001 Why I started Karate

I often get asked ‘When and Why did you start karate, How did it happen, What made you become interested in this art?’.And the follow-up questions usually are: ‘What makes you continue practising after 57 years – Why are you still training, sweating and aching?  ‘Do you still enjoy teaching?’Today I’m going to talk about the first question and explain How it came about that I started doing Karate.  

The answer is simply: It was a matter of survival!

I need to start off by giving you the background on my situation at the time when I started. My family lived in a town called Stellenbosch, the oldest village in South Africa, world famous for its wine and its university – it is in fact, a university town, similar to Heidelberg in Germany.   Well, that’s where I lived  since my 11th year, where I still live today and have had my Dojo since 1967. 

My parents owned a relatively small boarding house or residence for university students in Stellenbosch with about 35 students residing.   It was however different and unique from the other university residences in the sense that the living-in students were all officers in the South African Military, who were send to study engineering at Stellenbosch University as an extension of the National Military Academy, situated about 120 km further up the West Coast. 

They were representative from the three arms of the service at that time – Army Air Force and Navy and age-wise varied between 19 and 25 years old.   Also interesting and unique, was the fact that they wore full military uniform to lectures  We’ll get back to the relevance of this to my story, in a while!

Their daily routine was a roll call parade at 07:00 hours conducted in the boarding house quad, breakfast, then of to non-stop lectures, lunch break in between and would return from lectures about 17:00,18:00 hours daily. After dinner at night they pursued their studies until 21:00 hours, when there would be a half an hour break with tea being served out in the quad, which was partially in open air and partially covered with roof.   My mother would always throw in some homemade bakes with the nightly tea, as they were young men away from their homes and she regarded them as her sons! During these tea breaks, as typical young men would do to let of steam,  they would indulge in physical playing, like Arm wrestling, Indian wrestling (where you both stand with your feet in a straight line and try and pull each other of balance), Finger wrestling (engaging the middle fingers and try to pull open each other’s finger or drag him forward towards you) and many Reaction or Reflex type games like holding out your hands or fists and try and pull it away before the other guy could slap it or rap you on the top of your fist with his knuckles! 

As a curious young school boy, I would attend these tea-times to hear what the older guys were talking about and doing, so inevitably, I got drawn into these games and went to bed many a night with my hands slapped red and burning, or the back of my hand bruised from knuckle strikes!   Eventually, I got the hang of it, could hold my own, and stopped being an easy target, but still a target nevertheless!

One evening during this tea time, they discussed the fact that the university was going to revive its boxing club – there was one really good amateur boxer amongst them and most of them had done boxing as part of their military basic training.  So the next thing that happened was that they purchased some boxing gloves and during the evening tea break some “friendly” sparring started to become part of the evening’s letting off  steam, of course with the odd ‘Oops I’m sorry – are you OK?’ I was about 11/12 years old at the time, but big boned, and it wasn’t long before they slapped the gloves on me, with the intention and promise that they would ‘teach me how to box’ – ‘don’t be afraid, you’ll be ok, we won’t hurt you!’ but ended up by beating the living daylights out of me when I got in the odd lucky blow!  

Being a sore looser since birth, (I still am, but don’t put that on Facebook!) I swore revenge, but it did not come overnight! The fact was that they actually did succeed in teaching me to box – although by explaining afterwards what I should have done not to have gotten that punch on the snoot! As weeks and months went by, I improved, got a bit more street smart and eventually I could hold my own against the smaller and weaker ones among them.   Significant at this stage to mention, is the fact that I developed and relied on fast, variation Footwork, combined with good Timing against the more stronger ones – to get out of trouble and in to attack – duck, dive, move in, attack, move out, duck and dive again!   Very valuable skills that manifested in my Karate career in later times! Those of you who ever attended a Gasshuku where I taught, will recall my emphasis on the ability to MOVE!

