Here’s some much-needed good news: recently, David, myself, and the three other students from our karate studio who tested for our black belts last month learned that all of us passed the test. In another couple of weeks, we’ll be presented with our new belts and uniforms after a demonstration at our studio. Thanks very much to everyone who supported us along the way. As part of the testing requirements, each of us had to write a thousand word essay on the topic, “What Tang Soo Do Means to Me.” I thought I’d share what I wrote here.
Sons and Fathers, Fathers and Sons:
A Reflection on My Experience of Tang Soo Do
It’s February of 1983. I’m thirteen years old, and sitting in the front seat of the family car, a gigantic blue Ford LTD. My father is driving. It’s after 9:00pm, late for me to be out on a Wednesday night. We’re heading home from the IBM Country Club in Poughkeepsie, where I just earned my yellow belt in Tae Kwon Do. The room in which I tested was huge, carpeted, probably a ballroom, full of people of all ages wearing doboks, some of them doing forms, others sparring. While my father watched from the sidelines, I performed the three forms required for my exam and was awarded my yellow belt. On the small green grading card, Master Sun, the head of our local Tae Kwon Do organization, wrote a couple of Korean characters with an exclamation point next to them. My teacher told me this means I did a great job.
The car ride home is quiet. This is not a bad silence, though, like when I’m in trouble and listening for the sound of my father pulling into the driveway. This is a companionable quiet. My father has never seen me do Tae Kwon Do before; I go every Monday with a pair of school friends, one of whose fathers drives us. Truth to tell, I’ve never been much of an athlete. Although I played in the local soccer league when I was younger, I wasn’t very good. My career came to an end when I was ten, and broke my foot trying to take the ball away from a bigger kid. (He kicked at the ball, and hit my foot, instead.) Since then, the closest I’ve come to participating in an organized sport has been trying out for CYO basketball this past fall and not making the team. For my father, a self-described sports nut who was offered a position on the local soccer team when he was a young man in Scotland, my lack of athletic ability is difficult. Outside of Saturday afternoon Bruce Lee movies on Channel 9, he isn’t familiar with martial arts, so he hasn’t known how to think about my Monday night training.
After we return home, I’ll overhear him talking to my mother about the test, and while I won’t be able to make out all of what he says, it won’t matter. What will is the tone of his voice, surprised, impressed, and proud. Across a distance of thirty-four years, I will still be able to hear it. For the moment, though, what matters is that feeling between us as we’re sitting in the car, heading down Route 9, that closeness. In the ten years we have left together, there will be other good times, but none quite like that one.
(I’ll stick with Tae Kwon Do for about another year. Not long after I earn my yellow belt, my teacher moves to Florida. The man who takes over the class doesn’t believe that kids my age have a place in a martial arts class. I train and train and train, but he refuses to send me for my next belt exam. I finally stop going. My father doesn’t comment on my decision.)
It’s August of 2011. I’m forty-two years old, sitting at a table in front of Boice’s Dairy Bar with my wife, younger son, David, and David’s Tang Soo Do instructor, Master Rodney Batista. David has been a student at Triumph Karate for a couple of months, and is having a great time as a white belt. He and the other white belts from the dojang are at Boice’s as guests of Master Batista, who’s treating all of them to ice cream. While the kids socialize, Fiona and I talk with David’s teacher about his training. After a few minutes, Master Batista looks at me over his ice cream cone and says to my wife, “Hey Fiona, I think this guy wants to do karate.”
I demur. Yes, I’m interested, but this is David’s activity. The last thing I want to be is one of those parents who can’t let his kid have a life of his own, who’s always crowding in on his activities.
Master Batista nods. “Tell you what,” he says. “Why don’t you wait until David gets his orange belt, and then you can join. This way, he’ll be ahead of you, and you won’t have to worry about competing with him.”
I agree, tentatively, but on the drive home, I ask my son if he’d be okay with me taking karate with him. He considers the matter, then says, “I think it would be a good idea.”
(Needless to say, David earns his orange belt much more quickly than I anticipated. The following December, I take my first class in Tang Soo Do at the Kingston YMCA. Although I exercise to the point I’m sure I’m going to throw up, I manage to keep the contents of my stomach in place. David, I think, doesn’t have anything to worry about.)
