Nobody seems to know how many martial arts students are active in America right now. There are thousands of training centers throughout the country, ranging from rooms rented from schools and churches to huge stand-alone buildings that incorporate fitness centers, lounges and smoothie bars. Drive through any town of about 7,500 population or better and chances are you’ll see a sign advertising some form of martial arts training.
In Rice Lake, up here in northwest Wisconsin, my wife and I train at the Rice Lake Martial Arts Center, founded two years ago by Brian and Stacy Swantz. On May 30 we were treated to a morning seminar featuring our master instructor, Peter Carbone, who was visiting from his home dojo near Detroit. For three hours, we trained with the weapon known as the tonfa, one of several weapons we study in the art of ryukudo kobujutsu, in which Carbone Sensei holds the prestigious rank of 9th-dan.
Every student who begins training in the martial arts has a reason for wanting to do it. Some want to learn how to fight; they’ve seen it so many times on TV and in the movies that they have finally decided they’d like to learn this stuff, too. Others are in it for the exercise. Many parents put their children into training so that they can learn self-defense and self-discipline. All of those are valid reasons, and martial arts training serves them well in those areas. But for every one thousand people who begin training, only one will ever advance to the coveted rank of black belt. That’s because this training is not easy. The novice student quickly discovers that he or she will not be Bruce Lee in half a dozen lessons. The parent who puts their kid into a school finds out that this is not just another six-week sports program where the kids are given rudimentary instruction and then they move on to the next activity. You hit the wall pretty quickly in this training, and the great majority of people don’t want to try to climb it. The road doesn’t go around the wall, either. You either climb the wall and continue your journey, or you quit and move on to something easier. There are a lot of easy roads in life, but martial arts training is not one of them.
The road to the black belt.
I began my own martial arts journey in 2001. Actually, it was my fourth beginning. The first three times I’d taken the first few steps along the road but then decided to do other things. I told myself then that I just didn’t have the time; the truth, however, was that I found out how hard it was and I wasn’t ready, then, to meet that challenge. But my wife Sue and I enrolled our son Jim in the local taekwondo school, known as a dojang, when he turned seven years of age in 1994. Jim took to the training immediately and became a poom, or junior black belt, at the age of 12. I well remember sitting with Sue in a gymnasium on that summer day, watching Jim and some older students demonstrate their knowledge and expertise in front of their master instructor, Duane Most. We were amazed that these students could do all this, and Jim was right there with them every step of the way. Three years later he would achieve his chodan, or first-degree black belt.
Two years after Jim was awarded his poom, I decided to join him at the dojang. I trained two nights a week along with Jim and several other students in one of the side gyms of our local fitness center. Our instructor was Eric Swan, a police officer who quickly became a good friend. Many was the night I returned home and could hardly drag myself up the stairs. This time, though, I was not going to quit. Four years later I tested for black belt in an un-air-conditioned gym on a steamy July Sunday. The test lasted about four hours and I was certainly the oldest student in the group, three months shy of my 49th birthday. At the end, Master Duane told us to take off our belts. My red belt was so soaked with sweat that I almost couldn’t get it off, but I did, and it was replaced with the coveted black belt. I’ve been asked many times since then how I felt when I put it on. “Relieved,” I say. “I was very tired.” Jim achieved his second-degree a week or so later when he completed his final task, a triple board break that required him to do simultaneous front kicks and a punch. He’d been unable to finish the break during the test because he’d severely bruised his hand. During his senior year in high school Jim spent a couple weeks training in South Korea, where he earned his first-degree black belt in hapkido, a Korean art that emphasizes joint locks and throws.
Within a year I was asked to teach taekwondo through the community ed program in nearby Hayward, and after two years there I was asked by Master Eric to take over the Rice Lake dojang. For a total of four years I taught anywhere from two to four classes per week, and on many weekends I traveled throughout the upper Midwest to compete in tournaments. I met a lot of people from every background you could think of, all shapes and sizes and both genders, all of us competing not really against each other, but against ourselves, in a constant quest to get better, to learn, to grow.
The fascinating world of martial arts.
One of the first things the martial arts student discovers, right after finding out that this is not an easy road, is that the world of martial arts is broad and deep. Just about every culture has its own distinct martial arts history. In most cases a particular art has roots in similar arts from other cultures. Japanese karate, for example, was influenced by visitors from mainland Asia who knew Chinese kung fu. The Chinese, before that, had been influenced by travelers from south-central Asia, and so on. Some form of hand-to-hand combat has been practiced by every civilization from the dawn of time, first and foremost as a means of survival, and in the last century or so as a means of personal development and sport competition.
Around the time I achieved my Taekwondo chodan, I discovered the Russian art of Systema. With its roots in the Cossack warriors of old, modern Systema was held in-house by the communists until the fall of the Soviet Union. The man who is widely credited as the father of modern Systema, Col. Mikhail Ryabko, trained a gentleman named Vladimir Vasiliev, who emigrated to Canada in the early 1990s and began training students there in his native Russian art. I’ve trained with Vladimir several times over the years and have been privileged also to train with the Colonel, who looks like your favorite uncle but who is quite probably one of the most formidable men I’ve ever met. The Systema camps I attended were highlights of my martial arts journey, in which I trained not only with instructors who were Russian Spetsnaz (special forces) veterans, but with fellow students from all over the world, many of them with military and police training. I well remember one camp when I was involved in a drill with students from Israel, Japan, Australia, England and Serbia, as well as a Russian who had recently emigrated to California. To say that I learned a lot at these camps, and not just about martial arts, would be a serious understatement.
