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Black Notes

Graham T. Beck
8 Snaps

“Yes, this is the DEADLIEST and most TERRIFYING fighting art known to man—and WITHOUT EQUAL. Its MAIMING, MUTILATING, DISFIGURING, PARALYZING and CRIPPLING techniques are known by only a few people in the world. An expert at DIM MAK could easily kill many Judo, Karate, Kung Fu, Aikido, and Gung Fu experts at one time with only finger-tip pressure using his murderous POISON HAND WEAPONS. Instructing you step by step thru each move in this manual is none other than COUNT DANTE—‘THE DEADLIEST MAN WHO EVER LIVED.’ (THE CROWN PRINCE OF DEATH.)”

—advertisement for Count Dante’s fighting secrets

*

In 1968, John Keehan, a martial arts instructor from the South Side of Chicago, started running ads in comic books for a pamphlet called “World’s Deadliest Fighting Secrets” that he’d written under the name Count Dante. “DIM MAK, ‘The Death Touch’ in this exclusive book!” the copy boasts in chop-suey lettering. Although the combat techniques contained in the pamphlet—eye gouging, fish hooks, strikes targeting vital organs, and a combination called the “dance of death”—could be lethal, they were not actual dim mak, a Cantonese phrase that literally translates to “press artery” but has become shorthand for a targeted strike that uses less-than-lethal force to achieve deadly results.

Nevertheless, Count Dante’s comic-book ads were one of the first places where dim mak made the jump from Chinese wuxia fiction, which chronicles the adventures of martial artists in ancient China, to mainstream American culture. In that journey, much of dim mak’s complicated heritage was lost. What arrived in the back of those comic books and entered the minds of thousands of already fantasy-prone children was the promise of an easily acquired, at-least-immobilizing, at-best-lethal combat technique: a superpower for everyday people.

The success of the ads coincided with America’s martial arts boom. Though judo had been taught in the US since 1902 (President Theodore Roosevelt, an avid student since 1904, eventually attained the rank of black belt), it wasn’t until the early 1970s that the number of dojos, academies, and training facilities in the US soared. In these years, the American Collegiate Taekwondo Association was formed, Hai Karate became the aftershave du jour, and Kung Fu, starring ­David Carradine, premiered on ABC. After Bruce Lee died in 1973, it was rumored that dim mak—not an adverse reaction to the painkiller Equagesic—was the real cause of  his death.

Wrapped up in all of this was a young boxer-turned-black-belt from Pennsylvania’s coal region named George Dillman. In the early 1970s, he started learning about dim mak and the death touch, and has been studying and teaching a variation of the Japanese style of pressure-point combat called kyusho-jitsu ever since.

I knew I had to meet George after watching a YouTube video called “Kyusho-jitsu knockout.” It’s set in a chain hotel’s conference facility, on patterned short-pile carpet in front of towers of stackable chairs and tables that look like they were recently part of an omelet bar. About a dozen or so gi-clad spectators encircle George and a sizable volunteer. George sets his skull against the other man’s, and his hand delicately winds back like he’s warming up to flick a Frisbee. He gently taps the volunteer where his head joins his neck at what looks like a few degrees off center. The man collapses like his bones are Jenga blocks set tumbling, like gravity was just turned up, like he’s dead. And then there are screams. You can make out a woman, evidently a nurse, asking if he’s breathing, as George barks for the group to get him up, cross his legs, and clear out, all the while thumping the guy on his back and rubbing him furiously.

The volunteer comes to. The slaps subside and the rubbing changes from frantic to friendly, even tender. The nurse confirms that he once again has a pulse. George, who started the demonstration by saying only, “If he wants to wrestle, I put my head against his head, which shorts him out,” ends it with a joke about  his volunteer’s heartbeat that’s just as opaque.

At a Cracker Barrel in Hamburg, Pennsylvania, George and I talked about kyusho jitsu over coffee, orange juice, and a country breakfast. He is now sixty-seven years old, a bit thick in the ­middle, thin on top, with the face of a fighter and a grandfather’s love for a good yarn. His wife, Suzie, a youthful, petite blond with a lazy soprano’s voice and an insatiable curiosity for George’s stories, joined us. She rarely took her eyes off his weathered, corded forearms or his stumpy fingers—but she did when he told me, “I’ve killed five or six ­people with pressure-point combat.” Then we both looked at his well-punched eyes, while he adjusted his baseball cap and flicked the collar of his undone short-sleeve button-down shirt. “I turned them all back on,” he continued, “but they were each dead for a while.”

*

The death touch—and its close cousin, which merely causes temporary immobilization—has had a handful of famous practitioners in movies and television. There was Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Frank Dux in Bloodsport, and Master Oogway, the Galapagos tortoise from Kung Fu Panda. Xena, of Warrior Princess fame, often used a stun touch. Even Bart Simpson dabbled with the touch of death, though his was nothing more than an empty threat pulled from a video-game title. Still, pressure-point combat’s most famous expert is probably Mr. Spock from Star Trek.

