Foot Soldiers : From Karate to Tear Gas, People Choose Their Weapons

Times Staff Writer

Kym Donegan wasn't feeling paranoid, exactly, but still, in 1980s Orange County, there are reasons to worry. People do get attacked. There are bad guys out there. So she started looking around for a class that would teach her how to take care of herself.

One thing she didn't want was an "obnoxious, macho" teacher. Nor was she interested in what she called "Hollywood karate." When she heard about a class taught by a woman, she said, "I expected the worst . . . hair on her knuckles, an Army drill sergeant type." What she got instead was Revina Lewis.

"I'm 5 feet 2, and she's shorter than I am," Donegan said of Lewis. But that isn't always as important as it might appear. Sure, no one wants to run into Mike Tyson on a midnight-dark side street, but, as Lewis points out, it takes only 40 pounds of pressure on a knee to make the bone snap and pop.

Months after the class, Donegan still speaks with awe of Lewis ("I would hate to meet her in a dark alley") and her course ("It was great").

For Laurie Wallis, a 25-year-old Costa Mesa hairdresser, the impetus for self-protection came from her boyfriend, Paul Howard, who attended a class with her that enabled both of them to obtain licenses to carry tear gas.

Wallis said she wanted to be able to legally carry Mace or a similar aerosol tear gas "just for protection." Howard said the class "was my idea. I want her to have it. I feel safer if she's out places at night" by herself.

Howard, 29, of Laguna Hills, said he wanted the tear gas to help him in his job as a bartender--not for some exotic new cocktail but to give him a boost if there are any repeats of the "couple of instances of customers who were intoxicated to a violent point" and decided to try to punch him out.

In classrooms, gyms and private homes across the county, people are learning how to use tear gas and fists, karate and kicks to the groin to defend themselves. The people who teach the courses say demand is steady. It doesn't take a spectacular crime wave to bring customers to their doors.

Thomas F. Adams, for instance, can count on having a dozen to two dozen people at a time in his classes on the use of tear gas, which he teaches twice a month at Rancho Santiago College in Santa Ana and periodically at corporations that ask him to conduct classes for their employees.

Tear gas "was popular in '80 or '81," Adams said. "It hit its heyday during that time. It was really a fad then. (Now it has) settled back into what is a legitimate self-defense class."

The popularity of tear gas coincided with the early years of its legalization. Since 1977, California residents have been able to legally buy and carry tear-gas canisters--which look like cans of hair spray--if they have a permit. To obtain the piece of paper, they must attend a class such as Adams' and pass a written test, which Adams guarantees his pupils they cannot possibly fail.

A former Santa Ana police lieutenant who now teaches criminal justice at Rancho Santiago College, Adams lays out the basics to his students in no-nonsense terms.

"You're going to get hurt when you defend yourself," he warns, pointing out the goal is to minimize the hurt to oneself, maximize the hurt to the assailant. "You're going to cause pain. . . . You have to cause pain if you're going to force the individual to do what you want him to do."

Tear gas causes a victim's eyes and face to sting and burn as if hit by a blast from hell. Students' noses wrinkle and their eyes well up as Adams passes around a Q-tip with just a dab of the chemical on it. In the words of Adams' course outline: "The recipient usually experiences a complete rearrangement of priorities, making it extremely difficult to concentrate on anything but the pain."

The downside, as Adams noted to his students, is that if you spray the gas into the wind, it could be you who winds up with the "rearrangement of priorities."

A trim man with hands that look as if they could crumple a larynx in seconds, Adams also showed the class other tools of self-defense: a stun gun and a 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol.

A stun gun, which looks like a flashlight, can be carried without a license and delivers 40,000 volts of electricity that would shock an assailant and cause muscular spasms. But the gun itself has to make physical contact with the victim, while tear gas just has to be in the area of the face.

A license from the sheriff or police department is needed to carry a pistol in California unless it is unloaded and not concealed. Adams warns his students that if they do decide to tote a handgun, they should be prepared to use it, not merely wave it as a threat. And that means being able to live with the consequences of possibly killing someone. As Adams put it: "Please don't carry an instrument of death unless you plan to use it."

There are enough people who do want to learn how to use guns that the Straight Shooter gun range in Orange usually has to turn people away from its training classes, said Mark Seko, the range general manager.

On an average day, the range will get 200 people trying their hands at target shooting, Seko said. Rookies must take a 4-hour basic firearms class offered by Straight Shooter before being allowed on the range with an instructor.

