Over the years there have been a few inquiries about how I have found the people I have studied with.
So pull up a chair and take a load off, and let me tell you about meeting a couple of the best martial artists I have had the pleasure of studying with.
It was back it the first year of the last decade of the twentieth century (It's so odd to be able to say that), I was living the life of a dojo bum in Southern California. I was making my living mostly as a bouncer, and by the occasional pick-up job as event security.
If your needs are small you can make sufficient money doing this sort of thing to support a martial arts habit, while getting the opportunity to test your art in interesting and unexpected ways.
I had come to LA from the South West, where I had spent a year studying a new martial art a guy had come up with that was based in Aikido. It was interesting for the guy's take on flow, but a bit too esoteric for long term study.
I was hoping to find something a bit more.... energetic to train in while in SoCal.
One evening, a week or so after arriving in town I bumped into an old friend at a social gathering. It turned out that he had been studying Pukulan Pentjak Silat Bukti Nagara with Pendekar Paul de Thouars.
Paul de Thouars was a person who I had been interested in for a few years. Back in the '80s I had run across a couple of videos while buying some equipment at the I&I Sports outlet. they were a two VHS tape set on Pentjak Silat Serak-Tonkat by another member of the de Thouars family. I had been practicing Silat for something like 10 years at the time, but had not been exposed to this particular art.
To tell the truth, the videos were not all that impressive, except for one thing. There was an interlude in the middle of each tape of a person (it turned out to be Paul de Thouars) working with Dan Inosanto. Even though the clip was only a couple minutes, it was by far the most interesting part of the tape. the man's movement was smooth, elegant, and decisive. It was pure combat efficiency. I wanted me some of that!
In the intervening years I had seen a few articles about Paul de Thouars in the martial arts rags, I remember on in particular where Mr. Inosanto referred to him as "the deadliest man I have ever met", but I never had occasion to run across him.
And here I was, talking to a friend who was attending classes with him. I asked for an introduction.
There were a couple of phone calls, and an invitation to drop by the PDT Academy.
Within the week I found myself at a strip mall in Arcadia (people can make fun of strip mall dojos as much as they like, but you never know what you might find until you sample the wares) watching a class.
I was impressed. At the risk of sounding more arrogant than I actually am, I had become used to going to a school and being able to come out favorably against a good number of the students in a sparring match. At the PDT Academy this was not the case. There were some serious people at the PDT academy. They were skilled and were game to mix it up on a regular basis. It was sort of like being surrounded by wolves. it was an invigorating experience to say the least.
The first thing I did when I got home from my first class was to call my friend Steve Barnes. I basically told him that I was pretty sure that I had just found the real world equivalent of The 97 Steps, or perhaps Sinanju, and that if he'd never forgive me if I didn't insist that he get down to the School tomorrow, check out the art and sign up.
Steve did that very thing, and so I ended up with someone with whom I could discuss the finer points of what we were learning. Steve and I spent a good deal of time at his home in Canyon Country, going over, and deconstructing everything we were learning in hopes of understanding it better. It was also very nice to have someone I knew and trusted to work out with at the school.
Studying at the PDT Academy had both its delights and its challenges. I got to work with some really talented people, and I got to learn from someone who had some pretty rarefied skills. Pendekar Paul had amazing movement and could do things I had never seen. At the same time, he was hard to understand, his English was not fluent, and so I felt as if I was often missing some of the finer points on his teaching. One if the more puzzling things at the time was that he would occasionally teach something one way, but when he demonstrated in he would do it just a little differently.
The most interesting thing to me was that I was learning the "stripped down" outer art, and the people in the school were better than much of what could be found publicly. It made me really wonder what the "mother art" was like.
About two months into my training at the academy this guy showed up for class.
Now I'm a student of body language, and have been for many years. If I do say so myself I'm pretty good at reading what people are saying when they aren't using words.
In some of the professions I have adopted it's a pretty essential skill, and paying attention to what people's bodies are saying can mean the difference between going home and going to hospital.
So when a ripple of readjustment goes through all the senior students in the room it's going to catch my attention. I surreptitiously checked the room. The epicenter of the disturbance was a fellow chatting quietly with Pendekar Paul. He was about average hight, short hair, fit but not in a body builder way, more like someone who did a lot of hard physical work.
