The Road Less Traveled

IMG_0832Today would have been Sensei Sherman Harrill’s 76th birthday.  I sometimes wonder how many folks truly realize just how unique a gift he left us with when he finally lost his battle with cancer in 2002.

On May 6th, Eddie Satterfield hosted Sensei John Kerker for the annual seminar in Maynardville, Tennessee. This seminar, in a loose way, carries on a Tennessee tradition started by me when I brought Sensei Harrill to Clinton, Tennessee in 1996.  We held that seminar the 3rd weekend in March each year up until Sensei died. (This did keep me in hot water with my family because often the seminar date fell on my daughter’s birthday. I guess I should have thought that through a little more.)

Darren Gilbert and Sensei Sherman Harrill

Those seminars (as well as others I traveled to held in places like Champaign, Illinois … Carson, Iowa … Chicago, Illinois … Pontiac, Michigan) had a profound influence on me. When Sensei passed away in 2002, I think we went perhaps a year without a seminar. Then we started bringing in his senior student, John Kerker, to continue the seminar series.

Sensei Harrill had left his dojo and everything that entailed to John.  As is often the case, several “instructors” tried to move in and usurp that role … claiming that, since they had higher rank, or their own organizations, or special friendships with Sensei Harrill, etc., John should join their “group” under them.   But, what they did not have was the actual skill, knowledge or character to fill those shoes. They did not have the many years John spent in that dojo. Many of them just liked to hang around and have their photos taken with Sensei. John stepped up and assumed the task left to him by Sensei Harrill, and while those were very big shoes to fill, fill them he did.

Sensei Kerker has done a great job. When John took over doing the seminars for us, maybe in 2004, he might not have been quite at the same skill level as Sensei Sherman Harrill, but I think he was actually a better teacher. Sensei Harrill was not much on explaining things. He just did not seem to have the knack for explaining things that John has. Sensei Harrill showed you … it hurt … you tried it.  And you kept trying it until you figured it out. That was not bad! But, John added an additional element.  He shows you … it hurts dang near as much … you try it … John analyzes and explains what you were doing wrong … you try it again. For me, at least, that adds a lot.

Sensei John Kerker and Darren Gilbert

Sensei Kerker has definitely come into his own over the years and I would now hate to try and say which of them now has, or had, more skill.

Sometimes life gets in the way and, unfortunately, I had to stop hosting the seminars, and I have since moved to North Carolina. Sensei Eddie Satterfield has picked the Tennessee seminar back up and has hosted it several years now. I am very glad he did … as are several other people. I hope at some time in the future, we can bring Sensei Kerker to North Carolina for seminars as well.

On May 6th, Sensei John Kerker gave a great seminar covering several techniques from kata … focusing on not getting hit, controlling the distance, disrupting your attacker’s balance, and proper timing in executing technique. It was excellent and, as always, I learned something new or was reminded of some important information I had forgotten. There is so much you can learn from Kata if you study them correctly and have the right teacher.  I been been in many Isshin-ryu dojos over the years, and what we do is pretty unique.

So, what is unique about the karate we do?

Sensei Darren Gilbert and student

We do not spar in the common sense of the word. I once did.  I originally came up in an Isshin-ryu dojo where we learned the kata to earn belt rank. Then we put pads on and sparred in the ring for points. Self-defense was something we made up as we went along and most of it was pretty bad. Nobody knew what kata was really for. We knew kata taught us balance, coordination, timing, etc. And, while all that is certainly true … kata are so much more than that. They are essentially a physical encyclopedia of the principles and techniques of karate.

I was actually ready to quit once I get my 2nd Dan.  I read a lot … and had read about the history of karate and what the Okinawan karate masters were capable of.  I had seen none of that. Either the histories I had read were all a bunch of hooey or none of karate instructors I had yet met and trained with actually knew any karate!

