The Tae Kwon Do Memoirs by Jeri Massi (2005)
Tuesday, October 18, 2005
Thursday, October 13, 2005
016 CompetingFor me, the journey to black belt was very much a journey of physical fitness. I took an aerobics class for two semesters in a row. After the first four weeks, it made a difference. At first I had to stagger tae kwon do classes to give me a chance to recover from the aerobics, but as the weeks passed I resumed a three-times a week tae kwon do schedule, interspersed with two classes of high impact aerobics that lasted an hour each.
I was still losing weight, and I did notice that being lighter also made the difficult kicks and the jumps less difficult.
Professionally, I had achieved a lifetime goal when I published my first book, a fairly forgettable children's adventure called Derwood Incorporated. By the time the draft got through the editing at the religious publisher that produced it, most of the jokes and humor had been fairly well eradicated from it, but it was still billed as a comedy adventure. And though I wasn't impressed with it, the publisher wanted another one, and so I began the next in the series. Over the next six years I would sell 13 novels to this publisher.
If life has any "golden years," I suppose that mine began then. One drawback was that, just when I had my head together and had shaken off my past, and was now ready to really play and have a good time, all my friends were settling down and getting married. I knew I wasn't ready for marriage and had no interest in it whatsoever. Men, to me, were pals and were useful as highly efficient insect killers and furniture movers. In fact, my apparent inability to commit the sin of lust used to worry me. But for all that sex or romance appealed to me, I might as well have been 11 years old. Writing adventure stories gave me great pleasure, and I loved working out in tae kwon do. And it was compensation that even as old friends got married off and moved away, I was meeting new friends. I was having a great time.
But it all came down to Hong's. I began to free spar in earnest, and I entered competitions. Tournaments were held in high school gyms, and the "rings" were regulation-sized squares marked by tape on the floor. These were the last days of the old style tournaments, when the fights were called light contact but were full contact, and the only protection was mouthpieces and shin guards. In the last year before the WTF mandated comprehensive protective equipment, the tae kwon do tournaments adopted the rubberized, lightweight gloves and foot shields made popular by the PKA competitions.
As far as the men were concerned, they may as well have just wrapped their hands in plastic wrap. And women tended not to go for knockouts, anyway. I certainly didn't. I hated the thought of knocking somebody senseless. I really did want to work on technique and kicks.
I did enter one tournament in which one of the girls, who was an inch taller than I and heavier, wrapped her gloves with duct tape. When I asked her why, she said the gloves were ripped. One of the other girls clued me in as I sat down on the sidelines.
"Duct tape sticks," she told me. "If that girl hits you in the face, it'll stick. The glove won't slide off."
I immediately complained to the referee about this and insisted that the gloves be thrown out. He got angry with me and told me to sit down and be quiet. And then she and I were called up first to fight.
The very first time she punched me, I thought a locomotive had run between my eyes. It threw me around and dropped me to the floor. The referee helped me up and asked if I was okay. I think he was humiliated, but he still didn't throw the gloves out. I said yes, I was fine, and I went back to it.
I learned a lot about fighting in the next twenty seconds. Again and again she almost had me knocked out by those sledge hammer punches. I think that the only thing that kept me up was that I was so mad at her for cheating that I refused to go down.
And then, suddenly, I realized that every time she hit me, she only hit once. She had no combinations. As I staggered towards her, I used an old trick from basketball and waved my gloved hand right in her face. Next thing I knew, I was inside. She couldn't touch me. Jab, jab, backfist, all right on her nose.
She staggered back. I was right on top of her. I knew if I backed up, she'd slam me again. Jab jab backfist. I followed her around the ring, crowding her. Somehow she got distance, and I saw that duct tape glove coming at me. WHAM!
My vision got red, but I didn't go back. I rushed her again and kept up the light fast patter on her face. I was hitting fast, not hard. Quickfire, hard hitting punches were still years away for me. I could do one or the other, but not both.
This time when I saw the glove I ducked and for the first time in my life, I threw a left cross. Full force, it hit her high on the cheek bone, and she fell back. The ref got between us.
"Now, now girls, this is just for a trophy," he said. I could have killed him. The time for that speech was before the match, when he should have been throwing those blasted gloves away. He stepped back, and she slammed me in the face again. And then I was on her with the rain of right jabs and backfist strikes.
At the end of three grueling minutes, the match was declared a tie, and we were given a minute to rest. Most of the girls were on my side, and as I sank to the floor, one of them said, "If you can just kick her, you'll win. They want you to kick more."
She was right. The problem was that by now my head and feet felt like lead.
But as we were called back in, I shakily threw a kick that actually did tap the side of her jaw. And then we were back to our slugfest. But in the final few seconds, I did control the match. I was declared the winner.
And then I saw her pass the gloves to her sister, who was also very tall and very powerfully built.
I fell back onto the floor, exhausted. The haze of red over my vision gradually cleared away. Oh good, I thought. I would live. Brain still intact and both retinas still attached.
There was another match between two of the lighter weight girls, and then I was called in against Little Sister. And Little Sister had the duct tape gloves. We bowed in.
She rushed right at me, leaning too far forward, and threw a tremendous roundhouse punch at me that would have finished me. I ducked down as I slid back and then slammed a roundhouse kick right into her head as she was off balance. I used my instep rather than the ball of my foot as the striking surface, but she got the message. It threw her over sideways.
"Not so hard!" she exclaimed.
"You punch me in the face again, and I swear, I'll knock you out!" I exclaimed. "Do you understand me?"
She glanced at her sister, and then she meekly said, "Yes." Wisely, the ref said nothing.
It was a more moderate fight after that, and I won by a point.
There were more matches, and then I went up against a much lighter girl who was a lot smaller than I. She was very honest as we bowed in.
"Please, don't hurt me," she said.
"I don't want to hurt anybody," I told her. "Let's go light."
And we did. I still won by virtue of my superior reach. She was too small to get in on me and land much.
At the break, one of the women I had not fought came up and introduced herself as Arlene. "I really admire you for holding back on that little girl," she said. "That's how I like to fight. It ought to be skill, not brute strength. But I am glad you beat those two."
I introduced myself, and then I said, "Well, if you and I fight, let's agree to keep it light and fast and show some good technique." After all, what's the point in women relying so much on strength? Any physically fit man would hammer you into the ground on strength alone. A woman has to excel at technique, speed, and timing, with strength as one component of many.
She agreed. As it turned out, she and I were the finalists, and we fought for first place. After my bad experience with the first two girls, it was a reaffirmation to fight Arlene. We both stayed true to our agreement and spent our whole match trading kick combinations. We went fast and light, and the girls encouraged us both. We would even encourage each other and say things like "good shot!" when something landed. We went into three sudden death overtimes with each other but kept tying because when either of us landed anything, she would get successfully countered by the other. Finally, Arlene tagged me with a round kick, and that ended it. She took first place, and I took second, and one of the lighter weight girls took third.
I never saw Arlene again, but I'm always glad that I met her. As we received the trophies, one of the judges came up and shook hands with us. "You girls are examples of what tae kwon do should be," he said. "That was a great fight."
Almost everybody who had competed from Hong's had won trophies. But there was little time spent on congratulations. Come Monday, we were back in the training hall. It was one thing to excel against overweight girls who cheated by putting duct tape on their gloves. It was something else entirely to train with lean, fit people who had a passion for excellence and not for glory.
Wednesday, October 12, 2005
015 A Lesson from SusanWe never mentioned it to each other again. Susan stayed in training and worked with her same enthusiastic intensity. When we sparred she would get more on edge, more brittle with me than she had been before. That was the only difference.
The weeks went by. Nancy came back. She was polite to Susan and polite to me. I wondered if she had changed her mind about beating up Susan. She outweighed Susan and seemed more savvy about how to fight. If she really chose to hit Susan hard, I didn't think that lightweight, bouncy Susan could handle her.
More time passed, and the next test came up. Warren Elseman, oblivious to what was going on, matched the two of them together. Working as a pair, they demonstrated the basic kicks for him and the assembled onlookers. They did forms well, and they went through one step sparring.
I could see it in Nancy's eyes as he sent them off to get their mouthpieces. She was going to beat up Susan.
Watching the test from the rows of folding chairs, I moved to the front row, my hands knotted in anxiety. Susan suddenly seemed little and vulnerable. I love happy people, and I always do feel protective of them.
Nancy came out. The two women bowed to each other, and Nancy positively charged her, fists out.
Susan sidestepped and smacked a kick into Nancy's shoulder. It was not an effective kick, but it sure was quick. Startled, Nancy turned and came after her again, kicking with determination. Susan avoided the kick and turned. She threw a fast, explosive kick that glanced off Nancy's side, and then she pummeled Nancy with her fists and drove her off.
Startled but still confident, Nancy attacked again, and Susan, eyes set like blue ice, kicked her as she came in. Susan dodged when Nancy charged from too close, avoiding the weight that was greater than her own. But every time she got Nancy backed off to just the right distance, she kicked. And then she closed with the bigger girl and punched with her arms like pistons, driving Nancy off again and again. I also saw that Susan had an inborn gift that I lacked: a sense of proper distance. Susan instinctively moved herself or timed the movement of her opponent to the exact distance where she could land a kick or use punches. I always fought in terms of "openings" and then tried to cover distance. But Susan fought in terms of proper distance and used whatever openings she found.
She was driving off the bigger, more aggresssive girl again and again. It was too much. A test is not a tournament and is supposed to be conducted in a classroom atmosphere, but I suddenly yelled, "Go, Susan! Go Susan!"
Mr. Elseman was also deeply impressed. Susan had always shown skill and promise, but she had never been such a demon of war before. She remained defensive in the fight but her defense cost Nancy something every time Nancy came in. He let the match go on for longer than usual. At last, he clapped, and they bowed out. Sweating and puffing, their faces red, they turned from each other and faced him. Susan could see me, sitting right behind him in the front row, and she suddenly beamed at me, back to her bouncy and happy self. I grinned back. Later, I apologized to her for not realizing that she was so tough under all that bouncy and happy exterior. Typical of Susan, she laughed a bright, happy laugh and said, "Did I teach her a lesson?"
"Yeah," I said. She'd taught me a lesson, too. Happy people can be cool as ice and hard as nails. But they would rather just be happy.
Tuesday, October 11, 2005
014 Dominators and Other LosersI settled in to a long, quiet study of fitness. I had always been average in my athletic abilities. Tall people actually fall outside of the curve of efficiency. We are not "well knit," and the longer levers of our arms and legs do compromise maximum strength and speed. As a man grows taller than about five foot seven or five foot eight, he leaves maximum efficiency behind him. Similarly, as a woman gets beyond five foot four or five foot five, she also is moving away from the optimum height for athletic efficiency.
The Koreans that we saw on tape or in person were the most startling example of efficient builds and precise accuracy. Korean instructors who visited did admit to us that they viewed Americans as big and ungainly. To them, Americans, even men, have large backsides and tend to be heavy set.
Big, bluff Bull Beringer, a bull of a man with rank equal to Warren Elseman, was barrel chested and had a voice like a bull horn. He was one of those men that make others shake their heads and say, "Why did he ever need to take a martial art?"
Huge, naturally muscular, and confident, Beringer overcame the size barrier by forcing himself to learn to be aerial. While still in the lower ranks, he practiced jumping again and again until he could fly through the air on jump kicks. I watched him once, doing jump back kicks against a full sized heavy bag. He'd rush forward, leap into the air and spin, and that massive foot would crash into the bag near the top seam. Each crashing kick sent the bag shooting and shaking the other way until the chain caught it. More than once in his career, Beringer had to re-drill the beam to reinstall the anchor chain because his kicks had jarred the anchor bolt back and forth so much that the hole had widened. He'd kick the bag, and it would suddenly fly free.
