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 American Odyssey [part one]

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PostSubject: American Odyssey [part one]   Fri 17 Jul 2015, 11:24

The U.S.A. Odyssey

I’m not a good traveller.  There are people who appear to thrive upon the whole experience of a holiday, right from the genesis of the idea to go abroad, to the sound the front door makes as it slams shut behind you upon your return.  I am not one of those people.  The constant planning, booking of tickets, intricacies of insurance, currency exchange, ticket confirmation…it all leaves me feeling physically ill.  As a result, my holidays are all booked on extremely short notice and I do my level best to ignore them until the 48 hours before departure.
Now, that’s a normal holiday.  When you start adding variables like a keen interest in self protection, a small budget and a web of contacts that doesn’t tolerate bullshit artists, your holidays start to get REALLY interesting.  Imagine, for a moment, if in the course of normal conversation you were asked if you had any holidays booked.  You reply that you’ll be going to the USA to learn how to shoot handguns and carbines.  You will notice a very small silence and a blank expression on the face of your conversation partner.  They’re not wondering what a carbine is - they’re trying to figure out if there’s a fire exit nearby just in case you decide to entertain a psychotic episode and start waving an axe around in an irresponsible manner.  You may be thinking “Why don’t you just tell them you’re going to Disneyland?” but I’m a dreadful liar.  A really, really bad liar.  Even if I managed to tell outrageous fibs for five minutes straight, my addled brain would forget to take that into account five minutes later when I open my mouth again and undo all my previous work.  The thing about firearms is that lying about them is not The Way To Win Friends And Influence People.  If someone discovers that you’re trying to conceal a firearms-related topic, you instantly get pegged as a lone psychotic, probably with connections to the Ruby Ridge incident and people will cross the street to avoid being shot by you.
So, this in mind, I’ve saddled myself with crippling honesty about my holidays.  I just vomit truth all over the unsuspecting inquisitor.  
Even in a recent job interview, I let slip my intention to fly to the US.  
‘Oh really?’ they said, ‘Where are you going?’
‘North Carolina and Mississippi.’
‘Ahahaha, you’re not going to one of those white power militia training camps are you? Ahahaha’
‘Well, I’ll be learning to shoot, but not with the White Power Militia. Ahahaha.’
‘…hm…’
I didn’t get that job.  I got the impression that the alarm button under the desk was pressed several times.

Gatwick airport isn’t terribly well designed.  I had been awake for a substantial length of time, having worked a nightshift the previous night, been awake all day trying to pack a suitcase and then sit awake all the night waiting for a coach destined for the airport.  I was leery of going to sleep for fear of missing some vital deadline, be it getting off the coach or getting onto the flight.  One mistake may kill my holiday deader than the mullet haircut.



