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Winter of a Fighting Life
A Kinetic Memoir

From Chapter 5: Gray Soup [brains, eyes and neck]

Kinetic Diary Entry


I was washing the stubble that now passes for hair on my aged pasty dome today—and it hurt! Oh, that’s right; I took a stick stroke to my unprotected skull yesterday. I suppose that at least this is the chapter where I should be forgetting things.

Lately we have been using fencing masks. There is a small gap were the upper back portion of your skull can be hit on either side between the rim and the flange. This usually only occurs when we are doing stick and dagger and one fighter does a shifting stab with his dagger as the other does a forehand pass with the stick.

There is some local pain, a knot and a little throbbing and numbness radiating to the left ear. This was like being punched in the back of the head by a fast-handed welterweight.

The Misadventures of a Monkey Brain

That stick hit in sparring yesterday has got me considering the many incidents in which I have been struck in the unprotected skull with a hard object. Perhaps a brief litany of mishaps might round out this record of head trauma more comprehensively than I would have liked. I have taken a few accidental strokes in dojos from oak bokens, wax wood rods, and hardwood nunchakus. Likewise I have, over the years, banged my head against my share of metal shelving.

I must say that the human skull seems to be reasonably durable. In general, as with ribs, it is much nastier to get punched than it is to get whacked with a light harder weapon. Taking a head hit with a heavy object, such as a crowbar, is out of the question. Also, a light hard object moving fast enough, and having a small enough surface area, will punch a hole right through the skull.

Hunting Bro

As children my brother and I were primarily interested in extreme sports of the do-it-yourself variety, which as often as not constituted hunting each other. Oops I just remember that I forgot the broken arm I suffered at six as we were playing lions and tigers, and he came crawling around the base of the refrigerator and I jumped off the top on all fours landing like a cat, save for the lack of cat body parts…This is the brain damage chapter so it is okay to forget, and to keep that account in the wrong chapter…

Bro, Donny and Lucky and I decided to hunt each other with rocks and air rifles. Reminded of parental nagging about blindness due to mishaps we put on goggles, and little else.

Donny was on my side and promptly went home, since we drew the rock round first, and Bro and Lucky were armed with a Daisy lever action and a Crossman 760 pump action, which we had promised to only pump twice. When you pumped a Crossman up 15 times it was effectively a .22 carbine, which we used to kill small animals and birds as large as crows and rabbits.

Our hunt quickly turned into a battle as they lay down fire from the top of the hill below our parents’ hillside driveway and I attempted an assault from tree-to-tree. I was wearing a knit hat and shorts. The leg shots stung. Then I winged a rock and caught Bro in the head. That was it. I heard the Crossman pump five times. I darted for the next tree and a beebee sunk into my leg. I threw another rock and took a headshot, the bee-bee passing right through the knit cap. These kind of impacts just pissed me off and I continued my Russian like assault on the better armed boys uphill.

I do not remember who won this battle, but I do remember Bro in a panic as he saw all of the bee-bees in my legs, one even stuck under the scalp of my head. He quickly got out Dad’s pliers and Mom’s tweezers and got to work. He removed all of the evidence and I swore, after this fine medical treatment, to claim I had fallen in the woods.

Life as an Oyster

I was once attacked by two meth-heads. The beating of my skull with the knuckles had no effect on me so the lead attacker grabbed my head and began slamming it against the corner of the galvanized steel shelving against which I had landed when tackled from behind while working. This was no more shocking or debilitating than the punches. It did worry me though because I could see blood from my head squirting over his shoulder. After my head was stapled up in the emergency room the residual pain was immense; one of my worst headaches ever, but scalp ripping and skull denting had no effect on the progress of the attack.

Again, if the skull is not actually staved in, or the brain beneath swollen from the impact of a head hit, the most dangerous aspect of being hit there is the disorientation caused by brain tilting, brain rotation, or short-circuiting of the nerves travelling down the cervical spinal cord. The distinctive pinch of the crimped steel scrapping away my scalp and the metal ring of the shelf is still with me, haunting my body. But the impact was not effective.

From Chapter 9: The Most Decorated Fighter [skin and blood vessels]

Dancing with the Stick God

I contacted Aaron Seligson by phone to set up sparring, not knowing he was the #2 WEKAF middleweight in the world; just thinking him another local escrima instructor. I was comforted by the fact that, up until then, I hit harder than the escrima people I had fought and sparred with. I knew he would be more skilled than I because he taught this stuff, but remained confident that it would be an even exchange.

