This picture was taken shortly after I joined Higashi School of Karate, in 1969, at the age of 12. I’m sitting in front at the far left. Beside me is Betty Tunicliffe and in the back row, far right, is her husband, Ernie (both sadly dead now; two of the nicest people I have known). I forget the the names of the rest of the group, except for Paul, second from left, standing in the back.
The dojo was in Tor0nto on Eglinton Avenue East. The space was originally a bowling alley. As you can see in the picture, the gutters were boarded over when it became a karate school.
In those days, Higashi-Sensei was not far removed from his competitive career, so his training was intense and sometimes over the top. Classes never ended on time and involved hundreds and sometimes thousands of repetitions of techniques and calisthenics. One week we did so many pushups that my friend Eric couldn’t lift his arms. So to eat, he got an old arrow shaft and tied a fork to the end of it. That way he could feed himself from his plate while keeping his elbow on the table.
Sparring too was quite intense. In those days, in tournaments, there were no weight divisions or protective padding allowed. Quite typically the local hospital would have a non-stop procession of business until the tournament ended. My father watched me in one class at Higashi as the older students were sparring. One participant got his nose broken, so my father drove the young man to the hospital. In the car’s back seat, the injured man opened a package of shirts that my father had just bought, and used them to staunch the flow of blood. My father, of course, took his loss silently.
At the age of 15, I tested for my black belt, the youngest person at the point in the dojo to be tested for this honour. I went through a gruelling examination that required me to fight all the adult black belt candidates. Although I passed this test, Tsuruoka-Sensei, then head of Chito-ryu karate in Canada at the time and the father of karate in this country, thought I was too young for black belt so came to Higashi School of Karate and made me take the test a second time. Luckily I was able to pass this exam, too, and received my shodan.
When I was older, I was sparring with another black belt and performed a foot sweep. The other fighter went down but his knee was wrenched badly enough that we had to call an ambulance. Placed on a stretcher, the injured karateka was taken past the pool hall beside the karate club (the players barely looked up from their snooker games, so this wasn’t the first time they had been treated to such a spectacle) and the ambulance attendants then had to carry the stretcher down the winding stairs to street level.
As they did this, I saw a mother and child wide-eyed at the bottom of the stairs, waiting for the stretcher to go by. I surmised that the boy was being brought to the club for his first lesson. So I called out to my friend on the stretcher: “Sorry about your injury, sir. You’ll get your money back for the first class.” The mother and son turned around and never came back.
It was a sad day when the karate club burned down, in the late 1990s, I think, due to a fire starting in the restaurant downstairs. Fortunately not all memories went up in smoke.
And before I scare off prospective students for my own karate club, I should point out we’ve become much more civilized and avoid the bloody mayhem of early days. You’ll go home sore but intact.