I was 20 years old on October 30, 1973, when I took my first promotion test in martial arts. I was tested by my teacher, Grandmaster Sin The in Lexington, Kentucky. I'm resisting the urge to put quotes around "Grandmaster." At the time, I really thought he was a Grandmaster.
I had enrolled in classes a little over a month earlier, on September 20th and I had trained my hiney off, punching and kicking up and down the hallways in Commonwealth Hall at Eastern Kentucky University. I practiced at least an hour a day. I was never very good at baseball or football. I high-jumped in high school but wasn't the fastest runner.
Martial arts clicked with me like nothing had before.
When the day of testing came, I was very nervous. But I got up with the other students and performed the following:
** 5 Short Kata
** 5 Sparring Techniques
** 10 Self-Defense Techniques
** 1 Long Kata: "Si Mu Tai Lai"
** One on One Sparring with another student
The short kata were pretty simple. Looking back, it was a lot like karate. In fact, we wore karate gis in class and learned terms and techniques such as "How to Shuto (Karate Chop)." We also did one-step sparring that was called "Ippon Kumite." As I got older and experienced other arts, I shook my head when I recalled how a Shaolin Grandmaster used so many karate terms. Grandmaster The called his art "Shaolin Do Karate" and so I didn't really know the difference at the time.
The first short kata was to block, punch, and block down. Pretty basic stuff.
Self-defense techniques included being pulled on the wrist, choked from the front, and more, but we only had to know the first ten on this test.
In class, Grandmaster The would demonstrate a technique such as a front kick or a block, then he would say, "Practice with yo paht-nah." Then he would leave the room and I would see him at his desk in a tiny office, chowing down on a Big Mac, leaving me practicing and talking it over with other students who knew as little as I did.
The test itself is a bit of a blur as I tried to get things right. One thing I do remember is the guy testing next to me. When we did our short kata, his kicks barely came up off the ground. It was clear he hadn't practiced much at all. But he got his yellow belt just as I did. Welcome to the world of mass-produced martial arts, Mr. Gullette.
Those were exciting times. Classes were full because Bruce Lee had just died in July, and some of his movies hadn't even yet been seen by Americans. Enter the Dragon was still in theaters. If you opened a martial arts school, people would come knocking on your door.
Before I began studying, I was a good fighter (I beat up my share of bullies over the years) but I wasn't a very good athlete. It's no coincidence that a year after beginning in Sin The's Shaolin Do Karate school, I began getting better at all sports, and continued to improve as an athlete even into my Fifties. Kung-fu became part of my life -- the philosophy became the bedrock of my spiritual beliefs. I can't imagine life without it and can't imagine fully enjoying life without it.
So tonight I'll practice, 39 years after my first promotion. The techniques and principles are a little more complicated than in 1973, and even better -- the passion and enthusiasm I feel are as great as they were when I was punching, blocking and kicking back in the dorm at EKU.
I guess I'll keep going as long as I can keep moving. By now, I don't think I have much of a choice.
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