Note: It is the policy of SKA that every newcomer to Special Training should be adequately informed and prepared by their instructor. In the 30+ years that the SKA Black Belt Council has been organizing Special Trainings, Norman Welch is the only person known to me who ever went in blind.
I started training in 1964 with a group run by Mr. Tsuroka in Toronto. In 1969, when I was already a nidan (2nd degree black belt), I met Yasunori Ono, and practiced with him for a few months. In 1970 I left Toronto and moved to Vancouver. I invited Ono to come out and visit me, and in the spring of '71 he did.
While we were in Toronto Ono had never said anything much about Mr. Ohshima, but as soon as I picked up Ono at the airport he started to tell me that I should meet this guy Ohshima--a really high level guy. When I was a kid I used to read about Mr. Ohshima in Black Belt magazine; that was all I knew about him, not much except that he was a famous guy. That spring Mr. Ohshima and Ono went to France together. Later Ono wrote me a note and said "I talked to Mr. Ohshima about you and arranged for you to go and visit him, and he's expecting to hear from you."
So I called Mr. Ohshima and told him that Ono had introduced me, and that we practiced together, and said "I'd like to come down and meet you."
He said, "That's good, but right now I'm really busy. In the summertime we get together and go away to a private school to practice; that would be a good time to come down. I'll have time to talk to you then."
I said, "okay." I didn't know it was a Special Training.
Then Ono wrote me another note saying "Maybe you should run a little before you go." But he didn't tell me anything about the practices. Nobody told me anything about the practices.
That year Lee Muhl, now a really famous godan (fifth degree black belt) in SKA, arranged Special Training in the Ojai Valley in the desert near Santa Barbara. After selecting the place he went away to law school in San Francisco and didn't come to that Special Training. Ojai is really hot, and this Special Training was in August which made it even more unbearable, especially for a Canadian. We had Special Training there only once.
Sensei had said "Come on down, I'll send someone to pick you up." Again I had no idea what I was getting into. Joe Aqui picked me up at the airport and took me down to Long Beach where I stayed with Frank Cole and Joe--these were the first people I met in SKA. They started leaking information about Special Training, and all I could say was, "no kidding!" In the group that I practiced with, if you did five kata in a row that was a lot. Frank and Joe started telling me about standing in horse stance. They said we stand "for awhile," but they didn't say how long.
So we went up to Ojai. I hadn't met Sensei yet, I just knew these two guys. When we drove up there, we picked up another guy, Ron Thom; that was the beginning of the long friendship I have with Ron. Sensei put us in the same room together at Special Training. He knew I was going to need some help.
I've never experienced heat like Ojai Valley. To get to the private school we had to drive up this long, long road that turned into a dirt road before we finally arrived at this sort of oasis. Sensei was coming that night, so at the time he was supposed to arrive we all gathered to wait for him. I think there were less than 50 people--I never saw so many black belts. Of course I didn't know they were black belts, they just looked like a bunch of thugs. I was 25, and Sensei was 40. Of course I thought 40 was ancient, so when I saw Sensei for the first time, I was shocked. He looked about 30. When he got out of his car, it was like he had springs on his feet. Whooah! I was really impressed. He seemed to bounce, not walk.
The next morning, five or six o'clock, someone came and BANG BANG BANG! on the door. We leaped out of bed, lined up to practice. Someone said "Okay, we're gonna run down this road."
"Wait a minute," I said. "Running shoes?"
"No, no running shoes." And it was a bloody gravel road. Sheez! So we're running down this road and I'm going through the rocks thinking "I'm in deep trouble." I had no idea what was going to happen. I heard these crazy guys muttering "I didn't come here to be last!" They were on their way back, and I was still trying to negotiate the rocks on the road.
Panic set in at that point.
I remember kibadachi practice We lined up on the field, made a big circle, everybody made kibadachi (horse-riding stance). I made kibadachi, and was thinking "Hmmm. I wonder how long we're here for?" Nobody told me. Flies were landing on me. I was looking around, looking at the sky, the hills, anything to get my mind off my legs. Some people were having a really hard time, falling down and getting back up again. I thought I was doing a good job, but I realize now I was probably standing in a good natural stance.
In those days we didn't know about midnight practice; they didn't tell you, and at that time very few people had experience with Special Trainings. At the introductions people like Caylor Adkins stood up and said they had twelve Special Training, and everyone said "Oooooo, twelve Special Trainings!"
So I was fast asleep in my bunk, then suddenly the door flew open: BAM! "Get up! Get up!" The school at Ojai is on the top of a hill. We were standing there looking down at the field, and people started muttering "rattlesnakes, rattlesnakes."
