Block, strike, sweep. Block, strike, sweep. Hours spent in the dojo doing self-defense drills. Over and over and over again. The more I practiced, the better I became. But always, in the back of my mind, was that nagging doubt - "Could I use this on the street"? About seven years ago I got to find out.
I was out of town on a business trip with a co-worker. We had finished working for the day and had gone out to dinner, followed by a movie. Walking back to our hotel, we noticed two young men running down the street - one in the street, one on the sidewalk. The one on the sidewalk was running at people to force them to jump out of his way. My co-worker didn't jump out of the way and so the young man was forced to jump out of his way. When he did, he tripped over his own feet and fell down. His friend laughed and so the young thug had to save face, which he did by threatening my co-worker. There was lots of shouting and pushing. I got between them and kept them apart. They went their way and then we went ours. I assumed that was the end of it. I was wrong. Suddenly I felt something strike the back of my head and an arm was coming around my neck from behind. You often hear people talking about getting tunnel vision and how things seem to occur in slow motion. I experienced this firsthand. As the arm snaked around my neck, time started moving very slowly. It seemed as if I had all the time in the world. As I had been taught in the dojo, I tucked my head and turned it to the right. Simultaneously I grabbed the attacker's arm and extended my right arm straight in front of me. DePasquale Shihan's teaching came back to me - "when performing a rear elbow strike be sure and grab air". I calmly grabbed air and struck backwards with my elbow. There was the satisfying feel of elbow against a body and I turned to the right, intending to break the right arm. Unfortunately, my attacker was trying to choke me with his LEFT arm, not the right arm as I had practiced against in the dojo. Instead of an entangled right arm, my attacker was about 10 feet away from me, clutching his right side.
In the past, whenever it seemed like there was the possibility of a violent encounter, I would experience fear, bordering on panic. Now, in the middle of an actual fight, I felt almost unnaturally calm. There was no fear, no panic. I took in the situation before me. There were two young men. The smaller one was on my right, about 10 feet back and in pain. The larger one was on my left, and I noticed that both men were looking at me. My co-worker was on his right, in the larger man's blind spot. I very purposely kept his attention on me in order to allow my friend to get in a blind side attack, should it come to that. The big attacker had his right hand in his jacket pocket. I noticed this. He saw me looking at his hand and slowly withdrew it, showing that there was no weapon in his pocket. The ball was now in my court: attack fast while the one guy was hurting and take out the big one; or be defensive and let them come at me again. Neither option was appealing. No matter which way I chose, someone would get hurt. I mulled it over in my mind. Every eye was on me, waiting for me to make a move. Suddenly a third option came to mind. I decided to try something completely surprising. I took a step toward the big one; I saw him tensing up. Then I did the last thing he suspected. I told him that God did not want us to fight. I held out my right hand. You could see in his face that he was totally dumbfounded. He shook my hand and I told him to go in peace. The gentleman I had elbowed walked up to me and he also shook my hand. Both of the punks walked away. This time I watched them until they were out of sight.
As we headed back to our hotel, my co-worker told me that he was upset about the incident. He said that he was hoping for a demonstration of my martial arts skills. I laughed and told him that he had received one.
Lying alone that night in my hotel room I went over the incident, frame by frame, as if it were a movie reel. My lack of emotional response had really unnerved the thugs. And it had really surprised me. I reviewed my response to the attack and mentally reprimanded myself for the backwards defense. But I also realized that had I responded to the choke appropriately, the young man would have been injured, perhaps seriously. And that would have altered things significantly. As it was, everyone got to go home safely. This is exactly the outcome our sensei had told us to aim for. As I lay there, tossing and turning, I thought to myself, "could I use this on the street?" And the answer to that was an unequivocal "yes".
The writer is one of the dojo's long-time, now former, students. This essay was posted in November 2012.