The martial arts have been a major part of my life experience. I ALWAYS wanted to know how to fight, from the first time I saw Mr. Moto flip someone on “Danger Island”, that was for me: knowledge that would allow a smaller person to beat crap out of a larger one. I grew up without my father in the home, raised by my mother and my sister, and couldn’t even tell them the daily humiliation I felt getting pushed around, robbed, and beaten up at school.
And there was a specific day I knew I had to do something. There was a kid named Rudy who went to my elementary school, and Rudy was a little thug. Pulled brass knuckles out on me in the 4th grade, I kid you not. Trapped me in the boy’s room and took my lunch money. A little fireplug of a kid, actually a little shorter than me, but intimidating as hell. And he had a brother named Oliver who was bigger, older, and even more frightening.
Things came to a head with Rudy in Jr. High School. Maybe…8th grade. I was sent down to the principal’s office to pick up some forms for my teacher. And sitting in the office was…Rudy. I guess he’d gotten in trouble for something. He was seething, and when he saw me going into the office, he got it in his head that I had narked on him. And swore that he was going to kick my ass after school.
I was stunned, and confused, and hoped it would blow over. After school, I’m walking home down Washington Boulevard, the major street between Mt. Vernon (at Washington and Crenshaw) and my house (near Washington and La Brea) when I heard someone yelling, and there, from across the street, comes Rudy…and Oliver…and two friends.
Oh, crap. I didn’t run. My legs were too rubbery. They stalked me mocking and jeering, Rudy daring me to fight, punching me in the back of the head and the side of my face. “Come on, fight!” And I knew this was serious trouble. If I fought Rudy I’d get beat up. If by some miracle I beat him, Oliver and his two friends would jump in, and stomp me even worse. If I ran, they’d catch me.
There was nothing I could do. Kobayashi Maru, anyone? As I walked, with every punch I could feel myself dying. Something essential inside me was cracking, crumbling. My sense of masculine pride, perhaps. Of autonomy and self-worth. Shriveling. If I acted I’d be hurt. If I didn’t act I’d be crippled emotionally.
And…something broke inside me. I can still hear the “snap!” today. And…I put my books down on the sidewalk, looked at Rudy…and walked out into the middle of Washington Boulevard. Stood on the middle of the double yellow line, with cars and trucks zipping past me on both sides screaming “get out of the street!”
And looked Rudy in the eyes and said the most important six words of my young life: “Come out here and do that.”
He looked at me. I looked at him. And…he saw his death in my eyes. I wasn’t going to fight him. I was going to push him in front of a truck. I was going to do my level best to kill him, and he knew it. And…he flinched.
“Aw, man,” he said to his brother. “That nigger’s crazy!” And laughing, they walked away.
But he never bothered me again. Ever.
I stood out there in the middle of the street and realized that something had shifted inside me in that moment. I’d found something worth dying for, and once I had, I had become a different person. Someone no one could push around. They could kill me, but they couldn’t make me into something I was not. I knew at that moment, that very second, that I was going to spend the rest of my life seeking that space, that place to stand within my heart. That I was willing to do ANYTHING rather than let myself be abused in that manner.
I knew that that raw place inside me would “heal up.” I’d lose that perspective, gained in that terrible moment. But also knew I could find it again, if I kept searching. That was the moment I was committed to the martial arts. It wasn’t about the techniques, the strategies and perceptions, the fitness and reflexes and so forth. That’s all interesting. But all of them are absurdly irrelevant compared to that core realization: I am ready to die, and ready to take you with me.
For just a moment, I had glimpsed its power. And as I knew, over the next days that clarity went away. But…I was never quite the same. I knew it existed. All I had to do was learn how to tap into it.
And that search consumed the next decades of my life.
Lesson to my younger self: learn who you are. Decide what you are willing to die for, because then you know what you will live for. NEVER let anyone tell you you are not that, never let them move you with fear or pain. Take your stand. Carnivores usually attack herbivores, not other carnivores. “Flip that switch” and even though you might just be a bobcat, lions will generally leave you alone. And if they don’t? Commit 100% to blinding them in one eye. 100%. And if you mean it, totally? They’ll sense it, and walk around you. You cannot bluff. You cannot lie. You have to actually find that place.
But once you do? You’re free. Or dead, of course. But everyone dies. Might as well be prepared to do it on your terms, dammit. A terrible lesson to learn at the age of 14. But an even worse tragedy is that there are people 40 and fifty who haven’t learned it yet.