Robert Amacker: 0-21
Born on the fourteenth of July, 1944. I always liked to think of myself as one of the last babies born before the explosion of the first atomic bomb, the American test, everyone born after that time being a possible mutation. The place was Crockett, Texas, in what is sometimes known as the "Big Thicket," the rolling, white pined foothills of the Ozark Mountains, where they say the West meets the South. East Texas, stopping place for unreformed Southern Rebels, fleeing federal pursuit after refusing amnesty, like my great-grandfather, "Old Pop" Adams, who rode with the "Grey Ghost," Mosbey's Rangers. A relative sanctuary in a state that was once its own country, and still feels like one, where law and order was the province of the Texas Rangers, who had symbolically pissed on every tree, rock, and patch of dirt separating them from the federal authorities of the newly united republic, and held sway over their domain with the authority of Mafia Dons. East Texas, recorded scene of more gunfights than all the remaining west combined. Crockett was a town of ten thousand people when I was born; now it's down to seven thousand. My Mother was born there, and most of my relatives on her side.
My father was from Dallas, the oldest of two sons of a traveling salesman for the R. J. Reynolds tobacco company, decades on this job, and he a man who proudly professed (and truthfully) that he had never tasted tobacco in any form and had no intentions of ever doing so. I never knew my father, who died in a plane crash (not piloted by him) eight months after I was born. He was a man of his generation, straight arrow, choir boy, a natural elitist who started an illegal fraternity when he was in high school, who quit college one semester from graduation to join up after Pearl Harbor, who worked his way into the engineer corps by stealing a P-38 from Love field in Dallas and rewiring it in his mother's back yard, who once punched a stranger for not saluting the flag (it was wartime)..... My mother told me: "Bob, if he had lived, your father and you would not have got along."
People ask me how long I've played the drums. The truth is, I can't remember ever not playing them. My mother said I used to stand up in my crib and beat on the bars with my rattles, like a xylophone, playing along with records. Wagner was my favorite, especially "Ride of the Valkyuries." When it was finished she said I would cry until she put it on again. She got me a piano, and I studied that until I was ten, considered pretty precocious, I think, but I decided I wanted to be a drummer, period. About that time we moved from Norman, Oklahoma, where Mom had been going to graduate school in journalism, to Los Gatos, California, a little town about sixty miles south of San Francisco.
I was a new kid in town, and got pushed around a bit. One kid decided that Amacker sounded like Hammer Ass, and the name stuck. It wasn't very nice. Somewhere I got a book on Judo and talked a friend into practicing with me, over on the edge of the school grounds during recess, or at my house. One of the school bullies got wind of this and decided to teach me a lesson, but ended up having to be taken out of school to the hospital on a stretcher, unconscious. Everybody witnessed this, and the next day, my whole life was changed. The toughest kid in school decreed that I was no longer to be called Hammer Ass, but that from now on I was to be known as Owl, a name suggested by the cowlicks in my hair. I decided that martial arts were pretty cool, and wanted to take lessons, but there was no one around to teach me, so I just kept on practicing from books for at least a year.
And then, quite suddenly, my mother remarried, and just as I was starting high school we moved to Hawaii. I had always been a kind of egghead as a child, crazy about books and mathematics and music, with ears that stuck out like Alfred E. Neuman in Mad Magazine. Puberty gave me a certain incentive to change my image, and I guess Mom had the same idea, because right before moving to Hawaii she had unbelievably painful plastic surgery done on my ears. I had always had acne, too, lots of pimples on my face, and somehow going to the beach everyday, the sun, the salt water, something, cured it completely in about a month. I had a new face, and I was ready for my new life as a Hawaiian teen-ager.
I enrolled in public school, Kaimuki High (it means flaming torch in Japanese) it was officially named, but everyone called it Tokyo High, because of the high percentage of oriental students, if you can even call it a percentage. There were almost two thousand kids in that school, and just six haoles. Haole is the Hawaiian word for people of European descent. The only exception to this are the Portuguese, called locally "port-a-gees," who, because they arrived in the islands so long before anyone else, are dignified with their own unique ethnic identity, along with pakes (Chinese), yobos (Koreans), and others. I adapted pretty fast, and soon I was hanging with a bunch of local kids and speaking pidgin English, which was a lot harder to understand then than it is today. I became what they called a local haole, going skin diving and body surfing every day, chasing co-eds in Waikiki, eating saimin, even diving for coins thrown by tourists from arriving cruise ships at the harbor.
And everybody did martial arts. Fights on the school grounds looked like they were choreographed by Shaw Brothers, and kids in lunch lines argued the pugilistic relativity of Kenpo and Kali, Judo and Aikido. I started to be curious about Chinese styles, but back then Chinese schools were closed to anyone not Chinese, a pretty thoroughly enforced restriction until Wong, Ark-yuey broke the color barrier in his LA school. So I started studying karate from Bobby Low, Kyokushinkai. This was when Masutatsu Oyama, the founder, was touring the US, chopping the horns off bulls with his bare hands and giving the mainland its first real taste of Oriental Gung-fu.
Well, Mom was pretty horrified with my transformation, so after the first year, she enrolled me in Punahou, a private high school founded by missionaries and the same one that Barrak Obama went to, years later. I changed schools, but I kept all my local friends. It was here that I met Martin Inn, who was to become a close colleague and friend for life, and we studied karate together and did lots of sparring on our own.
I was playing mostly conga and bongo drums then, working weekends at a place downtown called Vic's Rendezvous, which the owner, Victor Valez, loudly proclaimed every night to be "da lowest place in Honolulu." It was a couple of blocks from the river, right in the middle of the heaviest prostitution, drugs, and crime scene in the state, off limits, in fact, to all military personnel. It was a Puerto Rican Band, and there were fights almost every night. We had instructions that whenever a fight broke out, we should not stop playing until it was over, because the noise of the band would cover the sound of the fighting and keep the police from coming in and shutting the place down. Some of these fights lasted as long as half an hour, during which time I had to actually dodge bottles thrown at the stage. Sometimes there were fights between the prostitutes, and they got really bad because none of the men ever wanted to intervene. One night, after an especially bad fight that started at the bar, I asked the bouncer later what it was over.
