I going to lay the blame for this squarely at the feet of my then ninth-grade friend, Earl. Like me, Earl thought the best way to be the heroes of the schoolyard was to take a page from the Bruce Lee School of Interpersonal Skills. Someone gives you a look? Spinning back kick to the face. Trash talks your gnarly BMX? Five finger death claw. Takes your lunch? Dragon clutch to the scrotum and a fast tearing technique. I had wondered why I had not seen life this clearly before.
Earl also had access to a remarkable technological innovation, a VHS player. That meant we could watch our hero, Bruce Lee, lay out some old-school whooping. After that, rewind and watch it again. Realistically, I should have gravitated towards “The Dragon”, but another movie drew me in like a retarded moth to a zapper.
If you’ve seen the original Karate Kid, you know it’s a story about a whinny Jersey brat who moves to the West Coast and gets a well-deserved beat-down for being a total schmuck. He gets free karate training from the Okinawan maintenance man and finally beats Cobra Kai’s top student in a bare-knuckles, full-contact tournament after only a summer of training.
But that’s not the best part.
Daniel skinny-as-a-rail LaRusso takes down Johnny Lawrence in one dramatic final move, the crane kick. This kick appears to smash Johnny’s nose into his cranial cavity, but nobody seems to care. If you’ve spent more than five seconds in a dojo, you know this kick is not only impractical, but leaves you incredibly open to attack and is a box full of humiliation.
For the record, I had not spent any seconds in a dojo. As such, I figured this kick would rock the next time I had to defend my then non-existent honor.
Fast forward a month and young John is scrapping in the schoolyard. I don’t know what my malfunction was, but one should never try to make too much sense out of what happens in their teens. Honestly, my stories of girl-chasing would make several seasons of sitcom episodes.
But don’t mistake my occasional fighting for any level of skill. I was dreadful. Dare I say, laughable. I one particular instance, I thought giving this crane kick a shot was a smart tactic. The circle of spectators could hardly believe what they were seeing. As a reward for their patronage, I gave them comic relief by loosing my balance.
Sigh, not my finest hour.
There was just no recovering from that spectacle. In that moment, I realized that Ralph, my dearest Mr. Macchio, was a stinking liar and a garbage role model. Thankfully, he redeemed himself with Cobra Kai, so I’m happy to say all is forgiven.
One 80’s Saturday morning I was watching Stampede Wrestling on the boob-tube and flipping thought the newspaper. I glanced through the classifieds section just in case any young, hot women were looking for a skinny, angst ridden teen to rock their world. Nope, but I noticed an ad for a karate school at the YMCA. Karate you say? You mean I could learn the real thing? It even said the first month was free!
I first watched a class and was gob-smacked. It was about as close to love at first sight as a I remember. The Sensei would yell commands and everyone would punch or kick in unison. I had never seen real kata or sparring before. It was magic. And the best part? Not one crane kick. I couldn’t wait for Mom to give them her money.
Within fifteen minutes after the class I was officially signed up at the Shotokan Karate Club. The little Macho Man on my shoulder was yelling “Oooohhhhhh yeaaaah! Dig it!” in anticipation. Surely in no time I would befriend Mr. Miagi and wax-on-wax-off my way to sweet victory. I would have more chicks crawling over me than James Dean because girls dig scrawny teenage guys who can scream in Japanese and punch the air. No really, Google it.
On the first day of class, all the puny white belts, myself included, met Sensei Richard Okonkwo, who didn’t quite fit the stereotype I was expecting. What I was expecting was an old Japanese dude who spoke like Yoda. Sensei Okonkwo was Kenyan and spoke in such a thick Swahili accent I honestly had a hard time knowing what the hell he was ever saying. But the nice thing about karate is the universal language of getting punched in the face. What I remember most is that Richard had a heart of a true teacher. He knew I was a kid who needed a little toughening up. That, and a hell of a lot of guidance.
The thing about Richard is that the guy was a legitimate, certifiable killing machine. He didn’t grow up in happy Canadian suburbia, but rather some pretty darn tough African neighborhoods. Despite that, Sensei always had a smile…until it was time for business. Then I would see the glaring whites of his eyes and I just about soiled myself when he got in sparring position. He honestly looked like he had every intention of hanging me by my own intestines. But he was always kind-hearted and knew to go easy on me. Still there were a few times Sensei needed to deliver a gentle nudge to help me move to the next level.
And sometimes to snap ourselves out of a bad habit, a slightly more aggressive nudge is required.
When it came to my karate training, even at the youthful age of sixteen, I was a kata genius. That having been said, my kumite/sparring skills lacked offense. The idea of getting hit really scared me and that’s probably normal for most people, especially teens. Problem is, if one is terrified of being on the receiving end of a fist, roadblocks to training are going to pop up.
By now I was a green belt and Sensei felt it was high time a teenage John-san learned to stop being a wuss. He could see the obvious problem. I would block and retreat, block and retreat. My opponent really had no problem just keeping the hits coming. The idea of moving in for the kill was problematic, as that can often leave one open. To be an offensive fighter involves a certain amount of risk and especially confidence. But all I could think about was getting clobbered. Each time someone did a fake jab, I flinched. For Sensei, this was not going to cut it.
