The Forms of Isshinryu
(And some reflections on Steve Armstrong, who passed away November 15, 2006)
Walk with me a bit, down the corridors of time, to an era when American Karate was in its infancy. Back then, I lived in Philadelphia. It was the 60's, and martial arts was
something occasionally portrayed in comic book ads (Are you old enough to remember Count Dante?), but not found in the everyday world. This was before Bruce Lee, and Chuck Norris, and even before Five Fingers of Death
appeared on the horizon as the first major release of a true martial arts film. It wasn't available, didn't exist, and if you were lucky enough to find a dojo, you'd have to eat dirt to get in.
I knew of only one school in all of Philadelphia back then. It was a traditional Japanese school (I now believe it was a Shotokan academy), and the workout floor was hardwood, finely polished, class impeccably clad in
white Gi's, and a Sensei right out of my imagination. Of course, it was in a part of town prohibitive for me to enter, and frankly, the severity of the program was, by my measure, beyond what I could endure.
In many ways, those days seem like a distant dream. There were no videos, and television was still in its infancy...strictly Jackie Gleason, Milton Bearle, Ed Sullivan, etc. However, my
interest stuck, and I searched everywhere for anything I could find on the arts. I remember my first big "hit" was a bookstore off of Roosevelt Blvd. and Cottman, where one
afternoon, I struck gold. On the sports bookshelf was a book by Gichin Funakoshi (Karate Do Kyohan), which, when I inspected it, looked to be the outline of a complete system. It took several weeks for me to earn
the $17.00 (back then, a considerable sum for a book), but eventually I bought it, and with the Master's guiding hand, launched my study of Karate. The same bookshelf later contained
works on a style called Isshinryu, written by a Steve Armstrong. Reading and thumbing through them, I saw they were a detailed explanation of Isshinryu Kata, or forms, written by this Armstrong, who had apparently
studied the art while stationed on Okinawa. I never imagined an American would be so knowledgeable as to be able to produce his own textbook, and the name “Armstrong” stuck. Someday, fate permitting, I would seize
the opportunity to meet this Armstrong, and hear in his own words, how he had come to learn Karate and propagate it in America.
The Armstrong Dojo, facing the Mizugami
Aside from that, there was nothing. I learned what I could from Master Funakoshi's book, and ultimately was blessed to find a true Shotokan instructor in St. Louis, who filled in what
was missing from my training regimen. I had been in Shotokan for several years, when a new art began to make inroads, Tae Kwon Do. Who would have thought that within several years, Tae Kwon Do would become a universal
entity, and Shotokan, with its rigorous training and demands for perfect execution, would gradually fade to the background. It was the late 60's and there were whispers of a
West Coast phenomenon named Bruce Lee. I attended St. Louis University and experienced my first Karate tournament (In those days, there might be one, possibly two, during the
course of a year). Sensei Steve Armstrong was now bigger than ever, with his Seattle Open getting national recognition. Tacoma, Washington, where he housed his school, was to
some of us in the outlands a Mecca of inspiration. Of course, I don't mean to slight the other "greats" by failing to mention them here. The point is American Karate was in its infancy,
and my path is singular. There was Ed Parker, Joe Lewis, Chuck Norris's star was on the ascendant, Mr. Cho in New York, Sensei Don Nagle in New Jersey, Harold Mitchum,
Sensei Long, Fred Hamilton, Slocum and Pierce of New York, Keehan of Chicago (before he became Count Dante), and many more. These gentleman were pioneers, and to a
person, were deadly serious about what they taught. Their skills were generally hard earned, learned well, and taught well. Martial Arts became their lives, and in many
instances, their sole source of income and inspiration. Still, even in the late 60's, schools and instructors were scarce, and one had to exert considerable effort to find a receptive school. Tournaments were sometimes
months and thousands of miles apart, and required genuine sacrifice to attend. Doubtless you're too young to recall, but it was before the deregulation of Airlines, and a typical cross country flight would cost the
equivalent of a month's wages. Some of the warriors back then were true ronin, carrying blankets on their shoulders (there were no back packs like today's, and no such thing as a day pack) and spending nights under
bridges or on the roadside. At about that time, the Long Beach Internationals (Ed Parker's tournament) blossomed into the acknowledged national championship event, and held that prestigious position for nearly
fifteen years. To give you an idea about how small the entire scene was, Mr. Parker and Steve Armstrong were mutually supportive friends, as they were with many others, including Chuck Norris. Bruce Lee was originally
from Seattle (Armstrong's sphere of influence), and it was Parker's Long Beach Internationals where a young Bruce Lee gave a brief demonstration which turned the entire American Martial Arts scene on its ear. Living
in St. Louis, I continued my endeavors in Shotokan, but attempted to get other exposure where I could...there was only Tae Kwon Do, and believe it or not, back then, Tae Kwon Do forms still echoed the forms outlined in
Funakoshi's Karate Do Kyohan (They have since been completely reworked, so as to more effectively incorporate the traditional Korean Art of Taekyon into their presentation). It wasn't until the late 60's that the
door opened for learning the Chinese arts. Earlier, I had lived with several Chinese who were clearly quite skilled in traditional arts, which they practiced diligently in their rooms, or in private locations, beyond my
scrutiny. When questioned, they denied knowing anything, and never volunteered to discuss. Thank goodness we're beyond that!
