I arrived in South Korea in January 1985 after completing Army basic training and MP School (Military Police), and was ready to begin my career. I weighed 165 pounds at 5 foot 11 inches and was in great shape.
Five months later I was at 170 pounds, a little more muscle and had been training in the martial art of Tang Soo Do, and had won a silver medal at a local tournament. I was young and thought I was a pretty tough guy. Until a walk in the mountains changed all of that and brought me a HUGE piece of humble pie.
The Climb Up
Being young, I thought strength was about big muscles, how much weight you can lift, and how hard you can hit. I trained to improve those areas, so when my roommate Chuck suggested we hike up to the top of one of the mountains surrounding the base, I took it as a challenge and gladly accepted.
The climb wasn’t like rock climbing, it was more of a hike using paths and trails that were worn into the mountainside and through the woods. The climb was steep, and we were forced to stop a few times to rest and drink some water. I mean, it was a mountain after all!
On the way we came across the ruins of a castle/fortress wall which we were told was hundreds of years old. We also passed some graves where families from the village below laid their loved ones to rest. It was a beautiful climb.
We reached the top of the mountain, and from there we could see a lake below with a large, yacht-like boat. We had heard that it was the South Korean president’s boat that he used for vacation, but I don’t know if there was any truth to that. We sat there for a while enjoying the view and then started climbing back down the mountain.
Two Old Men
We had hiked about a third of the way down when we saw two old Korean men (old as in their mid fifties or sixties) carrying wood on their backs. They were walking down the mountain on the path ahead of us, and each carried a wooden walking stick. We followed behind them for a while until we saw them walk off the path and sit down against a small hill, using the walking stick as a kickstand, propping up the wooden rack loaded with firewood.
As Chuck and I caught up to them, we stopped and said hello. We gave them each some water to drink and talked as much we could in our broken Korean and their limited English. We were able to figure out that they were from the hills surrounding the village and had gone up the mountain to collect wood for their wives to cook and to heat the floors in their home.
Being the “Big Americans” with me being over a foot taller than either of the older gentleman and Chuck being around 6 foot 4 inches and over 200 pounds, we offered to carry the wood the rest of the way down the hill for them. I mean, come on, these two little guys carried it halfway by themselves, we could get it down to the bottom much quicker.
When we offered to carry the wood for them, the two men looked at each other, laughed, and nodded saying “Okay, okay.” They stood up so we could slip the wooden racks on our backs, pulling the rope straps over our shoulders. As we did this, they just stood there smiling away!
We had carried 50-60 pound rucksacks on road marches in basic training, this should be no problem! I tightened up the ropes, leaned forward, and pulled out the walking stick that was supporting the rack. Instead of standing up, I fell back against the hill under the weight of the wood.
“What the…?” I tried to lean forward and stand up, but couldn’t get my legs under me to push myself upright! I looked over to Chuck, and he was having similar problems. The two old men were having a great time laughing and watching us look like babies trying to be men. They finally stopped laughing and helped us get to our feet.
Once I stood up, I tried to stand up straight but I couldn’t without the weight of the rack pulling me backward. I had to bend forward at the waist, under the weight of the rack to be able to walk. How could this be? These two old men were walking ahead of us, perfectly upright, and had no problem carrying the wood down the hill.
I could barely walk with it, and if it wasn’t for being a downhill path and the walking stick, I wouldn’t have been able to carry it at all. The two old men never tried to take the racks from us, but let us walk a while, struggling with every step. They stayed behind us, smiling and chuckling to each other, until they had enough fun watching us struggle.
Chuck and I sat down against another hill, leaned back and propped up the rack, finally taking the load off of our shoulders and backs. We sheepishly laughed, praised the men for their strength, and watched them stand up with the racks like they were nothing! We waved goodbye and watched them walk down the path, as we sat there sucking wind and drinking water.
We were embarrassed, shocked, humbled, and amazed at the strength of those two older men. I have never forgotten that hike or the lesson learned that day.
Strength Isn’t About Muscles
That day I realized that true strength does not come from big muscles and powerful looking physiques. Those two men possessed a natural strength developed from years of walking up and down the mountains, working to provide for their families. It was a strength born from necessity, not in a gym, and not with a goal of becoming strong. They just did what needed to be done day after day, and their strength grew to match the demands that were put on them.
This is the same way that true warriors go through life. They don’t train their bodies with the purpose of showing off their strength or skill, but push themselves repeatedly to perfect themselves and their technique, with no time limit or end in sight. They just train to hone their skills, and in the process they build strength of body, mind, and spirit which at times borders on super human.
From that day I realized that true strength is your body working as a perfectly tuned machine, all muscles working together, as a functional whole. My focus changed from developing body parts, to trying to develop myself as a functional whole. Something I still strive for today.
Those two men in the mountains of South Korea are what I call warriors in life. They may or may not have known martial arts, but even if they didn’t, I know from their strength and they way the carried themselves that they were fully capable of handling themselves in a fight.
I saw this same type of strength when I met one of America’s elite warriors in a Delta Force recruitment briefing. I was selected to attend a Delta Force recruitment briefing by my commander, and when I saw the man giving the briefing my mind flashed back to those two old men. He was about five feet tall, and thin, wearing a suit and tie. He didn’t have large muscles, but you could tell he was lean and fit even through the suit.
He stood, walked, and carried himself in the same way those men did, moving easily, like a cat on the prowl. You could see his physical strength in his movement and you could see his inner strength and strength of spirit in his eyes. When he looked at you, it was as if he was burning a hole in you and looking through to the other side. I almost shivered inside when we made eye contact, and I knew that he was not someone to be messed with.
These traits are developed through training. Warriors are created, not born, and anyone can become a warrior in life if they choose. Training in warrior arts, and implementing the lessons learned and the traits developed in your daily life gives you an edge over others who just drift through life with no goals, and no direction.
You train in the martial arts, learn to defend yourself and to handle others, get fit, and build strength. Not just physical strength, but strength of character, inner strength, and the strength to stand for what is right and for your beliefs, even if you stand alone.
No, strength does not come from large muscles or the gym. True strength is developed in the fire, being tested by life, and by being pushed to excel and go past the limits you once had. You can have this strength…..if you choose to work for it.