I have never desired to be a lady pugilist, an amateur wrestler or a professional strong woman, but like most girls I've often felt strongly that I should learn how to defend myself if trapped on a dark street. After brooding about this off and on, I was finally spurred into action by a newspaper headline (TINY WOMAN DISARMS BANDIT BY JUDO TECHNIQUE); and some days later I presented myself, with various misgivings and forebodings, at Kroeger's Jujitsu and Health Academy in midtown New York.
The academy looked harmless enough. It was up one flight of stairs in a renovated studio building, and the antechamber, with its reading lamps and stacks of old magazines, was reminiscent of a dentist's waiting room. A printed notice tacked on the door announced that athletic equipment and judo robes were available at "original retail prices." Elsewhere the walls were cluttered with photographs, mostly of Broadway and Hollywood stars who had inscribed warm tributes to Mr. Kroeger, jujitsu expert and professor of self-defense. From inside came the staccato sound of a punching bag being thumped and other less identifiable whacks and grunts which were presumably of human origin.
In a moment Mr. Kroeger appeared in person—big as a mountain and dressed in a short white kimono, dark sash, and knee-length cotton pants. I looked at him in dismay; I had visualized the proprietor of a jujitsu academy as small, lithe and vaguely Oriental.
"I was thinking of taking jujitsu lessons," I said. "But perhaps it isn't a good idea. I'm only 5 feet tall and weigh 97 pounds...with shoes."
April 7, 1958
"So! We have a ladies' class, too," Mr. Kroeger said sternly. He pulled out a chair and gestured commandingly toward it. As I sank down he handed me a printed sheet giving class fees and rental rates for lockers and cubicles; at the bottom was a notice absolving the jujitsu and health academy of all liability in case I sprained an ankle, fractured a leg or broke my neck.
"Jujitsu," Mr. Kroeger said, "means in Japanese 'the gentle art.' It's a form of judo, which means 'the gentle way of life.' It was started by a doctor from Nagasaki who was watching a cherry tree and a willow tree during a storm. He saw that the cherry tree, which stood up to the wind, had all its branches broken, while the willow tree, which bent with the wind, wasn't hurt. That gave him the idea for jujitsu."
"What I want to know is this," I said. "Is it possible for a person my size to protect herself against somebody much larger? I might never have to do it, but I want to know how."
"Strength isn't required," Mr. Kroeger said testily. "You use your opponent's strength to overcome him. So! You depend upon surprise and your knowledge of weak spots of the body. Come and watch the ladies' class; it begins right now."
The professor arose and, with a flourish of his kimono, led me down a long corridor and into the academy proper. As I tagged along behind him, I felt nervously exhilarated. I, tossing people around!
It was a large room with the usual gym paraphernalia—rings, ropes, side horses—and a floor well padded with thick mats. I pushed aside a pile of boxing gloves and sat down on a bench. Three girls were on the mats practicing falls—a young, limber blonde and a tall brunette, both in their 20s, and a stoutish lady in her 40s wearing glasses. The blonde fell skillfully, maneuvering herself each time into a back somersault, but the stout lady was having trouble.
"No, no," Mr. Kroeger said. "Keep your chin in, Mildred; you'll get a headache."
"I have a headache already," the lady remarked irritably.
"Rub it. Ready, girls." The three students looked at him expectantly. "Do you remember the last hold you learned, Alice?"
The blonde nodded and, tensing herself, sprang tigerishly at the brunette, but the brunette caught her wrist, twisted her around and sent her flying...Thump!...to the floor. The blonde rose at once, smiling, and immediately the brunette rushed at her. Thump! I winced. Mr. Kroeger turned to me. "See that, Pearl? You'll be able to do it yourself, couple of months."
"My name isn't Pearl," I said.
A man emerged from the locker room buttoning his coat gingerly. Mr. Kroeger waved. "Take care of that leg now, Mr. Felton. Hot bath with Epsom salts."
"Yeah." The man stared morosely at the three girls and then went out, mumbling under his breath.
Mr. Kroeger looked severely at the blonde. "When you kick somebody in practice, Alice, you don't draw blood."
"He was resisting," she said indignantly. "He wasn't relaxed."
Thump! Thump! Thump!
The day of my first lesson, a week later, was wild and stormy, a day in which the rain swished against the windows and umbrellas turned inside out. In the locker room I found the blonde, Alice, who was pulling on a pair of tight blue jeans.
"Well, hi, Pearl," she said, smiling at me in a friendly way.
"My name's not Pearl," I mumbled, but the blonde had thrust her head into a sweat shirt.
