If movies have taught us anything, it’s that any ordinary schlub can rise up to become a capable hero with enough training and determination. Business Reporter’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert recounts how he foolishly bought into that ridiculous notion as a wee lad.
Movies lie. That’s their purpose. Movies are just visual stories, and all storytellers – by their essential nature – lie. They exaggerate. They minimize. They fantasize. They use something real (a person, a world, an event) to help deliver a specific message. The storyteller’s intent may be to inspire innocent joy or fear or mirth in the audience, but no matter how well-intentioned, it’s a sure bet that something in any given story isn’t true. Even documentaries lie by emphasizing some moments while ignoring others, and in so doing warping the audience’s understanding of the broader context. Take it as an article of faith: all stories involve lies. Some stories are nothing but lies. Most stories, though, use their lies sparingly and tactically – like directed light from a torch – in order to guide the audience to a very specific point.
That’s what I try to do in these columns. I take very long and complicated situations and minimize them down to their essential elements in order to make a specific point. Do I lie? Absolutely. I rename all of my nefarious characters ‘Bob’. I’ll frequently change characters’ genders, settings’ industry sectors, and even cities in order to completely anonymize the very real people who did the very real things that I write about. I lie to protect the guilty because I’ve got no desire to ever hear from those people again. But the events that occur in my stories? The dialogue? The circumstances and results? Those are always stone cold true. That’s because I tell these stories to make a specific point. My objective is help one of y’all can recognize (and thereby avoid) some nasty happening that once happened to me. That, and maybe get a laugh out of the telling.
A lot of the stories that I tell may as well be useless warnings shouted over my shoulder at a younger incarnation of myself. Things that I wished I’d known during a difficult patch. Realizations and lessons-learned that might have spared me a bunch of grief. One of those warnings (if only it had arrived in time) could have saved me about a thousand wasted hours of strenuous effort, hundreds of dollars and several unnecessary beatings. The lesson: martial arts are (mostly) rubbish.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get that message until it was too late, and all because I listened to Chuck Norris.
My parents started me off in public school  about a year and a half too young compared to the rest of my classmates. I had the devil’s own time trying to fit in every time I joined a new class. I wound up transferring schools after two years, then again after another two. I kept changing social groups, and got further out of sync with the other little hellions after every jump. By the time I reached fifth grade, I found that I was regularly getting into scrapes with larger, meaner, more popular boys because I wasn’t like them. This wasn’t any sort of Harry Potter nonsense where the plucky young protagonist manages to outwit his tormentors; it was just me getting pummeled, trampled and stuffed into lockers for being inconsiderately different. And since it was an American public school, no adult in a position of authority ever gave a damn.
Then in 1983, I got invited to go see Lone Wolf McQuade, the new Chuck Norris action flick. I’d seen half of a Norris martial arts film  the year prior and was generally aware that he was an action movie hero, but I had no idea what I was getting into. LWMQ held me mesmerized… Watching Chuck and David Carradine square off in the desert and chew scenery while hundreds of vicious baddies got stomped into kindling was bloody amazing. This, I thought on the car ride home, must be how I’m supposed to solve my bullying problem. Learn how to fight like Chuck, and send the other boys home crying. Brilliant!
I saw the movie in the summer and remembered it deep into autumn. The next time I got pounded on by a classmate, I went home and asked my folks if I could learn karate. They cheerfully obliged. I joined the nearest dojo’s kids’ class and started learning all about stances and blocking and kicking and falling. I practiced the style’s pseudo-dance routines with all of the other kids and tentatively stepped into the fighting ring with the huge, scary teenagers. My first time sparring, I got punched in the head by our adult instructor  and quickly thereafter got rendered insensible by a football kick to the gonads from one of the senior students. I knew while I was writing in agony on the floor that I must be in the right place, since these people all embraced violence and conflict. Surely, I thought, these are skills that I need to master in order to fend off my enemies! (Or something like that.)
Truth be told, I did develop some useful fighting instincts. After a year of practice, I reflexively punched an advancing bully in his throat. I still got whuped, but I’d managed to surprise the jerk. Small victories gave me the confidence to leave the kids’ class a few years early and join the much more serious adult class.
A year later, an incident occurred that shook my faith in our dojo’s curriculum. A bunch of upperclassmen – boys that I’d never met before – decided to single me out one afternoon for a prolonged beating. It started in the halls, then moved to the gym and finally concluded in the locker room. There were seven of the blokes, all standing a foot talker and weighing two-to-three stone more than me. It wasn’t terribly violent, in that I didn’t get hospitalized from it, but it still hurt. A lot. One thing that I learned in the altercation was that all of the fancy kicks and yells that I’d been taught in the karate class were completely useless against someone that can pin your arms while his mates work you over.
I figured that the problem wasn’t that the skills didn’t work; rather, I’d concentrated on mastering the wrong skills. I needed more close-in fighting and needed to learn how to scrap with much larger people. So, I started taking supplemental lessons in Judo– learning to grapple, throw, pin and strangle a larger opponent. I also picked up some nerve strike techniques from Hopkido classes.
