This may not have much to do with martial arts, but maybe it does. And Dave Cater told me I can write about anything I want to, so here goes.
Once, many years ago, Sifu Kam Yuen and I were in New York City to attend The Aaron Banks Martial Arts Expo at Madison Square Garden. That was an exciting moment. The Garden is the place where some of the greatest prizefights of all time took place.
We’re talking here about the summer of ’75, shortly after I had put an end to the Kung Fu series by just walking away, while it was still high in the ratings: very high. People thought I was crazy to leave. I had a few reasons for ending the show. One: I had always said the third year would be the last. Two: it was starting to become repetitive, and the writing was falling down, the stories were getting kind of lame, all of which I had known would happen if it went on too long. I didn’t want it to become just another TV show. I’d done everything I could with it. It was time to get on with the rest of my life, make some movies. The biggest thing, though, was my own emotional state. I’d broken up with my long-time sweetheart. I was heartbroken, almost suicidal. I simply could not continue with the charade any longer.
The last day I had worked, February 5th, 1975, she had come to visit with our son in tow. In between takes, I joined them on the grass. She sat there, with our boy on her lap (he was asleep) and we looked sadly at each other, unable to speak. She’d never seemed more beautiful to me. When they called me back to the set, I managed to say, “Goodbye,” my heart breaking, and that was it. She and the kid walked out of my life. We had to cancel my final shot as Kwai Chang Caine as I couldn’t stop crying.
So, now, a few months later, I’m in New York, with Sifu. We had seats at ringside. Kam was there to demonstrate the Double-Sword Form, and I was to make an appearance and give a little speech. There were performers from all over the world and the place was packed. Demonstrations of almost every style were on the bill, and some bizarre competitions between different disciplines were on hand to round it out. A wrestler versus a Judo man, a lightweight boxer against a woman. That was a very unequal contest. I had dinner with the girl the night before, a charming young lady from Oklahoma, and she was really scared. Rightly so. Her opponent, a tough little Latino with a barrel chest, gave her no quarter. As I remember, the fight lasted almost one round. At first the girl held her own pretty well, but then she got mad, and lost control. He decked her. Knocked her out. In the Judo/wrestler fight, the wrestler pinned the Judo man, but I thought the match was not set up right. They had the Judo guy in a gee, and the wrestler in trunks. Well, in Judo, you grab at your opponent’s clothes. A wrestler just grapples. They had it backwards. The result was the Judo man had nothing to get hold of, just skin, slick with sweat, and the wrestler had handles to grab.
Kam was awesome with the sword form, leaping higher than I thought a human could, and seeming to hover in the air, in defiance of natural law.
Ed Spielman, the writer of the original Kung Fu script, was there, I think the only time I was ever face to face with him.
One of the highlights for me was meeting Ed Parker for the first time. He showed me some techniques for taking out an attacker with a ring of keys. I was not impressed. That’s just not my kind of kung fu. And I had always thought Ed Parker was just a fat friend of Elvis. How could a guy that wide be a master of an athletic discipline? At the end of the event, though, Ed changed my mind for me. When the final bell rang, we looked up from ringside toward the only exits at the rear of the stadium, the aisles packed with people, and realized that we were going to have to walk a gamut of five thousand or so over-stimulated martial arts fans, looking for action.
I would have just gone for it, but Ed suddenly became protective of me. “You can’t go through that,” he said. He saw that though the aisles were full, the seats were now empty. “Come on.” he said. And the two of us jumped onto the nearest seatbacks and we ran across them, all the way up probably fifty or more rows to the back of the house, Ed right there beside me, running interference, like a linebacker. This was easy for me, at a hundred-seventy pounds, but Ed, at three hundred or more, should have broken the back of every seat. He didn’t. His feet touched down as lightly as a deer, and he ran like one. How he did that, I don’t know. The only answer I can come up with is he defied gravity. I had to start rethinking my opinion of him.
Perseverance seems to be the main tool for success in any endeavor. If you look at love and friendship though, probably the two most important things there are in life, you need understanding, self-control, and a host of other qualities. care, compassion, delicacy. In martial arts as well, it seems. In Agni Yoga, a form of meditation which I was studying at the time, the sacral chakra is defined as ‘Love’, which, they add, is what gravity is. It’s love, these Hindus say, that holds the solar system together and keeps us from falling off the planet. The color of the chakra is pink.
While we were in New York, Sifu and I took a run every day, through the streets, not on a track. I could never get into going around in circles. All I could think about on these runs was my broken heart. On this one morning, we ran all the way uptown along Broadway, past the theater district, past the Trump Tower at Columbus Circle to Needle Park at 72nd Street, where all the retired folks sat around on benches, next to the coke heads. We stopped for a minute at a souvenir shop, to catch our breaths a little.
“What am I gonna do,” I said to Sifu. All he said was, “Patience, strength, fortitude.”
Okay. You fall down, or you get knocked down, and you get up again, and do whatever it takes to feel good about yourself, and go on. ‘Well,’ I thought, ‘If Ed Parker, at three hundred pounds, could defy gravity, and Kam Yuen can fly, and if gravity is love, then I could cheer up and make it out of this funk alive.’
There’s been a lot of water since then, under the bridge and over the dam, and I should be in my rocking chair by this time. But right now, I’m in my prime and on my game, with a lot left to do, and I’ve got at shot at happiness. And that’s the essence of kung fu. If you ain’t got that, you ain’t got fu, I don’t care what color your belt is.
Another thing about Ed Parker: he loved The Art. And, Hey, Love is where it’s at! That’s what Ali would say, and he’s The Greatest.