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Entering the 40th Year in Martial Arts - A Kung-Fu Journey

Ken75Thirty-nine years ago today, I attended my first martial arts class. My teacher was Grandmaster Sin The of Lexington, Kentucky. I was 20 years old and had been inspired by the Kung-Fu TV show and Bruce Lee's "Enter the Dragon."

Sin The taught Shaolin-Do Karate. It was kung-fu, but he called it karate because, I believe, he thought Americans knew the term. We wore karate gis and had a colored belt system. It was only years later that I realized how strange that was.

For the first three weeks, we learned all basics -- no kata. Our basics included:

--How to make a fist.

--How to keep the wrist locked with first two knuckles out.

--How to shuto (karate chop) behind the ear and by the neck. This is one of the instances where karate terms were used instead of kung-fu terms.

--How to punch using a twisting action.

We also learned side kicks, back thrust kicks, how to step using a straight punch, how to use a reverse punch, the roundhouse kick and various blocking techniques.

I would go back to my dorm at Eastern Kentucky University and practice stepping, punching, and kicking -- over and over again, at least an hour each day.

I was hooked.

Thirty-nine years ago today, the Bruce Lee craze was in full swing. Suddenly, you could open a martial arts school and you would have students waiting to join. Kung-Fu movies played at theaters all the time.

Sin The's school was a converted garage in the rear of a shopping center in Eastland, a neighborhood in Lexington. On the evening of my first class, the room was so full of students, they spilled out onto the driveway. I was one of the students outside, listening, trying a punch, trying a kick, learning a little bit about this mysterious art.

Not as many students returned the next time, but it was still crowded. Sin The became very successful and at his most successful, he opened a large fitness center with an indoor running track and rooms where he held his classes.

I earned a brown belt over a period of a couple of years, then attended a couple of tournaments in Ohio. That was a serious no-no. We were NOT allowed to attend "outside" tournaments. Sin The held his own tournaments for his students only. He had so many, the crowd would fill up a high school gymnasium.

But when I went to Ohio in 1975, I saw martial artists that blew me away, especially the kung-fu performers. I saw quality that I hadn't seen before. At that point, I left Sin The and began sampling other arts. Even in my early 20s, I possessed a willingness not to invest too much emotion into my teachers. I learned that as soon as you put your teacher on a pedestal, you are treading on thin ice.

And it was strange that in two years of hard studying, I can't remember one single conversation Sin The had with me -- no words of encouragement and no personal coaching of my movements. I would see other students who barely tried achieve the same ranking that I received. It made me realize that you didn't have to be good to earn a higher belt.

I worked hard anyway, and by the time I got the brown belt, I was one of his best brown belts. But by that time, the skeptic in me had emerged and I left the school.

I studied Taekwondo and then Wushu before I discovered the internal arts in 1987. One of my teachers closed shop and left town with pre-paid student money (from contracts), and I believe that same teacher stole my wedding ring when I set it down one night so I wouldn't injure other students. One of my teachers enjoyed hurting his students. Another teacher said he created his style after speaking to a disembodied Voice in an empty room for two or three days. The Voice outlined his style and he began teaching it.

Never put your teacher on a pedestal, no matter how high a "master" you perceive them to be. That's one lesson I can teach you after 39 years.

But I'm still hooked on martial arts as I start my 40th year. I still have a lot to learn. Time has taken it's toll on my body but it hasn't quenched my thirst for knowledge, and I still work to get better every day. What can be better than that?

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