Sunday, May 16, 2010

"Outdoor Training in the Nutmeg State" or "Connecticut Yankee Karate"

The woods surrounding Lake Whitney in Hamden, CT. It was one of my favorite places to get away from other people. It was also where I liked to practice Karate and weapons, out of sight of the public but in the fresh air and sunshine.

My love for outdoor training began in 1982, when I started learning Tang Soo Do.

As I've said before, a new year is often used as a time to make a new beginning in a new direction. The previous two years, '80 and '81, sucked for reasons too numerous to get into here.

I was off to a good start in 1981, having hooked up with a couple of good kung fu teachers.* But by March, I had to take time off due to a badly sprained shoulder, the result of learning roll-outs on a concrete floor.

When I recovered, their school had closed and I had no way to reach them.

Combined with some other difficulties I faced that year, I lost any real interest in maintaining my health. I didn't exercise. I flunked out of school. I didn't practice any of the martial arts I'd learned from various instructors over the years. I pretty much became a couch potato.

By the end of 1981, I found out about the Southern Connecticut State College Karate Club from a guy I'd met at a party. At $25 a semester, it seemed like the answer to my prayers. Even working minimum wage, I could easily afford that.

So in January 1982, I B.S.'ed my way into the club, pretending to be a college student even though I was beginning my second sophomore year of high school.

I threw myself into a major fitness regimen, which included joining the Yoga Club at my high school, lifting weights, running and, of course, learning Tang Soo Do at the SCSC Karate Club.

I'd had a strong knowledge of the basics of karate from other teachers. To me, the important thing was learning the forms in Tang Soo Do. But since I felt confined trying to practice sets in my basement, I took it outside.

In those cold, New England winters, I would often do up to five runs each of an individual form in the Putnam Avenue Schoolyard behind my house, wearing my gi pants, sneakers and a sweatshirt.

Occasionally, someone would see me practicing, but they left me alone. I had a reputation as a non-conformist, so seeing my practicing karate outdoors really didn't surprise anyone.

At school, when my friends took smoke breaks, I often ran through my forms in the courtyard. There were actually a few good martial artists and boxers at the small private high school I attended for my second sophomore year. Some of them would join in and show what they could do.

By the end of the spring semester, I'd earned a high green belt and learned the first nine forms, the three Gichus, the five Pyang Ahns and Bassai Dai. I'd also earned straight A's on a report card for the first and only time in my life.

Also in 1982, I'd cross-trained in different arts as I made the acquaintance of other local martial artists, particularly Steve Williams. Steve, who became my boxing coach, also held a shodan in Jujitsu, which he also taught me, along with bits and pieces of other styles of Kung Fu and Karate.

Muhammad Ali, chopping wood at his Pennsylvania training camp. Chopping wood is one of the best exercises for fighters. My boxing coach, Steve Williams, and my father, both spent a lot of time around lumberjacks. Both spoke from personal experience when they warned me "Never get into a fight with a man who swings an axe for a living."

Most of our training was very impromptu. Our sessions often happened when he happened to be visiting his brother-in-law, Alex, who lived down the street from me. Steve and I would spar, practicing boxing drills or two-man Jujitsu sets in our street clothes on Alex's front lawn.

In addition to his knowledge of martial arts, Steve saw himself as a Native American shaman. Seriously. He was quite knowledgeable about Native American art, culture and mysticism. From his home in Northford, he taught classes in survival techniques and did his best to educate people on the Indian ways.

He had a love of the outdoors, which showed itself in his preference for training outdoors. He also chopped wood, both as a business and an exercise. Both Steve and my father, who spent a lot of time in the Pacific Northwest, taught me the same lesson - "Never get into a fight with a man who swings an axe for a living." It strengthens the exact same muscles you use to throw a punch.

By the end of 1982, I hooked up with my old Kung Fu instructors. Through 1983 until I left Connecticut in October 1984, I met and trained with other martial artists, picking up whatever I could from them, whether forms, training methods or skill with weapons.

All of this happened while earning my black belt in Tang Soo Do.

But when I couldn't be with my instructors or training partners, I let the woods or lakes become my dojo. I did my breakfalls and bag work in my basement, but forms, weapons and shadowboxing took place mostly out-of-doors.

I could train in public parks, in wooded areas new my house along Lake Whitney. Because the latter was not public property, I could practice with weapons without fear of arrest since no one would see me.

But more than the privacy, I came to enjoy my time outside, breathing in what passed for fresh air in Southern Connecticut and soaking up sunshine in a too-short New England summer.

TOMORROW'S POST: "Placerville Pugilism" or "Fists and Feet in the Foothills"

*Nearly 30 years later, I gotta admit, their way of teaching breakfalls and rollouts not only sucked, but it was downright dangerous. I would never, ever advocate practicing breakfalls or rollouts on anything but a well matted floor, at least not in the early stages. Even then, practicing anything on concrete is stupid and dangerous and I have only three words on that subject - DON'T DO IT!

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