It’s September of 2014. I’m forty-five years old, and seated at a long tale at King’s Pizza with David, my wife, my older son and his wife and children, and my younger sister and her husband and kids. It’s a Friday night, a little after seven, and the restaurant is busy. We’re here for a celebratory dinner: earlier this evening, David and I passed the test for our third gups.
The red belts have come at the end of a couple of years of hard work, during which, I’ve finally caught up to my son. A few days after I earned my green belt, one of the Dans offered me advice about my new rank. “The green belt is the hardest belt,” she said. “Most people who quit karate do it during their green belt.” I asked her why this was. She said, “Because it’s in the middle. When you’re a white belt, everything’s new. When you get your orange belt, it’s your first belt change, and it’s exciting. At red belt, you’re looking ahead to your Cho Dan. With your green belt, though, you’re no longer a beginning student, and you aren’t a senior student. This is the belt when you really have to commit to Tang Soo Do.”
For the past two years, my son and I have followed that advice. We’ve worked on our offensive and defensive hip movements. We’ve increased our repertoire of hand and foot techniques. We’ve made our way through the rest of the Pyung Ahn forms. We’ve learned more of the Korean terminology for what we’re doing. We’ve been to a tournament in Greenwich and brought back medals. And our engagement with the martial art we study three and sometimes four times a week has deepened in other ways. We’ve encouraged one of David’s oldest friends to join the dojang, and together with her mother, she has. Most days we go to karate, we give them a ride. We’ve encouraged my younger sister’s older son to try Tang Soo Do, which he has, and he likes it. We’ve become friendly with the other students at the dojang, including the boy who will become one of David’s closest friends. The more I train in Tang Soo Do, the more I see parallels between its structure and discipline and other aspects of my life.
Sometimes David and I discuss these connections on the drive in to and back from karate. To family and friends, I’ve often said that one of the best things for my son’s martial arts training has been my decision to join him in it, because this has meant I’m too busy to interfere with it. (Not to mention, it’s also provided me with a healthy dose of humility, trying to learn things that come so much more easily to him.) What I haven’t said to anyone except my wife is how much I’ve also come to enjoy this time alone in the car with David. Our conversations range all over the place, from how he’s doing at school, to his relationships with his friends, to Minecraft, to The Amazing World of Gumball, to whichever of the Marvel movies is currently in theaters. Occasionally, he’ll ask about my day, what I’m writing now. He’s become quite the young fisherman, and increasingly, our talk turns to fishing, spots we’ve been to, spots we might visit.
No matter what we’re discussing, though, our shared martial art is never that far from us. It’s an odd feeling, to have this experience in common with him. Typically, fathers introduce their children to things, whether sports, or movies, or music, or food. Certainly, that was the case with my father and me. To learn something together, to share the experience of being fellow students—particularly in an art as rich and complex as Tang Soo Do is proving to be—feels like a gift, something I never would have guessed I’d want or appreciate as much as I do.
That gift has brought us here, to a table full of family talking with one another and eating good food. I’m part of the general hubbub, of course, but there are a couple of moments when I fall silent, listening to the conversations around me, the easy laughter between the members of my family. Within my quiet, I hear another silence, decades past. Unexpectedly, I feel my throat tighten, my eyes moisten. Fiona leans toward me, says, “Are you okay? You seem kind of quiet.”
“I’m fine,” I say. “Just taking everything in, you know?”
(Immediately after I receive my red belt, however, I enter the hospital for surgery to repair an umbilical hernia. The recovery period my doctor assures me will take one to two weeks stretches to a month and a half. After I return, I feel slow, graceless.)
Um and Yung
It’s September of 2016. I’m forty-seven years old, and preparing to test for my Cho Dan in a little more than a week. David is getting ready to test with me. It’s been a long summer of preparation, during which the martial art I thought I knew so well has become, I tell anyone who asks, engraved on my bones.
One afternoon, as we’re driving to the dojang, David says, “Do you think Grandpa would have done karate with us?”
The image of my father, dressed in a white dobak and dee, flashes in front of me. He looks much the same as he did when he died, the only real difference his hair, which is completely white. He, David, and I are performing Chil Sung Ill Ryo Hyung together. The Chil Sung forms, I remember, are called the River. I think about what flows from my father to me, from me to my son.
“Yeah,” I say, “I’m pretty sure Grandpa would have.”
From our last tournament, this past March.