Martial Arts after Forty

I hate fighting; I never considered myself a martial arts aficionado. Yet somehow I earned a black belt in Chung Do Kwan Tae Kwon Do in 1988 under the instruction of Master Yong Taek Chung. I was seventeen years old. My only explanation is an attraction to the challenges of each successive rank, and a fascination with the physical perfection demanded by each technique. Plus, I showed some ability, which was a welcome salve to my adolescent insecurities.

Sabu Nim Yong Taek Chung

Master Chung was a sixty-something immigrant from Korea with scars on his chest and a mysterious, thrilling past. He inexplicably settled in Kansas City in the 1970s with his Japanese wife and preschool son and immediately founded a karate school. Over the next decade or so, Master Chung trained and cultivated a tight-knit community of talented martial artists. By the time I joined, he relied heavily on a small group of assistant instructors — his most passionate students — for many of the core teaching responsibilities. They were an eclectic band of adults from all walks of life in Kansas City, bound by their mutual reverence for the art and for Master Chung. I was a quiet, sheltered kid from the suburbs who would sit wide-eyed watching this group of fantastic athletes, in their clean white uniforms and worn black belts, demonstrate advanced forms and sparring techniques. Then they would willingly instruct raw beginners like me under the watchful eye of Master Chung, a process which I found both humbling and awesome. On most days Master Chung scared the hell out of me, and, honestly, so did some of the assistant instructors, but I never once felt unwelcome or endangered. The school was at its peak in the mid-1980s, or just cresting it.

Master Chung rarely interacted with me outside of basic instruction, but on one ordinary day he inadvertently forged my identity with Chung Do Kwan. I was fifteen years old and held a purple belt, which is a middle-to-advanced level, when a few visitors came from another school. They demonstrated some forms to Master Chung, and he wasn’t very impressed. While trying to explain techniques in his thick, often-unintelligible accent, Master Chung picked me from the students in class to perform one or two forms. He turned to the visitors and said, “You see? Like that.” He then dismissed me to return to class. It was the finest compliment I had ever received.

17-year-old Black Belt (1988)

Around the time I earned my black belt, Master Chung retired to California, leaving the school under the care of his most trusted students. I hung on for a while, training here and there, but soon became consumed with high school Cross Country and Track. When college came I stopped practicing entirely. But the old school carried on, burning the fires for many years. Several instructors broke off and launched clubs of their own, forming a strong Chung Do Kwan network in the city. As the seasons marched into years, many generations of Chung Do Kwan students joined and trained under their skilled guidance.

I kept up with one of my favorite instructors over the years, whose values of discipline and technique most closely aligned with my own. He was a humble house painter who seemed surprised by his own talents, finding purpose through teaching and running a school. Occasionally I’d return and join his classes, boldly assuming that I was always welcome as a former student at Chung’s. He always graciously welcomed my presence, which meant more to me than he could know. During one brief foray at his school in my twenties, I taught an eager new student the basics of the moving-stomach punch. I moved away for job reasons and returned several years later, when I was thirty years old, to discover him testing for his second-degree black belt.

At thirty, I made a genuine attempt to re-commit to the art. But I couldn’t regain the focus of my teenage years, frequently distracted by marriage, career issues, MBA studies, and a newfound addiction to marathons. Plus I was constantly frustrated with my changing body. My muscle memories were vivid, but my execution flawed. I attended a Chung Do Kwan tournament, one of the last of the era, and lost quickly. I felt past my prime and quit shortly thereafter, when my first son was born.

30-year-old Black Belt (2001)

The unrelenting years continued to pass. New clubs started but some withered and folded. Memories faded and new interpretations emerged. The group of assistant instructors passed into middle age and the bonds of their younger days weakened. Some broke entirely. Master Chung passed away quietly in California in 2006. I wasn’t very active at the time and never in the inner circle, so I didn’t attend the funeral. The original school is long gone, replaced by a tuxedo store and then a brew pub.

