by K.S. Baron
Trinidad feels like a fever dream now.
I only remember a few things from the Pan-Caribbean: the shark n’ bake, the desire to go to the beach, and the who-knows-how-long layovers in Florida before flying across an ocean for the very first time. We came back one day to a big-eyed gecko clinging to the walls of our hotel room and hung towels in front of the shower for privacy. Most of the memories don’t revolve around the tournament itself, or the sideways mountain drive to the waterfall my mom tells me we went to see (though somewhere, I have a vague glimpse of being in that little car). They revolve around a coconut—finding it whole in a cinderblock after a tournament demonstration—and naming it Bob, which no one ever let me live down.
I wish there were more, that my brain had been developed enough to solidify more of them in its folds. I have the medals to remember it all, though I couldn’t tell you what katas I did or what my competition was like. Instead, it’s been overrun by the smaller things—by the moments in the airport when our USA team was crowded together in chairs and on floors, by the feeling of landing at nearly midnight and still having to go through TSA on the Trinidad side, by the look on the agent when he found Bob the coconut in my suitcase on the way home (and left it there). Still, all of it feels so special, as does the rest of my time training with FMK Karate and Dragon Fire Martial Arts—albeit nearly two decades ago, now. I liken that pureness to the people.
Grandmaster Christopher Francis is one of them. He is, by all accounts, the pinnacle of my memories from the weeks spent in Trinidad for the Pan-Caribbean. An over six-foot-tall man, Grandmaster Francis was over twice my size and one of the friendliest people I’ve come to know. And for a nine-year-old, that was pretty big. It isn’t until you’re an adult that you receive the shame, hurt, and pain projected onto you from other people and the struggles they’ve been through. So to look at an adult, at a point in time where everyone was treating you as innocently as you were, and have them be one of your favorites—I’m not sure I would have it any other way. He smiled every time he saw me, grinned meeting my then-boyfriend (now-husband) for the first time when I was older. One of my biggest aches comes from getting the wedding invitation returned undeliverable (which, Grandmaster Francis, if you read this, know how much I truly wanted you there). He exuded everything positive that there is to find in the martial arts world, and it’s a presence I won’t ever forget.
More than a Grandmaster, he was a friend to my father. He visited our school in New York a handful of times, once when I was in sixth grade, and he brought his teenage daughter Gabby with him. It was fresh air, having her there at a time when neighbors I had been friends with became teenagers, too, and started to bully me at school. She was as kind as her father, perfectly content to watch me play Runescape during a summer afternoon and treating me as an actual friend. She was shot some time when I was in college and a part of me still aches for her; somewhere, I had hoped I could see her again after school, maybe at another martial arts event. The whole of that world wept with Grandmaster Francis then; we all knew what a beautiful soul was lost. She lives still with grace in every aspect of my memories.
And so, too, does the Tasetano family. I don’t know them in the same way that I know Grandmaster Francis, but I do know that they had the heart in them to let a nine-year-old girl join the World Karate Union Hall of Fame—and the induction ring is one of my most treasured pieces of jewellery to date. We’d gone to WKU for years, competing, sitting at a fancy dinner, running tables to sell bos and swords and other things (one year I even got a signed autograph from the man that voiced Fluffy on Garfield), and I had always wanted to be one of the martial artists getting my name called to come to the front. To be important, to feel the achievement. And that year, it was nothing short of a skipped beat to see my name appear in the pamphlet under “inductees.” There are many things in the world that can make a nine-year-old little girl feel magical—and receiving a hall of fame ring is one of them.
Adjacent to all of them were the kids from the Sword Team of Ithaca College. People who were nothing short of a group of protective older brothers. It was an extension of the nuclear family through the team my dad coached late evenings during the semester. My brother was older and knew them much better, travelled with them while I stayed home with my mom (which was its own kind of wonderful), but I looked up to all of them—and I still do. One became a state representative; one went from having a bottle opener on the bottom of his sandal to a family man. Each of them has moved on and become something more than the sword student they were on the sides of studies—and yet still have that art at their core. Somewhere along the way, they were an extension of the family. They always will be, because that’s what the martial arts are all about in the end, isn’t it? Growing a chosen family outside of your own, and if you’re lucky, the two are one and the same.
I have my father to thank for mine. He’s been training, teaching, promoting, and leading in the martial arts sphere for as long as I can remember. I was two years old when he started construction on our dojo (tacked onto the back of the dining room), and I remember going with him for classes at FMK where I made friends whose names I don’t recall but bring up fondness whenever I think about them. And while my dad spent all that time training me and my brother, watching us grow, we got to watch him grow, too. From being our father and our sensei to meeting the President of Trinidad and Tobago, travelling to The Arnold, and becoming a part of The Martialist movies and comic books—he makes me proud, and I hope I make him proud, too.
Martial arts were only the cornerstone of the things he taught me, and they led me down a well-trained path of discipline and resilience. A life spent in the martial arts is one of value, be it from the lessons we take with us or the family we make through classes, training, competitions, and events. The lasting impact of training under my father, surrounded by some of the most respectful people I’ve come to know to this day, is one I carry with me wherever I go.
K.S. Baron is a poetry editor at Last Leaves Magazine and an all-around creative. She grew up a stone’s throw from waterfalls and spent her childhood hiking in gorges, only to translate those experiences into work that has been published in Capsule Stories, Havik Poetry, Burnt Pine Magazine, and more. She has a soft spot for sharp things, like cats and cacti, and finds herself drawn to the moon.