Memories of far-flung locations – have Gi, will travel.
I had always had a longing to travel and explore the world beyond the UK. As evidence for this; during 1981 while I was still wondering what I was going to do in the future and still in Leeds, as a long shot I applied for teaching positions in Tokyo, but with no success. I mention this because I was very flexible in my outlook and prospects and was pretty much prepared to do anything at that time.
Fast forward to later in the year; I sat in a bar in New Orleans chatting with a guy who was on furlough from a Gulf oil rig who told me there was money and travel to be had in the oil industry, though the work was tough. With a wink, he told me that the real adventure and good life was to be found in South America. On the back of that, while I was in Louisiana, I actually went for an interview for a job as an off-shore roustabout on a rig in the Gulf of Mexico. The process stumbled at the last minute when I realised that I needed a Green Card – no Green Card, no job. If that had gone through, any plans I had put in place previously would have just gone out of the window. I suspect that my life would have taken a very different turn if I had gone into the oil business.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
To return to the timeline.
Back in Leeds.
I’d previously hedged my bets by applying to get a Post Graduate teaching qualification. At the time I referred to it as ‘just another string to my bow’, something I could fall back on and dip in and dip out of. But it didn’t quite work out like that.
I got on to the PGCE course in Leeds because I had excellent references and the prospect of a good Honours degree. I also wasn’t quite prepared to abandon my life in Leeds; I had too much invested in it and was reluctant to say goodbye to a city I had loved so much.
But travelling was still on the agenda.
There was a plan that Mark Harland and I were going to do the States in the August of 1981. He and I had travelled abroad together before.
Previously, back in 1979, Mark and I took the boat train to Paris and, once we’d exhausted the capital, we decided we’d explore France. Paris was fun, though I have an abiding sickly memory of trying to shake off the grandmother of all hangovers in the Louvre.
The day we finally chose to leave Paris we had a plan and our logic told us to travel to the furthest end of the Metro system heading for a motorway slip road where we could hitch a lift. But the day we picked was the same day as a rail strike; so, when we got to the slipway ramp we were faced with a queue of about twenty other people all with the same idea. We didn’t help ourselves; we set a target of the town of Chartres; it must have been the A11 as our real target was Le Mans. We wrote the word ‘Chartres’ on a piece of cardboard, but we spelled it wrong!
Against all the odds we got a lift from a young woman in a blue Citroen. At first I couldn’t understand why a woman on her own would pick up two male hitch-hikers, but, whether by accident or design, she gave us the message that she wasn’t the type to be intimidated by two young English guys, this was when she reached forward to where I was sitting in the front and flipped open the glove compartment and there was a revolver just sitting there. Nothing was said, no explanation; I still struggle to make sense of it today.
I mention this because it was on this hitch-hiking adventure that I discovered that Mark and I were compatible travel companions, and, out of this, the American plan was hatched.
However, fate stepped in and the whole project was thrown up in the air (literally) a couple of weeks before we were due to fly out to New York, when Mark rang me and told me he’d had a motorcycle accident and broken his collar bone. I thought about cancelling the trip but the belligerent side of me thought ‘what the hell’ and I went on my own. This went down badly with my then girlfriend as she thought she could ride in on that ticket, but I thought differently. Although she wasn’t happy, later on she typically got her revenge. But that is another story.
I flew over to New York from London on one of the first no-frills budget airlines, Laker Airways, owned by entrepreneur Sir Freddie Laker. Freddie was actually on the trip himself and went round shaking hands with the passengers. Laker Airways went bankrupt a year later, a victim of the early 80’s recession. The flight was cheap because I bought a ‘standby’ ticket, basically you went on spec.
Apart from the trip to France I’d never travelled abroad before; family holidays were limited to typical UK holiday resorts.
I had relatives in the States and hooked up with a cousin who was married to a Coastguard officer. I stayed some of the time with her and the rest travelling around on my own.
I initially took the Greyhound bus from New York to Buffalo with a brief stop off at Niagara Falls. Then went down the length of the country through Cincinnati and all the way down to Baton Rouge and to New Orleans.
Solo travelling is not without its risks. While travelling I had more than one brush with religious cults who were keen to prey on lone foreign travellers, particularly the Unification Church AKA the Moonies. I didn’t fall for it.
At that time I had a lot of confidence, verging on the reckless and naïve. I had so much belief in my ‘magic thumb’, (the hitch-hiking thumb that did Mark and I so well in France with). I reckoned on using the same technique in the USA.