When he would spar with me, he would grin at me and roar, "Come on, Jeri! Right here! Right here!" and slap his own chest in the middle. "Come on! Kick hard!"
He did this when I was a white belt, and he does it now that I'm a third degree black belt and he's a fifth degree black belt. The sequence never varies. "Yes sir!" I yell, and I fling my foot at his chest. I hit him in the chest and then slide off the barrel surface. Unaffected by a side kick that can break three boards, he'll turn to face me, arms wide, to let me do it again and bellow, "Good! Good! Good spirit Miss Massi! That was a good kick! Come on! Come on!"
One night in the dressing room, four of us girls started imitating him and giggling. We paraded back and forth, arms wide. "Come on! Come on! Good spirit!" we called to each other, trying to make our voices deep and resonant like his. We didn't know that he could hear us in the next room. He pounded on the wall. "Girls, are you making fun of me?" the deep voice called.
"Imitation is the highest form of praise, sir!" I called back.
"Okay then! Keep at it!"
When he would come to the main school, all the black belts loved to fight him. For one thing, he was the only real challenge to some of the bigger men, and the smaller men could test themselves against him.
There were times, even when Mr. Hong was alive, when everybody would be called to a halt, and we would watch Mr. Beringer and Dr. Roberts spar, or Mr. Beringer and Linwood Cisco. The floor shook as two such heavyweights of speed and skill crashed about. I think that one reason the rest of the class was told to watch these matches was to make sure that nobody got run over by accident.
Nobody in his right mind would challenge the bull-like Beringer. But one night, at his own school, he had a man and his teen age son sign up for classes. Beringer always kept an eye on teenage boys. They can be the most unpredictable of students and sometimes hit too hard on smaller or weaker people.
But this young man seemed to be earnest and careful in his training. He obeyed quickly, got along well with Bull's wide variety of students, and was enthusiastic.
But Bull started to hear complaints, and some of his students started showing injuries. To his surprise, it was not the teenager who was bullying young men smaller or weaker than himself, but the boy's father. More than once, Beringer had to tell the man to go easier with the boys. Bull himself is such an example of gentleness wrapped around devastating power, that usually his word is enough.
This new student, a father himself, had seen Bull spar and had seen him on the heavy bag. He had also seen Bull exercise that great gentleness of his with the school's one or two elderly students and with the adolescent boys and girls who studied from him.
And yet, this adult student brushed aside Bull's orders to calm down, to be careful, to avoid deliberately injuring or humiliating another student. Finally, things came to a head when the adult hurt a younger man---a mere boy---of higher rank. Beringer ended class and sent everybody else to go get dressed.
They hurriedly cleared the room, knowing that Beringer was going to give the man a talking to. Even the man's son left.
"Now look," Beringer said to him. "I've told you before. You can't hit kids hard. They don't have the strength to fight you."
"Yeah, you've said it," the man said, his eyes and face deadpan.
"You know," Bull told him. "I don't like your attitude."
"Well, I don't like your attitude," the man said right back, glaring up at him.
Beringer flicked a glance at the full length mirror on the wall. Yes, this man who was berating him really was a foot shorter than he and weighed about 150 pounds less.
"In fact," the man said. "If you got anything to show me, you better show me now! Let's get this settled."
Bull couldn't resist another quick glance at the mirror. And then he looked the smaller man full in the face. "Are you challenging me?" he asked. His voice was surprised, rather than angry.
"Yes I am! I think you got nothing to back up your words!"
The scene had taken on a dream like quality, now. But Beringer said, "Then hit me if you want a fight."
The man threw a punch, and before it landed Beringer turned and kicked a light back kick into the man's chest, right on the sternum. The man flew back and hit the floor. Gasping, he rolled back and forth and tried to sit up. He at last managed to do so. He held his hands to his chest and tried to catch his breath.
"You all right?" Beringer asked.
The man nodded and then said, "I think so."
Beringer just stood and stared down at him, still not comprehending all that had happened. At last he said, "Well, I'm going to get dressed now. You take as long as you need." And he walked back to the dressing room. He heard the front door open and close, and when he came out, the man was gone. The fellow never returned.
Challenging and showing dominance occur more with men than with women. But it does occur with women. It seldom happens to me, because I'm simply too tall.
But when I was up at the first degree brown belt level, preparing for black belt, we had two girls of equal rank. One of them, Susan, had gone to college with me. She was pretty, slender, and very well coordinated. Susan was a "bouncer," an enthusiastic student who bounces through class. She loved kicking; she loved jumping, and she had endless energy. All of the single men liked to talk with her. Susan's vivaciousness and inborn happiness infected everybody. She did practice with intensity, but I do remember that once when the teacher asked her why she took tae kwon do, she drew a complete blank. She had no idea why she took it. Typical of the "bouncer," Susan threw herself into every new endeavor that held her fascination, and she did it whole heartedly. When women like Susan are asked that question, they usually default to the sensible answer of "Self Defense," but for them that's a pretty minor reason. They're too optimistic to seriously consider being attacked.
The other girl, Nancy, was loud and confident, like me. Also like me, she was more of a plodder through tae kwon do. She did better at strength than at speed, though with training her speed had improved. She had a lot of innate ability, and she was tremendously strong. She always treated me with respect, and I enjoyed working with her because she was ready to work hard and follow directions. When I sparred with her, I noticed that she was strong, but I have so much strength for a woman that it didn't ever alarm or challenge me.
Nancy and Susan were a year behind me, fourth degree brown belts preparing to test for third degree brown. One night, with her more deliberate, strength oriented way of sparring, Nancy blocked a kick from a man straight on. The result was that the kick shot past the arm into her ribs, and cracked them.
I'd had my own ribs cracked six months earlier, trying to block a jump kick, and I sympathized with her. When ribs are cracked but not cleanly broken, they do not present a serious danger, but they are painful. You can't comfortably sneeze, cough, or clear your throat. And you can't train for at least six weeks. Jumping jacks alone would have you rolling around in agony.
"I'm sorry," I told her in the dressing room. "I think you're going to miss the test."
"I know." She let out a moan. "Darn! And I was so ready!"
"Yeah, you really were." I helped her by stuffing her clothes into her gym bag, "But lay out for a few weeks and then come back. You'll get it next time."
"But you know, I was really looking forward to fighting Susan. I knew I could beat the shit out of her!"
I stopped and stared. "What?" I asked.
She turned innocent eyes to me. "Don't you think I could?" she asked.
"I don't think anybody should beat that out of anybody," I told her honestly. "We're all friends here."
"I'm not friends with anybody I fight," she said earnestly.
I dropped the gym bag. "Okay. Well, I'll see you in six weeks."
I found Susan and told her what Nancy had said. Susan's blue eyes lit up in amazement. For a moment she looked frightened, but then she was simply puzzled.
"What do you want to do?" I asked her.
"I don't know," she said.
"Do you want me to go to Mr. Elseman?"
"No!" And suddenly the blue eyes were angry. "I'll handle it myself."
We never mentioned it to each other again. Susan stayed in training and worked with her same enthusiastic intensity. When we sparred she would get more on edge, more brittle with me than she had been before. That was the only difference.
Monday, October 10, 2005
013 The Waffle House ScuffleThe actual role of teaching fell to Warren Elseman, the school's most senior resident black belt, a tall, imposing man of good looks and a mercurial temper. Wisely, he maintained the exact same high standards of Mr. Hong, but he did not push his authority to the same limits.
Years earlier, as a first degree black belt, Elseman had been an avid competitor in the local tae kwon do tournaments. In the early days, these tournaments were conducted without protective padding other than mouthpieces and cups. Many fights were won by knockout.
Warren had just won first place at one of these old style tournaments, and he and his fiancee, Donna, had stopped at the Waffle House in Simpsonville afterwards. Because Waffle Houses are made of glass, people driving by could see Bill and Donna inside. Simpsonville was a small town where everybody knew everybody else, and so Warren's many friends came in and out to congratulate him on some great fights.
With all the coming and going, Warren and Donna were there for a couple hours, and most of the talk at their table was martial arts talk--rather loud as everybody was excited and happy. One man in the restaurant didn't like the talk and the carrying on. So he followed Warren and Donna to the cash register and said something to Donna that he shouldn't have said. Warren got angry, but Donna asked him not to fight, so he ignored the man, and then the man said it again.
As Warren took the change from the cashier he negotiated the balance between keeping Donna happy and not allowing that kind of language towards his fiancée'. He looked at the man and said, "If you want a fight, all you have to do is follow me outside."
"I got a knife in my boot that'll cut you down to size," the man called after him as he walked away with Donna.
"You heard me," Warren said. "If you want trouble, just come outside. Otherwise, go back to your table." And he went outside, stepping around a small motorcycle that somebody had parked up on the sidewalk that led to the front door.
He never looked back until the door behind him crashed open. Warren is about six foot two and very powerful, with very fluid hips and strong legs. All in a motion he turned and threw a military style round kick, driving it through with the hips and striking the man dead on the chin--just as the man was reaching for his boot.
It flung the man back into the glass wall of the Waffle House--scaring the daylights out of the people in the restaurant. As Warren explained it, he didn't get mad until after he hit the guy with the kick, and then he just got madder and madder.
Without really noticing it, Warren skirted around the motorcycle on the sidewalk, grabbed the guy's shirt front, and punched him. Then he punched him again and realized he'd better stop. So he grabbed the shirt front with two hands and swept back in a strong stride backwards to throw the man down--never seeing the motorcycle behind him.
Warren stepped back so hard and fast that his shoulders went right over backwards when he hit that motorcycle. Nobody knows why, but that thing must have been anchored. It stayed upright as Warren did a back flip right over it. His feet went straight up above his head and came down on the other side, and he landed face down right on the hard black top of the parking lot.
The first thing he heard was Donna's frantic, " Warren! Warren! Are you all right?"
He sat right up, blood streaming down his face, and exclaimed, "Hey! That guy's got a knife! Where is he?" He had a strip of skin hanging loose from his nose, and two other shorter strips were peeled down his forehead--one over each eyebrow in a straight line pointed down.
Then Donna started laughing. Between his own daze and the blood in his eyes, Warren didn't even see the other guy for a moment. The man had been flung over the motorcycle with him but had landed further away. With Warren grabbing the shirt front, the shirt had been pulled halfway up the man's arms and over his head. The guy got up on his knees with the shirt up over his head and partway up his arms. It forced his arms up over his head in the same position that a man has when he's trying to get into a sweater that is about half a size too small for him. He was so dazed and groggy he didn't even know where he was or why it had gotten so dark.
Before the guy could come back to his senses and reach for his knife again, Warren scrambled over to him, jerked the shirt down with one pull, and cocked back his fist. After being kicked in the face, punched, and then thrown over a motorcycle onto asphalt, the guy looked even worse than Warren did.
"I--I got a gun in my car--" he began, but it was clear that all the fight was knocked out of him. Warren thrust his face forward and yelled, "Do you want me to hit you again?"
"No," the man said.
"Then go back into the Waffle House!"
And the man did.
The next day, Elseman had two parallel racing stripes that ran from his hairline to his eyebrows, and another large stripe down his nose. He and Donna were regular church attenders, a practice that Mr. Hong approved of very strongly, but he decided not to show up that day.
At nine o'clock, there was a knock at the door. Surprised at having a visitor on a Sunday morning, he opened the door to see Billy Hong standing there. Hong had never been to his apartment before. The short, Korean man greeted him with a big smile. "Hullo Elseman! You miss church today?"
