Jeri's Tae Kwon Do Book;Tae Kwon Do Memoirs Chapter Four
By 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
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.
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.
It 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.
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
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
"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
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.
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
In 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
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.
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
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
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.
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."
don't care if you respect me or not!" I went into the dressing room.
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
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."
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
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
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."
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.
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
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.
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 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
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.
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.
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, 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.
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. But again, I missed the scheduled test. 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
Legs shaking, Beringer at last got up.
"Do you want
another?" Mr. Hong asked him.
"No sir," Mr. Beringer said.
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.
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
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
At Hong's Tae Kwon Do school, we 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. Our 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
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.
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 an up and coming 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. They almost
always were next to each other in line, and Will devoted himself in class 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
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.
The 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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.