The Early Days

To get to Boise from Portland you travel east, but when you get there you become aware that you’ve ended up further west—in spirit, anyway—than you were when you started. A dusty little cow town, that’s how I would have described Boise then. Cowboy boots and hat would not have been out of place; outside urban boundaries, dry brown hills hemmed in the town to the north, and a panorama of rock, sand, and sagebrush desert stretched as far as the eye could see to the south. To all outward appearances, this was not exactly a Mecca of Asian martial art, to put it mildly. Arriving in July of 1982, it seemed to me as if the arrow of time itself, to borrow from the language of theoretical physics, had been reversed.

Grandmaster Knife at the Boise dojang in 1984.

Fairview Avenue, where my dojang was situated, was reputed by my host, Boyd Kehler, to be the busiest street in the state of Idaho. I considered the abandoned, cyclone-fenced gas station next door, its formerly paved lot now dirt and gravel and a tangle of briar growth where its tanks had been unearthed and hauled away; as I looked from there to the dusty white cinder-block façade of the 4-store-front strip mall Master Kim had scouted as my new location, I did not doubt one bit that this was indeed the busiest street in all of Idaho.

Not that a certain amount of traffic did not pass by, and it was Sunday, after all. Nevertheless, as I stared out the dojang’s front window, across the diminutive and dilapidated parking lot—huge potholes amid split and heaving asphalt—that I shared with the boot repair next door to the east, the used paperback and comic book store to the west, and Flying Pie Pizza beyond that, the picture needed only a rolling tumble weed or two to render my sense of desolation complete. I had given up my apartment, my job, and the company of my girlfriend for this.

Not that I was without hope. I had reached a point in my life, romantic entanglements notwithstanding, where the future demanded action, and a place was just a place; I had three hundred bucks in my pocket, the use of my brother’s car for the next month, and an abiding conviction that I would be happy doing nothing but practicing and teaching Taekwon-do for the rest of my days. Now, as I looked out that window and sweated just standing there in the 95° heat, the only question was, would I actually be able to earn a living at it?

The space was small, about 250 square feet. I first had to clear it of a faux wood-panel partition that divided the space in half, and then tear out the worn and soggy carpet that covered the original linoleum floor. By the time I had cleared the debris from the room and cleaned the tile, I had a very serviceable workout space. Within two months I would find myself smiling on the day I had to stand in the doorway to watch the 14 students filling the place. Plenty of room. That was October, 1982. By January of 1983, the number was 25 and growing, and after that we never looked back. By June of 1984, given several months of previous experience prior to becoming my students, I was able to create my first two black-belts, one of whom was Boyd Kehler, now a 6th-degree master.

As a living quarters, on the other hand, that original space left much to be desired.

The bathroom I shared with the owners of the boot shop next door. I had known of this arrangement in advance, but the day I arrived I found myself anxious to inspect this region of the premises. The bathroom was located at the end of a brief hall space into which the back doors of both our shops opened. As I exited the dojang and entered this back hallway, I could hear a hammer banging next door as one of the brothers who ran the boot shop nailed a new sole to a leather boot he was repairing, as I soon discovered, amid a cloud of profanity. As I debated whether the time was ripe to introduce myself, I looked into the open door of the bathroom. The place was filthy. Brown smears which I told myself were probably just dust and dirt fouled the sink, the floor, and even the cinder block that formed the building’s rear exterior wall. Beyond the toilet stood an assemblage of dark sheet metal duct work that formed the ancient gas furnace. Standing in the toilet were a pair of boots, brown leather, mid-calf length work boots. I turned and headed for the boot shop. This was definitely the time to introduce myself.

The back door of their shop was open. The young man who was hammering and swearing must have sensed my presence in the doorway because he looked up from the inverted boot sole he was nailing before I had to say a word.

“Hi. I’m the new tenant next door.”
“What can I do for you?”
“Those your boots in the toilet?”
“Yeah. We like to wash the dirt off the boots in there before we work on ‘em.”
“Well, I don’t have a problem with that, but I’m here now, and I’m planning on using that thing as a bathroom.”

I didn’t tell him I was actually going to be living in the place.

“No problem, no problem, I’ll just get ‘em out of there.”

He put his work down and brushed past me. I followed him.

“I didn’t mean now.”
“That’s OK. They should be done by now anyway.”

He got the boots, shook the water off them and onto the floor, reentered his shop, and closed the door without another word.

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