Warren invited him in. Only then did Billy Hong seem to notice the marks on his face. "You take a fall? You hurt yourself?"
He had no idea (and never learned) how Billy Hong found out so quickly about the fight. But they sat down and he told Mr. Hong the full story, a story that Mr. Hong enjoyed thoroughly. Bullying or picking a fight would get a person expelled, but enthusiastically repelling an attack would win approval from our late teacher.
Warren and Donna, who also studied tae kwon do, told that story with great enjoyment. It's a wonderful example of how anything can happen in a fight. But it also showed that Warren Elseman had one very necessary characteristic of a good teacher. He could laugh at himself.
Warren Elseman must have felt some nervousness as he stood before the class as the new head instructor. But outwardly he assumed the role with both gravity and a certain ease. After bowing in, the class stayed in formation and drilled on kicks. We moved as a single unit as Elseman barked the count. "Side kick!" he would shout. "One! Two! One! Two!"
He glared at slackers. Keeping up with the count was everything. We surged forward, turned when he commanded us, and followed the count back down the room. After a few sets of single kicks to warm up, we did combinations, and then jump kicks. The kicking sets would be interspersed with sets of hand techniques, to give us a chance to get our breath.
This twenty minute intro to class would put many aerobics teachers on the floor. For my first entire year at the school, I could not get through this session without cheating at times. I'd miss a count every now and then or slack off from going full force. By the end of the drill work, I would be exhausted, my legs quivering. Aerobically, I was not very fit. Nausea still plagued me in class at times---always during the drill work. I concentrated just on keeping up. Technical perfection was only my second priority.
After the drill work, the black belt students ran to form a line from the top of the long room to the bottom. They stood next to each other, and the instructor assigned a lower ranked student to each black belt. We would rush into place across from our chosen partner. Usually, the teacher assigned people of similar sizes, but often women were placed with women no matter how disparate their heights. This annoyed me then, and it annoys me now. I'm six feet tall, and the next tallest woman in class is usually about five foot six.
Still, I was determined to obey, and I knew that the women were all better than I, and so I never complained.
In the partners session, the instructor shouted the kick to be performed and then counted a set of eight or ten. The high ranked person kicked first. The low ranked person held still and served as a target. Of course, no contact was made, never intentionally. After the high ranked person had completed a set on the right and a set on the left, the low ranked person took his or her turn and did the same thing. But as we kicked, we received comments from our senior partner. This part of class benefited new students the most. It was also tremendously demanding, but there were more chances to catch the breath between sets. The partners session lasted about twenty to thirty minutes.
After a short water break, we would do our assigned forms. And then we lined up with our partners again and performed one-step sparring, in which one partner punched and the other practiced blocking and counter attacking. This was meant to be done full speed, with snap and focus, but without contact on the blows. The higher ranks also practiced take downs and foot sweeps in this session.
And then, finally, came free sparring. We slid in mouth pieces, and the women might put on shin pads, and then we went full speed at what Mr. Hong had always called "light contact."
One night one of the black belts got thrown back by a kick so hard that he hit the flimsily paneled wall to the men's room, butt first. His backside cut cleanly through the paneling, and he got stuck in the wall. The men pulled him out. For several weeks the wall had a sideways figure eight shape smashed in it, until the paneling was replaced.
Our school was on the second floor, with a balcony. When Mr. Hong had been alive, he had been so infuriated with a young black belt named Tony who was fighting with diminished fervor that Mr. Hong said he would spar the young man himself. To teach him a lesson, Mr. Hong kicked him so hard on the hip that Tony flew right out the door and hit the rail of the balcony. Mr. Hong had only meant to knock him into the wall. Tony overbalanced on the rail and nearly went over. Poor Mr. Hong rushed after him, but Tony had caught himself. It was the only time anybody ever saw Mr. Hong hug anybody. He pulled Tony back into the training hall, apologizing, and more shaken than Tony himself at what he had nearly done. Later, they laughed about it together, but when I heard that story I realized why Mr. Hong always closed and locked the reinforced glass doors before he would let us free spar.
Under Warren Elseman, I advanced through green belt to blue belt, but I was not doing well. I was an ardent student, but I was not a promising student. My height and fighting know-how made it impossible for any of the women to defeat me, but I was realistic enough to know that in terms of technique I was tremendously inferior to my peers.
I was working at tae kwon do, but not making much progress. There were kicks that were so strenuous that I could not even do them. Chambered kicks, which are pulled up tight to the chest before being shot out, were difficult but not impossible for me. But we also did kicks, such as the back spinning kick, in which the leg was picked up straight and flung around like a log by the hips. I couldn't do this kick at all, though I always tried.
It came down to a problem of fitness. With having to concentrate so hard in class on getting enough air into my lungs, I was unable to really develop my skills. Class was one long struggle to catch my breath. Also, I was putting on weight. Now that graduate school was finished and I was working at a desk for eight hours a day, going to lunch with friends, not moving much except at tae kwon do class, I was putting on the pounds and adding to my own burden even more.
I tested for my fourth degree brown belt, the lowest rank of brown belt, and when I passed with a low score, I made my decision. I had to take an aerobics class to systematically build up my oxygen efficiency and to keep my weight down. I also swore off all fast food. These were clumsy steps towards fitness, but now, in retrospect, I think that I had developed a key asset in martial arts training: I could step back, look at myself critically, and assess what needed to be done. I could make a plan and follow it.
After one year in tae kwon do, I knew I was not gifted. Big, slow, not especially coordinated, with weak and heavy legs. But I had been reading Ken Cooper's books on fitness, and my old college had actually had a very cutting edge physical fitness program that instilled a knowledge of fitness into me. I realized that proficiency in any athletic endeavor had to be gradually achieved. And so I settled down for a long term plan to improve. I wanted to be a black belt, and I wanted that black belt to come from Hong's Tae Kwon Do school.
Friday, October 07, 2005
012 Class ResumesAt Hong's Tae Kwon Do school, the students started each class by lining up in order of rank. The black belts were at the head of the line, and the ranks stood in descending order. The training hall was long but narrow, and so the line had to be broken into three or four shorter lines, arranged with people alongside each other and one behind another in perfect military precision.
The senior student at the top of the first line barked the command to come to attention. We did. We bowed to the instructor, who stood facing us. It was that simple. Other schools had more elaborate methods of starting class. But at Hong's, there was little room for ceremony. The proof of our dedication would be in our explosive, hard hitting kicks.
The black belts were so numerous that they often filled up the entire first line. There was no doubt about the seniority of each of them. Warren Elseman, the only third degree black belt who was resident at the main school, had always stood at the top of the line. Next to him were the second degrees, including the towering and powerful Phil Roberts and the small, trim, Danny Kidd.
The first degree black belts included a gifted young man named Linwood Cisco, blond haired, tall, and fast. I had read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, and Linwood Cisco always reminded me of Wilder's descriptions of the youthful and brave Cap Garland: A flashing, brilliant smile, and a certain good natured recklessness hung on him. Linwood's rival and friend, the red haired, red bearded Will Thorson, was a first degree black belt a few months behind Linwood. Whereas Linwood glided on the air, throwing kicks that hit like pistons with a deceptive, relaxed grace and ease, Will was merely competent. He worked hard, with a ferocious courage. His red hair stood on end in most classes, and he drove himself without mercy. They almost always were next to each other in line, and Will devoted himself to rivaling Linwood in technique and ability. This attitude was not discouraged in class; indeed, it was respected. Goading each other to do better was a sign of a good spirit.
Billy Hong had enjoyed about nine years of the prosperous life he had built for himself and his wife. They had two children together. By the time he boarded the fateful flight KAL 007 in 1983, the school in Anderson had been passed on to others. The Greenville school remained the central school, and senior students ran sister schools in nearby towns. After the death of Billy Hong, several students left, including several other black belts. Mr. Hong had been too integral to the school for them to go on without him. The school, they said, would never be the same. I think that these men were correct. The school never could be the same without him. And the person who stepped up as head instructor would be foolish even to try to be a second Billy Hong.
There was very little dispute over the line of succession. The WTF, in a curious effort to ensure that Billy Hong's widow would be provided for, actually appointed her as the official head instructor. Our belt certificates would not be valid unless she signed them. Mrs. Hong was a stunningly beautiful and petite woman, a trained classical pianist. She had come from a wealthy and influential family in Korea. She had never taken a tae kwon do lesson in her life. She barely spoke English. Her life had revolved around her husband and the raising of their two children.
But now, she came to the school nightly to run the office. Amid the assortment of white cotton uniforms, sweatbands, and shin pads, she dressed in elegant silk, wool, tweed: expensive and beautiful dresses complemented by high, narrow shoes, gold jewelry, and flawless make up. The students treated her with deference and kindness. She was still waiting for him to come back. Because the bodies of the victims had never been found, there was some hope in the early days that some of them may have survived, that the plane had crash landed. And so she came, and she worked, and she waited.
Thursday, October 06, 2005
011 Transition and MarriageAs the Tae Kwon Do classes grew and as Billy Hong assimiliated into American culture, he became more a part of the lives of his students and less a part of the rambunctious, independent life on the mountain. The school in Anderson grew. As his first few years passed, he turned out black belt students. He ate with them after Friday classes and was invited to their homes as a guest, a kindness that Billy Hong cherished from happy families. He launched small business ventures in export and import goods, and he even traveled back to his homeland a few times. When he did, he brought back gifts for the children of his students
Years after Billy Hong's death, one young man at Greenville technical college looked me up to tell me that his father had studied Tae Kwon Do under Mr. Hong, and Mr. Hong had given him a child's crib blanket from Korea for his infant son. That same son now stood before me, grown and married, telling me that his father still had that blanket, a long preserved gift to be taken out and shown when it was story time and Billy Hong came to life again for a few brief minutes in the minds of those who had loved and respected him.
Mr. Hong took up golf (and quickly learned to bet on it), a sport he considered to be the perfect partner to Tae Kwon Do. Its stillness, focus, and demand for power in some moments and delicate finesse in others balanced out the explosive martial art with quiet and concentration.
Younger students showed up at the school on Paris Mountain. Jack Moon, ever the detached, remote budoka, showed little regard for youth. If you walked into his school, you were fair game, and one or two alumni from that training hall ruefully remarked on Moon's ability to put a choke on novice fighters and not let up until they felt truly and thoroughly choked. There was some feeling in some of the graduates of that school that Moon was "not all there." His relentless pursuit of martial perfection and a mindset of detached readiness unnerved less easternized minds. But he used his skills in the mental game of figuring out strategy and built a name to be respected in industry security.
Eventually, Hong built his own school in Anderson and moved in to its back rooms. He palled around with his senior students, golfed with them, ate with them, and engaged in more innocent activities than strike breaking. Hong wanted clean cut, morally upright men as students. Apparently, he was almost Puritanical in his view of marriage, for he would expel students who shacked up with women or were unfaithful to their wives. A strong tradition from the oldest tenets of Korean martial arts remained strong in him: that an immoral person, prone to addiction and slavery to fleshly pleasure, could never achieve much in Tae Kwon Do. A pure mind was essential to raw, undiminished courage; the soul had to endure without cracking. And every student of Tae kwon Do was a representative of its highest ideals.
I have read and heard from students in Japanese martial arts of teachers, even masters, walking home from the bars dead drunk and staggering. In Robert Twigger's book, Angry White Pyjams, the senior teachers and masters got drunk and picked a fight in a bar after the funeral of one of their own. This was not a bunch of 20 somethings as Billy Hong had known back in Seoul, sneaking out behind the backs of the teachers, but adult men with students of their own.
