In the Sixties, when I started martial training, board breaking was the rage. We did it at every demonstration, we did it at belt tests, we even did it at home to the shock of wide-eyed parents. And we developed tricks and variations, such as, it really helps with the break  if you pre-bake the boards (1″ thick and 12X12″ square) in the oven at 250 degrees over night. That way they crack sweet and no surprises.

We saw the thing of breaking as mind over matter but now I’m not so sure we weren’t just impressing girls. My particular school–a strong Kenpo studio with 700+ students–boasted its own demo team. We would show up in our starched uniforms, dance through the sets, slap one another silly with the self defense techniques then, for the finale,  break wood.

Each of us had a specialty. Hold the board head high and punch it so the bottom half sheered off, have three strong guys hold it to receive a forearm smash, palm drop straight down. I was one of those who developed the “fake-out speed break”. What is a FOSB? That’s the one where you stand in front of the hand-held board, make a fist and pull it back slowly then extended it toward the board like you are building up a laser-tight intent. You do this a number of times, inhaling hard while tightening  your right fist and glaring. Then  lock it to your hip like you’re about to launch but, instead, you make a near invisible motion with the other palm and snap the board like lightning. That’s the fake out. It was something at the time, but so was Bosco.

Why did we love this stuff so much? Well, first was that it made a lot of noise. And it did show a certain skill level at a stunt most people could not even imagine at the time. Some of my friends could jump kick and splinter wood seven feet in the air. One of my personal favorites was snapping a board by employing a loose, open-fingered fist (which I called the “Tai Chi break”) using only bone alignment rather than muscular contraction. We broke boards with our bare knuckles, elbows, heads, knees, wrists. We broke them over student thighs while they stood in their horse stances. We broke them in circuits: wheel kick here to board #1, punch to #2 followed by a chop to #3. We broke them on concrete blocks, held in our hands, dropping through the air, and any way else we could think of. Some times we autographed the pieces at shopping malls. It was fun. It was a little silly. We admitted to people that “boards never fight back” but then went ahead and slaughtered then like schmoos. It was a time.

Toward the end I remember a demo that seemed a turning point. A TaeKwonDo black belt showing at a tournament broke some squares held by his docile white belt student. When he finished he asked the audience if anyone might like to come up and try a break. A buzz cut hefty brown belt stood up and navigated the bleachers to the waiting teacher. The Korean gentleman looked at this hulking white man for a second, made a slight shake of his head then handed the board to his white belt student. When the student was set up just right–elbows in, back leg locked, fingers out of the impact path, a process that took some minutes–the brown belt moved back fifteen feet or so, started running toward the single innocent board, jumped into the air and delivered a flying knife edge kick which broke the board then sailed right into the white belt’s face. No one was badly hurt but I kept thinking about that black belt shaking his head  and something in me did the same thing. I rarely demonstrated board or brick breaks past that point.

But it was fun then, yes it was.

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