A few sparks remain, here and there. I found one. He is a former prodigy of Master Chung, one year younger than I, who was a brown belt when I started a lifetime ago. For the tiniest of moments, while at the peak of my form at the age of sixteen, I could challenge his abilities. But, unlike me, he never quit training. Now he holds a fifth-degree black belt and owns one of the few remaining Chung Do Kwan schools in Kansas City. Master Chung’s portrait hangs on the wall. He is a torchbearer to the legacy. I’m just another former student.

I joined his school and returned to training at the age of forty two, twenty-eight years after my first class and twenty-five since I tested for the first-degree black belt. So much is different now.

For one, I’m forty-freakin-two. I also have three young sons. On Saturdays we attend class together. The head instructor — my former colleague and one-time sparring partner — teaches a few techniques differently than I remember — no matter, this is his school. I don’t push my kids in class; I essentially ignore them and let the others instruct. I can’t shake the memory of Master Chung’s son, who was a few years older than I and a frequent presence in class. He was probably the most naturally gifted student of all. But he never seemed comfortable around his father. Training was an obligation, something he didn’t seem to enjoy despite his breathtaking talent. My parenting style is different. I want my children to develop the passion themselves.

My first class as a forty-something student was refreshingly solid. Techniques came easily thanks to a fair level of fitness from my other passion — running. I didn’t feel obligated to push too hard, which was a strikingly liberating feeling. Unlike at thirty, when I unsuccessfully tried to recreate the intensity of the past. But, by the third or fourth class, the realities of my current age became abundantly clear. In sparring, spinning kicks that I used to throw eagerly now required effort, a lot more than I remember, making me question the return on investment. I lost trust in my flexibility, casting doubts on other techniques. There’s a toe injury from my twenties that will never, ever heal, further restricting my kicking repertoire. Finally, I got winded frequently, just as much as the others. I used to be one of the last to tire — I ran marathons for heaven’s sake. Not anymore.

40-something Black Belt (2015)

I’m one of the old guys now, and I’m not entirely comfortable with that role. When I was a kid, one old guy was a Vietnam vet with shrapnel in his head and massive calluses on his knuckles, who liked to scream during sparring to throw your concentration. I’m just a suburban dad with a couple of decent moves. Today many of the other black belts are suburban dads, too. None of them seem to have the eerie dark side I witnessed from one of Master Chung’s star students, a charming and affable professional by day who became shockingly brutal within the confines of training. He is the only human being I’ve ever hit in anger. One time while sparring in class, he tagged me again and again while scolding me for not being aggressive enough. I eventually snapped in rage and connected a sidekick to his ribs with every intent to do harm. He deflected enough that he wasn’t really hurt, but grunted, “Good!” and seemed impressed. Later he took me aside like a concerned big brother and said that I had the talent but not the desire to win. I could have a future in martial arts but I was holding back. I listened quietly but thought to myself, “I don’t like to fight.”

I don’t see that level of harshness today. Everyone is still serious and disciplined, but the eccentrics have gone elsewhere. I have mixed feelings about the evolution of martial arts, but as a forty-something student past his prime and with kids in the class, I’m comfortable with the more civil climate.

I’m probably doing well for my age, but I’m no longer distinguished in any way — if I ever was. I’m just another student. That knowledge hurts. Except that my kids are watching now. They get to see their old man huffing and puffing up there with the other black belts during forms or sparring. If only they could have seen me when I was young. But it seems trivial to complain; Master Chung taught well into his sixties, appearing fit yet unwilling to demonstrate (I can’t recall him ever performing a form in class) but in clear command of the curriculum and the school.

I still hate aggression; it’s not in my nature, but I’ll always admire the genius of the art. The pursuit of perfection. The basic techniques are permanently etched in my memory, even if my body isn’t always up to form. Maybe someday I’ll be asked to test for my second-degree black belt. I wonder how long it usually takes to earn that rank? For me, it’s going on twenty-six years.

(Note: The author did finally test for, and achieve, the rank of second dan in March of 2015 — twenty-seven years after reaching first.)