As I walked into Gatwick airport, I was rapidly approaching a state only experienced by those suffering a bipolar mental disorder.  My sole thought was to find a large doorway labelled “Departures” and walk through it.  I soon found said doorway and tried to stumble through, dragging my suitcase behind me.  Some security chap sat a small desk stopped me and asked me where I was going. I told him I was there to catch a flight (duh!) and continued on my way.  The guy actually leaned out and stuck an arm in my path.  I looked at him, fixing him with a bloodshot glare and was about to say something to the effect of “What in the name of blazes do you think you’re doing?”
“Sir, you’ll have to check your baggage.”
“I’ve already checked it.  Packed it myself!”  For crying out loud.
“No, sir.  Check your baggage in.”
Ah.  I’d just tried to drag a large, unchecked bag through a security checkpoint.  In America, I’d be dead by now, and this guy was keeping a hand under his desk.  Whoops.  Backpedalbackpedalbackpedal.
I offered my sincerest apologies and walked unsteadily back in the direction I had last travelled.  Close call.  I found a flat surface and tried to get some sleep, but the constant torrent of screaming children, teenagers with no volume control on their mouth, mothers trying to discipline their kids by swearing at them and people laughing at all of the above kept me awake.  The bastards.
Gatwick has a large array of check-in desks, arranged in the same way that a child with attention deficit disorder might arrange Lego bricks.  I couldn’t find the desk for US Airways.  Not even a clue.  I must’ve wandered around for a good twenty minutes before I finally stumbled upon the vast number of US Airways desks that took up a substantial amount of room in the Gatwick check-in lounge.  I’ve never taken drugs, but I think this is what it’d feel like if I did.  This is the travel equivalent of not being able to boil a kettle.  I still had US Customs to tackle in twelve hours time and I had this awful premonition of dread.
I stood in the queue to get my baggage checked and I was approached by not one but two airport security staff.  They were both clutching an electronic gizmo of some description.  One was an Asian dude, aged about thirty with a thin beard; the other was a girl barely out of university, clearly nervous at the prospect of interviewing a skinhead with bloodshot eyes.
“Good morning sir.  Did you pack this suitcase yourself?”
No, I paid a gang of five crackheads to pack my clothes because I felt really lazy this morning. “Yes.”
“Have you left your luggage unattended at all since you packed it?”
This question provides me with a dilemma.  I’m the sort of person who wouldn’t confirm the absence of an elephant in a phone box without having a check first.  Technically, I have left my baggage unattended.  I put it in the hold of a coach and didn’t clap eyes on it for another three hours.  I had my eyes closed trying to sleep with the suitcase nearby, but I cannot 100% say that nobody fucked with it when my attention was diverted towards rest.  My knapsack has an exterior pouch that someone could quite easily slip a half pound of plastique into without my noticing because it’s on my back, not under my nose.  So technically, my luggage could be full of weaponry by now and I’d be none the wiser.  The dilemma is whether or not to tell this poor girl of my uncertainties and risk being dragged into a small room by large men and have my baggage stripped to its component parts just to make sure.  And risk being labelled a trouble maker and banned from travelling ever again.  Ever.  “No.”  
I hope there’s no plastique in my knapsack otherwise I’ll really be in for it.
“Is there anything that is a weapon or may be construed to be a weapon inside your baggage?”
I could kill you with anything I can hold.  Everything I own could be used as an instrument of mayhem.  I am the weapon.  “No.”
Suitably placated, I was given a sticker for correctly answering all questions correctly and waved on my way.  The baggage rattled away on a conveyor and I was free to make the second attempt at the security gate.  After holding up the whole queue by misplacing my boarding pass and having to rummage for a long, sickening moment to find it, I walked through the metal detector with no issues whatsoever.

After an interesting diversion to the whiskey shop (do try the quarter-barrel Laphroig if you get the opportunity) I sat down and patiently waited for the flight to begin boarding.  For those of you not in the know, Charlotte is a major hub in the US air travel system.  This means that if you’re not flying direct to your holiday destination, the chances are that you’re going to be flying through Charlotte airport.  Places like Florida are a common next step from Charlotte airport.  Places like Disneyworld.  If you are travelling on the same route that anyone may use to get to Disneyworld, you are sure to have the privilege of The Screaming Brat From Hell.  If you’re really lucky, you’ll have several of them.  If you are me, you’ll have the equivalent of the entire five-and-under population of a small nation.  Sitting in the lounge area, watching diligent parents fill their children with Irn-Bru (a drink made in Scotland, containing no natural ingredients whatsoever) I knew that the flight over would not be short of shrieking, inconsolable noise generators.



