I Was a Teenage Ninja

Well, no I wasn’t. I wasn’t a mutant, either. When I was a teenager, no one in America had heard of ninjas.(1) At that point, they hadn’t even heard of Ninja Turtles.(2)

But let’s back this train up. It all started (for me, not the ninjas) in Philadelphia (for the ninjas, it started in Japan), and ironically, because of trains. I was staying in Hatfield and wanted to visit some friends across town.

“I don’t think you should do that,” said my then-fiancé (now-husband). “You have to change trains. And you have to walk through a scary, dark, underground tunnel in a bad section of town, at night, to get to the other train.”

Needless to say(3), I stuck out my lower lip so far you could stand on it; crossed my arms in front of me like the Great Wall of China,; and glared my special, patented, death-to-you glare. Dan, who is adept at reading body language, correctly interpreted this as, “You can’t tell me what scary, dark, underground tunnels I can or can’t walk through.”

I was going to explain that several times I had spent the night in the Cleveland bus terminal (midnight to six) and survived, but I would have had to admit that I sat in the roped-off area for women and children only(4), so it wasn’t all that scary and I wasn’t all that brave.

Anyway, not being an idiot, I postponed the visit, and made a solemn oath that as soon as I got home, I was going to take a self-defense class, which is what you did back then instead of simply packing heat, which self-defense classes at the time did not recommend.

I checked out the offerings in the local adult education catalog from our local school district. One of the classes listed was Ninjutsu Self-Defense. Hm. Interesting. It was not a “sport” martial art and didn’t require a gi, so I signed up. The instructor was Stephen K. Hayes.(5)

After six weeks of learning various kinds of punching and kicking, plus falling and rolling, I decided to continue training. The only problem was, there was no follow-up course. What there was, was an informal training group that met weekly behind an apartment complex and next to a cemetery.(6) (Later the group became a more formal organization and met in a rented space underneath a strip mall. Very stealthy.) We were early adopters of the butch camo look, with “tiger-stripe” (Vietnam jungle) camo being considered the sexiest variety.(7)

As self-defense, ninjutsu was very practical. It also made a lot more sense to me than the usual women’s self-defense advice and tips so prevalent then (and perhaps even now). You know the kind: Poke your attacker in the eyes. Carry your keys protruding between your fingers for use as a weapon. Go for the gonads. Well. The eye-poke and car keys will ensure a pissed-off attacker and guys expect you to target their junk, so they automatically defend against that. And they don’t have to take classes about protecting the ol’ gonies.

No, the concept was “body weight in motion.” I can easily describe this philosophy. The human knee is a delicate structure that does not willingly go in very many directions. Drop 100+ pounds of anything – sack of potatoes, log, female human – on it in one of those non-standard directions, and the knee will no longer function well. You have not merely a pissed-off attacker, but one that probably cannot limp as fast as you can run screaming for help. Plus, you can make it look like you just slipped and fell on him, which is a good thing if it ever goes to court.(8)

Every summer there was a camp, which was nothing like what they air now on TV “reality” shows. We learned interesting Japanese weapons, such as the bo, hanbo, tanto, shuriken(9), kusari fundo, and (my favorite) the kyoketsu shogei. None of which I tend to carry around, but all of which use principles transferable to modern, everyday items like mops and steak knives and even large-caliber dog leashes. We also learned pressure points and other painful techniques, which are fun, and also work fine against a larger attacker. One year at camp I had the pleasure of watching Masaaki Hatsumi, the little, old Grandmaster, easily maneuver an assistant sensei into the ground and feed him grass while apologizing profusely but insincerely.

Yes, we learned lots of useful things. For me, the most practical technique proved to be editing the club newsletter. It was more of a 16-page non-glossy magazine, and when I applied for my first real editing job, it was prominent among the samples of my work I had to show.

I got the job. And I didn’t even have to feed the interviewer grass.

Now I edit like a ninja. I wield my sword of strikethrough and the red font trails across the screen like pooling blood. I leave sliced paragraphs in my wake, still alive and considerably shorter.

(1) Unless they read James Bond novels, but everyone just went to the movies. Well, not everyone. I didn’t. So I don’t know whether the ninjas played any part in the movies. But they were mentioned in one of the books, which was really my point.
(2) An artist friend of mine said, “You mean children are going to hear the names Donatello and Michelangelo, and think they’re turtles?!!!?”
(3) But I’m going to anyway.
(4) Really.
(5) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_K._Hayes
(6) And you can bet there were many jokes made about that.
(7) See http://www.spoonflower.com/fabric/1678959 for an example. No, I don’t know why an outfit called spoonflower sells camo. Other varieties of camo include woodland (summer or fall), which looks really stupid if you wear it in the desert, which two characters in a movie once did, desert camo, and international orange camo, which sounds really stupid but is actually the best for hunters of color-blind animals like elephants and deer.
(8) It most likely won’t.
(9) Which are nothing like you see in the movies. You cannot kill someone with a shrunken to the forehead (though my husband did once break a garage window with one). They are more for distraction, or, if they’re good and rusty, able to cause death by tetanus, at least back when they were invented and tetanus vaccine wasn’t.

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