Every now and then, conversations at the school arise regarding injuries people have witnessed while training in the martial arts. Sometimes these conversation revolve around the various injuries we personally have suffered while training, but more often than not we talk about injuries that have happened to friends and training partners.
Of course, like many conversations, these discussions often slowly but surely turn into a game of “one-upmanship” as each person wants to top the last person’s story or personal suffering.
Sometimes the stories are so bizarre that it’s hard to believe them, and people stare at each other in disbelief. Other times they are so funny that we forget someone really suffered.
In either case, these stories and the injuries they describe are a reminder that really bad things can happen, and that they can happen in an instant. One second of inattention or dropping one’s guard can lead to permanent scars, loss of limbs, or a reduction in one’s overall quality of life.
No matter whether the injuries are short term or permanent, these stories are clearly “Cautionary Tales.” Tales people should not take so lightly, and should learn from.
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Case in point: Several weeks ago I told a story, which I have to admit is very hard to believe. To be honest, if I hadn’t seen it myself I would have to question whether it was true or not. However, I was there, and witnessed every second of it.
To this day, I’m still not sure how it happened, but I will never forget it, nor will I forget my emotions at the moment when it occurred. Shocked, sickened, and definitely in a state of panic worrying about the ramifications. I wish it had all been just a dream. However, bad things do happen, and to this day this event is always in the back of mind reminding me to be careful.
Many years ago, I had several friends I would practice with. We were a group of martial artists that worked together to figure out why our teachers made us do certain things in class, and how we could use what we knew more efficiently and effectively. It was sort of a study group where we analyzed movements within forms, and tried to make sense of all the various aspects of the martial arts we studied.
Each one of us had a different martial art background, as well our individual reasons why we trained. The one thing that united us was our desire to learn techniques that had real world effectiveness, and a desire to seek out knowledge we felt we were not getting form our respective teachers. Actually, we were pretty progressive for the early 80’s, and what we were doing was something we definitely had to keep hidden from our personal instructors.
Well one day while working on some iai-jutsu (sword draws) and drills, a friend of one of my friends decided to show us some new forms he had learned while visiting Japan. Of course, we were all excited to see them.
The first forms were executed with grace and precision. The guy actually looked like he knew what he was doing.
Then all of a sudden, disaster!
Sure, that last draw was excellent as was the cut to his imaginary opponent. Then came the chiburi (flipping blood off the sword after cutting an opponent), which at first appeared to be as good as the draw. In fact we were all ready to congratulate the guy on a job well done, and to ask him to teach us what he just done.
That, of course, was the calm before the storm.
Now, as he tells the story, everything was going fine, he had just completed the chiburi, and was getting ready for noto (putting the sword back in the scabbard). For some unknown reason he looked down at the ground and saw some red liquid spots on the floor.
Puzzled by what he saw, and sure these spots hadn’t been on the floor a few seconds earlier, he started to look around for their source.
As he looked more closely at the floor, he saw several flesh colored objects lying on the ground in front of him. Objects he definitely knew hadn’t been there moments before.
On closer inspection he discovered to his horror that they were severed toes.
Then it hit him they just weren’t just toes, they were his severed toes.
Yes, during his chiburi he had sliced off three of his toes.
It was a clean cut, and so fast and smooth he didn’t even feel it.
Of course, once he processed what had happened, and now that he was now minus a few toes, he fell to the floor in agonizing pain.
Now, you can imagine the shock and disbelief that overwhelmed the rest of us. I mean, you see things happen like this in the movies, but not in real life. I felt like this really couldn’t have happened.
Of course, as dumbfounded as we were, we had to quickly gain our composure. Our friend’s life was now in jeopardy.
It took a combined effort to clam him down enough to wrap his foot, gather and ice his toes, and rush him to the emergency room, but we did it. I’m not sure how. I’m also sure we broke every traffic law in the process, but within minutes he was at the hospital.