Later on, I started sparring with big, brawny adults. The biggest, meanest hombre in the dojo was Tony – our senior instructor and the owner’s number one. Tony was a prize student. He was muscular, energetic, tough, and insanely experienced. Most nights, he ran the class while the owner did paperwork. Tony loved dominating the floor. Anytime that someone started feeling too confident, Tony took him into the ring and reset his place in the cosmos. I learned sparring with Tony that I was able to land very precise strikes right where I wanted them to hit, but that I also hit my opponents with all the force of a gentle summer breeze. The handful of times that I did manage to get a strike past Tony’s guard, he immediately left me stunned on the dojo floor to remind all of the onlookers who was top dog. It hurt, but I tried to learn from it.
Not long after I started sparring with Tony, I wound up in high school. I made friends with some boys from the rougher side of town and got dragged into one of their conflicts. These were the kind of delinquents that used knives, clubs and broken Coke bottles to settle their disagreements. After one near rumble too many for my tastes, I worked out that the training I’d had in defending against melee weapons was a bit… thin. Inadequate, really. I needed to add some advanced not-getting-stabbed skills to my repertoire.
A few weeks later, I pulled Tony aside between class sessions and asked him what fighting technique he’d use in a situation like I’d nearly found myself in: a much larger, heavier opponent with a slashing or stabbing weapon. Tony laughed at me and replied that he’d never go hand-to-hand with an adversary like that ‘Dude like that?’ he said, grinning, ‘I’d run away, then sneak up behind him later and brain him with a brick.’
As all the best Zen Koans end: ‘…at that moment, the punk was enlightened.’
It struck me (like the aforementioned brick to the head) that Tony was telling the truth. This was a grown man with a 50” chest who could bench press his own weight. This was a master black belt who could spin kick any of us students into a heap on the training floor. This was a fighter who could punch and kick faster than the eye could track. If anyone was primed to follow in the footsteps of St. Chuck and render smackage undreamed of to the Forces of Evil™, it would have been Tony. This guy was the pinnacle of the martial arts master, and what would he do when faced with his physical and temperamental equal on the battlefield? He’d run away like a little kid and then sneak attack his adversary from behind with no martial arts skill whatsoever.
I got it. This was how it really was. The martial arts moves were elegant and cool. They looked amazing on screen and in the ring. But in the real world? The master of the form admitted that they were effectively useless on the street. A guy who had never studied hand-to-hand combat in his life was going to be just as effective as me or Tony when it came to pragmatic, dirty street brawling. Run away if you can. If you can’t, brain the other guy with a brick and leg it. Years of skill required = zero. Proficiency required = zero. Honour = zero. Only viciousness counted.
I left the school a month later and never went back.
I said that all storytellers lie, and I meant it. I still have my framed black belt certificate hanging on the wall of my office to remind me of those times. I spent six years lying to myself that if I just learned the right maneouvers that I’d be take on my tormentors and win. If I just studied harder, that I’d keep the burly footballers from laying a paw on me. I believed what Chuck had shown me in the film. I just didn’t realize at the time that I’d been taken in by a macho fantasy story – a work of pure fiction. A very pretty lie, beautifully presented.
In real life, Chuck Norris didn’t take down narcotraficantes with his boot heels and bare knuckles. Neither did anyone else. Real police officers took down big, burly baddies with overwhelming numbers, heavy firearms and the element of surprise. Cops never sent a lone swaggering badass into a criminal stronghold to sort things out with sidekicks and a snippy quip. That nonsense only happens in fiction.
Everything in that story is true. All of those clobberings I described receiving really happened. My dojo’s senor instructor really was named Tony. Tony really did trounce me on a regular basis to make himself look good and I’ve transcribed his sage answer to my stupid questions exactly as he said it. It really was Lone Wolf McQuade that inspired the connection for me between martial arts training and self-determination. It really was Tony’s raw moment of honesty that helped me understand that studying martial arts for personal protection had been (mostly) wasted effort.
I really wish someone that had told me that when I was a kid. It wouldn’t have helped me deal with schoolyard bullies, but it would have allowed me to make an informed decision about how I chose to spend my time. I probably still would have gone to karate class – it was Kansas, after all, and there was nothing else to do if you didn’t like watching corn grow or snow melt. But if at least I’d known that all the ‘fighting arts’ were largely rubbish, then maybe I could have relaxed instead and enjoyed the classes for the social aspect, good sportsmanship and exercise. That, and maybe declined to get punched, kicked and flung about more than absolutely necessary to learn the techniques.
No one did, though. No one that I knew (and trusted) at the time had ever gone down that particular path. My friends and relatives all believed what they saw in movies and on television just like I did. We didn’t come from a line of brawlers. As for the people who knew better – those instructors who made money selling their classes, and all the students suffering from sunk-cost fallacy logic (and possible TBI), well, they had darned compelling reasons to advocate for sticking with the program.
Once I worked out the truth for myself, I realized that I might be able to ‘break the chain’ for someone else. That’s why I tell these stories. So that maybe someone else can learn something new, change their perspective and make better use of their time. Learn from my mistakes, and maybe definitely get a laugh out of the telling.
 The American version, not the British version. In the USA, ‘public’ schools are the state-funded ones open to everyone, with the lowest-paid teachers, the crappiest buildings and not a school tie to be found anywhere.
 1981’s formulaic and implausible cop thriller An Eye for an Eye.
 For making a wild spin back-fist strike.
Title Allusion: Steve Carver, Lone Wolf McQuade (1983 Film)
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.