“A Civil Warrior?” by William Terrell

I distinctly remember the first time I worked a full shift at the Sheriff’s Office. I was driving northbound on the interstate enjoying the sensation of being THE MAN. The Poe-lease. The Five-O. I was armed with a 9mm Smith & Wesson semi-automatic firearm, pepper spray, a ticket book and just enough experience to be dangerous. A poet I was not. A warrior I was really trying to be.

Then, reality. My mind began trying to embrace the reality that whatever came out of that state-of-the-art super-duper Motorola radio would be my responsibility. Whether it be a burglar alarm, a murder, a broken down vehicle, a rape, a funeral escort, a suicide, a stranded traveler, an armed robbery, an unruly juvenile, a molestation, a hazard in the road or any of the other innumerable versions of malice and mayhem I would have to respond.

My mind might have the luxury of having a few minutes to formulate a plan en route. Or it might not. It could erupt so quickly right in front of me that my body would respond quicker than I could think. And either way I would have to get it right. And fix it. Or, at least contain it till the fixer could get there. This was heavy and I was suddenly not sure I could handle the weight.

What to do? I could trust my instincts. Believe in my training. Clear my mind. Respond to the situation at hand with flexibility and react appropriately to even the smallest changes.

Sounds easy enough.
Except it isn’t.
It’s life and death.
To be unprepared is to be defeated.

How did I get myself into this? Am I as ready for this as I can possibly be given the amount of mental and physical preparation available to me? Many times while practicing Aikido I have asked myself the same questions.

One of the reasons Aikido attracted was the notion of being a gentleman warrior, to be able to defend myself without resorting to unnecessary violence, to possess the latent ability to respond to a threat quickly and effectively, to be a coiled spring. To contain the dichotomy of the calm, polite, well-mannered berserker.

There has been a great deal written about the concept of the warrior-poet, just exactly what the term means and the role of such a person in different cultures. It is an interesting concept but I am too much of a novice to speak intelligently about anything but my own experience. I profess to be no expert. My thoughts reflect a great simplification of a very complex concept and are not my final thoughts on the subject. This is just one of the ways I have examined the idea of a warrior poet in my own life.

For me the concept of the warrior poet can be fairly straightforward and not necessarily an esoteric dissertation (although there is a time and a place for such things) on mind and no-mind. Simply stated in this train of thought the poet is my conscious mind, the warrior is my body. Training the mind is much harder than training the body.

There are times when my body takes over with reflexive movement faster than my conscious mind can formulate. Call it instinct. Call it training. Call it muscle memory. Either way I know that in some threat situations my body will respond independently without me knowingly/deliberately willing it to.

One day at the office, a co-worker came up behind me wielding a pencil as if it were a knife. My arm rose in response so fast I drove the pencil lead into my arm where it promptly snapped off. I do not remember seeing her until after I responded. My body acted of its own accord. There was no time to dash off a haiku. No time for mushin no shin. No time to decide which stance I should assume in response to what was basically a shomenuchi attack. My body responded in defense of itself, true self-defense.

In this situation, it is to my advantage to have a body that is flexible and strong, to be relaxed but alert. The kind of body developed through the steady practice of Aikido, the situational awareness fostered through the consistent practice of Aikido techniques both on and off the mat and the mindset of not expecting a threat to be around every corner but to be prepared for it nonetheless.

One night while again patrolling a stretch of I-95, I pulled over a passenger car for speeding. The location of the stop was miles away in either direction from the nearest exit. Any backup would be at least 10-15 minutes away.

The driver got out and so did five other adult males. Then to really jack things up the driver proceeded to urinate right in front of me. He was saying he believed himself to be the alpha male and that I was just another dog.

My first response was to notify dispatch to have my brothers in arms coming to me. Just in case. In this case, having a strong and flexible body would help. Aikido technique would help a great deal, but if the situation escalated the S&K .45 semi-automatic high velocity projectile tsuki would have been my optimum technique choice.

It was my strong and flexible brain, the poet, the thinker, the rational, conniving part of me that kept me alive. The Aikido training, the breath control, the soft focus, the confidence. No panic. Staying calm and cool and waiting for backup. Keeping all of them in sight and not letting them get behind me. Use my training and experience both on and off the mat to place my body in the best possible defensive position. To keep my weapon guarded but available.

And to talk. The five passengers leaned against the car and broke out the cigarettes. I kept a running conversation going with the driver, consciously trying to defuse the conflict, to avoid the use of deadly force. But if they had bumrushed me, the warrior, the instinct, the training, the muscle memory in me would have taken over and I would have fired at them. I would have done everything possible to go home and not to the morgue at the end of the shift.

Of course, the best possible way to avoid conflict would have been to never have put on the badge. Or the gi. But where’s the fun in that?

William is the author of November In My Soul and The Bosom Serpent. This article appeared in his dojo blog, Learning To Be Silent.


  1. Brett Jackson says:

    Hi William, very interesting article! If you get a chance, I would be most interested to know how the story turned out and what exactly you said that diffused that very dangerous situation you described at the end of your article. What an exercise in composure that must have been! I think in some sense you must have followed Terry Dobson’s principle, giving in to get your way (you “gave in” by somehow having the patience to keep that situation in check in the face of obvious provocation). Thank God for people of your calibre and keep up the great work!

  2. …traffic stops have to be the worst. in principle you have initiated, what we normally love the OTHER guy to do. when you turn on the lights, you are invading the territory of the driver you are stopping. all this without reconnaissance, advance intelligence about their intent/capability… sure, most of the time, no problem – “may i see your drivers license & registration please?’ but… well, most of us have seen “Fargo”…

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