Tag: Karate

Just Stories, Part 4

Isshin-ryu Karate … JD Cordell style!

My involvement with the martial arts …

I have had a long-held interest in the martial arts. One Christmas, I received a book called Best Karate, written by Mas Oyama, when I was 13 or 14 years old. I spent hours in my bedroom trying to learn from the book.

When I began attending the Charles H McCann Technical School in North Adams, Massachusetts, I was invited by a friend to a Uechi-ryu Karate (a very traditional Okinawan system) class in nearby Adams and started attending. But once I discovered cars and girls, that pretty much ended that … as well as my interest in scouting.

When I was stationed in Korea (12/81 to 12/82), I studied Tae Kwon Do with the battalion instructor. He was excellent. I earned a red belt, which, in that system, was the equivalent of a brown belt in the ranking system used by many styles. When I got back to the U.S., I started competing in tournaments and did okay. However, I discovered these Isshin-ryu guys who had a wicked reverse punch. They would slide up your extended kicking leg and nail you with it. I decided I needed to see what they were doing and so sought out an Isshin-ryu dojo.

Years later, I was running my own dojo and hosting tournaments. But I was very disappointed in the way things were evolving. I was never that wild about sport karate. I just did that to keep students. I saw limited techniques being used in sport karate; it was more like a game of tag. The rules seemed to violate the karate “maxims” I was trying to adhere to.

For example, in Okinawan Karate, all kicks are targeted below the waist. Step into the ring, and now all kicks must be above the waist. That seemed odd!

And kata, especially with the advent of musical kata, quickly devolved into breakdancing with some kicks thrown in.

Note: Let me just say that full-contact karate and MMA fighters of today are great athletes and some damn tough individuals. They are very good at what they do and deserve respect. It is just not “karate” as I had come to understand it.

The problem was that I do read a great deal, and I had read a lot of history about Okinawa, the birthplace of Karate, and the early pioneers of Tang Hand, which later become known as Empty Hand … or Karate. I was simply not seeing the Karate I’d read so much about. Either the stories were all lies, or there was nobody around who could do that stuff anymore. I was actually ready to throw in the towel. Then I met Sensei Sherman Harrill.

Sensei Harrill was from a cross-roads in the cornfields called Carson, Iowa (near Council Bluffs). He was an ex-Marine who trained with the Isshin-ryu system’s founder, Tatsuo Shimabuku, while stationed in Okinawa in the late 50s. And he was the real deal.

Everything I had ever seen paled when stacked up against what he did. No matter who you were, how big, how strong, or what you knew … he would effortlessly show you the error of your ways. Organizations, rank, who you knew did not matter. It was what you could demonstrate on the mat that counted.

So, I started over. I traveled all around the country to seminars for years to train with this guy. It was a humbling and memorable moment when I asked him how I could become his student. He laughed and replied. “well, most folks just ask.” So, I asked. And he replied, “Darren, I have seen the changes you are making in your Karate and how you train … so welcome aboard.”

That was the beginning of the journey of a lifetime.

The origins of JD’s Nguyen-ryu

Nguyen-ryu is an indigenous martial art found in Vietnam. Mai’s father, Ang, was a village elder, and in the book Serpents Underfoot, a well-respected practitioner of this art. Ang taught this art to both his daughter, Mai, and the son of his old Montagnard friend, Dish. Dish and Mai both taught the art to Curtis Cordell, Mai’s American husband, and JD’s father.

Curtis tried to teach Nguyen-ryu to his son, but that old father-son thing interfered. Eventually, Curtis took his son to a dojo run by a friend of his. That Sensei taught a very traditional version of Isshin-ryu. JD did learn a great deal of Nguyen-ryu from his mother, which blended well with the Isshin-ryu.

It has been my experience that most “real” martial arts have more in common than differences. That is because when you get past all the marketing hype, it is body mechanics that determine what works … and the human body only moves powerfully so many ways.

My exposure to Nguyen-ryu

Enter Charlie Taylor, a good friend, a Vietnam veteran, and a damn good martial artist. He just showed up at my dojo one day and started helping out.