Billy Hong did not allow such behavior. He once spied two brown belt students standing outside the door of a bar in the summer sunshine, drinking beers and just staring out at the street. He pulled over, got out of the car, took the beers from their hands and threw them down. Then he got in the car and drove away. He threw out students who were bullies or anybody who behaved in a lawless way.
He expected his students, at all times, to do the right thing. He wanted smart academics, moral outlook, and "right action." Late comers to class were severely punished with 50 pushups, and if you muffed them, he made you start over again. But I recall one of the most diligent black belt students rushing in to class one night, late. When Mr. Hong, surprised, demanded to know why this was so, the young man said, "I saw two women trying to change a flat off I-85, sir. I changed it for them."
That was an acceptable excuse. He was waved into class with no further questions. Assisting women, helping the elderly, doing anything that was a mark of good citizenship, were all required behavior.
He accepted some students and rejected others. One of his favorite tests for prospective students, on hearing a request for lessons, was to point at the ground and say "fifty push ups." If a man would drop on the spot and do his best to perform fifty push ups, Hong would accept him. But if a man would offer only excuses, Hong would send him away. People who stood in the doorway and stared were sent away. Class was not a spectacle. They could watch for a moment or two, but then they must join or leave.
Once, he had two teenagers hanging around the doorway. He stepped up to them, his eyes glittering. They had not asked for lessons, but he pointed at the floor. "Fifty push ups," he said. One of the boys ran away right there, but the other got down and tried. He pushed out as many as he could. When he could do more, he actually held back tears as he stood up and met Mr. Hong's glittering eyes. "I gotta go home now," he said.
"You come back and take lessons from Billy Hong," Mr. Hong told him. And he did.
I'm not sure what caused the rift between Mr Hong and Jack Moon. Somebody actually offered to explain it to me once, but I was so tired of seeing men in the martial arts break off from each other that I passed on the opportunity. But after the school in Greenville was founded, Mr. Hong stopped teaching on Paris Mountain, and Jack Moon didn't come around more than once or twice from then until the day Billy Hong left Greenville forever. Ukio, from what I heard, returned to Japan.
The transition was complete; the rough and rowdy days of his youth were over. He had the necessary money to arrange a marriage with a Korean woman. With the well wishes of his students behind him, Billy Hong left for Korea to find his bride, assisted by the centuries-old Korean practice of professional match making. He told one of his students that his own plan was to disarrange the little parlor where he would meet his prospective brides, and which ever one straightened it up would be his pick.
I don't know if it was really that simple. I doubt it. But when he returned several weeks later, with the shy, gentle, and lovely Mrs. Joy Hong on his arm, everybody knew he had picked well. They had been married in a quiet ceremony in Korea, but a much more grand wedding was held in the USA, with his old army friends attending, his students around him, and well wishes pouring in. After over 20 years of loneliness and wandering, he had a home, a beautiful wife, peace, and a prosperous life in the country that he loved.
Wednesday, October 05, 2005
010 Gambling, Strike Breaking, TeachingBilly Hong lived with old friends from the military when he first arrived in South Carolina. He enrolled in Anderson College, studying business courses. And, as soon as he could, he started teaching Tae Kwon Do. His first students were college men.
At that time, the early to mid-1960's, karate was barely known in South Carolina, and Tae Kwon Do had never been heard of. Men familiar with the martial arts had learned it during the US occupation of Japan. Judo was the prevailing martial art, and even that was only sparsely taught.
But Hong's enthusiasm for his art and his incredible feats of strength, skill, and speed won him a small following that eventually grew.
Jack Moon, who lived on Paris Mountain back then, had a small judo dojo right on his own property. He was a hard core, non-nonsense teacher even then. A few years older than Billy Hong, he was intent on building his private investigation business. Eventually, he would become one of the top names in preventing and investigating industrial espionage. In the early days, he made his living the best way he could as any private detective did. He investigated infidelity cases, and he could be counted upon to hire strike breakers for the big textile firms around South Carolina.
He heard of Billy Hong and asked him to come to the small dojo on Paris Mountain. After a demonstration of Billy Hong's explosive martial arts, Jack Moon converted the dojo to Tae Kwon Do.
In addition, Moon invited Billy Hong to board with him. In Japan, it was not unknown for martial artists to all rent space together, as reflected in CW Nicole's memoir, Moving Zen, one of the first narratives about life in the martial arts to be published in the USA. Jack Moon rented rooms to another martial artist, a squarely built Japanese student named Ukio who worked as a bouncer and suffered from nervous stress. Ukio could do a lot of damage on the dojo floor, but he hated arguing and disorder. Life with Jack Moon, especially once Billy Hong moved in, turned his world upside down.
In class, Billy Hong never objected to anybody's fighting method. He believed that Tae Kwon Do had to be real. So fighters in the small school on Paris Mountain had to be prepared to meet Jack Moon's or Ukio's grasp. "If he got hold of you, you were pretty much finished," Danny Kidd once remarked of Ukio. For though his mentor was the more colorful of the two, Ukio always was the greater technical expert in getting in through the kicks of Tae Kwon Do and bring a person to the ground. He could submit just about anybody, but he couldn't get hold of Billy Hong.
These days, most styles of Tae Kwon Do have lost their arts of "getting in" and "getting out," but Billy Hong could close distance as expertly as any judoka. The difference was that he used the advantage to get behind his opponent. Early in his martial arts career, he had learned that to fight the Japanese styles, any Japanese style, a fighter had to move sideways and not be where his opponent expected him to be. he had to be where his opponent did not expect him, and that would always be just behind his opponent.
In the sports Tae Kwon Do culture, launching kicks has become so important, and the kicks themselves so central that the finer points of "angling," have been neglected. Too many Tae Kwon Do matches are simply two people ramming each other with spectacular kicks, head on.
Jack Moon hired Billy and Ukio for strike breaking. Unlike his former colleagues in Korea, Billy Hong never felt or expressed any need to go out and pick fights. But anybody who knew him knew full well that if you told him the strikers were pro-Communist, he would go break up strikes. He would launch himself into any mob, completely unafraid, armed with a piece of two-by-four or a baseball bat. And he was skillful enough to hurt without killing.
They lived a wild life, training in the dojo, breaking strikes, and--of course--gambling. One of Billy's later students told me that he knew more about gambling than any natural-born US citizen. Billy Hong could bet on anything, and it took him only a fraction of a second to figure out how to bet on outcomes and fix the odds. He was a man of his word, and when he lost, he paid up promptly, with no hard feelings. But he'd learned gambling as a child with the US army, and he had perfected it in the back streets of Seoul. For him, it was one more skill to acquire. And setting a stake was what gave it meaning and zest. He was good at it, and he got better.
Later in his life, Billy Hong disliked talking about his early days as a strike breaker. I suppose that he realized he had been a convenient tool and his fervent politics had been used to manipulate him. But when he first came to the USA, his outlook was entirely conditioned by his own upbringing and experience.
He was not a womanizer, and from the start, he saved his money for two things: to have a school of his own and to make a stable enough life for himself so that he could marry a Korean woman. The goal to have a wife and family remained a guiding star for him, as he had lived a lonely and wandering life. To gain this end, he lived a fairly simple life. He continued to attend college, and he discovered an unending supply of sturdy and durable students around college campuses. He started a class for Clemson University students (a class that continues to this day) that met several times a week.
The Clemson football team loved to pick at Billy Hong. He was five foot five, with 19 inch biceps and a 19 inch neck, his head shaved down to a military style crew cut (not unusual in the mid-1960's), and he was expert in a foreign fighting style that surely could not compete with American boxing or wrestling. Billy Hong once cleared out a Pete's drive-in when a member of the football team wouldn’t leave him alone.
"Billy Hong gotta headache," Billy told him as the much larger young man tapped at him and kept saying "Come on Billy, show me some of that stuff!" (tap tap) "Show me what you can do!"
"Billy Hong not fight today. Got bad headache!"
"Come on Billy, show me your stuff!" (tap tap)
He danced in too close, and Billy grabbed him by the collar in front and head butted him right on the nose with a forehead that had gone through roofing tiles. It knocked the young man out, and he flopped right onto the smaller Billy Hong, his nose bleeding profusely. Disgusted, Billy hoisted him up and threw him on top of the cigarette machine. He looked up to see the patrons clearing out the side doors.
Meanwhile, the carefree, adventure-packed life on Paris Mountain continued. Jack Moon, a self-made man in his own right, had the character to respect Billy Hong. And Billy Hong had the loyalty to be a true friend to his benefactor, Jack Moon. It was Jack Moon who helped him get through the incredible amount of paper work and endless trips to government offices that finally procured him his permanent visa status. This process took months, and without ever hesitating, Moon guided him through the complexities, spoke on his behalf, and scolded reluctant government officials who could not see why the USA needed one more martial arts expert as a permanent resident.
But both men were self-directed, enterprising, bold and daring men. And that meant egos clashed in the house on Paris Mountain. Arguments might be over anything from dirty dishes in the sink to delayed wages from the last job. It started with yelling and ended with them throwing things at each other and at the walls. And Ukio, the burly judo expert, would sit off to the side and say, "I hate it when they fight!"
Tuesday, October 04, 2005
009 Orphan, Refugee, Agent, and ChampionI decided to learn about Billy Hong. A contact told me that, for his first few years in the US, the young Billy Hong had boarded with a private detective who was a devotee of Asian martial arts: Jack Moon.
I obtained Jack Moon's phone number and he invited me up to his house on Paris Mountain to visit. Jack Moon, tough, built like a bull, but soft spoken, reflected the Japanese attitude of reserve. In conversation, he actually spoke little, and yet I learned everything I wanted from his direct, quiet answers.
When he was ten years old, the Korean War and the Communist army came home to Hyung N Hong. They occupied his village and imprisoned all the adults in their own homes, for security reasons. The children were allowed out occasionally, but the village filled up with invading soldiers, their equipment, and their vehicles.
American Air Force pilots, spotting the village and seeing no sign of normal village life, concluded that the Communists had driven off or killed the villagers. So they decided to level the village. On the morning that they attacked, young Hyung and another boy were allowed to go fishing at nearby fishing hole.
The planes came in swiftly and within minutes had reduced the entire village to a smoking wreck. Only the two boys survived.
The story becomes hazy at that point. Hyung did wander for several days, starving. I don't know if he was still in the area around the smoking remains of the village or if he had joined other refugees and moved on, but not long after the first tragedy, he was shot in the leg by a stray bullet while hiding from a skirmish between soldiers.
Unable to move, and too afraid to cry out for help, he stayed hidden until a small group of American soldiers found him. They took him to a MASH unit, where the friendly Americans removed the bullet and cared for him for as long as they were able. Hong later wrote of them sewing Army scrip into his clothing.
It was during his stay with the Army that he became enamored of Americans and their loud, friendly, generous ways. For a war orphan, they were like a great, noisy household of brothers and friends. He adopted the name Billy when he was with them.
Again, his story becomes hazy. Only rudiments survive from a few written journals he produced when he first came here. The big noses and big backsides of the Americans startled him. He was amazed by the broad handlebar moustache of one of the doctors.
From what I was told and read, he seems to have followed the US army with other refugees, at times slipping into the comforts of sympathetic care from the Americans. And yet there were also long, lonely patches when he simply traveled the countryside. He wrote of seeing the Communist soldiers tie up all manner of minor local officials, down to the mail carriers, with barbed wire and concrete blocks. They did this to the local officials, their wives, and their children, even the babies. Then, with the rest of the local citizenry forced to watch, they threw their captives into deep pools of water at the foot of great waterfalls, where they were all drowned.
Billy Hong hated the Communists all his life. He mentioned once that when he was still a refugee, somebody gave him a bucket of tomatoes. He was lugging his prize along a road when a Communist soldier passed him, took the bucket, threw the tomatoes down one by one, smashing them, then handed him the bucket and walked on.
