By David Walls-Kaufman
It was, I believe, summer of 1974. The details of this portrait may be fused from my several trips to Shih Jung School. Dale Ward and I took the train that Sunday from DC to New York, 75¢ one way. We arrived early and Dale had a regular monthly private lesson scheduled with Tam Gibbs, Professor Cheng’s secretary. We arrived at his tiny apartment and joined Tam at his tiny kitchenette table, where Tam absorbed himself in a bowl of Special K.
I had never seen Tam before without a tie. Tam wore a tie every day out of respect for Professor and Tai Chi, and what they had given him. Tam was devoted to Professor. He got to sit up with Professor and his poetry buddies while they drank liquor late into the night, discussing the classics, or alchemy and how the procedure needed to wait on the full moon. Tam died prematurely of acute appendicitis in the mid-1980s. Without looking up, he asked Dale what was the book he was reading.
“Carlos Castenada,” Dale replied.
“Read me some,” Tam directed, off hand.
Dale picked no special passage; just the one there on the page. It was the passage about spiritual snakes and demons writhing in emergence out of the seeker’s belly. The weird portrait in my mind was punctuated by the rifle shot—the rifle shot of Dale’s book smashing on the kitchenette floor. Tam had smacked it from Dale’s grasp with a violence so stark it traced the air.
Tam intoned, “Ideas like that will take you far off the path.”
I sat in the grass in the park under the gorgeous day while Tam gave Dale his lesson on the form and the rollback in push hands. Tam demonstrated the most marvelous sit-back with his rollback arm elbow faithfully engaged on Dale’s. Tam made a special point of emphasis on never missing the elbow-to-elbow connection.
His discipline on this score was amazing.
Afterward, Dale, Tam and I went to Shih Jung School in the Bowery. We rang the ground floor doorbell and a key on a ribbon whizzed lightly out of the sky to our feet. Nobody from up there ever looked out at us.
In the school, there must have been ninety people swarmed inside. Like us, they had probably made the trip because today was Professor’s last day before going home again to Taipei for six months. On my previous two trips, I had missed seeing the Old Man, and so I was keen for a glimpse today, finally.
The school was beautiful, like a small narrow So-Ho art gallery. The polished wood floors gleamed in the noonday sun, all the trim and the places with finished walls shone spotless gallery white, there were open windows on the front and one side, and a long open bare brick wall with soft gallery can-lights warming the sealed surface. This area was for push hands. Professor called it The Hall of Happiness. It occupied the middle and back areas of the school. There was in the center-space of the school a bulky white table with an Oriental vase and a spare arrangement of canary-colored orchids. This was the place where Professor taught calligraphy and flower arranging. Peter Kwok, a boy my own age, was the son of a friend of Professor’s who had passed away and Professor had been asked by the mom to help with Peter. Professor made Peter sit at the table after school and practice his calligraphy. Peter was there now, with brush, ink stick, paper.
Toward the front of the school was the floor area where form classes took place, postures and sword. It was practically mobbed with people following Ed Young and arranging their alignment in front of the large mirrors.
No school I’ve ever visited had the class, the beauty, of Professor’s Shih Jung. The man inspired a following big enough to fund such a place.
I got to tag along after Dale and Tam into the little office. Lou Kliensmith sat behind the desk opening mail, Tam took the chair alongside the desk and received the envelopes after Lou gave them first glance.
One envelope contained an invitation for the school to participate in a city-wide martial arts tournament. Lou looked down his nose over his reading glasses and stopped mid-sentence, having derived the gist of the contents, and handed it to Tam, who shaped half his mouth in a particularly sad, disappointed frown and gave a fractional shake of his head, as if to say, “Will they never learn?”
I got the impression that Professor would never approve such a thing.
By now, only more people had managed to fit themselves into the space gilded with sunlight and freshened by the wide open windows.
Lou Kliensmith, a convert to Tai chi from the renowned New York Aikido Dojo, (founded by Weisheba himself) gave me a tired look when I asked if he would teach me about push hands. Lou was a mid-sized sort of guy, a tad pudgy, way balding and bespectacled with a cord that looped around the neck of his denim shirt. He put me up against the wall between the windows opposite the Hall of Happiness and blasted me time and time again for a long while. He kept saying, in a way that I could tell was him repeating the litany from Prof. Cheng, “You . . . neutralize, then—push.” Slam I went. “You . . . neutralize, then—push.” Slam I went.