Charlie had served several tours in Vietnam as a medic on Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols in the region of Vietnam my books focus on. He was a quiet guy, but when the mood struck, he had some fantastic stories to tell about his experiences in Vietnam. I am sure he embellished them a bit to make them more fun to listen too, but there was something in the stories and his eyes when he told them that led you to understand that there was an element of truth to each one.

Charlie was also a highly-skilled martial artist, and there was nothing “superfluous” in what he did. I remember spending time training what was essentially a “silent sentry removal” technique with him and being shocked and a bit disturbed at the ease with which it worked. I still remember asking him, rhetorically,

“And, you’ve used this before.”

He just looked at me kind of funny and replied, “On a few occasions.”

While he knew a few of the kata, Charlie didn’t practice Isshin -ryu. In fact, many of our workouts consisted of me teaching him more Isshin-ryu kata. He practiced what he called Nguyen-ryu. Charlie claimed he’d learned it from his grandfather, who’d married a Vietnamese girl while stationed in Japan after WWII. This girl’s father was a skilled practitioner of the style, and after a suitable period of denials, consented to teach it to his daughter’s round-eyed husband.

I know it sounds like a movie plot. And maybe it is. I can neither prove nor disprove Charlie’s claims. However, I can definitely vouch for his abilities. Charlie could be damn scary when he was “in the zone,” much like my former instructor, Sensei Harrill. Those who have trained with Sensei Harrill will understand what I am referring to. We called it “shark eyes.”

Charlie breaking three boards (no spacers) with a ridge-hand at a demo in Norris, TN.

Charlie did have an honorary 5th-degree black belt in Isshin-ryu Karate signed by Harold Long. However, he always claimed it was not worth the paper it was written on. It seems Charlie had impressed Harold Long with his abilities while training for a period at Long’s school in Knoxville, Tennessee, but, as mentioned earlier, had only learned a few of the kata. He held no official rank in Nguyen-ryu, so he always wore a white belt.

I will say that the kid’s classes loved it when Charlie regaled them with stories of his early training days. He always referred to them as “Papaw Days.”

Unfortunately, Charlie passed away a few years ago from a combination of medical conditions, several of which I am sure originated with his tours of duty in Vietnam. Some of the threads in Serpents Underfoot and Montagnard are based on past discussions with Charlie. And I think Charlie may be resurrected from the dead for a character in the next book in the series titled Reciprocity. I think he would like that.

Martial Arts scenes in the two books …

I have seen a large man knocked unconscious with a punch to the shoulder. I do not know too many people who could do that. Sensei Harrill certainly could. And, his “fence post punch” was something to behold. You did not want to get hit with it.

On more than one occasion, MMA fighters or cage fighters from the casinos in Council Bluff would make their way to his dojo after hearing about this karate guy who had a reputation for being a badass. Every one of them left with a new appreciation for karate … well, at least Sherman Harrill’s version.

The technique JD uses to take out the drug smuggler on the trail from Laos into Vietnam is simply one of my variations on Charlie Taylor’s sentry removal technique.

Putting it all together

I like to think my stories are written to entertain, but there is so much more to them, at least for me. They are ways to remember, record, and share the people I have known, places I have been, things I have seen, and the stories I have heard, as well as the possibilities those things can combine to create.

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Karate-do: Choose wisely!

There are essentially two mindsets when it comes to karate.

  1. Karate is a sport.
  2. Karate is a system of personal combat or self-defense.

And, we all know that Americans do love their sports.

While both versions of karate certainly do exist, the two conflicting viewpoints are not really compatible. One is a relatively modern interpretation of karate with its beginnings in the 1920s, and the other, what I call classical karate, can trace its roots, at least according to some sources, back to about 450 AD. They are very different in what they teach, what they focus on, and how they train.

There are rules in the sport karate ring. Even the more brutal modern extreme martial arts sports such as found within the UFC or MMA have rules. Do not misunderstand me. They are tough competitors and I take nothing from them. However, in the street, as on the battlefield, when it come to life and death, there are no rules. And the simple truth is that, you cannot train one way and fight another.

karate-do

These opposing views can create a real problem in understanding for those who are interested in karate-do, and much depends on why they are interested. Some want to be the next tournament or MMA grand champion. That is fine. However, there are also those who want to study the art of karate as practiced for generations on Okinawa. The art that was used by palace guards to defend the Okinawan Kings. The art of such karate notables as Seikichi Uehara, Sakukawa Kanga, Matsumura Sōkon, Itosu Ankō, Motobu Chōki, Chōjun Miyagi, or Tatsuo Shimabuku.