When she emerged, I asked her what kind of work she did. She said she was a slenderizing instructor in a reducing salon; she gave exercises to fat people. I asked if one could reduce by exercising. She said no.
"Then what do you...?" But the blonde wasn't interested in discussing her baffling profession; she had perched herself on the massage table and was now studying a paperbacked volume called Judo.
I began to get dressed. After a while I leaned over and peeked at the book. There was a series of pictures showing a fair-haired, smiling young man in the ubiquitous short kimono being menaced by a ferocious individual in ordinary shirt and pants. Sometimes the attacker was bald, sometimes dark and beetle-browed, sometimes mustachioed; but each time, in the last of the set of pictures, he was being twirled over the shoulder of the fair-haired young man. The titles had a fine literary flavor: "Breaking a Stranglehold Whilst on the Ground," "Best Defense Against a Cudgel," and (oddly) "Defense Against a Boxer." In the last, the attacker was fully equipped and dressed for the prize ring; apparently the attack was a spur-of-the-moment thing to pass the time while the preliminaries were proceeding.
"I can't imagine ever having to defend myself against a boxer," I said.
"You never can tell." The slenderizer snapped the book shut ominously. "Are you ready?"
We went out into the gym where Mr. Kroeger was marshaling his class. With some bitterness he commented that the weather had bogged down all the jujitsu students except the slenderizer and me and two men, one a beginner. He would give the beginners their first lesson while (or whilst) the two advanced students performed for Jimmy, another instructor. Jimmy turned out to be as mountainous as Mr. Kroeger, if younger, and possessed moreover of curly red hair and some remarkable tattoos.
My fellow beginner was a middle-aged man, wispy in build and studious in appearance. He looked at me from the corner of his eye without much enthusiasm.
There was a thick piece of wood, almost a log, holding up a window, and Mr. Kroeger walked over to it and delivered a sharp blow with the edge of his hand. The wood split in two, and the window came down. Our professor returned to us, rubbing his hand, smugly.
"Why do you think the wood broke?" he demanded. "You tell me, Pearl."
"My name isn't Pearl," I said.
"A blow struck with a short chopping motion—that's the secret. The blow should be struck with the edge of the hand—the little finger, not the thumb edge—or with the elbow, the foot or the knee. Now," he said, "where do we strike this blow? At a sensitive spot in our opponent's anatomy—the eyes, the temples, the ears, neck, Adam's apple, solar plexus, kneecap, groin, instep, wrist."
We practiced going through the motions of delivering short chopping blows to our opponent's sensitive areas. I had only the vaguest idea of the whereabouts of some of these areas; the temples lurked around the face, I knew, and the instep on the foot, but I couldn't locate either anymore specifically. My partner looked at me with mounting scorn, and whenever one of my short chopping blows came near him, he sprang back.
"I won't hurt you," I told him reproachfully.
"You might not mean to."
I gave another short chopping blow, this time catching the end of his nose.
Mr. Kroeger uttered an exclamation of approval. "Now you're getting the idea, Pearl. But next time aim for the bridge of the nose—that's the painful spot. Let's see how you fall."
I fell several times, forward and backward. "It's easy," I said triumphantly.
"Ah, so." Mr. Kroeger put out his foot and tripped me and I went down in a kind of surprised, awkward heap, rapping my head on the mat. "That's not bad," he said. "Just keep your chin in. Practice at home. Tonight take a hot bath with Epsom salts."
I got up and limped out with my sulky partner.
"Are you going to be here next week?" I asked sociably.
"I'm taking three lessons a week, so I'll be ahead of you. I'm trying to gain weight," he added. "Uh, what is your name again?"
"Just call me Pearl."
PRACTICALLY AN EXPERT
When I arrived the following week, my frail partner was practically an expert, tumbling around on the mat in wild imitation of a vaudeville-type Japanese acrobat. He had acquired a kimono too, from which his knobby legs stuck out in approved judo style.
The slenderizer was there, but the two of us were again the only women. I inquired about the other girls. The tall brunette, who was a secretary, had become engaged and decided to give up jujitsu. The chubby lady, a nurse, had practiced too enthusiastically at home and sprained her wrist.
Jimmy took the class that night. He came up to us, smiling pleasantly. "All right, girls, first we'll review strangling." He pounced on the blonde and gripped her neck with a brawny arm. "Break the hold."
She twisted her head slightly in order to breathe and performed a complicated maneuver with her feet and her arms. In a few seconds Jimmy was cowering on the floor.