I found the reactions of the senior students in class to be very interesting. If the students at the PDT Academy were a pack of wolves, it was very much as if a Bengal tiger just walked into the room. It was really clear just who was at the top of the food chain.
This is something that happens any time you deal with a group of social mammals, be it wolves, horses, apes or humans. the group responds in various unconscious ways to the presence of the dominant members. Most of the time, the members of a group don't even know that they are doing this, especially if there are no overt dominance or threat displays.
So my interest was piqued by the reaction of the group.
As fate would have it, in the course of the class I ended up working with this new person.
He introduced himself as "Steve" in a quiet, friendly voice and shook my hand. He had interesting calluses on that hand.
In the next half hour I think I learned as much about this particular method of Silat as I had in the previous month. Steve was an excellent teacher, able to explain principles and technique very clearly.
After that, any time that he showed up to class I made a point of working with him if I could manage it.
I learned that his full name was Stevan Plinck, and that he had been studying with Pendekar Paul "for a while". I also understood that he was active duty military, though I wasn't until a couple months later, when he came straight from the base to class that I realized that he was with the Army Special Forces.
That was one of the interesting things about Stevan, he was really self effacing. He tended to direct attention away from himself, but at the same time was unfailingly friendly to everyone. The other interesting thing was that he was a really good teacher. He was able to translate the most obtuse things Pendekar Paul said into something both understandable and usable (like the phrase the Pendekar used a lot "move along the di-angle")
He was also unfailingly patient when he was working with someone. Most of the senior students were pretty good at instructing us newer students. As with any group of this sort you had a spectrum of skills when it came to teaching. Stevan was undoubtedly the best of the group, at least for my money. I would look forward to the times he attended class just so that I could get him to help me understand some difficult point of movement.
There was one point in my training at the Academy that was pivotal. It was about six months into my time there. One day Pendekar Paul announced that there was to be an event in a couple of weeks, and that attendance was mandatory for all students of the Academy. He was graduating his first group of Guru Muda (lit. new or young teacher) in Bukti Nagara.
When the day arrived pretty much everyone was there. The Pendekar's brother had flown out from Colorado with his senior student, and most of Pendekar Paul's more rarefied students, like Cliff Stewart were also in attendance.
It was a long and very ceremonial day. The event started out with a couple of speeches and everyone present offering a set of ritual gifts to the Pendekar. The next part of the day was to be all of the students, in order of rank performing kimbangan (sort of like kata but more flowing and free form. The word means "flower dance"). First up was the Pendekar's brother, who was at the time the inheritor of the art. The second person up was Stevan Plinck. I knew that he was an advanced student, but I had not realized that he was THAT advanced.
Stevan began to move, and it was a thing of beauty. He was attacking and defending on multiple levels and directions with superb skill. He was doing a sequence called Juru Sepok, which was not (at that time at least) a part of the Bukti Nagara Curriculum. I remember quite clearly, it was at that moment that I decided I had to learn directly from this man.
After watching the whole group going through their kimbangan it was obvious to me who had the most skill. I have had the honer of judging at a good number of tournaments over the years, I have trained with some of the best people in the world (whether or not I have managed to learn anything is another story) and I have coached three world champions. I know good when I see it, I know great when I encounter it, and I can recognize when someone is approaching mastery.
One of the things that was most interesting to me was that Stevan was obviously considerably better than the Pendekar's brother, who was the guy who Pendekar Paul had picked as his successor. I just sort of chalked that up to nepotism.
This is not to say that there were not a number of really good players performing at the event. In particular, I remember Steve Barnes leaning over to me just after Cliff Stewart's performance and saying "That guy looks like a Rino on roller-skates, nobody that big should be able to move that smooth."
My training continued at the Academy after that, but I was going there mostly in hopes of being able to work with Stevan. You have to understand, good teachers are fairly rare. There are a lot of people who can "do", but maybe only 1 in 10 can teach, and of those maybe 1 in 100 can teach well, and Stevan could teach well indeed. To be a great teacher means you have to get your own ego out of the way, to make what you do about your students and not about yourself, that seems to be a hard thing for a lot of people.
I continued training at the PDT Academy until Stevan transfered to the Pacific North-West. After that the school was just not quite the same for me. I had great fondness for Pendekar Paul and loved hanging out with him and listening to his stories as well as learning from him, but I could feel the old wanderlust taking hold again. It was time to move on.
The story doesn't end here though, there's more to come in part two.