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Karate: The Way of Elvis

People often ask me if Kung Fu, or specifically mantis, is the only martial art I’ve done. My initial response is yes. I’ve practiced Mantis exclusively since 1982.

However, before I found the Fu, I found Karate . . . Elvis Style!

When I was six, I watched this huge man shatter a brick with his fists at a park demonstration, advertising for a weeklong, beginner Karate camp. I begged and my parents signed me up. I fell asleep that night, excited about breaking that brick.

At 8:45 the next morning, sixteen kids ages six to twelve, and parents, lined up outside the community center. Class was to begin at 9:00. By 9:20, the instructor rolled up in a loud, dirty pale yellow Volkswagen Van. Smoke billowed from the tailpipe. He and his ultra-skinny hippy girlfriend got out and walked to the front door. I was confused. This wasn’t the same guy I saw demolish the brick in the park. This guy looked like Elvis. Not the heartthrob of the 50’s Elvis; the slob of the 70’s Elvis.

Wavy black hair, bushy sideburns, gut to his knees. He sported a tight baby blue terry-cloth jogging suit. Coffee stains streaked the front by the zipper and sweat stains ringed the armpits. Shiny white Nikes with a blue stripe covered his feet, unlaced. His girlfriend had stringy blond hair and her long was neck hidden behind colored beads. She wore a green halter-top, short-short cut-off jeans, and was barefooted. Her toenails were painted red, white, and blue. With no apology for his tardiness, Master Elvis said he was the karate teacher. He unlocked the community center door and told our parents what time to be back. Miss Elvis just hummed and laughed a lot, like some imaginary friend was telling her jokes.  

Once inside, he divided us into two lines by height. Some kid asked where the man was who broke the brick. Master Elvis sneered at him, chewed on a toothpick and said the man was just his helper. “I’m the master teacher,” he said. “And today we learn how to punch.”

Cool, I thought. I waited for him to grab one of the bricks stacked next to the door and punch it in two. Instead, the big man stood before us, rolled his shoulders and cracked his neck side to side. Miss Elvis was impressed. She said, “Whoa, baby” every time her big Teddy Bear moved. She sat cross-legged on the floor braiding her hair.

In one smooth move, Master Elvis spit out the toothpick and unzipped his baby blue jacket. More belly fell out, stretching his white undershirt to the max. Kids in the front row gasped and stepped back.

He looked up and lifted his hands as if receiving instructions from Heaven. He started this weird breathing. Everyone got quiet. His massive body swayed. I was afraid he’d fall over and land on the short red-headed kid in the front row. He dropped his hands and stopped sucking the air. He had a scowl on his face like he’d just bitten a pickle dipped in peanut butter. I thought he was getting sick. Suddenly his arms snapped to the sides, his thumb-sized index fingers pointed in each direction. His leg began to twitch. I’d never seen Caine on Kung Fu do this before. A few kids giggled.

Faster than I thought a fat man could move, Master E pulled his arms to his hips, yelled Keeya, and punched the air. The only girl in the group cried. He did this several times and within seconds sweat poured off his round red face.

Master E told us to go find a mattress and punch it until he said stop. He collapsed on a small chair and had a smoke. Half his butt cheeks hung over the sides. Along the wall behind us were rows of pee-stained mattress stacked to the ceiling. I found out later, that on weekends, homeless people slept at the community center. We must’ve moved too slowly to the mattresses because he screamed NOW and we ran for it. The girl cried even more.

I punched the side of a mattress until my hands cramped. One kid cut his knuckles on protruding bedsprings and bled everywhere, and at least three kids fell victim to an avalanche of falling mattresses.

Elvis sat, sweated, and smoked. Miss Elvis braided her hair and hummed California Dreaming by the Mamas & the Papas.

Finally, our master teacher announced he would break a brick using the punching technique that he’d just “taught” us. I just wanted to get away from the filthy beds. My hands stunk.

With the strut of a lone rooster inside chicken pen, Master Elvis walked to the bricks, stacked three on the floor, did his whole Keeya dance-leg twitch-thing, then slammed his fist down.

The brick didn’t budge. He said someone talking, made him lose focus. He tried again. Nothing happened. Three attempts later, the bricks broke and so did Master E’s hand. He wailed curse words, cradled his bleeding hand to his chest. Miss Elvis said, “Whoa, baby”, and ran to his side. Now everyone was crying, including Elvis. He told us to call our parents. Karate camp was over. We raced for the only payphone next to bathrooms.

Miss Elvis wrapped her man’s hand in his baby-blue jogging suit jacket. It turned purple from all the blood. He moaned and stumbled as she helped him to the van. Before he climbed in though, he managed to light another cigarette. She jumped behind the wheel and floored the gas pedal. Void of adult supervision, we just stood there in awe, watching the van skid out of the parking lot.

Elvis had just left the building.

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