Legend has it that Leonard Nimoy, who played Spock in the original series, came up with the Vulcan Nerve Pinch in 1966, while reading a script penned by Richard Matheson. His character was supposed to “lunge from behind a generator and kayoe the double,” but Nimoy thought brute force was too base for a Vulcan. A nerve pinch, he suggested to the episode’s director, was more in line with the cool-headed logic and rationality of the Vulcan race. It would disarm without a disruptive dispute, and so the onscreen standard-bearer of pressure-point touches was born of a humanoid species that prizes nonviolence and the repression of emotion.

When I asked George what he thought about the Nerve Pinch’s backstory, he interrupted, as though I was giving bad driving directions and he was selling maps: “It’s under­ the trapezius nerves that drop you. They make your legs fold out. I have them in my video tape eight, but go ahead.” I tried him again. I asked whether he thought there was something telling about Nimoy’s rationale, whether it said something about the weird status of pressure-point combat in pop culture: “Where he got it, I don’t know. There could have been an acupuncturist that he was familiar with, or talked to, or knew that whispered to him where to touch.”

George didn’t just happen upon dim mak or kyusho-jitsu one day. For twelve years, from 1961 to 1972, he served in the US Army. He started martial arts classes while stationed in Fort Knox, Kentucky, and by the mid-1960s he’d earned a black belt and began to fight in competitions. After finishing Officer Candidate School and joining the Military Police, then-Lieutenant George Dillman ended up in Washington, DC, guarding the Capitol during the peak of the civil rights movement. “I was there when hippies attacked the Pentagon,” he told me. “I was at the Lincoln Memorial for Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. I spent the better part of thirty weeks sitting in a tunnel under the White House to make sure no protesters snuck in there.” And it was during this time that George got his big break at the 1968 International Sports Show.

Bear wrestling was one of the main events that year, and try as they might, the Sports Show’s organizers couldn’t find anyone who could stay in the ring with Victor the Great, a 350-pound black bear, for more than five minutes. “I was sure I could hang,” George told me. “The bear was a tough fighter, but I knew karate and judo.” He ended up fighting the bear for twenty minutes. Officials called a draw. Their battle was memorialized in a Ripley’s Believe It or Not cartoon, as well as on the cover of the Washington Star. His superiors took notice and started granting him leaves to travel and compete in karate tournaments as a representative of the Army.

He became a National Forms Champion in 1969 and remained one until he left the service in 1972. George opened his first karate school in Reading, Pennsylvania, not too many miles from where he grew up, and fortuitously close to Deer Lake, the town where the boxing great Muhammad Ali decided to build a training camp. The two struck up a friendship. The ­karate school’s attendance surged as a result, and in 1972 George was able to study with an Okinanwan martial arts master named Hohan Soken.

As George tells it, Soken, the great-grandson of Sokon Bushi Matsumura, one of the most significant figures in the founding of modern martial arts, taught him all about pressure points and the death touch. Soken took him aside for a private lesson on traditional forms and their relationship to chi energy, at the end of which he delivered to him a sheet of notes and a diagram of the human body marked with where and how to strike an opponent to immobilize or kill them. It was a chart of pressure points. The dots showed places where the body’s twelve meridians were accessible, he explained, where thousands of years of acupuncture study had found dangerous areas that he called “black notes.”

*

George talks with his hands. He gestures a lot, sometimes chopping at the air, simulating strikes, and other times just pounding out his points on his meaty palms. I paid attention to his hands because of that, and because he kept hitting me. George kept wanting to show me “something quick,” and every time he did, he would: “I can make your arm numb by hitting you there.” He could. “I can make you drop to your knees by touching you here.” He did. George is a big guy, fit for a sexagenarian; he works out for two hours every morning and can still do a split. When a guy like that hits you, you can expect it to hurt. What surprised me, though, was the effect of his touch. Every time he pressed me, or rubbed me, or tapped me in the right place—not hard, mind you—another part of my body would react. With the side of his hand against my neck, he sent my head spinning. With the tip of his finger against the back of my hand, he knocked me to my knees. When he poked me behind the ear and the room went fuzzy, I had to stop taking notes. At that point, I was convinced that what George was doing worked.

From the Cracker Barrel, I followed George and Suzie’s white Dodge convertible through a strip-mall parking lot, down a worn main street, and over the rolling green hills of central Pennsylvania to Muhammad Ali’s training camp, which George now owns, occasionally uses for seminars, rents as a bed-and-breakfast, and is trying to sell. We talked for a long time. He showed me dozens of pictures of him with Ali, with Howard Cosell, and with Andy Warhol, who painted a dinner plate for The Champ that Dillman now has in his attic. He told me about the history of the place, of his adventures with celebrities, of his induction into the Berks County Sports Hall of Fame, of his long-dead pet cougar named Rougar Dougar, who he still thinks about every day.

