HOW DARKNESS OVERTAKES LIGHT
By Shifu Christopher J. Goedecke
From the Wind School Archives
Note: I used to make it a habit to write down events and thoughts that merited my deeper contemplations about life. Because of that habit I am able to present the flow of events below that took place over a ten year time span roughly from the early 1970’s to early 1980’s . It is not my intent to disparage anyone but rather to candidly portray the light and shadows within the events as they unfolded. ‘GR’ in my recollections refers to ‘The Gutter Ronin.’
I didn’t know what to expect that evening when I walked out the back door of the dance studio into the parking lot in 1976. I had been teaching a martial arts class there once a week when someone told me that GR was outside waiting for me. I recognized him immediately, sprawled on the hood of a car, soaking under a light rain, laughing with sardonic pleasure.
As men we were worlds apart even though we had worked closely for years as senior instructors for a large suburban karate dojo. I had quit the dojo in frustration a year earlier. The rare times I saw GR he appeared cagey and agitated, as if swatting a monstrous shadow to avoid suffocation. My odd encounters with him made me yearn for a community of more clear-headed men. Yet we were now perversely bound by way of our martial brotherhood. I won’t forget his self-deprecating image that night. “I am a Gutter Ronin,” he uttered, spread eagle on the hood of a red car. His description left me with the image of a demented samurai wrecked from the shattered security of a lost battle. GR had become a macabre Caucasian version of Jackie Chan playing the drunken monkey fool. Only Chan was an actor. GR was the real deal. I had a morbid curiosity about his future because I understood some of what he had gone through. I too had just narrowly escaped the same clutch, which held him tightly. Our sensei was a charismatic, clever, power hungry manipulator, who just happened to be an exceptional teacher. He preyed on innocence and expectation to keep him high on his martial pedestal. So it could have been me lying on that hood. It was decades later that I discovered I had been nicknamed the “Sane One” by the judoka at my former dojo. So I guess some innate karma had saved me to bear witness to the decay of human virtue. GR was a just twenty-something man on the wrong side of the street. His martial path, begun innocently enough, had somehow twisted into a dark, dispirited maze.
GR was a small time legend of a fading Karate school, now self-crucifying in the wake of his forgotten grandeur. Perhaps, if he had been nailed onto his metallic altar that night people would have shown more compassion. But no one came to pierce his side and relieve his suffering. They came instead to watch a circus performance, the man who foolishly boasted the tackling of any opponent. His clear mind had fractured, robbing him of that crucial victory over self that leads to a peaceful life. His muddied thoughts overwhelmed any campaign toward clarity, disassociating him from his wounded spirit.
Unbeknownst to me, GR sustained himself on a mixture of Stelazine, cocaine, and alcohol that night. Stelazine was a powerful tranquilizer that could prevent one’s hands from turning into fists at inappropriate times. I was told that his self-administered cocktails didn’t slow his nightly forays into Newark’s rougher bars to play with danger. At Gary’s Go-Go, he’d cautiously bump patrons who might be armed to minimize his disadvantage in a confrontation.
GR went through three years of psychotherapy to relieve the imbalances of his karate training. His story gives testimony to the the dark side of martial arts. Instead of building a man, his art and his sensei tore him apart. And if his sensei wasn’t directly guilty of this immoral crime, he allowed a man’s degeneration to unfold without compassion. As I had learned in college, power corrupts and more power corrupts more. I have witnessed the martial arts become a destructive opiate for the ego. With a black belt cinched around the waist some begin to falsely believe in their superiority over others. Maybe the alcohol and cocaine blanketed GR’s inner rage, tempered his power surges. GR’s volcanic spirit spewed out fantastic images.
“We’re moving in opposite directions,” I told him that night.
“I know. I’m in the dark pit, clawing my way into the darkness,” he said with bravado, egging his demons to brawl. He seemed oddly detached from his fall from grace. Maybe he was just clever at masking the terror of his plummet. I felt GR was searching for meaning in a tar pit.
Despite GR’s wildness, he was an excellent martial artist in his day. I often marveled at his kicking strength. Even if they were holding eight-inch thick pads, the biggest men would be knocked completely off their feet with his back kicks.
We had trained and taught side by side for years, pacing ourselves to each other’s progress. We were both bitten hard by the martial bug. I was introduced to him in the early 1970’s by his makiwara pounding. Makiwara work was a bone deep addiction with GR in the early days.
Our youthful minds felt limitless. Being strong and full of ambition we eventually rose to sensei status. I suppose this is where we stumbled, for love is often blind regardless of the object of its attention. Karate’s romantic and alluring charm engaged us so fully that we completely overlooked our teacher, an alcoholic, exploiting our labor.
Much controversy surrounded the years that followed. My dojo experience gradually soured. I quit my position as senior staff instructor with some illusions shattered. GR stayed on for three more years. I never saw or spoke to him again until the dojo mysteriously burned in the summer of 1982. I had heard the news from the uncle of a young student whom I had been teaching a private lesson to that a karate school was on fire the next town over. As soon my class ended I drove to Main Street, Summit. I arrived to find the entire block cordoned by police and fire equipment. The pioneering Dojo had been smoldering for hours. As I a strove for a better vantage I recognized a few former students behind the fire lines and wondered how many of them had come to pay private homage to our unique, old world training hall.
I strove for different angles on the street as if each vantage would yield a clue to its demise. Sometime later, I heard a comment that the Fire Marshall had ruled the fire “suspicious.” Prevented from circumventing the entire structure, I shortcut down a wide back alley. There I got the distinct sensation I was being followed. So I stepped over to a small crowd and focused my attention to the alley entrance from which I had just emerged. GR stepped out from the alley into full view. He hadn’t changed at all. He walked confidently like an intelligent animal who carried a lethal left hook and right round kick as a surprise. He stood about six foot two. His solid, near two hundred pound frame supported a confident, lithe body, with a Jack Nicholson grin. GR respected me as a man and a martial artist. I respected his lethality. We walked around the corner to a local watering hole to exchange feelings about our dojo’s unusual turn of events. We agreed that given the debasement of the school, fire was a fitting end.
