A fatherless boy in no man’s land, Rannoch Donald immersed himself in martial arts to become invincible.
I paced the street outside the YMCA for almost thirty minutes, counting down the seconds until the beginner’s class began. I had butterflies as I watched capable people confidently enter the building.
Age 12: I stood in my navy tracksuit pants and a white t-shirt surrounded by other kids in crisp white Karate suits and a rainbow of coloured belts. New kid on the block. Everything about this environment was alien. And as the class moved in perfect synchronisation I did everything just to follow. My eyes watched their every move. I felt theirs on me. But it was okay. It was okay. I was home.
Chronology is not my strong suit but I do know that in the early 70s, between the ages of 9 and 12, I lived in no man’s land. My father, one of the first recipients of an artificial heart valve, passed away a few months before my tenth birthday, leaving behind five children. A chimerical figure, working nights as the editor on our local newspaper, he is etched on my mind, sitting in his easy chair wearing a pair of oversized 1970’s head phones, conducting an imaginary orchestra or singing along in his sweet tenor. And even now, very occasionally, I hear his voice. A distant, gentle whisper in my ear.
We had not long ago moved from the centre of the City to the suburbs so my father would be within easy walking distance of his job. With old friends gone and a new school to settle in to, though only a 15-minute bus ride into town, it felt like we had been dropped behind enemy lines.
I had all the mother’s love I could wish for but I had few consistent male figures in my formative years. Of all my uncles, only one offered any comfort. Funny enough, the only one to not have children of his own, he made me a fishing spear, gave me a pen knife, let me row his boat on the lake by their house. And then at the age of twelve, something remarkable happened.
A lone figure appeared on a distant sandy dune, walking aimlessly across the horizon. A Shaolin monk, stranger in a strange land, a fellow traveler with incredible skills the like of which I had never seen. It is impossible to convey the effect that a weekly episode of the TV series “Kung Fu” had on me and countless others. It was only a matter of time before I had the bittersweet discovery of finding Bruce Lee. No sooner was he here than he was gone. But I watched the movies, bought the magazines, mimicked the moves and imagined myself invincible.
My search began in earnest. Like almost everyone I know who came to martial arts as an adolescent, we went not because we were fearless but because we were scared. Whatever these real life heroes had, I wanted some of it. No grading or sparring session would ever be as terrifying as stepping into the training hall that first time.
Sensei Ronnie Watt*, then a 3rd Dan Shotokan instructor was my introduction to the Way of the Warrior. Sensei Watt embodied everything I was looking for. In wide lapels and flared jeans he was sharp, funny, confident, committed, he could kick butt and he had the respect of everyone in the room.
Through Karate and Sensei Watt’s guidance I had found something I could be good at. I had never been much of a team player at sports, never excelled at soccer, Scotland’s national sport. With Karate, I had something that was precious, mine. I chose for that first year to keep my newfound passion to myself, a secret. Better to work away, week by week, belt by belt, until I was ready to unleash my deadly skills.
Sensei Watt encouraged me to attend every class and cared not whether I had the money. When I grew out of my first Gi he gave me a new one. Not the light cotton standard issue everyone was required to wear, this suit was heavy weight, stiff and crisp, making just the right sound with each kick and reverse punch.
I worked my way through the belts, in awe of the visiting Japanese instructors who came to grade our progress. Senseis Enoeda, Kawasoe and Kato: these men were legends in my world. Before long I was good enough to train with the senior grades and started doing double classes three times a week, even occasionally helping teach new students at the mixed classes on Sunday afternoons.
After all this time and effort, what had changed? Was I a lethal machine, with Bruce Lee’s sculpted body, Caine’s calm exterior, the steely eyes of a seasoned fighter? No. More important than any of this: I didn’t have fear. I walked a little taller, breathed a little deeper. I met your eyes and I smiled.
I have had many exceptional teachers, coaches and instructors over the years but none was more encouraging and accepting than Sensei Watt. Whatever qualities he possessed I remember him most as kind and generous and he instilled in me a sense of self-respect, dignity and discipline that has stayed with me since.
It is clear to me that every one of us goes through periods of doubt, of fear, of looking to belong and be accepted and acknowledged. Every single person you pass on the street is doing the best with what they have. We mistake a downcast gaze for indifference when most often it is the fear of connecting.
The only person who could get me through that door on that first day was me. But I learned that beyond that door there are people who will welcome you with open arms. In fact they are waiting, patiently.
*Sensei Watt, OBE, Order of the Rising Sun, 8th Dan Hanchi, is the founder of the National Karate Institute.
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Images courtesy of the author