But he also met unkind Americans. One American gave him a pouch of menthol tobacco and told him it was candy. He gobbled it down and was sick for days. He hated that man for the rest of his life, but he was too frightened of offending his benefactors to tell on him.
Over time, he developed friendships with one group of soldiers and officers from South Carolina. He eventually became a sort of valet and errand boy for an American lieutenant. His life became more stable, and he worked with devoted energy. But as he grew into his early teenage years, he also became a sort of agent against the Communists. This is the haziest part of his accounts of himself, but it seems clear that even while very young, Billy Hong did everything he could to inflict losses on the Communist soldiers. He blamed them for the death of everybody in his village.
As the war drew to a close, his American friends made inquiries about bringing him back to the United States. But there were hundreds, possibly thousands of such cases as Billy Hong. The US government did not allow it. But his American friends promised to help him if he could get to the USA. He was resolved to do just that.
He went to an orphanage in South Korea, but he decided that his best chance to get to the USA was to become a boxer. He had nothing else to do and nothing else to live for, so he took the only money he had and traveled to Seoul, where he asked a cab driver to take him to a boxing gym. His plan was to beg lessons in return for cleaning the place and acting as custodian.
The cab driver, misunderstanding him, took him to the Kukki Wan, the central school for Tae Kwon Do. The young teenage boy begged lessons and offered to work cleaning the toilets. It took a lot of begging and bargaining, but at last he was given permission to sleep in the training hall and care for the place. Years later, Billy Hong's only comment was "I cleaned a lot of toilets before I ever got a lesson."
But over time, the senior instructors came to respect his intentions. The only thing Billy Hong wanted was to become a champion so he could go to America. He cleaned, trained, ate, and slept. And then he trained some more before starting the entire routine over again. He once remarked to Frazer Johnson that he stayed so fixed on his purpose that he could go a week at a time not knowing if it was night or day.
He was still a teenager when he earned his first degree black belt. At 19 he earned his teaching certificate.
By this time, several impoverished but able young men called the training hall their home. They all worked fanatically at building their skills. They taught classes, served as custodians, and trained.
Hong once mentioned that two of his friends, who later came to the USA to open schools, would hone their skills by going to bars and deliberately picking fights. If they could knock out one or two people who willingly fought them, they considered it time well spent. They often invited him to join them.
But knocking out his countrymen, even the criminals who visited the local dives, didn't appeal to Billy Hong. He had strong ideals, and he saved his street fighting for Communist sympathizers or anybody perceived to be “from the other side.”. Even then, he remained active in staunchly anti-Communist groups that stayed in a shadowy netherworld, where they assisted in low-level matters of government Intelligence from time to time. He was never a major player, but he remained a reliable and willing assistant to anything that would further Democracy in South Korea and squelch Communism.
Billy Hong still hated Communism, but his teachers hated the Japanese. Decades earlier, Japan had humiliated and oppressed Korea, a crime that the martial arts teachers did not forgive. Billy Hong and several of his peers were groomed in their skills to attend an international tournament in Japan. When Hong decisively won in his bracket, he realized his dream to become a champion. He sent word to his friends in America, and he left Korea's shores to come to this country on a student visa and enroll in college.
Friday, September 30, 2005
008 Surprise and TragedyLife in Fundamental Christianity is always punctuated by doubts about whether you are good enough. But I threw myself into my work as a graduate assistant in Bible college. I loved teaching. I loved studying graduate-level English. I loved my students. And I feared the dean of our school. He was a bully and a small tyrant, and I was still young enought to be afraid of men like him.
So my first year was a mixed bag. But I knew I wanted to continue in Billy Hong's school. I had no car to get there, no money, and my first year in graduate school was complicated when my father died. He was Italian Roman Catholic, and his last demand on me was that I give up my Protestantism and return to the Church. I declined, and he disinherited me and disowned me: a separation from his side of the family that would last for the rest of my life, all the way to the writing of this story.
The next summer I returned to Tae kwon do training, but instead of attending Mr. Hong's main school, I attended one of the branch schools, which was less expensive. I was working a 40 hour week for low pay, but it was more than I'd gotten as a grad assistant. And a woman black belt at the branch school gave me rides each week. But again, I missed the scheduled test.
As the hot August days drew to a close, my graduate school duties (and salary) resumed. I had to drop out of Tae kwon do again.
Just after my second year as an English teacher started, Mr. Hong won an amateur golf tournament. His prize was round trip tickets to Korea aboard the Korean airliner KAL 007.
As the days came closer for him to take the flight to Korea, Mr. Hong became more morose and withdrawn. He had declared that it would be better for one of his business friends to accompany him on his trip than his wife. She would stay in South Carolina with the children.
At a Friday night class a few days before his trip, Mr. Hong was impatient with his black belt students, angry with them, and disappointed that they lacked heart and spirit. He told all of the students below black belt to leave. And then he locked the doors, lined up his black belt students, and shouted at them, rebuking them as he had never done before for having poor spirit. One man later told me that Mr. Hong said this as he berated them:
"I am the teacher!" he shouted at them. "I do what I am told! Like a dog if my master tells me! That should be your attitude. If I say die, you should die!"
Then he called the senior black belt student, Bull Beringer, to come to the front of the room. Bull Beringer, a great bear-like man with a barrel chest, dwarfed Billy Hong. Beringer was about six foot four and was massive. He was a third degree black belt at the time.
"Bend over!" Mr. Hong shouted at him, and Beringer obeyed him. Mr. Hong took up an oak stick, swung it like a baseball bat, and struck Beringer so hard that he knocked him over. The blow was so severe against the top of Beringer' leg that Beringer could not stand up.
"Get up! Get up!" Mr. Hong shouted at him.
Legs shaking, Beringer at last got up.
"Do you want another?" Mr. Hong asked him.
"No sir," Mr. Beringer said.
"Then you get out. You take another or you get out!"
"Well, I don't want another one, but I don't want to leave," Bull Beringer said, and he bent over again to be hit. Mr. Hong only tapped him with the stick, and then he shouted at everybody to get out. The black belts hurriedly gathered up clothing and scurried out the door. But they stood on the steps outside, talking. One by one, each went back inside and humbly asked Mr. Hong if he had been the one who had disgraced or offended him.
"You don't understand. You don't understand," Mr. Hong said to one of them. But at last he was reconciled to them, and he went with them to the school's favorite eating place, Ryan's Steakhouse.
At the restaurant, Mr. Hong seemed more like his old self, laughing and talking, but he said suddenly to them, "Students at the school should always wear white. White uniform. For purity and integrity. No letters on the back."
Everybody nodded. He stayed with them a long time, telling stories. They finally broke up and everybody said good night.
News came the next week that flight KAL 007 had never landed. It had been shot down by Russian fighter pilots for trespassing into Russian air space.
Mr. Hong was a local celebrity, and so the news teams in Greenville traveled to the school to interview the black belts. They said little; they were still in shock. In the following week, a memorial service was held, and Mr. Hong's black belt, now faded to gray, was hung up in the school.
Everything I've related about the final days of Billy Hong is only hearsay. I wasn't there, and this is only what I have been told by those who were there. Details may vary, but everybody agrees that he was angry and upset his last night at the school, that he did strike his beloved and respected senior student, and that he specifically said that our colors must remain white.
People still debate over flight KAL 007. Was it really spying? The Russians said it was taking pictures of their air craft.
I think it was. I think Mr. Hong knew it was. He'd had ties with the CIA in his younger days, and he was an ardent foe of Communism. I could be wrong; it's only my opinion. At the time, what deeply impressed me was the tragedy to his wife and two young children and the question of what would happen to the tae kwon do school.
I was in my last year of graduate school, and there was no money for me to attend tae kwon do training, but I decided that once I had graduated, gotten a job, and paid off some things, that I would go back. I was still a white belt, and yet I felt the urgency of going and becoming a part of that school and trying to preserve what Mr. Hong had started. My doubts and reservations were gone. I honored my brown belt in Shotokan, but even if a school had offered to recognize it, I would have turned down the offer. I wanted to be at Hong's. I wanted to get my black belt from Hong's Tae Kwon Do School.
Thursday, September 29, 2005
007 Toughening upWe trained in a long, shoe-box shaped room on a second floor over a bar. Two long front windows let in plenty of light as long as the day lasted. The rough floor, carpetted with worn blue carpetm boasted almost no padding. The reinforced glass doors stood open most of the time, our only ventilation. Only very rarely did Mr. Hong turn on the air conditioning.
The training hall, or dojang as some call it (but we just called it "the school"), was paneled with cheap brown paneling and hosted a tiny office and two small dressing rooms in back. There were no showers. During my first couple years there was no water fountain. Mr. Hong brought a water dispenser to each class. When we lined up during the break, it was always "ladies first."
I thought I knew what is was to train hard. In Shotokan, I had punched and kicked my way through fatigue and the protests of burning calves and aching arms. In the summers I had sweated until the water dripped off my cotton uniform.
But even my most serious and ardent training in Shotokan had not prepared me for training in military style tae kwon do. Imagine an aerobics class where every time you lift your foot it should be at head or at least chest level. And furthermore, every time you raise your foot that high, you must focus all your power in a sudden constriction of muscle and breath.
I learned to explode forward as I kicked. But there were differences even in the kicking theories between Japanese and Korean styles. Mr. Hong told me again and again to get my hips over when I side kicked, and I didn't know what he meant. Finally, he grabbed me by the hips and flipped me so that I pivoted as I kicked.
"Like a mule! Like a mule!" he exclaimed
Then I understood. A mule puts its head down, points its butt at its target, draws up both hind legs into itself and then shoots them straight out to kick, all in a split second. In tae kwon do, we keep our heads up, but everything else is the same: draw the foot high and tight, knee to the chest and heel to the backside. Then turn with the hip as the target finder, point the butt at the target, and kick out with the heel. At the end of the kick the heel, hip, and shoulder should all be in a straight line. That's how the power travels. The hip actually directs the entire body. In Japanese karate, we called side kicks by that name to indicate that they were directed off to the side. In tae kwon do, a side kick is thrown at whoever is in front of you or behind you, but you throw it by pivoting yourself sideways to the target.
Before and after class, Mr. Hong greeted each student by name, enquired after our well being, sometimes told us funny stories. Once we had lined up by rank and bowed in, he became a tyrant.
The first week, I got sick in every class I attended. The pace was so fast and the air so thick with sweat and heat in the badly ventilated room that I nearly fainted in the middle of class. I later found out that the need to go out and sit on the balcony to get air was a common ritual for the new students. Mr. Hong never rebuked us for our weakness. Instead, he would come out on the balcony and very gently ask us if we would be all right.
But inside, he accepted no slacking off. He would throw out anybody who did not obey him. And yet, if a student did not understand what was being ordered, Mr. Hong would abruptly stop and very clearly explain it. I gradually learned that if I could not do a technique correctly but would still attempt it whole heartedly, he would be satisfied.
The words, "I can't," were always met by the command, "Try!"
I had weak legs, useless ankles, and was horrible at jumping. We practiced half a dozen different flying kicks or jump kicks, and I couldn't do a single one correctly. I could barely get off the ground. But I found that as long as I tried, he was satisfied.
"Go, Jeri! You try! You try!" he would shout as we worked with partners. And then he would move on to the next pair and make corrections, adjustments, and then count again.
The men did handstands, and---held up by a partner---did push ups in that position. We all practiced "jumpovers": 30 sideways jumps over our partner as he or she hunkered down on hands and knees. Side to side and back again, 30 times. I could not do 30 non-stop for years. But I always tried. He made me get through 30, no matter how many times I broke my own rhythm.
