One of the reasons I was looking forward to high school from my sword and sorcery focused youth was that they had a fencing team. Late in middle school when I expressed my desire, my Dad replied with:
“You’ll be a heck of a big target.”
And that ended my teenaged enthusiasm for fencing.
Although to be completely truthful, the requirement of the fencing team to spend every day after classes performing distance runs through the school hallways probably had a greater effect on the decision made by this then sedentary individual than my father’s witty observation.
However, many years later when I was an independently living (and far more physically active) adult, I heard the call yet again. While signing up for a writing course that was part of a local high school’s adult education, I found a listing for a foil fencing beginners’ class. Deciding that it would be a great way to expand my human interactions and connections I signed up.
Yes, I concluded that entering a room with a number of masked individuals and poking them with sharp objects would enhance my social life. Understanding interpersonal dynamics has never been my strong suit.
There were prerequisite items needed, including male protection, which if I had ever been involved in an organized sport in my life before, I would have owned. Shortly before class started I ran to the mall to find what I needed at a sporting goods store. There was a Duncan display at the checkout line. I had recently learned a couple of tricks at a juggling festival and realized I had never owned a good one, prompting me to grab a yo-yo and place it on the counter next to my appropriately armored underwear. The sales lady stared back and forth from one to the other. When she looked quizzically up at me I stated, “Yes, I am that clumsy.” I got my equipment, and she got a story to tell her grandchildren, everyone wins.
For quite a long time, the class was a nightmare of contortion.
It began with the stance. This involved pointing my toes in uncooperative directions away from each other, while squatting and arching my back. Not content with applying distress only to my lower body, the instructor had me turn my head and shoulders in opposite unpleasant angles. The arms also went in equally difficult to maintain, and silly looking positions.
We had to make all of our motions from this collection of ridiculous poses. I felt like a spastic ballet dancer trying to use an unclean port-a-potty.
Then came the arrival of footwork. The steps, like everything else in fencing, had overcomplicated, and often overly French, names for simple items.
The basic steps were done in the previously described painful and goofy looking pose, without letting the legs cross. This was in order to prove to me that while I thought I was as unbalanced as humanly possible, I was in fact, about to get much more wobbly.
Stepping forward was an “advance.”
Stepping backward was a “retreat.”
Stepping forward with only one foot and stretching was a “lunge.”
Stepping and falling down was a “frequent occurrence.”
We also learned the “cross step,” which obviously does allow the legs to cross, and was used as an emergency high speed retreat. In the early footwork exercises it was unrevealed that the proper form of executing the cross step during a bout would be accompanied by random sword flailing toward the rapidly closing adversary while screaming.
Or perhaps that was just me.
In regular peoples fencing, there is also a forward cross step, or charge. This was not used in our modified “school.” They correctly felt that the fatalities incurred by having barely trained, lightly practiced individuals running towards each other at full speed with swords extended would seriously diminish class attendance.
Once we had practiced the dance of discomfort for a time, we were finally allowed to hold a sword. There are several different types of fencing grips, all of which resemble midlevel torture devices in both appearance and the effect on the hand. The way to tell if the foil is properly held is by putting one’s wrist in the most uncomfortable position possible, and then rotating it until it is slightly more painful.
Hands foiled, the squatting shuffle continued before we could learn what to do with the sword, aside from “don’t drop it.” (Again, perhaps that was just me.)
More funny names and painful positions accompanied learning how to handle the weapon.
The “straight attack,” or “poke the opponent,” is basic, comfortable, simple, and therefore almost never used by itself.
There are several variations on the theme of “fake a poke here, then move there,” with names like “disengage,” “high-low,” and “Oh crap I forgot where I was aiming.” (Definitely just me on that one.)
Parry and riposte are fancy names for block and counter attack. There are eight different numbered parries, which we drilled on endlessly. Not only couldn’t I remember which parry went with which number, but I’m pretty sure that numbers one and five would have required snapping my wrist bone in half to execute.
With weeks of painful and clumsy drills completed, we were finally allowed to fence bouts on the strip. I was certain I was going to lose points, look silly, and hurt myself at a bare minimum. However, something miraculous happened. All the posing, stepping, and wielding that had felt completely painful and ridiculous suddenly made complete physical instinctive sense in the heat of battle. The transformation was so incredibly astounding and total that I have taken to asking someone to charge at me with a sword whenever I need to enhance my learning of something new. This may explain why I have had trouble mastering Spanish.
In addition to fencing the other beginners, we would also fence advanced students who had arrived early for their class. At first they could only parry and riposte, but that restriction dropped fairly quickly. This ended up immeasurably enhancing my abilities for two reasons.
The first has something to do with playing up to their level, or some sports term that I’d probably get right if I ever gave a rats patootie about competitive athletics.
The second was all due to one of the advanced students. He was at least a head taller than me, twice as wide and contained the power of the average warehouse forklift. It was like fencing a mountain, albeit a mountain with a blonde mustache and a much faster sword arm than usually seen in a geographic feature. After having my foil knocked across the room (and my radius and ulna bent slightly) on several occasions, I learned there was no way to rely on my inherent “big guy”ness against this excessively “bigger guy.” The only hope I had was to beat him by developing my wits and reflexes, both of which are key to the sport.
Wits to think several steps ahead of one’s foe are exceedingly important, and I’ve heard fencing compared to playing chess quite often. I agree, but with one slight modification. Fencing is exactly like playing chess only if:
when you are concentrating on the next move, your opponent is constantly throwing his pawns directly at your face.