"It was over you, brudda," he surprised me by saying.
Turned out that some new Puerto Ricans in town had come in and objected that I shouldn't be playing in the band, because I wasn't a real Puerto Rican. It seemed that I had a lot of regulars who had become my fans, and they said that I was an honorary Puerto Rican, because of my drumming. But one of the new guys said he was going to go on stage and throw me off, and when somebody tried to stop him, that's when the fight started. I was just fifteen and didn't look a day older, but somehow the cops never asked me for my ID, even though they would sometimes come in and sit in the front row, right under my nose. We rehearsed at the tenor guitar player's pig farm, out past the Blowhole, when they still had pig farms out there.
I was also playing a circuit of strip joints with a guy named Marty Hough, who still lives on Maui. He was twice my age, and played the electric harmonica. We played places like Forbidden City, where some of the most famous strippers in the world were making their last appearances. It was quite an education, in more ways than one. Marty was a pretty sexy guy, apparently, and he seemed to have no trouble seducing just about every stripper we worked with. I was pretty much in awe of this, but that wasn't all. Marty is just about one of the best street fighters I've ever seen, and I've seen some good ones. I have said that timing is the most important and also the most mystical and unteachable skill in boxing, and will prevail despite great deficiencies in other areas. Marty Hough was my first opportunity to actually observe this. As far as I could tell, he didn't even have any other areas, and didn't need them. He just seemed to always be in the right place at the right time to do something very simple, and the other guy would go down. His favorite technique was the elbow or, as he called it, his "forearm smash." He got lots of practice, too, because he was seducing every girl in sight and usually had a waiting list of guys wanting to kill him.
My first girl friend was Japanese. Her mother, a former Queen of McKinley High, loved me. Her father hated me. In the entire time I knew him, he never said one word to me, just got up and left the room whenever I was there. I finally asked one of my girl's Japanese friends why he was so mean. "He's not being mean," she said. "He's the most liberal Japanese father in Punahou. My parents would never let me go out with you." The racial zeitgeist of Hawaii has evolved, just like it has everywhere else. Back then, for example, it was a little unusual for a lone haole to hang out in a gang of locals. As one of them said to me once, "You know, Bob, we like you, but there's one thing we miss. We can't go out and beat up haoles anymore."
All of this conscientious work on my developing sexual identity and personality (not to mention hours of fanatical karate training) left, as you might imagine, little time for schoolwork, and my grades suffered accordingly. I had evolved from precocious, dumbo-eared egghead to beachcombing, love-struck, goof-off musician stud, and Punahou problem child. I was called into the office of the president to hear that almost all of my friends were from other, public schools, and why was that? I went from being intimidated to being enraged (a well-known characteristic weakness of natives of the sign Cancer), and said that in my civics classes I had been told that in America one was free to have whatever friends they liked. This was an impudent answer, I was (correctly) told, and furthermore, I would never graduate unless I passed ROTC (reserve officers training corps), something I seemed steadfastly determined not to do. This was also correct, and I added that I looked forward to being the only twenty-five year old senior at Punahou. I and another kid, Kent I think his name was, had a contest going to see who could get the most demerits. I took the easy way out, and just didn't show up. He was more creative. He showed up, but with everything wrong. His shoes weren't shined, his brass wasn't polished, his uniform was dirty, and all his pins, insignias, and other accessories were attached in the wrong places. He also did everything wrong, and this was an unbeatable combination. He won. The loser had to march off the winner's penalty time, and sign in as him (not all of it, that would have been too suspicious), because whoever was in charge just watched to make sure you kept marching, they never suspected you would sign someone else's name.
Despite these obstacles, I did graduate and, despite my poor grades, I was admitted to the University of California at Berkeley on the basis of my SAT college board scores, where I signed up as a major in nuclear engineering. It was at this point that I learned a very valuable lesson, that one's choice of career should not be based upon the anticipation of peak experiences, but upon what one actually does every day. I realized that what engineers actually do is sit in front of drafting tables, in air conditioned rooms, under fluorescent lights. (I should say, that is what they used to do. Now they sit in front of computers, in air conditioned rooms, under fluorescent lights.) And the physical stuff was even worse. I hated labs, I hated messing around with all that equipment, and I finally realized that the only thing I liked to do was the math. Because my spotty high school career had been sparked with occasional touches of promise (I got a great recommendation from my high school physics teacher, Mrs. Townes, who had been the personal secretary of Albert Einstein), I was admitted to a special freshman physics course, Star Physics it was called, taught by the head of the department. It was an experiment in teaching relativistic physics to students from the very start, instead of forcing them to learn only classical mechanics until graduate school. This was pure mathematics, and I liked it, a lot better than the labs, which were using cathode ray tubes (television sets, actually) to measure the relativistic effects of photon emission. It just proved what the math had, as far as I was concerned, already proved, and besides, who cared? I just liked the math because it was beautiful.
Everything was going just fine, and then the worst happened. I found out somebody had stolen my girl.
The year after I graduated a new kid showed up at Punahou, one of those larger-than-life personalities that tends to dominate everything in its immediate vicinity, a super-physical mezomorph with a high IQ, natural leader and enigmatic loner, with ultra-masculine looks that made him ugly and attractive at the same time, the original Alpha Male. He could have turned these powers in just about any direction with probable success, but for some reason he settled upon what was left of my presence at Punahou, my girl, and my only remaining close friend at the school, Barry Greenstein. In a way, I guess I should have been flattered, but I was pretty occupied with jealousy and existential angst.
Not that we didn’t have some things in common, but they were definitely different versions. Like, where I had rebelled against ROTC, Russ had rebelled against Chapel. I rebelled by just not showing up, he rebelled by tying himself to a cross and having friends carry him into the Chapel during the Easter service. I had at this point devoted almost ten years to the martial arts; he was one of the best street fighters I have ever seen. I liked math and science but couldn’t stand repairing cars or messing around with machines; he wanted to be an astronaut.
But I didn’t know any of that the night I returned home, just in time to make it from the airport to the Punahou graduation ceremony. I hadn’t seen my girl for six months, and when I found her, covered with leis and surrounded by friends, it was pretty awkward. Then Russ showed up.
