By Dan Haag
35 years ago, one of the greatest films of all time was being viewed across America. I am, of course, referring to the Ralph Macchio classic, “The Karate Kid.”
It was a film that had it all – action, thrills, romance, Elisabeth Shue. Best of all, it delivered what the title promised: karate.
For those of you who have never seen the film and therefore dwell in a dimension where pain and darkness exists, allow me to summarize.
A young boy named Daniel moves to a new town with his single mom and, for reasons still unclear to me, is instantly bullied by a herd of alpha male karate experts who terrorize the school with their roundhouse kicks and flawless feathered hair. Soon, Daniel begins courting Elisabeth Shue, which earns him several beat-downs.
Hoping to stand up for himself and eventually graduate high school without a severe head injury, Daniel enlists the help of the enigmatic Mr. Miyagi (played by cool-as-a-cucumber Pat Morita) who, through a series of carefully staged music montages, teaches young Daniel that the strength he had to stand up for himself was inside of him all along.
It’s all very 1980’s and all completely awesome.
The film captured my imagination for several reasons, most obvious being that the character’s name was Daniel and he was, in 80’s parlance, a “righteous dude.” He just wanted to be left alone and take Elisabeth Shue to the prom, but was forced into action when pushed too far by the evil 80’s bullies in matching letterman jackets. Plus, Mr. Miyagi referred to our young hero as “Daniel-san,” the coolest name ever in my book. Despite my best efforts, my requests for my parents to have my name legally changed to Daniel-san fell flat.
I was also fascinated by the idea of standing up to bullies, especially those who were bigger and stronger and sported luxurious mullets. Despite being burdened with a condition that many of my classmates referred to as being “a smart ass,” I wasn’t ever really bullied in school. From day one of junior high, I made it my mission to identify and steer clear of any alpha male who might take offense to any sarcastic remarks that might “accidentally” slip from my mouth in their presence.
Now and then, I would accidentally make eye contact with the wrong person and get my books slapped from my hands or be threatened with disembowelment by wedgie, but I was generally safe from that sort of thing.
Still, the idea of having some manner of defense mechanism – say, karate, for example — to ward them off or allow me to defend others was enormously appealing. Also, it would probably impress older girls, which couldn’t hurt.
After seeing “The Karate Kid,” I mercilessly begged my parents to sign me up for lessons. They relented after getting tired of me going around the house and punching inanimate objects and shouting “there is no fear in this dojo!”
On the drive to my first lesson, my 13-year old brain was fertile ground for karate-themed fantasies. I pictured myself kicking in a set of swinging Old West saloon doors, sidling up to the bar and ordering a drink. Instantly, people would know I was a karate master because of the way I carried myself, and also because of the cool headband with a skull on it that I would wear. Men would fear me, women would want me and no one would wonder why in the hell a 13-year old karate master was in an Old West saloon and drinking while underage.
At the lesson, there was an expectant hush from the assembled young warriors-to-be. All of us looked around in anticipation, wondering when we were going to break boards in half with our heads or throw someone through a plate glass window. The parents were huddled off to one side, silently loathing the day that “The Karate Kid” was released.
It started simply: the instructor taught us to bow, showed us a few meditation techniques, and thoughtfully explained how karate was never meant to be used as a tool to throat-punch anyone, even bullies.
Then came exercise. Squats, thrusts, bends, push-ups. I was a little disappointed, frankly. This was the sort of thing a 13-year old boy got in gym class, not at a dojo he had dragged his parents to in the dead of a Minnesota winter. When would I get to flip one of my smaller classmates over my shoulder? We were all getting a little tired and more than a little antsy for some action.
To reward us, the instructor had us watch several of the more advanced students kick a two-by-four in half and do various flips and punches.
“With discipline and practice, you’ll be able to do that in a few years,” he promised. I could feel the excitement drain out of the room. Discipline? Practice? Years? I was ready to punch a board now!
Lastly, the instructor ordered us on our backs, feet in the air and commence peddling an imaginary bike for the next five minutes.
Here’s the thing about asking a bunch of teenage boys to do an exercise like this for any amount of time: nature will assert her authority. Since it was an evening lesson, most of us had already eaten dinner. In my case, it was a generous helping of taco hotdish.
As legs furiously pumped the air, stomachs around the room began gurgling angrily. Pressure was building slowly and faces began to turn various shades of purple as we fought against its release. In the end, however, nature always wins.
I don’t remember who did it first. It was a long, ripping sound like a piece of paper being slowly torn in half. That opened the floodgates and everyone followed suit in all manner of volume, length and odor. It was, quite frankly, more impressive than the board-kicking demonstration.
The assembled parents laughed uproariously. That didn’t help one bit as it served as a collective stamp of approval. A symphony of aftershocks ensued.
The small room began to feel considerably smaller and the instructor invoked the mercy rule to let everyone go home early. The only positive to all of this was that it was before the age of the cell phone.
After that, I dabbled in karate for awhile longer. As is the case with most teenage boys, my attention span was just below that of a gnat and I looked for something else to do. In my case, the next thing was break dancing, which led to me finally fulfilling my karate dream of breaking something with part of my body when I kicked a hole in Mrs. Christensen’s basement wall while practicing a move called “The Freeze.”
Hopefully there are young boys and girls out there today who can still learn from the lessons of “The Karate Kid,” that restraint and respect are the true path to honor.
I also hope they hold off on the taco hotdish until they’ve completed walking that path.