Introduction to 'The Hero Forge'

I was born into a family of heroes. My father served in the British military for 35 years; he was a proud man and a warrior by more than profession. He was a man of few words but when he did speak, it was measured and born of hard-won experience. While I didn’t know it at the time, it was by walking in his shadow that I was apprenticed into the hero’s journey.

When I was 7 years old, I came home one day in tears; a bully was refusing to let me take my turn on the slide in our local park. My dad’s sage advice? To ignore him and climb onto the slide anyway.

“But he’ll hit me, dad” I complained.

“Then hit him back”.

“But he’s bigger than me” I protested.

“Then get a stick and hit him”.

Twenty minutes later the front door to my family home was rapped hard and my dad opened it to find me being held at the scruff of the neck by a red-faced, white-knuckled man. On his other side was a boy, somewhat larger than me, and clutching his bloodied nose. Apparently, I had returned to the park and without further negotiation, had taken up a large wind-fallen branch, waited for the bigger boy to come down the slide and then I had hit swung for the bleachers! I never got another go on the slide that day.

The angry father who had dragged me home related all this to my dad who was deeply apologetic and made it clear that he would discipline me appropriately. He pulled me inside and shut the door on the still apoplectic man. Crouching down to my level, with a twinkle in his eye, he said “Well son, not quite what I suggested, but you didn’t back down…well done. Now go and do the washing up!”

Smashing a kid in the face with a stick for monopolizing a piece of playground equipment is hardly a heroic action of course but, as I hope to prove in the pages to follow, heroes are not born; they stumble their way towards self-actualization. What I demonstrated that day was a sense of righteous indignation, perhaps a hint of courage and a boat-load of poor judgment.

A year later I have a fond memory of donning a superhero costume for the first time (not something I do regularly these days!). The army base on which we were stationed at the time was expanding and several new houses were being built. Once the building firms had packed away for the night, it was the perfect playground. The perimeter to the base was protected by high barbed wire fences, armed guards and dog patrols so I could devote my attention to training, safe in the knowledge that the bad guys were being kept at bay.

With my knitted Spiderman jumper (I remember it itched terribly) and red balaclava, I leapt from one scaffolding platform to the next as the day’s light faded. I was alone but not lonely - silly as it sounds now, I somehow knew I was developing the core competencies necessary to one day be of use.

By the time I was ten my family were becoming frustrated by the number of times I would be found outside the Headmaster’s office at my primary school, waiting to be told off yet again for fighting. I nearly always threw the first punch and nearly always lost. Invariably I would have crossed swords with one of the bigger boys in the Year (this was not hard, given my own diminutive stature) and I usually did so in order to defend my mother’s honour and reputation. Mum had taken up a post as a school dinner lady that year to help make ends meet and the boys quickly learned that they need only make a cruel comment within my ear shot and I was guaranteed to fly at them, fists flailing and with no strategy or tactics to my name.

When dad sent me along to my first karate class later that year, I assumed it was because he wanted to equip me with the tools necessary to defend our family’s honour more effectively. Almost forty years later, having studied the combative arts for all of the time between then and now, I realize he was hoping to give my volcanic temper a more constructive outlet! It worked, and over time I embraced the philosophy as well as the physical training that was offered in the dojo. I learned about self-discipline, transcending the perceived limits of human endurance and the code of peace embedded within the arts of war.

In time, after drifting from job to job and country to country, including a spell as a circus performer in Malaysia, I traded in my red nose for a mortar board and became a teacher, working with young people in the east of England. My subject is English Literature but this is a smoke screen, an excuse to work alongside the next generation so that I might challenge them to look inward and figure out their own path in life. It is a career in which I feel blessed.

In the last 20 years, when I have not been in the classroom or marking mountains of homework, I have remained faithful to my own heroic journey, always looking for ways to confront my weaknesses and build upon my strengths so that I might be of better service to my community. I have trained and qualified as a survival instructor and studied parkour and functional movement under some of the best practitioners in the world. I trained as a close protection officer with British Special Forces instructors, worked as a nightclub bouncer and have fund-raised for several charities through obstacle course races, barefoot fire walks and other acts of temporary insanity. It has been a hell of a ride.

A few months ago now my father died, having succumbed to an aggressive form of cancer. It was less than a month between diagnosis and death. He was stoic in the face of this news and he taught me as much in his dying as he did in his life. I inherited his service medals and we scattered his ashes in the rolling hills of the English countryside. Dad had left me a 6 figure grid reference to make sure I set him free in just the right spot! I held my 4-year-old little boy, Kit, around the waist as he leaned over to sprinkle that fine grey powder into the fast flowing river. He only got to meet his grandfather on a handful of occasions. The moment was numinous - the brevity of our time here had never seemed quite as palpable to me.

Dad had me when he was just 26 - while I hope to live longer than he did, his passing has reminded me that I need to ‘carpe’ the hell out of this ‘diem’ while I still can! ‘The Hero Forge’ was born out of those scattered ashes: a clarion call to embrace what matters most in life. A day will come soon enough when it will be Kit standing on the river’s bank to bid me farewell. I hope that when he does, I will have proven as good an example as a father and as a man. As parents, sons, and daughters we tread a winding road. Our path towards heroic action is rarely straight or clear cut but it is a journey worthy of our efforts. Perhaps it is the only journey, when all is said and done, that really matters.