I have over 35 years of training in Isshin-ryu Karate. This in not counting a short time studying Uechi-ryu in high school and Tae Kwon do while stationed in South Korea during my enlistment in the U.S. Army.

The first 15 years of my training was with a dojo that subscribed more to the sport version of karate. We certainly practiced our kata to earn rank and even held self-defense and “bunkai” classes. But several critical elements were missing and that made any real understanding all but impossible. That being said, that dojo turned out some excellent tournament competitors, so if that was what you were looking for, it was a great choice for a karate dojo. However, my interests were really elsewhere.

In the mid-90s, I was reintroduced to Sensei Sherman Harrill and began to train with a group of karate practitioners who take the second view of karate. Eventually I became accepted as a student of Sensei Harrill’s and that has been the honor of a lifetime (anyone who has had a chance to train with him will understand what I mean by that). It was also an enlightening and often times, mind-blowing change. It totally changed how I train. what I train, my understanding of basics and kata, and my effectiveness in executing solid, well-focused karate technique.

A Series of posts on what I call “Classical Karate.”

Over the next few months, I will be posting a series of articles in which I will endeavor to identify the differences in sport karate and classical karate, and what that means to the practitioner. These posts will include true stories to help illustrate the points I am trying to make, as well as tips on what to look for in an instructor, training methods, kata and technique. My goal is to help anyone interested in exploring the art of Okinawan Karate make the best decision in their choice of a karate school based on what they want to achieve through their training.

I think this will be fun as well as interesting to anyone who has an interest in Okinawan Karate.

Isshin-ryu Karate

Standing on Stakes: An Exercise in Balance

Balance is so important in life

We hear this all the time. There are quotes by many famous people that illustrate this concept. Here are just a few examples:

The best and safest thing is to keep a balance in your life, acknowledge the great powers around us and in us. If you can do that, and live that way, you are really a wise man.    

Euripides

Man maintains his balance, poise, and sense of security only as he is moving forward.

Maxwell Maltz

It was all balance. But then, she already knew that from surfing.

Eve Babitz

Balance is something we should all strive for in all aspects of our life. Mental balance, physical balance, work-life balance, and the balance between whom we wish to be and who we need to be.

Balance is also vital to success in Karate

Isshin-ryu Karate

An old friend of mine, Charlie Taylor, used to repeatedly say to me, “it’s all about standing on stakes.”

Charlie was a very good martial artist. He had studied some Vietnamese martial art he called Nguyen-Ryu. Charlie also knew several of the Isshin-ryu kata, and at one time I was teaching him our version of the Wansu kata.

Charlie did, however, have a fantastic understanding of technique, balance, and body mechanics; an understanding I have seen in very few modern karate practitioners. Some exceptions to that would be my late Sensei, Sherman Harrill, and several of his students I am privileged to call friends.

Anybody who has studied karate seriously for any length of time should understand the role balance and body mechanics play in the execution of proper, well-focused technique.

Just a quick word on stances

Unfortunately, too many karate practitioners today do not understand stances. Far to often, you hear comments like, “I like to fight from a cat-stance” or “I like to fight from a horse-stance.” What you have to understand is that, it is the transition into the stance that often makes a real karate technique work. You don’t fight from a stance. You transition into the stance as you execute the technique.

The story is the same for ballroom dancing

Although I have understood this for some time, its importance was really nailed down to me when I spent some time learning to ballroom dance. All the stances in karate can be found in ballroom dancing. Why is that you may ask. It is because, like karate, ballroom dancing relies on balance and body mechanics. The dance comes out in the steady transitioning between the stances.

The best structures are built on a solid foundation

How do we start to build this solid foundation? One answer, and the method I use, is to start new students practicing “standing on stakes” right away.

