This is the first post in a series of four. Check back Monday to continue the story.
My first Kung Fu class was on a sweltering July night in 1982. I vividly remember the smell of the place as I entered the school. The air was heavy with sweat, Tiger Balm, Jow, soured carpet, and incense. I don’t know if you can actually smell testosterone, but I’m sure that was in the air as well. However, the one thing I remember most are the black rings.
The Kung Fu class shared space with a gymnastics school, and we were crammed in the back of the building separated from the gymnasts by a floating wall of hole-riddled sheetrock. There was a fine layer of white sheetrock dust on the weapons rack and lying next to the baseboards were small chunks of the wall that had met their demise from the tip of a spear, rope dart, or staff. Chinese music was playing in the background along with the pained sounds of grunting, heavy breathing, and a rhythmic thump, thump as a senior student struck a swinging log attached to a rope with his bare arms.
I ducked into a tiny, makeshift changing room—probably smaller than an airplane toilet’s—and ripped open the package of my uniform. It had that new clothing smell and the material felt stiff. I threw it on and stepped onto the training floor. Every student, around twenty of them, all guys, wore the same traditional kung fu uniforms as I did, but mine was clean, crisp . . . and dry. Theirs literally clung to their bodies with perspiration. I should’ve just worn my “rookie dweeb” sign.
I wasn’t sure what to do. Everyone was training hard and I was just standing there looking clean. I saw a student stretching so I mimicked him. As I continued to warm up and wait for Sifu Fogg, the chief instructor, to tell me what to do, I noticed that everyone had black rings around the ankle part of their white socks. Kung fu pants have elastic bands in the bottom to hold them tight around the ankles and most everyone’s pants were too short so I could see their socks. I thought the rings were pretty weird, but by the end of class, I would know intimately how those rings got there.
“Are you ready to begin?” Sifu asked.