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Okinawan Karate 1975-1978

In November 1975, I started studying Okinawan Shorin-Ryu Karate at Chicago State University, 95th Street and Dr. Martin Luther King Drive. My Sensei was John R. Venson, (pictured below) a Third-degree Black Belt at that time. Little did I know at that time how this initial experience would change my life for the next three years and beyond.

I did not realize that I had joined the number one ranked karate organization in the State of Illinois. Classes were held on Tuesday, Thursday evenings, and Saturday afternoons.

I wasn't in the best physical condition at the start. The very first day I had to run 3 miles with another Sensei right behind me yelling and screaming at me to keep going. When that was over the whole class went down to the exercise room to do 100 sit-ups, 100 jumping jacks, 100 pushups, 100 leg-raises and then self-defense exercises. I couldn't keep up; I was out of breath and my strength was gone long before the count of 40 on any of the tasks. Of course this was noticed and I was berated for being tired and weak. The rest of the class made up the difference of my counts which immediately endeared them to me. :-)

During the next two days, I was never so sore in my life. I was sure I was experiencing rigor-mortis while still alive. Well, I showed up again on Thursday for a repeat of Tuesday's exercises. Pretty much the same result occurred but I was stubborn enough to persist. The class once again made up my missing exercises and several of them wanted me to be their first sparring partner so they could return their gratitude to me.

On Friday, I purchased my Gi, and is the uniform a student wears to the Dojo. I received my White Belt and learned how to tie it properly. I was ready for Saturday now, well, at least I would be dressed accordingly.

Skipping ahead now, I found as the second week of training evolved, that I was able to run a bit better and do better at all the exercises. I started practicing my stances and other exercises at home to help me get into shape. Within a couple months I could run 5 miles and do all of the exercises. More on that outcome later.

I started sparring after about three weeks and was treated to being knocked down by every opponent. I was an untrained student and matched against more advanced students so I knew I was receiving payback to test my psychological stamina and see if I could take it without losing my cool. It was frustrating for me, but I hung in there and paid my debt accordingly.

I decided to test for Yellow Belt after a couple months. I've forgotten some of the requirements but essentially I had to do all 13 stances perfectly, know how to do some basic blocking and striking techniques. Oh yes, I had to perform a Kata, a pre-arranged set of movements that tells a story of a conflict. All moves must be done with power and be believable otherwise one fails. Effective January 31, 1976, I was promoted to Yellow Belt (shown below).

I was getting into the Art now, I listened and took extensive notes from my Sensei's lectures. I wrote a special paper on the Theory of Leverage and a book report on Asian Fighting Arts. I started specializing in Fall-And-Roll techniques and Judo throws and found I could handle opponents much bigger than I am at 5-foot 6-inches tall. Still, I was only a Yellow Belt and had much to learn.

Three months went by before I tested for Blue Belt. That required 5 Katas, 100+ striking and kicking techniques, some choke holds, many blocks, and several Judo throws. Sparring capabilities needed to be pretty well developed as well. Again all movements had to be demonstrated with power. I also had to provide many hours of student training to Yellow and White Belts usually on stances and Fall-And-Roll techniques. I was promoted to Blue Belt on April 30, 1976 (shown below). I was learning, teaching, and evolving. It was great!

Later in May, my Sensei announced that there was a medallion that he rarely awarded. This medallion was given by him to students who in his opinion, had given an outstanding contribution to the martial arts. Only a handful of these had been distributed since he started teaching many years before. He went on to explain the importance of this medallion and then announced that I was to be awarded one because of my work on the two earlier papers I submitted and my dedication to teaching other students the principles involved. He indicated that no one had ever received the award below the rank of Green Belt, and that my being a Blue Belt was especially noticed. I was overcome with emotion in accepting the medallion (shown below). I still wear it around my neck in my Native American medicine bag.

In the following months new knowledge was introduced: foot movements, styles of attacking and defending, detection and defense while blind-folded, many new and more complicated Katas, hundreds of striking and kicking techniques, continuous-motion techniques using all weapons of the body, knowledge concerning vital spots of the body, advanced Judo techniques, choke holds that could tear-out or crush an Adam's-apple within a second. Of course, restraint and common-sense usage was part of the discipline.

We could quickly weed out those who came to class to learn how to be violent instead of seeking inner peace. They never lasted long because their heart, mind, and soul were not in touch with truth. The Sensei's always convinced those that came to class with the wrong intentions that they should spend their time elsewhere. If Sensei's words did not convey the correct meaning to those folks, then intense sparring sessions drove the point home directly. Only a few people challenged the Sensei's sparring intentions, each one left in pain and with extreme humiliation as they were reduced to a pulp before everyone's eyes. It's too bad some of those folks didn't have more positive attitudes, they might have made great students.

I became a fanatic with the physical exercises. I loved the leg-raises and was often made the leader of the exercises because I could do hundreds of leg-raises. Think about it, while on your back, spread your legs, keeping both feet off of the floor at all times. Now raise your legs perpendicular to the floor, now lower them slowly (remember not to touch the ground), now hold them an inch off the ground, now close your legs together, now raise them, now lower them, now spread them and raise them perpendicular again. Do that sequence about 100 times and see how it feels and you'll be in the place those folks were back then. They loved me. :-)

How about giving 200 side-kicks, 200 front-kicks, 200 straight punches after the usual workout? Don't forget to use power on every movement; remember this is the number one school in Illinois!