Everything hurt after class. Tae kwon do is an incredible mixture of stretching muscles to their limits while anaerobically stressing them to their limits. I suffered toe cramps, calf cramps, lower back weariness, and shoulder pain. And then there were the shin splints. After every class I would sleep for ten hours. And even at that, morning came far too soon.
Having studied karate for several years was actually a hindrance. I knew nothing of the total body commitment required to kick effectively in tae kwon do, and in Shotokan karate we had been taught not to over commit in attacks. I did excel as a new student in all of the hand techniques that were taught at Mr. Hong's school, but hand techniques are not nearly as important in tae kwon do as kicking is. Tae kwon do fight theory is based on the idea that the fighter will be staying out of range of the hands as much as possible. The tae kwon do fighter kicks--fast power kicks that use the muscles of the back, buttocks, and legs.
Almost all martial arts come to us from ancient patterns of attack and defense that the Japanese call kata and the Koreans call poom-se. In English, they are simply called forms. The first form is simply twenty-one steps of blocking and punching, with four knife hand blocks at the end. I learned the form and was ready to test for my first belt, but by then the summer was over. I had to start teaching at the college and could not afford tae kwon do classes on a graduate assistant's meager pay. Tae kwon do would have to wait for nine months as I got through school.
Wednesday, September 28, 2005
006 Fighting AletheaIn spite of having earned my first kyue (first degree brown belt) in Shotokan four years earlier, I wore a white belt when I started tae kwon do. I was surprised when Mr. Hong gently told me that he would not recognize my rank because the two styles were so different, but I agreed instantly to his decision and I put on the white belt. At least, I thought, I would advance through the lower ranks more rapidly than other new students.
But I had another surprise waiting for me on my first night. The one person I had feared all through college walked in the front door. She had a green belt around her waist.
I was there with my friend Karen, who had enrolled with me. "Hey," Karen said. "Isn't that Alethea Conner?" She turned big eyes to me.
"Yes," I said, and it just figured that Alethea outranked me even here.
Before college, I'd grown up under an abusive father. In many ways, I had to raise myself. My father disowned me when I converted from his faith to evangelical Christianity. So my decision to get away from my home and start a new life had been pretty easy to make.
Bible college was a place with lots of rules, lots of innocent people, lots of discipline, and lots of stability. For me, it was the very place I needed to grow up. I was a loud person, often rude, and held most people in contempt. But in college, for the first time in my life, I was consistently and kindly confronted about my behaviors towards other people and made to change. And I wanted to change.
In spite of my faults, I was honest, and honesty went a long way at a Bible college. I was befriended by a class mate, Beryl Rimmer, whose father, Bert Rimmer, was the head of campus security. Beryl encouraged me to apply for a job, and I was quickly accepted. Women who worked on Security received the same South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SCLED) training as the men, but our jobs were much more limited. A woman always attended any ambulance call to the girls' dorms, and we did a lot of dispatch work. But we stayed in the front office, a glass building called the fishbowl. The men went out on patrol and ran the shifts. At the time I was hired, Beryl Rimmer had been working for two years on Security, and another girl, Kelly, had been on for a year. We all liked each other and got along well. Our job title was Assistant Gate House Watch, or AGHW.
I loved the Security department and must confess that sometimes I could be accused of going to college just so I could work on Security. Every day I was busy going to classes, and then I would go to work, where I was part of a close-knit team. I was making friends for the first time in my life, and I felt that I mattered, that things ran more smoothly because I was there.
My idyllic life was knocked slightly askew when I met the wife of Sergeant Conner, the second in command of our department. I was introduced to Alethea Conner at a Red Cross meeting, and the woman simply turned and walked away from me. I thought there must have been some mistake in my perception of her rudeness, so at the first coffee break, I went up to her and spoke to her, asking her some polite thing or other. She turned away without answering.
At this time in my life I had managed to alienate so many people because of my own rudeness, loudness, or obnoxiousness, that I assumed that somehow I had offended her. I tried a third time, later on, and was once again rebuffed. Really at a loss, I went to Beryl Rimmer and confessed my sin. I wasn't actually sure what I had said or done, but I was sure that Beryl would tell me the truth and help me mend matters with the Sergeant's wife.
I was so sure that it was my fault that Beryl asked me to give her a detailed account of everything I had said to Mrs. Conner, and I did. When I had finished, Beryl just rolled her eyes. She threw a look at her father's office in the back of the fishbowl. The door was closed. She said, "Kelly can tell you more. Alethea Conner was really rude to me only once, and then she found out that my dad is Bert Rimmer, her husband's boss. So she's not so bad with me. But she's been just awful to Kelly."
The next day I asked Kelly about it. Kelly was a PE major, with bright, incredibly dark eyes, her face and figure just faintly chubby enough to remind one of a teddy bear. She was pretty with a fresh, country girl prettiness, and was very earnest in her bearing with people. To my surprise, she just wilted up as soon as I mentioned Alethea Conner.
"What did you hear?" Kelly asked. "Did she say anything about me?"
I told her what had happened at the Red Cross meeting. When I was finished she nodded, but she didn't tell me anything. She was clearly afraid of Alethea Conner.
One of the men heard us talking, and later on he told me the full story. Mrs. Conner had been picking on Kelly ever since Kelly had started the job. She'd leveled several complaints against her and was openly rude to her.
In fact, one day, Mrs. Conner had come to the fishbowl to sort out the way Kelly did her work. Mr. Rimmer had walked in to find Kelly in tears, Alethea storming at her, and the young man on duty unable to do anything to fix the situation. Rimmer ordered Alethea out. Later, Mr. Rimmer told both the Conners point-blank that if Alethea Conner ever walked into the fishbowl again, her husband would be fired from Security.
Obviously, the smart thing to do was avoid Alethea Conner. School was an authoritarian place: students obeyed faculty and staff members and treated them with deference. The system worked really well most of the time, and to be honest, I would have to say in ten years of working on that campus in one capacity or another, Alethea Conner was one of only two people I ever saw abuse that authority. But she got away with it. For a while, anyway. She stayed out of the fishbowl, but she made it her job to be unkind to the AGHWs at every other opportunity.
Kelly and Beryl graduated. I became senior AGHW, and Kelly's younger sister Rhonda and another girl Darla were promoted to the uniform ranks. Rhonda had her first run-in with Alethea Conner early in her career and was reduced to tears. Darla, far more down to earth, was just flabbergasted by Mrs. Conner. "That woman sure has some problem!" Darla exclaimed to me, right in front of everybody on shift. "I think she needs Schizophrenia medication!"
The years went on. If we saw Alethea Conner in public, she put us down, ordered us away from herself, was rude, and watched each of us girls with severity. At times she leveled complaints against us. She even went over Mr. Rimmer's head to his boss. Fortunately, Rimmer's boss had less patience with her than Rimmer did. But every one of us girls learned to be afraid of her. We knew that if she could bring us down, she would.
Graduating ended my problems with her. I had been accepted as a graduate assistant at the college and was already doing grad work that summer. In the fall, I would be teaching Freshman English.
So when Alethea walked through the door of Hong's Tae Kwon Do School and saw me, I just nodded and smiled. In the course of class, Alethea and I were put with each other as partners, and as we worked she seemed friendly enough. As we went back and forth, practicing kicks, I called her "Alethea." She instantly snapped right back at me, "That's Mrs. Conner to you, Jeri."
It stopped me cold. For crying out loud--I was on English faculty and this woman worked in the campus print shop. But I nodded and simply didn't speak again to her.
The class dismissed, and afterwards as I was stalking to the girl's room, still mad, Alethea came up to me and said, "I hope you aren't angry about what I said, but I believe you need to respect me."
I turned on her, incredibly surprised, and said, "Respect you? I don't respect you! I've never respected you! You're nothing but a bully, and you always have been! I despise you!"
And I turned to go into the girls' room.
"I make people respect me," she said. "And I won't respect you until you earn my respect."
"I don't care if you respect me or not!" I went into the dressing room.
I already knew what was really going to happen. Sooner or later, Alethea and I were going to spar with each other. It didn't matter that she outranked me. It didn't matter that she probably was in better athletic shape than I was at the time. I'm six feet tall. Alethea tops out at five foot five or five foot six. And I'd fought--really fought--as a kid before I became a Christian. She had no idea what I could do to her if I chose. And that was my choice. My adversary of three years, whom I had never wronged but who had wronged me at every opportunity, was at my mercy. And she was so stupid she didn't even know she was at my mercy. She was so proud and arrogant and full of herself she didn't even know that it was in her best interest to make peace with me as quickly as possible.
I thought about it all through the next day, and into the evening. And on the second day I thought about it some more. And then it was time to go back to the training hall. I knew we were going to spar. Girls always got put together first And when Mr. Hong taught, everybody sparred from the first week of enrollment. I brought along my old shin pads. This was back in the days when shin pads were not made well--at least not for women. My shin pads pulled up over the foot like a sock but were too big and flopped around on my shins. One result of their loose fit was that if I smacked anything fast and light with my shin, the shin pad, even though it was made of foam, would clap loudly against my shin. It didn't hurt me. It just had very good reverb.
Alethea was there and she nodded to me, determined to keep me in my place and yet treat me with the courtesy demanded of us in the training hall. I worked with Karen that night in the partners session, but once the sparring began, I was put with Alethea. I had my shin pads on.
We bowed on command. There were several pairs sparring, and so nobody looked at us, and for a long moment, I was at a complete loss.
I still wasn't sure what to do. A hoard of Sunday School teachers stood in my mind, like some heavenly host, telling me that revenge is always wrong. Another part of me told me that I had the power to end Alethea's career as a bully. I still didn't know what to do. A powerful motive urged me not to hurt her and not to humiliate her. Another powerful resentment urged me to pound her into mud, because I could.
Alethea made the decision for me. She round kicked to my chin. Enlightenment came: I could easily make it sound like I was pounding her and yet not ever really hurt her at all. I could make it so that she could never touch me, and I could frustrate the daylights out of her. The shin pads won. I knew exactly what to do.
Kicking with the shins was frowned upon at the tae kwon do school, but new students needed so much correction and guidance that shin kicks were low on the list of things to prevent.
I skirted out of the way of Alethea's forward motion, picked up my right leg, and smacked the shin pad into her ribs as she went by. Clap! She was startled and came right back at me, her hands ridiculously low.
I picked up my foot, heel out, and lightly thrust it into the front of her hip, against the bone; I pushed. It sent her flying back but did not hurt her. Indeed, it was really a push and not a kick. She was mad by then, and she knew exactly what I was doing and why. She rushed right at me, hands down, and I lightly but loudly peppered her with the shin pads, always moving back, moving away, not hurting her, but making the shin pads clap against her. Clap, clap, clap! It sounded like I was beating the crap out of her, and I was glad. I wanted it to sound that way. Everybody in the whole room could hear it. Clap, clap clap!
Alethea was frantic, and I remained silent. But she never got a kick off, and I don't think I ever even bothered to block her. I certainly never used my hands, and I never went to her face or head because I did not want to hurt her. I just peppered her as she came in, and she kept coming. Finally, the associate instructor came up and stopped us. "Here Alethea," he said to her. "Let me show you how to fight."
It was the most telling blow against her. He meant it to be kind, but to her arrogance and superiority it must have been more crippling than the worst insult. I settled down into a stance and refrained from leering at her. In fact, I met her eye with no expression, and she knew perfectly well that no matter what he told her, or how he instructed her, the minute he stepped out of the way, I was going to do it again. But after he finished instructing her, he clapped his hands and ended the match. We moved to different partners.
