When I was a teenager, a bunch of my friends went together to the Egyptian Theater in DeKalb, Illinois, where I grew up, to see a new movie that had just come out, called Enter the Dragon. I had never heard of kung fu before and had essentially no exposure to the martial arts at that time. My friends insisted on sitting on the first row, and in this case it was a good choice. Bruce Lee in all his catlike glory seemed to be two stories tall. I had never seen anything like this and was completely mesmerized by it.
So, when I came to BYU as a freshman, I signed up for a karate class, which met on Saturdays. The instructor was also a member of the BYU Shotokan Karate Club, and he encouraged me to join, which I did. The BYU Club was the second-oldest U.S. university Shotokan club, founded by the great Tsutomu Ohshima. One of the benefits was that as long as I attended club workouts each Tuesday and Thursday night (and sometimes Saturday mornings), I didn’t have to attend the class itself on Saturday afternoons.
I found the club quite fascinating; it was for me a small exposure to an entirely different culture. Basically, we would meet in the wrestling room of the Smith Fieldhouse, then go for a mile run around the track (wearing the gi and barefoot). When everyone had returned, we had a session of stretching exercises and calisthenics. We did our pushups with our fists (makes sense); I still do them that way to this day.
Once those preliminaries were out of the way, there were essentially three areas of focus for each workout. First were the basic forms of different punches, kicks and blocks. We would practice these, doing ten at a time, counting them off in Japanese (I quickly learned the names of the numbers). Second were kata, which were ritualized, almost dance-like forms. And third was kumite, or sparring. Some of the sparring was more ritual in nature, and some was more free.
I participated in the club for about a year and a half: my freshman year of college, and the first semester after my mission. At that point I got engaged and had to focus more on my schoolwork, and so I drifted away from the club. Also, I have to admit that I sort of got tired of walking around campus with my arms always bruised. The sparring was theoretically noncontact, but that didn’t go for the blocks, which were real. So I’m sure people were wondering who had been beating the crap out of my arms all the time.
As I say, the punches and kicks in sparring were supposed to be noncontact, but things didn’t always work out that way. One time I was sparring with a big and strong policeman, and he misjudged his punch and caught me right in the sternum. I couldn’t move for like three minutes. But in a way those mistakes were good, because I got a sense for what it was like to absorb that punch, and it gave me confidence that, yup, it really works. There were also a few girls in the club: brown belts who could really kick ass. I was very impressed with their abilities.
The leaders of the club at that time were the House brothers: Tom, Fred and Gary. I didn’t see much of Gary, as he usually had to work in the evenings. Tom was the oldest and was the leader. Fred was an incredibly talented fighter; he was the best fighter I have ever personally encountered. Even though I was bigger than he was, it didn’t matter; whenever I sparred with him, he could easily put me in a position where I couldn’t even reach him. I frankly idolized him.
Fred worked as a corrections officer at the prison, and it was a good job for him. He could walk among the convicts with total confidence, and everyone knew not to bother him.
As I pursued school and turned my attention to other things, I didn’t really think much of my experience with the club very often. It was a great learning experience, which I appreciated, but my focus was on my studies and then my new career as an attorney.
It was with great shock that I learned that Fred House had been shot by Adam Swapp and Timothy Singer on January 28, 1988, as part of the 13-day standoff known as the “Siege at Marion.” Swapp had blown up an LDS Church about 45 miles east of SLC. Fred was on the scene as a dog handler, and Singer and Swapp shot and killed him. I could scarcely believe it was possible; this man had seemed so utterly invincible, as though nothing could harm him. But he was dead, leaving a grieving family behind. (Someone made a movie about the standoff, called “In the Line of Duty,” starring Dennis Franz. Ed Begley, Jr. played Fred, which was incredible miscasting.)
I think the Karate Club still exists at BYU, even though it has been 27 years since I participated there as a young student. I count the experience as an important part of my university education.