The three of us stood for a moment in a little triangle, and I could see from my girl’s face that she expected a big fight to break out. So did I, actually. Instead, we just looked at each other for a couple of minutes, and finally Russ said, “You want to go get a beer?”
We sent my/our girl away and spent the rest of the night male bonding at a downtown bar where they knew me from music and thought I was old enough to drink. Russ, I think, had always looked old enough to drink, probably from birth. The girl thing, he explained to me at one point, was not a problem. He was a ramblin’ man, made a lot ‘o stops, etc., etc., and was happy to give me back my girl. He was on his way for the summer, he said, to Mexico, where he’d be “sleeping in ditches, and rolling bull durum in toilet paper.”
If you’ve never met anyone like Russ, it’s a little hard to believe that they really exist, and in fact the ones that you do meet are probably just the lucky survivors of a personality with a pretty high attrition rate. To say that he was an Alpha-male adrenalin junkie with a high IQ would drastically underestimate his potential, and his potential for danger, to himself and everyone around him. He had the kind of role-playing ability that one associates with George Plimpton, or that famous impersonator of every conceivable métier, Zelig, that seems in some mysterious way to give one not only the knowledge, but even the motor skills associated with esoteric occupations, ordinarily acquired through years of hard work. It is a kind of Stanislavsky consciousness, I guess, a deliberate mental state that feels something like grace, where it seems you can dance on tightropes, real and metaphoric, and dodge bullets, not to mention functioning, the desirability of which I made reference to before, without guilt.
I know about it because I have experienced it, and I think that actually we all have, at some time or other. It is absolutely the province of adrenalin junkies, but it can be extended to other situations, a kind of sought-after magical state, where you seemingly cannot make a mistake, like Paul Neuman’s character’s quest in The Hustler. I myself, seized unexpectedly by this coveted state when playing pool all alone at the world-famous California Billiards club near San Jose, once ran over ten tables in full view of a crowd of totally astonished onlookers, and left without ever missing a shot. And I am normally a completely mediocre player, at best. It is a kind of Zen that is also achievable in boxing, a beautiful state where you seem to be watching yourself (and everything else) move in slow motion, a state from which all of the more romantically philosophical notions about the martial arts originate, things like not caring about winning or losing, loving (merging with) one’s opponent, etc. I love T’ai Chi Ch’uan, in fact, precisely because of its propensity to allow this to occur, even when one is moving slowly. When you also can do it when you’re not moving at all, and also not doing anything at all, you’re a Zen Master.
Russ was no Zen Master. Perhaps he could have been, because he probably could have been anything, but I used to describe him by saying that he didn’t even wake up until things were moving faster than a hundred miles an hour. Until then, he was almost shy, seldom speaking, completely low key. I was one of the only real friends that he had, or ever had, even, and he described himself as a loner who actually disliked people. What he really was, I realize now, was a budding sociopath.
He was older than I was, but behind a year in school. Born in Memphis, Tennessee, he’d been a problem as a kid, and his parents had sent him Culver Military Academy, in Mississippi, I think it is, the largest military school in the US. He and some other incorrigibles ran away, and he spent a year catching freight trains (He really knew how to do this. He took me with him once in New York) and bumming around the country. But his father was a retired military doctor, and started the first hospital in the vicinity of Hana, Maui. Russ got wind of this and decided that Hawaii was interesting enough sounding to make him go home and sue for peace. They compromised by sending him for his last year of High School to Punahou, on Oahu, where he met my girl. But before that he had a summer on Maui, back when Hana was really remote. Here he had carved a legend for himself that exists, I am sure, to this day.
Hawaiians are really a pretty macho lot, especially the ones that live out in the country, on the “neighbor” islands. Sporting the longest average lifespan, Hawaii has probably the softest climate on the whole planet, but nature is very strong there, and wherever that’s true, you can always find ways to test your manhood or get yourself killed. Russ was always good at sniffing out the most macho thing around and method-acting his way into iconic status at it. Remember the absurd scene in First Blood Three (is that right? Anyway, the one in Afghanistan) where Sylvester Stallone jumps on a horse and out-machos everyone at hog’s head polo? That’s exactly what Russ would have done, with absolutely no doubt.
Well, the Hawaiian equivalent of hog’s head polo is hog’s head hunting. The windward side was especially full of wild boar at that time, and this is probably the only animal in Hawaii that can be considered truly dangerous. Weighing up to several hundred pounds, they have big tusks, and get mad as hell when cornered or pursued. In those days the cool thing to do was hunt them with a spear, after letting the dogs flush them out of cover. Russ signed up for this right away, of course. Only he figured out a way to go one better. Instead of a spear, he would just use a knife. When the boar was flushed, he got it to charge him, then at the last moment, jumped on its back and slit its throat. This was not something he had ever done before. After duplicating this feat several times for ever more amazed and impressed Hawaiians, Russ achieved a kind of status unheard of for haoles. He was taken to all the places that Hawaiians keep secret, and there are a lot of those. He was the honored guest at local parties. He was balling everybody’s sister.
I didn’t know any of this when he invited me, at the end of our all night drinking session, to catch the plane back to Maui with him later that day, and stay at his parents’ house. I went home to inform my poor mother that, after seeing her for only a few hours, I was off to Hana, and took a cab to the airport.
On Maui I learned that Russ had goals. He wanted to hunt every animal at least once. He wanted to go to every continent, to go past the Arctic and Antarctic circles, to make love to women of every race, to fly a plane, go to sea, play an instrument, write a novel, race motorcycles, eat exotic foods, and beat Bobby Fisher at chess. He was a self-professed experiential junkie. Ernest Hemingway was his hero, and he was depressed and perplexed when “Papa” committed suicide. He actually did a remarkable number of these things. I am almost a hundred percent sure that, someplace or other, Russ must have killed somebody, because I am equally sure it was somewhere on his list, a kind of “Bucket List,” that he seemed to have started from birth.
