My Brief Career As A Karate Kid

by Steve Heilig, May 11, 2016

On my way to the local junior college, where I attended classes for one semester while trying to figure out where better to go, I'd ride my small motorcycle up a main drag linking our beach town to the freeways and less-exalted communities. It was an avenue of funky thrift stores, gas stations, cheap but good Mexican restaurants, and the like, and near where I turned off each morning there was a small storefront with a sign reading "KARATE."

On impulse one afternoon on my way back from class, I pulled up there, parked, and walked in. It was a single big room, poorly lit, and it seemed nobody was around. "Hello?" I said, and a man appeared from a door in the back. He was thirtyish, short but very thick and his arms looked like the kind of six-inch diameter ropes I'd seen tying boats to docks. "Hi!" he said, extending a hand, which felt like those ropes too. "Looking for karate lessons?" I said maybe, and he smiled some more and motioned me back to his office, where we sat and chatted amiably for a bit about where we were from and so forth. He was a Vietnam veteran, recently returned. I was a skinny 19-year old beach kid from a low-key but affluent bucolic small coastal town just a couple miles away. He told me about the type of karate he taught, Kenpo, and how weekly lessons could be had for $10/hour, or $150 for six months plus unlimited drop-ins group sessions with other students. It seemed like it might be a good way to really get in shape and yes, perhaps feel more confident physically, even thought I'd never really had any problems there. I told him I'd like to try a couple lessons and then see about signing up for the package, and we set a date for my first session, him telling me all I'd need was to bring shorts and a t-shirt.

At my first lesson, he wore a white karate uniform and a black belt, accompanied by another younger, tall dark-skinned guy wearing a green belt. They started me on katas, extended movements and positions that flowed one to the next and could extend for some time, requiring both good memory and physical discipline. Then he demonstrated various stances, punches, self-defense moves, such as when somebody has grabbed you from behind in a choke hold. The moves looked to be impressively effective and painful for the attacker, even moreso when the two instructors sparred a bit, hitting and kicking blindingly quickly but not making actual contact.

"So what do you think, time to sign up?" the boss asked, as we sat down, me a bit sweaty and out of breath. I said I liked it but was not sure, and would like to try another session first.  "Oh c'mon, we can make it so you just pay each time for a lesson until you've paid the full amount. That way you are committed and will keep showing up and learn it, instead of wimping out like others do."  While this made sense to me, it also felt like pressure. But before I knew it I was signing a little two-page contract and giving him the one $20 bill I had as a first deposit.

My next couple of lessons were like the first, and we scheduled them so a group session came just after. The guys - all guys - in the classes were a mixed bunch of regular-looking or thuglike dudes, throwing punches and wheeling kicks. I was supposed to do at least ten full lessons, with practice in-between, before I would take a test for my orange belt, the first rung above white. When that time came, I nailed the katas, but at actual karate moves I failed miserably. "I don't know what that was" the bossman said, referring to a feeble kick I'd just aimed his way. "I think you need to sign up for more lessons." But I just wasn't enjoying the place or the lessons, and told him so, feeling very intimidated.

He motioned me outside, and we walked out and around the corner, where the only car parked at the curb was a souped-up, bright red "muscle car" - a Plymouth Barracuda, named after a long slim nasty fish I had caught on fishing trips to Mexico with my dad. He leaned against it and lit up a cigarette, exhaled, nodded at the car, and said "Nice wheels, eh?" I said yes, in reality not impressed by either the smoke or the car. "You know," he exhaled, nodding out towards the main drag, "In five years this town is gonna be overrun by gooks and beaners and niggers and you're really gonna be glad you studied with me here." I just looked away, embarrassed for the both of us and suddenly sure I wanted nothing more to do with him or his studio. Yes, I did grow up in an almost all-white community, and had never had any negative interactions or even impressions of nonwhite folks, but I just knew this was a very wrong attitude. We chatted some more and then walked back in, me to change my clothes and get out of there, but he steered me into the office again and brought out another contract. I meekly shook my head and said I still had another couple of lessons paid up under the first one and then we'd see. He suddenly looked angry and started flipping through some papers, saying "No, you've used up your lessons already...".  I quietly said I thought he was wrong but we could check that out, just wanting to get out of there. He stared at me for a moment and said "I kinda figured you might be a pussy when you first walked in here, but I hope I'm wrong. You rich kids from down there usually can't cut it, though. Just remember we have your address. And don't think your bigshot parents scare me."  I just nodded, got up, and walked out, past the three guys sparring in the dim light, into the bright sunlight, got on my puny Yamaha 125, and rode away, more than a little shaken. This guy was scarier than any of the people he was warning me about.

Obviously I had no plans to return, even though I was "owed" some lessons or money, but the vague threats lingered. I had fantasies of him or one of his goons stalking me at home - I did wander around by myself alot a night - and beating the crap out of me, which would not be hard. There was at least one phone call to my house, which my mom took, asking for me, and some hang-up calls as well - which could have been anybody, but I suspected the karate guy. I considered taking him up on his threat and having my dad call his good pal the chief of police to do something, but what that might be I didn't know, plus it did, even to me, seem kind of wimpy to be telling my parents like a bullied kid on a playground.

