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The Karate Class Kid

"Hi-Ya!" I have a firmly held belief that any Karate dojos opening up between 1987 and 1992 owed the creators of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 50% of their profits for the free weekly advertising of their product. From 1993 on, the "finders fee" should have been transferred to Saban Entertainment for their daily endorsement of martial arts on the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers TV show. Seems fair doesn't it? 

There's no doubt in anybody's mind that the huge surge in popularity for "self-defense" courses aka "Karate class" in the late 80's and early 90's was due to these far out television adventures being beamed into our homes. I mean, what better way to drum up business than having "teenagers with attitude" in various color schemes saving the day with spin-kicks and leg sweeps? Speaking of leg sweeps, my inspiration to sign up for Karate came from a little movie starring Daniel-San and Mr. Miyagi.

1984's The Karate Kid was a huge moment in cinema for me. What's funny is that while most kids were idolizing Ralph Macchio, in my mind Pat Morita's Mr. Miyagi was the real star. I mean, who had the skills to beat-up the entire Cobra Kai gang in a steel cage? Miyagi! Who cut beer bottles in half with his bare hands? Miyagi! All Daniel ever did was get beat up, until one lucky kick at the end of the movie. So I totally bought the Mr. Miyagi action figure with the break away sparring pole and wore my officially licensed headband, pretending to learn the secrets of Karate at the hands of everybody's favorite butt-kicking apartment handyman. 

I didn't actually see the film until 1987, during the early days of my family's VCR experience, but just 2 years later the martial arts boom was in full swing. Luckily my parent's got wind that one of my neighbors was a Karate instructor who managed to recruit a bunch of kids from my elementary school for his Karate Classes. As mentioned in a past article, I was less than excited when my Mom signed me up for soccer and tee-ball, but Karate was a sport I could get behind. After all, you couldn't look cool acting out scenes from 3 Ninjas on the playground without the right moves. (I'm just kidding, no one was acting out scenes from 3 Ninjas).

I remember being at home before my first class, trying on my Gi (Karate Uniform) for the first time and strapping on my White Belt. There was a real sense of power that came from having that belt around your waist. Like loading up a deadly weapon, except the weapon was YOU! I felt like I was already a master martial artist, ready to give Storm Shadow from G.I. Joe a run for his money. Upon arriving at class I was instantly humbled, but let me back up just a minute to the peculiar location of the "dojo".

Nowadays most Karate schools are found in strip malls, which is a strange enough place to learn the proper technique for kneeing someone in the stomach. But my childhood dojo was located in an even more unexpected location, a carpeted multi-purpose room above a bowling alley. I had only previously visited "the lanes" to play in their uber-retro (even at the time) arcade with brown and burnt orange tiles left over from the 70's covering every inch of the space. So heading upstairs to the 2nd floor was a whole new world.

Upon entering the room I recognized some of my 1st grade friends and felt instantly at ease, but this was short-lived as I turned my head to see the toughest looking brawler I had ever laid eyes on. With bright red mullet, sun-scorched skin, muscly tattooed arms and permanent scowl, I was convinced that I was about to learn Karate from a legitimate street fighter. Then the real Sensei walked in, looking like a TV sitcom Dad. 

It turns out the tough guy was his assistant instructor, Dave and the real man in charge was a guy named Bob Barrow. Later research tells me that he was actually a ranked, world class martial artist in the 70's and 80's, with covers in Black Belt magazine and even had roles in a few action movies back in the day. This bit of trivia was actually how "Bob" gained my respect, announcing that he had been trained by none other than Chuck Norris. That's right, the man, the myth, the living internet meme himself! Obviously I hadn't seen the Delta Force or Missing In Action movies, but when a man has his own cartoon called Chuck Norris Karate Kommandos, it's kind of hard to ignore his impact on pop culture.

Mr. Barrow went so far as to announce that for certain achievements we could earn autographed photos of the future star of Walker, Texas Ranger  and at that point he had my full attention. This offer also ended up being the first step toward my eventual disillusionment with the whole deal, but I did start out hopeful. The first day was spent being told that, "Karate is for self-defense and should not be used to harm other people". Sure, I hear what you're saying: if somebody makes me feel defensive I should kick them in the ribs, got it. 

The rest of the class was filled with exciting stuff like taking the proper stance, how to bow and a few blocking moves. Can you blame me for losing focus and daydreaming about getting some Mike and Ike's from the vending machine by the bowling alley bar? I finally woke up from my daze when they announced we would be ending class with "Karate High Fives". Basically this meant that you would run and jump at "Master Bob" and try to kick his upraised hand. I ran, I jumped, I...didn't quite make it. Oh well, better luck next time. Over the next few weeks we practiced a series of punches, kicks, blocks and stances that were to be part of our test to gain the coveted, Yellow Belt promotion. 

In between learning these moves, we put on sparring pads and got to attack each other (YES!). Strapping on the red hand and foot covers was like strapping on the belt, a rush of confidence swept over me. I attempted a one-two combination against my foe and hit mostly air, but he had been paying closer attention and connected with a kick to the chest. I'd love to say this filled me with a warrior spirit to get my revenge with a flaming uppercut, but really it just made me feel weak and I kind of gave up.

As each class passed, I found every kid but me going home with the Chuck Norris autograph. I did earn my Yellow Belt, but for some reason being awarded a black and white photo of a bearded guy doing a side kick was a much larger achievement in my eyes. My bitterness grew as I passed to purple belt and neared orange. Even a day spent breaking wooden boards (which is not something I managed to do either) couldn't get out my frustrations, I was totally obsessed.