He decided that the best way to put it all together was to become a spaceman. Towards this end, he accepted a full physics scholarship from Columbia University. They asked him to play football, but he turned them down, and they gave him the scholarship anyway. Fortunately, he waited until the end of my stay on Maui to tell me this, because it would have definitely made me pretty distracted. Barnard College, where my/our present/ex girlfriend was going to college, is the sister school of Colombia. It’s right across the street. New York University, where I had decided to transfer, was over a hundred blocks away.
I might very likely have remained at Berkeley had it not been for my girls friend's parent's decision to send her to the East Coast for college, a big part of that decision being, she told me, just to get her as far away as possible from me. But I countered this plan by transferring from Berkeley to NYU, in the heart of Greenwich Village. I got a small studio on West Fifty-fifth Street, in what is called Hell's Kitchen.
I wanted to major in mathematics, but I was also very irritated with the need to take courses like political science and such. The math department was very strict about this, so I shopped around the various departments until I found the advisor for Anthropology. He was a pushover and told me that I could take whatever classes I liked, as long as I fulfilled the liberal arts requirements sometime before graduation. Always ready to put off until tomorrow what I don't want to do today, I seized upon this opportunity. After signing up as an Anthropology major, I proceeded to enroll in every mathematics class I could get my hands on. By the time I graduated, at which point I neatly switched my major to mathematics, I had taken practically every math course in the school, including a lot of graduate courses, and exactly one course in Anthropology.
But my real excitement about going to New York, getting back with my girl friend aside, was Jazz. As I said, without her I might have stayed in the Bay Area, because it is not exactly a wasteland, jazz-wise. I got to taking the bus into SF almost every night, to see Art Blakey, Mingus, or Coltrane. The Jazz Workshop was the hippest regular venue, but the real scene was after hours, at Jimbo's Bop City. Bars in San Francisco close at two AM; that's when Jimbo's opened. It was everything a place like that could possibly be. Funky, jammed to the exits with people, cigarette smoke as thick as the fog outside. Presided over by Jimbo, one of these American Blacks that look like all the slave master got from his great-grandma was a kick in the balls. This guy was so black he was blue, I swear it. He had this intense, steely-eyed, smart-dressed-man, absolutely dangerous look that only Miles Davis could challenge, but one thing was for sure, however black Miles was, however black anybody was, he was blacker. He had done time for murder, and no one had the slightest doubt but that he was guilty. All the greats came there after their regular gigs, mixing with up and coming local talent, and the jam sessions were the stuff of legend. This was my first taste of how emotionally dangerous music potentially is, how fragile are the egos of some of the toughest looking guys, and just how cruel a jam session could be. There was one young white chick, I wish I could remember her name, piano player. Monster. She could hold her own and more with the greatest stars in the business. Everybody loved her. Sweet, petite, gentle looking. She cranked out harmonies nobody had ever heard of, and played with the ferocity of Cecil Taylor. More than once I saw her blow the toughest looking black musicians off the stage, coming down the steps literally in tears.
But in spite of this, I began to see the area as one that musicians passed through, rather than really worked in. There was plenty happening around, it was true, but I gravitated much more to the East Coast sound, raw, experimental, and dangerous, than that found in the west, with its softer tone, sweet horn sections, and, to me, tendency to over arrangement. The first record I ever bought, when I was fifteen, was by Thelonious Monk; the second was Coltrane; the third was Mingus. Those are the guys I wanted to play with.
After a year or two in New York, I was getting close. I was playing with guys who were jamming with Mingus, Coltrane, and Monk. As we say in the music business, I was not the man; I was not even the man standing next to the man. But I was the man standing next to the man standing next to the man.
I also started taking karate lessons from Peter Urban. I didn't realize at the time what a far out history he had, or what a semi-legendary figure he was to become, but I knew one thing, right from the first. He was completely out of his mind. His original dojo, before he moved down to Chinatown, was near the park on Fourteenth Avenue, on the East side. You took an elevator, I don't remember how many floors, and the door opened directly onto the dojo. It was small, but boy did it have soul. His business card said karate in the spirit of Yamato. In those days most people didn't know that Yamato, the name of the clan that more or less unified Japan, is a kind of secret code word for that country, signifying that you were referring to the real Japan, the real traditions. In Urban's case, it meant that he was determined to make his school as tough, and its standards as high, as any in Japan. It meant that his American students, unlike others, would not be automatically demoted one or two ranks the second they set foot in a Japanese dojo. Classes were every day of the week - longer classes on weekends. Just the conditioning workouts were awesome. I remember thinking at one point that after a couple of years of this, I wouldn't even need to know how to fight, I would be so tough.
Urban would prowl the room during these torture sessions, occasionally jumping onto your legs when you were five minutes into a deep horse stance, or dropping to the floor while you were nearing your hundredth leg raise and screaming GAMBATE at the top of his lungs, directly into your ear, while simultaneously pounding on your stomach with both fists. Occasionally, maybe once every six weeks, he would, when we were doing kata, just keep on with one kata after another until the last student dropped to the floor. At the end of class we would sit in formal Japanese posture and scream in the loudest voices possible the memorized answers to Urban's list of completely bizarre and enigmatic questions. My favorite, I recall, was What is the meaning of Zen? To which we were to shout out A supreme, sublime, unknowable absolute, or something like that.
Urban, you see, was among the very first wave of soldiers to occupy post-war Japan. The minute he got off the boat he trotted right down to Gogen Yamaguchi's dojo in the heart of the most dangerous part of Tokyo and presented himself as a student. Now, as you might imagine, American soldiers were not the most popular guys in Tokyo at that time, and the student body at Yamaguchi's dojo thought it outrageous that Urban would presume to do such a thing. But Yamaguchi said that karate has a higher allegiance than even nationalism (pretty far out thing far a Japanese to say), and that anyone who could cut the training was to be allowed. This got Urban in, but it didn't exactly designate how rough that training might be. Urban used to laugh and say that this gave him the best blocking system and reflexes possible. Everybody wanted to kill him, and if he actually managed to hit somebody back, it was pretty hard to keep them from doing just that. So he just blocked.
Masutatsu Oyama was his classmate, and they became roommates. Urban said once that he and Oyama slept in the same bed for ten years. When Oyama split with Yamaguchi and created his own style, he urged Urban to go with him. When Urban refused, Oyama took it personally, and they didn't speak for another ten years.