Now everybody was worried, so they took a car out to the middle of the field, and drove it around in a spiral to make sure there were no rattlesnakes on the field. And I was thinking: "These people are nuts!"
Kumite practice was really really scary, too. We did ten of each of the Heian katas, then an hour and a half of three-time engagement match. I remember John Teramoto was beside me, and people who came to me were literally in tears--brown belts, black belts. John Teramoto was hammering these guys, slapping them around and yelling at them. At this point I thought I was the only sane one in the bunch.
But I also remember writing in my diary, "These people have a really strong spirit. I want some of this spirit." What I had been practicing wasn't anything like this.
During kumite practice, Albert Kubota passed out. We were moving down the line, and I was facing Floyd Herbert. I don't know if any of you know Floyd Herbert. He lived in Arizona; used to ride his motorcycle to Special Training. He was asthmatic, and he used to run with his inhaler, wheezing down the road. And he was only about 5 feet tall, but he scared the hell out of me.
So Floyd is facing me, and I hear someone shouting: "Sensei, Sensei! Something is wrong with Albert!" Albert had passed out-- first he ran down to the end of the line, then he passed out, but he wouldn't fall down. Sensei looks at Albert, lays Albert done, gets him on the ground, and after a long time was able to resuscitate him. I was a bit distracted until Floyd grabbed me and started yelling at me to continue the kumite practice.
There was another guy--I think it was Richard Nitta--he was wacky, too. I looked over at Richard and he was attacking YAAAAAH! three times with one arm, because he had broken his arm or something. He just stuffed his damaged arm inside his gi and kept going.
It's a good thing I had been practicing with Ono--some of you know him by reputation--because facing Ono I learned to get the heck out of the way. Some guys were impressed with that. But I was so scared, I wasn't staying in the ma for anything; I was outa there! They said, "Oh, pretty good! You can move!"
After about two days Sensei told me "Come to my room and we'll chat." (If you ever get a chance, ask him about Norman's first Special Training, it's one of the best stories he tells.) He said, "Your eyes have cleared up a little bit. You had a sort of crying face for two days, but now it's cleared up. So we should talk."
I asked him some stupid questions like why do we practice kata, and probably a few more that I have chosen to forget. I didn't know what to expect from him, but we chatted a bit. I remember thinking, "he's pretty calm about this whole thing."
Later on, after Special Training I went to his house and he invited me to join SKA. Ono had promoted me a bit, saying I should join SKA. I had come to Special Training just to see what was happening, and now I was more than a bit impressed, but I didn't quite know what to do about my old group. That was late August. That fall I resigned from Mr. Tsuroka's group. I had a meeting with the University of British Columbia Karate Club members and asked them what they wanted to do: to go with me into SKA, or to stay where they were. I don't know how they decided-- maybe flipped a coin--but in the end they said "we'll go with you." So in '71 we joined SKA and in '72 formed Canada Shotokan Karate.
At Special Training I thought about leaving, but I didn't know which was more dangerous: trying to find my way out through the rattlesnakes to a place where I could get away, or stay and tough it out. Fortunately I was rooming with Ron, and Ron was a big help.
I was really impressed by the huge contrast: here we were going to practice and almost killing each other, and then after practice you'd sit outside, and there would be a guy playing a guitar, and it was almost like being in paradise. I remember one time I was eating some fruit. You know fruit in southern California is nothing like fruit in Canada--totally different. So I was sitting there eating and thinking "this is absolutely insane," and suddenly I burst out laughing. When Ron Thom tells the story he says that at that moment he thought: "Yeah, Norman will be all right."
Note: Norman Welch is now a godan living in Vancouver, and president of Canada Shotokan. He provided to me a copy of the newsletter reporting on this Special Training. It says: "SUMMER TORTURE. Summer Special Training was held Aug. 26-30 at Ojai, Calif. See attached list for names of idiots who attended. It was very very hot but the food was good. People came from even Canada and Delaware. Aren't you sorry that you didn't go? Everyone was impressed by Albert Kubota's strong practice. Albert passed out in standing form after Monday morning's fifty kata and hour-and- a-half sanbon kumite."
On the top of the newsletter is a hand-written note by Mr. Ohshima to Norman: "Dear Norman; How's everything in Canada? I hope that you recovered completely from the Special Training now. Oh, I forgot to say thank you very much for your letter. I'm very appreciated [sic] that you and Pete wants to join us. Welcome to American Shotokan. (until, someday we'll establish Canada Shotokan.) All details will be discussed when I visit you, maybe around 3rd week of November. Please contact me anytime, when you need my advice. Practice hard! Sept 19, 1971, L.A. Tsutomu Ohshima."