Then I had an evil idea. A couple pals of mine had access to marijuana - the cheap Mexican kind sold for $10 for a one-ounce baggie or "lid", or $15 for a "three-finger lid" - measured by holding one's fingers up at the bottom of the clear plastic bag. I asked for a three-finger lid, eliciting some surprise as I never bought the stuff, and got that for $10 - a "buddy turn-on" as my pal put it. That night I shoved the little bag into my sock, smoothed my Levi's pantleg over it, got on my cycle and rode up to the studio. I did a quick pass by to note that the Barracuda was there - it seemed to me that the boss slept in his studio. I did a U-turn and came back down the other side of the main drag, parking in the lot of the record store - a now-defunct chain called Licorice Pizza (get it? - a black flat disc) - directly across the street. I walked up a block, crossed at the light, and went all the way around the block, coming down the side street from behind the studio. Heart pounding, I stood in the shadow of an overhanging eave, next to some garbage cans, and waited a minute to be sure nobody was about. I took a deep breath, ducked down, and scurried a few steps up and across the sidewalk to the car, reached into my sock and pulled the baggie out, and stuffed it up on top of the right front tire, under the fender. Then I was running down the sidewalk, back around the block, looking back to be sure nobody followed, until I was back on the main drag. I walked casually back over to the record store, but instead of going in, I went into the phone booth in front and pulled the door closed.

Putting a dime into the slot, I dialed "O". "Operator", she answered, and I asked for the police station closest to Newport Boulevard and 17th Street. "Just a minute, I can connect you directly," she said, and in a quick moment a man said "Costa Mesa police." I took a breath, heart racing again, and said "Uh, listen, I'm really scared to report this, but I'm pretty sure there is drug dealing going on on my block, out of a karate studio on the corner." There was a pause, and then "Oh... drugs? What kind?" I replied "Pot, I am sure, as I smell it. And maybe more, I'm not sure. I just saw somebody put a bag under the fender of a red Barracuda right on the sidewalk. Somebody else will come soon and get it. This happens every damn night!" He asked for the address, I gave it to him, and then he asked for my name. "Uh, sorry, but are you kidding? These guys could be dangerous!"  I hung up.

I figured it was a long shot on a $10 bet, but pot was a big crime and there was much in the news about how many kids were using it and how much was being smuggled over the border - President Nixon had attempted something called "Operation Intercept" to stem the flow, with the usual non-results. But cops in our zone didn't have many serious crimes to contend with, so out of curiosity, I went into Licorice Pizza to look at albums. They were having a sale! I figured it would be worth it to maybe finally buy Dylan's "Blonde on Blonde", a two-LP set for $5.99, at a minimum. And maybe the new Steely Dan.

But while I wandered the shop, listening to the crappy Fleetwood Mac they were playing, I kept an eye out the window across the street.  And before long, bingo - two cop cars pulled up there. One stopped in front of the studio, on the main drag, while the other pulled around the corner and parked behind the 'Cuda. I couldn't believe it. But a cop got out and walked over to and around the car, and then started feeling under the fenders. My work there done, and on the verge of panic, I went to the counter, bought the Dylan, put it into my little backpack, and walked as casually as possible to my bike.  As I cranked the kickstarter I saw both cops at the front door of the studio.  I think at least one of them had his hand on his gun.

It took awhile for me to get back into martial arts. At the UC campus I was fortunate to attend, I found an instructor who had also been to Asia, but as a serious, Buddhist student of karate instead of a soldier. He made us meditate before and after actual instruction, and if a student messed around carelessly or aggressively and actually hit somebody, that student was gone. The teacher had some sort of Nth-degree black belt and was a real master. "The real success in this art is in never having to use it" was the kind of thing he would say - like the "Grasshopper" dude in the TV show "Kung Fu." I dug him very much but he soon went back to Asia, no doubt to become even more of a master. And I failed parts of his instruction too, as not long after, on a San Francisco street at dusk, I reflexedly used some karate moves on a young kid who made to mug me, and he went down hard, injured. But I was not aware of his his partners behind me, who no doubt beat the crap out of me even harder than they had planned to. If I'd had a gun and used it, there likely would have been two kids shot  - me and the ringleader who came at me first - and one more handgun in the hands of petty criminals. There's a lesson there for the paranoid.

Other lessons came to me much later, especially recently as wealthy bigoted versions of my first karate instructor shoot for high office. Even though his studio and other rundown businesses like it soon vanished from the gentrifying main drag - my fault or not, I'd never know - the karate veteran was partly right, sorta, about the future. "Foreigners" did come to town in much bigger numbers.  But they were as much ambitious, law-abiding Asians as anything, bringing ever more prosperity to the already-nice coastal zone. Latino immigrants, legal or otherwise, also kept coming, but they tended to be very law-abiding for fear or reprisal and even deportation - plus they were essential to maintaining the yards, gardens, pools, construction industry, and dining-out options of the ever more privileged residents of our area. Plus, it was white guys who were importing and marketing the illegal herb. Violent crime rates actually went down over the years. Eventually more Mexicans were heading back over the border than were coming in.  But even if he lived long enough to witness all this - which, given his habits, I tend to doubt - my karate boss would likely be an angry old scared uneducated white guy, armed with both ancient karate skills and actual weaponry, wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat and hoping to vote for somebody just like Donald Trump to legitimize his bigotry - and that "leader" would then rob him blind while yes, sending poorer kids to war and prisons, rescinding health services for poor folks, giving wealthy folks like himself big tax cuts, and so forth, right out of the old playbook, all the while calling it something else, like "patriotism." Some things never change, and there's still one more born every minute.

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