So, whatever his origins, Urban felt he'd paid his dues, at least enough to claim some of the Yamato spirit. There was sparring every night, and very serious sparring at that. I still think the contact in those sessions was rougher than anything I've ever seen on the street. I had bones broken in these classes, and by friends! Some of my fondest sparring memories are from those times. I had always had a glass stomach, really folding if somebody ever hit me there. It was a condition that persisted until I studied T'ai Chi Ch'uan, and learned to keep the proper posture in that part of the body. But it was at Urban's that I first discovered that I had a pretty good chin. There was one really tough Puerto Rican kid, Dominique was his name, who really gave me trouble in the beginning. One night, however, we were sparring and he hit me with a solid uppercut, right to the jaw. As I recall, I barely felt it. But he dropped to one knee in front of me, holding what turned out to be a slightly fractured hand, looked up into my eyes and said "What are you made of?"
I'll never forget that.
At one point Urban started the habit of asking for questions at the end of every class. By questions he meant what to do in different martial situations. They were questions like, "How do you defend yourself against somebody who attacks you with a chair?" Or, "What are some good techniques to use while you're wearing handcuffs?" One night somebody asked what to do if attacked by a pack of mad dogs. Urban hesitated for a moment, then leapt up on the wall separating the changing area, ripped off his shirt, and started flailing away at a pack of imaginary mad dogs, while screaming at the top of his lungs. You had to be careful, because Urban would always say, "Duplicate the situation," and you'd have to play the bad guy, which could be very dangerous. Nevertheless, the questions got farther and farther out, like "What if somebody garrotes you from behind in a movie theater?" Finally, one night, somebody said "What if you're drugged, tied up with chains, put in a sealed trunk, and thrown into the East River?" After that, Urban never asked for questions again.
There were weapons strategically stationed all over the dojo, handy in case some unwanted visitors showed up. Supposedly, this had actually happened a couple of times, but never when I was there. What did happen, though, several times, was the unannounced arrival of the police. They were there to fingerprint the black belts so that later, if they got into any fights, they could be charged with assault with a deadly weapon. A lot of the black belts kept their own white or brown belts handy, so that they could quickly slip away and change if the cops showed up. That was all the belts there were, too. Urban did it the old fashioned way. You were a white belt until you got to first kyu, then you got a brown belt, and at first dan, a black one. People think of black belts as experts, but Urban made it clear that all a black belt meant was that you were finally an actual student, and not just on probation.
Urban would usually just referee the sparring matches, but every once in a while, he'd call your name and then step up himself. We felt very lucky to be there on such nights. One time, one of the newer students was called, and he was pretty frightened. After making a few tentative attempts at dealing with the situation, he suddenly shrunk slightly, put up his hands, and said, "OK, you win."
I have never seen Urban in such a rage as possessed him at that moment. "I WIN?" he shouted, an expression of utter astonishment on his face. "I WIN? Is that what you think this is about?" He then proceeded to kick this poor kid from one end of the room to the other, actually, it turned out, even fracturing one of his ribs. It was on that occasion that, as the kid crawled, moaning, from the room, Urban turned to the rest of us and said, "I only kick dogs." I got the message, which was pretty lucky, because the very next person that he called was me. Needless to say, I fought like my life depended on it, and needless to say, I hope, Urban was, with me, as gentle as a lamb.
I had the greatest respect for Urban, but he wasn't, I'm afraid, entirely sure about that. One night he surprised me by saying, "You don't like your father, do you?" I replied that I had never known my father. He hurriedly apologized, not really necessary but the polite thing to do, and then said, "Well, you have a problem with authority." I was sorry he felt that way, because, although the guy who couldn't pass ROTC would have a tough time disputing that accusation, I had no trouble with authority that I thought was earned, and as far as I was concerned, Urban had certainly earned his.
Martin Inn was going to Syracuse University then, in upstate New York, and he would come down for the summers and stay at my apartment in New York. We would go to Urban's every night and practice fanatically all day long. Curious about our skills and anxious to test them out, we took to prowling Central Park in the wee hours, trying to get someone to mug us. I guess we were a little obvious, because nobody ever did.
Not there was any shortage of muggers. New York was a war zone then, completely different than it is now. Movies from that era, or just after, like Death Wish and Warriors, capture some of the feeling. But in spite of this, my efforts to find a legitimate situation in which to test my new skills seemed doomed to frustration. All martial art students will be familiar with this search, for a morally justifiable motivation for violence. The older you get, the harder this is to find, except in the movies. A lot of women think that what men want is violence without injury; what they really want is violence without guilt. Moral justification will do, like having your wife raped or your mother assaulted or your children kidnapped, but what is really fascinating to men is a character so strong that he seems to transcend morality, a kind of inner justification that more or less abolishes guilt by fiat. In the old days, a relatively non-violent Humphrey Bogart was the standard bearer, as in High Sierra or Casablanca. Now it's 24's Jack Bauer, who is apparently able not only to shoot people without guilt, but to torture them as well. I wasn't particular. I just wanted a bad guy.
I got pretty close one night, waiting for the Independent Subway line in Harlem at four in the morning. I was coming home from a night prowling the black jazz clubs there, and the station was completely empty of people. Then I saw a large black man come down the steps at the other end of the platform. He regarded me silently for a few moments, and then began to slowly walk towards me, pounding his free hand with one gloved fist at every step, and saying, in a deep menacing voice, "I know karate." He continued to walk towards me, repeating with deliberate solemnity, "I know karate." I continued to stare out over the tracks, and when he got just close enough, I threw a perfect side kick into his face, just brushing his nose, and returned to my original position, never even looking at him. He stopped, put his hands up, smiled, and in a very different voice said, "You know karate ... too!"