Standing on stakes

To begin practicing “standing on stakes,” stand with your feet shoulder width apart and your weight evenly distributed on the balls of both feet.

Your heels should be lightly touching the floor, but with the feeling that you could slide a sheet of paper between your heel and the floor if you wanted to.

Unlock your knees and straighten your lower back by tucking your pelvis forward.

Your weight should feel under-sided, meaning that you should feel like your body mass is hanging from the framework of your skeleton.

Breathe! In through your nose, into your diaphragm, and out through your mouth.

Hold this position as long as you can … a minute … a few minutes … 5 minutes … 10 minutes … 20 minutes.

This exercise will strengthen your base and core muscles that are so important to balance, movement, and using your stances.

When this way of standing feels natural and comfortable to you, it should be applied to your practice of crescent steps, and eventually in your kata.

Over time, standing on stakes will greatly improve your balance

It does not take too long a time to see results if you practice a little every day. Long term, the benefits to balance, both in karate and life, are quite astounding.

Early Morning Cat Fu

Our early morning constitutional …

cat fu

Sophie and I take a walk every morning to start our day. It was a beautifully crisp fall morning and we were enjoying our walk. Urgent matters behind us, we were headed back toward the hacienda, when suddenly a rather large yellow feral cat stepped out of the brush and faced us down. Both Sophie and the cat spotted each other at precisely the same time. The cat froze, it’s tail twitching in an irritated manner, but it did not move. Sophie froze as well, and so began an epic stare-down! Neither Sophie nor the cat would move. Just an occasional twitch of the cat’s tail while Sophie remained coiled like a spring … ready to leap.

It was like the story of the two old masters

I used to tell kids in my children’s karate classes a story about two old Okinawan karate masters where were manipulated into a challenge match. They met on the beach at sunrise, and faced each other as the villagers gathered to see the epic fight. Shifting into their ready stances, each fixed a powerful gaze on the other and waited.

I watched as the cat stood its ground, staring at Sophie with its own ‘powerful gaze.” Sophie stared right back, not blinking and immovable. Neither were willing to give ground or surrender to the other’s “chi.”

In the story of the two old masters, after an hour of watching the masters face each other unflinchingly, the villagers, some what disappointed, deemed the challenge match a tie … and everyone went home.

In the case of Sophie and the cat, after several minutes, I called it a tie and we all went home.

cat fu
I didn’t get a picture of the cat, so this will have to do …

Lessons learned …

Each of the old masters understood that the first one to attack, would die. That is why there is “no first strike in karate.” You cannot move without creating an opening. All the other combatant has to do is be patient and skilled enough to take advantage of that opening.

In the case of Sophie and the cat, I think the cat, obviously being the older and wiser of the two, decided it was too fine a morning for a spat, and nonchalantly sauntered back off into the underbrush.

Sophie, on the other hand, seemed very proud of herself, having just saved her master from the evil ninja cat that leapt out from the dark woods to wreak destruction and vengeance on the entire universe!

It was definitely an interesting start to a new day!

If you have time, please take a minute and check out Serpents Underfoot and Adirondack Bear Tales on Amazon.com.

Martial Maxims: Never Quit, Never Surrender!

You will not succeed if you quit!

Even a peaceful warrior will never will quit.“Fall down seven times, stand up eight,” is an ancient Japanese proverb that relates to our attitude towards failure. Master Tatutso Shimabuku, the founder of the Isshin-ryu Karate system, was fond of saying this to his U.S. Marine Corps students. It means to not to let ourselves be beaten by failure. But to see failure as just another chance to stand up and try again. It expresses the idea of sticking to a task with tenacity until it is completed. You do not always have to win, but you must never quit.

This tenacity is a quality found in many of our military members, both men, and women. It is a quality that JD Cordell, the main character in my novel, Serpents Underfoot, shares with both his father, Curtis and his mother, Mai. Several who have reviewed the book say that one of the things they really like is that many of the characters, both good and evil, stand on their own two feet as individuals. They meet life on their terms. Sometimes I feel like our society today has lost that sense of individual strength and personal responsibility. These days, it seems like it takes a village to cross the street!  But, I digress. Let me get back on track! This post is about never quitting and never surrendering. It is about seeing your endeavor through to the end. Perhaps it is a bit extreme, but I used to ask my karate students this question about the Samurai Code.