In the time I was travelling around on my own I chose to stay in the Southern States. I used the Greyhound bus for some journeys; it was cheaper to sleep on an overnight trip on the bus and wake up in a new city, but it was sometimes arctic cold with the intensity of the air-conditioning. I hadn’t packed much in the way of clothing; in fact, I hadn’t packed much at all. I had a shoulder bag, like a two handled Adidas sports bag in which the bulkiest item was my Keikogi. I was living a bit like a tramp.
Generally, the hitch-hiking worked out well for me. I had stitched a Union Jack onto my bag and, while it was useful for the lifts it singled me out too much as a tourist in the cities, it was more useful to just blend in; so, I ended up ripping it off.
I tended to get lifts from pick-up truck drivers, almost always old boys who had been in the military during the war, some asked me if I knew Mrs Brown who lived in Southampton (I guess it was better than asking me if I knew the Queen!). The natural assumption was that the UK was so very small compared to the USA, so everybody knew everybody else.
I had no idea that hitch-hiking was illegal in some states and found this out the hard way.
At some point I fell in with another young guy also hitching. We planted ourselves on the open verge of a rural highway near the Alabama Florida border with our thumbs hanging out. Nobody had been along for a while. I was looking one way up the highway and when I glanced back, he had just vanished into thin air! I later found out that he’d seen what I hadn’t; a cop’s cruiser came up alongside with its lights on. The cop got out, hands on hip (and gun), “Don’t you know that it is illegal in this state to hitch-hike along the highway?”! I reached for the only two cards I had available; I played dumb and I played foreign. When he asked me for ID all I had was my British passport – that did the trick; he let me off with a warning. The guy travelling with me had dived into the ditch, he only reappeared when the cop had gone.
Wado in New Orleans?
I spent quite a lot of time in New Orleans. Amazingly, by browsing the Yellow Pages I found a Wado Dojo in Metairie New Orleans, and one run by a Japanese Sensei, Takizawa Sensei 6th Dan. This was so rare in the USA; Wado is very much a minority style. If you want Shotokan there are so many karate schools to choose from, one on every street corner, but Wado is as rare as hen’s teeth.
When I met Takizawa Sensei I realised that he was so very different from Suzuki Sensei; very westernised, very… American. Suzuki had been over in New Orleans two years previous. The American’s impression of him was that he was very strict and that he ‘liked a drink’. (When I got back to the UK I spoke to Suzuki Sensei, told him where I had been and that Takizawa Sensei sent his regards; Suzuki was really sniffy about the quality of Wado in New Orleans; he had very high standards).
This was my first experience of Wado outside of the UK. I suppose I expected that standards and practices would be universal… wrong. I had the same experience years later training in Japan. The lesson to learn; don’t make assumptions.
When I turned up in Metairie, despite the fact that they had air-conditioning and the Dojo was so swish and modern, the training was really sedate. They had different ways of performing techniques and their pairs work were limited. They were intrigued by Suzuki’s Ohyo Gumite and Takizawa openly told me he only knew Kihon Gumite one to five and had forgotten the rest (??) He asked me to show them to the Dan grades assembled – I was happy to oblige.
University of New Orleans and a familiar face.
I trained there a few times and also at the downtown YMCA, hosted by Takizawa’s then right-hand man, Larry Hoyle and Dojo instructor Van Robichaux, this was in a handball court. But crucially this contact allowed me access to a unique event at the University of New Orleans; a visit by a team of over forty Japanese Shotokan students hosted by resident Japanese Shotokan Sensei Mikami Takayuki, ex of Hosei University and a contemporary of the famous Kanazawa Hirokazu. There were also some other respected Japanese Sensei there, including a familiar face; Tanaka Masahiko, the same guy on the poster we had over the fireplace at 43 Bexley Grove. A bull neck and a distinctive swagger; he had an injury on his forehead right between his eyes. Later, when we had chance to speak, he said he’d had an accident with a shotgun, where he hadn’t secured the weapon and lost control of the recoil and got whacked between the eyes.
He fought two exhibition bouts. The first against one of the Japanese students, it was a massacre; Tanaka disdainfully brushed aside the timid attacks of the student; he was clearly in awe of the master; then Tanaka chased him with an aggressive run of combinations designed to close the distance, he clearly had a plan, wanting to finish with a bang. And he did; he got close enough to grapple, grabbed his opponent by the lapels put his foot in his stomach and flew backwards and launched him over the top; a perfect Tomoe-nage (stomach throw), he held on to the guy, but the momentum was so powerful that the pair of them, on landing, skidded across the floor, where Tanaka executed the coup de grace.