When the perfect situation did arrive, it was a case of bad timing, to say the least. I had just had the metatarsal bones of my left foot fractured in two places, by a fellow student's block of my roundhouse kick to his head, but I didn't know that yet. All I knew was that I couldn't put even the slightest weight on it without searing pain and complete collapse. I had hopped on one leg all the way to the subway after class, and was riding uptown, across from two good-looking teenage girls, who smiled sympathetically at my bandaged and obviously dysfunctional foot (I was barely twenty at the time myself, remember). Then the doors opened and two of the skuzziest, slimiest, half drunken Puerto Rican scumbags I have ever seen entered. My repeated pleas to central casting had been answered, in spades, or in Puerto Ricans, at least (sorry, brothers, I just couldn‘t resist that). They immediately took seats on either side of the girls and, with absolutely no preliminaries, proceeded to start pawing them and ripping their clothes. The reaction from the few people in the car was predictable. At the next stop, everyone who had not already changed cars left. The few new passengers wasted no time in taking quick assessment of the situation and splitting. This was the summer of the famous Kitty Genovese murder, in which she was stabbed repeatedly on the street in full view of a large number of spectators, and no one even called the police, because they "didn't want to get involved."
So there I was, with moral justification up the yin-yang, with not just one damsel in distress, but two; not just one menacing scumbag, but two!
And I couldn't even walk.
The situation was deteriorating. One of the girls had started to scream and was punched in the face. Now she was crying and the other one was screaming. Finally I came up with an idea.
"Hey!" I yelled. The two scumbags paused momentarily and looked my way, apparently noticing me for the first time.
"Those girls are fuckin' worthless cunts! Fuckin' bitches." I spit on the floor.
The two scumbags looked at each other and regarded me solemnly, noting the wisdom of my words. I saw that they were about to get started again.
"Wouldn't even fuckin' talk to me." I was trying for my lowest class possible New York accent. "Try to be nice," I continued. "Think they're better than me. Fuckin' bitches." I spit on the floor again and leaned conspiratorially towards them. "Act nice. Then they take your money and go fuck your best friend. Fuckin' bitches." I reached across and slapped one of them feebly on the knee. "Am I right? Huh? Am I right?"
One of them punched the other lightly in the chest and said, "He's right. Fuckin' right on, yeah!"
The other looked up at me. "Yeah. Right fuckin' on, patty."
The girls weren't moving, hardly breathing, both of them staring at me with astonished looks. I continued on with a litany of female transgressions and failings, punctuating it frequently with lots of cursing and spitting. The scumbags were still holding onto the girls, but not doing much else, as I continued to deliver the abused misogynist’s version of the Gettysburg Address. All this time the car was filling with people at every stop. Actual violence was too much for them, but my misogynistic diatribe elicited only sidelong looks of disgust.
Suddenly, at one stop, one of the scumbags yelled "Hey, we gotta get off," and in a flash they were gone. I'll never forget the looks on the faces of the crowd in the car when the girls, whom I had been insulting loudly ever since they were witnesses, leapt across the isle and started covering me with kisses.
During this time, I was forging an unlikely friendship with the guy who’d stolen my girl, Russ Howell. He was in the Columbia dormitories, studying physics and anything else he thought would get him into the astronaut program, which was apparently actively recruiting on campus. I was a frequent visitor to the area, my girlfriend living right across the street, at the Barnard dorms. After her evening curfew I would go over and visit Russ, who would occasionally talk me into going out and drinking with him.
I have never liked alcohol. Back at Punahou, it seemed like Marty and I were the only members of the senior class that didn’t go on binges every weekend. My whole family, on both my mother’s and my father’s side, were teetotalers, or at least I never saw any evidence to the contrary. I was pretty old before I realized what a rare thing this was, especially in Texas. In his old age, my grandfather Earle Adams took to ordering, when on vacation, a whiskey sour before dinner, and it was the family scandal.
No one smoked, either, on either side. When I got old enough, my grandmother Amacker told me that she would go out on the back porch sometimes, late at night, and sneak a cigarette, but no one, not even her own children, had ever known about it. Later one of my aunts got lung cancer, and she had a hell of a time convincing the insurance authorities that she didn’t smoke.
But, although I don’t care for the taste of alcohol, am not particularly fond of its effects, and, like everyone, I suppose, am even less enthused by its aftereffects, I can be coerced into drinking in social situations. Russ liked one Irish Bar in particular, close to the campus, and liked to bring me with him so that we could talk in pidgin and add some points to his exotic Hawaiian status.
Of all forms of alcohol, the one I like the least is beer, and beer was the drink of choice at these college drinking parties. One night there was a drinking contest, who could drain the most liter-sized pitchers of beer. I was just drunk enough to be convinced to enter. Imagine Russ’ surprise when, after almost an hour, everyone was down but him - and me. When we lifted the final pitchers, to the drunken applause of the assembled company, I looked into his eyes and realized that this was a man who had to compete at absolutely everything, with no exceptions. I could care less who wins drinking contests, but somehow this got to me. He’d already stolen my girl; he could, despite my years of training, still beat the shit out of me if it came to that. Wasn’t that enough? Apparently not, and in my drunken state, this seemed the height of insult, the final turn of the screw, last twist of the knife, the ultimate icing on our competitive cake.
As I drained the final dregs of my pitcher, I could see, through the bottom of the glass, the twisted parody of Russ’ face and the exaggerated bulging of his unbelieving eyes as he put his pitcher heavily on the table, at least two fingers of foaming, disobedient beer impudently remaining, and, still clutching the handle, unceremoniously passed out. It was a memorable night, at least, what little I remember of it.
Russ had little use for the martial arts. He loved to fight, and he thought that by studying the martial arts he would be “cheating.” A lot of fancy shit, he always insisted, that hardly ever works when you actually try it; at least, it hardly ever worked on him. He stayed in shape by managing to get into real fights all the time. In Hawaii it was “mokes,” the local term for low-riding Orientals who wore, back in those days, ridiculously bell-bottomed trousers known as “drapes,” affected various tough-guy mannerisms, and were given to cruising around in groups of four or five, giving everyone what was called the “stink eye.” At Columbia, it was drunken fraternity boys, out looking for trouble. He was very good at drawing macho guys into situations that they thought they were drawing him into, and then, at the last minute, humiliating them by being ten times more macho than they could ever imagine, like the arm wrestler that lets you almost win, almost touching his arm to the table, then overpowers you with a single stroke, while taking a drink at the same time. Once, seeing a skydiver attempting to impress a group of girls at a party with his aerial adventures, while simultaneously explaining the philosophical significance of the objective correlative, he engaged this maneuver, which ended with him forcing (psychologically, that is) this guy to jump out of a plane with him in the middle of the night, completely terrifying him in the process (he had never jumped at night before). Of course, Russ’ had never jumped out of a plane at all.
