained in the Martial Art of Japan and China since the early 1960’s.  He is the chief  instructor of the Tozai Iai Kai, graded 5th dan and licensed to teach by Master Yoshitheru Otani, founder of N.Y. Budokai.

Mister McConnell has written “The Ronin Soldiers Diary” and produced a period film called “Zen Gold” .  He has taught Japanese Sword and Jodo classes for many years at the Empire State Dojo in Smithtown, NY.  Teaching from Shohato’ to combined spirit forms drawn from five Ryu, for self practice and competition.

WHAT IS IAIDO?

Popularly known as “the art of drawing the sword”, Iaido is the contemporary legacy of the samurai of feudal Japan. A professional warrior class, both samurai men and women practiced warrior skills. Hayashizake Jinsuke Shigenobu is considered the legendary founder of Iaido as a concept and practice distinct from swordfighting in the 16th century, paralleling the development of a unified country. After Japan was finally unified under Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu early in the 17th century, the samurai combined their war skills with their interest in Zen philosophy and spiritual refinement. The combination gave samurai a venue for practicing their skills with a sense of Zen mindfulness.

 

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