Or, if I am lucky, this?
“Charyot!” “Kjung Nae!” “Baro!”
I tagged them as soon as class began. There was the Animal: tall, blonde and terrifying. The Sadist, aptly named as I watched him stalk the beginners. The Monk, bearded and apostolized, moving through the uniformed lines, stopping occasionally to press down on a sweating, heaving, vulnerable back. “Ah, you’re still too tense. Breathe! Relax and let go of the pain.” I complied and pulled a groin muscle.
Hands clapping together, instructors exchanging places, students staggering to their feet, eyes staring straight ahead.
“Jhoon-Bee!” Get ready.
“Riding stance — lunge punch. Eee-yoh!” A primitive back-of-the-throat yell. Sliding to the left, sitting low down in the “saddle,” straight back and punch! Again and again. Yell on the first technique.
The Animal faced us. “Never, never take your eyes off of your opponent. If you do, he’ll raise his knee, smash you in the face, strike, you hit the ground and bamm! He’ll step on your face, and — bamm! — it’s all over!” Vividly demonstrating the technique, he inspired us with an ambition never to blink again.
Next movement, and the concerted yell wasn’t good enough. “Down, give me twenty!” Flatten yourself to the ground and start pushing. Up, down, up, down, (gasp), up, down, (gasp!), up, down — “Everybody, up on your feet. Move!”
Halfway through, it occurred to me that I had volunteered for this.
I’d been looking forward to my third class. It was the last time I would be by myself with an instructor, and it never happened. Instead, they told us to just follow along as best we could.
Staggering across the room, my chest heaving and my throat bone dry, the Sadist suddenly showed up beside me. “Head up! Head up! Don’t look down!” My neck cracked as I shot my head up and my fist out. He wrapped his fingers around my fist. “Tuck your thumb. You want someone to break it?” My fist shot out again and the fingers involuntarily opened up and formed the number three.
“It’s my third class.”
He nodded. “I know.”
So much for that.
“Ch’on-Ji Pattern, nineteen movements — Eee-yoh!” The Monk appeared in front of me, beckoning me forward. “Head up! Tight fist!” Out of the corner of my eye, I was trying to watch the others to find out what we were doing and, at the same time, keep the other eye on the Monk. The last part of the pattern is two steps forward, two steps back — yell!
The Monk urged me on. “Hit my hands. Come on, hit!” He looked awfully close, but I did what he said. Later, I realized he hadn’t known it was my third class. When we were supposed to move backwards, I moved forward and struck him straight in the mid-section. Confusion reigned. His eyes opened wide in surprise and I froze in position, my hands automatically coming up to my mouth.
“I’m sorry.” I waited. He was going to finish me off.
The Monk looked at my face. “It’s okay. It’s okay.”
Of them all, it was the Sergeant who gave me the chills. I come from a Marine Corps family and I don’t scare easily. One of the aspects of my school that I liked best was that it reminded me of the stories of boot-camp. Finally, I’d have stories of my own to tell.
I faced him and bowed. “Sir.”
His bow was perfect. “Yes?”
“Sir, I’ve pulled a groin muscle and it still hurts.”
“Sir?” I paused. I was not delivering this right. “Well, I don’t want you to think I’m not trying, Sir. It’s just that I might…I want to take class, but I don’t want to kill myself.”
He nodded and stared through me. “Oh, you’ll be taking class. And you will work.”
I gave up and bowed. “Sir.”
We lined up for class. This was a combination of advanced and beginning students. The Sergeant decided to try something new.
“All White Belts to the front! Stand behind the Black Belts. Move!”
We flew. There were Brown Belts and Black Belts in the first line.
He continued, “I understand that there have been some complaints that the White Belts can’t see what’s happening from way back there.” He studied us mercilessly. “Now, there is no excuse.”
We all shouted, “SIR!”
We were throwing ourselves across the room, when it happened. I was attempting a side kick and suddenly there was this terrible pain shooting through my upper thigh. The groin muscle again.
I stared straight into the eyes of a Black Belt. Rather than get run over, I dodged to one side and out of the way. There was no way I could continue at that point.
