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Jeri's Tae Kwon Do Book;Tae Kwon Do Memoirs

Jeri's Tae Kwon Do Book

by Jeri Massi

The best thing about martial arts
is that it never matters what anybody says.
All that matters is what is done.

Chapter One

NOTE: Please remember that this is copyrighted material. Please do not copy and distribute. I am grateful for people who link to this site, but please do not mirror it. This material may not be quoted (more than 100 words) or reproduced without the express permission of the author. I'd like to get this book published. To keep me in business, please respect these rules. Thanks!--Jeri

I hold a record in the martial arts for the state of South Carolina.

I set my incredible record when I still wore the brown belt that marked me as a serious student of tae kwon do. One of our instructors, a man with a fourth degree black belt, was explaining to me how to correctly block a punch in free sparring.

We stood close to the front of the narrow training hall. Harsh summer sunlight poured in through the two wide front windows; the floor of the second story training hall rattled as students kicked and punched at each other. Sessions in our conservative, military-style tae kwon do school could get wound up, and this side bar tutoring session was my first moment to get my breath. Though dry-mouthed and drenched with sweat from the ninety minutes of vigorous practice, I tried to be attentive as the assistant instructor explained the principles of moving to the side rather than moving straight back to avoid a punch.

Meanwhile, other students, all in pairs, danced back and forth, traded kicking combinations, and punctuated the steamy air in the training hall with shouts and grunts. The badly framed glass doors occasionally shuddered as some of the heavyweights crashed into each other. The odor of after shave, men's deodorant, and human sweat permeated every corner of the room.

I had my eyes fixed right on his fist as he talked. He had huge fists, the size of bricks. As he swiftly stepped in, fist cocked, he assumed I was going to step back. But suddenly I remembered, "Hey! I have to pick up a dozen eggs tonight!"

Wham! The last thing I remember was the unique weightless feeling I experienced when my feet left the floor. I couldn't see anything, but I heard a loud crash when my shoulders hit the wall where the American flag was hung. My vision, slightly out of focus, returned as I slid to the threadbare carpet. I lay there for nine minutes with my eyes open, unable to move or speak. Nobody had ever heard of anybody being knocked out for that long, not in South Carolina, so that was a new record.

The instructor who had hit me, Dr. Phil Roberts, was a professor of English Literature from Furman University. He had often helped me with advice on my English papers for school. He stayed right over me, his face terribly worried, pleading with me to answer him, asking me to follow his finger with my eyes if I could. (I could.) One of the other black belt men retrieved a cup of water and brought it to me. But as I lay there staring helplessly at the ceiling tiles, he finally drank it himself. At last, after nine minutes, I suddenly gagged, let out one sob, focused my eyes on Dr. Roberts, and said, "Comma?"

Technically, when ever a martial artist gets hit, its his or her own fault, but most men that I've known in the martial arts get very upset with themselves if they hit a woman too hard. As the woman on the receiving end, I must admit that I like this chivalrous attitude in men and think it should be praised where ever it is encountered.

I have earned my third degree black belt in tae kwon do, and I still train at the same school, which practices a very conservative type of tae kwon do. We call it a military style. Our staples are fast power kicks that strike with the heel of the foot or the ball of the foot We also have a whole arsenal of jump kicks and flying kicks.

I have trained myself to break five boards with a hand strike. I've even broken concrete twice. And I can break three boards at a time with a kick. None of these skills make me unbeatable. None of them make me a super woman, and none of them prove a thing about my worth as a human being. Martial arts for me has been simply a quest for inner excellence. The only person I really need to defeat and control is me. Everybody else can look after himself.

Tae kwon do trains ordinary people and makes them do extraordinary things. It is a martial art born of a nation who suffered ruthless oppression for decades, and yet one of its major tenets is the command to extend mercy, even to one's enemies. This tremendous martial art has helped me to fight and subdue myself, and it has taught me to demand excellence of myself.

Tae kwon do's great secret is that every ordinary person hides an extraordinary person locked deep inside. The story of my school, from its founding by Billy Hong in 1964 to its present day, is simply a story of very ordinary people learning and doing extraordinary things.

Chapter Two

At the end of the last century, Japan conquered and occupied Korea. The occupation lasted almost fifty years. In that time, the Koreans were methodically forced to give up their culture, to worship the Japanese emperor, and to acknowledge that the Japanese were superior to the Koreans in every way. The few Koreans who were allowed to excel in athletics or science or the arts were forced to take Japanese names.

Korean martial arts had to go underground, but they were still practiced. In fact, interest in them grew steadily during the occupation. And along with the study of their indigenous fighting styles came fierce national pride.

After World War II, Korea was fully liberated from the Japanese. But the country had been sacked and pillaged by her former conquerors. Within a few years, Communist forces based in the northern part of the country would mount an attempt to seize control of the entire Choson peninsula, and the Korean War would again inflict suffering and death up and down the length of that country.

