November 20th, 2009
Meet Henry Smalls. He is a sixth degree black belt in kendo, the ancient Japanese art of swordsmanship, and a fourth degree black belt in karate. “I am definitely a warrior. I'm the art itself, living,” he says.
He is all sweetness when you first meet him- charisma, a flash of white teeth in a broad smile, and the firm clasp of a politician’s handshake. And then you watch him wield a bamboo sword and just thank your lucky stars you aren't at the receiving end of it.
“I am also an artist. I'll be vicious but I’ll be beautiful as I do it. My objective is to show kendo in its beauty, and in its beauty, kendo is vicious. It's not boxing: you hit me, I hit you. You move, you gone. Period. It’s pure.”
He is a fighter. “You're not going to stand in my way,” he issues, as he stares down the end of his bokken. Nothing stops him- on or off the mat.
His fight started four decades ago in Philadelphia, on the train tracks near his ghetto. He was just 11. He was in a gang-related accident in which some friends were daring each other to jump onto a passing train to prove their bravado.
Nobody wanted to do it. “One of my friends said, 'Henry you do it,' and poof, that's it. He pushed me, there it was. That’s it. I guess that's my fate. I'm looking at my jeans. My jeans are ripped, my legs are mangled.”
He insists there was no fear. “The only feeling I had was that my mom's going to kill me.”
Surprisingly, Henry says this near-death experience was beautiful. He says he saw a bright light- and then, was told it wasn’t his time.
“I felt I was a part of some form of love, a bigger consciousness. I never felt any love like that. Something really special happened to me and it's affected my life the whole time. I wanted to find out why I had to come back, what it is I had to do. I have always been pushed and driven to find out what it is.”
When he came to, he was in the emergency room. “The doctor was saying, ‘Should we let him live or die?’ My aunt was saying, ‘You should let him die because the boy is not going to have a regular life.’ My mother was saying, ‘No, that’s my son. I love him. He can do it.’”
“I'm screaming, but there's no sound. Like, I'm alive! I’'m here! I'm OK! You can't say what I can't be. I'm not going to let anyone tell me what my life is going to be!”
For the next two years, Henry called Shriners Hospital of Philadelphia, home. And slowly, he recognized the real fight. “Society began to collapse on me, like, You are handicapped. I didn't understand what that meant. I took offense, like, I'm Henry!
When he returned home, he wanted to take up sports, but Henry says he often heard this: “I can teach your brothers, but I can't teach you. Talk about breaking your heart.”
Until the day he met karate sensei Jim Clark. Henry’s mother had remarried, and his stepfather moved the family up to Harrisburg, Penn. Henry had seen Clark lead a demonstration in his high school. After, Clark noticed the boy staring.
Henry recalls Clark turning to him and saying, “Hey, why don't you come down to the dojo and see what you can do for yourself? I didn't know what to say. Somebody didn't doubt me or challenge me?”
It was a turning point in his life; Henry Smalls loomed large on the mat. Martial artist Jeffrey Washington met Henry shortly thereafter. Washington recalls the first time he ever saw Henry. It was at a regional tournament. He thought, “You're not supposed to start on the floor in karate. Then I saw he had no legs. Wow. I was very amazed.”
Washington says in short order, he learned to regard Henry as a peer. “After the first time we started sparring, that handicap went away real quick. If you didn't do your best, he'd take advantage of you.”
The two would go on to become best friends as well as black belts, and tour the country doing karate demonstrations. “It's very inspiring to see a man do karate with no legs. Fifty percent of karate is legs. He overwhelms a man with legs!”
After practicing karate for decades, Henry switched to kendo in 1981. The code of honor resonated with him. “The samurai was very brave. Where I came up you have to be brave. You saw bad things you didn't want to see. It was a gift to me- that ideal, that thought.”
Henry pursued this new course of study with the same intensity he has lent every other passion in his life, to become the world’s first legless kendo black belt. His style and grace have earned him an audience with Japan’s royal couple.
“Two-hand style, up over top, is what we call jodan. Mine is one-hand because of necessity for how I move around. I cultivated that style to survive,” he demonstrates.
Do opponents underestimate him? “Well, they have,” he pauses. “At their peril.”
His face both darkens and fatigues at the same time; it’s a question asked way too often, to his annoyance. “When I was coming up, there were people looking at me like, ‘I can’t hit that guy. He don’t have legs.’ That would make me feel bad because this guy’s feeling sad and I don't know what to do.”
Pause for eye roll. “I got to the point where, If you feel that way, I will eliminate you quickly. Put you out of your misery fast. That's the greatest love I can give you.” My photographer and I laugh. Henry does not. It’s not a matter of arrogance. It’s a weariness from a lifetime spent fighting the stereotype of a disability.
Now he’s a kendo teacher with his own school. His seven-year-old son, Osiris, one of four children Henry fathered, is also a student.
What’s it like to learn from Henry? Student Ryan Slusher gushes enthusiasm. “You forget he doesn't have legs. Studying under him, he gives off such a strong presence you forget about that. Having sparred against him, he's terrifying. There's nothing like having a guy- you try to hit him, he dodges left, right, and smacks you in the face a couple times. It's amazing, watching him fight.”
Slusher continues, “He's very good at understanding our strengths and weaknesses. In the year of study under him, I've improved exponentially.”
Slusher even thinks Henry leverages his disability into an asset. “I've heard a lot of people say he can't teach footwork. I have to disagree with that. He’s good at doing it; he has an advantage because he sees it at a level others don’t.”
It is, by now, what this reporter has come to recognize as the hallmark of Henry’s life. When asked about it, he nods. “I'm very proud of myself. Each of us can be born at a certain place. Some may rise, others may fall. Why? It depends on choices. My choices were, I was interested in martial arts. Noone’s gonna stop me.”
Henry’s channeling his energy into new directions now. “You reach a point where there should be a blossoming of creativity outside your sport. Music touches everybody's heart. It's the greatest form of creativity.”
The man who inspires so many with his courage and strength, finds his new muse in music. “What inspired me is creativity. Meaning, each day you wake up, create your day, paint a picture of your life. Each day is an opportunity of choices, infinite possibilities. I want them,” he asserts.
There is no doubt this man will get what he wants.
Henry is working on his second CD album, and would like to one day write a book as well as shoot a documentary about his life.
Here's the TV story I put together on Henry with Emmy-award winning photographer/editor Tracy Arakaki. Mahalo, Tracy, for putting in 100 hours of your free time, in over half a dozen shoots, to make this piece sing. I was not on the clock either, but I did not put in nearly that much time! We had to rush to make sure it aired before we were laid off from KHNL. It ran <whew> on my second to last day at work.