After yet another defensive match on my part, I was asked to sit down. Then everyone was told to sit down. Sensei walked to the middle of the ring, alone. His friendly smile vanished the second he stood in ready position. What was he doing?
“John!” He was pointing to the ring and I got up with an “Osu”. I had sparred with Sensei before, but not with this kind of vibe in the air. This did not look like a gentle lesson in basics and I was wondering what fresh hell I had just stepped into. The atmosphere in the room got real, real tense as I stood face to face with a man who could break me in half before I had the common decency to piss myself. I didn’t want to go, but one simply does not say “no” to Sensei. Now I lay me down to sleep…
I thought the best way to fight Richard was to at least try and not be a total pussy. In doing so, maybe I could earn his respect and be allowed to live. So I got in position with my best Kai! and was ready to rumble with the jungle.
At first, Richard permitted me the luxury of being allowed to live. He would fake a jab and I’d retreat. The match was stopped. He would smile and try to coach me.
“I want you to attack. Stop being afraid of me.”
Easier said than done. We got in position again and began a second round. I got some shots in but as before, retreated at the first sign of his offense. The match was stopped once more. I was sweating, partially from fear of being obliterated.
Sensei did not say anything, but rather gave me “the eye”. For those unaware of what “the eye” represents, it means that you know what was expected of you, and it did not bear repeating. It’s the dojo equivalent of your Mom saying, “don’t make me stop this car!”. He also wasn’t smiling anymore.
Okonkwo now commanded for a third and final round. After throwing a few powder-puff punches at him, he impatiently yelled “STRIKE!” Being too terrified to disobey, I remember charging in full speed screaming with a reverse punch…
…and then my memory gets a little hazy after that.
I wasn’t sure how it came to be that I was suddenly airborne. Odd, wasn’t I just running towards Sensei? How is it I’m flying in the opposite direction? And how did Sensei’s foot get there? Man, that’s just so…
It’s was a curious sensation interrupted by a sickening impact of my body against the thankfully padded wall like a bag of wet oatmeal flying halfway across the dojo. You don’t normally hear other students yell, “holy s—!!” during karate class, but I think we can forgive their breaking of decorum in this case.
When my lights came back on, I remember looking up and seeing a smiling Richard examining my face for signs of life. I signed a waiver when I joined this outfit, so I don’t think he was too worried.
“John? Are you ok?”
There’s no place like home…there’s no place… I’m starting to come around and I notice half the class seems amazed I’m alive. Given the winded feeling in my midsection, I fear their celebration may be premature.
“Osu?” Not a very convincing response, but I was slowly coming around.
“Very good, John! Stand up.”
Stand up? I’m afraid you have me mistaken for someone with a functioning skeleton. My brain was still running through the startup diagnostics, yet somehow, I was able to get back on two wobbly legs. My fighting stance resembled a newborn gazelle standing for the first time. But in karate, you don’t just quit, otherwise the ghost of Funakoshi will spit in your soup. In my current condition I was going to put up as much a challenge as Helen Keller, so Sensei put his feet together and bowed. I did likewise, thus concluding what could only loosely be called a “match”.
I sat down and did my best to breathe life back into my reanimated corpse. The other students look at me like I was Lazarus back from the dead. At the end of class, Sensei sought me out immediately for a debriefing.
“John, are you feeling better?”
If this was code for requesting another match, I was joining the seniors yoga class next door. “Yes, Sensei! Good match!” I didn’t mean a word of it.
He laughed again as he put his hand on my shoulder. “John, I need you to stop being afraid when you fight. Do you understand?”
“Osu!” I said, lying completely but nodding in the affirmative. If anything, this experience should have made me more terrified than ever. It took a while to understand what he was saying, but as weeks went by it became more obvious.
To the contrary, in subsequent sparring classes, I was more offensive. When a punch came in, I would hold my ground, block and counter, but my retreating became minimal. In my mind, I had sustained, and survived, a wicked kick from Sensei and it didn’t kill me. I wasn’t fearing an unknown anymore.
I wish I understood these lessons more back then. You and I need to know that in many of life’s trials, we fear that a big, fat back-kick will be the thing that kills us. So we live in a defensive posture, constantly retreating after every attack, whether real or fake.
Sometimes, the only way to snap ourselves out of this self-induced paralysis is to go in screaming, get tossed across the room, and be forced to stand up. It’s hard, and sometimes you just want a few minutes to puke in a corner. But if you get back in the fight, it’s very likely you will, as Sensei said, “stop being afraid”.
Strangely enough, I never fought at school again. Correction…there was one last fight. Instead of soft targets, I eventually had a final confrontation with a merciless bully that went back as far as Kindergarten…
THIS HAS BEEN AN EXCERPT FROM THE UPCOMING “SELF-HELP” BOOK BY JOHN PAUL PARROT.