As far as reflexes go, that gave me my greatest edge. Not that my juggler like reflexes of a cat were blindingly fast compared to the rest of the gang, but they did give me a stealth advantage. In the same way that one doesn’t need to be faster than the bear, only faster than the other guy running away to survive an attack. In fencing, one doesn’t need to be faster than the other guy, only faster than the other guy THINKS you are. This is a subtle, but important differentiation that can throw off an opponent’s timing considerably. Looking like (and in fact being) a big goofy guy, armed with the reaction times of a juggler made for many surprise victories.
After surviving the beginner class, I melded pretty seamlessly with the advanced group in later semesters. We were a varied mix.
Some adults who fenced previously and came back to it
Some adults who always wanted to try and finally did
And some Space Monkeys
I think I coined that term for the teenagers who didn’t have enough interest or drive to join their high school team, but wanted to try fencing under less stringent conditions. Their general lack of focus and attention span had the other adults taking it up the title relatively quickly.
The Space Monkeys were the recipients of the only times I would ever intentionally aim “off target.” Foil fencing points are only scored for hits on the upper torso. Hits to the arms, legs and head cause a halt in the action, but no points awarded. Too many of them will actually lead to a deduction against the off-targeter. However, after having a given Space Monkey slam his sword tip into my kneecap for the thirty seventh time in a single match, I found a deliberately applied thwack to the noggin would slow the bugger down enough to make him think twice about his approach vector.
Along with gaining more experience, I picked up more equipment to allow transitioning from “dry fencing” to “electric fencing.” I’m guessing there’s some French translation issue that made “dry” and “electric” opposites of each other. Here’s a summary of how each works:
Dry: Points are recorded based on the occasional observations and wild guesses of other fencers, including a large percentage of Space Monkeys.
Electric: Points are recorded based on the occasional flashing lights and beeps of frequently malfunctioning electronic equipment attached to fencers and swords by wires with loose connections.
Both tended to rely on the, “OK, you got me,” method of score keeping, reinforced by the director’s keeping track of who had “right of way.” Yes, although fencing is based on the concept of trying to stab someone to death with a large sharpened piece of metal, it is a very polite form of combat.
I became one of the more successful fencers of our group. I tried one of the competitions to see how I would fare outside the class, but found the competition crowd to be (unsurprisingly) way more competitive. Not in a “higher skill level and more serious about the art of fencing” form of competitive, but rather the, “higher chance of whining, griping and sulking about director’s judgments and rule minutia” competitive. For the remainder of my semesters, I remained solely dedicated to combating my fellow class mates, while building a valuable skill for dealing with the ever growing groups of children arming themselves with light sabers, elvish blades and the Sword of Gryffindor.
The most valuable lesson I learned from this class had very little to do with fencing, and everything to do with confidence.
There was a fencer who started in the beginners class shortly after I had moved up to advanced. Once we had been in the same group for a couple of semesters, I was able to clearly see that he had surpassed me in pretty much every way possible. (This was especially true after I skipped sessions for minor reasons like getting married and becoming a father.)
He was faster than me,
He was more skilled than me.
He had a greater understanding and knowledge of the sport that I did, and in fact directed about half the bouts eventually.
He even looked the part far more than I did, in his official fencing pants and shoes, while I was still stomping along the strip in black sweatpants and Chuck Taylors.
But for almost the entire time we shared classes together, he couldn’t beat me.
I’d watch him easily take out other fencers at or above my skill level. There were some nights where I knew I was off, and losing other matches badly, but I’d manage to just squeak by against him. There were only three of us who attended every class for a long stretch: he, I, and a woman with similar ability levels. (Though she possessed entertainingly higher levels of aggression on the strip, and the coolest family tree I’ve seen.) Over the course of our fencing careers, she and I ended up with about even win/loss ratios against each other. (And some epic battles that would send the Space Monkeys cowering to the back of the room.) He and she were also evenly matched. Yet, I always managed to get the better of him.
Though I don’t know what combination of factors set it off, the results were unchanging. Even when he’d start out well ahead of me in points, he’d manage to psych himself out and make mistakes, allowing some simple feints on my part to get my sword past his blade for the winning touch.
On my final night (between family responsibilities and my rapidly deteriorating knees, continuing was no longer a viable option) he was the last bout I faced. He knew I was not returning, and I knew, by the look in his eyes, he was determined to succeed.
We had a great match, but his confidence finally never wavered, and he outscored me as handily as he should have for quite a while.
I knew my fate was sealed when the valestra didn’t work.
There is one footwork move I did not mention above: the yet again confusingly French “valestra.” It is a pure and unadulterated leaping charge. The fencer extends the sword arm in a simple straight attack, and simultaneously springs forward toward the opponent.
Well before my knees informed me that squatting for up to three minutes at a time while someone else tries to injure us with a metal poking device was something we shouldn’t do anymore, they already weren’t the happiest part of me to be on the fencing strip.
My battered and aging joints allowed only one valestra per evening. Armed with this knowledge, I would save it up, holding it in reserve for a moment of desperate need in a match against someone obviously faster and usually also younger than myself. In other words, someone quick and spry enough that my “faster than expected”’ juggler advantage wasn’t cutting it.
I’d wait for them to look like they felt in control of the match, use various steps and moves to adjust the distance between us, and launch myself through space directly at them.
The look on their face was always one of unabashed horror, nearly forming a visible thought balloon containing:
“There’s no way something that large should be airborne.”
I’d often score a hit with them too stunned to attempt a parry. The shock would also frequently throw off their focus for the rest of the match, and some Space Monkeys were known to emit squeals of terror.
With the exception of the final night, this tactic performed quite successfully against the fencer mentioned above.
In fact, one evening he confided in me:“Y’know, I can tell by your eyes and how you coil up that a valestra is coming…and I still can’t make myself do anything about it when I see you flying through