Editor's Note: This is part VI of a series on Thriving in the Martial Arts. Written by Chris Hershberger, he provides a first-person look at how he went from being a "poor punk kid" from Mansfield to an Olympic Taekwondo All-American coach.
Okay. I know we left the 80’s, but I have to mention a movie that was a major reference point for my sophomore and junior year at Mansfield Senior High. The Outsiders (1983), starring a litany of Hollywood household names including, Patrick Swayze, Tom Cruise, Matt Dillon, and the ‘Karate Kid’ himself — Ralph Macchio — couldn’t have been any more descriptive of my life in the early 90’s.
This powerful stud-packed drama became a staple for me. It just made sense. I could totally relate to the pervasive classism with one caveat: race. I now know, with an unflinching certainty, even as a poor white kid, I had it better than my black peers. I can only speak for my perception. What many of my black friends endured is shameful. Being black and poor was a possible life-sentence marred by intimidation, harassment, and just awful human behavior.
I won’t indulge my love for data and stats. It’s frankly boring reading. So, let’s just say my high school career just so happened to be during the highest peak of violent crime in our area, and the country as a whole. Coming off a crack-cocaine epidemic in the 80’s, our neighborhood on Rowland Avenue was transformed into a virtual no-holds- barred drug zone. Crackhouses in all directions. Strung out crackheads stealing anything within reach. Being on the defensive became a daily habit.
I learned a lot about people then. It was the impetus to my total fascination with human behavior I enjoy today.
Lucky for me, I spent most of my time training. I’d hear about all the brawls after school the next day in class. Or, even worse, the ‘jumping.’ To get ‘jumped’ sucked. It usually meant multiple people were pretty intent on hurting you at the same time.
“Did you hear so and so got bricked?”
Yes. The word ‘bricked’ was used a lot. Because it was the Wild Wild West on the corner of Fourth Street and Rowland Avenue. With multiple attackers becoming so prevalent, bricking people was inevitable. The dilapidated homes, some of which were the most beautiful homes in the 70’s, provided lots of rubble. Having the Galloping Goose Drive-thru, Babcock’s Donut Shop, and a penny candy store called Pools within such a small radius made that spot the urban Bermuda Triangle — you could go in, but it was never guaranteed to get out.
Today, I joke with friends about my sugar addiction. It’s how I cope. Make no mistake though, I say it a lot, because it’s true; Little Debbie was my first girlfriend.
“Feeling sad? Little Debbie will make you feel better. Stressed out? Go get Little Debbie,” I’d tell myself.
I just finished a burner workout one night. I’d called it that because my legs wouldn’t stop burning long after the workout. Before I settled in at home I decided to make a trip to Babcock’s to see my beloved sweetheart Little Debbie. Halfway there, a tall guy (I was 6’3” so he must have been really tall) b-lined at me and said, “Give me that dollar in your hand.”
Before I could say anything, an object pierced the air straight for my face. I threw my arm up and deflected under his wrist and that’s when I realized, “Holy crap! It’s a knife!”
It was an imitation Rambo knife, complete with a compass on the end of the handle. The blades were pretty long too! I know this because I earned that knife. I studied it with such incredulous curiosity. I couldn’t believe this thing almost severely injured me, or worse, ended my life.
It was the first time my life was in true danger. Sure I’d been beat up or jumped in the past, but this was the real deal. Walter Cannon first described the “Fight or Flight” theory in the 1920’s. When faced with danger... we stand and fight or run for cover.
After disarming him, all of my training unloaded in one single moment of time. I punched his face more times than I can recall. I kicked him while he was down. All I could think was, “He tried to kill me!” I lost complete control over myself.
The loss of control was scarier than the knife. It was like being on a perpetual adrenaline high with no way back down. I couldn’t reason with myself. I was terrified. After catching my breath, I felt what I thought was sweat trickling down my neck. It was heavier than any sweat I’d felt before. I wiped it with my hand. My eyes instantly caught the red smeared blood all over my fingers under the streetlight. Completely shocked, I thought, “I was cut!” I rushed home without Little Debbie.
Every day I look in a mirror I’m reminded of this story. The scar it left (I can’t remember the exact number of stitches) on my face makes me realize there are two sides to me — the one in control and the one who just reacts. As a young martial artist, I would soon find out how important it was to nurture both selves for success in and out of the ring.
Stay tuned for Part VII.