If you approached every task in your life as if your life depended on it, how often would you fail?

The answer I most often got was, “Not too often!”

So, whether you want to be a successful blogger, mechanic, author, chemical engineer, teacher, welder, artist, or hamburger flipper, if you pursued that goal as if your very life depended on it, and … if you fell down seven times, but got back to your feet eight … what would be your chances of success?

The Road Less Traveled

IMG_0832Today would have been Sensei Sherman Harrill’s 76th birthday.  I sometimes wonder how many folks truly realize just how unique a gift he left us with when he finally lost his battle with cancer in 2002.

On May 6th, Eddie Satterfield hosted Sensei John Kerker for the annual seminar in Maynardville, Tennessee. This seminar, in a loose way, carries on a Tennessee tradition started by me when I brought Sensei Harrill to Clinton, Tennessee in 1996.  We held that seminar the 3rd weekend in March each year up until Sensei died. (This did keep me in hot water with my family because often the seminar date fell on my daughter’s birthday. I guess I should have thought that through a little more.)

sh_dg
Darren Gilbert and Sensei Sherman Harrill

Those seminars (as well as others I traveled to held in places like Champaign, Illinois … Carson, Iowa … Chicago, Illinois … Pontiac, Michigan) had a profound influence on me. When Sensei passed away in 2002, I think we went perhaps a year without a seminar. Then we started bringing in his senior student, John Kerker, to continue the seminar series.

Sensei Harrill had left his dojo and everything that entailed to John.  As is often the case, several “instructors” tried to move in and usurp that role … claiming that, since they had higher rank, or their own organizations, or special friendships with Sensei Harrill, etc., John should join their “group” under them.   But, what they did not have was the actual skill, knowledge or character to fill those shoes. They did not have the many years John spent in that dojo. Many of them just liked to hang around and have their photos taken with Sensei. John stepped up and assumed the task left to him by Sensei Harrill, and while those were very big shoes to fill, fill them he did.

Sensei Kerker has done a great job. When John took over doing the seminars for us, maybe in 2004, he might not have been quite at the same skill level as Sensei Sherman Harrill, but I think he was actually a better teacher. Sensei Harrill was not much on explaining things. He just did not seem to have the knack for explaining things that John has. Sensei Harrill showed you … it hurt … you tried it.  And you kept trying it until you figured it out. That was not bad! But, John added an additional element.  He shows you … it hurts dang near as much … you try it … John analyzes and explains what you were doing wrong … you try it again. For me, at least, that adds a lot.

jk_dg
Sensei John Kerker and Darren Gilbert

Sensei Kerker has definitely come into his own over the years and I would now hate to try and say which of them now has, or had, more skill.

Sometimes life gets in the way and, unfortunately, I had to stop hosting the seminars, and I have since moved to North Carolina. Sensei Eddie Satterfield has picked the Tennessee seminar back up and has hosted it several years now. I am very glad he did … as are several other people. I hope at some time in the future, we can bring Sensei Kerker to North Carolina for seminars as well.

On May 6th, Sensei John Kerker gave a great seminar covering several techniques from kata … focusing on not getting hit, controlling the distance, disrupting your attacker’s balance, and proper timing in executing technique. It was excellent and, as always, I learned something new or was reminded of some important information I had forgotten. There is so much you can learn from Kata if you study them correctly and have the right teacher.  I been been in many Isshin-ryu dojos over the years, and what we do is pretty unique.

So, what is unique about the karate we do?

me
Sensei Darren Gilbert and student

We do not spar in the common sense of the word. I once did.  I originally came up in an Isshin-ryu dojo where we learned the kata to earn belt rank. Then we put pads on and sparred in the ring for points. Self-defense was something we made up as we went along and most of it was pretty bad. Nobody knew what kata was really for. We knew kata taught us balance, coordination, timing, etc. And, while all that is certainly true … kata are so much more than that. They are essentially a physical encyclopedia of the principles and techniques of karate.