For the first time ever, I found my seat on the aircraft to be next to a rather attractive female of my peer group.  She was not quite so enthused about sitting next to a skinhead with a faintly crazed expression and fixed her gaze at the thermoplastic folding table immediately in front of her.  As the aircraft taxied toward the runway, a middle-aged female sitting on my row chose that moment to announce in strained tones that she was not prepared to leave terra firma and that she wanted to get off.  The stewardess told her that statistically aircraft are the safest mode of transport on earth.  Not wishing to be swayed by logic and reason, the lady insisted on her hasty egress from the aircraft and we turned back toward the terminal.  I was unchuffed.  Everybody who had a connecting flight to catch was unchuffed.  The pilot didn’t sound that pleased with her either.  The fire service were first to arrive, and they too tried to carve a swift path to an amenable outcome with the machete of calm voices and reassurance.  They failed.  Then the ambulance service arrived and made sure that she wasn’t going to die.  The passengers in my vicinity were somewhat indifferent to her survival.  Eventually, defying all pleas for self-control and the wherewithal to weather the uncomfortable, she hobbled off the plane and we were subjected to the further delay of waiting for her baggage to be dragged from the hold, lest she be the latest in cunning ruses from the stable of Middle Eastern Mischief Inc.
The flight was long, and, predictably full of screaming kids.  To make things worse, the girl sat next to me thought that all shooters and combatives enthusiasts should perform some sort of social function on a village-community level to pre-empt hooliganism.  She wasn’t too impressed when I told her that we weren’t social workers and would rather spend our training time learning to kick ass.  She was a nice lass, but grew up in a somewhat privileged locale and thought that the rules applied to everyone.  The phrase “Many a beautiful theory has been destroyed by a gang of ugly facts” rang particularly true.
The plane landed (well, it bounced) and we were soon herded off and sent baaing and bleating to the customs desk.  Being British, I was far better trained than any of our transatlantic cousins to deal with huge queues that don’t move.  They didn’t like it much at all.  I got to the desk, where I was finger-printed and photographed, then waved on.  I could see the exit door in the distance at this stage.  I just needed to make it there.  The final hurdle was represented by a short, plump black lady wearing a gun and the uniform of the US Customs.  She flagged me down as I tried to amble past and closely examined my passport for the name “Ali”.
“What is the purpose of your visit?”
Bear in mind I had been without proper sleep for a long time and had only cat-napped occasionally since my trip began.  My hearing wasn’t up to scratch and the sight of the finishing line ahead of me left me a bit more flustered than I should probably admit.
“Nick Hughes.”
“She have me a look that said ‘Watchu been smokin’, boy?’ and carried on riffling though my passport.
“And what does he do?”
“He teaches martial arts.”
“You flew all the way here just for that?”  She didn’t sound convinced.
“Yep”
“Why?”  Good grief, woman!
“Because he’s really good.”
She didn’t look too impressed, but she ploughed on…”Where are you staying?”
“At his house.”
“That right?”
“Yes ma’am.”
“Thank you, sir.  Enjoy your trip.”
And so I stumbled forth, toward the light.

The first thing one might notice about Nick Hughes is that he’s huge.  Very tall and rather heavyset.  He looks like icebergs would if they dressed casually.  The second is his gimlet-blue eyes.  A very close third is the fact he calls you “Skippy”.  The three make for a rather unnerving combo.


[Slacky and Nick on a subsequent US trip in 2013]

Dragging my luggage behind me, I walk behind him exchanging small talk about the flight and the vagaries of transatlantic travel when, much to my astonishment, he stops at a huge BMW.  Now, I’m not accustomed to fine living.  My own car has been described thus:  “[It] looks like it was made in the worst backstreet workshop in Darra Adam Khel, by an apprentice working from a kids drawing.”
Nicks car, by comparison, is a cruise liner.  A vast chunk of German engineering clad in black leather upholstery.  I’m like a kid on Christmas morning and it was all I could do to stop myself from pressing every button and twiddling every gauge I could.  It was awesome, better than my house.
Despite his time in the French Foreign legion, a spell of residence in Ethiopia, several years in Britain and over a decade in the United States, Nick still speaks with a reverberating Aussie twang.  He’s got plenty to say about many, many things in life and I’m more than prepared to sit back and listen.  I’m struggling with exhaustion and try to sound lucid in conversation, but for the main part I’m a passive listener.
America is somewhat differently constructed to the densely populated isle of Britain.  Whereas in the UK the line between rural and urban is very clearly marked, the USA is rather blurry on where the two meet.  Instead of trying to cram everything into a tiny area of land, the Americans simply chop down a bit of forest that nobody was using and build their stuff there.  Virtually every housing estate, business park, industrial centre and whatnot has its own thousand-acre lot to build on.  This means that the average city in the States approaches the size of a county back in Blighty.  Therefore, if you want to get anywhere, you’ve got to drive.  There is no local shop; there is no handy store just down the road.  You’ve gotta drive, because just getting out of the residential area can mean driving a kilometre.