Business is always "pretty good," Seko said, but it picks up during a heavily publicized crime wave, such as the one that gripped the Southland when the "Night Stalker" was on the prowl nearly 4 years ago.

Revina Lewis believes there's no need to wait for a crime to happen to take one of her courses, although, unfortunately, she said, some of her students do procrastinate until some event propels them into class.

"If there's been something very sensational" in the news, such as a series of rapes, "then you find more women kind of taking their heads out of the sand, as we say, and doing something about the problem," she said. "But very often women want to ignore the problem and think it won't happen to them."

Lewis teaches defensive techniques in a physical education course at Rancho Santiago College and elsewhere. She teaches how to search for an attacker's vulnerable points, how to poke someone in the eye, belt him on the nose, break his knee.

Lewis said that "body language" can be important in deterring a potential assailant, especially for a woman. Don't look down at the ground, shoulders rounded, mind a million miles away, she counsels.

"I tend to try to walk like I'm aware of what's going on around me, and strong. We used to say, 'Look like a football player.' It has nothing to do with sexual (mannerisms), but don't look like you're going to be a good victim. Also, if someone's looking at you, look at their eyes, not down. That shows a strength."

Lewis said there are different theories on what to do if an assailant is armed, but she believes that "unless the knife is slashing or (the attacker) is about ready to pull the trigger, maintain a calmness . . . rather than fighting that weapon. When he puts the weapon down, then at that time there's something you can do.

"But police said even if there is a weapon, never get in a car with someone and go from a public place to a desolate area. I would rather try to call (an attacker's) bluff there and maybe even be knifed in a parking lot than taken to a desert area and knifed."

Self-defense courses can range from 2 hours for Adams' tear-gas lesson to several weeks or months for some of Lewis' offerings, to years or a lifetime for people who want to become truly proficient in one of the martial arts.

Fred Rossmannek claims that someone who took his American karate class four or five times a week for a year would be in good enough shape to fight off multiple attackers. Rossmannek, who taught self-defense to Lewis years ago, said his class is "essentially a combination of all the Asian fighting arts, with emphasis on kick-boxing."

He described the lessons, which he gives privately and at Rancho Santiago College, as "a more street-oriented, practical, applied martial art" than some of the pure Asian disciplines such as judo or karate, which are steeped in Oriental philosophy as much as in aggression.

Rossmannek has a master's degree in psychology and says his basic self-defense courses include tips on the psychology of defending oneself, instructing women especially that "there is a point in this violent confrontation where women will have an advantage. That's where psychology comes in, waiting for a guy to make a mistake and destroying him."

He also stresses self-awareness, pointing out that "most of the time you wouldn't need (self-defense) if you were a little more careful. Of course that 0.1% when it happens to you unexpectedly, then you're glad you have it."

Chris Hulme is glad she has it and happy she hasn't had to use it.

Hulme, who took a course taught by Lewis at a private athletic club in Fullerton, said she thinks there's a need to know self-defense these days. For one thing, she feels there's more crime occurring; for another, she has a 2-year-old son and says that "when I'm out with him, I'd like to be able to defend him if anything happened."

Does she do anything differently since taking the class? "I feel more alert, and I tend to look over my shoulder a lot more. And I just make sure when I'm walking into a car park, I'm looking all around. I'm looking under the car as I approach it. When I get into the car now, I always lock it."

She said the course emphasized just what she wanted--"self-defense moves, not aggressive moves, just things I could do to run away from somebody."

MEANS OF SELF-DEFENSE A canister of aerosol tear gas, sometimes sold under the trademark Mace, can cost from $10 to $25 and is sold at various sporting goods shops in Orange County. A buyer needs a permit, obtainable after completing a 3-hour lecture and passing a written test. Aerosol tear gas will cause a victim to feel a burning sensation and often will disorient the victim. It does not knock someone unconscious and if used in a wind, can blow back into the face of the user.

American karate is essentially a combination of all the Asian fighting arts, such as karate and judo, with emphasis on kick-boxing. Instructor Fred Rossmanek calls it "a more street-oriented, practical, applied martial art" than martial arts in their pure form. His class at Rancho Santiago College involves one 4-hour session a week for 9 weeks.

Street-fighting techniques stress awareness of a dangerous situation and avoidance, with action only as a last resort. Techniques include using body language to avoid appearing a likely victim of an attack, running away and basic ways to block an attack and to kick and strike back at an assailant., THOMAS PENIX / Los Angeles Times

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