Sunday, March 14, 2010

Sam McDowell – American Ninja

As you all may remember ninjas were an important part of the lives of most young boys in the 1980s. All of us wanted to get in touch with our ninja heritage whether we had any or not. Video games, movies and comic books all made it clear that ninjas had been and always would be an important part of society. Most of the boys I knew took up the responsibility and worked hard to become at least a little bit ninja. Chiefest among these determined young men twas Sam McDowell.

Not all of you may know Sam, so I will again open the tale by telling you a bit about him. Sam was what he is and what I expect he will be in the future. He has aged him like a fine wine. Although he retains the traits of his flavorful youth time has mellowed them with a more palatable taste. He was brash, bold and confident. He was faster to act than to think. (Something I am glad to say time has mainly reversed.) He was as loyal as a hound and could be as petty as a four year old. He would do anything to help you and almost anything just to aggravate you. He was and is more than a friend, he is a brother.

Sam was obsessed with ninjas, even compared to the natural obsession boys of our generation had with them. I don't know many times he and I had gotten into arguments over whether a ninja could beat a medieval knight. (These arguments often got heated and nearly came to blows at times.) By the age of twelve Sam had begun to teach the neighborhood boys martial arts. What were his credentials? Well, his brother was a ninja! What more could a young pupil want? How did we know Sam's brother was a ninja? Simplicity itself! Sam told us so!

Now, the last time I spoke to Sam about this it seems he couldn't remember having said that. Of course, he couldn't deny it either. You the reader have to understand two facts about this. First, mine is much better than Sam's memory. (Some might say that I have had less chemical memory modification, but we'll leave that to speculation.) Second, one has to consider that I don't find it nearly as embarrassing to admit that I believed Sam's brother was a ninja as he would find it embarrassing to admit that he made such a claim. So for the remainder of this story we will assume that Sam's lack of memory is either selective or chemically induced.

There are certainly a number of little stories I could fit in here concerning all the training we through. We had some amazing sparring matches for people our age. However, I'll confine this story to what I feel is the paramount example of Sam's confidence outrunning his skills. In his defense I will here point out that Sam usually accomplished whatever he set out to. This was one of the times he fell short with rather interesting consequences.

It all began on a beautiful day in the middle of the summer. I believe we were around fourteen years old at the time. Sam had recently been to visit some of his brothers (They are all older than him.) and had picked up a few new ninja pointers. We were on our way back from town where we had intended to rent a game. We walked up town and back almost ever other day all through the summer. We would dig through the furniture trying to scrounge up two dollars so we could go rent something.

We always went armed, at least for our age. I would regularly carry a knife with me, just in case we were attacked suddenly. (With ninjas everywhere one couldn't be too careful.) Sam often carried a machete stuck down his pants leg. (Hidden weapons were also very popular with ninjas.) However, on this day he was carrying a simple staff. Well, in truth, a simple mop handle. (The true ninja uses whatever weapon is at hand.)

As we walked along we were talking of his latest ninja training. His brother had recently taught him how to block spears thrown at him with a staff. A staff much like the mop handle he carried with him. We passed a few hay bails along the way. This is only important because at the time big round hay bails often had small bamboo rods stuck in them. I didn't know why those rods where in them then and I don't know now, but the fact is that they were.

I thoughtlessly pulled one out as we walked along talking. So there we were, Sam with his staff, me with my small bamboo rod. As we got closer to home we were continuing our discussion on blocking projectiles with a staff. Just before we got home Sam decided a demonstration would be the best explanation. After all he had a staff and I had a fine practice spear. There was nothing more to do than show me how easy it was.

Now, as generally confident as I was in Sam's abilities I admit this struck me as a bad idea. I mean, it seemed to me that this was how people lost eyes. I remember the conversation almost as if it were yesterday.

“I'll get down on my knees, see, that way I have less of my body to protect. Then you throw the stick at me and I'll block it with the staff like this.”

As Sam said that he spun his staff around to show me how quickly he could block it. I confess he was fast, there was no doubt about that. Still, I had concerns.

