The headquarters dojo of Goju-Kai Karate-Do USA was for many years located at Eighteenth and Collingwood in San Francisco. It occupied the loft level of a two-story commercial building that had seen better days. The structure was ancient by California standards, having risen as part of the urban renewal after the great earthquake of 1906. The paint was peeling. The restrooms were tiny. The furnace was rusting in a corner. The electrical wiring was so old it was scary, a fire waiting to happen.

But for karate, you could hardly ask for better. The architect had left most of the second floor in the form of one huge chamber meant for the sort of social activities that were so integral to neighborhood life during the Turn of the 20th Century — small stage productions, fraternal lodge meetings, lectures by, say, an adventurous professor just back from the Amazon. In the Prohibition Era it would have been a nice spot for a speakeasy club, the high-set windows obscuring the doings of those within from passersby on the street, the eighteen-foot-high ceilings gathering up the cigar smoke into a haze of decadence. Yet I doubt that any group who used the facility over the years appreciated the floor the way we did. It was all tongue-and-groove natural hardwood, the kind they just don’t install in small neighborhood commercial buildings anymore. The open area was thirty feet by seventy. Two thousand square feet of exercise space. Dozens of students could use it at the same time given the way Gosei Yamaguchi taught, keeping everyone in a single group, performing in coordination at his active command.

I left a lot of sweat on that floor. Some blood, too. Looking back, it startles me to think that at one time, I would never have guessed I would spend so much time within those four walls. For years my training was concentrated fifty miles to the north in Sonoma County with Don Buck, Goju-Kai USA’s second-in-command. I only came down to San Francisco three times a year, and not to train, but to be tested. The 97 Collingwood Street dojo was my courtroom. I could not help but think of it as a place of intimidation. This did not change after I received my black belt in late 1978. With that milestone, I became eligible to attend Yamaguchi’s Thursday-night black-belt-only class, but that did little to make a visit there seem routine. Back in Sonoma County, I had breached the upper echelon. Not so on Thursdays. My classmates were my seniors. My belt might have been as black as theirs, but some of the guys there had trained three times as long as I, and I knew very well I was unproven. I was aware of the gaze of the local students and of Yamaguchi-shihan, and I would imagine them thinking, “Oh, him. Wonder if he’s any good.” And so for more than two years, I made the journey on rare occasions. I told myself it was the logistics, not my timidity, that kept me at home. It was a hundred-mile round trip. The commute down to the city and back took far more time than the workout itself. I was a poor college student and just barely had the money for the gasoline and the bridge toll. But the real impediment was the sense that if I was going to be there, I needed to “do it right.”

As 1980 turned into 1981, I was ready to do it right. I was due to be promoted at the end of June, so as a New Year’s resolution to myself, I vowed to attend every single black belt class from the beginning of January right on through until the test — a promise I kept except for the week in late May when the wife I was divorcing needed the car to move her stuff out. That interruption ended the streak at twenty Thursday nights in a row. Things would never be as they had been. The headquarters dojo was no longer foreign. In some ways, I had already bonded with it better than any of the venues I had worked out in to the north, because my local club had no building of its own, making do with rooms at Sonoma State University or local elementary schools or community centers. The San Francisco guys were increasingly regarding me as a comrade. We shared something. We could all say we had survived Gosei Yamaguchi’s black belt classes and come back for more. That made us a special kind of crazy.

One Thursday night in late April, I was not the only out-of-towner in attendance. One reason it had taken a while to be comfortable at headquarters was that I was usually the least known person there. But that particular evening, we were joined by John Linhoff. Then thirty-five years old, John was the director of the Goju-Kai branch in Minneapolis. In order to attend, he had to travel two thousand miles. A four-thousand mile round trip. Understandably, his presence at headquarters was rare, but he made the effort. Gosei Yamaguchi had made it clear a few years earlier that he would not travel to other regions to evaluate candidates for upper levels of black belt. John had to come to the west coast in order to move up. But that wasn’t the be-all and end-all of his reasons. John came because he was dedicated to the art. Over the course of his trip, a long weekend stint, he had the chance to receive group-session and one-on-one tutelage from Yamaguchi, one of the premier authorities of goju-ryu karate-do.

A couple of months later, John would return for the promotional. I would sit next to him, one of three black belts being raised as a result of that exam. The third was Paul Landry of Gardner, MA, another player who had to make an extraordinary commute. The finale of the afternoon was when I sparred with Paul, and then John sparred with Paul. It was not a day I would ever forget. Paul Landry is the fastest player I have ever sparred with. The following week at black belt class, Peter Gilbert, one of the examiners, described it perfectly when he compared Paul to a human router. If you’ve never worked with that particular power tool, you may not fully grasp the analogy. Try substituting the word “tornado.”

