Ancient Art Form

Inside the mini-gymnasium, a converted bookstore tucked away in a suburban side pocket, the fiercest warriors this side of perdition were sitting cross-legged on the floor watching home movies. They were dressed in what appeared to be white pajamas, as if somebody had arranged a slumber party for grown men. All that was lacking was a bowl of popcorn and a record player.

But these were not innocent schoolboys, lounging around, murdering time and telling lies about girls. These were practitioners of the ancient and horrible art of Karate, Taekwondo-style. As an athletic event it combines all the stylish beauty of the ballet with the cheery comradery of a barroom full of rioting sailors. Nothing is illegal as long as you use the proper technique, which explains why so many meatballs in black leather jackets have tried it – in 10 easy lessons - and flunked out.

It is not a simple exercise, regardless of what you may have read in advertisements on the back of magazine covers. It is a classical rumble that began in a Buddhist monastery in the mountains of India in the 14th century. If you do not know the subtleties of a well-placed elbow in the solar-plexus or the nuances of cultural heel in the groin, you are quickly found out. You might even be hooted at.

The movie, flashing on the wall, showed an excessively showy Occidental climbing all-over his opponent, dropping him on the mat and then lashing him with dozens of pulling punches. The winner's hand flicked back and forth quicker than a kissing snake. To a visiting pacifist, the whole business looked pretty impressive. But one of the guys in the pajamas, a highly scrutable Oriental, Kim Pyung Soo, Champion of Korea (southern division), howled with laughter.

"Oh, no! Oh no!" he said, choking with humor. "How many times can you 'kill' somebody? How many times can you break' a man's jaw? Oh, he is very, very funny."

The First State Tournament

In a week, Houston will have its very first statewide Karate tournament, a news item that may not thrill to many ordinary citizens, since the sport is quite often equated with the sort of critter who likes to whirl around on a motorcycle, wearing a Nazi armband and smashing up small towns. This is a false impression. In fact, it disturbs Kim Pyung Soo greatly.

"Many people think Karate is brutal," he said. “They want you to break boards with your head. Then they bring out big cake of ice. You are expected to break that, also. People in America get the idea Karate is just for bums. It is not good that it should be that way."

Back home in Seoul, Karate is the national sport, drawing crowds of 50,000 to major tournaments. It is also a source of security for the president of the Republic, who has his problems with some ex-countrymen living due north. Kim trains the elite guard that keeps government officials from being butchered by Communist terrorists. They use Karate and they are not likely to pull their punches.

The sport came to this country when all of the veteran of the Korean police action returned in the mid-1950s. Petty thugs, noting how neatly boards could be split apart with the bare fist, figured they'd stumbled onto the greatest thing since the invention of the blackjack. Pretty soon hundreds of cut-rate Karate parlors opened, offering 10 lessons in cop busting at $10 an hour.

They were aided handsomely by a genteel Japanese gentleman named Masutatsu Oyama, who earned a few million yen in Tokyo by using Karate on fighting bulls. Employing a style that would get him gunned down in cold blood in Madrid, he simply stood back, invited his opponent to charge and then split Toro’s forehead with an overhand chop. It did a lot toward promoting the roller derby in the 0rient. Such curious behavior bewilders Kim.

Just Turn and Run

"The essence of Karate is self-defense," he said. "It has nothing to do with all that violent plank-splitting. When an American student comes to me be gets the idea that he will very soon be defeating four or five musclemen."

This is going to burn holes in the Western brain, but Kim suggests that a true Karate master would run from trouble. Yes, indeed, that's what the fellow says. Kind of ruins the image a trifle, doesn’t it?

"Karate builds self-confidence," he explains. "I have nothing to prove by getting into a fight. If attacked, I would run. If pursued to the limit, I would turn and finish my opponent quickly with one move, one final blow. I wouldn’t bend him over and proceed to make five, ten, fifteen final blows. You understand?"

In competitive Karate, the kind that may actually succeed in filling all 5000 seats at Del Mar Field house next weekend, the contestants wear heavy protection, shin guards a chest pad that looks like a life jacket and a helmet that no sporting goods manufacturer ever assembled. It is a boxer's headgear with a baseball catcher's mask attached to the front. The bouts are two falls and two minutes duration each. They will be highly stylized, wonderfully graceful athletic events. If somebody gets knocked silly then that’s his tough luck.

As a concession to the public some boards will be split and some ice blocks will be shattered. Like any group of American promoters they want to give the customers a little razzle-dazzle. It helps the sale of tickets, same as Astro Turf and insolent scoreboards.