The Lesson

written by Clay Johnson

This article is about one of the most important martial art and life lessons I was ever taught, and it wasn’t taught to me by a martial arts teacher, but by a very unlikely source. I would like to share the story with you, the reader, because you may find it interesting and helpful in your study of the martial arts.

On December 31, 1989, I had asked my girlfriend, Kimlee, to dinner after I finished teaching classes at my first school in my hometown of Clifton Forge, Virginia. As it happens, that was also the last day the school was going to be open, because I was closing it for good. The restaurant we were going to was down the street from the school. Kimlee got to the school, and we decided to use my wheelchair to go to the restaurant so I wouldn’t have to walk. We asked one of my students, Kemper Murray, if he would like to come with us. He said he would meet us there, because he had to fix a hole in the wall at the school, since we weren’t going to be at that location anymore.

As we were heading to the restaurant, I saw a disabled guy I knew sitting in his wheelchair on the street, watching cars go by. First, I think I better explain how I knew this person. I’m not going to use his real name here. I’ll call him Brian. He’s since passed on.

I knew Brian back in high school, before his accident when he could walk. We were not friends. Brian and his friends gave me a very hard time for the most part. I had been out of school about a year or so when I heard Brian and a friend of his were in a car accident, and drinking and speeding were to blame. Brian’s friend died and Brian ended up in a wheelchair for life. (The old saying is very true: “What goes around comes around.”)

As Kim and I got closer to where Brian was sitting, I noticed that he had a new wheelchair – one of those you can use for all kinds of sports. As we passed him, we said, “Hi, Brian,” and I remember also saying something like, “Cool looking chair.” Brian said, “Yeah, I just got it!”

We stopped for a minute to ask about the wheelchair, and I asked Brian what it cost. He said it was around $5,000.00. He told me he had gotten a loan from the bank to pay for it. I said to him it was too bad his insurance couldn’t help with the cost of the wheelchair. Without missing a beat, he said, “I’m not like you. Everyone gives you everything.”

That was just like getting slapped in the face. I came back with, “Well, I wasn’t drinking and driving and killed someone and half myself.” Brian said something back to me – I can’t remember exactly what – but it wasn’t very nice. Kim realized I was mad, and knew I had a very bad temper. So she said, “Let’s go eat,” and starting rolling me down the street toward the restaurant. Meanwhile, Brian and I were shouting at each other on the street. Brian was trying to goad me into a physical confrontation.

Luckily for Kim and me, it remained a verbal confrontation.

Kim and I were now in the restaurant getting ready to order. I was very upset at myself for letting Brian get under my skin. My student, Kemper, came in and asked what had happened. He had heard all the shouting. So, we told him what had been said. He then told us that Brian had told him his side of the story.

Brian told Kemper it all started because I had said he was nothing because he didn’t do karate. Kemper knew I wouldn’t say that to anyone. He then asked me if I’d I noticed that Brian had one of his anti-tip bars off of his chair, ready to use as a weapon. This news really upset me because I did not notice it at all. Kim and I could have gotten badly hurt, because Brian was just mean enough to use that anti-tip bar on us.

Thoughts of this played with my head for a long time. I realized I was not really ready for any kind of physical confrontation. I remember thinking that I ‘d wasted six years getting a black belt, and I was useless if I couldn’t keep Kim safe.

This is the reason why the arts I now use are the Filipino Martial Arts, Jun Fan Gung Fu, and Thai Boxing. From doing these arts for almost 19 years, I feel I’m better prepared for a confrontation. I still teach American Freestyle Karate, but I don’t use it anymore. Don’t misunderstand; American Freestyle Karate is a great art, but it’s just not for me. So, in a way, Brian did me a big favor by showing me that I wasn’t where I should be as a martial artist.

I think about that night often, and today, I have to thank Brian because he helped make me the martial artist and person I am today.