I was actually ready to quit once I get my 2nd Dan.  I read a lot … and had read about the history of karate and what the Okinawan karate masters were capable of.  I had seen none of that. Either the histories I had read were all a bunch of hooey or none of karate instructors I had yet met and trained with actually knew any karate!

Enter Sherman Harrill.  The first time I saw him give a real seminar my jaw nearly hit the floor. He was demonstrating what I had, until that day, only read about.  So, I started over. I traveled to many seminars and eventually became one of his students. For me, that was a real honor … the honor of a lifetime. I worked hard to change and improve my karate.

A critical moment came for me when I  tested for my 3rd Dan. I passed with flying colors, but there was one caveat. The testing board told me I had to undo all the changes I had made in my karate from working with Sensei Harrill. I though about that and decided I simply could not do that. That forced me to make the difficult decision of changing instructors. Telling Sensei Allen Wheeler I was leaving was also one of the hardest things I ever had to do. I always liked and respected Allen Wheeler very much. He was a good man and had been very good to me and helped me in many ways. I just needed my karate to take a different path. It was also one of the proudest days of my life when Sensei Harrill said “Welcome aboard!”

Not many will like or appreciate the way we train.  It hurts.  I have learned over the years that pain is actually a very good teacher. Notice … I said pain … not injury! Karate is, after all, a striking art.  So, you have to be willing to hit and to get hit hard enough to understand the mechanics of the techniques … why and how they work.  You have to understand what the techniques do to you and you have to understand the real results of the technique on your attacker. Your targets are very often the areas which are off-limits in sport karate. So, it is a rather small group … those who train like we do. I am sure there are other groups like ours training here and there in many other traditional arts. It does slowly seem to be growing as folks lose interest in the “Hollywood fluff” offered by way too many karate schools today.

sh_dg_2
Darren Gilbert and Sensei Sherman Harrill

Folks, it is very much a buyer beware situation out there in the world of martial arts schools.

I am not really knocking sport karate. There are some good sport karate schools out there. It that is what you want to do, that is fine. It is certainly your interests and your choices that matter. I know some folks who are very good at it and they are tough competitors. But the keyword here is “competitor!” It is a sport … and there are rules (which sometimes do vary). Certain target areas are off-limits. For instance, no kicking below the belt, no attacking small joints, no head contact, sweeps only allowed on the front leg, etc. There are absolutely no rules in a dark alley way mugging, an attempted rape, during a vicious home-invasion, a terrorist attack, or on a battlefield.

For us, it is just a different flavor of karate. We just train more the way the Okinawan’s trained … you might say a more self-defense orientated approach. We study how to apply the basics and techniques from kata in real-life combat situations … focusing on body mechanics, timing, and developing our weapons with the makiwara.  The Okinawans did not spar … they studied kata. They trained with the makiwara. And, they were pretty deadly fighters.

I considered Sensei my teacher and my friend. He was a marine and tough as nails, but he was also a kind man. I will never forget when that fact was made very clear to me. My students and I had worked very hard to convert an old used-auto parts shop into a dojo. The building belonged to one of my students, Eddy Weaver.  Weaver’s Used Auto Parts had been an institution in Anderson County, Tennessee for decades.

kanpai
Calvin Parker, Darren Gilbert and Sherman Harrill

We actually finished all but the getting the mats down right before that year’s seminar, so we trained on the freshly painted concrete floor.  I had just gotten the gas heater in the day before the seminar and it ran all night, but that old concrete floor was still very cold that morning. There had been no heat in the building for some time. During the seminar breaks, we all took turns sticking our feet under the gas heater to thaw them out! A few months later some kids playing with fire behind the building, let the fire get away from them and our dojo burned to the ground. Sensei Harrill happened to call that next day just to chat. He would do that fairly often. I told him what had happened and he was genuinely saddened and concerned. He knew how much work we had put into that dojo. A few days later I started to get checks in the mail, boxes of training gear, etc.  He had put the word out to his folks! He was not even my instructor yet! That part came just a bit later.

I will end this post by saying … Thank you, Sensei Harrill … for your gift to those of us who had the honor to be your students. Happy Birthday and Kanpai!

