Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Rhinelander Dojo: the Early Years

I was reading Mr. Morales-Santo Domingo's post on his early days in his Ochoa Dojo in Puerto Rico. It made me think of when I first started in Rhinelander, Wisconsin. Home of the Hodag. In fact, a few of us are traveling up to Rhinelander this weekend for Shihan Dean's seminar. Can't wait.

I remember walking into the Rhinelander Dojo, well, actually it was the basement of The Memorial Building, a community center. It was full of kids and adults waiting to learn Karate. The dojo was so full, Sensei had to have half of us sit down so the other half could workout. It was sponsored through the Parks and Recreation Dept.

It was 1969, I was 14 years old, and very excited to be learning Karate. My most vivid memories of this time was sweating a lot, the cold concrete floor (it gets really cold in Rhinelander in the winter), knuckle pushups, Sanchin Kata and thinking, "why am I doing this?"

That concrete floor could get so cold and then so slick it made kumite a challenge. I remember slipping and cracking my elbows many times on that floor. Word of caution: Don't try high kicks on a slippery floor. To this day I have sensitive elbows. Also, knuckle pushups on that floor felt like torture for this skinny white belt. Damn those hurt, but that was nothing compared to having to drag ourselves on our knuckles across that floor.

The one thing that actually kept me going was Sanchin. Seeing Ray Zastrow, a green belt at that time, doing Sanchin impressed the living hell out of me. He did one fine Sanchin! All I knew was that I wanted to be doing that! And look like him. Fast forward about a year and there are only about 12 of us left...Sensei weeded out quite a few people....and then to be asked to join him and a few others on Saturday and Sundays for more intense workouts was an honor. This was outside of the jurisdiction of Parks and Rec.

I took a lot of punishment back then as the only safety equipment we had were 'nut' cups and mouth guards. My white gi was always speckled with blood from a bloody nose, usually mine, and I swore I lived with cracked ribs for years. For some reason I kept going back. On these weekend workouts we would kumite for about an hour and a half...then do some ground work and street self-defense for another hour. Almost every weekend until I was 18 was spent on that cold concrete was cold even in the summer, but then you didn't mind as much. Oh yeah, somewhere in there Sensei finally got some mats for our groundwork. We thought we died and had gone to heaven. Mats are softer that concrete, but you knew that.

The Memorial Building has since been torn down but my memories are still there. At times we went to the Junior High Gym when we couldn't use the Memorial Building (it was being condemned.) The wooden floor was great but the showers were awful. No hot water! (It eventually was condemned and torn down too). We took it as a testament to our man-hood to withstand the cold showers and thought of ourselves like the Japanese masters who would stand under the waterfalls. Hey, I was a kid.

My first Gi was made by my mother...but I didn't have a belt. Sensei Dean noticed and gave me his white belt. I was so honored I think I slept with it. After about one year of training, I will never forget this, Sensei Dean came up to me while we were standing at attention, grasped my belt and said, "You are going to make a fine Black Belt some day". At that moment, I knew I was going to become one. Seven years later it happened. I showed up for a Sunday workout at the Jr. High Gym and only Sensei Dean was there. I asked where everyone was and he said "It is just you and me...and by the way, your testing for Shodan today." I just turned my white gi pants brown, if you know what I mean.

Well, that's all I have time for now. I will try and get some pictures from the seminar this weekend.

Take Care,


  1. Those rites of passage, although sometimes brutal, prove crucial in the long run. Everyone I've met who has stuck it out, meaning that they made karate a part of their lives, were all initially put through a wringer. You entered at the perfect age, when a lot of the pain slakes off in the shower.
    Those years are our mythical backdrop, the stuff of sweat-drenched poetry. And that thing about sensei and sempai giving their belts to lower ranks, I wonder if they still do it.

  2. Yes, I believe I started at the perfect age when I was rubbery. I can't imagine starting later in life...kudos to those who do.

    After your comment it dawned on me we actually do recycle our belts and gi's. As some of the younger ones grow they donate them to me and when the right student comes in we have a belt and a gi for them. I never gave much thought to it, but perhaps it does go back to Sensei giving me his hand-me-down.

    Thanks...I like your words 'mythical backdrop, the stuff of sweat-drenched poetry.' Perfect.