Boot Camp in a Day

So here I was.  It was Saturday evening and I was sitting, sweaty, grimy, exhausted, hungry, on the grass and mud of the testing field, mouth guard in and about to begin the final portion of my black belt test.  My heart was pumping; this was it.  This was my moment to either shine or fail.  And I wanted to shine.  Kempo-Goju was one of the most feared and respected karate systems in the United States; every man and woman who held the rank of first dan (black belt) in my school was an expert fighter and a registered lethal weapon.  More than what was on paper was what I had seen.  At every system-wide gathering I had been to over the passed four-and-a-half years of my training I had been shown many examples of their proficiency.  I felt privileged to be given the opportunity to join such an elite group.

That opportunity, however, did not automatically mean acceptance.  All it meant was that through my training and natural abilities I had shown myself worthy of taking the test.  And I had tried to demonstrate how much I had appreciated that opportunity.  From the extra time I had been putting in to the 250 lb. man I had been practicing my judo on, I had not flinched in my desire to excel at this test.

First up was Peg North.  A barrel of a woman she was blonde, tall, and tough.  In tournaments, she was the competitor no one wanted to see.  She did win more often than not, but it was her physical style that intimidated opponents.  Every punch and kick she threw, a hit or blocked, hurt.  She never backed off in training, either.  She could take just about anything.  Seeing how well she did in the sparring was going to give me a good idea of whether or not I would make it.

I had come to these tests for nearly every year since I had started, so I had already seen what the test looked like.  I knew the first two or three fighters would be relatively easy, that the next couple would be a struggle, and after that, well, number five was when the real test started.  But the candidates I had seen had all been from other schools.  It was one thing to be told that you would be fighting ten black belts or to watch a candidate you didn’t know fighting them.  It was entirely different to watch someone you did know, whose strength of will you had a personal knowledge of.  A part of me had wanted to go first, but I realized that watching a candidate before I went in would have its advantages.

The sparring was only the culmination of the day’s testing, the last in a series.  The Hudson group had piled into their cars around six o’clock the night before.  The gentle goading and teasing that accompanies any test had begun then.  A part of the test involved answering questions about philosophy and system history.  Some of them were in our manual, some were from the personal knowledge of our dans, and occasionally they were impossible to answer.  Part of me had known I was being toyed with.  On the other hand, as an excited eleven year-old about to take a test I had spent years working up to, did I really want to leave anything to chance?

We arrived at the Mirror Lake campsite at about ten.  Tents were already set up, many of the karateka had turned in for the night or were about to.  Of course I wanted to know what was going on and what I was expected to do tomorrow, but such things are not for candidates to know.  And not knowing makes an eleven year-old anxious.  I was so pumped up that I couldn’t get to sleep before midnight.

Then there was test day.  It had started off unassuming enough.  One of the senseis from Milwaukee had poked his head into my tent at some point before six and told me it was time to wake up.  I had slipped on my gi and come out to the smoldering campfire.  Some of the students and black belts had been just waking up, many more were still in their tents.  I had known they’d have a few more minutes until they had to get ready for their morning jog of three or four miles.  It hadn’t been a hard run.  It had to be slow enough so five year olds could manage it.  Of course they had been expected to stay in line during the entire run.  I envied them, I had done that every year since I was seven and it was a comfortable routine.

Not for the candidates.  I, along with two others, had run a timed mile and been tested on the number of sit-ups and push-ups we could do in two minutes.  The latter two tests had never concerned me; I could do the minimums, forty each, in nearly a minute even right after a run.  A seven-minute mile had been my real fear.  I had never been a runner and at eleven my legs were too short to expect even that time out of myself.  I hadn’t been been given the time to think about that, though.  Once the others were up we climbed into a truck and were shown the road we would be clocked on.  Then we had run.  No clocks, no pacer, just a lonely stretch of road we went up and back on.  I had been disappointed in myself that I was nearly a half minute slow.  Even more so that a forty year-old man had run a 5:30.