Tanaka was then put up against one of the best American students, there was some joshing, friendly banter and then the match started. Clearly the American was more than a little intimidated by what he had seen; what followed was a good natured, friendly match, a bit of a come-down from the previous show of superiority. I had the feeling that Tanaka held back for diplomatic reasons. He’d also roughed his own student up… because he could.
Afterwards we all went for a drink at Mikami Sensei’s Dojo. Mikami was avuncular and really chilled, we spoke briefly, he asked me to convey his respects to Suzuki Sensei.
A canvas was laid out over the Dojo floor and what I can only describe as a bathtub full of ice and beer cans was dragged into the Dojo. We certainly needed it after the training at the university, where the air-conditioning was barely working.
It was at this training session that I met Jimmy Lucky and his wife Virginia. Jimmy was a Shotokan teacher from Mobile Alabama, he was so friendly and he gave me his contact details. He said that if ever I was over that way look him up. It just so happened that I was intending to head east along the coast towards Alabama and Florida so I was able to hook up with them for training. I rang them from the bus station in Mobile when I got there and together we all went along to training. This was another first for me; I had never trained with Shotokan students (outside of UNO). But for them, they had never experienced Wado before either.
I remember we did some ‘one step’ sparring; a pre-arranged single attack with a set response; maegeri, which then had to be countered with a gedan barai, gyakuzuki, for me it was all very basic and against the grain. I think they picked up and that and said, “Why don’t you just do what you would do?”, which I did. I used the body evasions that are the bread and butter techniques of Wado; just enough of the turn of the body for their technique to miss by a fraction, executed with a direct counter. They were intrigued and kept asking me to do it again, they had never come across this style of Taisabaki (body management) before. Shotokan had something they called ‘Taisabaki’ but it seemed to involve a big movement off line or a step out of the way before moving back in again to counter. They couldn’t figure it out, they remarked how one moment I was there and then I was gone!
When the training opened out the fun began and I remember some very spirited exchanges.
After training there was a beery night in a nearby bar, where we ordered pitchers of beer (another first) and turkey subs.
Afterwards, as they knew I had nowhere to stay for the night, one of the Dan grades offered me a bed in his spare room. Later on I found out that he was originally from Liverpool. As I went to bed, he told me that by the time I get up he’d have gone to work; there was plenty for breakfast in the icebox and to slam the door on my way out. Very trusting, I never saw him again.
More adventures in the southern states.
I travelled around that southern edge for a while, sometimes hitching, sometimes on the Greyhound, often sleeping on the bus, at times paying for a room in a cheap motel, I needed the shower I was beginning to smell like a tramp. I had plans for a fuller exploration of Florida but the arrival at a place called Panama City put me off entirely. I ended up in the wrong side of town, on a Sunday, luckily there was nobody around. I fell in with a bunch of old guys, derelicts; I remember sitting with them underneath a pier, a kind of jetty, drinking whiskey out of a bottle passed around in a brown paper bag. They warned me that it would be in my best interests to make my way back to the bus station (bus stations always seemed to be near the seedier parts of town, that was why I ended up where I did).
After that experience I decided to head up into Georgia, overnight. I witnessed some of the most spectacular thunderstorms I had ever seen.
I remember being entertained on the bus by a kid who can’t have been more than eight years old; his dad and the other passengers encouraged him to give full voice to the Kenny Rogers song ‘Lucille’, he knew most of the verses but really let rip on the chorus, “You picked a fine time to leave me Lucille, with four hungry children and a crop in the field…”, everyone clapped and grinned.
I spent a little time bumming round Atlanta and then went as far up as St. Louis, Missouri. I met some colourful people, including a guy who told me he was a hitman for the CIA…yeah.
But I eventually had enough of wandering and returned to New Orleans. To round it all off I travelled across to Houston, Texas, from where I flew back to the UK.
I don’t think I really got the best out of the trip. I had no trouble being on my own, but I think Mark and I together would have really been able to push the boat out.
I came back to Leeds sun-browned from so much time on the open road and invigorated. The experience gave me a boost, I knew more about the wider world.
In some ways it was a bit of a bump coming back to Leeds. I was about to start a new course but we’d let Bexley Grove go; Mark, Steve and Chris had all left. I bit the bullet and, only out of convenience, I returned to halls of residence.
I was temporarily billeted in one of the halls tucked at the back at Beckett Park, this time in the Big House on the Hill, Carnegie Hall, with all the PE students. And, I had to deal with the blow-back from my girlfriend.
Image at the top of this post; myself at the University of New Orleans (far right, Jimmy Lucky).