After class, Alethea snatched her things and went straight out. In the girls room, Karen was practically rolling on the floor laughing. All the way back home, Karen was laughing, and I was laughing.
Over that weekend, Alethea made the rounds with phone calls, seeking support, but at last there was none. I had, she insisted, targeted her breasts and struck her hard, several times, in the breast. Mr. Rimmer called me up to get my side of the story. I told him the truth. Yes, it was unavoidable the way she had charged in with her hands down that the shin pads had hit her chest, but not one of my kicks had been hard--just loud. I told Rimmer that if I had wanted to hurt Alethea, I would have knocked her out easily with a solid kick to the head, and she knew it. Rimmer knew it too.
He told Alethea that as far as he knew, I was participating with her in a class in which we both knew the possible consequences, and so it was not a matter for either Security or the school administration to handle. If Alethea and I had a problem, we would need to work it out.
I did sweat it a little bit, but everybody that Alethea appealed to made the same decision. If you do tae kwon do, you have to abide by the consequences of tae kwon do.
On Monday morning, Rimmer called me up to his office. When I got there, he said, "Alethea wants you to meet with her."
It was a stunning declaration, and I did not expect it, and I made an instant decision. "No," I told him. He was surprised. I was suddenly surprised at how very angry I was. "For three years that woman bullied me and made me feel like she could do anything she wanted to me. And she's not sorry now; she's just caught, and she's scared. I'm not going to her. When she comes to me, apologizing for what she's done, then we'll talk. Otherwise, I have nothing to say."
Rimmer tried to say something about the benefits of compromise, but I told him, "There's no compromise with this. What she did was wrong. And now it's come back to her. You can tell her that. We aren't talking because there is no agreement to reach. She picked on Beryl, Kelly, Rhonda, Darla, and me. And I am now putting a stop to it."
That ended the meeting. Alethea was duly told all I had said. She never apologized and she never came to me to talk. The next time we were in class together to spar, I said to her, very calmly, "You will ask me to teach you how to fight, or I will fight you like I did last time."
Her mouth tightened up. We bowed on command, and I said, "Okay Alethea, we'll fight like we did last time. Get ready."
And then, stammering from her lips, came the words: "Will you--teach me--how to fight?"
I smiled at her. "Sure, Alethea," I said. "The first thing you need to know is how to keep your hands up."
It would be great to say that Alethea and I became friends after that, but it would be dishonest. She stayed long enough to get her next belt. We sparred on the test, and I went easy with her and let her throw some kicks.
I called her Alethea and she never objected again. In some odd way, I think I actually did win her respect by seeming so remorseless to her. Where three years of kindness, meekness, and obedience had failed, three days of firm resolve, determination, and the appearance of being ready to hurt her succeeded. She never earned my respect, but she has earned my pity.
I still don't know the rightness of what I did. I never hurt her, though I let her troubled mind believe that I would hurt her. After the first sparring match, I tried to go on without grinding her face into the floor. I never forced her to apologize for the years of unkindness. In fact, I never forced her to apologize for anything. I just never let her get away with continued nonsense.
But now I do realize that in refusing to go to Alethea, I took away from her the vital moment of truth when she might have changed forever. The most amazing thing about Alethea Conner is that she thought she had every right to treat us badly. Nobody had ever told her otherwise. And I could have but did not. I do regret that. I was changed because people were willing to confront me. I had no right to refuse to confront her.
Years later, I was riding to church with a friend named Judy, and we talked about the incident. Judy, several years older than I, had been a senior English faculty member when all this had happened.
"I really regret it that I refused to meet her more than halfway," I said.
She nodded. "And fighting her didn't even feel good, did it?" she asked.
I was stunned at the question. "It felt great!" I told her with complete honesty. "It was one of the best moments of my life!"
My honesty really annoyed Judy. She snapped her mouth closed and glared at the road as she drove. I just stared at her. I do regret not helping Alethea after I had taught her the truth of her frailty. But fighting her was great. In fact, it was terrific.
Wednesday, September 21, 2005
005 Tae Kwon Do Chung Do KwanIt was 1982 when I walked through the narrow, badly framed door of Hong's Tae Kwon Do School for the first time. I was 22.
Already experienced in the ways of the dojo from my high school years in Shotokan karate, I bowed as I entered and removed my shoes. My eyes instantly settled on the short, slim Korean man with thinning hair and sparkling black eyes. He saw me and flashed a smile that was like lightning. It made me automatically smile back, and he approached me. He introduced himself as Billy Hong and asked if he could help me.
Mr. Hong interviewed applicants and decided who could be a student and who could not. I later learned that he sometimes turned people away or sent them down to the American karate school. He wanted respectable, determined students in his school. He asked me about my background and my education. I told him that I had been born and raised in Philadelphia, that I had studied karate for three years, and that I had just graduated from the local Bible college.
At the reference to being a college graduate and a strict, conservative Christian, he was delighted. As he led me inside, he explained to me that students of his school were forbidden from smoking, from using drugs, from having affairs, and from drinking in bars. He invited me to watch the class.
I was amazed to see such high stances. In my old Shotokan karate school I had been taught again and again that Korean kicks were useless and the stances too high to deliver any real power. My Shotokan teacher had taught that tae kwon do was sloppy. But as I watched the class for forty minutes, I was impressed by the pace of the workout. The drill work was intense Mr. Hong shouted the count, his voice sharp like a bark. High, hard kicks were thrown full speed and full strength, again and again. Just when I thought that he surely would let the class rest, he sent them down the floor in swift kicking combinations that propelled the lines of students forward in the crowded room. then they turned and came back. The merciless sun glared through the front windows. The two open doors admitted a hot breeze through the narrow doorways. The air conditioner stood silent and dormant. I later learned that Mr. Hong thought air conditioning unhealthy.
Sweat flowed freely. It dripped from the faces of the students, down their hair, off their uniform cuffs. I could see it streaking the threadbare, ancient blue carpet. After forty minutes, he paired them up and made them drill again; then he called a halt and let the students get water. He approached me to ask if I had questions. I hesitantly told him what I had been told about tae kwon do. Instead of becoming defensive, his dark eyes sparkled with recognition and he said, "You ever see tae kwon do before this?"
"In Philadelphia, yes," I told him meekly. "I went to a tae kwon do tournament and beat many black belt women when I was a brown belt in Shotokan."
He nodded to the students. "This like the tae kwon do you see up there?" he asked.
It was not what I had seen in Philadelphia. Mr. Hong's students threw fast power kicks. The body started from any position and then swiftly snapped into an alignment of foot, knee, hip, shoulder, head as the kick was delivered: a sudden, powerful twist that focused energy through the striking surface of the foot. Even as a newcomer I could see that it was an agile, skillful way of kicking. "No sir," I told him. "I've never seen anything like this. But does it really work?"
I didn't realize that even in 1982 Mr. Hong was on the horns of a dilemma. The tae kwon do he knew and loved from the 1950's and 60's was not the same franchised stuff that was being peddled all over the country. I was too inexperienced with tae kwon do to realize that there are many branches of it and that many teachers of good technique have turned their schools into mere businesses, "belt factories" as they are called. And Mr. Hong was not the type of person to belittle his countrymen.
But at Hong’s, in the days before the WTF regulated things so much, we had few belts: white, green, blue, and three degrees of brown. A person tested only every 4 – 6 months. Nobody had stripes on their belts, and Mr Hong himself wore a frayed black belt worn to gray. We did the ancient forms: pyongan 1-5, the chulggi forms, Yul-gok, Hwarang, and Barsai.
Furthermore, “self-defense” was very much like grappling, and above the lowest degree of brown, most self defense began on the ground. After first degree black belt, women were tested extensively on ground fighting, more so than the men.
Unlike the Moo Duk Kwan schools I had seen in Philadelphia and Washington DC, this was Chung Do Kwan: hard, military, effective, and very straight-line.
"I teach very strong tae kwon do," he told me. I was wearing a skirt, and he glanced at my legs. "You have to work hard to kick like this. Jump rope. Take a long time. But very effective if you need it."
I still had private reservations, but I already admired him tremendously, and I knew that in this school I would be both respected and challenged. And so I signed the papers that night and enrolled.
Wednesday, September 14, 2005
004 The First TournamentBy the late 1960's, Billy Hong had schools in Anderson and Greenville and was teaching self defense to the local police departments. His black belt students ran a tae kwon do class at Clemson University, and a fledgling school had started in Brevard, North Carolina.
The first women students who lasted at Hong's took longer than the men to get their black belts. But, even as Charlie Mann had done, their willingness to keep obeying instruction and to train without thanks or special note until they met his standards impressed Mr. Hong. Eventually, the training time for a woman to get to black belt became roughly the same as that for a man, depending on ability. But Mr. Hong allowed women to wear shin pads and he would not let them practice taking punches to the stomach, not even light punches. This, he believed, could cause infertility. And so the women were excused from this exercise, although he did occasionally let them practice punching their male counterparts for practice.
Once the school had moved onto a main thoroughfare in Greenville, it became the major player of the martial arts schools in town. It's now a familiar thing to hear of martial arts teachers breaking bricks with their bare hands or of setting up a stack of bricks and breaking only the middle brick, or the brick on the bottom of the stack. But when Billy Hong first demonstrated these skills, nobody had ever heard of such feats of focus and power. He somersaulted through the air to break boards, leaped over rows of chairs (or kneeling students), and demonstrated his incredible speed by tossing a board into the air and then breaking it with a kick as it fell.
All this, and yet he was likable, easy to talk to, and possessed an enormous sense of humor. He loved children, and visits to his senior students for dinner followed a pattern. Mr. Hong would show up, dressed handsomely in a tie and jacket, present the student's wife with candy or flowers to thank her for inviting him, and then would remove tie and jacket and play Par-cheez-ee, Trouble, or Monopoly with the older children or blocks or Leggoes with the younger children. By the end of the night, he would be telling them stories, tossing them around, or carrying them on his back. Losing his own family as a boy remained the greatest tragedy of his life, and spending time with other families filled a gap for him.
Popularity came at a price, especially as he began to make inroads into the martial arts market in town. Students from other styles were joining at Hong's, even abandoning their ranking in other schools and willingly adopting the white belt in tae kwon do.
Don Greely, the instructor of the largest American karate school in town, openly disparaged Billy Hong and said that tae kwon do was all show and no substance. When false stories of fights that Billy Hong had lost began to circulate, they were attributed--rightly or wrongly-back to Greely.
Greely, a one-time professional fighter, was the exact sort of man that Billy Hong would not like. For one thing, Greely had taken the wife of one of his students (now a former student) and had moved in with her. His classes were often run by students who were not yet black belts, and his school often moved locations.
When Hong heard about the stories, he decided that there was only one course of action: he must fight and kill Don Greely. He decided to issue a challenge at once to a fight.
Fortunately, his senior students talked him out of this plan. At first he did not believe them when they told him that he would be arrested for murder if he killed Greely in a fight. But when the man who had sponsored him told him that his green card would be revoked if Mr. Hong were arrested for anything, Hong relented. He did not want to lose his green card and be sent away from his adopted country in disgrace. But it was disconcerting to realize that Americans did not comprehend a man's need to fight to the death every now and then over important issues.
One of the senior students came up with an alternative: the black belts at Greely's school could fight the black belts from Hong's in a school-to-school tournament, under rules, with judging by members of both sides.
Mr. Hong did not have nearly as many black belts as Greely did, and so he handed out black belts to his top brown belt students.
