Brothers in Arms
When I was a kid I fell in love with G.I JOE, the cartoons, the comics and of course the action figures (not dolls, action figures). Yes old school G.I.JOE was my thing, especially of course the Ninjas. Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow, not only the coolest names for ninjas ever, Ever. But also an amazing and heartfelt story. You see both those two were training brothers under the same Master and through those years they became family as they should have, true brothers are chosen and not just blood. Anyway as life went on they chose different paths and ended up on either side of the conflict between COBRA and the Joe's. (Yes I am getting to my point of this writing, but context is important.) In the BEST G.I.JOE comic ever : The Silent Issue - ( Best GI JOE Comic Ever ) The two masked ninjas combat and at the end it is revealed they are brothers, displaying the same tattoo on their forearms. The story continues through the issues and my young teen heart hung on every word (and non word). The idea of going through hardships with someone and that making a strong bond between you really spoke to me and it stills does. Kung Fu Brothers are for life. Your brother will help you move, your Kung Fu brother will help you move a body.
Respect to our teachers and their importance on our paths can never be overlooked for a minute. But I think something we forget is to really look at the important parts our Kung Fu Brothers/Sisters play in our training. I would venture to say it is just as important as the role of our Masters, only different. Without my Kung Fu brothers I never, ever would have made it to where I am. I never would have been able to keep going to class when things were really rough, nor been able to cry, bleed or rant the way I needed to. I have many brothers I have been gifted with, Dominic, Daniel, Kevin, Jason, Lorne, but I want to write about my brother Shug today.
When we met in 1995 I honestly thought he was more than a bit strange, like everyone who trained with Master Ma. But even more so, he was last to finish every workout, never hurrying up to get to the good stuff. What a weirdo, every pushup correct, every punch hard, fast and accurate and slow enough to be correct but fast enough to not want to stand in front of. Shug started training with Master Ma when I was still with Chin Woo, eight years my senior in the class I was lucky enough to be paired with him now and then, when something was supposed to be done carefully. Shug taught me our sticking hands, every day for months we would work together and he would explain carefully and demonstrate things over and over again slowly so I could get it. Every time I was frustrated or tired of it I would try and speed up and test things out. Every time it was met with a gentle, slow palm on my chest or face that was never seen or stopped, his point made very clearly. So many nights Shug would drive me home in his crappy Camaro and we would sit for hours and talk about training. He would show me techniques in the car or outside in the snow, we would rant about Sifu and compare bruises and he would patiently try to answer all my questions, night after night. He would constantly remind me “slowest is fastest” during training, take your time and understand, don't rush.
Shug had started martial arts the same year I did, 1986 but he began with a taiji master while I was at the chin woo. So by the time I started taiji training he already had been training internals alongside with our shared master for nearly ten years. Even though I would go to other teachers to learn I would always come back to Shug to test, talk and debate. When I started training under the now well known Chen Zhonghua, it was Shug that helped me work out the kinks, make sense of the things I was told and test my techniques. By 2006 Shug had been training Yang and Chen Taiji for 20 years and Ma family kung fu for 18 years, his insights were gold and because we loved each other he never held anything back. When I began training with Master Chen Qiming in 18 Lohan Palm Shug took over teaching my Sunday classes so I could spend each Sunday with Sifu. The first time I showed him the Lohan I was learning his words were “That's not for beginners now is it?” and encouraged me to never let it go. Today I am Sifu's disciple, years later, and travel North to see him every chance I get.
Shug lost his sight when he was in his early 30's from a condition known as Retinal Detachment. Legally blind he still worked to keep up his training and honestly his sticking and pushing hands has became so much more refined since then that I started joking with him about being the “Blind Master” (Snake Eyes & Storm Shadows training brother). Shug had his first heart attack when we were pushing hands on a Sunday morning, when we used to meet to train (read: him throwing me around). Luckily I had learned a bit of Chinese Medicine from Sifu Chen and I was able to needle him and calm things down before we took him to hospital. He has had seven heart attacks since.
The last time I visited him in the hospital they were telling him he should have a defibrillator surgically implanted in his heart. It was a most intense conversation we had, about Tao, about life and death and about why he was choosing not to have it done. He told me that accepting and not fearing when your time has come IS Tai Ji, is Tao. He went home the next day and was walking his dog Jasper as usual. Pushing hands with me and coming to visit my school when he could to “Uncle Shug” my students. Giving them tastes of what training under our teacher was like. Every time he would have a new test for me and my training and homework for me while he was gone.
Last summer I went up to Edmonton to visit everyone and Shug arrived late at the Kung Fu- BQ and even though he was tired and had been working all day, pushed, stuck and trained with every one of my students who were there. At the end of the night we pushed hands by the firelight and whispered quietly to one another. We laughed and tried tricks on each other and talked and pushed, but it was not really about the training anymore, but about being family.
I can honestly say that without him my martial arts would not be anywhere near where they are now, nor would my love of them be as strong. Without being able to sound things off him from my other teachers I would have been struggling to understand much more often. Has he been more important than my Masters? No. Is he as important ? Absolutely.
Don't forego your training partners, your martial family for anyone. They will bleed with you and for you if you will stand by them. Training is not all about skills and fame and breaking things with your hands, etc. It's about the path you walk and the people who walk it with you.
A big fan of G.I. JOE
Please subscribe to my youtube channel for more Neil Ripski's Channel