The place: Tacoma, WA
Aron Hakone’s dad was someone worth bragging about. He was a black belt in karate, was in really good shape, was really nice and, oh! was a black belt in karate. One day at school, Aron posted a sign-up list in our 4th grade class room. Mr. Hakone was offering karate lessons at his home, free of charge! I was one of the first to sign up, with visions of my throwing ninja stars with unprecedented accuracy and eventually landing a lucrative career in martial arts films running through my mind.
On the day the class started, I was ready a full hour before I was supposed to even leave for the Hakone house. I wore my gray sweatpants, a blank jersey with red, elbow-length sleeves, blue Adidas and the same pair of big-toe-sticking-out-of-a-hole socks I’d been wearing for three days straight. Since no one ever saw my feet, I rarely gave a second thought to their appearance or general lack of hygiene.
After being dropped off by my mom, I walked up to the front door where, taped to the knocker, a note read: CLASS IN BACKYARD GO THROUGH GATE LEFT SIDE OF GARAGE
In the backyard, I found Aron, Clint and Wendell sitting on the grass. Aron had on a karate suit with a blue belt, while Clint and Wendell were dressed similar to me. I sat down and waited for the rest of the class to arrive. The lawn was made up of the greenest, shortest, softest grass I had ever seen. Miniature temples stood beneath the exotic flowers and trees that decorated the Hakone’s backyard.
Mr. Hakone emerged from a sliding glass door wearing only white karate pants and black belt. I was amazed to see someone’s dad being in such good physical shape. He didn’t have thinning hair, no flabby gut. Heck, he didn’t even have beer on his breath. Mr. Hakone had a body I’d only seen in movies and on the covers of my mom’s romance novels. I was getting more and more excited with each minute that passed. I mean, there I was, barely capable of doing long-division and I was going to be learning how to kill someone twice my size with some ultra-secret touch of death. Cooool.
By the time class officially started, Martin and Tim had rounded out the group. Mr. Hakone stood us in a line side-by-side. “Okay, this being our first class, let me say welcome. What we’re going to be learning in this class is karate. It is a form of self-defense, but, it is not a form of fighting. Understand?”
We pretended we did.
“Karate should only be used as a last resort, after reasoning and peaceful solutions are met with resistance. In other words, do your best to not have to use what you learn here.”
“I already do that with most stuff I learn at school,” I said.
“Well, then you’ll probably graduate this class with honors.”
Mr. Hakone folded his arms and stood like he were inspecting troops. “We’re gonna start out by exercising and stretching our muscles.” Wendell made the same groan he always made when we had to go to the gym for PE. “This is very important when doing something of such a strenuous nature. But first, I must have you all do something for me.”
I wondered what it could be he wanted us to do. Promise not to teach anyone what we learn? To use our knowledge of karate only for good, not evil? Not to let our parents know if, for graduation, Mr. Hakone let us all kill someone?
“I will need for all of you to take your shoes off for our classes,” Mr. Hakone said.
Not our shoes! Oh god! Everyone would see my sock with the hole in it, my big toe sticking out, the one with the yellow nail I hadn’t cut for weeks. Terror struck as I worried about returning to school the following day to find that I’d been nicknamed ‘Ugly Toe Mike’ or ‘Socky Boy’. Out of desperation, I asked, “Can we take our socks off, too?”
“If you want to,” Mr. Hakone said. Woo-hoo!
Although the first class went off without a hitch, it hadn’t quite been what any of us had expected. There was no dispensing of weapons, no peeking at the book of evil demons that we would inevitably be fighting against in order to save humanity. In fact, all we learned were the exercises we would begin each class with. As the hour wound down, Mr. Hakone noticed the disappointment in our faces, so he threw us a bone. He showed us how, if someone was strangling us (something as common in our daily lives in Tacoma as killer bee attacks and quicksand), to hit the attacker’s throat with a fingertip strike.
The second class was almost identical to the first. Mr. Hakone taught us to yell when we punched or kicked and what the purpose of doing so was. I wondered what the neighbors must have been thinking at the sounds of a man and several children yelling angrily in unison. I imagined a S.W.A.T. team breaking through to the Hakone backyard because of anonymous reports of the illegal use of children to do heavy labor.
The third class was noticeably smaller. Clint called to say he hadn’t been feeling well, even though he seemed fine at school earlier that day. Also absent from class was favorable weather. Five minutes into our warm-ups, we were forced inside by a sudden downpour. “Follow me,” Mr. Hakone said, “I have an idea.”