The morning work-out had been grueling.  Push-ups, sit-ups, squats, stretches – every exercise I could imagine in quick succession.  Each of the senseis was asked to choose one, and as the old favorites were taken the choices became more inventive.  Partnered sit-ups with one person on all fours.  Push-ups on the back of your hands, then flick your wrists after each repetition so you land on your knuckles.  Years later I would watch high school football practices and favorably compare that day’s warm-up to them.  Two hours of non-stop activity.  Then breakfast.

We had been given a half hour and there was plenty of fruit, cereal, juice, and rolls to eat.  The feast was tempting and many students and black belts partook.  I didn’t, though.  Not that day.  I had seen how testing went for candidates, I knew firsthand that we had only just been through the warm-up, the appetizer.  I knew the day would be harder for me than for most, and I recalled a warning from years ago; if you threw up, you did push-ups with your head over the mess until your arms gave out.  Then you were allowed to clean it up.  I took a styrofoam bowl of fruit, a Dixie glass of juice, and thought long and hard about my upcoming test.

By now Peg was finished.  And she looked it.  Ten black belts had each taken two minutes with her.  Head, body, and legs had all been targets.  She had fought hard throughout, striking crisply when she could and always with enthusiasm, but it had only been a matter of time before her body had given out.  And then her mind had told her she couldn’t go on.  She had showed spirit through the last fighter, bowed, then wandered off.  She cried for a good long while.  I tried to ignore that, I couldn’t afford to think about how badly this could go for me.

After breakfast the order had been given to line up, so I had run to the first position in line.  I belonged there, I had earned a single cue earlier in the year courtesy of a long round with a wicked hook kick and a bloody lip.  I found an adult in my spot, a cueless brown belt.  On most days I would have let it go but the day was about being confrontational when the situation called for it, and I soon had the man, a good foot taller than I was, giving way.

That was to be the easy part of the day.  We briefly went through callisthenics and some simple stretches; every black belt, thirty or so, again led us in a single exercise.  Then onto basics.  Every punch, kick, and block I knew from every stance I had ever been shown was on display for the next two hours.  And as with every session involving strikes and blocks, the dans patrolled the lines physically moving arms, legs, hips, and heads.  To make things interesting, all the lines had to remain straight vertically and horizontally.  That meant every student dressed to me, from the people not much older than me to the men standing well over six feet.  My head swam at the speed of the changes, of the unfamiliar combinations being called out.  Still, I knew it all.  I knew it better than everyone in that line.

Henry went next.  The forty year-old man with the great mile time fought hard.  He was an aggressive fighter, but not a natural one.  And he was fighting veterans.  It wasn’t long before he had been clipped repeatedly in the ribs.  When he started wheezing a doctor/black belt took a look at them.  His judgment was that they were bruised, maybe cracked.  Insisting the fights continue, Henry was taped up in minutes and resumed.  His next opponent decided to take it easy on the “old man”.  That was a mistake.  The black belt was swept to the ground almost immediately.  I muffled a laugh, the grandmaster didn’t.  Henry was a tough one too.  He finished his fighting as well as he had started, especially considering his ribs.  Finished, he sat off to the side to have his injuries looked to.  As he took his shirt off, all I could see was purple and black.  That was not an encouraging sight, he had broken three ribs.

Lunch had been another light meal.  Not that my stomach had complained, the August heat and the constant exercise had shrunk my appetite to almost nothing.  Still, I knew that my body was going to need the energy.  The pleasant part of the day was over by then.

While I was finishing up a kid of seventeen sat down on the ground next to me.  He addressed me by name and started treating me like his buddy.  He was so at ease, so genuine, I couldn’t help but feel disarmed around him despite myself.  Ricky, as he introduced himself, just wanted to get to know me.  He told me there was a system rule that no one under sixteen was allowed to test.  He also told me he had been the youngest person to ever test for his belt before that day.  I listened to him carefully, responded respectfully, and waited patiently for the other shoe to drop.  After all he was a black belt and I knew the entire day was a test.  I was almost disappointed when he got up, shook my hand, and genuinely wished me luck with one of his ear to ear smiles.

