The first time I saw the Spruce Goose, the largest airplane ever constructed, was in Long Beach, California. I think it might have been 1987 and a couple of months prior to that family vacation, I’d made the decision to quit Karate. If someone had told me then that at age 46 I’d be one belt rank higher and competing against people who significantly outrank me in a tournament held under the tail of the Spruce Goose, I’d have told that person, “You’re crazy.”
Life is crazy.
In 1992 the Evergreen Air and Space Museum acquired the Spruce Goose and built a new home for it in Oregon. Someone got the idea to rent part of the building for a Karate tournament. As someone I spoke with put it, “I’m spoiled now. Smelly old college gyms are never going to be the same for me again.” I agree. For one thing, there was plenty of daylight – I hate not being able to have at least some natural light. Best of all, we were surrounded by really awesome airplanes and jets.
I almost cried when I first saw the good ol’ Spruce Goose again after so many years. I’ve come so far in the last two years. Even though I’m only one belt rank higher, I’ve done far more than when I was a teenager. I am more than I ever was. I understand more but at the same time I’m dimly aware that there is so much that I need to learn. Yeah, I should not have quit then. But on the other hand, I would not be having the same adventures I’m having now.
My first lesson from the tournament was during the opening ceremony. Someone was complimenting the head of the organization that was running the tournament, or maybe it was the head of the entire style that organization studies – I don’t remember. But what I do remember is the gentleman saying this: If you say, “I can’t,” a Sensei says, “You can’t? Oh good! Let’s get to work!” Words to live by for sure.
As I started practicing my kata on the mats before the tournament began, I noticed a gentleman practicing Rohai Shodan. I enjoyed watching this gentleman practice because not only am I learning Rohai Shodan for my next belt test, but the gentleman practicing was from a different style and I loved comparing what he was doing to what I was taught. After the tournament began, we had the same idea – the staging area was not very busy, had plenty of space, and overlooked the main floor, so he and I headed up there to practice while we waited. The gentleman inspired me with his patient practice, so rather than loaf around, I followed suit. Both of us settled into our own rhythms of practice, watching the tournament, and walking. In addition to my kata, I occasionally threw head-level roundhouse kicks at a concrete pillar in order to practice hitting without harming an opponent.
Soon after my division was called to staging, the usual ladies from Oregon trooped in. Three times now they’ve driven four or more hours to beat me up, so this time I thought I’d make the drive myself so they could beat me up more conveniently. I have no idea why they weren’t at the last tournament I was in. That’s the only tournament this season in which I’ve won a medal. That said, they’re a neat bunch of gals, and it’s a pity we live so far apart.
While we were waiting for the competitors in our assigned ring to finish, I felt an irrational desire to run away. I breathed deeply and looked up at the tail of the Spruce Goose. I couldn’t quit, not with that huge tangible reminder of all the could-have-beens and all the regrets. I thought to myself, “I’ve come way too far to back out now. I’ve got to trust my training.” I looked around. The competitors in the ring next door caught my eye – they were in the division I was in last season. Yeah, the season when I won all those shiny medals. I watched them while they practiced and I concluded that I was exactly where I needed to be even if it meant not placing.
Four of us competed in kata, I tied for third place. I know I did wonderfully on my kata until I got off balance during one of the final movements. Of course I lost. After I exited the ring I had to remind myself to see the big picture. I first started memorizing Bassai Dai kata last winter and I’ve worked hard on it since. This is a kata most styles wait until black belt to teach – my organization requires it for the 5th kyu test. I have only begun to scratch the surface of it, and I’m improving and learning more. Yes, it was disappointing to wobble but I recovered and finished the kata with the proper demeanor – and that alone is something I can be proud of. I looked again at the huge airplane tail looming above the venue and knew that the loss was nothing compared to what I’ve gained in the 29 years since I last saw the Spruce Goose.
One of my fellow competitors bowed out of sparring, leaving only three of us. I didn’t get the bye – it was just as well because I get nervous watching other fighters before I’ve had some time in the ring myself. Once I’ve had a fight, I’m OK with watching. As we entered the ring, I looked at my opponent and knew I was in for a heck of a fight. I’ve seen her fight before and I’m fairly certain she significantly outranks me (competitors wear only red or blue belts for tournaments). I reminded myself I have more tools to use than I did at the last tournament. I happened to be facing the Spruce Goose as I entered the ring and took up my starting position.
The huge aircraft dominated the scene behind my opponent. I reminded myself again of how far I’ve come. I knew that in the face of almost certain defeat, I had a choice. Knuckle under and hope it was over quickly, or stay calm, do my best, play the game, and learn. I chose the latter.
I was right, it was a heck of a fight. I slipped and fell once and went to the mats again later because my opponent dumped me on my can for kicking too slowly. The first time I went to the ground, I rolled out of the way before my opponent could score three points. The second time I went to the ground, I saw an opening and side-kicked while I was still on the ground. Unfortunately the shushin had already called a halt the instant before my foot connected with my opponent’s abdomen, so I didn’t score. But at least I’d prevented my opponent from getting three points. I’ve never tried that before. All in all, I didn’t do too badly. She won with eight points, mostly punches. I scored five points – two with punches, three with my signature move (roundhouse kick to the head). Not bad. But I missed my coach, who is a Sensei at a sister dojo.
I’m not going into all the details about why my coach wasn’t there and all the assumptions that went down on both sides. I let Affiliate YMCA Sensei bring up the subject, and he did. “You need to learn to text me when you’re in staging,” he told me. What could I say but, “Ossu!” I suddenly understood the beauty and efficiency of that word. Frankly, if I’d made excuses, thrown blame, etc. I’d have still eventually ended up saying, “Ossu!” at the end (maybe after a bazillion push-ups). And really, I do need to move into the 21st century. My cell phone was in my car because I couldn’t imagine needing to make a phone call, I didn’t want to receive phone calls, and I didn’t want the phone stolen out of my gear bag. I totally forgot that a thief recently stole my credit and debit cards but left my “Dumbphone!” Anyhow, I still think push-button phones (as opposed to rotary dial) are pretty groovy, so it never occurred to me to call or text someone who is in the same building as I am. Go ahead and laugh.
So I came home with two bronze medals for losing the first rounds of both kata and kumite. Funny how that works, but hey, they’re nice souvenirs. The host organization had nice goodies for every participant, including Kung Fu Panda stuffed toys (I gave mine to my younger daughter*). But the best takeaways from this tournament were not the material things. The best takeaways were the lessons I learned in the shadow of the Spruce Goose.
* My younger daughter is autistic and has had a hard time controlling herself this school year. She has lashed out physically at people in her frustration. I gave her my Tigress doll from the tournament and talked with her about how Tigress never hits people for things like being told she can’t use a calculator to do math. I hope my daughter will remember that and think about it this summer. I might have to bring the stuffed toy out again before the first day of school. Time will tell, but my daughter really appreciated the gift.