The Family Tree of American Isshinryu
Well my story regarding Mister Armstrong comes full circle. After St. Louis University, I traveled back to New Jersey, then to Philadelphia, and ultimately ended up in the Army, relocated to
Monterey, then to Southeast Asia. I continued my personal pursuit of excellence in the arts, and had opportunity to broaden my experience by immersing into Hap Ki Do, Wing Chun, Arnis, Thai
Boxing, and Chinese sword. During my travels I worked personally with several masters, and even learned Chinese Mandarin. It wasn't until the mid seventies that I finally got to Tacoma, WA.
Actually, I returned to the states and was stationed at Ft. Lewis, just outside Tacoma. It was through a friend, Earl Squalls, that I had my first opportunity to meet Sensei Armstrong.
Recalling the “old Days” with Sensei Armstrong (circa 1993)
On first contact, I was blown away by his physical size (Click here for a glimpse of Armstrong while at his physical prime)
. Now I stand 6'3" tall, and usually weigh in at 225 lbs. I felt dwarfed by Mister Armstrong. This is hard to explain, he wasn't much taller than I was, nor did he weigh much more. It's just that everything
about him was big. His hands were huge, and all I could think on first seeing those "paws" was he could kill me
if he ever hit me. They were nothing less than battering rams. Master Armstrong was 44 years old and still in his physical prime. He was pretty much held in awe by all who knew him. Not just because of his imposing
presence, but because of his absolute command of Isshinryu, and Karate in general. With a glance, he could discourse for an hour on all the things he found in your Kata that could be improved. His power was awesome,
and one of his typical "feats" was to throw a pine board in the air, and "nail" it with a punch, while it was free
floating. The board would explode. If you think that's easy, try it sometime. Few people talk about Mr. Armstrong's past, but he was a bona fide war hero, having established himself in the Korean War, and gaining
enough notoriety from his exploits that he became a member of President Truman's personal guard before reaching the age of twenty (yes, he enlisted underage). From the first encounter to the very end, Armstrong
emphasized that meeting Tatsuo Shimabuku was the turning point of his life. Master Shimabuku is known to us mostly through the reflection of his art through generations of Isshinryu students. Armstrong knew the man,
and maintains adamantly he has never met a master who compares to Shimabuku.
Imagine the diminutive Shimabuku meeting Armstrong the first time, then laughing when Armstrong said he
was a Black Belt. Shimabuku expected performance, and that remains the tenet of Isshinryu to this day. Armstrong wanted to work with Shimabuku, and indicated he already held Black Belt status (nidan).
Shimabuku asked Armstrong to demonstrate, then laughed him off the floor. He did, however, invite him to become a student. That began a relationship that continued over the years until ultimately, Master Shimabuku
promoted Armstrong to 10th dan (yes, I've seen the certificate, and also Mr. Armstrong's personal copy of the Scroll of Kumite).
I eventually developed a friendship with Armstrong. I was working Arnis with Sensei Dave Bird, and had been accepted as a student by Master Archibeque...and that took most of my time. Armstrong and I remained in
contact for those several years, having no clue about the evolving brain tumor that was to derail his life in the martial arts on September 8, 1977. That story is detailed in his Isshinryu Karate.
His recovery from the tumor removal was a nightmare, and it would not be unkind to say he was never the same person again. Certainly his awe inspiring persona remained, but his physical prowess diminished, as did
his ability to remain physically active. Tragically, his judgment clouded, and he alienated some of his most highly regarded Black Belts, many of whom are established Sensei even today. Without the fountainhead of
Mr. Armstrong's personality, his influence in the world of martial arts diminished (Did you know he was a member of Elvis's Black Belt promotion panel?), and new voices were on the horizon, eager to retire whoever
remained of America's martial arts pioneers. We had entered the era of protective equipment in tournaments (Armstrong wouldn't allow it, always arguing the best protective equipment was clean technique and good
control), widespread media attention, and the flood of incoming styles, now in fact too numerous to even mention. Where once, his was the only show in town, now there were schools in every neighborhood. The dojo
which had once been filled to overflowing was now populated by less than a handful of regular participants. Even within his own style, there were challenges to his stature and authority.