It was only a few moments before we lined up again.  We were run through another round of callisthenics, just enough exercise to get our hearts racing.  And then the test began.  The black belts, dozens of them, began scouring through the lines, more physical now than before with everyone, but focusing on the three of us.  Kiba dachi, horse stance, involved a full-grown man standing on a candidate’s thighs to test the strength of stance, legs, and heart.  Students were slapped in the stomach as they punched and kicked to ensure they were tight.  Punching bags came out to test the strength of kicks and punches.

Disorientation was also a factor.  One dan would test you, making a change to a kick you had never seen or heard of before in all your years of training.  The next would change you back to your original technique.  A third would tell you your kick was poor and ask which instructor had taught you.

A break; water.  I managed to track down Henry and got him to show me the six one-point variations I would need for the test itself.  They were simple enough, a block followed by a predetermined counterattack.  They involved elbows, scissoring the body, and several other strikes and angles.  It never made sense why I hadn’t been shown them especially since this was the second year I had been eligible for the test.  Still, I needed to know them.  Henry graciously walked me through them.

Then the students who had come for the experience were separated from the people who hoped to be promoted.  Over the last four and a half years I had learned dozens of punches and kicks, blocks, throws, defenses, chokes, and combinations.  I went through them all in the next few hours as the dans scrutinized every aspect of my form.  And by the time we were doing the advanced materials everyone else, every other tester and all the spectators, were watching the three people who were hoping to earn their black belt that day.  Defenses, odd combinations, one-points, throws, aikido.  I did them all.

I stood up and stuck my mouth guard in.  Every one of my testers was bigger, stronger, faster, and better than I was.  I had been pushed all day and they were fresh.  I knew that, they knew that.  But if I was going to fail this test, it was only going to be because they knocked me cold.  I would not give up, I would not stay down, I would not stop coming.

I fought ten full-grown men and women, and a brown belt who was a year older than I was that day.  I remember almost nothing about the fights.  But I did give my last opponent, a heavyweight of about 6′ 5″, a bloody lip.  And I did get to eat supper though it was around 10 by that time.

On Sunday, we learned how to work with Phillipino Sticks, a national martial art.  I was partnered with someone my own age.  It was interesting to learn, though in retrospect the fact that my legs wouldn’t stay in stance and my partner insisted on hitting my fingers was more funny than anything.  My belt awarded, I was picked up.  I had to be literally carried into my mother’s Lincoln Continental because my body couldn’t bend enough to get in.

I had been ranked #2 fighter in the country, and I would be one of the best fighters in the system for years to come.  In every fitness test I would take from that point, in school, karate, or otherwise, I would at worst be on par with the best.  My body would continue to develop new abilities and improve upon those I already had over many years of hard work.  Even without any of that, though, what I did on that day outstripped anything my classmates, friends, or most of my competitors would ever manage.  I didn’t know it then, I wouldn’t have been so arrogant.  But, watching them do their workouts and compete it was a decision I was forced to come to.

It was only the running I could not do well in.  Beyond the first twenty or thirty meters, I was never more than fast.  I worked at it but I never did develop exceptional results I was used to.  And with age it got worse.  By my mid-thirties I was having difficulty with a seven minute mile, and I never did develop the stamina to run over six miles.  That was when I developed the first undeniable symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis.  I felt fortunate when a chiropractor discovered I had a very old trauma to my first vertebra that was causing the symptoms.  The last fighter in my black belt test had popped two roundhouse kicks to the base of my skull during my session with him.  All I had remembered was that he’d tingled my entire spine with both blows.  He’d injured me more severely than broken ribs.  The damage had grown worse with time, only being kept at bay for so long because of my high level of physical conditioning.

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