After a longish drive (though probably a drop in the ocean by American standards) Nick pulls into the driveway of a large house.  My eyes are wide open and all I can think is that it’s just like TV!  I’m brought inside and Nick’s beautiful wife Vahni gives me the tour and tells me that I’m welcome to treat the kitchen as my own and make myself thoroughly at home.  Now, I restrained myself somewhat because if it indeed was my home, my first course of action would be to find the waste disposal unit and drop different foodstuffs into it to see what happens.  I thought I’d better wait a couple of days before doing stuff like that, so I contented myself with sipping black tea with honey stirred in and rooting through Nick’s extensive book collection.  An hour or two passed and Nick announced that he had his class tonight and I was invited to come along and play.  I’d rallied by then, largely down to the influx of tea, and got my gear together.
Another long drive later (not long in terms of time, but every road appeared to be a freeway of some description.) and we arrive in a huge car park attached to the side of a building.  Making our way through a seemingly abandoned side entrance, a door was opened to reveal a group of students warming up in a worryingly energetic fashion.  We spend the session on basic knife skills and even got to work on some methods espoused by the late, great Gary Spiers (needless to say, they were simple and devastating.  Not for the faint of heart.)  I was also lucky enough to be invited to show the class a few of the things that the UK-RBSD crowd have been working on, namely the principle of aggression and forward drive in all techniques.  As Americans, they were all far too nice and well-mannered at first, but learned exceptionally quickly how to become enraged to point of spittle in the corners of the mouth.  Smashing bunch of people, every one of ‘em.  A post-training scoff was hastily arranged and I was treated to my food by the group.  Just as with every group I’ve come across who train hard with good tuition, they are a very welcoming and ego-free bunch who want nothing more than to learn and train.  A real pleasure to meet.
The following day was spent shopping.  The strength of the pound against the dollar meant that everything in the United States is half-price to me.  I was in sore need of a digital camera and a pair of boots, so a trip to a wonderful place called Best Buy was arranged.  In truth, I had my doubts about Best Buy.  In Britain, a shop called Best Buy is likely to specialise in food imported from Lithuania, electrical equipment from deepest Turkmenistan and the contents of bankrupt pound shops from Blackpool.  I have fond memories of following my grandmother around such stores as she plucked raffia-weave hats from shelves and bought bicycle safety gear that dissolves in the rain.
In the US, they do things a little differently.  Best Buy is a mammoth warehouse filled with the choicest consumer products bought in bulk and sold cheaply.  Where I was expecting to find digital cameras made in Mongolia by PanworTech, I was instead surrounded by the best efforts of Sony, Panasonic and Nikon.  I spent some time picking out the best camera for my needs, along with the accessories that are vital to its running, such as memory card and a carry case.
Money and I have never gotten along very well.  I’m not an administrative sort and the prospect of a visit to the bank is enough to make me drink strong liquor.  They have paperwork there.  Therefore, I attempt to make all my finance arrangements as simple as possible.  On holiday, I take a small amount of cash for the petty transactions like snack food and tips, and carry a credit card for everything else.  Restaurant bills, electrical goods, sunglasses – everything.  I had many plans for my credit card, all of which involved buying expensive stuff in the US cheaper than I can find it in the UK.  So, when faced with the Best Buy checkout clerk telling me that the camera and all its goodies were $550 dollars, I did my best not to snort derisive laughter and handed over my credit card with the assured expression that this was only the start of my spree.  He dutifully swipes my card and causes my blood pressure to violently spike.  The till display is happily blinking away “Card Expired” and making a small “tsk” noise.  The clerk looks unsure as to whether I’m going to a) cry or b) draw and fire.  It takes a few seconds for well-laid plans to disintegrate, so I stood stunned for a short moment.  This camera is a necessity.  My memory is about as reliable as submarine made from candyfloss, so my plans on recording as much as possible for posterity are not negotiable.  A hurried bout of mental arithmetic reveals that my petty cash for the holiday will cover the cost, but it’ll mean I’ll spend the rest of the holiday on a budget that takes me close to the edge of skint.  Sod it.  I turn to Nick and implore him to pay for the camera, telling him that I have the money and that I’ll pay him as soon as I can.  The shop assistant looks at Nick, 6’8, 280lbs, shaven headed and gimlet eyed and wonders if I’m going to be kneecapped before dawn.  Nick pays, I gather my wares and we leave.  I’m trying to figure out where things all went wrong.  I’ve never used a credit card before, though I’ve always had one because the bank was most insistent upon the fact.  Whenever I get a card in the post, I put it aside and promptly forget all about it.  The fact I’ve never thrown a card away never struck me until now.  I’d taken a card that had been expired for two years on holiday.  Not good.  Cash changed hands when I got back home and the debt was gone.  Whew.
I received news from home that my grandmother had died.  The way things panned out, I’d still be out of the country when the funeral took place.  That sobered me up some, but it wasn’t unsuspected and I had said my farewells shortly before I had set out abroad.  One thing I know for certain is that my Nan wouldn’t have stood for her death getting in the way of any plans.  It was later found that she wanted the cheapest funeral possible and for her remains to be thrown in the bin! (It transpired that this is illegal, so she had to be scattered in a garden of remembrance normally reserved for the remains of those with no known relatives or next of kin)
The next couple of days were a round robin of eating in various restaurants (I don’t think I ate in Nick’s house at all during my stay there), training in Filipino systems and overseeing the transformation from hardcore martial artist into real-estate agent.  This struck me as being rather surreal, but it fits in with the trend.  Many successful martial artists are moving on from the noble arts of extreme violence because there is zero money to be made in that field.  Seeing one of the premier martial artists of his generation busily educating himself in the white-collar industry of marketing homes to Mom and Pop is plain odd.  Imagine a Tyrannosaurus Rex successfully reinventing itself as a jazz piano player – you just can’t see it, not with that face.  I’m not casting doubt on his success – far from it.  Nick has a certainty and determination that can drill holes in rock from two hundred yards.  With the expansion of his career horizons has arrived a whole new syllabus to be absorbed.  Nick lives and breathes real estate these days, and just as this immersion in martial arts resulted in Nick becoming a monster of individual combat, it will finish with him selling property to people who own more land than you can see from a tall mountain on a clear day.  Keep an eye on this dude, he’s going places.
One particular experience that typifies Nick is his attitude to book shopping.  He is thorough.  I am prone to the impulsive book purchase.  If the cover is shiny, the authors name sufficiently cool, the reviews favourable, I’ll probably buy it.  I have lots of books and very little money because of this habit.
Nick does things differently.  He will spend a while roaming around the store, paying particular attention to newly published books.  After a given period of time, he will select a few that catch his eye and meander over to the coffee shop section. (Note to Brits: This is a trend building momentum in the UK.  Whereas previously bookshops were portals to a dusty, gently mouldering dimension, the Modern Bookshop is so cool to be seen in, penguins are employed as staff.  Sofas, beanbags and coffee are encouraged – though not in the same cup.)  Suitably laden with beverages and reading material he will spend AGES reading his prospective purchases to see whether they’re really worth his money.  This time period isn’t fixed in terms of minutes and hours, but it DOES exist right on the edge of the bookseller’s tolerance.  Despite being 6’8, 280 lbs and possessor of an aura that repels everything short of an ICBM, there is a moment where even the most timid of bookstore owners will inform him that he should either pay up or move on to the nearest library.  It is two minutes before this event horizon is breached that Nick will either put a book back on the shelf, or stroll over to the counter and part with cash.
A note here on tactical awareness.  If you ever meet an individual so entrenched in tactical living that their whole existence is bent around carving out every advantage they can out of the environment, you will see this.  Nick has an unerring eye for the best available seat in the house that provides him with a good field of vision, including the entrance.  Now, for all the super-coolness this might stir in the purists, it is something of a frustration for me.  You see, the finest vantage point for spotting bad guys is also suitable for spotting the gorgeous blonde waitress that struts around the restaurant/bookshop/mall/department store.  Ever the obliging host, he’d inform me of any Richter-scale beauties in the vicinities and I’d crane my head around to have a peek.  This happened all the time.  America is a nation rich in lithe young women, so my head spent more time swivelling than the periscope in the submarine training school at Poole.  Had I spent more time with Nick, my neck would have swelled to twenty-two inches and if the wives tales are true, blindness would not be far around the corner.
People of a nervous disposition should avoid spending large amounts of time in the company of a man whose fighting ability is close to mythical in status.  I had several near-cardiac episodes where I was convinced that I was going to be buried in an unmarked grave for coyotes to dig up some years down the line.  One such instance was a plumbing emergency.  In Nick’s home, I had the exclusive use of one bedroom and its en suite bathroom.  To a hardened prole like me, this was as close to five-star as it gets.  Late one afternoon, the diet of steak, Mexican food and other culinary novelties announced their desire to exit my gastro-intestinal tract.  I snapped shut my book, made my way to the bathroom and let nature take its course.  Five minutes later and several pounds lighter, I flushed and washed up, then decided to confirm the fact that the “burial at sea” had taken place.  Not so.
Looking back up at me was something that can only be described as a dead otter.  An impressive effort, even for myself, I considered registering the birth with the authorities.  I gave another flush, only to be faced with an implacable truth. Flush after flush brought no new success.  This was a Bismarck, an unsinkable monster that terrifies shipping.  I hunted around for a brush, a stick, anything that might break the dreadnought into manageable chunks for the water works to deal with.  No such luck. I was trapped with it.  It was Friday, and we were leaving for Atlanta in the next few hours.  If I didn’t do anything, Nick’s wife, Vahni, would inevitably clean the rooms I had inhabited and be confronted by this monster as it clambers out of the pan to make a new life in Wyoming.  I’m not sure exactly what happens to people who offend the wives of ex-Foreign-Legion, ex-bouncer, karate-champions, but I AM sure that it is unpleasant and is possibly on par with deaths plotted by Bond villains.  I sit dejected in the corner of the bathroom, looking dejectedly at the porcelain bowl in the corner wondering how on earth I was ever going to make it home alive.  Seppuku seemed to be my only honourable exit from the situation.
Random neurones fired and synapses engaged, and lo, an idea formed inside my still-sweating head.  I could locate another bathroom and “liberate” a brush for my dastardly scheme.  Whispering a prayer to the deity responsible for cowards, I set forth and proceeded to wander in an achingly nonchalant fashion past Nick, into the master bathroom and found, much to my relief, a bog brush.  As I carried my treasure back to the scene of the crime, Nick looked up from his workload, looked at me, looked at my hands, and then looked back to me.  I braced myself for impact and shook my head puffing out my cheeks in a way that is sufficiently vague to be interpreted as anything at all.  I briskly marched onward and out of sight, hopefully beyond the horror that lay with any kind of questioning.
Wielding my bristly Excalibur, I sent the dead otter to a watery grave and polished the porcelain till it shone.  The brush was subtly returned and I breathed easy again.  Such are the dangers of fraternising with men who can crush your skull like a grape.