*

For the better part of a decade, George studied the chart that Soken gave him and experimented with his top students. Then, in 1983, he met another Okinawan karate master, Seiyu Oyata, who was teaching a martial arts seminar in Kansas City, Missouri. “Oyata gave me the pieces to solve the puzzle that Soken left me. It was all in the forms, and the points were all related through nerves.” As he told me this, George was visibly perspiring. He talked with such intensity that it was hard to glance down at my notepad. “I went home. I looked at Soken’s diagram, at acupuncture charts, at the forms, and I called a former student, Ralph Bushbacher, who was at the University of Virginia Medical School, and he sent me textbooks showing the nervous system. By late ’83 or ’84, I had a good idea of how it all worked.”

In short, George believes that anywhere a nerve ends, crosses another nerve, or splits, there is a pressure point. All of those points are linked, and different sequences of touches can generate different physical results. Generally speaking, the more touches in a sequence, the more potential for harm. Strikes with “all of the elements” can kill.

By the mid-1980s, George was teaching his theories at martial arts seminars around the country. He and his wife at the time, Kim, put something like a million miles on a series of five motor homes traveling from city to city, preaching the gospel of Soken and Oyata. As George tells it, there were many converts. He claims to have taught hundreds of thousands of people the basics of pressure-point combat in person, and many, many more through his six books and forty-nine videos, including police officers, security personnel, professional fighters, and a few B-movie stars. He told me that anyone who diligently studies his ­basic tapes should be able to stop even the largest attacker with a few touches, and intuit how to kill using the same methods. “To a certain extent, I have watered down my art to take out the lethal aspects, but it’s all there if you really look for it,” he says.

Of course, there are doubters. Many in the martial arts establishment think that George’s methods are a dangerous shortcut that ignores discipline. Others think his techniques don’t work: physical force, they believe, is a requisite part of any knockout or lethal strike. On Internet message boards and in letters to the editor, commenters challenge his pedigree, particularly his relationship to Hohan Soken. He is often regarded as a charlatan, a huckster, and a spinner of tall tales, if not a downright liar. Even those that come to believe in his teachings sometimes see him as an attention-starved showman first, and a martial-arts practitioner second.

In a telling letter from the editor in the January 1990 issue of Black Belt magazine, Jim Coleman, the executive editor, explains that he had always approached George with skepticism and quickly grew tired of getting a press release every few days. But when George came to the magazine’s office, Coleman and his staff experienced pressure-­point combat firsthand. “My assistant was the first to go,” Coleman writes, “a victim of a strike just above the chin. Then Dillman dazed the photographer with a similar blow. He dropped the publisher next. He even politely asked our sixty-year-old receptionist if she would like to be knocked out. I knew my time would come and Dillman had to show me to make a believer of me. And he did.”

When I asked George why he thinks most people need to experience pressure points to understand what he’s doing, he looked at me like I had asked him to fight. His eyes, which are normally so round that they seem ready to fall from their sockets, contracted to egg shapes. “That’s the whole thing. It’s not American,” he said. “It’s not what people are used to. It’s not what they understand. It’s real magic.”

*

Although George doesn’t watch a lot of martial arts movies—he told me he prefers “the classics”—he has worked with some stars, consulted on a few projects, and acted enough times to have ideas about what makes fighting work in the popular imagination. “People want blood and bruises. With pressure points, the fights are too quick,” he told me. “People want kicking and fighting and all of that, but with my stuff, it’s just ‘bip’ and you’re out.”

He has a point. There is very little drama in George’s fighting. There is drama in wondering whether the person will survive it; there can be a narrative to learning pressure points; and, certainly, lethal touches can be incorporated into larger fight sequences as a kind of punctuation mark; but for a person to simply shut his or her opponent off with a touch is somehow deeply disappointing, especially when the expectation is for a passionate physical conflict.

 

Toward the end of my day with him, I felt comfortable enough to ask George if he wanted to watch the death-touch scene from Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill with me, specifically the moment in Volume 2 when Uma Thurman’s character, the Bride, strikes the titular villain with her Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique. The scene begins with the two talking across a dinner table about what has led them to this point, about the misunderstandings and the myriad wrongs in their shared past. When they agree that they have “unfinished business,” a sword fight starts. Bill slashes first. The harmonic ring of well-forged steel sounds out through the clatter of wooden furniture and their breathy battle grunts. Eventually, the Bride’s sword falls to the floor, Bill jabs for the kill, she sheathes his blade, and then five simple touches to the heart—three taps with two fingers, a claw-handed strike with five fingers followed by a twist, and a fifth hit with four fingers stacked on the thumb—springs a trickle of blood from Bill’s lip.

A long quiet replaces the dings and whooshes of battle. We know what will happen next, and so the fight’s emotional register shifts from the thrill of combat to the calm of death. Guaranteed lethality is ultimately disappointing. Spock’s certain victories lack the drama of a good old-fashioned bear fight. They’re too rational, too predictable, and—strangely enough for someone who had just been thoroughly convinced of pressure-point combat’s efficacy—too unbelievable.

But that wasn’t the case for George. He had goose bumps—honest-to-god goose bumps—which he showed me seconds ­after screaming, “That’s a real move!” and hitting me in the heart.

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