There was a time in my late twenties that I thought I was out of the woods. I had survived my childhood, high school, college and five lost years in California. Sure I had a few scars but I was an adult now. I married the world’s greatest woman and had a daughter who was both smart and beautiful. On top of that we had a successful business. Surely my history of calamities was behind me.
But no. This was the eighties, the decade of excess. Martial arts movies and ass-kicking thrillers were the rage. Bruce Lee had gone to an early grave by this point but there was always Chuck Norris. Long before he became a national punchline, Chuck was pushing out two movies a year. His acting was wooden, but he could kick the crap out of any bad guy that came his way.
Having been a victim and easy target for bullies growing up, I wanted to get tough and become a martial artist. Nobody was going to push me around anymore.
Today, martial arts schools are everywhere. On any given day, you’ll see a gaggle of grade-schoolers filing into a strip mall dojo for afternoon classes. That wasn’t the case forty years ago.
I signed up with the first karate school I came across. I should have shopped around. My sensei was an ex-marine and looked like the cartoon character Dudley Doright. He was tough as nails. And terrifying. I remember him yelling at a six-year-old until the kid wet himself. Then he made the sobbing child clean up the mat. That should have been a clue.
Martial arts is a discipline designed for self defense. Our teacher didn’t see it that way. He had a unique philosophical viewpoint regarding the purpose of karate. He shared it with us frequently.
“Men,” he said. It didn’t matter that there were women in the class, everyone, well everyone who counted, was one of the men. “One day, you’re going to be out out on the street. There are ‘things’ out on the street. And if a ‘thing’ comes up to you, Hit first, hit fast and leave the scene before the police show up.”
Yes, it was a real rock’em sock’em dojo and I was too stupid to quit. The fighting was for keeps. Shortly after I began classes I had to spar with a black belt. I was a yellow belt. In other words, a zero.
I got lucky and managed to tag my opponent pretty good. He showed his appreciation for my technique by doing a roundhouse kick to my face. The lights went out and I woke up on all fours staring at the floor. A couple drops of blood hit the mat. Then the blood flow picked up speed. It was on its way to becoming a good sized puddle when my sensei grabbed my shoulder and spun me around. He took one look at my face and said, “Yeah, it’s broken. Get him outta here.”
A couple of years later, I found out why the black belt didn’t exercise control that night. He was coked up. Like I said, this was the eighties.
One good thing came out of getting my head handed to me by Mr. Double-White-Line-Black-Belt. I received a brand new, good looking nose out of the injury. Prior to my pummeling, I had a large bump in the middle of my nose.
This facial oddity was the result of me annoying a wasp. It wasn’t intentional on my part. I might have been seven at the time and was bored as hell. Playmates were in scarce supply. My mother was home but she was busy yakking on the phone and filling the house up with cigarette smoke. The neighbor across the street had a swing set. So I made my way there, climbed aboard and started to swing. Even though I was naturally uncoordinated, I could do this pretty well. I kicked my feet out and pulled back on the attached chains. I started pumping harder and harder gaining altitude with each swing. I was really flying and thoroughly enjoying the ride.
The motion of the swing rattled the structure. This did not sit too well with the wasp that was residing in the hollow crossbar of the swing. Just as I reached the zenith of my highest arc, the wasp came by and said hello in a big way. He stung me, I let go and gravity did the rest. I face-planted on the unforgiving earth. I ran sobbing and bleeding my way home. Hence the bump.
The broken nose I received at the dojo wasn’t an easy fix. The ER docs stuffed cotton up both nostrils and told me to see a specialist. I went to see the specialist they recommended. And guess what? The specialist wasn’t really that special. I asked him if he could remove the bump when he put my nose back in the center of my face. “Uh, sure” he told me. “Don’t worry about it.”
I was glad I worried about it. That wasn’t the only thing to worry about. In the operating theater, the anesthesiologist was giggling a bit too much for my taste. I called the surgeon over.
“Remember,” I said firmly, “Don’t forget to get rid of the bump.”
He looked confused as if he had forgotten to pick up milk at the store.
“The bump, “ I said.” On my nose. You’re supposed to take it off.”
“Oh yeah, that’s right.” He turned to the anesthesiologist, “Put him under.”
I wanted to say something else but never got a chance. The giggler looked down at me and said, “Goodnight.”
I woke up with a new nose. Looking back I should have gotten a second opinion or maybe checked to see if either the surgeon or anesthesiologist had a medical license.
New nose or not, if I had a single gray cell left in my head, I wouldn’t have stepped foot in that dojo again. But after I healed, go back I did. In my absence my sensei made some changes. Head gear was required for fights. And while that saved my brand new nose, it didn’t do anything for my ribcage. A year later I missed a block and was kicked hard enough to crack two ribs. If you’ve never broken a rib consider yourself lucky. Just getting out of bed in the morning is a challenge. Coughing or, God forbid, sneezing is pure hell.
In this case the ribs were only cracked not shattered. That would come about six months later. By this time, I had been taking lessons for a couple of years. I was fighting for my brown belt. That was okay except I was paired up with a giant lunatic. Not good. Not good at all.
My opponent was faster than me, outweighed me by sixty pounds and was just plain nuts. He worked for a caterer and liked to pound his bare fists into the giant two foot square ice cubes after an event. I remember him explaining this bizzare approach to practice. After he was done, he smiled widely and let his tongue ride across his upper teeth. “Till it runs red,” he said. His eyes grew soft and his voice dropped to a dreamy whisper. “Till it runs red,” He said a second time. That was the guy across the mat from me.
I had no expectation of winning the bout. I just wanted to survive the three minutes. My plan was simple. Just keep blocking. A good plan with a fatal flaw. I was so focussed on getting out alive that I lost my sense of position. I had blocked and backed myself out of the fighting area. I felt something decidedly hard on the left side of my body. It was the wall. The madman moved in for the kill.
His kick came in just underneath my blocking elbow. My ribcage collapsed against the wall. Ribs on both sides snapped like dried kindling. I fell to the floor and screamed like a five-year-old girl.
“Get up,” my sensei demanded.
For the first time since I began taking classes I told him no. It wasn’t a defiant response; it was a sad, pleading squeak. I could barely breathe.
Unlike the first rib break, I went to see a doctor. His jaw dropped when he looked at the x-rays. The worst break was over the spleen. If I didn’t let it heal, death from internal bleeding was a real possibility.
I stopped in to see my sensei one last time. I told him I was too beat up to continue, that I might be back in a couple of months, what a terrific experience this had been and other assorted lies. He announced to the class that I had earned my brown belt. We both knew better. It was a pity belt or maybe a don’t-sue-me belt. I sure hadn’t earned it.
As luck would have it, the jagged rib didn’t lacerate my spleen and healed up. I quit karate before it killed me.