I was born with scholiosis involving some impingement which rendered me without the use of my lower body. It was not considered an earnest possibilty that I would ever stand without assistance, let alone walk. As an infant, my legs were forced into a more favorable position, held in a "jig" and cast. When my mother witnessed me "standing" in my crib leaning against its railing, she was overwhelmed with joy and possibility for me, but doctors reported I had merely managed to support myself atop the solidity of my cast legs. When the casts were removed, I had made progress and I had gained some control of my legs. Therapy remained ongoing, reportedly painful then for me, but I have no direct recollection. My next progression was to wear leg braces attatched to the calibrated, degreed orthopedic shoes. As time went on, my spine was measurably straightening and I continued to progress. My mother still remembers the first steps I took in the hospital caused my doctor (Dr. Diamond) to collapse to her knees and cry, proclaiming even this initial step "a miracle."
Years progressed and I improved with each one. In elementay school I had which was referred to as a "lazy" eye, so it was decided I should wear a patch over the "good" eye. I guess it delivered a favorable outcome, vision wise, but it seems strange to leave me to attend school daily with only the lazy eye for navigation. I well recall those years, and as you might imagine, I was not particularly popular or without notice.
This is when I discovered that the perception of "weakness" was blood in the water for the sharks.
As I aged, each scheduled examination tracking the improving angle of my spine had me relieved when the doctors would pronounce, "well, I really would have liked to see another degree or two improvement, but I think we will wait until next visit and if progress isn't a bit better, then we are going to have to try a back brace." I absolutely did not want the back brace and even if this was only a momentary "victory" on marked time, I was glad to have it, for now. Of course, this did leave me full of dread that my next return appointment would finally see me fitted with the back brace - quite the medieval looking implement and heavy firepower for those bent on cruelty.
At nearly12 years of age, I had more than managed to duck the brace, and I felt as if I was pretty much "normal" or at least I felt I could be. As a child I had an inquistive mind. I liked learning new things. I liked my microscope, and I liked my telescope, I liked to write stories and escape to different places and situations where no one picked on me. I liked walks in the woods and riding my bicycle all day during the summer, alone, of course. But mostly, I liked comic books - I liked Spiderman because he was a regular young guy with regular problems and as Peter Parker, he wasn't "cool" or especially popular; yet, when he was Spiderman, he aided humanity, he protected and apprehended baddies, he loved good people and he was good. I liked Captain America because he was just a regular, scrawny, skinny kid - like me - and others discounted him, that is until he was picked for the Super Soldier Experiement. He was injected with some powerful concoction and he morphed into a muscular, strong and powerful defender of liberty and freedom. I also liked Star Trek and Lost in Space. Star Trek portrayed a future for humanity where everyone was included and none were judged by their appearance - they prevailed with wisdom and the integral contribution of every member of the crew. Lost in Space depicted a family "lost in space" with their craft frequently downed on strange new distant worlds where everything always turned out for the best because they were a unit and family and they supported and cared for each other, and even in the face of malevolent aliens, in the end good reigned supreme and usually conflict was a matter of misunderstanding and that all intelligent life in the universe largely agreed on what equated as good and "humane." Then there were shows like Batman and The Green Hornet. Batman was not necessarily bigger than his adversaries and certainly Robin was of a slighter build, yet they triumphed even when outnumbered by gangs of thugs - they were never especially violent, but merely subdued the criminals and placed them in the hands of authorities, for which the community was forever grateful. Bruce Lee played the part of the chauffer "Kato" in The Green Hornet. While the Green Hornet himself was capable and skilled in fisticuffs, Kato was amazing. No number of bad guys could best them. Why were they always triumphant? because they were all skilled in hand to hand combat! It did not come down to size or strength, it was all a matter of technique and the application of formal training! If I could learn these skills, my life would certainly be different. I was frequently taunted or pushed, shoved, thrown into lockers, made to cry "uncle" with my reed thin arm twisted behind my back. I had felt my life's path would deliver me as a man of the cloth. I had experienced miracles in my short and small lifetime, enough so that I knew The Lord above was there - I never doubted it. As a fearful child, I long slept with a crucifix beneath my pillow for protection. I loved the Lord and I knew his plan was there and must run its course and all in between were mere challenges to test our faith. However, the world, my world outside, seemed . . . cold, lonely, uncaring. I never for a moment wanted to harm any one - I just wanted room to breath and the freedom to simply "be." I had no prejudice within me. I knew nothing of "hatred." These things never even entered into my mind as viable beliefs for any loving, caring, thoughtful being to hold. So therein became the additional turmoil of my delimma. I knew I should "take up my cross" and own my burden; turn the other cheek and love my enemy. Though I had no enemy, people merely considered me as "less" because I was less - I was a runt . . . defective. These tv shows and the depiction of the trained combatant competently emerging unscathed (really) in the face of full on assault, had me considering there did exist salvation, and salvation was where you find it - I eventually found something of it, at least I believed I did, through violence.
