Martial arts was the thing when I was growing up. There was Bruce Lee, Jim Kelly, Chuck Norris, and Sonny Chiba. There were the Billy Jack movies and the Kung Fu televison series. Even Elvis was into the martial arts. I always wanted to take a kung fu class, but my parents's work schedule wouldn't have allowed it even if they had had the money; which I doubt they did. So all of my encounters with the martial arts are from the sidelines.
First it was through television and movies. Billy Jack was a must see movie for me and my grammer school friends. The Kung Fu show was okay, but the fighting was too sparse for us. Bruce Lee films were the ones that meant the most - especially Enter The Dragon. The ability to summarize Lee's works and life added greatly to your standing among other 5th and 6th graders. It might be hard to believe that our parents would let us watch kung fu movies even when edited on television, but most of us were latchkey kids so we watched whatever we wanted.
I had an older cousin who was a black belt. Ronnie was the older brother of Fat Sammy from Ripley, Mississippi. He attended Mississippi State and I guess he got into karate there. I never got to see him compete, but he won a room full of big trophies. I rarely got to see him since after he graduated college he moved to Florida. There were several photo albums full of pictures of him fighting. Whenever I'd visit my aunt's house I'd pore through the photos while listening to records Ronnie had left behind (Led Zep's Physical Grafitti usually). I once asked Fat Sammy what he would do if Ronnie ever tried to use his karate against him. Sammy just pointed at the corner of the unused dining room to a propped up shotgun in the corner. Leave it to the always cynical Fat Sammy to cut karate down to size for me.
Fat Sammy couldn't keep me down for long. I saw real time evidence of kung fu one day when I was in 8th grade. My best friend was a guy one year older named Jay Jay. He was obsessed with the Billy Jack movies. He said it was because he was part Indian too. He used to practice kung fu in his backyard never taking any courses in it. He was a tough kid too. There was a couple of guys that were my classmates that liked to throw smaller kids into trashcans, shoot rubber bands at you (the small ones used for braces), and spit on you. They walked home in the same direction Jay Jay and I did. One day they were behind us and they started making spit noises. This went on for a minute or too until Jay Jay turned around and pulled out a huge knife he had concealed.
"The first one of you that spits on me or him or anywhere gets this. Do you understand?"
They sheepishly murmerd okay, we were only kidding, before swallowing what they had hacked up. That was just about the coolest thing I had ever seen. I always looked up to Jay Jay like he was an older brother and here he was protecting me from a couple of creeps. It wasn't kung fu though. It took me being a bully and an idiot for Jay Jay to have to use what he'd taught himself.
There was a dude that lived one street over from us with a last name of Witty. This lent itself to him being called Witty titty. It didn't help that he was seriously overweight which meant he had bigger breasts than most of the 8th grade girls had. He would sometimes come over and hang out with us, but not often. Jay Jay and me liked to play sports or ride our bicycles (Jay Jay could ride a wheelie almost the entire length of Prindle Drive) and Witty just wasn't in shape for those activities. One day he walked home from school with us. Jay Jay got to his house at the top of Prindle Drive and Witty and I went on.
I lived about halfway down the street from Jay Jay. Soon after we'd left him I started insulting Witty. Which is weird because I wasn't usually into that sort of thing. I guess I was just full of it that day. I don't recall exactly what I said, but I was seriously pissing Witty off. We got to the foot of my driveway and we decided to fight. We threw our books down on the asphalt and it was on. I got a few quick punches in with no results. It was like punching a giant marshmallow.
Witty thew some errant shots then he connected a grazing blow to my stomach. It stung just a little, but I had avoided most of it by ducking away. I looked back up ready to pop Witty a good one only to see Jay Jay kick him right in the head. It wasn't a slight blow either. It was a put a big lump on your skull kick. Witty staggered around glaring at Jay Jay before picking up his books to walk home muttering about how two on one wasn't fair. I was a little ticked that Jay Jay had felt he had to rescue me, but that was sure one cool karate kick to the head.
Then Jay Jay gave me the worst lecture I ever had to endure outside of my parents's lectures. He'd seen the whole thing brewing from the top of the street. He'd heard the insults. He knew I was the instigator and probably deserved to have my ass kicked. But he also knew it was out of character for me and he feared that Witty would seriously hurt me. It was better to give him a quick kick in the head than to let the fight go on. I wouldn't need a dictionary to learn the meaning of chagrined.