Friday, April 04, 2008

One in Every Crowd

My martial arts experience has been wide, but shallow. In forty-some years, I trained in Goju, Okinawa-te, Oppugnate, Chan Gen, Shin-Shin Aikido, Kendo, Kajukenbo, and finally, Pentjak Silat. Until silat, the time ranged from a year to three years in any one style, and while I managed to get a brown and black belt along the way, I had no depth in any of them.

Once upon a time, I thought a black belt meant something. The one I have, I use to tie the dog ramp to the bed's footboard to hold it steady, so it finally is useful.

For whatever they were, the places where I trained were mostly legit. My teachers were qualified to instruct in the art they were offering, save for one.

In the early 1970's, after we had moved back from L.A. to Baton Rouge, Kung Fu the TV series was on the air. There had been a made-for-TV-movie, I think, earlier, but the full impact was just hitting the martial arts community in '72 or '73. I was looking for a place to train, having split up with my former buddy and business partner, who had been teaching me Oppugnate, and who had known some kung fu, and had been showing me that, too.

I heard there was a kung-fu school just opened, and went to check it out. I figured it was all the same, and what I had learned would be what they were teaching. Hey, I was twenty-two, what did I know?

During this time, a whole bunch of karate schools suddenly discovered that they, in fact, had kung fu in their background, and signs that said "Karate School" were replaced with "Kung Fu School." There were yin-yang symbols out the, well, out the yin-yang.

The new place was in a big room in somebody's warehouse, way out Florida Blvd. There were a dozen students, and the teacher, Sifu Scheffler, maybe thirty , wore the black kung-fu suit with the white frog ties, and waved his arms in circles a lot. The class was a lot of warm-up, punching and kicking drills until we were exhausted, push-ups, crunches, and then Sifu would show us a move, generally pounding the crap out of the guy he chose to demonstrate upon. We'd practice that, and he'd walk around correcting our form.

He had a nice certificate in his office, little dragons on the parchment, and a couple of black belts from other styles, mostly TKD, would drop by and chat with him sometimes while we were busting our buns. "Northern Honan Style Kung Fu," it said. It had some Chinese writing on it, too. It looked legit, but of course, I knew zip about Chinese arts.

Sifu Scheffler was an out-and-out fraud. Why you don't see this in my training list.

It took me three or four classes to figure it out. He never did anything really martial. He would, as he lectured, run through a few moves now and then, lotta circular hands and chicken beak and tiger claws, and it looked pretty spiffy, but it didn't feel right.

He'd demo a defense, but never at full power, and they looked okay, but ... not okay.

I didn't say anything. I had a place to work out, some of the other students knew some things, and pretty quickly, I was given leave to lead the class in the warm-ups while Sifu sat in his office using the phone. I was young, in shape, I figured this was how it was done.

After a month or six weeks of this, Sifu would sometimes call me and tell me to cover the class, and he wouldn't even show up.

The guy who owned the warehouse was one of the students, as was a guy who was big into local real estate. After another month wherein I had become the de facto teacher, showing what little kung fu I knew, along with bits and pieces of the other stuff I had, the warehouse owner and the real estate guy hinted that maybe the students should be paying me to teach class instead of Sifu. I had a black belt didn't I?

Well, yes, but I wasn't hot to do that. But the next time Sifu showed up to collect the tuition, there was a moment ...

He asked one of the students, who had some training in judo, to come at him. I'm thinking the student's name was Barry, but I could be misremembering that. Barry charged in, grabbed Sifu and threw him onto the ground. As he fell, Sifu made a panicked wave at Barry's face. He got up.

"Did you see that?" he asked us.

Yeah, we did, Barry decked your worthless ass. But that's not what he meant. "Did you see that? I pretended to fall, and hooked him under the chin with my Eagle Claw!"

That was so lame a boxcar full of crutches couldn't help. We were all embarrassed. We looked at our feet. Yeah, Sifu, good job.

Two weeks later, the warehouse guy and the real estate guy found another empty space, rented it, and set me up as the instructor. All but one of Sifu's students moved over with me. Sifu never said a word to me, and I confess, I was not worried about him showing up to deliver his deadly Eagle Claw.

