Brick Breaker

BY DON ETHAN MILLER

EDWARD A. BROWN is an American karate expert who excels in that arcane subset of the martial arts known as tameshiwari—the destruction of inanimate objects as a test of fighting power and spirit. His specialty is breaking bricks.

In one such demonstration, not long ago, at a neighborhood martial-arts event in Brooklyn, Brown walked on stage barefoot, in a plain white karate gi. He produced a fresh deck of playing cards and asked a volunteer to open it and examine the cards. He replaced the cards in the box and tore both deck and box in half with a single seesaw of his wrists. He scattered half of the deck like confetti on the floor and then tore the remaining half into quarters.

He took two red bricks, matched them neatly, and held them end-up in the palm of one hand. He raised his other hand and brought it sharply across in front of him, chopping the bricks in two: the top halves clunked onto the wooden stage floor, five feet away. He took another brick and placed it against his abdomen, just below the navel, gripping the ends with his fingers. With a sudden electric jolt he snapped the brick in two; his own force knocked him over backward. He broke another brick over his knee, as one might snap a twig. The whole display lasted about two minutes and was performed matter-of-factly, without fanfare or ritual.

A few days later Brown greeted me at the door of his small, neatly crowded offices, off the main training hall of the dojo (martial-arts school) that he and his wife own, beneath a bowling alley in Norwalk, Connecticut. Short, stocky, in his late forties, a former aircraft and auto mechanic, a devoted family man, a licensed firearms dealer, and an ex-Marine, Ed Brown seems a normal, allAmerican guy. He has, however, been training in the Oriental martial arts for more than thirty years, and holds a seventh-degree black belt in Okinawan Isshinryu Karate and expert ranking in several other martial arts. Beneath his voluble, down-to-earth persona there is something else: an animal tension, a sense of energy waiting to be released.

Growing up in Milford, Connecticut, after the war, Brown was small and thin, and was routinely beaten up by his larger, stronger schoolmates. He liked to run and swim but stayed away from organized athletics and team sports. He graduated from high school in 1955, five feet four inches tall and weighing 118 pounds. He immediately joined the Marines, “because everyone said I couldn’t make it.”In the Corps he got his first taste of serious karate training, and while stationed in Okinawa he studied briefly under the famed master Tatsuo Shimabuku, who had synthesized the best of several traditional Okinawan systems into Isshinryu, “the one-heart way.”Neither especially well-coordinated nor physiologically equipped for combat, Brown latched onto the rigorous, systematic karate training as a way to strengthen himself. Now, thirty years later, he has more than compensated for his original disadvantages. You don’t want to get hit by Ed Brown.

“When I hit a guy, it’s got to hit him a short, fast jab, like a jackhammer when it’s tearing up the street, brrrrrp. Hit ‘em! BANG! It’s got to jolt him, it’s got to stop his motor function on the spot, it’s got to put him into instant shock. I want to be able to hit with my hand like a forty-four magnum. Even if I hit him out here"—he slaps his shoulder—“the guy’s still gonna drop. He has to drop.”

In public demonstrations Brown has broken a waist-high stack of fifteen bricks, piled on top of one another with no spacers in between, with a single shuto hand-edge strike. He has broken two bricks at once with his fingertips. He has broken out of regulation police chromium-steel handcuffs. He has driven a twenty-penny nail through six inches of wood with his bare hand. He has kicked bricks, dropped from shoulder height by an assistant, splitting two with a single heel kick before they reached the ground. And, in a feat that is surely unduplicated by anyone, anywhere, he has ripped one and even two bricks in half—not striking them but, as he explains it, “shocking the molecular structure” with a sudden torquing force generated between his two hands. Among martial-arts experts who pride themselves on their ability at tameshiwari—an elite dozen or so men in the Western Hemisphere who can chop stacks of bricks, kick baseball bats in half, smash cinder blocks with their forearms—Ed Brown is pre-eminent, a master breaker.

How DID HE get this way? I asked. Brown and I were sitting in his inner office while in the next room his wifeattended to their business. What’s the secret?

