The Academy 2Q

I’m now down 2-0, frustrated at not being able to put up any sort of challenge, and angry that Francis is clearly more interested in talking to MZUREK. He’s making it clear that he has no interest in our bout, in fencing me. He’s acting like a man talking on the phone while taking out the trash, focused entirely on his conversation, paying minimal attention to the menial physical task he is performing.

I’ve had it. This time when Coach Dan calls on us to resume fencing, I charge forward, my back leg crossing over my front — I know Coach Dan’s going to give me hell for this later, but right now I don’t care, and anyway my feet are back in position by the time I’m within distance, so what difference does it make? For the first time I get a reaction out of Francis — I had seen his weight shift forward when the bout resumed, but when he sees me charging he shifts back, and I can hear him go Hmm. Yeah, I’m coming for you asshole, what are you going to do about it?

It’s then I realize that I have no idea what to do next. I’ve taken initiative, gotten his attention — now what?

In that second I hesitate, I see the shadow of a smile curl up behind his mask. He’s mocking me. I thrust my arm forward, push forward from my back leg, raise my front foot and lunge wildly, not aiiming for any particular place on his body but just attacking in his general direction, not really caring if I score a touch or not, all I want to do is hit him, somewhere, anywhere, off target or on doesn’t matter, I just want to hit him.

But I don’t. Francis turns his wrist over quickly, his foil coming over in a quick arc until it contacts my blade, the force no more than a tap, just sufficient to deflect my foil and negate what little chance of success there was in my attack. He steps back at the same time, giving himself enough distance to allow him to extend his arm, point his foil at my chest, come forward a step and land a scoring touch.

I look up at Francis, and for the first time that day we make eye contact. Hey there, how’s it going? Then he says, “I hear Paris is taking lessons from Dr. Schmidt.”

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The Academy 2P

I immediately advance, taking two steps forward, remembering the strategy that Rex taught me in practice a couple weeks ago — beat the opponent’s blade, extend, disengage when the opponent beats back, lunge and hit. I advance to within lunge distance, get ready for the beat, but Francis has already started to attack, extending his arm, the tip of his foil threatening my chest. I’m not beating any more, I’m parrying his attack, but when I move my foil across my body to block his attack I hit nothing but air, and by the time I realize he’s disengaged he’s landed a touch on my right shoulder, his blade arcing up and to his right, the “2 o’clock bend” that Coach Dan’s always asking of us.

The scoring machine beeps, and Francis turns immediately, walking back towards his starting position. I’m still too surprised to move. “Halt,” Coach Dan calls, unnecessarily. Francis is talking to MZUREK again, and above their inaudible chatter I hear them both say Paris. It’s like I’m not even here.

“Back to your starting line,” I hear Coach Dan say to me. I excuse myself, walk back. Coach Dan calls the score, “1-0,” and calls for us to fence again. I step forward, but this time Francis is on top of me before I can take a second step, arm extended again. I move to parry, clearly seeing him disengage this time — won’t work this time, sucker! — and immediately bring my foil back across my body (lateral parry from 4 to 6, I hear Coach Dan’s voice in my head).

And I hit air again. The disengage was a feint, he’s brought his foil back up in line with it’s original position, aimed right at my exposed chest, my foil far out to my right blocking an attack which isn’t coming, at least not from that area. Francis lunges, lands his attack; the scoring machine beeps, Coach Dan calls halt, and Francis turns quickly again, talking to MZUREK again about Mike Paris as he returns to his starting line.

The Academy 2O

I don’t know what I was expecting to see when I turned to look at Francis Pine, but I didn’t expect this from the opponent in my first fencing bout of the day — he’s got his head turned, having a conversation with another Academy fencer (MZUREK on the legs) off the side of the strip.

“Next week?” Francis asks. “Two,” replies MZUREK. Francis nods, asks “You talk to Paris? He coming?” “Should be. He usually travels with Midland.”