Now I’m sure you can imagine the looks we got, when we told the staff at the hospital what had happened. Sword injuries are not very common in the 20th century, and once again anyone who wasn’t there would have his or her doubts as to what actually occurred. In this case, because of our ages and the nature of the injury, the police were even called and his injury was investigated just to make sure we were not lying.
Fortunately, this story has a happy ending, and his toes were reattached. It took him months to recover, and he lost a lot of sensation. But except for some major scarring, one would never know what had happened.
Now, I share this tale with no intention of grossing people out. I, for one, actually think it illustrates how quickly things can go wrong. I tell this tale to show people how important it is to always focus on what they are doing, especially when it comes to working with lethal weaponry.
Sure, people kind of laugh when they hear this story, but we’re normally not laughing at the guy. We’re laughing about the morbidity of what happened, realizing that if we make a stupid mistake the same thing or worse can happen to us. It’s an uneasy type of laughter we share to hide our repulsion to the fact that these things happen.
* * *
By now you may be wondering what prompted me to share such a tale with the world. Well if you will remember I said these stories should act as cautionary tales. They should teach us to be careful and always pay attention to what we are doing.
When I told this story less than a week ago I never imagined I would have to relive it. However, on Friday Nov. 17th 2006 I did. Well, sort of.
On Friday the 17th we were having a tameshigiri class (cutting rolled reed mats). It had been months since our last one, and everyone was eager to try it, especially those who had never done it before.
Of course it also had to be one of those nights where I had a guest and also one where we had an uncommon amount of onlookers from the street. Both of these are fairly unusual events for my school.
The night started off normal enough, with each person taking their turn with mixed results.
The goal of the tameshigiri class was to have fun, while gaining some insight into the proper way to cut with the katana. It’s a chance to witness the lethality of the swords we use, which normally builds a healthy respect between practitioners and their blades.
Sometimes I think people doubt just how dangerous these swords are. As one person mentioned, he didn’t think his new sword really looked like it was sharp. Of course it was and it cut through the tatami mats with ease.
Like I said the class started off like normal. However, that was about to change. In an instant the whole mood and tone changed.
Now I could describe what went wrong step-by-step, and just how many mistakes my poor student made. How he didn’t follow instructions, or the lackadaisical way he approached his task.
I could air my frustration about what happened, but I won’t since I feel genuinely sorry for the guy. I have no intention to admonish him publicly. Let’s just say that he has done martial arts long enough to know the risks; he knows what he did wrong, and he is ultimately the one who will suffer until things heal.
The good news is my student didn’t sever any toes completely off. In fact, only one toe was injured, though I have to say that toe was sliced right to the bone from tip to base.
Now, expressions can be worth a thousand words, and his face at the moment when this happened was priceless. It was clearly a combination of bewilderment, and anger towards himself for doing what ultimately can only be categorized as stupidity.
At first what he did didn’t hit me. And even when he verbally validated what I thought had happened, I was hoping, should I say praying, he was kidding. Unfortunately he wasn’t. He had in fact cut himself. In many ways it was almost like my story coming back to haunt me.
To say that everyone was shocked would be an understatement. It took a while after he left for the hospital for everyone to regain their composure and start cutting again. Needless to say, everyone was a lot more careful for the rest of the night, and it will be something no one present will ever forget.
Now I know one day this story will be shared with others. Those that hear it will wonder if it’s really true or not. There will uneasy laughter, as the realization that these things are possible registers within each individual psyche.
All I can hope is that by sharing such stories I stop at least a few people from injuring themselves. If that means I make people stop and think about what they are doing, or the manner in which they do things, than all the suffering I have witnessed, the injuries I have suffered personally have some meaning.
I’ve always been told to “learn from the mistakes of others.” And to be honest, that phrase has a tremendous amount of validity to it.
[C.f. earlier postings on accidents and live swords:
Respecting Live Swords by Spencer on 2006-04-19
Live Blades by Gary on 2006-05-05
Live Blades A Follow Up by Gary on 2006-05-10
References for Live Blades – A Follow Up by Spencer on 2006-05-10]