The weekend was upon us and this meant that the Blade Show was near.  After a five-hour drive in Nick’s palatial BMW, we were in Atlanta, ready to see the shiniest and sharpest that the city had to offer.  The Blade Show is the biggest event on the knifemaker’s calendar.  Literally, every man who puts an edge on steel for a living is there to market his wares.  For those who take an interest in such things, this is something worth seeing.  The show itself is held in a huge hall that would easily contain a couple of football pitches.  Because it’s a business, not a sewing circle, you’ve got to pay to get in.  That is, you’ve got to pay unless you’ve got contacts among the powerful and well-connected.  Nick falls into the second category.  The family of combatives is small one that is well spread on a global scale and they like to talk to one another and involve various subject matter experts on their various projects.  Nick had a contact in the form of a well respected knifemaker named Jerry Hossum, and he was kind enough to give both myself and Nick VIP passes.  This translated into free entry and slightly more swagger in my stride than usual.  I’ve never been a VIP before.  I have been called a ‘very ignorant prick’, but I’m not sure if that counts.
It’s a three day event, starting on Friday and finishing at late o’clock on the following Sunday.  With several hours to go before the close of festivities on Friday evening, Nick and I made a brief tour of the vast array of tables to establish which stalls were worth spending time at and which were best skimmed.  I have never seen so many knives in all my life.  It seems as though the worlds supply of sharp and pointy has converged on this place.  In all probability, it is fortunate that my credit card wasn’t functional because my normally thrifty attitude evaporated like morning mist and the desire to own shiny, pointy things took hold of me with a frightening passion.  It was all I could do to keep my cash reserves out of my pocket lest I spend all my beer tokens in an orgy of blade-lust.



