Kym Donegan wasn't feeling paranoid, exactly, but still, in 1980s Orange County, there are reasons to worry. People do get attacked. There are bad guys out there. So she started looking around for a class that would teach her how to take care of herself.
One thing she didn't want was an "obnoxious, macho" teacher. Nor was she interested in what she called "Hollywood karate." When she heard about a class taught by a woman, she said, "I expected the worst . . . hair on her knuckles, an Army drill sergeant type." What she got instead was Revina Lewis.
"I'm 5 feet 2, and she's shorter than I am," Donegan said of Lewis. But that isn't always as important as it might appear. Sure, no one wants to run into Mike Tyson on a midnight-dark side street, but, as Lewis points out, it takes only 40 pounds of pressure on a knee to make the bone snap and pop.
Months after the class, Donegan still speaks with awe of Lewis ("I would hate to meet her in a dark alley") and her course ("It was great").
For Laurie Wallis, a 25-year-old Costa Mesa hairdresser, the impetus for self-protection came from her boyfriend, Paul Howard, who attended a class with her that enabled both of them to obtain licenses to carry tear gas.
Wallis said she wanted to be able to legally carry Mace or a similar aerosol tear gas "just for protection." Howard said the class "was my idea. I want her to have it. I feel safer if she's out places at night" by herself.
Howard, 29, of Laguna Hills, said he wanted the tear gas to help him in his job as a bartender--not for some exotic new cocktail but to give him a boost if there are any repeats of the "couple of instances of customers who were intoxicated to a violent point" and decided to try to punch him out.
In classrooms, gyms and private homes across the county, people are learning how to use tear gas and fists, karate and kicks to the groin to defend themselves. The people who teach the courses say demand is steady. It doesn't take a spectacular crime wave to bring customers to their doors.
Thomas F. Adams, for instance, can count on having a dozen to two dozen people at a time in his classes on the use of tear gas, which he teaches twice a month at Rancho Santiago College in Santa Ana and periodically at corporations that ask him to conduct classes for their employees.
Tear gas "was popular in '80 or '81," Adams said. "It hit its heyday during that time. It was really a fad then. (Now it has) settled back into what is a legitimate self-defense class."
The popularity of tear gas coincided with the early years of its legalization. Since 1977, California residents have been able to legally buy and carry tear-gas canisters--which look like cans of hair spray--if they have a permit. To obtain the piece of paper, they must attend a class such as Adams' and pass a written test, which Adams guarantees his pupils they cannot possibly fail.
A former Santa Ana police lieutenant who now teaches criminal justice at Rancho Santiago College, Adams lays out the basics to his students in no-nonsense terms.
"You're going to get hurt when you defend yourself," he warns, pointing out the goal is to minimize the hurt to oneself, maximize the hurt to the assailant. "You're going to cause pain. . . . You have to cause pain if you're going to force the individual to do what you want him to do."
Tear gas causes a victim's eyes and face to sting and burn as if hit by a blast from hell. Students' noses wrinkle and their eyes well up as Adams passes around a Q-tip with just a dab of the chemical on it. In the words of Adams' course outline: "The recipient usually experiences a complete rearrangement of priorities, making it extremely difficult to concentrate on anything but the pain."
The downside, as Adams noted to his students, is that if you spray the gas into the wind, it could be you who winds up with the "rearrangement of priorities."
A trim man with hands that look as if they could crumple a larynx in seconds, Adams also showed the class other tools of self-defense: a stun gun and a 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol.
A stun gun, which looks like a flashlight, can be carried without a license and delivers 40,000 volts of electricity that would shock an assailant and cause muscular spasms. But the gun itself has to make physical contact with the victim, while tear gas just has to be in the area of the face.
A license from the sheriff or police department is needed to carry a pistol in California unless it is unloaded and not concealed. Adams warns his students that if they do decide to tote a handgun, they should be prepared to use it, not merely wave it as a threat. And that means being able to live with the consequences of possibly killing someone. As Adams put it: "Please don't carry an instrument of death unless you plan to use it."