The Rockaway Irregular
I was a really scrawny kid when I was young, the kind who tended to get beat up a lot – in school and out. That didn’t sit well with me, as you can imagine, so when I was about 14 or 15 I told my father I wanted to learn how to fight. He reluctantly enrolled me in a judo school in Brooklyn (in those days you had to go outside Rockaway to find such places), although he thought I should be putting my time to better use. But judo, it turned out, didn’t suit me. I didn’t like the intricate movements (they were hard to learn and execute), or the close body contact with other sweaty kids, or the frequent schleps to Brooklyn, and after a few months I quit.
In time I filled out some, but I never quite lost that sense of vulnerability you get from being on the wrong end of other kids’ fists too many times – which is why I suppose I took up the martial arts again when I had the chance in college. After-hours sessions in the classic Japanese karate style of Shotokan, a form of martial art that’s the ancestor of many other latter day styles, was being offered by a fellow student. Unlike judo, which is mainly wrestling by using an opponent’s own strength against him, karate was all about punching and kicking your way out of trouble. I liked that much more than wrestling, though the training was intense.
You might say I fell in love with the martial arts in my college days thanks to that Shotokan class. I went on to study taekwondo (a Korean form of karate emphasizing high kicks and lots of jumping and spinning) and, afterwards, a pretty rare style known as Yun Mu Kwan. My father, who thought I was crazy to worry about learning how to fight when I should be learning how to make a living, took me aside one day and asked why I didn’t stop “futzing” around? If I was serious about karate, of which he heartily disapproved, he assured me, then I needed to get myself a real teacher! If I had to do it, he said, at least do it right.
So my final martial arts teacher turned out to be a reclusive Korean named Min Pai who ran an off-thebeaten path school in the Chelsea area of Manhattan. He had trained in the old Korean Yun Mu Kwan form of karate before coming to the States but had revised and evolved his methods thanks to his proximity to New York City’s Chinatown. I got my black belt under his tutelage and stayed with him for five years – until my first child was born and I realized I preferred being home with my wife and new daughter to kicking and punching opponents late into the evening on most every week night. So I quit karate, too, and got on with my life.
Fast forward about 30 years when, having retired from a stressful but mostly sedentary career in city government (for a still more sedentary lifestyle – writing not requiring much physical activity, after all!), I had a life changing moment. I suddenly found myself flat on my back in an ambulance, an oxygen mask secured tightly to my face as we sped through the streets of Rockaway to Peninsula Hospital’s emergency room. My doctor told me afterwards that I needed “to get active again, or else” – though it took me until 2010 to finally take him seriously. That’s when I decided to resume the karate practice I’d given up more than 30 years earlier after realizing that my breathing had become increasingly labored and my energy was flagging.
But martial arts aren’t the same when you’re an old guy as they are for the young and it was a long slog rebuilding my wind (as much of it as I could, anyway). Most of the old flexibility in my joints was gone, too, and my knees refused to bend like they used to. Still I soldiered on, aware of my doctor’s admonition – and, even more of that increasing discomfort I’d recently begun feeling in my chest.
I started wearing my black belt, once more, too. Didn’t have to, of course, because I was exercising in private with no one watching, but my waist had thickened so much that I couldn’t tie the old belt around it any longer – and the new one (it came with my new karate gi) was shiny and stiff. One of the signs of an experienced martial artist is a well worn black belt – the more tattered and frayed the better! – so feeling the sting of that obviously new belt, I decided to start using it – in hopes of wearing it out, like its predecessor.
Then, in early October 2011, I got an unexpected e-mail from a fellow in Connecticut who introduced himself as a fourth degree black belt in the Yun Mu Kwan style. He said he wanted to compare notes about our system and get my take on what it was like in the early days. It was a fortuitous moment because I’d been practicing pretty regularly by then – making slow, if steady, progress – and so, with some trepidation (what would I do if he wanted to spar – he was only 41 after all, a kid from my perspective!), I agreed to make the trip to Stamford. I took my son-in-law and one of my grandsons along for moral support though (and to make sure I made it to a hospital if things went badly).
We met Sensei Jason Perri at his workout space in a Stamford suburb, a dance school where he rented space. Although I had to rest a lot between activities, I actually ended up lasting two minutes with him on the sparring floor – despite the fact that he proved much stronger than I’d expected and way harder to hit. (In my heyday I’d gotten used to getting through my opponents’ defenses almost at will, so that was a bit of a shock!) He later put our bout on YouTube so the whole world can now see how an old guy looks when he’s struggling to meet the challenge of lost youth!
But we had a fine time swapping stories about our training years and even met up with a few other old timers (he proved to be an indefatigable organizer) so that my brief sojourn in Connecticut served to validate my recent efforts to regain at least some of my old verve. Even more, it re-awakened that early passion I’d once harbored for the martial arts. So I came home invigorated – and intent on regaining even more of what I’d foolishly allowed to fade with youth.
We can’t stop advancing age, of course, but perhaps, I thought, there are ways to slow it down, which got me to thinking about martial arts in general. When I was a boy you had to go elsewhere to learn that kind of stuff but it turns out that’s not so anymore. A quick survey of our area found six martial arts schools of various types right here in our own backyard!
The oldest is World Champions Karate which teaches the classical Japanese style of Shotokan (along with cardio kick boxing and the more restful Chinese art of tai chi) on Beach Channel Drive under the auspices of Sensei Bruce Hodes, a local resident and former schoolteacher. On Rockaway Beach Boulevard, just east of Beach 116 Street, you can find the Cadawan Martial Arts Center where another local, Lando Cadawan, teaches a combination of Korean fighting arts (Hapkido and Taekwondo) along with his native Philippine stick fighting (Escrima). Just a few blocks away, on Old Rockaway Beach Boulevard near Beach 108 Street, there’s the recently opened Rock-Jitsu school teaching the Brazilian variation of the venerable Japanese art of Jiu-Jitsu. (The Brazilian version focuses on ground fighting where so many confrontations often end up.) Less than a mile to the east, on Rockaway Beach Boulevard at Beach 92 Street (not far from The Wave’s offices), is yet another martial arts gym, CROM Martial Training, run by recently retired North American Muay Thai champion Chris Romulo, offering classes in Thai kickboxing, a popular Asian sport that’s becoming increasingly familiar to fight fans in this country.
Not to be outdone, Far Rockaway’s Amethyst Martial Arts School on Cornaga Avenue offers a mixed system of Jiu-Jitsu, tracing its origins to the polyglot methods of combat developed by the Philippine emigre Florendo Visitacion, and, just over the border, on Central Avenue in Cedarhurst, Warren Levi, a South African transplant and former tournament champion, teaches classical Shotokan at the dojo founded by the famous 1960s tourney champ, Alex Sternberg. Levi offers a complex curriculum that runs from traditional karate to kickboxing to self-defense methods, based on Israeli Krav Maga, along with groundwork based on Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
There’s so much on offer that I hardly knew where to begin so I got the go-ahead from our Wave editor to take a look at all these schools in a little more depth – which is why, in coming weeks, I’ll be interviewing the teachers at each to find out a little more about them, as I try to regain some of my faded youth – and maybe relive it. We’ll see how far that goes.