Training in Hapkido, Watching Billy Jack and becoming a sheepdog

On the East Coast and West Coast, schools had been emerging and multiplying since the mid-1960s, but those of us who lived in "flyover country" had few opportunities to broaden our understanding of arts like karate, kung fu, judo and taekwondo.

At Union University in my hometown of Jackson, Tennessee, I'd been fortunate to train from 1969 to 1970 in the then little-known art of hapkido. In a field-house basement, a Korean student and former captain in the ROK Army known only as Mr. Suh organized and taught the system to a small group of dedicated students. Suh ran a no-nonsense traditional class, and for 10 months, we couldn't get enough of his instruction. Despite the bruises and the blood, we always looked forward to our next session.


Fellow student Ivy Scarborough put it this way: "Mr. Suh was trained in an environment that was very much 'real world' and where survival was at stake. I am very glad we had the benefit of that mindset."

When Suh unexpectedly returned to Korea in the fall of 1970, we were devastated. How could we continue our training? Kang Rhee had a taekwondo school in Memphis where Elvis Presley and Bill Wallace had studied, but that was 80 miles away. As a young man working his way through college, I could afford neither the time nor the tuition. Without an instructor, I turned to books, magazines (Black Belt being the primary one), television and movies to learn about any style I could find.

Around that time, a seminal movie appeared, and it compelled me to wrestle with some tough questions about my future. I ultimately wound up re-evaluating my career choice.

Cinematic Inspiration

After conceiving of the storyline, Tom Laughlin began filming Billy Jack in 1969, and the movie hit theaters in 1971. The moment I saw it, I was impressed by the fight scenes. Apparently, many others were, as well — the movie grossed an unprecedented $40 million. For me, though, Billy Jack carried a special meaning for several reasons.

First, the hero's techniques were nearly identical to the ones Suh had taught us. Until that point, few Americans even knew what hapkido was. Stunt adviser/coordinator Bong Soo Han changed all that when he brought the art to the big screen via Laughlin.

Second, Billy Jack made an impression on me for a much deeper reason, one that I suspect was the opposite of what the producers had hoped for. In the movie, we see a communal Native American school in the desert Southwest operated by what can best be described as "make love, not war" hippies left over from the '60s. Being pacifists, they're constantly besieged by bigots and racists who insult them, demean them and assault them. (Laughlin did an excellent job shining a light on the abuse and poverty that many Native Americans faced at that time and, sadly, that many still do.)

Photo Courtesy of International Hapkido Federation

Fortunately, the Native Americans have Billy Jack, a former Green Beret Vietnam vet, to watch over them. Throughout the movie, he employs his hapkido skills to deliver a series of well-deserved beatdowns to the redneck lawmen and bullies. The irony of the situation is that the movie is supposed to be a call for peace and nonviolence, yet the only way the school and the pacifists can survive is if Billy Jack uses violence to protect them.

I found myself relating more to Billy Jack and his violent solutions to the problems than to the peaceful, nonviolent folks. Given that I was majoring in religion, psychology and theology, that said a lot about the path I was laying out for my life.

Literary Inspiration

In their book On Combat, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman and Loren Christensen talk about three kinds of people in the world: sheep, wolves and sheepdogs. Most people are sheep, they explain: "kind, decent people who are not capable of hurting each other except by accident or under extreme provocation."

The authors also recognize the existence of wolves, or people who behave as predators and "feed on the sheep without mercy." Pretending the wolves don't exist or failing to prepare to deal with them condemns the sheep to slaughter. Fortunately, there are sheepdogs: police officers, soldiers and others in society who protect the sheep from the wolves.

In the movie, Billy Jack is a sheepdog. His willingness to use measured violence guarantees the peace-and-love crowd the opportunity to exist.

Just as I drew a different conclusion from the movie than the producers likely intended, I also had an alternative view of the movie's theme song, One Tin Soldier.

A 1960s anti-war tune written by Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter, it delivered a message of nonviolence that seemed to fit well with the movie's concept — or, at least, with the pacifist half of the story. In One Tin Soldier, the aggressive valley people (wolves) demand the treasure owned by the mountain people (sheep), who kindly offer to share with their brothers "all the secrets of [their] mountain and all the riches buried there." But being wolves, the valley people are not satisfied with that, so they mount up, draw their swords and butcher the peaceful mountain people. When they uncover the treasure, it simply reads, "Peace on earth."