It was not generous instruction. I don’t think Professor would have approved. I was as inoffensive as any star-struck 17-year old ever could be. But I didn’t get angry; I considered myself very lucky, and after twenty minutes or so of this walkabout, I slumped in fatalistic exasperation and asked, “What can I do?”
Lou paused, looked at me anew—and laughed.
For some reason, now he liked me. His severity sparkled away and he became as open and giving as he hadn’t been before. He showed me how to work back and keep that rollback elbow fixed in position, bone to bone, to keep command of the position as you yield away. He slapped me on the shoulder affectionately at the end and I thanked him with near-rapture in my eyes.
Kliensmith, too, died young, of cancer. He was the only person there I saw smoking, and smoking a lot.
Dale pointed out all the senior students. I believe Stanley Israel was there, Mort Saul, Maggie Newman, Herman Kauz, Bill Phillips, Ed Young. I was dazzled by the gallery of Tai Chi rock stars. There was no wrestling, ever. Careful, studious Yin and Yang, lots of nodding and discussion, work, sweat, more work, trying it again, laughter. Every iota was cooperative and “Colleagues in the Same Discipline.”
The only other place I have seen the same level of respect for the opponent—a respect really for life—is on the practice clay inside the Sumo house.
I could tell it was all a tribute to the man.
More students arrived; classes and pushing went on and on. No one seemed to share my concern regarding Professor’s location. He was leaving tomorrow, after all. Today was his last day to come to the school and see all these people who were his living legacy.
“When do you think Professor will come?” I asked Dale for probably the third time, this time while he was working against the wall with Morty.
“I know, I know, Grasshopper,” he chuckled.
“Grasshopper” was the pet name for the boy in the temple in the TV show Kung Fu. There is still a scar across my heart from my parents refusing me school night privileges to watch it on Thursday evenings. To this day, I can still see my point that, given my gathering life trajectory, it was “educational”.
I distracted myself by taking a postures class and got some leg burn on. The room was impossibly crowded with people and the activity never waned. One of Professor’s sons joined us now. I kept looking to the door. Hope stretched from my gut every time a new group or individual strolled in. Thirty times my mind’s eye prefigured the Old Man sauntering in with his goatee, pais-like sideburns and crew-cut, in his self-designed knee-length collarless tunic—the style his symbolic rejection of the collar the Manchu imposed on the conquered Chinese race.
But I had to wait. I had to wait.
A gentle reverse flow of people started happening as the sun began to edge lower over the city. There were fewer arrivals and many more departures. There was less hubbub in the room anymore. Mostly, people wore their hair long, with a lot of beards, as I’d seen at the May Day Rally in DC in ’68. Not one of the seniors wore their hair long, however.
In a half hour, the school was closing.
Still, I had patience. This was the time.
Some of the seniors were gone. The door didn’t move much these minutes. He leaves tomorrow. He leaves tomorrow. This is his last chance to say goodbye.
But—what if he’d already said his goodbyes?
Dale walked over to me with his Castenada book and his Panama hat on. The school was closing and we had a train to catch. “I guess he’s not comin’, Boo-boo.”
I had no words.
Heading down the three or so stories to the street, there was still a chance to bump into him and at least catch a glimpse of him, the sage from a distant culture that I’d grown into fascination of. The source of stories that had changed my life and deepest understanding—guru to me.
On the street, the color of the sky hinted that the interiors of the little restaurants would soon begin lighting up. There was very scarce chance now, depending only on which way we turned. We started walking, Dale and I. In the sub-awning gloom, a group of three men approached. . . .
Professor left the next day with his family and Tam for Taipei and never returned to America. While there, he attended a banquet held in his honor and drank from a bottle of liquor that had been boosted with wood alcohol to make greater profit margin on each bottle. Such tamperings are inevitably inexact, and the poison put him into a coma while his driver and maid both had the night off. By the time he was found on the settee by the front door, the situation was grave. Still, Professor rallied—only to be cut down by a subsequent procedure at hospital.
I never met the man.