That was Russ. If you hunted pigs with a spear, he hunted them with a knife; if you jumped out of planes, he jumped out of them at night. Even if you managed to dismiss it all as a psychological disorder, you still had to be impressed.
I was used to Russ heaping scorn upon my martial arts training, all the “fancy bullshit” and “stupid pajamas.” One night at Urban’s dojo we devoted the entire evening to learning how to knee someone in the balls. I don’t know how he managed to spend over two hours on this, but somehow he did, and I remember thinking, now this is something Russ can’t call fancy bullshit. After class I skipped going home and took the subway straight up to One Hundred and Sixteenth Street, to pay Russ a little surprise visit.
He was busily laboring over some physics homework, which he continued as I told him with some excitement that I had learned something that night that I was sure he would be interested in.
“Oh, really,” he said, pausing only momentarily.
“Yes,” I said, “and if you stop what you’re doing a minute I’ll show you.”
“All right,” he said. “Just give me a second.”
I paced back and forth a while, and finally he stood up.
“OK,” he said, with a patient tone, “you show me how the karate man does it, and I’ll show you how the Kentucky Barman does it.”
With that, he walked up to me, put his hands gently on my shoulders, and kneed me in the balls so hard it lifted me off my feet. Then he went back to his homework.
I lay on the ground, gasping for breath and in enormous pain, for a couple of minutes, and then finally managed to say, with considerable difficulty,
“Man, you don’t understand. That’s exactly what I was going to do to you!”
He wearily got up and walked over to my prostrate form, leaning down to whisper loudly in my ear,
“No, man. You don’t understand. The Kentucky Barman does it first!”
The only person I ever found that could impress Russ was William Chen. He came, after much insistence on my part, to see a regular class, when William had the big loft over on the west side of town. Afterwards, he told me, with some seriousness,
“That guy knows something. I mean, he really knows something.”
But that is getting a little ahead of our story. Before I met William Chen, before I met Ch’eng, Man-Ch’ing, I was destined to meet another man, a man who changed my life more than any other, a man whom I still think of as my spiritual father.
It was the summer I turned twenty-one. I had traveled west to take a job at my Uncle Joe’s newly acquired venture, a bar-restaurant with a motel attached and a big campground in back, in that beautiful stretch of wild seacoast along Highway One in California, Big Sur.
A famous psychic once said that if there was an atomic war, there would be only two places in the US that would be safe from fallout, because all the air there comes from either high in the stratosphere or way out to sea. One was Flagstaff, Arizona. The other was Big Sur. When you are there, you can believe it. It is a very energetic place, an empowering sort of energy, highly creative, its only downside being that it can sometimes give one the impression that they are a little more powerful, and a little more creative, than they really are.
I suppose that now, with satellites and phone cells and all of that, it is different, but back then (1965), Big Sur was dead to all signals from the outside world, except for a telephone land line that served mostly the few hotels scattered along its length and not much else. No radio, no TV, and if you lived just about anywhere off the road, no telephone. You had to be at least a little bit creative just to live there, or you would go nuts.
At that age, I had always associated myself with the “beat” generation, a relatively small movement of counter-culture bohemians living mostly in and around San Francisco. Their association with Jazz was probably what drew me in, when I was going to Berkeley, but it was mostly a kind of maybe-this-is-what-I-want-to-be play acting. The “beat” style of writing and poetry, Jack Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg, etc., didn’t really turn me on. My idea of writing was, and still is, pretty old fashioned. But it didn’t really matter much, because they were just about to be replaced in the counter-culture department by something much, much bigger. Hippies.
I had heard the name before that summer of sixty-five, and I certainly didn’t care for that. It sounded childish and stupid, and besides, hippies seemed to be associated with rock-n-roll, definitely low class by my standards.
I had acquired somehow (I honestly don’t remember how) a 1960 Ford convertible, red. Monstrous thing. Each door probably weighed more than a whole car does now. But it fit my image perfectly. I was a hundred and eighty-five pounds of solid karate muscle, draped in a full length black leather coat, looking at the world through amber aviator shades.
On the ride down to Big Sur from San Francisco, where I had stopped first after driving out from New York, I picked up a young girl hitchhiking. She was on her way to Big Sur, too, she said, and had I ever been there? Upon hearing my answer in the negative she became quite serious, turning in her seat to face me (you had room to move around in cars, in those days, which is why drive-ins were popular).
“There are people in the hills down there,” she said, “who’ll blow your mind!”
It was the first time I had ever heard that expression.
But definitely not the last. Big Sur, I was soon to learn, was one of the first and ultimately most popular destinations of the growing Hippie movement. Their psychedelically oriented brains were sensitized to exactly the kind of energy that Big Sur was full of. Cities were full of dead, mechanical forces, sour smells, loud noises, and generally bad vibes. Wanting to get back to nature was an inevitable result of getting “bummed out” by the city on some psychedelic adventure, and the first wave of Hippies might fairly be described as a bunch of Luddites looking for the Oriental version of Walden Pond.
The only problem was, most of nature was already occupied by unsophisticated hicks, farmers, ranchers, country folk who had a pretty unromantic view of their surroundings, few cultural ambitions beyond buying a new TV, and a very definite idea about the meaning of the words private property. The growing hoards of Hippies suddenly appearing in their lives seemed to them no more than some kind of later-day uprising of smiling, peace-loving Indians.
And Hippies seemed determined to dress for the part. The American Indian quickly achieved iconic status in the world view of the Hippie movement, his totally natural environment, ecological consciousness (however actually unconscious it might have been), shamanic search for altered states, and spiritually purifying sweat lodge sessions looking, to the average Hippie, like a pretty cool lifestyle. From my own completely personal point of view, it looked like the style was, in the country, you dressed like an Indian, and in the city, you dressed like a cowboy.
