Billy Jack

At the behest of my son, I've been taking karate for almost a year. It's been a lot of fun and much easier on my aging body than softball, which was comprehensively an injury factory. I've limped off every ball field in Georgia and Massachusetts, I swear.

It's not perfect though. This past weekend class was taught by a 15-year old black belt. The funny thing about that sentence is that while you might think "black belt" means he had superior karate powers, the "15-year old" was running the show. After an eternity spent staggering through whatever disjointed drills popped into his head every time he got all panicky about what to do next, he apparently decided he could burn up the remaining class time by having us do flag sparring. The way this works is that we each take a pair of flags — short lengths of an old white belt — and tuck them in our belts on either hip. We then get matched up in pairs and for a couple minutes we try to grab each other's flags while defending our own. The point is to teach you to think tactically. And to turn you into a lumbering, sweating Ernest Borgnine.

It's a great exercise when there are other people my size in the room, but on this particular day it was me and a parcel of children. If I chose, I could literally hold some of them off with a palm to the forehead. At my suggestion, I was paired with a scrawny red belt. I figured at least the experience would tell. But I was wrong. The whistle blew; I reached like I was taking a jar of mayonnaise out of the refrigerator and drew my hand back to find I was holding a flag. I turned very far to one side, exposing one of my flags, trying to tempt him into some sharp attacks, but it was like he was being asked to take out the trash. He shuffled around with all the alacrity of a 90-year old hip replacement patient.

Two matches, both against red belts, were both like this. The next victim was a white belt. He had a look on his face like he was getting ready to try to lift a car. To my great surprise, he turned out to be a regular Tazmanian Devil. Substituting pure enthusiasm for skill, he somehow managed to zip under my reach and grab a flag. I couldn't let myself get beat by a white-belt, so I went Shaquille O'Neal on him, shoving all his attacks out of the way like I was passing through a bead curtain, and elbowed my way to one his flags. The match ended 1-1.

After class one of the red belts caught up with me. "You're strong," she said. "You bruised my arm."

My wife asked me the other day, as I was practicing a form in the living room, "If you ever got into a bar fight, do you think you could use any of this stuff?"

"No," I deadpanned.

Today I feel compelled to revise that assessment. As long as I'm facing a child, I'm confident I can beat the living shit out of them.