For a couple months now, my grandson Cade and I have trained in Krav Maga, an Israeli fighting style. I chose this style over traditional martial arts because it has been developed and refined to be useful to ordinary people over a wide range of ages. I’ll turn 57 in a few days. Although I still live an active life, and have kept in decent shape, I've missed the window for learning Bruce Lee moves.
I have always been unapologetically physical. The rougher a sport, the more I like it. Football was my thing. I would have loved boxing and wrestling had they been available at my high school. I don’t have an equalitarian bone in my body. I consider physical strength, grace, courage, properly ordered aggression, and beauty virtues, and rank them only slightly below intelligence, prudence, honesty, and kindness. Although I’m obnoxiously competitive, the reality that these qualities are unevenly distributed, and that billions of people have possessed, do posses and will posses them to a much greater degree than I do bothers me none at all.
(For the record, I do not consider hunting and fishing sports. They are passions, restorative and closely tied to my creative life, such as it is. I hope my writing is more graceful than my casting and shotgunning.)
But why this, and why now? I’ve never been one to worry about self defense. I got through my share of boyhood fisticuffs in good shape. Since my early twenties, I have never felt threatened or vulnerable. I go about my affairs, usually alone, assuming nobody will bother me. Furthermore, I pay for and sweat through Krav Maga instruction hoping and assuming I’ll never need the skills.
I’ve been thinking about martial arts since my thirties when I worked with a guy who had a black belt in a Japanese fighting style that emphasizes low kicks and straight punches instead of the flashy high spinning kicks. The training he described sounded fun, especially the sparring: two buddies punching and kicking each other in a mock fight. What’s not to like? But I had a demanding job, two daughters at home, bird dogs to train, and a wife with a few reasonable expectations.
So, for thirty years, “workout” meant a few pushups and crunches followed by a four or five mile walk. (Two back surgeries ended my running.) I knew that my reflexes and balance were degrading, but remained satisfied that I could still walk all day, portage a canoe, split firewood and occasionally backpack up and down mountain trails. Last fall, while standing in my office looking at a shelfful of books of nature writing, I decided that I should look into martial arts again before I got too old, assuming I wasn't already. Naturally, I did nothing of the sort while feeling bad about it.
This spring, when I learned that Cade would be spending the summer with J. and me, I conducted an exhaustive search for the ideal Krav Maga facility (noticed an accredited school next to my favorite Italian restaurant) and signed us up.
Cade was thrilled. I tried to temper his expectations with predictions that the first few lessons would be slow, with a lot of watching and careful imitation. We showed up on a Monday night. The owner and chief instructor, Eric, who is a head shorter than me but surely able to deadlift a cement truck, spent 45 seconds showing us the “neutral stance” and the “fighting stance,” then shoved us into a drill in which we blocked outside punches thrown by young men who’d been training there for months. Every minute or so, he’d yell, “Down! Give me 10 pushups!” First time, no problem. Second time, “damn my arms are getting tired.” Third time, “I don’t think I can get up.” Now that we were “warm,” time to stretch.
Of course I knew how to punch. Everybody knows how to punch. Well, no. Quick demo, then “Pair up and grab a striking pad. Henry and Cade, you can’t be partners tonight.” I ended up with another Eric, a young man of about twenty, who has been at Krav Maga for several years. He held the striking bag and called for crosses, jabs and combos. For a long time. Until I couldn’t lift my arms. Then we newbies learned to divert straight punches. Eric threw jabs and crosses at my face. I diverted. My nose and teeth depended on it. I hadn’t been this tired since I hung my shoulder pads up. I had forgotten that I could be so tired.
We stumbled out to the parking lot soaked in sweat and laughing. This is my kind of place. No uniforms. No belts displayed. No endless rehearsal of precise sequences of moves handed down for centuries. You show up in workout clothes and start punching kicking and grappling under the close eye of the instructors.
I’ve never been flexible. I struggled with torn and pulled hamstrings throughout my years of high school and college football. After that first workout, I admitted to one of the instructors, Catherine, that I worried about being incapable of the required kicks. She waved dismissively and said, “Oh, we’ll fix that.”
I have no delusions of regaining youth or of becoming a badass. When I look ahead to what’s required of experts, I suspect that a year from now, or two years, I’ll have to admit that I’ve hit a wall. That I’m too old to move to the next level. But I’m not sure. The physical challenge feels like a blessing.
My balance, flexibility and footwork have improved. I can snap off a series of pretty decent front kicks. The roundhouse kick is ... well ... coming around. The kinds of explosive movements I hadn’t done since my twenties come easy now. Still …
Last night, we learned to defend against headlocks from the side. Properly performed, the technique works well. Cade and I had paired up. He’s six-feet tall and weighs about 175 pounds. Strong as a mule and rough. After we’d gone through the move at half-speed he came down with a sure enough headlock. Of course I “knew” that I was in no danger. But I didn’t feel that way. Rather, I felt a powerful young man tying to tear my head off. As I executed the pivot and fake groin strike, and struggled to get my left hand between my face and his, to jerk back on his septum and force his head up, he bore down, and I remembered the feel of desperate exertion and felt sharp pain in my lower back and neck. Yet, up came his head, and back and down he went, landing perfectly, hands and kicking leg up, laughing. I staggered back into my fighting stance.
As we drove home, and I wondered whether three or four Advil were in order, I thought about how a second or two of pain and near panic on a padded floor, under controlled conditions, can clear up illusions.
But I feel fine today.