From time to time I would reflect on how GR and I had chosen different courses for our lives, yet always strongly maintained that one common denominator, karate, in high regard. I think we both suffered as youths from the same misconception that men are inherently good, and that the martial art sensei, like a priest or a cop to a child, must be steps above the good man. It’s what we wanted to believe. The truth however, roamed in other pastures. Some cops are criminal. Some priests prey on young children. When I told GR that a class action suit was underway against our former teacher for defrauding his members, he asked who in their right mind would actively pursue the devil, “the fat devil,” to be more precise. Only GR dared to call him that. He had lived with the man for years, endured threats and drunken rows, chauffeured him after late night binges. Our beloved sensei had long ago fallen for the bottle. Now, GR remarked, the fat devil must be “secluded in some lair waiting for his next victim to make the same mistakes.” I think he was referring to the common errors of youth – the belief that innocent trust will guide one harmlessly through life’s death-defying maze.
It should be noted that many people had excellent martial experiences at our dojo and a favorable relationship with the entire teaching staff. But there were events behind closed doors that revealed a separate narrative.
GR was a colorful and energetic man. No matter what you said to him, good or bad, he would grin broadly and laugh infectiously. He loved an audience. With spectators he became the spectacle, the grand patriarch of combat prowess. “The great water hippo… the Gutter Ronin.” He lavished these fantastical titles upon himself. I truly think that GR believed his spirit had been unscathed, that he could outfox the foxes who had torn off his sinewy wings to freedom. GR was brilliant, yet darkly wild. As a martial brother I wanted to believe that he would escape his tormentors, knowing in my heart his chains were thick.
Angry men cut deep with the force of their karate technique. I heard once that GR had gotten into a fight at a local Inn several towns over. He smashed a man in the face, crushing his upper bridge and driving four of his top teeth and several of the lower into the back of his mouth. That mouth will be indelibly marked with a porcelain and metal plaque of the night’s incident.
GR personally recounted that the man had emerged from the rest room and seen him dancing with his woman. Overcome with the machismo that runs hot at bars, the stranger shoved him from behind then spun him around. GR was a technical beast. He could root in mid-pirouette. He had trained relentlessly for the fight. So he reacted without hesitation, caught the intruder with a solid right hook to his cheekbone followed by a left that he described as “sizzling.” If any man should lay violent hands upon GR there would be no verbal negotiation, no pumping of chests. I remember one day when a testy student suggested to him that if he had lived in the Wild West, he’d call GR out for a draw. GR replied that he’d gun the man down in mid sentence. That’s how it was with the Gutter Ronin. Hit first, then get on with your life. So it was that night as his two strikes cracked the man’s face open. He recalled that the stranger didn’t buckle, didn’t jolt. His eyes never dilated. The inside of his mouth simply exploded. How could this poor suburbanite have known that he had just stepped on the tail of an angry manbeast?
The Gutter Ronin recounted this story to an audience of two novice students I had brought him months after the fire. We had packed into a booth at a local restaurant. I wanted to rock the innocence of my two young male disciples about the ugliness of real combat.
The senior most of the two was visibly nervous. He’d heard many tales of the wild man’s instinct for the kill. He listened intently, glancing over at me to measure my response to the Ronin’s gushings. What does a young, twenty-year old think when he stares at the Gutter Ronin’s huge calloused hands and broad, wide bull-thick forehead? GR used the conversation to shadow box his unseen enemy. "Did he tell you about high impact strikes? Don’t ever hit the mouth with your fist … I had this fight with this guy at the plant. He tried to shake me down for money, ran his boot along my car, slapped me in the face. I wiped away his second slap. I hit him with my hook. I wanted to hit his arm but my punch bounced into his ribs. Your instructor fights in a completely different style. He’s strictly by the book. He wants a clean kill. Me, I’m liable to roll around on the ground with my opponent, let him drag me by the hair through the mud if he wants before I finish him off…” He guffaws at his own fantasies.
I knew GR well. His fights were real. But these were physical victories, mere skirmishes. I never saw him wage the decisive inner battle. He only realized seven years and a lot of anxiety later that he had been manipulated and abused by his teacher.
GR is a living testimony to the brutality of man’s lust for the fight, man’s struggle to find himself through blood and glory. I hope that GR has gained ground in his mortal combat for balance. Sadly, there were rumors that he has struggled with a mental illness that emerged during his prime years in karate.
When the two students left us alone for a moment, GR asked me how good they were. He was surprised when I told him that the brown belt had a good six years of training and the other had only been studying for three months.
"The brown belt’s scared,” GR said. “I can see it in his eyes.”
“You’re right, he’s psychologically inhibited. He’s got superb technique, but he holds himself back.” I agreed with his keen assessment.
"That’s half the battle,” the Gutter Ronin added. “That brown belt wouldn’t last one nanosecond with me. The other, he’s got something.” GR paused. “I’d give him two nanoseconds.” A deep belly laughter erupted from the pride in his own fiery wit and filled the room.
The Dojo never reopened after the fire. Its head instructor died of cancer at age 54 in 2000. GR dropped from the karate world. None of us have seen or heard from him for many years. The Brown belt who met him that day, thirty years ago, went on to open his own karate school. Light, shadows and darkness continue to play their hand. Life moves on.
Shifu Goedecke is a career martial artist and author of The Soul Polisher’s Apprentice. Visit our site at www.isshinkempo.com