At that stage I also joined the University boxing club as a junior, and represented the University in tournaments around the area. I was quite proud of myself that I could actually stay alive against them in the boxing situation until one evening, about a year later, at teatime, when I heard them discussing this new mysterious mystical fighting art from the orient, called Karate!   And, that there was an expert that was going to start a club at Stellenbosch University and they were all going to start this new fighting art!   Very little, if anything, was known about Karate in South Africa at that time.   Mas Oyama Sensei’s books had not been out over here in bookstores and movies like ‘The Invincible Boxer’, which accelerated the popularity of Karate in the west before the Bruce Lee movies, was not out yet.

Rumours surrounding this mystic art, KARATE, were about people breaking bricks with their bare hands, they were invincible in a fight, et cetera. I was devastated when I heard about this new fighting art coming, because visions of the living daylights being beaten out of me one more time with this new art – just as I was able to hold my own with the boxing – popped into my mind again!  I realised that if I did not also learn this new art, I would not survive, so I started strategising big time how to achieve this. 

The challenges were two-fold:  The tuition was not free and it was only for University students! We’re talking about a fee of R4-00  per month at that time which is today probably equivalent to R1,000 today, I guess! My first challenge therefore would be to find the way and means to get hold of R4 per month!   My monthly pocket money allowance, that I received from my father, was R2 and that was for extras – candy, movies, anything ‘non-essential’.    I knew that he did not have more money to help me – I also had two sisters who had to be taken care of.   My second challenge was to join the University club as a scholar which was tricky for a 14 year old!

For the financial challenge – I mentioned earlier that these students wore uniform to classes everyday and part of the uniform were freshly cleaned shoes, inspected every morning at the roll call parade by the senior officer in charge! I discussed and negotiated with them, and a new business was started!   I started cleaning shoes to get money to pay for Karate lessons which would ensure my survival! I cleaned 15 pairs of shoes every night, excluding Fridays and Saturdays at 50 cents per month per pair of shoes which brought me a grand total of R7.50 per month.  So I could pay my karate tuition from that and still have R2.50 left over for mischief! 

Maybe this will help you to understand my policy to this day not to give away Karate knowledge for free!    Had my father put up the money for me with a ‘Don’t worry, Daddy will pay..!’  I probably would have stopped after a while, but being self-reliant gave me such a feeling of ‘I did it on my own!’  – it kept the hunger for more Karate going to this day! To overcome the ‘university students only’ issue, there was only one way out – I had to cheat my age! At the first lesson and registration,  I had my R4 clutched in my hand, and was ducking and hiding behind the students from our boarding house and got one of them to complete my form stating I was 19 years old. The instructor gave me a long look, but because there was quite an attendance for the first night, he took my R4, I slipped through and ‘crossed the final hurdle to staying alive!’  

The Sensei later told me he knew then that I was not a university student, but I looked so keen, he did not have the heart to tell me I could not join! I got a few snotty looks from many of the other university students during the first lessons – the ‘what is this little weasel doing here, he probably won’t last long, wait till we start contact training!’ – type of looks!   This only inspired me more and I remember very clearly that during only my second lesson, I looked at them from behind (I was placed in the back row) and made a decision right there and then that, ‘I will be in the front row soon and one day I will become the best Karate Ka in that group!’   When the actual contact training and sparring started, I did kind of shut their mouths, as not one of them could get the better of me, being a 14 year old big eared snot nosed string bean and all! Well, I am the only one from that class still training after 58, almost 59 years!

To conclude, I should mention that I received my senior Black Belt at the age of 16 in 1965 and was one of the – if not the – youngest in the world be awarded this – I was tested by the late Sensei’s Taiji Kase and Hiroshi Shirai of the Shotokan JKA organisation.  Note that there were no junior Black Belts then, that came later.  I also won the Cape Grand Champion title in 1965 and 1966 in the senior Black Belt division at ages 16 and 17 – note again there were no weight or age divisions, it was open.

Thank you for listening and look out for my next In Pursuit of Excellence episode, which will again cover various aspects of my live and personal experiences from my lifelong Traditional Karate journey.  

If you are interested in joining our global online virtual dojo to pursue excellence in the martial art of karate, you can do so at www.traditionalschoolofkarate.com.

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