I treated myself to one small purchase in the shape of a bottle opener-cum-prybar.  Known as a “Prybaby”, I had stared glassy-eyed at pictures of them for some years, but never managed to order one before supplies ran out.  Seeing a dozen in front of me, I could not resist and handed my cash to a flame-haired beauty who gave me my prize with a smile and a brief conversation about the knife laws of the UK.

The Friday session of the Blade show was soon closed and the heavily armed occupants of the hall were called upon to leave.  Returning to the hotel, a conversation on the benefits of kata turned into a demonstration of kata.  I’ve seen people do kata before, though I’ve never been impressed.  The norm appears to be a fixation upon doing the kata right, and the whole thing turns into an acrobatic farce.  Watching Nick do kata is like watching a beating take place.  There is something different there.  Kata is among Nick’s specialist subjects.  He’s got theories, and he’s not afraid to share them.  He demonstrated the first kata to me in its entirety, and then broke it down into its component parts.  The first move was examined and explained as this move, that move or another move.  Every stage appeared to have no less than half a dozen variations that depended entirely upon the context in which it was placed.  After close to an hour and a half of being mauled, choked, cranked and thrown, I was ever more appreciative of the value of properly applied kata.  I am led to believe that Nick is producing a DVD on this topic sometime soon, and I’d encourage everyone to take a look.  Nick attributes all of his fighting skill to kata, and this demonstration answered a lot of questions for me.