The weapons of the martial arts.
In taekwondo we were taught that we always carry four weapons with us: our hands and feet. By 2010, though, the wear and tear on my legs was starting to take its toll, so I transitioned into karate, an art that is probably the most well-known in America. Karate emphasizes upper-body work over the legs, which was just what I was looking for. A couple years earlier I’d gotten to know a karate sensei named Lloyd “Tony” Brown, and in ’10 I moved over to his dojo in Barron. My wife Sue began training with me in Tony’s kickboxing class, and he began offering classes in Okinawan weaponry. Karate originated on the island of Okinawa and eventually spread to the main islands of Japan. Prior to the 20th century, Okinawans were forbidden by their Japanese masters to own weapons, so they converted common farm implements into the weapons we recognize today as staples of the martial arts. Sue and I started this training early in 2010 and through it we met Sensei Peter Carbone, a 9th-degree Grandmaster in the art. Carbone Sensei’s dojo is in southeastern Michigan near Detroit, and he journeys to Okinawa every year to advance his own training and introduce his American students to the origins of karate.
We have been in this training now for more than five years, and we have learned several weapons: the bo (staff), nunchaku (short staffs connected by chain or rope, a staple of martial arts movies), tonfa (similar to the police baton), sai (short sword), and the escrima stick, which has been highly developed in the Philippines. There are other weapons on our horizon as well. Carbone Sensei makes customized weapons for us and they are far superior to what you’ll find in online martial arts supply stores. Here’s a gallery:
Displaying indomitable spirit.
In August of last year, Sue and I traveled to Carbone Sensei’s dojo for our test. We had already tested many times, of course, as we advanced in rank, but those were nothing compared to the black belt test. Having been through one for taekwondo, I had a pretty good idea of what to expect, but for Sue it was an especially nerve-wracking experience. One of the things martial arts teaches you, though, is how to control your emotions and your nerves, through breathing techniques, focus, and by building confidence. We were the only two students testing, facing a panel of nearly a dozen highly-ranked martial artists, including the master. Dozens of other students, who were there that weekend for Carbone Sensei’s summer training camp, filled up the other three sides of the large mat. We were put through our paces very thoroughly, and after about three hours Carbone Sensei told us to turn around and remove our brown belts. It was an emotional moment, especially for my wife. Later on she told me it was the hardest thing she’d ever done. There were a few tears shed as she put on her new black belt.
Taekwondo students learn the five tenets of the art: courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, and indomitable spirit. As you train and advance in rank, you must display all five, all the time. Those who take the training seriously—and you cannot be successful unless you do—soon begin to understand that martial arts is much more than learning how to fight. It is, really, a way of life. Entire forests have been felled to print the books about martial arts, but one of the most helpful, in my experience, is Living the Martial Way: A Manual for the Way a Modern Warrior Should Think, by Forrest Morgan, a former Air Force officer and black belt in taekwondo and jujitsu, a highly-effective grappling art that originated in Japan and has spread all over the world, like most martial arts. In his book, Morgan discusses how the true nature of martial arts can be applied, through study and training, to enrich virtually anyone’s life.
Living the warrior lifestyle is a subject for another post, though, so suffice it to say now that when you start training in a martial art, you will encounter that wall I mentioned earlier. Most students don’t summon the will to climb that wall, however, which is truly unfortunate. I happen to think we’d be much better off as a society if a lot more people trained in martial arts. For now, though, those of us who do will have to be ready to help those who don’t. In his book Warriors: On Living with Courage, Discipline and Honor, the martial artist Loren W. Christensen, who is also a Vietnam veteran and longtime police officer, told the story of another Vietnam vet who said there are three types of people in the world: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. Most people are like sheep; they are peaceful, rather placid, and just want to live their lives and get along. But some people are wolves, who prey on the sheep. The wolves are cunning, powerful, and utterly ruthless. Then there are the sheepdogs. These are the people who train to be like the wolf, only they stand guard over the sheep. The sheep don’t really trust the sheepdogs; they are a lot like wolves, after all, bigger and stronger than the sheep. But when the wolves show up, the sheep all run for protection behind the one lonely sheepdog, who will defend his sheep even at the cost of his own life. Our society has a lot of sheepdogs: police officers, military personnel, EMTs, firemen. But we martial artists are sheepdogs, too. We don’t carry badges or guns, and not all of us are as skilled as the ones depicted on the movie screen, but we’re there, just in case. You never know when the wolves are going to show up.
Putting us through the paces.
The seminar on May 30 was a good one, as they all are. Carbone Sensei had a large class, about two dozen students, some of whom would be testing for their own black belts later in the day. Some would also be accompanying the master on his next trip to Okinawa, which leaves in just a few days. Our focus on this day was the tonfa, which was the first weapon Sue and I started learning when we began our studies of this art.
As you can see, the mat was a bit crowded that day, but that’s a problem every dojo wishes it could have. There’s room for you, though. If not here in Rice Lake, then at Brown Sensei’s academy in nearby Barron, or my old taekwondo dojang in Rice Lake that is still going strong under Master Eric. There’s probably a training center in your town, or one close by. Check it out, give it a try. We can always use more sheepdogs.
Links to our dojos:
And for more information on Carbone Sensei’s art and to order his beautiful weapons: http://www.weaponsconnection.org