Classes at night started promptly at 7:00 PM and Saturday at Noon. Whoever the senior student in class was the moment the clock reached that time was responsible for starting class. Often, I had that duty until a more senior student arrived later. On August 14, 1976, while leading the class, my Sensei arrived and stopped the class. He reached into his bag and said, "Don, it's time for this", and he handed me a Green Belt. I replied that I hadn't tested for Green Belt and he said all my efforts had more than prepared me for the promotion. Again, I was feeling the pride he had in me. I worked harder than ever.

When I became a Purple Belt on January 27, 1977 (shown below), I was expected to earn the special Kibadachi badge (shown below) before I could attain Third Brown Belt. To earn this badge, the student must get into Kibadachi (horse-stance) really low to the ground, knees spread wide, and holding the back straight. This stance must be held without any movement for 30 minutes. In addition, during the first 15 minutes, the student must hold out the arms straight and perpendicular from the sides without movement. Any movement during the 30 minutes is a disqualification. I failed in my first attempt because I tried to use physical strength alone. A month later I had learned and practiced the art of inner-strength and discovered the secret and power it gives. I passed the second time around using that knowledge.

Sometime in early 1977, the class decided to put on a community demonstration. We would have students from all over the state come to the University to participate in sparring contests, Kata contests, and self-defense exercises. Sensei came up with the idea of having 10 selected students work through the same Kata blind-folded all confined within a small square area simultaneously. I thought that was too simple and suggested that we pick ten different Katas, choreographed to introduce a bit of suspense and danger. Remember, this is to be done blind-folded and using power with strikes and kicks. There was this really nice mannered Yellow Belt in the class who was about 6-foot 6-inches tall and about 300 pounds. His Kata required him to give a front-snap kick towards my face during our closest movements. Any mistake on our sense of positions would be bad news for me. I had confidence where I would be during my movements and he was very focused during his. Many rehearsals helped make this a success. During the actual blind-folded performance, I felt his foot come within a couple inches of my face, as practiced! The audience enjoyed this exciting demo and we all ended each Kata in our respective positions and on time! That demonstration was talked about in other schools for months.

One of the things that differentiated our school from others is that we used real knives during our knife-defense training. We felt that by using real knives we could reduce the fear if we actually faced one on the street. Sometimes small cuts would be introduced on students, but never any serious damage occurred except during one special situation that I'll describe later.

One day, Sensei had the class work on 1,000 side-kicks all in unison. Some of the group of about 100 students were having difficulty staying in synch. At this point I'll let you know that after the time I was promoted to Blue Belt (about a year before), I had been the only White student in the class, everyone else of the 200 total students was Black. It's funny, because I never thought of my fellow students and Sensei's as being Black because we were all on the same team. Anyway, during those 1,000 kicks, my Sensei walks by some students just to the left of me and says, "Alright, what's wrong with you folks? You're all supposed to have rhythm you know!" Then as he stepped by me he said, "You too, Don; you've been here long enough!" I feel that was one of the best compliments I ever got in my life!

Any of the Brown Belt tests required various opponents to attack the student with a real knife in any fashion and the student had to disarm the attacker using power but also with control. I was an attacker a number of times previously and gave the student being tested fits. One time I sliced the entire side of my friend's uniform in trying to slash his arm. Fortunately, Howard was in superb physical shape, mentally alert, and had the reflexes of a cat. Immediately after the downward swing of my slash, he whipped around, kicked me in the back of my head, kicked his passing foot back against my face, grabbed and almost broke my arm in the Judo takedown. Hey, we were not the number one Karate school in Illinois based upon looks.

I advanced to Third Brown Belt on December 1, 1977 and then in February 1978, I tested for Second Brown Belt. In my test, I had to fight six separate opponents, one at a time, again with a real knife. I worked my way through the first three. The fourth student was a young woman who pleaded with Sensei to not have to fight me. While I listened to her, I recalled my first time in attacking someone and how I did not want to participate in it. Well, that's all it took for me to loose my sense of focus. During her attack, I missed a block and she cut the extensor tendon for my index finger on my left hand all the way through. I had to have emergency surgery and was out for 6 weeks from work and class. I have no regrets for facing my attackers and losing to one.

When I returned to class in May, I was informed that effective February 23, 1978, I was promoted to Second Brown Belt, but needed to retest before I could be promoted to First Brown Belt. I had thought long and hard about that option during my recovery. I decided to not retest because I knew if I ever faced another person attacking me with a knife, whether in class or outside, I could not remain in control and would in most likelihood, seriously harm that person or worse. I could not proceed feeling and knowing that real possibility existed so I remained a Second Degree Brown Belt until I left the school late in 1978 after my wife, daughter, and I moved to the western suburbs of Chicago.

I learned so much during those three years. I used a lot of that inner-strength knowledge to pull me through my early computer career during the recession years of the early 1980's. Most people think Martial Arts is about learning to fight; it's not. I've never had to fight anyone and I don't back down from people either. It's about understanding oneself and finding inner peace. Sometimes I miss the martial arts activity and the days when I was in my mid-twenties in prime condition. I miss the Karate friends I had back then and listening to the challenges of inner-city people coping with a lifestyle different from my own. I recently found the latest address of my former Sensei and tried to contact him. Maybe I will be able to reach him soon; I owe him a lot because he helped shape me into who I am today.

Visit Sensei Venson's Just For Kicks web site for more information.

Update 04/29/05: Sensei, his son, Reggie (also a Sensei), and I met at my house after a 25-year separation. Below is a picture of the reunion near the restaurant where we all had dinner.

Thanks Sensei!


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