Have you ever met a Master who just seemed like he would live forever? Have you met a Master that died way too early?
I’ve met both, and barring some illnesses that are completely unavoidable, I believe that some Masters seem to live forever because their martial arts keeps them alive.
I have seen some teachers who loved these arts as young men. They have jeopardized their marriages to keep a school, left families behind to follow behind masters or pursued education in foreign lands or far away towns. I have known some masters to sleep in their schools, or work at minimum wage jobs in order to have more time to devote to their martial arts. And at the same time, I have known masters who walk away from their love of the art because of financial reasons–or frustration over the pauper’s life that sometimes accompanies this field of work–or to keep their marriages intact. And sometimes I have seen masters drop out of the arts because of laziness or disappointment over the turnover of less-than-dedicated students.
The martial arts have obvious health benefits, if you stick with it. It’s a fact that staying fit will keep you alive longer and fight off disease and illness. But I think it goes deeper than that. The martial arts–the love of the martial arts–is like that favorite son you love so much. When he is in your life, you are full of life, hope and optimism. But when he marries, moves away, or chooses another line of work other than the one you dreamt for him when he was a toddler–it depresses you, even robs you of your purpose in life.
When my grandfather died in 1992, my grandmother, who was never sick, suddenly died a few months later. She had been married to my Lolo for over 50 years, and you can’t just go without someone who was an extension of you for 90% of your life. My grandmother was depressed when he was gone. She had no one to cook for, no one to speak her language to, no one to reminisce about old times with. She didn’t even need old friends. Hell, at nearly 80 years old, my grandfather had outlived all of her friends, and he was all she had. And when he left–although we were still here–her reason for living beyond all her siblings, all her friends, had left with him.
For the master who had spent all his life learning, teaching, and just being around the art… his students are his companions. They keep him waking up each day, and challenge him to still reflect on his many years of practice and experimenting with the art–to still come up with new techniques and ideas, although he was long past his sparring days. When the school has closed, and his last generation had moved on to open their schools and start their own families, the old man retires to his home to garden in the back yard, raise chickens, and talk martial arts to anyone who would listen–which often, in this non-martial arts world, is a rare occurrence. The old master has no one to talk shop with, to listen to his embellished stories, to demonstrate his technique on, to be impressed with his preserved skill, to keep his heart pumping… waiting for the next “perfect student” to come along.
These old men are out here. Sometimes, they are fortunate enough to find new life in a new student or two. Sometimes, they will find companionship in a few old masters they may run into somewhere and can talk about the good old days. I found that the late Grandmaster Vince Tinga (Menehune Karate Do) found new life in his bones when we encountered each other at the Filipino Veteran’s Hall in Sacramento in 1999. At that point, he hadn’t taught in years, and all of his students had moved on to other things, and none of his kids were teaching his art, and his students had pretty much grown up and started their own families. Grandmaster Tinga use to frequent the karate tournaments (where we actually met for the first time; he refereed a division I fought in, but didn’t talk much outside of general introductions) and could talk shop with anyone who would listen.
Note: Although GM Tinga was not an FMA man, he was very important to FMA people. Wanna know why? Vince Tinga’s karate school in Tracy, CA is the birth place of the first Bahala Na school, as he gave late Manong Leo Giron a home for his Eskrima club around 1958 (? help me out, I may be wrong… going from memory). He use to host a sparring group that was attended by Carlos Norris (yes, “Carlos”)/aka Chuck Norris, Byong Yu, and Bruce Lee (stated that Bruce Lee never fought, just watched), Sid Campbell and Al Novack. AND, his daughter (whose name escapes me) was the first female Guro of the FMA in California, a graduate of Bahala Na.
GM Tinga was sick in 1999 when I met him, and was a little down because all of his compadres were dying off. He was an encyclopedia of knowledge, and his home a museum of West Coast Martial Arts history. Did you know that he choreographed the first few installments of David Carridine’s Kung Fu series? That’s right, a Filipino master put those scenes together. And he was frustrated because they cast a man who knew no martial arts at all. But I digress… So Uncle Vince (as I called him) got great pleasure in talking martial arts with other martial artists. He even put on gloves to spar with me a few times, when I hosted a “fight night” on Friday afternoons, made up of local fighters from the circuit. (You can’t get any closer as friends, as you can when you have slugged it out with another fighter, even one in his 70s.)
When some students of a closed Stockton-based club approached Master Tinga for a recommendation for a new teacher, he sent them to me. I had just had my second child, and couldn’t get to my morning class on time most days (something about those 2 a.m. feedings will make a morning guy oversleep, you know), so Uncle Vince would open my school and begin class until I arrived. He was such a superior master to me, I felt compelled to give him the tuition I collected from my day students. Of course, he was just happy to be there and refused it. So I would sneak the money into his glove compartment of his car, or give the money to his wife, whatever it took. Eventually, GM Tinga started his own club at the Magellan Hall in South Sacramento, which blossomed into a whole ‘nother school, and he eventually graduated his last generation of students, among them Marcus Dixon and Chris Williams. How fortunate are they, to have been blessed to give a great grandmaster a new life at nearly 80 years old, and to be able to call a true grandmaster their own teacher, and learn from him every day.
Like my Grandfather, late Great Grandmaster Vincent Abuella Tinga taught until the day he died. How many of us would be so fortunate that our God would allow us to go out with such a bang. Rest in peace, Uncle Vince. Boy, oh boy… you have no idea how many lives you’ve touched, and how you’ve affected mine.
Thanks for visiting my blog.