When I was about 7 or 8, I was making my way through Franklin W. Dixon's Hardy Boys series of detective novels. I can still remember many of the names; Frank, Joe, Callie, Iola, Chet, Fenton... I can also remember looking forward to the inevitable fight scenes in each new novel.

Most of the fights were won, of course, by Frank, Joe, and Chet, using their skills in judo or jiu-jitsu; I can't remember precisely, but I am fairly sure it was judo. In any case, that was my first exposure to basic martial arts terminology, and my brother suffered greatly as I tried to puzzle out what a hip throw or an arm bar might be from the textual descriptions in the novels.

I can't remember precisely which Hardy Boys novel it was which first brought the word "aikido" into my mind. What I do remember is the description of Fenton Hardy effortlessly defeating five or six opponents in close quarters, using their own energy against them. It was an awesome concept to me. Judo was the boys' sport - it was good for Frank, Joe, and Chet - but the man's sport was aikido! Judo might let you get away from one guy, even one huge guy bigger and stronger than you; this was _five_ or more guys! I'm pretty sure I didn't believe it at the time. Now, I've learned that all roads lead to Rome - but I'm ahead of myself.

There were no aikido schools anywhere nearby when I was a kid, so the idea sat in the back of my head; but in every scuffle with my brother from then on, I was reaching, stretching mentally to grasp this idea of "use his own energy against him." I got fairly good at it, to the point where I couldn't easily be knocked down, but eventually he improved as well, and soon our scuffles turned into wary staring matches that were essentially stalemated before they started.

When I was thirteen or so, I checked out a book on aikido at the local library; it wasn't very good, and I couldn't make heads or tails of it. I returned that book and went back to my geeky game-playing on the local dial-up "bulletin boards" and figured I'd never get a chance to learn it.

When I was 17 and had the internet for a couple of years, it occurred to me that I could look up aikido online. I think I had a naive idea that if I watched a few videos and read a few technical descriptions, I might be able to piece it together, using my brother as a dummy. Yes, we were still fighting even then.

At 22, long after my final fight with my brother, I found myself in a city with an aikido dojo, and no reason not to go. So I dragged myself in and have been attending ever since.

Those who say that aikido is merely an exercise, a dance-like movement art, or a sport have never attended a good aikido school. Unless you are in perfect physical shape, with godlike reflexes and the ability to instantly assimilate new techniques, you will find it challenging. I did.

I'll make a caveat here that I am only 5th kyu in aikido. That means, in English, that I have tested a mere single time. I have been training for about two years now. The average time to an aikido black belt is variously given as five to seven years; it will likely take me ten years. It is not a martial art to take if you want instant results.

If you have the patience to stick with it, though, there is much to be learned. At the beginning, you will spend most of your time learning to fall safely - a skill which, it should be noted, is useful throughout your life in general and not only in combat situations. You will spend the time when you are not falling learning how to move, and how to train with a partner. Unlike many martial arts, most styles of aikido involve very little solo pattern practice. The kata are all designed with a pair of training partners in mind.

Not only does training with partners give you a wide variety of experience with "attackers" of all heights, speeds, and bodyweight - it also helps you to maintain humility and to develop a sense for your partner's safety. No one gains when you try to throw your partner wildly, or injure him. So keeping both yourself and your partner safe is at the top of the list in your aikido training.

As you progress, most likely you will learn a dizzying array of techniques; you will develop senses of distance, timing, and awareness that you did not have before. You will learn to fight with the sword, the short staff, and the knife, and how to defend yourself barehanded against all of these. You will learn how to throw an attacker from almost any attack, and you will learn that you don't have to throw - you can pin from the attacks as well. You may even throw and then pin your attacker.

Aikido is effective irrespective of the relative size of the attacker and defender. That is not to say that all techniques will be equally effective, but rather that for any given combat situation, there is sure to be a useful technique. There are even techniques that a child can use to neutralize an attack from an adult, given sufficient training.

And you will, of course, learn the most important tools in the martial artist's arsenal: diplomacy and retreat. Better to defuse than to fight, and if you cannot defuse the situation, then run away! It really is better to live to fight another day.

Most importantly, you will learn your own physical limits, and you will push past them with training and willpower. Aikido has been described as moving meditation - like, I suspect, many other martial arts. You will eventually reach a point where you realize that there is no fight; there is simply one movement that you join yourself with, and take control of.

You will also gain self confidence. The first time that I found myself successfully breakfalling from jujinage, or from kotegaishe, it was exhilarating, like learning to fly. You really can adapt to anything, even things that seem impossible.

While aikido works for me, anyone interested in the martial arts should keep in mind that at high enough levels, all martial arts gain elements of others. There truly are many roads to Rome. To be successful as a martial artist, you should find the one that holds your interest, that you can be dedicated to. It is a never-ending road, but every mile of the way holds a reward -- if you keep walking.