From about age six on, I grew up in the suburban city of Newton, Massachusetts, a fairly wealthy, predominantly Jewish community outside of Boston that pretty closely resembles a lot of other similar towns you'd find across America. While many of my peers were members of the Jewish Community Center and would go there to swim, play basketball, etc., I would trek across town to the West Suburban YMCA, where my dad had been going since he was a kid. The Y at the time I was growing up lacked some of the spruced up facilities and expensive niceties of the JCC, but it had charm in spades and some of my best childhood memories come from my dad taking me swimming or to play raquetball and then getting to hang with the cops, firefighters, doctors and lawyers who called that old brick building their second home. I actually ended up working the front desk at the Y in high school for a few years and still try to make it back when I can (these days the joint is a heckuva lot ritzier and sporting many of those niceties I mentioned earlier in no small part thanks to the fundraising efforts of my old man, Abraham "Ned" Morse).
However, one thing about the Y was that since it was a good bit further away from where I lived than the JCC was in proximity to most of my buddies, I didn't participate in a lot of the activities that were a rite of youth passage for them. Case in point: pretty much everybody I knew (and many kids across the country) took some form of karate when they were younger, then quit once they were old enough to feel silly dressing up in gis with a bunch of other white kids in a community center basement.
It was towards the end of junior high school when my friend Brendan Twomey and I suddenly became enthralled by the films of Bruce Lee. I don't remember what the impetus was, but we would hang out in Brendan's basement and watch his movies as well as the dozens of biopics done on his life (Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story being far and away the best). I even got The Tao of Jeet Kune Do, the book Bruce Lee wrote about martial arts and life philosophy while recovering from a broken back, and tried to make sense of stuff way over my head. My AOL e-mail and screen name, which I have kept to this day, is "Dragon882," a reference to Bruce Lee followed by my lucky number and year of birth.
The crowning achievment of Brendan and my fandom was when we got all our friends together one weekend, grabbed my mom's camcorder, and filmed our own martial arts epic titled (of course) "Dragon: The Brendan Lee Story." Over the course of twenty or so glorious minutes, Brendan as martial artist Brendan Lee ran through a series of scenes we lifted from various Bruce Lee movies (we even edited in some of the original footage from those movies later), along with goofy comedy bits (mostly borderline offensive stuff like us lip-synching one set of lines and then badly dubbing them over later ala most kung fu flicks from the 70's) and fairly impressively choreographed fights where he'd fight our friends done up in goofy costumes in my backyard. I played the final boss of the whole ordeal and Brendan and I decided to bust out the weapons for our fight, with me using a big branch we found as a bo staff and him using two paper towel rolls held together with string as nunchuks that he ultimately strangled me with as an homage to the climactic scene of "Dragon."
Given that we were 13, I'd say our movie was fairly impressive, particularly by 1995 standards and done on a home editing board, but unquestionably the moment I (and my parents) will remember most was my buddy (and future wrestling co-captain) Scott Goldberg constructing a makeshift tiki torch out of another branch, lots of paper towels, a few normal towels and the use of his lighter and nearly setting my roof on fire in the process.
Anyways, a few months later, Brendan and I tried to get a sequel off the ground, but after we spent several weeks writing and filming an elaborate prologue the length of the entire previous movie that involved drugs, alcohol and mistaken identity (can you tell we were headed into high school?), we decided maybe our moviemaking days were over.
It was time to become real martial artists.
Over on the west side of town, near the YMCA actually, we knew there was a martial arts dojo called Chung Moo Doe. In a city like Newton, places like that were pretty rare, and the joint looked crazy legit, so one days, we took our bikes and headed down. We met with the lead instructor and he acted like our committing to take two classes a week at Chung Moo Doe was akin to enlisting in the armed forces, so of course we signed up with giddy excitement.
Our excitement quickly faded during our first class when we were introduced to our instructor, a skinny white dude, and saw that the rest of our fellow trainees were mostly girls and little kids. At the very least we'd be the breakout students, right?
Well, we were the standouts of the class, but that wasn't saying much, since we were mostly learning simple self-defense shit, not the spectacular flying kicks and somersaults we longed to master. There were also cool weapons hanging all over the Chung Moo Doe studios, from swords to staffs, but were always told those were off-limits until we reached the "advanced class."
Like I said, Brendan and I were way better than the motley crew we were "training" with, but despite this, our instructor did not seem to care for us. This may have been because we were always eying the katana on the wall, or because we'd never yell "Ki-yah!" loud enough or possibly because when he'd do demonstrations with us, we'd frequently put up a bit too much resistance and make him look dumb--who knows.
One lesson I do remember pretty distinctly is when our guy took us down to the awesome looking basement of the Chung Moo Doe studio and taught us forward rolls. Not only do I recall this because we were actually learning something somewhat exciting, but also because he instructed us to always "roll to the side as opposed to straight on to avoid the broken glass." Yeah, for some reason he always approached our lessons as if we'd be getting into fights in some sort of dark alley where there would be broken beer bottles strewn about as we were surrounded by a gang of toughs. As much as you may figure we'd find that scenario appealing, firstly the chances of any of us getting into a gang fight in Newton were slim to nil, and second if the situation did arise it was unlikely that our deadly array of forward rolls was going to help us out against anybody with a knife or something.
Our three months of lessons at Chung Moo Doe ran out and Brendan and I elected not to re-up for another round. The lead dude seemed pretty disappointed when we informed him of this news after the ceremony where he upgraded our belts from white to white with a black mark on it. He gave us some kinda weird speech about how he saw a lot of potential in us and was saddened we didn't want to realize it. I'm pretty sure if he had taken us to some secret room and shown us the secret ninja army he was training using suburban white kids, we would have enthusiastically signed on for life, but he just went on a bit about the fabled "advanced class," so we weren't sold.
Funny thing I came across while looking up links on Chung Moo Doe to refresh my memory for this post: Apparently it was a scam.
Well that explains a lot.