On the morning of the second day, we went to a gun show.  Sweet child of mine.  I have never seen anything like it.  I’ve been into the armoury of an Army base and it looked nothing like a US gun show.  Guns are everywhere.  This sounds nonsensical, but my powers of description fail me.  Guns. Are.  Everywhere.  You name it; you can buy it at a gun show.  I regressed to childhood and immediately wanted to pick everything up and run around, rolling on the floor and taking cover.  But they frown on that, and they’re all probably armed to the teeth, so I kept a grip on my sensibilities.  I wandered over to a stall that had submachineguns on every square inch.  It looked like those trick drawings where the space between two guns is actually another gun.  I was closely examining a Tommy gun, where the stall owner noticed my interest and encouraged me to pick it up.  I did so, and in the process tripped the alarm system that guards against theft.  My heart was in my mouth, I am sure that people who steal guns from a gun show are subject to swift, Darwinian processes.  My only defence was to display the facial expression labelled “Please don’t kill me, I am British”.  The owner ambled over and reconnected the various leads while I spluttered my apologies.  By way of making up for the gaffe, I commented on the fine mechanics and build of the weapon and its history.  I was immediately offered a discount price.  Smiling, I informed him that there was no way I could get a Tommy gun through British customs.  “Hell, dude, I’ll throw in a case for you to take it home in!”
“No, I’m sorry.  I mean Customs would not allow that into the country.”
“Sure they would!  So long as it’s in a case!”
“No.  Guns are illegal in the UK.”
“No way!”
“Yes way, dude.  Big prison for me if I take a gun back home.”
Thinking this must be the singles fattest lie he’s heard all day, he called to his sales buddy, an elder bearded fellow with a patterned shirt.
“Ed!  This guy says that these here guns are illegal in the Younited Kingdom!”
Ed responded thus: “Sure are, Joe.  Get this: even their Olympic shooters have to go to France to practice their stuff.”
Joe turns to me, aghast.  I only nod and wear a sad expression.
“Dude, that is messed up.  You can have a pistol at home, though?  Right?”
I shake my head.  Ed backs me up.  “Everything is illegal over there, man.  You can’t carry nothing, you definitely can’t shoot nobody.”
Joe turns to me “So how do you defend yourself over there, buddy?”
I hold up my hands in answer.
“Man, that is messed up.  I’ve got my 1911 right here if anyone messes with me and my folks.” Joe hitches up his shirt to prove this immutable fact.
I commiserate the lamentable state of the law and move gracefully on when another customer calls for Joe’s attention.  While I was wandering about telling everyone who would listen that everything under this roof is illegal where I come from (a small exaggeration, maybe.  I saw three cleaning kits and some gloves for sale), Nick was checking out the saps and blackjacks that were in a plastic crate.  Thoughtfully whacking various surfaces within arms reach, he settled for both a blackjack and sap, and we moved on to Blade.