Enter Sherman Harrill.  The first time I saw him give a real seminar my jaw nearly hit the floor. He was demonstrating what I had, until that day, only read about.  So, I started over. I traveled to many seminars and eventually became one of his students. For me, that was a real honor … the honor of a lifetime. I worked hard to change and improve my karate.

A critical moment came for me when I  tested for my 3rd Dan. I passed with flying colors, but there was one caveat. The testing board told me I had to undo all the changes I had made in my karate from working with Sensei Harrill. I though about that and decided I simply could not do that. That forced me to make the difficult decision of changing instructors. Telling Sensei Allen Wheeler I was leaving was also one of the hardest things I ever had to do. I always liked and respected Allen Wheeler very much. He was a good man and had been very good to me and helped me in many ways. I just needed my karate to take a different path. It was also one of the proudest days of my life when Sensei Harrill said “Welcome aboard!”

Not many will like or appreciate the way we train.  It hurts.  I have learned over the years that pain is actually a very good teacher. Notice … I said pain … not injury! Karate is, after all, a striking art.  So, you have to be willing to hit and to get hit hard enough to understand the mechanics of the techniques … why and how they work.  You have to understand what the techniques do to you and you have to understand the real results of the technique on your attacker. Your targets are very often the areas which are off-limits in sport karate. So, it is a rather small group … those who train like we do. I am sure there are other groups like ours training here and there in many other traditional arts. It does slowly seem to be growing as folks lose interest in the “Hollywood fluff” offered by way too many karate schools today.

Darren Gilbert and Sensei Sherman Harrill

Folks, it is very much a buyer beware situation out there in the world of martial arts schools.

I am not really knocking sport karate. There are some good sport karate schools out there. It that is what you want to do, that is fine. It is certainly your interests and your choices that matter. I know some folks who are very good at it and they are tough competitors. But the keyword here is “competitor!” It is a sport … and there are rules (which sometimes do vary). Certain target areas are off-limits. For instance, no kicking below the belt, no attacking small joints, no head contact, sweeps only allowed on the front leg, etc. There are absolutely no rules in a dark alley way mugging, an attempted rape, during a vicious home-invasion, a terrorist attack, or on a battlefield.

For us, it is just a different flavor of karate. We just train more the way the Okinawan’s trained … you might say a more self-defense orientated approach. We study how to apply the basics and techniques from kata in real-life combat situations … focusing on body mechanics, timing, and developing our weapons with the makiwara.  The Okinawans did not spar … they studied kata. They trained with the makiwara. And, they were pretty deadly fighters.

I considered Sensei my teacher and my friend. He was a marine and tough as nails, but he was also a kind man. I will never forget when that fact was made very clear to me. My students and I had worked very hard to convert an old used-auto parts shop into a dojo. The building belonged to one of my students, Eddy Weaver.  Weaver’s Used Auto Parts had been an institution in Anderson County, Tennessee for decades.

Calvin Parker, Darren Gilbert and Sherman Harrill

We actually finished all but the getting the mats down right before that year’s seminar, so we trained on the freshly painted concrete floor.  I had just gotten the gas heater in the day before the seminar and it ran all night, but that old concrete floor was still very cold that morning. There had been no heat in the building for some time. During the seminar breaks, we all took turns sticking our feet under the gas heater to thaw them out! A few months later some kids playing with fire behind the building, let the fire get away from them and our dojo burned to the ground. Sensei Harrill happened to call that next day just to chat. He would do that fairly often. I told him what had happened and he was genuinely saddened and concerned. He knew how much work we had put into that dojo. A few days later I started to get checks in the mail, boxes of training gear, etc.  He had put the word out to his folks! He was not even my instructor yet! That part came just a bit later.

I will end this post by saying … Thank you, Sensei Harrill … for your gift to those of us who had the honor to be your students. Happy Birthday and Kanpai!

And, … Thank you, Sensei Kerker … for continuing to carry the torch.  I am looking forward to that next seminar!

2017 Maynardville Tennessee Seminar Crew

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