Thursday, September 4, 2008

A Martial Arts Journey...then and now: Part 2

The year..1968..the month..March..the place..Phu Bai Air Base, Hue, Vietnam. Right in the middle of it all. Perhaps I'll post some of my experiences while at Phu Bai some other time. For now it's about continuing my journey into Martial Arts. Among the many people I met along the way there was one particular individual that stands out the most. The only name I knew him by was Captain Lee of the Royal Korean Army, a ROC, as they called them. He was one tough cookie for sure. How I earned his friendship was simple, or so it seemed at the time. He was stationed nearby and I often seen him passing by our hootch (living quarters). I don't know why he chose me out of a million other guys, but it just happened that way. After a few cordial salutes, hellos and small talk, almost on a daily basis, he soon asked me a favor. it comes...what have I gotten myself into. Ahh...what the heck...ok..ask. What he requested of me was that I offer to teach him English conversation in exchange for some Tae Kwon Do instruction. Yikes! I couldn't believe my ears. Did he just offer to teach me Tae Kwon Do in exchange for a few hours of conversation lessons? Ok, when do I, tonight, next week...when, when, when! I tried to contain my excitement, but I guess the wide grin on my face gave it all away. Little did I know how this friendship would greatly influence my journey.

The first evening I showed up for class I noticed that I was the only non-Asian student there. Captain Lee was at the head of class along with another Vietnamese Captain instructor. No problem. Recalling that I was in a similar situation back in Japan, I figured this wasn't an issue. As it turned out, my thoughts held true throughout my training there. This was also a great opportunity to learn the language as all the commands were either in Vietnamese or English! The training was tough as nails. Once again, no protective gear for sparring, all rock solid cement floors, and no rest periods for the time spent on the training floor. We were all in class for one purpose - learn Tae Kwon Do as taught by the Korean military. There was much respect between student and teacher alike. There were no arguments or inflated egos to deal with. We didn't crack jokes in class or disrupt it with latrine breaks. When asked to perform a move or hold a position for correction we did it without complaint even if it was repetitive. There was no questioning the instructors.

There were a few laughable moments that I must speak of. For one, the uniform I wore, or Do Bok as it was called, was much too short for my skinny stature. The bottoms only came down a little passed my knees. I stuck out like a sore thumb but it was all taken lightly. At least they were able to provide me with that uniform. I'll have to dig up some pictures of that later on. What a sight!

I gained much insight into the Asian culture during my tour. For the most part, it was a good experience. The training continued on a daily basis while stationed at Phu Bai Air Base. We progressed through several forms and sparring practice and the usual testing procedures for belt ranking. I'll discuss my state side training on another post, but I'll say this: the training that I received while in Nam was nothing like the training here in the USA. The dicipline there was very strict and the respect between student and teacher was especially enjoying to me. I guess the best part was that we all started together. Everyone was equal. We stuck to the training to the best of our abilities. But, like everything else in life, good things must come to an end. My tour of duty was up. I was heading back to the USA. The one thing I regret to this day is that I never kept in contact with Captain Lee. I sure would have liked to write to him and tell him how much I appreciated his dedication to teaching us Tae Kwon Do. He was a geniune Master and a plus to the art.

More to training continues in the USA.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

My former Sifu and dear friend..Mr. Hen-ping Chiang (1918 - 2002)

I remember when Chiang and I went to have our pictures taken at a local mall in Springfield, Pa. It was a sunny afternoon. I had the day off and asked Chiang if he would enjoy having some lunch and just spend a day together. One thing led into another and the next thing you know we're having our pics taken. I'm not gonna show you mine 'cause it's messed up! Ugh!
A little bit of info on Chiang. How I met him, or how he "found" me will be posted elsewhere on my blog. Mr. Chiang started studying Tai Chi a little late in life. It was during the mid 70's when it was suggested to him to study Tai Chi for his health. He was feeling a bit "out of shape", so to speak. He was a bit over weight, as he fondly admitted, and his overall health was slowing down. After a thorough check-up by his family physician the prognosis was that he was just getting older and to take it easy for now. Nothing major in the way of his health. That wasn't enough for Chiang and his family. He needed a way to gain back the energy he once possessed. That's when his daughter suggested going back to Taiwan to seek out a competant Taiji master. There were many instructor's to choose from since he had several contacts there (in Taiwan). He chose Hsiung Yang-ho. Upon his arrival in Taiwan he soon began what was to be about a three year intensive study with Hsiung. Chaing started out as an eager student among about 60 other individuals. They would meet daily in a local gathering spot to train. It was soon discovered by Hsiung that Chiang was a hard working 'student' that practiced daily until the moves taught to him were imbeded solidly in his mind. Chiang soon became what was known as an 'indoor student' of Hsiung. This meant that he was to receive almost a one on one training with Hsiung. Some would say that three years of study is minimal when it comes to Tai Chi training and that may be true. What matters most is how the student grasps the concepts and is digilent in practice. This was Chiang to a T!
Chiang continued his training with Hsiung in his style of Taiji along with several other forms of QiGong and Sword. He also learned the two man set of San Shou and push-hands training. Upon Chiang's return to the USA he continued the practice and soon taught the form(s) to others. Oh, I should go on to mention that upon his return to the USA, he lost the extra pounds, was more flexible, a better sleeper, better appetite, and so on. No medication, no prescriptions, just daily Taiji practice. What an accomplishment! Believe me when I tell you this to be true. I saw the "before" and "after" pictures! I also heard the stories from his family countless times in the past as I was very close to them as well.

