My ninja career began, I believe, in the summer on 1982. I watched a movie called ‘Enter the Ninja’ and in a celluloid epiphany, I saw the future and understood that it involved ninja stars. In a hot rush of fantasy I knew that all my problems were solved; no longer would I be the guy who always lost at fights and got picked last for all the sports teams. It was simple really. I would become a ninja.
I kicked off by getting hold all the ninja movies available in South Africa. I became a B-grade Japanese movie aficionado. After that I gathered my mother’s sharpest kitchen implements and stuck them into my belt – dressed in my blackest pajamas – and set off into the night to do ninja things. I developed a nocturnal routine called ‘ninja runs’. For two hours every night I would run and ninja the neighbourhood, scaling walls, shuffling through shadows and leaping down steps like I had just jumped off a ten story building.
One time, on a rare and daring ‘day run’, I rolled across the roof and over the edge, my hands holding onto the gutter while my legs swung freely in anticipation of a neat landing in the flower bed below. A hive of wasps happened to be nesting there at the time and cut me to ribbons as I hung hysterically from the edge. Eventually I pulled myself up, running across the roof with the wasps in hot stinging pursuit, proving that they never die off after just one sting, and leapt through the air one story down into the swimming pool. Sometimes Ninjas have to deal with these things.
My parents, wearying of my inability to do anything else useful, decided to take me to the world famous Stan Schmidt Centre for karate training. Not only was he one of the most senior practitioners of karate in the world – barring the snobby Japanese – but he was one of the only men in South Africa who had successfully turned karate into a money making enterprise.
Walking into there was like walking into a university of martial arts. It was the forerunner of the super gyms of the next century, with multi-levels, dozens of students and various supplementary arts being practised. It made a huge impression on me and Stan… well, Stan was the man. I heard that he once shoved his hand into a goldfish bowl, grabbed a marble and withdrew his hand without disturbing the water.
My brother had achieved the lofty goal of brown belt earlier in his life. In karate, like many martial arts, the rubbish beginning grades have bright, attractive belts like white and red and yellow but later on get more serious with blacks and browns and purples. Also their suits are just ridiculous looking and I quickly realised that if I ever moved to another martial art, it would be one with brilliant looking suits, like ninja uniforms. Ninjas normally wore black, to blend in with the shadows, but sometimes they were white, in case they got stuck in a piece of snow. Bad Ninjas always wore black.
The worst thing about karate – and I would discover this to be the case with all martial arts – is that it involved exercise and getting hit and, most important of all, enthusiasm. I thought it was horrible. I hated fighting people and I hated getting sweaty and sore and stiff. The only reason I was doing this was to become a ninja but I wanted to do it through movie osmosis.
A couple of years later I heard of an actual ninja school, which was great. Peter Thompson, who was our grandmaster, was good looking, with long hair and had a hot girlfriend. I got my father to drop me off there twice a week. It was in a rundown part of town on the third story of an abandoned building and after walking through gutted corridors and smashed glass and a maze of walls tormented by graffiti, you would emerge into this sacred, secret sanctuary with rows of weapons up against the wall and red satin flags hanging from the ceiling.
This was a proper ninja school. We all used to kneel in a row with the Sensei at the head. We learned about wonderful things in there. Water focus training involved us being attacked from multiple directions while we diffused our attention such that we blurred into a world where every block and reaction was synchronous with our attackers. He taught us to move with the flow of the world. I also learned some spectacularly party worthy tricks like rolling on concrete and doing flick flaks.
Once we went to this ninja camp. That was amazing. We played this game called ‘Stalk the Lantern’ where squads of teenage ninjas would try to sneak up on the circle of ninja masters and touch the lantern without them touching us. They taught us how to move with the wind to cover footsteps or the covered moon to cover shadows or to cross a stream at an angle that created neither sound nor ripples. I am proud to say that I touched that lantern to win the contest.
Years later, at about the age of seventeen, I was standing on the top of a hill on a farm outside Durban with a group of my brothers older friends, who owned the farm. I was dressed in a full ninja suit that my mother had sowed for me, involving leggings, jacket, ninja hood, gloves and those shoes with a split next to the big toe. Earlier in the year, my father had promised me that they would sow me a suit if I could get 90% percent in my next exam. It was an art history exam and for the first and only time in my life I not only scanned the text book but memorised it word for word, literally. I got 99%. I think maybe I spelled my name wrong.
Towards sunset they left me to my ninja training and admonished me not to leave too late or get lost. A few seconds after they disappeared from view, night descended like a rain of sea urchins and I panicked as I tried to find my way back. Hours later and completely lost, I came across a Zulu drinking hall. I could smell the strong scent of Putu and beer and smoke. From inside were the sounds of drunken voices raised in aggression. I hesitated nervously and then knocked on the door loudly and announced, in English, that I needed help.
I might just add at this point that Zulus were killers. They were the Samurai of the Bantu folk, with long, edged spears and hard sticks called ‘knobkerries’. If you messed with a Zulu, you were finished and in the year that I knocked at that door they had been wiping people out like it was nothing.
I remember their shouting and singing vanishing with violent speed and then, tremors waterfalling down my body, I decided to run and hide. Barely had I reached the road when they all charged out of the hall, shouting and screaming. At some point I jumped over a fence and the barbed wire tore my pants open and left a streak of blood down my inner thigh. The road was a long death trap and so, in a moment of inspiration I leapt into a sugar cane swamp on the one side and lay beneath the water with a sugar cane pipe allowing me to breathe.
The mud oozed into my clothes with the overpowering scent of rotting vegetation. My breathing straw lasted about three seconds before collapsing, forcing me to hold my breath.
After the war party had passed I crawled out of the sugar cane, covered in mud and gore, to surprise an old drunken man who had been shuffling along the dirt track. He nearly had a heart attack. After he had recovered he directed me towards a farm house where a pack of dogs came howling at me up the hill, preparing to tear away at the frozen Ninja teenager. They were obviously quite impressed with me because I didn’t get one bite and managed to work my way around to the side of the house.
I knocked on the door and was greeted by the most unbelievable reality. There must have been forty of them in that room, a whole nest of Christians that had gathered together for their Sunday prayers and had been interruptedby a bloody, muddy guy dressed all in black with goats feet on. I somehow convinced them to find my friends’ farm but as far as my ninja reputation went, I would never live this down.