The tournament was held in a small gym, and it lasted for exactly one fight. Frazer Johnson, the best fighter from Hong's, met Greely's best fighter in a match that both sides agreed would be full contact, in accordance with the rules of the Professional Karate Association (PKA). Nobody from Hong's knew for sure what the rules of the PKA were, but they assumed that "full contact" meant you could hit as hard as you wanted, and that anything except the groin was legal. Technically, that's close to what the rules stipulate, but neither Greely nor his black belts had ever seen anything like military style tae kwon do. Aside from the flying side kick, they had never even seen the arsenal of aerial kicks that Hong students used in sparring. And they'd only seen the flying side kick in the movies, never in a real fight.
It took Frazer Johnson about thirty seconds to drop his opponent to the mat with a series of kicks and punches. Greely's people started yelling foul, and Frazer stopped. There were hard words, but no foul had been committed, and so the fight resumed. Frazer knocked him down again, and they ended up wrestling. At last Frazer got astride his opponent and started hitting him and yelling at him to say "uncle." Eager to document the defeat of Greely's best fighter, one of the men from Hong's rushed up to the ring and started snapping pictures. Greely ran out and called the police.
The police came, but when they saw Billy Hong they decided that it must have been a false alarm. They knew "Billy" as they called him, from the free self defense courses he taught them. Hong explained the tournament to them. Wisely, they told him that a promise to have a tournament still did not make a person absolutely exempt from charges of assault. The best thing, they said, would be for Greely to keep his mouth shut about Billy Hong and for the tournament to end before anybody was seriously hurt. But they said this to Greely, and the meaning was clear. They were worried about his students.
Mr. Hong was bitterly disappointed that the tournament and the vindication of his own school should be terminated so quickly. But the police stayed around and cheered him up a good bit. They liked him and understood his belief that he had a right to defend his name and his school. But they explained the law to him and suggested the alternative of letting time take its course. They gave him the southern dictate that cream always rises to the top. As long as he practiced his martial art with integrity, he would eventually prove himself the superior instructor and martial art. Billy Hong agreed, but he was bitterly disappointed that his opportunity to be vindicated had been taken from him by the very system that he trusted in. Even while his own black belts were exulting in the single match that had been won so quickly, he regretted that his school's glorious victory had been forfeited.
But time did take its course. After the brief tournament, the Hong's school inherited some of the higher ranking students from Greely, and as the months unrolled, the other rumors faded away, robbed of their credibility. The shots of Frazer Johnson getting astride Greely's top fighter had been preserved for posterity. Mr. Hong would not allow them to be hung up in the school, but they were passed around for years. Even as he did not like to discuss the tournament that had been cut short, delighted students whispered about it behind his back and passed around the snapshots.
Wednesday, September 07, 2005
003 Charlie Opens the DoorMr. Hong enrolled in college in Anderson, South Carolina. Barely able to speak English when he started school, often mistaken by fellow students and instructors for being Chinese or Japanese, he charmed and won over the people around him. Billy Hong had always been optimistic about the American spirit, and was confident in his own ability to break down racial and language barriers and become a part of his adopted country.
Shortly after arriving, he was befriended by a private detective who had served in the Japanese occupation and earned his first degree black belt in Judo while overseas. When Billy Hong demonstrated his skills to this man's small martial arts school, the students were whole heartedly converted to tae kwon do.
And so Mr. Hong took over the small school that sat on Paris Mountain in Greenville. He had already opened a school in Anderson.
Initially, Mr. Hong retained the mindset of the Korean men who had fought so hard to establish tae kwon do as a martial art. He did not allow women in the school, and he turned away anybody who looked unable to "get tough," as he called it. To "get tough" meant surviving the rigorous training until you had learned to sail right through it; until your will could direct your body, unhampered by fear and self limitation.
Classes at the Paris Mountain school began with the students running barefoot up the mountain. They had a paved road, but it was a steep ascent. And, of course, running in their white uniforms, they were a noticeable group as they huffed along. Their barefoot jog took them through fragrant copses of pine trees, past a scenic outlook that revealed the green, verdant valley below, through a neighborhood where tow-headed children gaped at them, open-mouthed, and up to the dusty summit. It was about a half mile up the ascent and then another half mile down.
After the mandatory jog to warm up, class began in the narrow, sunny training hall. Students lined up by rank, sweating, perhaps limping after the run, the cuffs of their snow white uniforms dusty, their feet blackened. The first half of the training session was broken into two parts: basics and partners. In basics, Mr. Hong directed drill work. He shouted the kick to be performed and then shouted the count: "One! Two! Three!" Other martial arts teachers use the native language of their style, but Hong taught in English.
The class kicked at his command, the lines moving down the hardwood floor in unison, every kick high, every kick full force. And full speed. At his command, they turned and came back the other way. He interspersed the kicking sets with sets of hand techniques, but as they warmed up more, and sweat streaked the floor and dripped down the cotton sleeves of their uniforms, he ordered them to do combinations: front kick-side kick; or side kick-back kick. They did a two-kick combination to each count. The un-air conditioned room steamed up. Oxygen in the air became more rare, crowding with the carbon dioxide of the students puffing and panting.
Mr. Hong liked this air quality. He believed that receiving only half the oxygen that a fighter needed would help a student "get tough." So, once he saw the faces of his class going slightly gray, he started them on jump kick and flying kick drills.
After the basics session, he lined up each high ranking student with a lower rank student and once again progressed them through single-kick drills, in which the high ranked student kicked first: one set of ten kicks on each leg. The low ranked student took his turn next.
When the partners session was complete, the students were allowed five minutes to get water from the big jug that Mr. Hong brought to each class.
The second half of the class was also broken into two sessions: one steps, which are a type of pre-arranged sparring; and free sparring. Mr. Hong euphemistically called the free sparring "light contact." I suppose, in comparing it to the type of fighting he had done in international competition, it was light contact. But knockouts were not uncommon, and by the time they were black belts, many students had broken their ribs at least once. After the free sparring session, the students were sent out on another barefoot run. Sometimes, Mr. Hong followed them, wielding his big oak stick to encourage laggers to get up the hillside faster. Automobile drivers, wending their way up Paris Mountain's beautiful winding roads, were often tempted to admire the scenery. The sight of a little Korean man chasing a group of big, sweating Americans with a stick and shouting at them captured the notice of more than one passerby.
Having grown up as a war orphan and refugee, Mr. Hong knew a lot about the darker parts of life. He had developed excellent poker skills as a young man and could find ways to gamble over anything. When he had lived at the training hall in Seoul, some of his peers, unknown to the senior instructors, would go to bars late at night to "practice." That meant picking fights at the bar and trying to goad others into attacking them. Even as a young man, while laughing at the stories that his friends told him of their encounters, Billy Hong had shunned this practice.
But he understood the arrogance that martial arts training can instill into a person, and so he stipulated that his students be the shining clean examples that were the ideal of the virtues of tae kwon do. He discovered that if it's a clean, sober, industrious young man that you want to recruit, then the Southern Baptist Church is the ideal recruiting ground. Mr. Hong's classes were heavily populated with deacon's kids, seminary students, and lay preachers.
But one thing Hong had not counted on was his own growing popularity. Pretty soon, women wanted to join the school. He put this matter under consideration. Women in Korea were already a part of tae kwon do, but they could complicate a class, especially the type of class he wanted to run. Old wives tales still flourished in Korean training at that time, and Mr. Hong worried about disfiguring women with broken noses or loosened teeth or ruining their fertility with hard training or powerful punches. But Hong soon had a new issue confronting him when Charlie Mann showed up in the doorway.
Charlie Mann worked in the head stone business and made a good living at it. He was in his mid fifties, a big strapping man, and had become fat. On a visit to the doctor, Charlie was told, "lose the weight, get some exercise, or you'll be dead in a few years."
Dissatisfied with jogging, swimming, and conventional exercise programs, Charlie decided that he wanted to learn from this meteoric Korean teacher.
But Charlie's confidence in Mr. Hong was not appreciated by its recipient. At sight of this bald, fat, middle-aged man on his doorstep, Mr. Hong became indignant. He had never even considered that somebody like Charlie would want to take lessons from him.
"No! No! You old man! You too fat! You go take American Karate down the hill!" he told Charlie.
Completely unruffled, Charlie asked what the charges were for the class and if Mr. Hong had a uniform to fit him.
"Class cost too much. Only young man!" Billy Hong told him. "Cost a lot of money!"
Charlie pulled out a massive wad of bills and started to thumb through them. This irritated Mr. Hong even more. He could have managed a defiant or angry applicant, but he had never met the bland, cheerful, thick-headed type before.
Charlie passed him a sheaf of bills. "Is that enough to get me started, sir?"
Billy Hong even fell back on his best strategy: pretending not to understand English. He chattered at Charlie in machine-gun Korean. Then he walked away, shaking his head and saying no between the volleys of Korean phrases, but Charlie followed him, still asking and explaining. Finally, Mr. Hong gave up. He could not get Charlie to leave, and having him hang around would be worse.
So he took the money, found a uniform for Charlie, and immediately set out to drive him away from the school from the inside.
"You very fat!" he shouted at Charlie. "No more barbecue and no more beer!"
Charlie nodded, but those sacrifices were small compared to what Mr. Hong next put him through.
Motorists touring scenic Paris Mountain were now treated to the sight of the group of young men in bare feet and white uniforms running up the road as before, but now the group was followed at some distance by a single, heavy man with a bald head, who huffed and puffed along while the little Korean man chased him and hit him across the backside again and again with the stick.
In class, Mr. Hong assigned Charlie extra push ups and sit ups. When the water break came, he would tell Charlie not to get any water. He would then pick up a 35-lb. barbell and put it in Charlie's hands. "You still too fat, Charlie; you run the mountain with this and then come back inside."
Charlie's house was out in the country, and his telephone was on the old party line system, where several houses shared the line and every phone on the same line would ring if any of the member numbers were dialed. In the mornings after a class at Hong's the night before, Charlie would wake up, too sore to move, and would dial his own number on the bedside phone. When the telephone downstairs in the kitchen rang, his wife would pick it up.
"I can't get out of the bed, Elvira!" he exclaimed. "Come pull me out of the bed! And bring me coffee!"
And it was true. Charlie's wife had to help him get out of the bed and get to the shower for the first several weeks.
But Charlie never quit. And he never resented Billy Hong's methods. He remained steadfastly bland, cheerful, and willing. After the first month, Billy Hong relented slightly. By the time another month had gone by, the young instructor accepted Charlie and eased up on the pressure.
And, certainly, Charlie's weight disappeared and his health improved. He was a white belt for a long time, but there did come a point when his strapping great size came into play as an asset. He was Billy Hong's first truly massive student: over six feet tall and wide across the shoulders and chest. He had worked hard all his life and was an accomplished craftsman, so his shoulders and arms were well developed. As he developed his martial skills, he showed Billy Hong the usability of tae kwon do for big and powerful people.
As Charlie progressed towards black belt, it became increasingly difficult for the higher ranked students to win against him in free sparring. He learned to take punches in the stomach and was as hard as nails.
When Charlie tested for black belt several years after his initiation into the school, at the age of 60, Mr. Hong admitted to Charlie that he had been wrong about the ability of older people to adapt and to learn. Charlie, he said, had showed him a great truth about people and about tae kwon do itself. Though still strictly seeking only those who were ready to "get tough," Mr. Hong learned to look further than outward appearance.
Charlie, now retired from tae kwon do, has remained a favorite at the school and soon passed into being one of the legends at Hong's. When he was past sixty he could still fight and defeat black belt men half his age. His good will and earnestness in training probably affected Mr. Hong in several ways. Soon after Charlie was a black belt, the school moved from Paris Mountain to a larger building on Laurens Road in Greenville, one of the busiest streets in town. And it opened its doors to women.