There won't be any trumpets blowin
'Come the judgment day
On the bloody morning after
One tin soldier rides away.

It's a beautiful song with a lovely melody and a sentimental message. Sadly, it addresses none of the realities of the world. You see, after I watched Billy Jack and listened to One Tin Soldier, it seemed that the problem in the song was not so much the valley people/wolves who were behaving according to human nature. The problem was the mountain people/sheep who, in their naiveté, failed to protect themselves. A basic distrust of their "brothers" below, along with a little preparation and training to defend themselves, would have saved lives and preserved the peace they held so dear.

Not coincidentally, that notion serves us well in the real world, too.

Photo Courtesy of Taylor-Laughlin Productions

Works CitedGrossman, Dave and Christensen, Loren. On Combat. Warrior Science Publications 2004.One Tin Soldier. Coven Lyrics. METROLYRICS. metrolyrics.com/one-tin-soldier-lyrics-coven.htmlPeople Sleep. Quote Investigators: Exploring the Origins of Quotations. quoteinvestigator.com/2011/11/07/rough-men/Scarborough, Ivy. Email exchange with the author. August 22, 2007Historical Inspiration

I doubt Tom Laughlin, who passed away in 2013 at age 82, would have liked my conclusion about Billy Jack and One Tin Soldier. Yet I felt like I was in good company with my interpretation of both. Consider what author George Orwell said: "Men can only be highly civilized while other men, inevitably less civilized, are there to guard and feed them."A similar concept, most likely derived from a Rudyard Kipling poem, reads, "People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf." (People Sleep)After contemplating Billy Jack, I decided that they could keep the tie-dye T-shirts and misplaced pacifism. I would take the hero's hapkido, indomitable spirit, and sense of duty and justice every time. In a nutshell: If a person has no capacity for violence, he or she is a healthy, productive citizen — and a sheep. If a person has a capacity for violence but no empathy for fellow citizens, he or she is a sociopath — a wolf.But what if a person has a capacity for violence and a deep love for other citizens? Then that person is a sheepdog, a warrior. Someone who's walking the hero's path. Someone who can walk into the heart of darkness, into the universal human phobia, and emerge unscathed. (Grossman and Christensen, 181)

Real-Life Inspiration

By 1974 I wanted to walk into that darkness far more than I wanted to stand outside in the light and applaud others who dared to enter. So I became a soldier.

During the next 30 years, the nomadic lifestyle of a soldier made training in a single martial art impossible. So, from a cold dojo in Alaska to the steamy jungles of Central America and the gritty sand of Southwest Asia, I determined to make a virtue out of necessity.

In Colorado during the 1980s, I trained in judo and taekwondo. The 1990s found me under the tutelage of a taekwondo grandmaster in Kentucky. While living in Virginia, I was fortunate to train in the direct lineage of Ip Man's wing chun. Today, I teach self-defense in Florida and, of course, I continue to train.

A few years ago, after a rather intense "light contact" sparring session, my opponent observed the following about me: "You kick like a Korean, punch like an Okinawan, grapple like a Japanese and move to engage like a Chinese." Being a purist when it comes to style, he meant it as a veiled insult. I chose to take it as a compliment.

In his poem Ulysses, Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote, "I am a part of all I have met." How true. I owe so much to all those who have guided me on my martial arts sojourn. As I stealthily maneuver toward age 70, it's been more than 50 years since the first night I bowed in to Suh's hapkido class in that musty basement. Despite all the training I've experienced, my thoughts often harken back to him.

If I ever encounter Mr. Suh again, I will thank him for introducing me to hapkido and the warrior way that led me to the life of a sheepdog.

James D. Brewer is a retired U.S. Army officer, writer, lecturer, teacher and lifelong warrior. Over the past 50 years, he's trained in hapkido, shorei-goju karate, judo, taekwondo, Army combatives and wing chun. A former instructor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, he teaches writing at Polk State College in Florida. This article is excerpted from his upcoming book Seeking an Indomitable Spirit: Lessons Learned From My 50-Year Sojourn in the Martial Arts.

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