SMOKE: A South African Ninja

Originally published: 9 March 2005

What's happened to martial arts? They were huge in the eighties, boosted big time by that ridiculous Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid (back then he wasn't ridiculous - I seriously wanted to be him - but when you look back on him now you'll see what I mean).

Everybody was either doing karate or judo and even fashion was influenced - it became very cool to wear those inside-out (the stitching of the seams was on the outside of the garment), sleeveless cut-off tops, with Japanese symbols on them or the Japanese flag.

You couldn't walk down any given Pretoria street without passing at least five kids standing one-legged on poles, arms outstretched, finding the ancient inner peace required to stand up to their sworn enemies. All of them wearing inside-out Japanese print vests.

Every second kid was a brown belt or a pink belt or a green belt in something, but I was never satisfied with all that. I wanted to be a ninja - the ultimate human fighting machine. No half-measures for me - I had some serious enemies.

The reputation of ninjas was damaged irreparably by those stupid turtles, and everyone became a teenage mutant ninja something. But I had an altogether different perspective on ninjas, as I was a rabid Eric van Lustbader fan.

Amongst other great literary works he penned a tale called "The Ninja", appropriately enough, introducing a well-known and -loved fictional character called Nicholas Linnear - a westerner who grew up in the East and who was one of the only non-Asian ninjas in the world.

In typical Lustbader fashion the story is an epic. Originally I only read the sex scenes (I had all the appropriate pages dog-eared), which - if you've ever read Lustbader I trust you'll agree - are second to none (although Jilly Cooper's "Lace" was never far from the top of my list of favourites).

I could describe tons of them to you (from The Ninja alone), but one particularly vivid description stood out for less-than-obvious reasons.

Some ninja-type oke had drugged Linnear's girl and him, and was preparing to take the girl (who in her drugged state was "asking for it") right there on the bed.

Lustbader described how the ninja's silk pants "puddled" around his feet in the moonlight, and it was just such an accurate description of what silk pants would do if released to drop around your ankles.

I've never forgotten that.

But sex scenes aside - Lustbader's ninjas were the real deal, not some fantasy characters in a kid's world. He described how the ninja came about all those centuries ago and how they came to use all the unique fighting techniques they do, and how threatened they are now as the modern Japanese youth slowly forget about them.

I was just so taken with what an awesome fighting unit a ninja really is - a real ninja, that is. They were originally conceived to be spies, informants and assassins to the competitors of wealthy landowners, which brought about a new technique the world had never seen - Nonuse, or "the art of stealth".

Ninjas weren't the confrontational, screaming idiots as so fondly portrayed by Hollywood - stealth was their main weapon, and when they killed you never heard them coming. After they killed you never saw them leave, and thus their mystery and legend grew.

These aren't just fantasy fictional characters - these okes were real. They really did exist. They even practiced a form of "magic" called Kuji-in, which was essentially an extension of early Buddhist practices and which involved hand signs that channelled energy in strange and unusual ways.

The reason I was so impressed by the ninja was because I recognised something more to it than working your way towards a black belt - ninja was a lifestyle and a life journey steeped in ancient mystery that most westerners will never even imagine, much less experience.

No black belt in anything was ever going to bother a ninja even slightly, and as mentioned - I needed the best form of self-protection available. Ninja was it.

So I became South Africa's first ever ninja. Nobody ever knew that's what I was, and that was a good thing - the whole point of being a ninja was to accomplish your mission by stealth, and I didn't want the press and broadcast media finding out about it and blowing my cover.

I masqueraded as a young teenager by day, but only I ever knew the horrifying truth of what I really was.

A friend - who was seriously into his weapons - bought me a throwing star for one birthday, and I spent hours and hours out back, throwing it at a big block of polystyrene.

I contemplated trying to nail it into the garage door instead, but remembered the horrific consequences of doing such a thing.

This won't take a moment.

When I was in junior school some boys got hold of a throwing star and spent an afternoon throwing it into a classroom door, and the resulting witch hunt and beating was the worst I ever witnessed.

Once the perpetrators had been revealed a school assembly was called - not just for the junior school, but for all the seniors as well, and the entire school staff was seated in a semicircle on the stage.

The three boys responsible were lined up at the foot and to the side of the stage, awaiting their fate. Classes were all cancelled; everyone was required to attend.

The headmaster - Brother Dillon - made a speech about the affair, said it would not be tolerated and that he was going to make an example of those three boys.

Then he called them up one by one for 12 strokes of the cane each, breaking two canes before he was done. Those kids - because that's what they were - were mercilessly thrashed right in front of all the teachers and an entire school of boys.

They couldn't help crying, and their shame and humiliation must have been extreme.

Nice school I went to, huh? It was Christian Brother's College, in case you're wondering where not to send your kids.

The upshot of that being that I couldn't bring myself to throw stars at wooden doors. Too many bad memories.

I got myself a balaclava and some nunchucks which I kept knocking myself out with, and after a week or two decided I wasn't feeling any more mystical or ancient than I did before becoming a ninja and just gave the whole thing up and got onto a pole on one leg, arms outstretched and eyes closed, finding inner peace and the strength to challenge my tormentors.

Who I continued to hide from every break time.

Sometimes life journeys are a little too complicated to take, I'm afraid. I wouldn't mind being a ninja, but the work required to be one is more than I'm prepared to put in.

What the hell - I'll just get a gun.

All Smoked Out,
Luke Tagg
Spending time online does bad things to a person, but I'm OK.

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Copyright © Luke Tagg. All rights reserved. A few lefts as well.

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