“There is no secret,” he insisted. “It all boils down to training—and determination.”Five mornings a week he rises at four o’clock to practice. He stretches, meditates to clear his mind, runs, skips rope. Then he practices each of eightyfive kata—choreographed movement sets against imaginary attackers—from Isshinryu karate, Sikaran foot-fighting, and Arnis de Abaniko, a Filipino weapons system. Each kata is a warrior-dance, a sequence of punches, kicks, strikes, blocks—simulated attack and defense. Most are empty-handed, but some employ a six-foot red-oak staff called a bo, the sai short trident, or double rattan sticks. Some are performed slowly, building power with strong stances and raspy, animal-like breathing; others are quick, agile, ruthlessly practical. After the kata he does pushups, on his fingertips, on the backs of his wrists, on bare knuckles in a gravel driveway—sometimes a thousand or more in a single morning. He practices handsprings, breakfalls, shadow-sparring. And as he has done for more than thirty years, he religiously pounds the makiwara, a punching post used in all traditional karate training. He will also on occasion forge his striking power by hitting trees with his hands, elbows, knees, and feet, by hitting the edge of a concrete block and the tip of an iron anvil, and by tearing the bark off trees with his fingertips. His workout, always endured alone, ends at 8:00 A.M., when he begins a full day of teaching, managing two dozen Isshinryu schools, and running his own business. But the early-morning training is the center of his life, the four-hour crucible in which Brown forges his skill and his character.

How a chop with the edge of a hand can generate enough force to break a single brick is simple to explain. If the brick is supported at both ends on a secure base and is struck squarely in the middle by a force on the order of 500 to 1,000 pounds, it will bend to its elastic limit (somewhat less than a millimeter, depending on its composition and firing temperature) and then fracture from the bottom up. A human body trained to move with speed and coordination can generate this kind of force fairly easily— a skilled boxer, weight lifter, javelin thrower, or tennis player can produce forces at least this great.

Transmitting the generated force to the brick, however, is more problematic. The untrained person will usually succumb to a natural sense of relative fragility, an innate reluctance to collide deliberately at high velocity with a dense, hard object. If he or she manages to overcome this inhibition and attempts the blow wholeheartedly, the untrained striker will invariably injure his hand or wrist, while the brick will remain whole. The untrained hand will deform on impact, absorbing much of the force of the blow; the rest of this force will be lost in the other joints (elbow, shoulder, hip) that helped to accelerate the hand to the impact point. However, a karateka, or other “hard-style” martial artist, like Brown, has conditioned his hand to deform as little as possible: the knuckles and edge of the hand are heavily calloused, and the joints of the hand are often distorted with calcium deposits that have built up after incessant pounding. And he has learned to lock his joints at the moment of impact, in an optimal alignment for transmitting force, so that the entire body is connected into a momentarily rigid structure. This kind of connecting strength, Brown explains, is far more important than showy external muscles, the biceps and pectorals of a Stallone or a Schwarzenegger. He concentrates instead on the normally weak parts of the human anatomy. “Grip, grip, grip,” he intones. “What’s the use of having all that strength if you’ve got a weak link in the chain?”

Finally, the nerves in a martial artist’s hand may have been deadened, and this, combined with mental control and systematic confidence training, enables him to deliver his human quantum of energy without reservation. The technique is usually executed using the smallest possible striking surface. A karate punch, for example, uses only the points of the index and middle-finger knuckles, rather than the entire fist, thus focusing a thousand or more pounds of force into an area of about a square inch. A thousand pounds of force applied to the center of a brick is generally enough to exceed its flexural strength, and the brick fractures.

But does this explain the breaking of a stack of fifteen bricks almost a yard high? In a test conducted by Robert L. Nelson and Associates, a major materials-testing and consulting firm in Chicago, a stack of nine Iowa shale clay bricks (the most that could fit in the testing device) was put under increasing pointload pressure: 9,500 pounds was required to fracture the stack—and even then only eight of the nine bricks broke. By implication, Brown’s fifteen-brick break would seem to require well over 10,000 pounds of force—an impossibly high amount of energy. While a more precisely analogous test would involve “dynamic loading”—a breaking force applied through a moving object, producing a single, instantaneous fracturing load — the amount of force required would still be enormous. To further complicate the issue, Brown has in recent years broken stacks of bricks placed directly on the floor, with no space beneath the bottom brick—thus minimizing if not eliminating the degree of bend necessary, according to the single-brick fracture model.