We were led upstairs to the attic, which had been renovated into a game and entertainment room. There was a foosball table, a refrigerator, a couch, a 24-inch TV and a pachinko machine which I studied with a complete lack of comprehension. Best of all, a VCR sat beneath a shelf of videocassettes. The VCR was the size of a Dutch oven and weighed more than Wendell, but it was still an impressive piece of modern technology.
Wendell and Martin sat on the couch, the rest of us on the floor. “We’ll wait out the rain by watching a recording of an exhibition I took part in about three years back.” Mr. Hakone placed the videocassette into the VCR and sat down on the arm of the couch with the remote in hand. “Here we go.”
Mr. Hakone fast forwarded, rewound and paused through the recorded karate exhibition. He previewed only those moves he felt were relevant to our just starting out. “Now, pay special attention to the way yelling is used. When striking a target, your inner strength can be harnessed by yelling,” He demonstrated a loud yell, one that brought me back from my fantasies of my own participation in a badass exhibition of badass karate badassness. “See? Power, soul, inner strength.”
We watched with enthusiastic eyes as our teacher, his hair a bit longer, but otherwise looking virtually the same as he did sitting on the end of the couch, kicked boards with precision and inhuman power, high and low, single and stacked. My mouth hung open as I watched Mr. Hakone, Aron’s very own dad, do things I thought only existed in movies or my family’s 20-year old copy of Guinness’ Book of World Records. He did flips, jumps and kicks, demonstrated the strength one man can harness by subduing a man the size of a sumo wrestler within a matter of seconds, then battling three men wielding wooden swords. Martin spoke for all of us when he uttered, “…so cool.”
After another burst of fast forwarding, we broke into laughter as we watched a much younger Aron make an appearance, both his body and hair significantly shorter and dressed in a baggy outfit that gave him the look of a refugee. On the tape, Mr. Hakone held two boards away from his chest and Aron, not even taking a running start, cracked both with one kick.
I arrived for the fourth class amid a rain shower that I knew would, again, keep us inside. Wendell had called in to say he wasn’t coming because of the rain, he didn’t see a point. Clint neither called nor showed up, so the rest of us spent the class time watching selected scenes from Bruce Lee movies. Mr. Hakone pointed out techniques that none of us understood with names that we would never remember. Enthusiastically, he began referencing aspects of Japanese culture and, at one point, was even willing to whip up a meal of sushi and sashimi for those of us willing to experiment. Oh, we’d clog our still burgeoning arteries with fast food and the many fried delicacies we were raised on, but there was no way we were putting raw fish into our mouths. There was a dietary line we drew when subjecting our bodies to nutrients and iron.
That rainy fifth class consisted of only Aron, Martin and myself. Wendell and Tim had both phoned to say they weren’t coming in and, by that time, Clint had been given up on. Aron had to be there, but Martin and I, well, we came off as die hard spirits with an insatiable hunger for wisdom and an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. I can’t speak for Martin, but I had gotten so into the habit of watching movies for karate class, that I was glad to see it rain. By doing so, I was able to acquire an education of a physical nature without breaking a bead of sweat or running out of breath. It was karate by proxy.
We drank Dr. Pepper, passed around two bowls of snacks (potato chips in one, shrimp-flavored puffed rice in the other) and watched Enter the Dragon. Still, Mr. Hakone began to show signs of strain. His enthusiasm was nill compared to what it had been. There was no pointing out of techniques, no secrets of inner strength. After the hour was up, Mr. Hakone apologized. “We can’t control the weather,” he said, “we can only accept it. If Nature decides that it needs more rain next Thursday, I will reschedule the class. The following week, I will be out of town on business, so there will be no class, rain or shine.” His index finger went up. “We all need to stay focused and not give up. If I can set the garage up into a dojo, then we will be able to have class every Thursday, even if there’s a hurricane. Tell the others not to despair, your education will go on.”
Class was canceled the following week, no attempt at constructing the dojo was ever made and, sadly, the class never met again. As much as I wanted to, I never asked Aron about it, but I always wondered why Mr. Hakone decided it was time to just give up. I don’t think I could have handled knowing that he just simply gave up on us. It’s one thing when a kid gives up, like Clint and Wendell, that’s forgivable. But when an adult does it, it’s such a disillusionment. Adults are supposed to be the ones that set an example for the kids, teach them about life. I mean, if all of the parents on TV had always given up when the writers gave them a difficult situation, I would probably have spent a much larger portion of my childhood reading than I actually did.
So, not only was I out of a class, but I was never going to become the son worth bragging about. “Your son’s a genius, eh? Well, my son’s a bonafide black belt! Japanese teacher, the whole bit!”
Still, I would like to think that someday a strangler will seek to claim me as a victim, then I can use the one move that I did learn. Then, maybe, just maybe, the whole thing won’t seem like such a waste of time.
Bring it on, stranglers!