The Sergeant thought differently. “BARO!” The students came to a halt and faced him. He turned to me. “White Belt, what are you doing?”
I looked at him. Didn’t he remember? “Sir,” My hand went automatically to my throbbing thigh. “I pulled a groin muscle, Sir.”
“So? That gives you any right to get out of line, White Belt?”
Involuntarily, I glanced at those six straight lines of healthy students. Some faced straight ahead and others looked at me with pity. “Sir?”
“White Belt,” he said witheringly. “You ask permission to leave class.”
“Yes, Sir.” I could tell he never worried about getting run over.
He faced the students. “For the future, you ask permission to leave class and to return. No one expects you to kill yourself. If you hurt, step aside. This class is only one hour. When you come to class, expect to work. You’re being trained to take care of yourself in a fight and it’s not going to happen by not trying to get the most out of a class.” He turned back to me. “Where are you going, White Belt?”
I froze. “Sir?”
He jerked his head to the back of the class and to the side. “Do some warming up exercises — don’t let that muscle tense up. It’ll hurt a lot more than if does now, if you don’t.”
The Sergeant had lightened up. I asked permission to return to class and it was granted.
“Everyone take six steps back.”
“First line, on your feet.”
“Sir!” The Black Belts and Brown Belts leapt up and stood straight and tall. He started at the far end of the line.
“What’s your favorite technique?”
“Reverse roundhouse kick, Sir!”
The Sergeant went down the line with each student. “Jhoon-Bee!”
My heart sank. I knew what he was going to do.
Off they went, doing their favorite technique.
“ABOUT-FACE! Sit down. Second line, on your feet.”
We jumped up. “Sir!”
“What’s your favorite technique?”
Everyone in my line seemed to know what they were doing, except me, of course. I kept trying to tell myself that it was only my fourth class, but it didn’t help.
He got to me. It was then I knew he was going to be my nemesis. “White Belt! Your technique?”
I bellowed right back: “Sir, I don’t know, Sir!”
“White Belt, your favorite technique is a front snap-kick!”
“Yes, Sir!” What was a front snap-kick?
Off we went. As we came closer, I got more nervous.
I looked at him. I didn’t need to, but I did. He was talking to me.
“What is that?”
“That looks more like a front rising-kick, not a front snap-kick!”
“Yes, Sir.” My leg hurt and his yelling at me every time was humiliating.
“Now, do a front snap-kick!”
I tried and my line ended and we sat down. I was watching the next line coming towards us and was trying not to take the Sergeant personally. In a weird way, I knew what he was doing, but the combination of the yelling and my leg screaming at me was hard to deal with.
I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned around. A Black Belt leaned towards me. “Don’t let him get to you.”
“Thanks.” I turned back. I knew that nice gesture had to be against the rules, but he had done it anyway and it totally unmanned me. I started to blink back those infuriating tears that come whether you feel like crying or not.
To my surprise, those fierce instructors turned out to be human. They would answer any question I had, or refer me to someone who could. They would go over and over a technique with me until I got the idea. If I got hurt, they were beside me before I realized I was even in pain.
I won’t forget the night I didn’t want to go to class. I was tired. I’d had a bad day and I didn’t feel “good.” My muscles were creaking and I punched the Monk again. Class finished and I went to apologize.
He brushed it aside. “Don’t worry about it.”
I nodded, bowed and started to walk away.
“By the way,” he caught my attention. “You’re ready to test for your yellow belt.”
Note: This story was originally published in “Inside Kung-Fu” in March 1981 under my real name. It was my first article and I almost threw out the acceptance letter, thinking it was advertisement…
I trained with Master Hee Il Cho, who was considered a maverick as he taught Tae Kwon Do and Boxing and whatever he felt would be of excellent self-defense for his students. I am pleased he has apparently celebrated his 70th birthday and now lives in Hawaii. Surprisingly, there are many films of Master Hee Il Cho breaking bricks, smashing opponents, etc. There is a film here that you might enjoy as this is the exercise where I hit the Monk…