Now it comes to me — he’s talking about Mike Paris, the top foilist from Midland High, in the city. I can’t believe it — Francis Pine is literally looking past us, past today’s tournament with Bark Bay. Well OK, it’s not official, more like a practice, but we’re scoring it like a tournament, but this guy couldn’t care less.

Coach Dan walk up to the middle of our strip, stands to its side, in the referee’s position. He looks us over, see we’re connected. “Test foils,” he commands, waving us toward the middle.

I walk up with foil extended, mask held in my left hand in front of my face. Francis walks up as well, while still talking to MZUREK. He’s not even looking at me as we tap each other’s lame with our foil tips. The green and red lights on the scoring machine light up.

Francis turns away from me, still talking to MZUREK. I’m not even sure he knows I’m here. He puts on his mask as he reaches his starting line. I can already see several spots where the blue tape marking our lines is coming up. I have a little trouble getting my mask on — the damn bib always gets caught on my chin, I have to grab and pull it down — and I can still hear Francis and his buddy talking.

I finish adjusting my mask, walk up to the starting line and crouch down into position. Coach Dan looks at me, and winks. “Fencers ready?” he calls. “Yes,” I say. Francis finally stops talking to his friend, and when he nods, Coach Dan calls, “Fence.”

The Academy 2N

DANIEL screams the unmistakable voice of Coach Sarah, who we now see walking over fast and straight-legged, looking like someone who desparately needs to find a bathroom. She has a clipboard in her right hand, held out in Coach Dan’s direction. “Need the name of your fencers,” she says.

Coach Dan takes the clipboard, turns to us as Coach Sarah hurries away. “We’ll start in five minutes.” He scans the clipboard, takes a pen clipped to the top, writes quickly. “Annie, you’re up first on strip 1 — ” he now looks up, points to the makeshift strip closest to us, yells “Sarah, is this strip 1?”

“That’s the first piste, yes.”

Coach Dan nods, writes again on the clipboard. “Bernie — strip 2,” he says, pointing off to his left.

I feel my stomach tighten. “Who am I facing?”

Coach Dan looks at the clipboard. “Francis.” Oh God, Francis Pine. Why does my first match have to be against one of last year’s State finalists?

As I walk over to the strip, I hear Rex calling to me. “It’s OK. Relax.”

“I am OK.”

“Sorry, but you don’t,” Rex says. “You look like you’re going to puke.”

I nod, as I reach down and grab the plug from the cord reel at my end of the strip. “It’s just — I don’t feel ready to face somebody that good yet.”

Rex helps me connect to the cord. “I don’t think any of us are ready to face Francis,” Rex says. “And if we wait until we’re ‘ready’, we’ll never face him. It’s not about being ready or not, Bernie — it’s about getting on the strip and competing.”

“Thanks,” I say, with polite indifference, as I turn to face my opponent.

The Academy 2M

That’s Coach Dan for you. Always positive, always talking you up. Never really know how sincere he’s being when he’s like this, can’t help wondering if he keeps complimenting us only because he thinks that’s the only way we’ll stick with the team. His team. It is a mystery why he’s running this team, it’s all on his free time, no way the school would pay him any extra. He talks about his college coach every once in a while, usually making fun of his accent (you tink you fast, no, you have a trouble, leg go before arm, you lose). Maybe he’s trying to show something to his old coach. Maybe he’s compensating for his too-short fencing career.

Or maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. My mom tells me I don’t trust people enough, that I can’t accept the fact that someone might actually be telling me the truth sometimes. I don’t think I’m that bad, I trust Butch a lot. And I want to trust Coach Dan, I really do. It’s just different with him.

The Academy 2L

Coach Sarah supervises the Academy fencers as they get all the equipment in place. We offer to help, but accepting help from Bark Bay, I guess that’s unacceptable.

Coach Dan calls Butch, Kassie, Rex, Annie and I over, away from the strips. “Remember, this isn’t a real tournament,” he says. “We’ll be keeping a scoresheet and running it like it’s real, but I want all of you to think of this as an extended practice.”

Butch raises his hand, like we’re in class or something. Coach Dan raises his eyebrows, nods in his direction. “Is it like a scrimmage?”