He straightened up. "Now, Pearl, you do the same thing...slowly."
His arm went round my neck and tightened. The tattooed figures began to dance up and down under my nose; I stared, cross-eyed and fascinated.
Mr. Kroeger's voice thundered from the sidelines. "Break the hold!"
I twisted my head the way the blonde had done, dug my heel lightly into his instep, stuck my elbow in his solar plexus; to my regret, the interesting tattoos slipped away.
"Remember, this is only in fun," Jimmy said. "You girls try it on each other."
I strangled the slenderizer and she strangled me a few times. Then, following Jimmy's instructions, I rushed at her. In slow motion she grabbed me by the wrist, took a turn under my arm and came up with her leg behind mine so that she could throw me off balance; this accomplished, she put her hand under my chin and pushed me backward to the floor. When we tried it fast, both of us received high praise, the blonde for the way she threw me down and I for the way I fell. At least I think it was praise—because of the way my ears were ringing it was difficult to tell.
We took turns pushing each other backward rather vigorously for about 10 minutes.
"Now review strangleholds," Jimmy said. "You first, Pearl...I'll do it a little harder."
Around my neck went the tattoos.
"Soften him up," Mr. Kroeger cried.
I struggled to breathe. I pinched.
I pinched again. With a yelp Jimmy let go.
"So!" Mr. Kroeger said. "You've broken the hold. Now what do you do?"
"No, no, what you just learned. Grab his wrist, trip him, push him backward."
I eyed Jimmy's muscular wrists. "Next week," I said faintly.
On the way home I perused still another booklet which had been presented to me as one of the more advanced pupils. Give in so as to conquer—that was the creed of judo. I thought about it a while, wondering just where they managed to fit in pinching. Judo devotees, like the ancient Hebrews, even had 10 commandments, the first of which was: follow the advice of your professor and master and treat him with respect. The second was to avoid vainglorious or arrogant behavior when successful. I would worry about that, I thought, when successful. Other commandments exhorted me to treat my training partner as a friend, to help the weak and to show myself superior to the average level of conduct. As a novice I was entitled to wear a white sash or obi; when I had attained the next rank I could wear a yellow sash and then an orange one, then green, blue, and brown.
It didn't say anything about hot baths with Epsom salts.
During the next few lessons I perfected several varied skills. I could now foretell to the minute when a charley horse would set in (exactly 23 hours after jujitsuing); I could fall consistently without knocking out my brains; and I was the best pincher in the class.
At the sixth lesson a new girl joined us—a little woman even smaller than I, who operated an embroidery business. She wanted to learn jujitsu to protect herself from teen-agers.
We began by reviewing eye gouging, front and side strangleholds, choking, kicking and wristlocks. We had both Mr. Kroeger and Jimmy as instructors, and the senior professor was in fine humor, tripping the slenderizer unawares not once, but twice. (She fell hard each time but recovered quickly and got a wristlock on him.) The lady who was equipping herself for defense against teen-agers said she'd recently had an operation and couldn't fall; she would merely knock us down. Her physical timing was bad, she said. This was because as a young girl she had led a sheltered life and was not accustomed to indulge in roughhouse sports. She glared at the slenderizer and me as though we, on the other hand, had been wrestling all our lives.
The lesson was vigorous. We attacked one another ferociously for half an hour, thumping down time and again on the mat. Even the lady embroiderer became imbued with the judo spirit and tumbled down a few times too in a ladylike way. We began to pant and perspire.
OVER THE SHOULDER
Near the end of the lesson Jimmy came up and casually put his arm round my neck in a rear stranglehold.
"Now, come on, turn your head so's you don't choke."
I turned my head.
"Reach back and grab my sleeve and pull me forward. Drop to one knee and reach for my ankle with your other hand. Get it? Keep pulling my sleeve forward and then push my leg up hard; you should be able to pull me over your shoulder. Understand?"
"Ugh," I said.
I grabbed his sleeve. I dropped to my knee and grabbed his ankle. He had the biggest feet I'd ever seen, enclosed in giant-size sneakers. I yanked his foot up. And there he went somersaulting over my shoulder and falling down flat on his back at my feet. I looked at him, lying there prone.
"Don't get up," I said. "How much do you weigh?"
"Hundred and eighty."
I felt wonderful. I gazed down at him again, restraining an impulse to put my foot on his chest and utter an animal-like cry of triumph.
Then I looked at Mr. Kroeger. "I did it."
"Ah, so," he said. "Practice at home."
"But I did it, I did it!"
"You sure did, Pearl," Jimmy said.