Mr. Armstrong has always been a proud, and headstrong man. Those were his great attributes, but in the end, they precipitated his ultimate slide into permanent retirement.
Co-incident with my meeting and befriending Mr. Armstrong, I became best friends with Don Wasielewski. Per Armstrong, "Don is the one person, the single person, that I would
ever ask to cover my back...and know it would be covered." Wasielewski became one of Armstrong's students while attending University of Puget Sound, where he was a 185 pound lineman on the football team.
Armstrong's oft cited expression that "It's not the size of the the dog in the fight that's important, it's the size of the fight in the dog" was inspired by his admiration for
Wasielewski. As fate would have it, I had the opportunity to learn the Isshinryu system working under Don, frequently at Master Armstrong's studio. In fact, toward the end, we had the key to the
location, and reciprocating Master Armstrong's courtesy, allowed for his senior students to participate in our sessions.
Sensei Armstrong (Bill Mc Cabe (l), Don Wasielewski (r))
After several years of very hard work, Master Armstrong did return to some level of stature in the martial arts world ("Seven times you fall down, eight times you get up"). He had
opportunity to travel to Israel, and Europe, where he authenticated and validated schools in several countries, and Sensei from several countries came to spend time with Armstrong,
not infrequently staying, as his guest, on the second floor of his dojo. I had the good fortune of testing for Isshinryu Black Belt before Mr. Armstrong on February 20, 1988. He was careful to scrutinize everything I
did, often asking for second repetitions of my Kata, then offering extended commentary into the Bunkai (combat applications), and significance of the many moves. I experienced first hand the passion he
brought to the art, and his desire that it be passed down, in tact. By decade’s end, Mr. Armstrong began to backslide from the effects of his illness.
There were incidents between him and some of his prominent students, who wished to have autonomy, ultimately resulting in permanent breaks. His classes diminished in number, and activity at the school became
marginal. He became forgetful, and heaven help the soul who fell from his favor. There were some incidents where lesser Black Belts either challenged him, or intentionally provoked him. I remember one where the
unsuspecting challenger, positive that only a shell of the former Armstrong remained, was dropped to helplessness by a front kick that no one ever saw. The late Earl Squalls (a tournament champion many times
over) commented afterwards the kick would have been lightning fast for a person half Armstrong's size and age, making the feat all the more remarkable. Tragically, the regression continued. Mr. Armstrong slowly lost
the ability to control his emotional swings which were becoming more pronounced, and even normal physical
activity was becoming a problem. He declared his intent to retire, and over a short span of time, liquidated his
assets and resources in Tacoma and closed his school. Among his final acts was the promotion and designation of Sensei Donald Wasielewski to be his successor in authority, and to whom he entrusted the continuing
heritage of Isshinryu in the Pacific Northwest.
These photos were taken at the time of our last visit to Master Armstrong’s school. We had learned he decided to retire. Concerned
this would be our last opportunity to photograph the School’s Mizugami, we took these final shots. Within months, the building was sold, and the school retired into history.
Not long after commencing retirement, Master Armstrong’s continued deterioration resulted in his care and
ultimate residency at the Washington Veterans Hospital where he passed away on November 15, 2006.
He was a pioneer, and made great personal sacrifices to preserve and perpetuate his Master's art. Where there was one, there are now many. Thank you Master Armstrong.
So...dedicating this page to my friend, and one of the great mentors of my life, I would like to present the
entire package of Kata from the Isshinryu system. The first six were performed by myself in 1988 at the
Armstrong Dojo... I know they look rough ... I thought you’d like a taste of the atmosphere for it’s historical significance (also, visit Isshinryu Northwest for some additional insights into the "old days" at Armstrong's
Dojo). The balance were filmed as opportunity arose at later times. We give two variations of the Toko Meni
Bo Kata, since two versions, with very slight distinctions are common in the Pacific Northwest. I’ve also
included Ki An No Sai, which is a third Sai form in the system, but not one which was required for promotion at the Armstrong Dojo. Chris Entus, my student, performs several of the forms.
(Click here to see videos)