“I — guess that analogy works,” replies Coach Dan, his voice filled with a desire but not the will to contradict. “Butch, Kassie, I want you to go in with the right attitude. You’ve only been on the team a month, so you’re going to be at a real disadvantage today. Odds are you’re going to get squished, like bugs. You average one touch per bout, you’re doing great. It’s the experience you get today, that’s why I asked you to come here, and glad you were willing and able to come. What you’ll learn today is something you just can’t get out of practice. And I’m proud of you for making this committment.”

Begin

I’m about as ready as one could be for this type of commmittment. I fenced in tournaments as a high schooler for two years — granted, this was over thirty years ago (that’s nearly a third of a century, for those of you scoring at home), but the experience is not entirely lost on me. There were also a couple of phys ed classes I took at Northwestern — they were non-credit classes, but you had to take two to graduate, a requirement I also found odd (the classes counted, but not really) — that were taught by Laurie Schiller, the legendary fencing coach and history professor. I didn’t have much success either in high school or college, and while I didn’t exactly quit fencing, I decided to direct my focus towards areas where I could find more success.

And then, three decades of no fencing, until I saw a course description in an adult recreation catalog. Had actually been thinking for a few years about getting back into the sport, the frustration I had experienced mostly eclipsed by fond memories of my high school teammates (still good friends) and Laurie Schiller’s magnetic personality. Took a chance, signed up for the beginner class, followed that a month later with the advanced class. A year later I started feeling restless in the recreational class; I wasn’t the best fencer (not hardly), but I felt like I was going through the motions, never really improving, running in place. Took another chance, signed up for classes at a fencing school with a more competitive focus. That was six months ago, and while I’m having less “success” than I had as a recreational fencer (OK, I lose just about every practice bout), I found that I was enjoying myself more. So when the head coach challenged us to step up our training effort, I took yet another chance.

Bought my own equipment a few months after my first recreational class (after seeing a kid sneeze into her mask one night, no further inspiration was needed). Mask, jacket, glove, practice foil — lame a year later — electrical foil and body cord should come this week, shoes probably in another month.

Don’t know if I’m ready for this new commitment, but all that matters is that I’ve begun.

The Academy 2K

One of the Academy fencers pulls out this roll of blue electrical tape, about an inch wide, and starts tearng off strips and sticking them on the floor. A few minutes later and several measurements from Coach Sarah later (Jesus Christ, she brought a tape measure and she’s not embarassed to use it), we have two makeshift fencing strips (Coach Sarah calls it a piste — yet another thing I have to explain to Butch) taped out in blue lines on the green rubber floor of the fieldhouse — 14 meters (or do they spell it metres at the Academy?) long, 2 meters wide, warning strip two meters from each end, starting lines two meters on either side of the center.

Folding tables and chairs have somehow appeared, and a small rectangular table is placed to the side and middle of each strip. “That’s the scoring device,” I say to Butch before he asks. “There’s two lights on each side — upper right turns green when the fencer on the right scores a touch, upper left turns red for a guy on the left. If there’s an off-target hit, white lights at the bottom light up.” I point to the cords leading from either end of the device, leading down the side of the strip to the cord reels that have been placed just outside the end of the strips. “So there’s your circuit,” I say, pointing with my index finger at the scoring device, “from the machine, down through the cord, to the cord reel, then out the other end of the reel to that three-pronged plug I showed you, to the alligator clip and lamme — that ends the circuit from the other fencer’s weapon — and also to the body cord which runs through the fencer’s jacket and connects to the weapon, which starts the circuit that runs back” — and now I reverse the direction of my index finger movements back through the cord reel up, through the scoring device, up through the cord reel at the other end of the strip — “and finally ends at the other fencer’s lame.”

I look at Butch, who’s nodding blankly, not fully understanding but aware enough to know that he has a right to be impressed. “Wow. So this takes the place of judges?”

I nod. “There’s still a referee, who has to decide on right of way if there’s simultaneous action and lights go on both sides. He can also override the scoring device, but only if there’s a really obvious problem.”