But in the interim between the wars, several martial arts schools in Korea conferred and agreed to form a federation of schools that would form a national martial art of Korea, and thus tae kwon do was born. Over the years, more of the schools, called "kwans," joined this national movement. Some still held out, fearing that their own distinctives would be lost. And so even as the influential Chung Do Kwan--with its hard hitting power kicks---and Moo Duk Kwan---with its more circular and snapping kicks--became part of tae kwon do, Tang Soo Do remained separate, as did Kuk Sul Won.

The early masters of tae kwon do had an enormous task before them. They had to revitalize the spirit of the nation of Korea. They had to disprove the Japanese cultural mindset that said that Koreans were inferior. And, as the country was wracked with war, most tae kwon do teachers wanted to repel Communism.

Incredibly dedicated, fierce, loyal, and pro-American, the World Tae kwon do Federation (WTF) was born. The man who would become my first tae kwon do instructor, Billy Hong, was a war orphan when the Korean war ended. He made his way to Seoul, lived at the WTF headquarters, and trained every day. He once told a friend that all he did was clean the training hall, train vigorously for hours at a time, eat, and sleep, and then he did it all again, day after day, until he lost track of when it was day and when it was night. He lived to master the kicks of tae kwon do. Eventually, his hard work was rewarded, and he was chosen to go with three other young men to Japan to an international martial arts contest. This was the day they had waited for, and each young man felt that the honor of the Korean nation rested on him.

It was the early 1960's, and in those days competitions among martial artists were dangerous and could be deadly. Men occasionally were killed in karate competition, and injury was certainly a common risk. The young Korean men came to the tournament and were treated coldly by their hosts, but their instructions had been precise. They were to behave well. There must be no hint of a bad attitude.

The Japanese fighters had fallen into the trap that takes down so many. They had no respect for the small team from Korea, and they had never bothered to study Korean fighting theory. Japanese karate styles in those days emphasized close-in fighting. The punch was everything. Fighters tended to move in straight lines back and forth as they attacked, parried, counter attacked. Many Japanese styles in 1962 did not even use the roundhouse kick, and the back kick was completely unknown except as a technique to stomp the shin or instep. Conversely, tae kwon do fighters, with much more fluid hip motion, kicked high with roundhouse kicks, spun off to the side rather than straight back, and flipped their hips in quick turns the other way to shoot out high, powerful back kicks. Whereas martial arts contests had been back-and-forth contests, the Koreans turned the fighting ring into a battlefield, in which attacks could come from anywhere.

All four Korean men did very well, and Billy Hong made it as far as the semi-finals. He had been careful to behave well, and his incredible ability to sidestep, to come around with a turning kick faster than his Japanese opponent could come in and punch, had amazed onlookers. Within a day or two, the Koreans had knocked apart the claims that kicks had to be slower than punches and that spinning and turning kicks lost power as they traveled.

In the semi final match, Hong's opponent rushed straight towards him, and Billy Hong jumped into the air, jerked his hips over, and shot his leg into the man's face. It was a jump back kick that he'd used to smash roofing tiles and bricks. It hit like a piece of concrete on the end of a battering ram.

The kick threw the man over and knocked him to the ground. It had smashed his upper palate and knocked his teeth out in a hail of blood and debris. He went into shock and started having convulsions. Billy Hong, thinking he might just be lynched by the crowd, remembered his orders and knelt down by his opponent. He was terrified, but he calmly said, "You'll be all right, friend. You'll be all right." and patted the man's back. Second to his fear of being lynched was his fear that the judges would think he had a bad attitude and disqualify him.

The wounded man was taken to a hospital, and Hong's next scheduled opponent is said to have simply bowed out of the final rounds. "You win," he told the young Korean. And Billy Hong, barely twenty years old, had taken first place in a Japanese martial arts competition.

The team returned to Seoul Korea, and grateful admirers threw them a ticker tape parade. Years later, Billy Hong would tell us that he left Korea a nobody and returned a national hero. Tae kwon do had proved itself in its first contest of international competition. But Billy Hong had set his sights on a new conquest. He wanted to bring tae kwon do to the United States. It took another two years, but in 1964 he secured the necessary papers, located a former US Army officer who had befriended him during the war, and settled in Anderson South Carolina where he enrolled in college.

Nobody in South Carolina had ever heard of tae kwon do. The local martial arts culture was small and was dominated by American karate and judo. But Billy Hong, who had always felt tremendously indebted to the United States of America, was determined to enrich his new home with a strong and proud tradition of tae kwon do.

Chapter Three

Mr. 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.

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Mr. Hong, shortly after opening his first school in South Carolina
The following are graphic intensive pages:
I have video still pictures of my tae kwon do school in an online scrapbook.
You can also view more recent photos of Training for Fourth Degree
And I have stills from my Test for Fourth Degree Black Belt

Click here to continue! More chapters follow!