I ASKED MICHAEL FELD, the director of the spectroscopy lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and himself an advanced karateka, who has published studies of the physics of karate breaking, if he had any possible explanation. He suggested that a karate blow might create a vibration—transverse acoustic waves—that could shatter a tall stack of bricks in much the same way that a soprano’s vocal tone can shatter a glass. The acoustical model corresponds to Ed Brown’s experience: breaking up to three or four bricks, he says, involves sheer power; but after that something else is needed. He will often tap with a coin the bricks he’s going to break, intuitively assessing their resonant frequency, and adjust his strike accordingly. Feld says that to be effective, the blow must be of extremely short duration— the hand in contact with the bricks for less than five or ten milliseconds—because if the hand touches the brick for too long, it will dampen the vibrations. Ed Brown accomplishes this with a sudden snapping blow, withdrawing the striking hand from the contact point as if it were red-hot. “One hundred miles per hour going out, two hundred miles per hour coming back,” is the way he describes the technique.

And then, there is the matter of the “iron palm.” Iron palm is a method of training in some Chinese kung-fu systems, in which the hand is gradually conditioned to impart power—or, more properly, vibration—without the use of tremendous muscular force. The training—which can be hazardous and even fatal if undertaken without a competent instructor—involves hitting a variety of materials of increasing density, “cooking” the hand in herbal liniments, and other esoteric procedures. Masters of iron palm are said to be able not only to break a tall stack of bricks with a seemingly light, slapping blow but also selectively to break any brick in a stack of them—the sixth, say, out of ten—while leaving the others intact. Brown learned iron palm from two kung-fu masters, and he says it took him seven years to condition his left arm with the method. Now his left hand, wrist, and forearm are noticeably bigger than his right, and when he raises his arm and deliberately “energizes” the area around his elbow, it seems literally as hard as steel. The combination of his karate striking techniques and his iron-palm-conditioned left hand, Brown says, accounts for his tremendous breaking ability.

Neither the mechanical nor the acoustical model, however, explains the brickripping feat or the abdominal break that I and several hundred other people witnessed in Brooklyn. In the case of the abdominal break there was no impact, and the fulcrum was not a single point or a hardened hand-edge but a relatively soft and large area of body tissue. The force per square inch was small, the acoustics dampened beyond any possible utility. Brown’s explanation is that he “shocks the molecular structure of the brick,” with a sudden burst of energy from his hara. Hara is an area within the abdomen, just below the navel, which is believed in many Asian systems of combat and healing to be the center of the body, its reservoir of “internal power.” In recent years Western physicians and scientists have begun to examine more seriously the notion of ch’i (in Japanese, ki), a vital force that is believed to circulate through the body and whose flow pattern can be adjusted through acupuncture (to correct stagnation or excess) and cultivated and directed through a variety of practices generally termed ch’i kung. Ed Brown believes in ch’i but feels that he has barely begun to develop the ability to control it.

BROWN’S ALMOST religious attachment to Okinawan karate resonates wdth the origins of the art. When the armies of the powerful Japanese Shimazu clan invaded the Ryukyu islands from neighboring Satsuma, in 1609, the occupiers disarmed the populace and forbade the island inhabitants to own weapons. But the Okinawans, a small, sturdy peasant people, refused to submit: they combined their indigenous fighting arts with Chinese ch’uan fa (kung-fu), and trained in secret. Pounding padded straw, sand, even trees, they forged their hands and feet into anatomical weapons that could penetrate the samurais’ lacquered-bamboo armor. They called their hybrid, practical art simply te, or “hand.” They turned farm implements—sickles, poles, threshing sticks, rice grinders—into weapons that could deflect and even break the temperedsteel swords of their enemies. Though the Okinawans never succeeded in driving out the Japanese, they passed down the legacy of their art, developed by the small and weak to deal with a larger, better-armed adversary: it is an art of defiance, of passionate disregard for the odds. In time it came to be known as kara-te, meaning both “China hand” and “empty hand.”

Ed Brown’s life in karate follows a similar pattern: he didn’t complain or make excuses for himself; he took the tyranny of biology and found his own way to overcome it—becoming in the process a man with a strong desire to teach and help others. The first thing he said to me, when I walked into his dojo and he saw that I was not much taller than he, was, “Us short guys, when we hit the bag, it’s much harder at first, because all the filler settles to the bottom. The big guys hit the top part of the bag, where it’s lighter, and they think they’re doing something. But after a while, we hit harder.”