The Academy 2J

I hear the big metal door to the right open clangly, and three more Academy fencers walk in, names on their legs. They’re carrying short metal boxes, a couple inches high and a foot square.

“Finally,” Coach Sarah calls, following with a command to clear the area where we’ve been drilling. Rex goes off to help with setup, and as I stand aside Butch comes up to me. “What are those things?” Butch says. “They look like metal pizza boxes.”

I remember that this is Butch’s first tournament. All of our practices in the Bark Bay cafeteria have been non-electric, he hasn’t seen this equipment before. “It’s a cord reel,” I explain, walking over to where one of the boxes has been placed on the floor. “There’s a plug at the end,” I say, reaching down and grabbing the three-pronged plug, laying outside a small hole. As I pull the plug up to show Butch, a shielded electrical cord uncoils from the box through the hole. “We’ll be using different weapons today, they’ll have a small outlet inside the hilt, next to the grip. There’s this body cord, when you put your jacket on one end of the cord will go through your sleeve and out through your wrist, the other will do down your back. One end of the body cord connects to the foil, the other end,” I say, holding the plug from the metal box up, “connects to here.”

I then point to the other end of the box. “See that cord that goes out the back? That goes to the scoring device. When you register a touch, the device lights up.”

“What if you hit off target?” he asks.

I nod. “That’s what the lamee’s are for — that’s another piece of equipment you haven’t used yet. It’s this gray vest with wires in it. Your body cord will have an alligator clip, on the same end that connects to this device. You clip it to the back of your lamee. These foils we use today, they also have a sensor on the tip, not the rubber tip we use in practice. When pressure’s applied to the sensor, it looks to see if it can make a circuit to your opponent’s lamee — that’s what the alligator clip does, make a circuit. If you hit off target, your foil doesn’t make a circuit, and a white light goes off.”

I look at Butch, and though I can tell my talk about electical circuitry has confused him, he nods in agreement with enough confidence to let me know he gets the jist of my explanation.

The Academy 2I

Rex and I switch positions in the drill, and he perfectly executes the role of follower, always staying just out of my extended arm’s reach, but near enough to touch me with a lunge. Rex is the fencer I admire most on our team — he mostly fences epee now, but he still competes in foil too. I’ve been thinking about trying epee, I like that the whole body is a target, not just the arms and torso like in foil. Maybe I’ll try sabre too, if I can find someone else besides Double-J to practice against. Double-J only does sabre now, says he doesn’t have time for foil any more. Coach Dan keeps trying to talk him out of it, but good riddance, I say.

Ready

Last night, I made the type of committment that well-educated men like myself should know better to avoid in their middle years — I agreed to begin training for competitive fencing tournaments. While this decision isn’t completely unprecedented (I’ve been taking recreational fencing lessons for the past two years, and I did compete in fencing tournaments as a high school student), it certainly feels odd to be twice, in some instances almost three times older than the people I’ll be training with, and to enter competitions knowing most of the opponents my age will have years, decades more fencing experience.

Why, given the above reservations, am I doing this? The credit mostly goes to curiosity, the suspicion that by pushing myself to fence competitively I’ll enjoy the sport even more than I do now as a recreational fencer. Perhaps I’m wrong, and this experiment will blow up in my face. If so, well, that’s what experiments are all about. And unlike other experiments undertaken to ease the angst of mid-life crises, this won’t make my insurance rates go up.

Today, I start another perhaps ill-advised committment, that being to start this blog as a record of this journey into competitive fencing. It’s another nod to curiosity, as well as a means to keep myself honest.

And so, with no clear idea what I’m heading into, I take this lunge into the dark.

The Academy 2H

I can tell Butch is standing as still as possible, nervous that any movement will take him out of position, generating another correction from Coach Dan. He’s stiff and uncomfortable, like a kid taking a game of freeze tag way too seriously.

“Relax,” Coach Dan tells him, pushing down with his palms. Butch eases the tension in his shoulders, the action rippling down his arms. “Don’t lower your hand,” says Coach Dan. Did I have this much difficulty when I started last year? Probably.

Coach Dan crouches down into position in front of Butch, and calls out the drill. “My side, just advance/retreat. Mix it up, vary your pace, try to throw off your opponent. Other side, your object just to keep distance, not too close or far away. When you hear me say ‘stop,’ everyone freeze. If my side can hit the other side with just an extension, no lunge, that means we got in too close. And if we can’t hit with an extension, the other side extends and lunges, and if they can’t hit, they’re too far away. Too close, or too far — our side wins. Other side hits with a lunge — you win. We’ll do this a couple times, then switch. OK?”

