This is the seventh in the This Fighting Life series by Underground Blogger DeLeon DeMicoli, whose column is insipred by NPR's "This American Life." It covers in long essay form fighters and those that train.
Here he profiles author Frank Bill.
Before author Frank Bill scribed GQ Magazine’s favorite book of 2011 “Crimes in Southern Indiana,” he was a youngster from Corydon, Indiana hopped up on late night “Kung Fu Theater” wishing one day to kick ass like the “Chinatown Kid” or the Poison Clan’s last pupil, Yan Tieh, in “Five Deadly Venoms.” Wasn’t until a chain-smoking black belt with a muscular physique named John King opened up a Tae Kwon Do school in town did young Frank get the opportunity to live out that dream.
“Mom roped me into it. First class was your feeler class, seeing if you liked it or not. I loved it and stayed in it from eleven ‘til I was about seventeen,” said Bill in a soft-spoken Midwest drawl. “Fourteen or fifteen is when I tested for my black belt.”
His family didn’t travel much. Had family throughout the Midwest he’d visit from time to time, but it didn’t have the same pizzazz kids gabbed about in class when they returned from Disney World, Sea World or Cedar Point. Opportunity to venture out of Corydon came when he competed in Tae Kwon Do tournaments. He’d carpool with training partners, crossing state lines to test his mettle. Sometimes he won, others he lost. Didn’t matter much. He was doing something he loved.
Junior year high school, Bill earned enough credits to enroll in the vocational program. Last semester of his senior year he was eligible for work release.
“I ended up taking a job on a lumberyard. I’d work part of the day and then the other part of the day was spent back at school. At the lumberyard is where I met my Chinese Kung Fu teacher.”
During lunch-breaks, Bill hung out with the “head yard dog,” fella named Moon. Wore thick Coke bottle glasses and looked like a miniature “Tank” Abbott minus the belly. He was a pugilist, fought Golden Gloves. Told Bill about a Yanni-looking dude that worked alongside them named Tony Wood. Rumor was he knew Black Tiger Kung Fu. “Supposed to be some bad shit,” said Moon. Only thing Master Wood didn’t have a school to teach his students in the conventional sense. Taught closed door Kung Fu, meaning he handpicked his students. Trained them at a park free of charge. Wasn’t about quantity, but quality (a concept that later played in Bill’s writing style). Wood was a traditionalist. Believed martial arts should be passed down to family or pupils that proved they were worthy of learning his style of martial arts just like how he was taught. Old school disciple-type shit like the flicks Bill watched as a kid.
“You had to show you were working out when we trained. You’re a reflection of what he’s teaching.”
Bill studied under Wood for eight years. Learned most of Wood’s Kung Fu system. Then time came to teach classes on his own, pass down what he learned. Also test his skills against other systems. Learn from the likes of Jeet Kune Do, Wing Chun, Muay Thai, boxing and Jiu-jitsu. Not to mention seek out a Master, Wood always spoke highly of.
Grand Master Wing Lok “John” Ng studied a mixture of animal based Kung Fu systems at the Fukien temples and in secrecy during China’s cultural revolution (the Chinese Communist Party banned martial arts, seeing it as a religious practice and training ground for counter revolutionaries). Master Ng came to the states in the 1970s. Opened an academy in Lexington, Kentucky in 1981 where he taught several top ranked competitors including Master Frank Sexton, the last student and heir to the Ng family Golden Monkey System.
“Frank was a country boy like myself that loved martial arts, that’s what drew me to ‘im.”
Once a week for two years, Bill drove over three hours to Kentucky to train with Master Sexton and Master Ng. Add the full-time hours he put in at a clay additives plant (where he currently works), it didn’t leave much time for anything else.
In 1999 David Fincher released his latest flick starring Edward Norton as an overworked insomniac finding refuge in support groups for the sick and helpless. Wasn’t until he met soap maker Tyler Durden, played by Brad Pitt, did he learn salvation (and enlightenment) in the form of underground fight clubs.
You know the line, “First rule of fight club--”
Once Bill learned the flick was based on a book scribed by Chuck Palahniuk, he went to the bookstore to discover no copies available for purchase. Instead he picked up the author’s second published work “Invisible Monsters.” Consumed it in two days, something he had never done before. Then found a copy of “Fight Club.” Loved the way Palahniuk told a story, it was different from fiction he read in the past. There was a rhythm to his prose, not your run of the mill mass-market reads.
Bill had storytelling in his blood too. Passed down to him from generations of men that knew how to construct narratives about their lives, just never set to paper.
After stacks of books from the likes of Craig Clevenger, Donald Ray Pollack and Larry Brown filled his shelves, inspiration finally swung a hook into his liver causing him to peel back a moleskin notebook and write stories about life in Corydon. A few of them tales found themselves in print and online. Folks recognized his talent. He saw a future in it. But writing took away from his training. He had to choose what was important to him. He loved martial arts, but that ain’t never put food on the table. Not saying it was supposed to. But driving three to four hours to train in Kentucky started to wear on him. So he compromised. Built equipment specifically for Kung Fu training. Purchased other equipment he hung in the garage. Training at home freed up time to focus on his new love for writing.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux released Bill’s book of short stories “Crimes in Southern Indiana” in 2011. Violent yarns filled with gothic-style pulp. Never dull, never boring, filled with characters you hope to never meet. This past month his follow-up and first novel “Donnybrook” was released. Story about twenty people in a three day bare-knuckle Vale Tudo in the backwoods of Indiana. Last-man standing walks (probably limps) away with a $100,000 purse. If it’s anything like his first work “Crimes…” plan for it to be bloody as hell.
Frank Bill is a man that has proved when you apply the same dedication you have for martial arts to anything else in your life, world is your oyster.
Check him out online at frankbillshouseofgrit or follow him @HouseofGrit
DeLeon DeMicoli writes and trains in San Francisco, CA. He is currently writing a novel on Mixed Martial Arts.
If you or somebody you know trains in martial arts and has an interesting story they would like to share, please email email@example.com
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Previous Pieces by DeLeon DeMicoli:
This Fighting Life 7: Brett “The Hitman” Hart
This Fighting Life 6: Chris “Maximus” McNally
This Fighting Life 5: Kevin Roddy vs. Hurricane Sandy
This Fighting Life 4: Mirko Büchwald
This Fighting Life 3: Bashir Ahmad and MMA in Pakistan
This Fighting Life 2: Diorelle and Brooke
This Fighting Life 1: Casey McEachern