The pursuit of Martial Arts has defined my life. My entire adult life has been spent passionately following a thing of great interest to me. When I first walked into a Dojo, there was no thinking involved. I simply did it. There was no impetus, no conscious motivation, and no driving force that I could discern at the time, nor that I can currently recollect. I simply walked in and never considered not doing it. After joining the Marine Corps (as a bugler, no less) I was stationed in Twenty-Nine Palms, California, affectionately known as “The Stumps” to the Marines who inadvertently found themselves there – you can only imagine why. Twenty-Nine Palms is in the middle of nowhere, located in the High Desert of Southern California. The closest city that resembles civilization is Palm Springs which lies down the hills of the Morongo Basin and about an hour and a half away. Other than that, there were jack rabbits, Joshua Trees, scorching hot days in blistering heat, mosquitoes, tattoo shops, bars – and one Martial Arts school.
At that time, Twenty-Nine Palms consisted of about two thousand people living in town, and about eight thousand Marines living on a base 4/5 the size of the State of Rhode Island. The Marines would run what they referred to as “combined arms exercises” out in the desert, far away from civilization. These live fire exercises were conducted in conjunction with the Army, Navy and Air Force as well as services from other countries. Some of our favorites were the Koreans. As the only Tae Kwon Do school in town, when the Republic of Korea (ROK) Marines landed, during their time off they would come and seek us out.
Unfortunately for me, I had put about as much thought into joining the Marines as I had in taking my first Martial Arts class; basically none. This was a very tough time for me, full of the kind of inconsistencies that only the military can justify. Some of our favorite jokes at the time now seem very Zen to me, such as the term “military intelligence”. While I was enlisted in the Marines, I played a lot of taps in cemeteries for broken boys in boxes. I also was used as a recruiter’s aid at high schools and such. We performed in countless parades and field shows and traveled extensively. Some of the gigs we showed up at were weirdly bizarre, but for the most part my three year odyssey in the hands of the United States government was a time of conflicting ideas and non-sequiturs. There were many days when absolutely nothing made any sense. Looking back on it, although I was not what you would call a “model marine”, the people in charge of our unit were mentally unstable and full of self doubt. Without going into greater detail, suffice to say that I was seeking something to keep my sanity. It has been my experience that the human mind grasps for anything that it can to help maintain a semblance of balance, especially during trying times. Most of the young marines stationed on that base did one of two things in an attempt to maintain that balance. Some became alcoholics and lived at the bars out in town, participating in the intense drama that is small town life. Others became “PT monsters”. PT stands for physical training, and many of us found solace in going to the gym, lifting weights, wrestling, or, for some, Martial Arts.
And I trained hard. Every day, without fail I would show up for class, often staying until all hours of the night. I volunteered to clean the toilets at the Dojo so I could have a key and let myself in after hours. I would sweat, yell, hit the heavy bag until I was hoarse, only to turn around and do it again the next day. Acquaintances that I had on the base would invite me out to do something, but I would always turn them down, because I had to go to school. It simply never even occurred to me that I could take a day off. When I did take someone up on the occasional offer to go out and do something else, I always found myself wishing that I had attended class instead; feeling guilty and often daydreaming about whatever lesson I was missing that night.
One might assume that I would have understood that I had a passion for this activity, that I was a duck in water. But that is the queer nature of Martial Arts. Like my childhood, and Marine Corps boot camp, you are never done. There is always something else to do, and you are always left lacking. The intellectual idea of perfection always has a gap between where you are and where you are attempting to go. One of the main attributes that makes an individual a Martial Artist is their acceptance of this fact. More than their acceptance, it must become a welcome facet in their life; something to be embraced, not feared and pushed away; something that, by its very nature, invites change and transformation. Although I felt that I would never be a proficient Martial Artist, I continued to strive with all of my effort and intention on pursuing the elusive way of the warrior.
My main teacher at the time, Mr. Mark Karasek, worked as a night security guard at the local hospital in nearby Joshua Tree, California. His shift would start at 11:00 PM and go to 7:00 AM. I would drive up at about midnight when I knew he would be free, and ask him to show me more forms. I asked him to show me things I was not required to know in his school, picked his brain for everything I could come up with. “Why do you want to know this stuff?” he would ask. I would reply with the truth; that I didn’t know; I just wanted to learn more. He would show me a few moves, then go back in the hospital for his rounds, then come back out and show me another few steps until I had leaned the whole thing. I remember the sun coming up many times in those days, still fully energized and ready for more karate the next day. I thought I had no aptitude because I thought that aptitude was measured by prowess and ability. But my gift was not in the form of innate martial arts skills, but rather in the realm of understanding how to pursue something. And pursue I did.
To be continued!