A soft look8/14/2013
The long hair is what first catches your eye — dramatic for a man of middle age. Caught in tendrils by sweat, it frames his angular face and hawked nose to make him even more exotic. But it is the energy coiled that really grabs your attention, an energy that is just slightly scary. It might be a controlled rage. And it might be directed at you. Suddenly he flies into motion, jumping and kicking and spinning in the air. A thousand boards smashed with his hands and feet in one afternoon. Two thousand boards. Five thousand boards. We all stood with mouths agape and gladly counted ourselves as followers.
For countless years, lawyers, teachers, magazine editors, carpenters and businessmen made the pilgrimage to the Eric Heintz Black Belt Academy. We were there to learn Tae Kwon Do. We were there for fitness. We were there to get away from the pressures of work. We were certainly there to exorcise as much as exercise. Pick your demon. But confusion as to motive did not lead to confusion as to who was the boss. Eric Heintz was the master. Period. For good reason. We all knew he would walk us out of the wilderness. And he did.
For me, it was fear. Fear of the bully. Straight out of my childhood. But to show up in the courtroom, with knuckles bloodied from breaking bricks and with bruises from sparring, it was a wonderful antidote. And when I would slide back into fear, Heintz would admonish me to act with virtue and restraint — unless virtue and restraint was not an option. Then he assured me I could release my wrath. I didn’t even know I had a “wrath” to release. Apparently I did.
Looking back over the years, it was a simple matter of belief. Not just the belief that you could break two stacked bricks, or you could fly in the air and execute a side kick, or you could defend against three attackers at once. It was much more mundane. Heintz simply believed in you. And if he believed in you, how could you not believe in you? It was a wonderful thing.
And then it all came to an end.
Surgeries, botched and otherwise, left Heintz extremely ill. Fed by a tube, his days were numbered. He was a dead man, according to the doctors. And it was the close of an era. The Eric Heintz Black Belt Academy was no more. I went on with my life, and Eric Heintz faded gently from my universe.
Twenty years passed.
The Buddhist priest, tethered by a feeding tube, gingerly sat on the couch and smiled.
“Everyone’s life is full of burdens, aches and pains, catastrophes, losses… fill in the blank. There is no solid ground beneath your feet. Being in a certain kind of shape doesn’t help. Having a whole lot of money or a job with status or prestige in the community doesn’t help. Basically you’re just kind of out there, and you’re going to be a bug on a windshield at some point.
“Life is precious. But if you start taking it so seriously that you must get some kind of control and maintain it to have value, for you to be safe, that control is not going to happen. Deep inside we think horrible things can happen to other people, but at the same time we don’t think it could happen to us.
“Well, it does happen. But, you can still laugh at a joke. You can still enjoy what you enjoyed before. And even if you can’t, you can take a hard look, or a soft look, around you and find something else that will satisfy whatever in yourself that needs attention. You can find it.
“Each of us is going to have pain, and each of us is going to die. It is just a question of how you want to spend your time. It may be a matter of minutes or longer. Nobody has any assurances. But, do you want to spend your time saying, ‘I’m really hurting?’ Or can you let go of the absolute need to have something solid under your feet and be a happy, fulfilled person?”
The locks are shorn. The muscle is gone. A tube is connected to his insides. There’s no leaping. There’s no spinning. No boards are broken in a demonstration of masterful technique. Instead there is laughter and talk. A lot of it. As I take my leave, the man who became a Buddhist priest after falling deathly ill, Tetsugen Eric Heintz, grips my hand. It is a grip of sinewy steel muscle, one more reminder that nothing is as it appears. And he laughs and tells me to watch my step. CV
Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: www.joesneighborhood.com.