When Lou Trammel began teaching a self-defense class for his fellow bus drivers, he thought it would be a way to keep gang members off buses. But he never imagined that he would achieve that goal in a more roundabout way: many young people prefer his class to their street gangs.
According to Roy Starks, Trammel's division supervisor, the judo class is making a big difference in many young lives.
"He's taking kids off the street, and that means progress," said Starks. "I think it's commendable."
Trammel's class includes 41 boys and girls, some as young as 6. It has been meeting two nights a week for 2 1/2 years at the Cypress Park Recreation Center. On weekends Trammel takes his students to other schools so they can practice against other young people.
Trammel originally did not plan the class for kids.
"I started the class primarily for bus drivers because so many of them were being attacked on the street," said Trammel, an 18-year veteran of the Southern California Rapid Transit District. "Some had been attacked by passengers who had pulled knives on them."
Trammel posted a sign-up sheet for those who wanted to learn self-defense and a lot of drivers expressed an interest in his program, he said. He rented a room from the Los Angeles Parks and Recreation Center and began an adult judo class.
"I still have some of the same people who stuck it out for the physical training and spiritual development," he said. "A lot of them help me with the kids."
As the adult class continued, kids began hanging around to watch. Trammel noticed that many of them wore gang insignia and decided he wanted to change that. He asked park director Henry Davis whether there was a judo program for the youngster. Davis told him a previous instructor had lost control of the class and quit.
"I told him I'd be willing to do it, teaching for free," Trammel said. "The main object was to get them off the streets."
Trammel's martial arts skill enabled him to command the youngsters' interest in short order. At his first class he gave a two-hour demonstration of what they could learn.
"The kids wanted to start right then and there," he said.
Trammel describes himself as a strict teacher. Rigorous discipline is an integral part of any martial art, and he insisted his students follow the rules he set down.
At least one-third of his group were involved in gangs before starting his judo class, he estimates. One of his first moves was to clean them up.
"They looked like hell with those street haircuts," he said. Trammel insists the students wear nothing that would mark them as a gang member. He said he monitors the young people closely.
"If I catch them involved in any gang activity or hanging around with known hoodlums, I drop them from the class," he said. "Drugs are out. Cigarettes are out. Grades must be up."
The young people address him as sensei , which Trammel said means teacher in Japanese.
Unlike karate, which involves hitting and kicking, the judo fighter uses leverage to grasp and throw an opponent. Both disciplines had their beginnings in jiujitsu , an ancient Japanese art that is about 2,000 years old.
Trammel, who grew up in Los Angeles, got a surprising introduction to judo at age 9 from a Japanese-American playmate, Vincent Yamaguchi.
"I used to bully him quite a bit," said Trammel, "until he showed me a little judo." Trammel said the boy bested him. " We became friends after that."
As a teen, Trammel attended judo classes and earned his black belt at 18.
Trammel served in the U.S. Strategic Air Command, where he taught hand-to-hand combat to fighter pilots and military police. He was part of an anti-terrorist unit at a U.S. air base in England and won a number of medals as a member of his Air Force judo team which traveled internationally in the early 1960s, he said.
Trammel has taught self-defense through most of his adult life, except for a seven-year period when his three sons were very young. When he realized he was growing a paunch, he knew it was time to go back to his training, he said.
Olivia Rivas, 12, has been in Trammel's class for almost a year. Although she is not interested in sports, the judo club is an exception.
"I love it," said Rivas. "The judo helps me get rid of my aggressiveness. It's been good for me."
Last year the team competed in both state and national judo competitions in San Diego. Several of the youngsters earned medals. Twenty-seven of Trammel's students have qualified and will compete in the Junior Olympic games which come to Los Angeles next July.
Despite its growing success and recognition, Trammel said, the group has experienced an ongoing financial crunch. Among the most serious problems is finding transportation for the youngsters to attend tournaments in other parts of the city. Some of his students live as far away as Covina. Trammel finally bought a 15-seat van to help haul them around.
Despite planned fund-raisers, Trammel is still concerned with how the group will raise enough money to travel to Ft. Lauderdale for the next national judo competition this spring.
Trammel calls his group the Cypress Park Judo Jiu Jitsu Kai. Its logo is a dragon, chosen because it is a sign of good luck, wisdom, faithfulness and courage. Trammel uses a patch with the dragon logo to motivate the kids.
"They must compete in tournaments and excel before they may wear the patch. I use it for leverage," he said.
The dragon patch is becoming widely recognized by other judo clubs in the Los Angeles area.
"When the kids walk in a room and see a dragon patch, they know what they are in for," Trammel said