“Let me make sure I have this right. You want me to throw this stick at you and you are going to block it with your staff?”


I'm certain Sam could see the doubt in my face. He was unmoved. He knew he could do it, no matter what I thought.

“I don't know man. This doesn't seem like a good idea.”

“Look, just throw it and I'll block it.”

“What if you miss.”

“I'm not going to miss.”

“Yea, but if you do”

“My brother showed me how to do this. It's a piece of cake!”

I was still unconvinced. I hesitated. That was enough to begin to annoy Sam. My lack of confidence in his skills was showing. I persisted in trying to dissuade him.

“Ok. So I throw the stick and you block it with the staff.”


“Just to make sure... I throw it”

“Yes and I block it!”


“Just throw the stick!”

“You're sure?”

“Yes! I'm sure! Would you just throw the stick?!?!”

“Ok, I guess. Just tell me when you're ready.”

Sam looked at me and moved his staff around into a ready position. He was confident and he was concentrating. His muscles were taught, his eyes were keen, he was ready!

“I'm ready!”

I pulled back my arm like an Olympian and in less than in instant I had thrown my weapon. Sam's confidence had won me over. I threw it, not for him to block it. I threw it to hit him in the face. I was sure he would block it, he had convinced me. I knew for a fact that I couldn't touch him with that stick no matter how hard I tried. He was ready, he was ninja.

As a result, the stick stuck him right in the eye. Well, to be fair, right in the eyebrow. Now, when I say stuck, I mean stuck as in stuck. The bamboo was small enough that, for all intents and purposes, it was sharp. It stuck in his face with, I am sure, a sickening sound. (I didn't hear it, but I know it was there.) After a stunned moment Sam whirled his staff and knocked my projectile right out of his face. He then fell over with both hands covering his eyes.

I believe I will remember his next words to me until my death bed. I was terrified that I had jammed one of his eyes out. It had all happened so fast that all I could be sure of was that he was hurt. I ran up to him and asked him if he was okay. His reply was simple.

“I wasn't ready.”

“Sam! Did I jam your eye out?!?”

“I don't know...”

He moved his hands and winked up at me with a blood covered eye.

“No... I can still see out of it...”

We ran in the house and washed all the blood off of his face. The image of Sam as he lifted his face out of the sink and looked into the mirror is burned in my memory. There he was with a peculiar cut in his eyebrow. The bamboo was hollow. So, it cut a neat little circle into his face. There was a small island of eyebrow surrounded by a perfectly cut moat of blood.

I was very thankful that Sam hadn't lost an eye. We haven't done anything quite so obviously stupid since then. I doubt that we will again until we are so old that we don't care if what we're doing kills us as longs as it's fun. I hope you enjoyed this. I plan to put up more remembrances soon.

All of you feel free to show these to everyone you know. I am also hoping some of you will e-mail with “Remember When” messages.


  1. This made me laugh until I could hardly catch my breath. Kateri was getting annoyed at me because I was laughing so much. I actually REMEMBER when this happened. So much of your childhood is a blur to me-----I think because I choose to forget things. You and your brother could think up more to get into than I could ever imagine!

  2. This is one of my favorite stories, at least of the times I wasn't around. Unfortunately, it loses a bit in the translation to the written word. You have to hear, and see, this story told, in person, with accompanying gestures, sound effects, etc., to truly appreciate the phenomenon that was Sam McDowell- American Ninja. Also, the original dialogue was rich with colorful words and phrases which are not necessarily fit for public consumption.

  3. I've heard this story a million times over the last 13 years... and it still makes me laugh every time you tell it!

  4. Could you tell the story about the ninja sword he broke and almost killed someone with the shards because he was convinced it could cut through a 2 by 4?

  5. Thanks for reminding me! I had forgotten that one. It's on the list now!

  6. This tale definitley tickeled me very deeply as only one of ours is capable of doing. As one of Sam's former "grasshoppers" I feel that this, and Sam saying his brother was a ninja, actually happened. However, in Sam's defense, I think the latter was probably meant as a joke that he let a lot of people take too far or something.