One consolation was going over to my Sensei's house after school to play with his kids that were my classmates. This was the first time I had ever seen a big screen TV in my life (which was a much bigger deal in the 80's). It was the kind that had a pull out drawer under a blank screen that projected the picture from below with multi-colored projection lights, very fancy. Playing Contra on that thing was an experience and soon I had an epiphany.

I'd like to say the end of this story found me raising my arms and leg up in the iconic crane kick the to score the final point that would win me the Chuck Norris autograph (in this scenario being handed to me by Chuck himself), but it wasn't to be. I decided one day after practice that I was much happier going to the Bowling Alley and kicking butt on Double Dragon than being passed up for precision "dance fighting" and told my Mom I was done. 

Yes, I was a quitter, but at least I was true to myself. I wasn't in Karate for self-respect or to learn discipline, I seriously just wanted a celebrity autograph to brag to my friends about and I got that a year later when I saw Micky Dolenz of The Monkees performing at a county fair. Sure, nobody else cares about the guy who sang "Last Train To Clarksville" and "Pleasant Valley Sunday", but I knew it was awesome.

No disrespect to those who have excelled at Martial Arts (truth be told, I fear you) It just wasn't my thing and brought out the worst in me. Jealousy, self-pity, anger, a Karate Jedi craves not these things. I like to think my life turned out OK and over the years I managed to get my fix of respectful violence in repeated viewing of films like Surf Ninjas and Tiger Heart

So that should be your real takeaway from this story: If someone tries to attack you in a dark alley, just whip out your smart phone and suggest an alternative to the mugging by watching 2 of the goofiest Karate films of all time. You'll be glad you did and you may even get a friend out of it. And that's one to grow on...

So tell me, what were your childhood martial arts fantasies like? What color belts did you earn? Did you enjoy your Chuck Norris autograph, you jerk?! Sorry, sorry. Still working through some issues here.

Go ahead and check out my retro-ramblings on Twitter @hojukoolander as I post pictures of old toys, trading cards and more stuff that everybody else sold at garage sales 20 years ago.
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Vaporman87 Posted on Aug 07, 2015 at 03:48 PM

Wouldn't it have been fun to brag to other kids about how your mom could kick their mom's butt, knowing she had the skills to back that up. LOL.

"My mom is a black belt in Karate... she could whip your mom's butt!"

"Oh yeah! Well my mom is an alien with super powers. She could melt your mom's face!"

"Seriously... my mom is a black belt."

"Oh yeah, well... I bet she cooks bad. Yeah."

Hoju Koolander Posted on Aug 07, 2015 at 01:42 AM

@massreality Wow, that's a great twist. Your Mom became the martial arts master. That's so cool.

massreality Posted on Aug 06, 2015 at 06:10 AM

The Karate Kid and JCVD inspired me at a very young age to take up martial arts. I started in Tae Kwon Do and really loved it. My mom decided to start taking alongside me since she had to sit through the classes anyway. It sort of became an obsession for her, and we started going every single night until I finally just refused to go anymore. She ended up getting a job with the school and fifteen years later, she opened up her own school that she still operates to this day.

As an adult, I took Krav Maga for a couple years, but after a few injuries I decided it truly wasn't worth it. It's a lot cheaper and easier to go take a conceal carry class and buy a cheap handgun. :)

Vaporman87 Posted on Aug 02, 2015 at 04:14 AM

Nope. In fact, I went on to become a ninja (or at least dressed exactly like one). I got a ninja suit for Christmas one year out of one of those martial arts catalogs.

Hoju Koolander Posted on Aug 01, 2015 at 01:33 AM

Glad I wasn't the only one who didn't become a martial arts master. Didn't stop us from throwing a few chops in our day though, right?

Caps 2.0 Posted on Jul 29, 2015 at 05:13 PM

I took Tae Kwan Do classes with my brother for about a year. In retrospect, it wasn't the best of ideas, since physical activity has never been a strong suit of mine. I quit shortly after I tried breaking a wooden board and all I did was hurt my hand.

mickyarber Posted on Jul 29, 2015 at 03:28 PM

I always wa ted to take karate classes, but didnt get too. Reading this, it was fu. To live vicariously through you a little bit. Fun article.

Vaporman87 Posted on Jul 28, 2015 at 03:10 PM

You are not alone.

I too delved into the mysterious art of Ninjit... I mean, Karate. I'm pretty certain my foray into it was even shorter than yours. I may have taken two or three classes and called it quits. It was just... so... boring. I think the clincher was that I tried very hard to perform the moves correctly, but found myself having my fist raised like, a half an inch higher by instructors. Seriously? You really think that's necessary? Will an opponent allow me make such adjustments? "Oh sorry, I punched you just a smidgen too low. Hang on and I'll give it another go." Yeah, I was done.

My oldest son, on the other hand, has outlasted me by a great deal. He has progressed to his yellow belt, and is on the verge of moving up to orange. I don't think he really gets much enjoyment out of it though. I don't think it IS an enjoyable thing for youngsters. It's more of a means to feel a bit more confidence and learn some discipline.

I'm considering some other alternative for him that I know he might enjoy, like Cub Scouts. I spent a few years in Cub Scouts, progressing all the way to Webelos before dropping out. I think he might (possibly) find that to be more enjoyable, but I'm not sure.

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