On Monday, September 27, 1973, I was a drowsy-eyed, twenty-one-year-old freshman at Lees-McRae Junior College in Banner Elk, North Carolina. It was a miserable time in my life. I had few friends, inside or outside class. I lived vicariously through Superman comic books and the outsized deeds of Muhammad Ali.
I was five-foot-seven and weighed ninety pounds. For a decade I had endured almost daily humiliation and bullying. Guys in my high school had nicknamed me "Fetus," a moniker which, after kids in the dorm read my senior annual, followed me to college. I was punched in the stomach, pushed into girls' restrooms, had my skinny bones stuffed into lockers, or was plain ignored. Although most of my contemporaries were preparing to graduate from university and proceed into the real world, I was maturing slowly (if, and there was real doubt about this, I was growing up at all).
That September marked the first time I'd been away from my father's house for longer than a weekend. I was homesick. To relieve my misery, I spent time in Banner Elk's only movie theater, drawn to the mystery and the power that lighted screens and hidden speakers have when placed at the front of large dark rooms.
Though Banner Elk's movie house was named the Center Theater, Lees-McRae kids called it the Bijou. Had it not been for them, the village of fewer than three hundred residents could not have supported a cinema. Directly behind my dorm and at the end of the parking lot, the Bijou was about the size of, and maybe half as clean as, a greasy old two-car garage. Movies at the Bijou cost twenty-five cents. A different feature opened every three days. Since the beginning of the semester, I'd seen almost every movie that played at the Bijou.
The picture that night was Enter the Dragon. The house lights dimmed, flickered, went out. The red Warner Brothers logo flashed.
And there he stood.
There was a silence around him. The air crackled as the camera moved toward him and he grew in the center of the screen, luminous.
This man. My man. The Dragon.
One minute into the movie, Bruce Lee threw his first punch. With it, a power came roiling up from Lee's belly, affecting itself in blistering waves not only upon his on-screen opponent, but on the movie audience.
A wind blew through me. My hands shook; I quivered electrically from head to toe. And then Bruce Lee launched the first real kick I had ever seen. My jaw fell open like the business end of a dump truck. This man could fly. Not like Superman -- better -- his hands and his feet flew whistling through sky. Yes, better: this wasn't simply a movie, a shadowbox fantasy; there was a seed of reality in every Lee movement. Yet the experience of watching him felt just like a dream.
Bruce Lee was unlike anyone I (or any of us) had seen.
"It is not the vulgarity of James Arness pistol-whipping a drunken, stubbled stage robber," legendary folksinger Phil Ochs wrote of the first time he saw Bruce Lee. "It is not the ingenious devices of James Bond coming to the rescue, nor the ham-fisted John Wayne slugging it out in the saloon over crumbling tables and paper-thin imitation glass. It is the science of the body taken to its highest form, and the violence, no matter how outrageous, is always strangely purifying."
In Enter the Dragon, Bruce Lee moved fluidly, almost Alisweetblack, but with a rhythm distinctly his own. And, oh! was he fast. Even faster than Ali. So explosively quick that the paths of his hand-strikes were invisible. You could see techniques begin and end -- nothing in the middle. It hardly seemed possible. Yet here he was, right in front of me, right here on this shimmering twenty-foot-tall screen.
Fists flying, feet soaring, punching and kicking bad guys from all angles. Punches and kicks -- and much, much more. Lee's limbs moved in such a marvelously precise fashion that when he was facing the camera, his blows seemed to slice the screen into sections. In addition, he was the only genuinely lithe man I had ever seen, other than Ali. (Women were sometimes lithe, I believed; men almost never were.) Lee used hands and feet, knees and elbows, shoulders and head, good great God, his entire body! And he did so with just about perfect grace and balance.
Even more amazing: when he was standing still, something inside him vibrated; something continued to move.
Another big part of Lee's appeal for me was that he was only about my size. Though he seemed invulnerable, he was short and thin and there was a fragility, an eggshell mortality, about him. If this little bitty guy could be this righteous, whuppin' huge bad guys with such unthinkable speed, power, accuracy, and ratifying beauty, I could, too.
I was off to the moon.
Oh, hell, no! Not the moon. Neil Armstrong had already made that voyage. I was up, up, and away, on the first manned mission to Alpha Centauri.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Tao of Bruce Lee by Davis Miller. . Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.