Later, the real estate guy did some background checking, and found out that Sifu's claims as to where he studied and with whom were completely bogus. (Sifu later claimed to be a New York writer who had written and sold a big movie, and after that somehow didn't make it to the big screen, faded away. I believe Sifu was a sociopath; or maybe he just enjoyed lying.)

There was a lot of fraud going on in kung-fu circles in those days -- there's always some of that, and the flavor-of-the-month art gets the most play from the instant masters. But, far as I know, that was the only time I got stung, and in the end, it worked out pretty well for me. I had a black belt, and an instant school. I didn't really know squat about fighting, and not much about kung fu, but eventually, there was a White Crane guy, a professor at Southern U who would come to my school and swap forms with me, so I did have exposure to real stuff. Later a tai chi guy showed me a Yang form, so I had a little of that, too.

It's an ill wind indeed that blows no good ...


Brad said...

I think we all run into these frauds sooner or later. Especially when you've trained as long as we have. Today, it's easier to do some research on the 'net and find out if your teacher has a questionable background. Of course, just because it is (or isn't) on the 'net, doesn't mean it's true.

But, it gives you a place to start.

Steve Perry said...

Yeah, it's hard to suss it out. There are guys who have certificates out the wazoo that look legit, might even *be* legit, as far as they go, but who still overstep and oversell their qualifications.

This tends to fall into the realm of somebody studying a style for a few months or a year, then going off to present the "essence" of the art, with all the frills and frippery supposedly taken out.

In a year, they say, they got the gist of what makes a particular art work, and they have cherry-picked that for you and thrown out the seeds and stems.

Possible, I suppose. I don't believe it applies to my art, but maybe some styles might.

(I liken this to removing five of the six rounds from a .357 Magnum revolver and then claiming it's a more effective weapon as a result. This is done by folks who don't understand holographic connections.
I can show you a combination from what I do, but without the underlying principles, it doesn't mean much.)

There are others who have no paper at all, who have been disowned by their teachers, and who are as adept as they can be. My teacher doesn't have any certificates, but I can see he has the art.

If you have it, you don't need paper. If you don't, a boxcar full of gilt-edged wallpaper won't give it to you.

It's harder to fool somebody who has been around than a newbie, but even so, in a new-to-you art, you tend to be more forgiving because you aren't sure enough to call it.

There are some guys who can really shuffle and jive, masters of the art of bullsheeto, who have kept classes guessing for years. Doling out bits and pieces until eventually, students tend to figure it out, but sometimes it can be costly, in term of time and money, before they realize they are getting sold a bill of goods.

We have some of those in our art, and some very unhappy students who put in the time and money only to finally walk away in disgust.

I'm not sure how you can really stop this -- this is one of those learn-the-hard-way lessons. Once you are invested in the art, you tend to step up to defend it and your teacher, and you should have some loyalty. Then again, some of the real quacks know this and use it.

It's a road full of potholes, no question.

I think the bottom line is, in a martial arts teacher, is: Does he have what you want? And can he teach it to you?

Past that, it doesn't matter. But figuring that out? That's the trick.

Brad said...

Very true. I've met both types, and have always asked myself the 2 key questions. If my answers were in the negative, I looked for a new teacher.

I got in to it much the same reason as you, except it was a step-father who was (in a 14 year old's mind and eyes) as big as a house. And an alcohlic. I got lucky, in my first school was one of Chuck Norris' schools. After I moved, it was hit and miss until I found my current art.

I've been fortunate enough to train and learn under some talented guys and gals. Some respected, some not so. But they had what I wanted to learn.

Back before the internet, I went to check out a teacher that claimed to teach "Ninjutsu". Went in with my white belt on, full of questions. Saw the pretty papers and photos with Grandmasters and mmovie stars. I think that was what set the alarm bells ringing, all the self promoting articles and pictures on the wall.

Then came class. Korean commands (??? in a Japanese art?) and stances and kick familiar to me from my Tang So Do days. If I hadn't trained in TSD or TKD or Hapkido before, I might have been duped. Might have. However, midway thru class when the (ex)wife overheard the "Sensei" tell his top 2 students to "Rough him up, he's no white belt. Let's teach him a lesson." Well, the sealed it in my mind. And, from what I understand, quite a few left soon after.

When they saw what they were learning was nothing like what I had shown them.