A Martial Arts Journey...then and now: Part 1

I've often wondered if I could write a book about my former Sifu and dear friend, Mr. Hen-ping Chiang, but for some reason or another I never got around to completing the project. One excuse after another as usual. I figured this spot could be a start. There is much to write about my experience with Chiang so I'll try and be as thoughtful as possible on the journey. Would you like to tag along? Ok....

I didn't set out to "find" Taiji (pronounced Tie Chee...good enough for now, folks) rather Taiji found me, so to speak. During the early 60's Martial Arts in general was not on my list of things to do. LOL! I was too busy with singing Doo Wop on the corners of West Philly where I grew up (Overbrook Park). Ahh, those were the dayz...Jerry Blavit, Hy Lit, Joe Niagra and countless other great DJ's blastin' the air waves of the time. So, what does all this have to do with Martial Arts you ask? Good I have no idea either. I just had a memorable moment to share...that's it. Just was through all this hanging out on the corners that led me to an art called Judo. You see, I wasn't much of a bruiser back then, nor am I now. A friend of mine back then told me about a Judo class starting up at a nearby location and asked me to join up. I said...ok..twist my arm wouldja? Heck yes I would like to join! So that was it. After one or two lessons I was ready to face the world with my new knowledge of self defense.....yeah...right! What a wake up call (an old GI term used to describe something new and exciting that happens to oneself). Wham...bam....slam....sore back...shoulders....headaches...but it was all worth it. I was hooked! The study continued for a short time up until they stopped the program a few months down the road. It seems there wasn't enough interest to keep the classes going. This was around 1964 or so. Most of you out there may agree (or not) that the Martial Arts craze didn't occur until the early '70's...but more on that later.

Jump ahead to 1967...Yokota Air Base, Japan. I'm alread a year into my four year stint with the good 'ole USAF...seeing the world....meeting many new people...and just doing the time. Here I am, right smack in the middle of Karate country! Yes...Judo, too. I was lucky enough to befriend a Japanese local that taught me the basics of Karate. Yeah...for weeks on end all I would do was smack a makarawa board (striking board) for hours on end. This was designed to toughen my hands, knuckles and forearms so I could take further beatings from my new found friend/teacher. So now that my hands and arms looked like the bottom of my feet with all the callouses, I was ready to start learning Karate. More...wham...bam...slam....sore first broken nose, ever...but it was all worth it! Yowzers! My training was in the back yard of a local restaurant that was owned by my friend. No protective mouth guard...cement floors...yikes!

The friendships that I formed while in Japan allowed me access to places where I wouldn't normally venture alone. Most were considered off limits by military standards. That didn't keep me away, of course. I would look for any excuse to meet up with my buddies to continue training, seeing the sites, eating many wonderful delicious Japanese foods. Having a friend that owned a restaurant made it that much better. He had a cook there that was the best! What he could do with seafood and some Soba....yum!

My tour of duty at Yokota soon came to a close. It was time to "go back to the world" as we used to say. Back to the USA! The year was 1968. While at Charleston Air Base, South Carolina, awaiting my next travel orders I tried seeking out a Karate class to bide my time. No success. Having no car at the time meant that I had to rely on either walking or hitching a ride. Yes, hitching rides at the time was the best way to travel. We never worried about the issues we have today. It was a fairly safe travel method way back then. Needless to say I had to put a hold any martial arts training for awhile. Little did I know that I was in for a surprise at my next destination - Vietnam! To be continued....

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