There was a reason for that, too. It involves the evolution of so-called psychedelic rock-’n-roll. Music was perhaps the major cultural focus of the Hippie movement, and whatever style was affected by the preferred musical giants of the time had a pretty good chance of being a transforming influence on a lot of people. Despite the popularity of the Beatles, the only thing that Americans could find to copy in their appearance was their long hair, which, by today’s standards, wasn’t even that long. Somehow the dapper little suits didn’t quite make it.
The music was perhaps a little too dapper, also, at least, it certainly sounded a bit that way alongside the heroically self-indulgent, totally inspired, completely psychedelicized twenty minute guitar solos that came to be associated with the American brand. Back then I thought that the musicians were copying the buckskin-fringed, Hippie cowboy look that was springing up everywhere, but actually, I came to realize, they were causing it.
The quite unlikely explanation for this is well known, but my particular version was the result of living for ten years next to one of the principle, if unwitting, architects of this fashion revolution, Mark Unobsky, from whom I heard the story first hand, so maybe it is worth repeating here.
One of the centers of Hippie activity was San Francisco, scene of the first “love-in.” If you went there, like the song said, you’d better wear “some flowers in your hair.” But it was not, as many mistakenly assume, the place where psychedelic rock-’n-roll was born. Most of the musicians were there, it is true, and called the place home, but the clubs, theaters, all the local venues, were pretty scared of them at first. There was a lot of far out music coming out of apartments and garages, but nothing for public consumption.
Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away, in the Nevada town of Virginia City, the Red Dog Saloon was coming to life. Mark was one of the architects of this, and he and his partners managed to create one of the most unique venues in the history of music. The place was a classic western exterior, the kind you could imagine horses tied up in front of, with an interior to match, but the music, well, it wasn’t exactly Home on the Range. The owners were not only not afraid of the new psychedelic sound, they were anxious to be the first to actively promote it. Mark was a great guitarist himself, with an ability to construct hysterically funny lyrics to match, and he and his partners had strong connections in the Bay Area, a good line on who and what was happening.
Soon there was a stream of bands making the trip to Nevada and back, airing their latest efforts at the Red Dog. They picked up quickly on the western motif, and started to sport buckskin fringes and string ties, snap buttons and cowboy boots. Old tintype photographs revealed that long hair, the badge of the Hippie movement, was standard equipment for the populace of the old west, and the chance to make record covers where your band looked exactly like a gang of old west outlaws was just too good to pass up.
It was a strange collision of Eastern philosophy with the spirit of frontier justice, miracles of modern chemistry chased down with Mexican Beer, Mahatma Gandhi twirling smoking six-guns of psychedelic enlightenment.
And there were smoking six-guns. Mark loved guns. The whole crowd loved guns. The entire length of the bar, behind the well, was decorated with them. Workers at the Red Dog were paid in guns. Literally. Once, when a buckskin-clad band was churning psychedelically away on stage, an irate local pulled a gun on them and demanded that they stop. They stopped - and then all pulled guns on him. Probably the most famous incident was when a local sheriff, noting the “check your guns at the bar” sign on the door, walked up to the bartender, who also happened in this case to be one of the owners, slapped his revolver on the counter and said, “Check my gun please.” The bartender picked up the gun, fired it once into the air, and, as he put it, smoking, back on the table, said “It works.”
There will certainly never be a place like the Red Dog again. I still have a T-shirt from there, black, with a big red dog’s head, and a quote below that says, “If I have to pay, everybody has to pay.”
My Uncle’s place was called Redwood Lodge. He was a psychologist who was fed up with the psychological establishment. He wrote a book of essays called Secrets of the Trade (he wanted to call it Tricks of the Trade, but that title, his publishes informed him, had already been used earlier that year for a book about prostitution), the purpose of which, he told me one day with considerable vehemence, was to “expose the whole mental health racket.” Joe was one of the first crusaders against invasive procedures, specifically, shock treatment, lobotomies, and the symptom suppressing use of drugs. He was one of the founders of NAPA, the Network Against Psychiatric Assault, and a true crusader in that cause.
One of his ideas was that people need to work out their frustrations physically, and the purchase of Redwood Lodge was only the first step in his plan to create a “gymnasium” for the treatment of mental disorders, its motel units converted into padded rooms where people could “bounce off the walls,” and “work it all out,” according to my Uncle. A complete intellectual with two PhD’s (the other one was in mathematics), he had gotten the money from my Grandfather, and needed to make the place turn some sort of profit while he waited for the capital that his numerous grant proposals were supposed to attract. He was ready to cater that summer to tired tourists and, he soon found, rowdy construction workers, the bar at the lodge being a favorite stop after work. He wasn’t quite ready, I think, for what actually showed up.
Big Sur was the kind of place a Hippie could get behind. Lots of nature, and virtually no farmers. The hills were peopled with self proclaimed artists and intellectuals, beat generation survivors, aspiring yogis, and just plain weirdoes, people who could “blow your mind.” They’d been there a while, in fact. Big Sur has always been a home to artists, and the coast is dotted with little galleries sporting local talent. Most of the land was owned by absentee landlords, usually fat cats who made it up to look at their property two or three times a year, so there were lots of caretaker jobs that people took for no pay, just the privilege of living there. There were painters and potters, glass blowers, paper makers, woodcarvers, frequently with common law “wives” and broods of children, struggling to make ends meet with vegetable gardens and occasional sales of their work to passing tourists.
Henry Miller was holed up there in those days, drinking every night at Nepenthe with his friend Chauko (sp?), and experimenting with painting (To Paint is to Love Again). Peter Ind, formerly a bass player on the Queen Mary, was there, busily becoming the only person to ever actually repeat the experiments of Wilhelm Reich, an effort that culminated in the publication of a book called Cosmic Metabolism and Vortical Accretion. Kim Novak, fresh from making Vertigo with Alfred Hitchcock, was hanging around the Hot Springs and making a reputation for herself as a lesbian. The southern end of Big Sur is the location of William Randolph Hearst’s supercastle, the Xanadu of the Orson Wells movie. I once hitchhiked on the stretch of Highway One that fronts it for a couple of hours, looking for a ride north.
Lots of people who could blow your mind, for sure. I certainly found one to blow mine.