And, … Thank you, Sensei Kerker … for continuing to carry the torch.  I am looking forward to that next seminar!

maynardville_2017
2017 Maynardville Tennessee Seminar Crew

Isshin-ryu Karate: The Road Less Traveled

Isshin-ryu Karate

Remembering Sensei Harrill on his Birthday

Today would have been Sensei Sherman Harrill’s 76th birthday.  I sometimes wonder how many folks truly realize just how unique a gift he left to those of us who practice his brand of Isshin-ryu karate when he finally lost his battle with cancer in 2002.

On May 6th, Eddie Satterfield hosted Sensei John Kerker for the annual Isshin-ryu Karate Seminar in Maynardville, Tennessee. This seminar, in a loose way, carries on a Tennessee tradition started by me when I brought Sensei Harrill to Clinton, Tennessee in 1996.  We held that seminar the 3rd weekend in March each year up until Sensei died. (This did keep me in hot water with my family because often the seminar date fell on my daughter’s birthday. I guess I should have thought that through a little more.)

Those seminars (as well as others I traveled to held in places like Champaign, Illinois … Carson, Iowa … Chicago, Illinois … Pontiac, Michigan) had a profound influence on me. When Sensei passed away in 2002, I think we went perhaps a year without a seminar. Then we started bringing in his senior student, John Kerker, to continue the seminar series.

Isshin-ryu Karate –  Passing on the Tradition

Sensei Harrill left his Isshin-ryu Karate Dojo and everything that entailed to John Kerker.  As is often the case, several “instructors” tried to move in and usurp that role … claiming that, since they had higher rank, or their own organizations, or special friendships with Sensei Harrill, etc., John should join their “group” under them.   But, what they did not have was the actual skill, knowledge or character to fill those shoes. They did not have the many years John spent in that dojo. Many of them just liked to hang around and have their photos taken with Sensei. John stepped up and assumed the task left to him by Sensei Harrill, and while those were very big shoes to fill, fill them he did.

Sensei Kerker has done a great job. When John took over doing the seminars for us, maybe in 2004, he might not have been quite at the same skill level as Sensei Sherman Harrill, but I think he was actually a better teacher. Sensei Harrill was not much on explaining things. He just did not seem to have the knack for explaining things that John has. Sensei Harrill showed you … it hurt … you tried it.  And you kept trying it until you figured it out. That was not bad! But, John added an additional element.  He shows you … it hurts dang near as much … you try it … John analyzes and explains what you were doing wrong … you try it again. For me, at least, that adds a lot.

Isshin-ryu Karate

Sensei Kerker has definitely come into his own over the years and I would now hate to try and say which of them now has, or had, more skill.

It is Never a Straight Path

Sometimes life gets in the way and, unfortunately, I had to stop hosting the seminars, and I have since moved to North Carolina. Sensei Eddie Satterfield has picked the Tennessee seminar back up and has hosted it several years now. I am very glad he did … as are several other people. I hope at some time in the future, we can bring Sensei Kerker to North Carolina for seminars as well.

On May 6th, Sensei John Kerker gave a great seminar covering several techniques from kata … focusing on not getting hit, controlling the distance, disrupting your attacker’s balance, and proper timing in executing technique. It was excellent and, as always, I learned something new or was reminded of some important information I had forgotten. There is so much you can learn from Kata if you study them correctly and have the right teacher.  I been in many Isshin-ryu dojos over the years, and what we do is pretty unique.

So, what is unique about the karate we do?

Isshin-ryu Karate

We do not spar in the common sense of the word. I once did.  I originally came up in an Isshin-ryu dojo where we learned the kata to earn belt rank. Then we put pads on and sparred in the ring for points. Self-defense was something we made up as we went along and most of it was pretty bad. Nobody knew what kata was really for. We knew kata taught us balance, coordination, timing, etc. And, while all that is certainly true … kata are so much more than that. They are essentially a physical encyclopedia of the principles and techniques of karate.

I was actually ready to quit once I get my 2nd Dan.  The problem was that I read a lot … and had read about the history of karate and what the Okinawan karate masters were capable of.  Of course, I had seen none of that. Either the histories I had read were all a bunch of hooey or none of karate instructors I had yet met and trained with actually knew any karate!

Enter the Sherminator!