The second day of Blade was more of the same.  Moving from stall to stall, picking stuff up and putting it down.  Cursing my lack of credit card, I moved from stall to stall and admired the craftsmanship.  Little oddities spiked my interest through the day.  Announcements like “Would all those who purchase spears please put a safety cap on the tip to avoid further accidents” would boom through the hall and leave me chuckling as I envisaged wounds appearing in the first aid bay that have only been seen in medieval texts.
Accompanying the knife show is a series of lectures and demonstrations on topics related to knives.  One hour lessons in home-forging steel, handle design and throwing knives were all on the wide array available.  One that stood out in particular was a lecture by Ernest Emerson on “The myths of knife combat”.  It was a popular lecture, with many people wanting to cram themselves into a very small room.  The bulk of Nick does things to elicit good manners from people, and he soon found an empty chair, where the rest of us had to sit on the floor.  The lecture soon became something of a forum, with a few people chipping in to share views or contest points.  Unsurprisingly, Nick had a few of his own comments to share and the resultant tributaries of conversation proved most enlightening.
Lunch was an event all on its own.  Nick has a friend called Joe.  Joe is a big man.  His most striking feature is not his bulk, but his utter lack of volume control and inner monologue.  Gifted by the gods with a booming bass voice that any singer would weep tears of joy to possess, his speech is permanently set at 110 decibels and his favoured adjective is “INT-ER-ESTING!”  I swear, I had no idea people like Joe really existed until I met one.  The guy was fascinating to listen to – not just the content of his monologues, but the awe-inspiring Shakespearean delivery that resonated through every single word.  Now that Charlton Heston is dead, I nominate Joe as “The Voice of God” in any Hollywood production that may need it.  As one might expect, Joe is a big collector of firearms, knives and other gadgets related to mayhem and chaos.  He met Nick and me for lunch, though we soon found that several hundred other people had the same idea and every eatery within walking distance was jam packed.  
However, owing the American lack of tolerance for anything less than perfect, we found that seats outside in the sweltering Atlanta heat were going spare.  Being the only guys prepared to suck up some punishment in the form of sunshine, we were sat and eating before most other people even saw a menu.  Basking in the blistering heat, we were positioned right alongside the main entrance to the Blade show, bustling with a constant stream of folks pouring past, eager to get to the sharp stuff.  As the tables around us filled and space became ever-more precious, Joe launched into a diatribe against thieves that was nothing short of spectacular.  His precious collection of antique pistols had been cruelly snatched from him.  Joe has connections in the local police department and knows exactly who took his stuff and where they live.  Then, to the horror of passers by, his magnificent, epic voice described how he planned to torture, dismember and bury the remains of those responsible.  Every word was loud, clear, THX-quality sound.  All I could do was watch in faint amazement as Joe held what he thought to be a quiet chat.  That said, the guy was a thoroughly decent man and excellent company.  I sincerely hope to meet him again one day.
Returning from Lunch With Joe, we walked past a stall owned by a large manufacturer of so-called tactical goods.  The salesman made a brave decision, and turned a strobe flashlight onto us.  I was impressed. I was totally disoriented for a couple of seconds and to his consternation, so was Nick.  The flashlight was a gucci new bit of kit that had all sorts of bells and whistles, offered at a price that mat made it a competitor for the Surefire market.  The Gladius Nite-Ops is a nice bit of kit, and it comes recommended by me (a kit freak) and Nick (a committed cynic).  Try one out, or better still, strobe total strangers in the street and see how they react.  Top fun.

Something that struck me was the sheer value of some knives.  Daggers from WWII were selling for seven hundred dollars; custom knives from the more famous makers were going for thousands!  There was even a lottery to BUY custom knives, the wait for a custom knife being as long as eight years!  It was clear that the custom knife can hold its value over time – some guys had knives they neither liked nor used, but owned because they had a history, or they were the early work of a now-famous maker.  Sharp stuff as an investment, who’da thunk it?
At the close of events, Nick and I stumbled upon a lone figure in the hallway outside the exhibition hall.  I’d never met Kelly Worden before, but Nick was familiar with the guy and engaged him in conversation.  Mr Worden seems to be a capable guy and had spent the morning teaching some federal air marshals some hand-to-hand stuff.  That’s something of an endorsement, there.  In all, I stood and listened to Nick and Kelly for an hour, and it was damned interesting too.  The evolution of skills, the effects of aging on the primary techniques, the responsibility of an instructor to his students…it was all cool stuff.  Nick got a free travel wrench and an endorsement on Kelly’s website shortly after.

The third day started with a panic.  I had lost my VIP pass and cash was in short supply, so I was in dire need of economising.  After much searching and self-admonishment, I finally decided to approach the staff who issued IDs with cap in hand, begging another.  Mercifully, one lady remembered me from two days previously, and handed me another.  Quite how she managed that feat of recall is beyond me.  Thousands of people were at that show.  They had five people issuing IDs to keep up with demand.  Yet I stood out among them all.  Very odd.  Nick had done his pre-purchase reconnaissance, and had decided to buy an Emerson Commander.  After an extended search to find the cheapest vendor, he forked out the readies and pocketed his new toy, most pleased.  After the final sweep of further bargains to be had, he shook my hand and bid me farewell until next week.  I was left to the care of Southnarc.

_________________
Check Six,
Den
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Dennis Martin
----------------
DenCQB@Yahoo.co.uk
Website WWW.CQBServices.com
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