I purchased paper back instuctional books which tried to teach one how to defend themselves through depiction and some explanation. I had always been a voracious reader. I studied and "practiced" in my room but I quickly came to realize this was not an effective way to learn. Then, at nearly 12 years old, something magical happened - serendipity. One day I was at the baseball field, across from the Salvation Army Boys' Club, right at the end of my neighborhood, merely blocks from our house. I had noticed a motely assortment of men - rough looking types - gathering, arriving one by one in the parking lot and each entering the club's gymnasium through a back door. This was during off hours from the clubs usual schedule. I eventually dared to make my way near the entrance and tried to hear something, anything. I heard the building seem to rumble with cammands and unified retort - and it sounded like . . . training? Militant, almost, could it be . . . some manner of ... martial arts?
This private "Karate Club" I learned met there two evenings per week for formal 2 hour long training. Once spotted outside when a man came out for air donned in black pajama type attire - clearly a martial arts uniform with a belt about his waist - I asked if they were doing "ka-ra-tee". He corrected me in a gruff voice, "Ka-ra-tae". "It is pronounced, ka-ra-tae", said the man. The door was propped open as it was extremely hot inside. I looked in and saw fellows milling about, talking, exchanging unidentifiable "moves" and generally having a break and covered in sweat. I was allowed to enter and told I could watch but must be silent and sit in a chair far off to the side. Which I did, eyes filled with hunger and wonder. Over the second hour of their "class" I discovered an unfamiliar world utterly separate from my own. And I wanted to be in that world - to thrive in it - and to never return to my own. Over nearly a year, I was present as an observer for every training session. These men, I learned, were mostly returned Viet Nam vets, and they were hard and battle tested and highly skilled. They had no interest in my constant presence - they were rather "nice" to me but clearly they were tolerating me, a child in their presence, not particularly wanted there. They frequently caught each other when casual conversation before, after class or during a mid point break became off color and deemed unfitting for a child's ears. They slipped a lot but they did make earnest attempt to be mindful of me. meanwhile, I begged my mother to let me join them. Every trip to the doctor had him scoff at the idea and put the nix on it. Finally, at nearly 13 years of age, and after quietly pleading relentlessly with her, she again put the request to my doctor. "Doctor, Jimmy is still badgering me about this karate thing, and I just think he has to really hear it from you once more before he will get it through his head." The doctor, who never looked up but continued writing something in my file, spoke as if I were a non-entity and not even in the room, "Well," he said, "he's not going to be able to do it, but I guess he has to find out for himself. Maybe we should let him try it and when he sees for himself that he can't do it, then he can just get it out of his head." I was silently ecstatic - I did not then feel the sting of his discount - all I knew is this was that this was the most hopeful day of my life.
I learned many things. I already knew these men did not want a kid in their club but being that they were using the Boys' Club facility, they, i guess, almost had to at least allow me a try. They were clearly, unmistakably not happy about that. These guys trained hard - it was what we would consider now a full fledged "cult." Blood was a common sight. Injuries regular occured. They seriously trained for combat, and they bore scars and in training they pushed to the threshold of collapse. How about this - every one had visable abdominal musculature. They gave me a chance but they were not especially easy on me, child or not. These men were proud of their style - Japanese Goju-ryu, and they knew no compromise in their near worship of it and the practice of their brotherhood. What enabled me to endure was that although the training was difficult, it was fair and conscientious. You trained in accordance to the rank you wore around your waist. That I was a beginner, I was handled as such - not a beginner who is also a child, but simply enough as a beginner. This, however, meant a slower flow for all the rest. We largely trained as a unit and he with the least understanding dictated the pace. Additional time and attention required to continually correct me, left others frozen in their place - forced to hold their stance or block or kick or punch, even partly extended was no matter - all remained still and did not proceed until all were uniform, corrected, and then at command we moved to the next in together as one unit, in time. I wore on them and some held out but others quicly gre fonder of me - especially as they realized my "character" and my commitment. In the beginning the mission is to run off any new student who seeks to join in - each must be tested, qualified, so that too many resources and time is not wasted on them if enevitably they are going to end up quitting anyway. New people are a distraction, diverting attention from the Sensei (teacher) that could be spent improving and nurturing others who are already established. However, it really was a true brotherhood and by definition we were more of a "gang" almost or an assembly than an American Karate club.