Enter Sherman Harrill.  The first time I saw him give a real seminar my jaw nearly hit the floor. He was demonstrating what I had, until that day, only read about.  So, I started over. I traveled to many seminars and eventually became one of his students. For me, that was a real honor … the honor of a lifetime. I worked hard to change and improve my karate.

A critical moment came for me when I  tested for my 3rd Dan. I passed with flying colors, but there was one caveat. The testing board told me I had to undo all the changes I had made in my karate from working with Sensei Harrill. I though about that and decided I simply could not do that. That forced me to make the difficult decision of changing instructors. Telling Sensei Allen Wheeler I was leaving was also one of the hardest things I ever had to do. I always liked and respected Allen Wheeler very much. He was a good man and had been very good to me and helped me in many ways. I just needed my karate to take a different path. It was also one of the proudest days of my life when Sensei Harrill said “Welcome aboard!”

Injured or Just Hurt?

Not many will like or appreciate the way we train.  It hurts.  I have learned over the years that pain is actually a very good teacher. Notice … I said pain … not injury! Karate is, after all, a striking art.  So, you have to be willing to hit and to get hit hard enough to understand the mechanics of the techniques … why and how they work.

You have to understand what the techniques do to you and you have to understand the real results of the technique on your attacker. Your targets are very often the areas which are off-limits in sport karate. So, it is a rather small group … those who train like we do. I am sure there are other groups like ours training here and there in many other traditional arts. It does slowly seem to be growing as folks lose interest in the “Hollywood fluff” offered by way too many karate schools today.

Isshin-ryu Karate

Folks, it is very much a buyer beware situation out there in the world of martial arts schools.

Just Another Flavor of Karate

I am not really knocking sport karate. There are some good sport karate schools out there. It that is what you want to do, that is fine. It is certainly your interests and your choices that matter. I know some folks who are very good at it and they are tough competitors. But the keyword here is “competitor!” It is a sport … and there are rules (which sometimes do vary). Certain target areas are off-limits. For instance, no kicking below the belt, no attacking small joints, no head contact, sweeps only allowed on the front leg, etc. There are absolutely no rules in a dark alley way mugging, an attempted rape, during a vicious home-invasion, a terrorist attack, or on a battlefield.

For us, it is just a different flavor of karate. We just train more the way the Okinawan’s trained … you might say a more self-defense orientated approach. We study how to apply the basics and techniques from kata in real-life combat situations … focusing on body mechanics, timing, and developing our weapons with the makiwara.  The Okinawans did not spar … they studied kata. They trained with the makiwara. And, they were pretty deadly fighters.

A Teacher and a Friend

I considered Sensei my teacher and my friend. He was a marine and tough as nails, but he was also a kind man. I learned that lesson very clearly one day. My students and I had worked very hard to convert an old used-auto parts shop into an Isshin-ryu Karate dojo. The building belonged to one of my students, Eddy Weaver.  Weaver’s Used Auto Parts had been an institution in Anderson County, Tennessee for decades.

Isshin-ryu Karate

We finished everything except getting the mats down. So, we trained on the freshly painted concrete floor.  I just gotten the gas heater in the day before the seminar and it ran all night, but that old concrete floor was still very cold that morning. There had been no heat in the building for some time. During the seminar breaks, we all took turns sticking our feet under the gas heater to thaw them out!

Shit Happens!

A few months later some kids playing with fire behind the building, let the fire get away from them and our dojo burned to the ground. Sensei Harrill happened to call that next day just to chat. He would do that fairly often. I told him what happened. Sensei Harrill expressed real concern. He knew how much work we had put into that dojo. A few days later I started to get checks in the mail, boxes of training gear, etc.  He had put the word out to his Isshin-ryu Karate friends! He was not even my instructor yet! That part came just a bit later.

I will end this post by saying … Thank you, Sensei Harrill … for your gift to those of us who had the honor to be your students. Happy Birthday and Kanpai!

And, … Thank you, Sensei Kerker … for continuing to carry the torch.  I am looking forward to that next seminar!

Isshin-ryu Karate, Maynardville, TN 2017
2017 Maynardville Tennessee Seminar Crew