I should have known what I was in for when his assistant looked at me wearing only head, hands, knees and elbows and blurted, “Oh God Aaron, get the waiver!”

I showed up at his school with my roommate, who seemed put off by how tall and young he was. When she voiced her concern before I went out on the mat with him I reassured her, “Don’t worry, if he starts getting to me, I’ll crank up the power.”

We sparred for 20 minutes and came back to the observation area for a brief break. She looked at me and said, “Wow, you guys are going so fast I can’t keep up. How is it going?”

I said, “He is a lot faster than me.”

She squinted, “Oh, I’m sorry.”

Then I laughed, and patted her leg, “And he hits a hell of a lot harder!”

She put her hands to her mouth, “Oh no, James!” and I went back out to the slaughter.

His iron handshake had been one clue. The marked up punching bags had been another clue.

The beating had been conclusive.

When he hit me in the kidney it felt like my blood turned to battery acid. I had never felt impacts like this. Before I detail the complete beating, let me relate two tales of Aaron’s power.

A few lessons later my roommate decided she could not witness any more beatings so she sat in her car, in the winter time, 200 yards across the parking lot. Aaron and I ended the workout striking the bag. When he hit the bag it sounded like thunder in the dojo. We had the door open. When I got into the car later my roommate told me that she had had a hard time reading because it seemed somebody was beating a drum or doing construction work in the building. When I told her that that thunderous sound was him hitting the bag, she looked at my striped and welted arms in horror and said, “And you are still alive—he hits you like that! Oh James, never come back—please!”

The other story was Brett, Steve, Adam, Charles and I taking a lesson from Aaron. We all hit the bag; except Steve, the infamous Man in the Hat, still deciding if he wanted to try this ‘insanity’. Then Aaron hit the bag. When I looked at their faces, the understanding being that we would be sparring with him, I saw Charles shaking his head in dismay, dreading the beating to come; Brett smiling with glee, imagining that being him someday; Adam looking for a bucket to puke in, having done the velocity calculus in his mind; and Steve, with a look of horror on his face.

Steve recently told me, “Look, I really was thinking of joining Brett [his son] and taking up stick fighting with you nuts. But when he [Aaron] hit that bag, all thought I ever had of trying stick fighting went completely out the window. I don’t even want to know—have no desire to even fathom—what that kind of pain is like. Fuck that!”

Well, I have fathomed it, and that kind of pain is breathtaking. When a man hits you that hard anywhere, it causes a fleeting paralysis; a momentary sense of intense otherness. When he keeps hitting you that hard your nervous system gets overloaded; and you can’t even get your mind’s commands down to your hands and feet. I did manage to fight through, only being stopped in about half of our bouts, and even hitting him enough to make my beating a dance rather than a drum rehearsal. However, after 30 bouts and 40 minutes of freestyle sparring over four two hour sessions, I settled down to paying him to teach rather than beat me.

For a month, I spent every minute that I was not on the bus, at work, or getting beaten by Aaron on Sunday morning, laying in bed recovering. The bruising was so extensive it exhausted me. I recall, after the first session, having eleven bruises on my right shoulder alone. For that month I always had at least 35 deep, dark raised bruises. Just wearing clothes hurt really bad!

I was so out of it one day that I barely remember letting the crazy Puerto Rican chick I was giving boxing lessons to in the front door. Somehow I staggered back to my room with her. The next thing I knew I was sitting on the edge of my bed while she danced in front of me…

I nodded out, then woke to her slapping my slack jaw, “What, you don’t like tits all of a sudden!”

I began kissing her and then woke again, my head hanging slackly between her hands while I drooled on my feet, her shrill voice, angry and disappointed, “I came here to get laid! Where is that fucking dyke roommate of yours?”

When I woke again it was dark and I discovered with a note of relief that my cruel mistress had left me intact, and my roommate was safely watching Jeopardy in the living room. I drifted back off to sleep with pitiless visions of a pizza delivery boy tied to a bedpost in my stead comforting me in my Aaron-induced coma.

So, at the extreme end of the spectrum, stick bruising can debilitate you. I could have never done that every day, or even every other day. It literally took me a week of bed rest to get out there with him again after each beating. As brutal as it was, I at least knew that I was special; that few had been—or would be—the men that would experience this without body armor. I was participating in art, even if only just as the canvas to his paintbrush.

I am glad I did it. But today I doubt my ability to take that level of punishment and still hang in there. In my mind’s eye, my fighting life has definitely entered the season of its end; the Winter of Fortitude.

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