That exam was a peak-experience moment for me, but I had expected it to be. The Thursday night in April, by contrast, was an unlooked-for crossing of a threshold that ultimately had even more meaning. Before that night, I thought of myself as someone attempting to practice karate. After that night, I thought of myself as someone who practices karate.

You’re probably guessing something happened in class to trigger that transformation, but you’d be wrong. It was what happened after I left the building.

If you’d ever been part of one of Gosei Yamaguchi’s black-belt sessions in the 1960s, 1970s, or 1980s, you’d know the first thing to do after the workout was rehydrate. Maybe some of the locals could afford to wait until getting home to chug-a-lug a pitcher of water, but I did not have that option. Once I hit the road, the drive would take over an hour.

The stairs were steep. As I descended them, the muscles along the front of my thighs complained of the ordeal they had been through, especially the lap of “rabbit hops” during warm-ups. By the next day I would as usual barely be able to descend a set of stairs. It took years and hundreds of classes before my thighs didn’t lock up on Friday mornings. It was the same for us all.

But for the moment, it was a sweet ache. I was brimming with that awesome feeling of having pushed my body to the limit, and having discovered that limit was as high as it had ever been. I took in a lungful of San Francisco evening air — cool enough this particular night to be refreshing, not face-slapping foggy as it could sometimes be. The marine layer had not pushed its way over Twin Peaks. I turned the corner and strode down to the nearest source of fluid. Three doors down on Eighteenth, on the ground floor of the same building that housed the dojo, was Dino’s Liquor. I threaded my way to the back of the store where the refrigerated non-alcoholic beverages were kept. That night I chose a quart of grapefruit juice and a large Orangina. One bottle to gulp down immediately, the other to be sipped in the car on the way to the Golden Gate Bridge.

Stepping outside, I found John Linhoff standing on the sidewalk, early into a conversation with Steve Lee, one of the headquarters students. I joined them. The covered concrete trash receptacle by the curb became our table.

John was visibly reassured to be in the company of a couple of colleagues with whom he was at least passingly acquainted, rather than have to be hanging out on the street solo. He nervously eyed the pair of men who were striding past, arms over each other’s shoulders, kissing as they walked. John wasn’t used to seeing such things. He was well-travelled, having lived in Australia for a few years in the early 1970s, but he was out of his element here. We were only half a block west of the intersection of Eighteenth and Castro, which was to the gay scene the same sort of landmark the intersection of Haight and Ashbury had been to the psychedelic Summer of Love movement. When the dojo had moved from its earlier home on 22nd Street to the Collingwood Street location in 1966, the neighborhood had not been known to the general public as a gay mecca, but by the end of the 1970s it was The Scene. Some of the overt public-display exuberance would dim within another couple of years due to AIDS, but that spring it was still in full force. The last thing John wanted was to be perceived as was a dude trolling the neighborhood for a date.

The conversation went on…and it went on.

I spoke of the goju scene in Sonoma County. John spoke of what it was like to train in the Midwest, and of spending his years Down Under, where he had worked out with Mervyn Oakley, better known for his fighting ability than for his grasp of the esthetics of goju-ryu. Steve spoke of the challenge of coming back to train with Yamaguchi-shihan in his early thirties after a layoff of over half a dozen years. John said that at thirty-five he felt as though his conditioning was the best it had ever been. My feeling was the same, but then again, I was only twenty-six. Steve admitted it was different for him. He doubted he could ever get back to the kind of shape he’d been in a decade earlier. He viewed it as part of his discipline to make himself attend workouts in spite of that wistfulness. A few weeks earlier he had seen a man in his mid-forties jogging along the San Francisco streets, clearly in great shape. Steve had thought, yes, that guy’s not giving up. A few seconds later Steve saw the man from the front and realized it was Gosei Yamaguchi out on one of his runs. Yamaguchi-shihan had found it easier in his forties to get his main exercise at something new, something outside karate, so he jogged. He would cover a hundred miles in a typical week of training — and then more when he was getting ready to compete in a marathon.

I would never in my life have another extended conversation with Steve Lee. He stopped training that year. I have only spoken with John Linhoff on a handful of occasions in the past thirty years. In a way, that lack of other connection is why the conversation in April, 1981 stands out in my mind. Hanging out on the sidewalk below the dojo, feeling that dulcet soreness in my muscles and gradually remembering what it was like not to be thirsty, I knew I belonged there. We all belonged there. We were three karate guys just talking about karate.

That was my initiation. From then on, being a karate guy wasn’t something I wanted to be. It was what I was.

One more epiphany hit me that night on the drive home. I knew I was bound to write about being a karate guy someday. And here I am. Stay tuned for further installments.

(This blog installment originally appeared in the autumn of 2012 at Book View Café.)

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