I was probably 14 years' old - a solid year's training under my belt. I religously trained - in the formal classes 4 hours a week, and at home as much as 6 or even 8 hours a day, every day. I had a bag hanging in the back yard and I spent endless time at it. I still looked at the ground a lot when out - still never dared to make eye contact, but I was way onto something and in the dojo I was unmistakably gaining proficiency. I felt on top of the world when training. And even I now had visable abdominals - though I was still small for my age, and made even smaller in school since I was a year progressed in grade. I had only been caught outside once without a shirt and when made fun of for the funny looking stomach I had, I did not go out that way again. It was summertime. My next year would be as a 10th grader in a new school - high school. I was apprehensive but that was far away because summer lasted a long time back then. i was at the playgrounds in the center of our neighborhood. Many kids were there and we were becoming involved in a spontaneous game of whiffle ball. The meanest bully in the neighborhood was in attnedance - no one wanted him there but no one would dare make a peep or even look directly at him. He had taken his turn at picking on pretty much everybody at some time or other, to his discretion. He NEVER just came around to play and have a good time - when he was around it became merely a question of who and when he would strike. Early into our game (with tension from every kid but the bully palpable), I eneded up with the ball and the bully was going to now turn his double into a home run because I had the ball and I was weak and inept and no one need respect any threat from me with the ball in my possession. He yelled something derogatry and belittleing at me as he casually jogged around toward third base, confident that I had better not dare try to interfere. For God only knows why, I decided to chase him down alone and before he was halfway home, I tagged him out with the ball. i told him he was out and everyone had seen it. Of course none spoke up in support of my assertion. The bully threatened me as I walked back toward my playing position but upon hearing his denial and threats, I spoke even more. he looked at me surprised but with a smirk on his face and said, "you've got a lot of mouth all of a sudden; too bad you can't back it up." Before even considering the situation or "reality" as I had always knoiwn it, i said, "oh yeah, come over here, I'll back it up." Immediately my heart pounded in my chest and I felt the overwhelming charge of adrenalized fear - almost panic - as I wondered and regreted, why had I said this? Now I was about to get my ass kicked. he walked up to me briskly, then I saw his arm quickly cock back and . . . everything changed speed! He was moving in slow motion! His "haymaker" swing seemed to hang in the air and so slowly progress that I will never, ever forget it. I remember thinking, "well, I guess I had better block this." My left arm blocked his intended head shot with no effort at all, and without being aware of it, I struck him with my right fist (correctly) in his face and followed the momentum with my right foot in a short round with the ball of my foot striking his temple. He collapsed but grabbed out at me. His larger mass unsettled me and we both went to the ground where he flailed in effort to somehow wrap me up but I had his head and suddenly my finger was hooked in his eye . . . and then my brain seemed to "catch up" and I immediately stopped and freed myself as he rolled around covering his face with blood through his fingers. I told him I was done and would fight no more, it had been enough. He got to his knees but then nearlt collapsed again. I heard his sister (who I had a top secret and never pronounced crush on) scream, oh my God, what did you do to him, and run to his aid. Everyone stood frozen, silent and agasp. I felt rattled and electrified and I walked home. I did not know what to make of this event. I did not recognize my own behavior. A couple of hours later, my mother came into my room and said "Jimmy! What have you done? Did you hurt (insert bully's complete name here)?" I said, "well, mom, he tried to hurt me - he started a fight with me..." My mother was livid and distraught, "I knew that karate shit would get you into trouble" (how typical - over a decade of competitive fights and she only came to see me fight once as an adult years later the very last time I fought, and today has no interest in even looking at my You Tube channel or even what I am trying to accomplish with this entire Guerrilla With a Cause idea). She added the shell shocker, "Now that boy's father is coming over here tonight to talk to us - he is thinking about sueing us!" This was a time when no one sued anyone. Lawyers did not even advertise. There were no specialty "ambulance chasers" none at all. This revelation meant serious business. Now I had really done something bad.
I was banished to remain in my room until they would summon me. Eventually, a knock came upon our front door. I heard monotone muffled voices. Then I heard my father (who is actually a step father but the single greatest man I have ever known - hardest worker and best provider I have ever seen. I will not live to have been half the man he has always been), call to me, "Jimmy, come out here." I meekly walked into the living room. The bully's father looked at me with utter shock on his face, bewildered. He sai, "this . . . is your son?" My dad said, "yes, this is my oldest boy, Jimmy." The bully's father stammered, looked at the carpet and then turned toward the door - without looking up he stuttered and quietly said, "it's. . . just forget about it . . . just forget it" and he walked out, closing the door behind him. My folks looked at each other cluless "what just happened?"
I always figured that either the father was a bully just like his son and he could not accept that this scrawny very much smaller kid had so beaten his kid, and in his shame he simply let it go - or, maybe the father was not a bully at all, and looking at me as I appeared, he felt shame and realized his son must have deserved this; I am sure he had to know his son was a trouble maker and known for beating other kids up routinely. Either way, this event had happened. The bully would never so much as look at me again, and in fact, I do not recall him continuing his wayward bullying behavior at all. Everyone in the neighborhood had witnessed the fight, and my life was never the same from that day forward.