We all nod, and start the drill. Rex is on Coach Dan’s side, so he starts with two quick advances toward me, and I jump back. “Stay low,” Rex tells me. I do that a lot, get out of my crouch when I move quickly. Your knees staighten, you loose bounce and flexibility, can’t react as quickly. I force my body lower, feel the tendons or ligaments or whatever it is in my knees stretch, follow Rex as he retreats, focus on not standing as I advance — lift the toes on the front foot, push with the heel, land, bring the back foot forward. “Good,” he calls. Rex advances a step, then Coach Dan calls halt, check your distance. We stop, and Rex’s Slinky arm comes forward, the tip of his index finger landing effortlessly on my chest. I swear, and Rex laughs as Coach Dan calls for us to resume the drill.

The Academy 2G

Coach Dan verbally adjusts Butch’s fencing stance (elbow in, right arm down, left arm back, feet shoulder width apart), his voice slightly frustrated, like a photographer arranging the pose of a fidgety child. You can tell Butch is trying his best to follow along, but he doesn’t understand what he’s doing wrong, what he needs to correct. I know that feeling, happened to me a lot when I was in Butch’s position last year, just starting out and anxious to not only do things right, but also not to do anything wrong.

Fencing’s a tough sport to learn, and while I don’t have a lot of proof to back this up, I think it’s particularly difficult for American kids to pick up. I read this book Coach Dan lent me, it talked about fencing schools in Europe that have been around for centuries, and are still going strong. Coach Dan told me once, he said Europeans started coming to America during the days when firearms were becoming mass produced, so they brought their guns and left their rapiers behind. (“Easier to slaughter Indians with rifles than swords,” Double-J said at the time, which caused Coach Dan to turn away, neither agreeing nor disagreeing.)

But here’s what else I figured out. American sports, almost all of them involve some kind of ball, something you can hit, throw, catch, carry. Most of the skills you learn in those sports revolve around that ball — aligning your body to shoot a basketball in a smooth arc down into the hoop, getting down to field a grounder in baseball, hitting a tennis ball over a net and past your opponent’s racket, passing a puck so it glides rather than bounces over the ice to your teammate, catching a football pass without breaking stride. Then you get to fencing, and suddenly there’s no ball, nothing to focus your attention. Yeah, you have a foil (or epee, or sabre), but it’s nothing like a baseball bat, tennis racket, or hockey stick (you can’t hold it like a club, I remember Coach Dan telling me a lot last year). A proper fencing action is a thrust, not a swing, and you simply don’t do that much thrusting in other sports.

Sometime around your first or second practice, you realize that most of the skills you developed playing other sports don’t translate into fencing. Sure, balance and hand/eye coordination are important in fencing, like they are in other sports, but it’s a different kind of balance (go forward, but not tooforward), a different type of target towards which the eye is to guide the hand.

Fencing’s a tough sport, and seeing Butch stand awkwardly in his en garde stance, I feel glad that I’ve made as much progress as I have this past year.

The Academy 2F

[Slight change to end of last entry — no need for Rex to apologize again for making Coach Dan run late]

Rex sees them too, and when he rises out of en garde position I also relax.

I hear Rex saying something, and the only word I’m able to make it from behind the gray metal of his mask is here.

“What?” I ask.

More muffled words, here coming across again. He must be asking something about the field house. “What about here?” I ask. Rex shakes his head, leans forward and speaks loudly, so now I can definitely here him say, “No, here.”

“Here? You mean the field house?”

Aaaaah he exclaims, raising his left hand up to his head and removing his mask quickly. “I said, I couldn’t hear you.” He shakes his mask, points with his right index finger at my mask, being careful to keep his foil pointed down.

“Oh,” I say, taking off my mask. Rex starts talking again, but there’s a clatter of foils coming from the Academy fencers and all I can make out is hear.

“Yes, it’s still a little hard to hear, but it’s a little better now without the masks.”

Rex shakes his head again, and I can tell he’s losing patience. He leans forward, and almost yells, “No, here,” he says, pointing down with his right index finger, his foil now pointed back and to his right. “I asked, have you ever been here before.”

“Oh! OK. Sorry. No, this is the first time I’ve been in the field house.”

Rex rolls his eyes, then smiles in a way that tells me that he’s just as amused as he is annoyed. “I meant the Academy. Have you ever been here before?”

“Ah,” I say, but before I continue talking I take the more efficient communication route, and simply shake my head. Rex nods with a look of relief, then puts his mask back on.

The Academy 2E

Coach Dan asks us to partner up with someone, work on keeping distance. Butch and I turn to each other, but Coach Dan says no, he’ll work with Butch, he wants Rex to work with me and Annie with Kassie.

That’s cool with me. I like working with Rex, he explains things really well, doesn’t talk a mile a minute like Annie or get impatient with you like Double-J. Rex stands in front of me a few feet away, extends his arm — he’s got really long arms, and even though he’s long and lean all over it still surprises you when he extends his arms, it’s like an accordian or a Slinky that always seems to keep coming and coming — I’ve done this drill maybe a dozen times with Rex this past year, and every time I think I start outside his extension but then he sticks out that Slinky arm and bam, the tip of his foil pokes me in the chest.

“Get outisde extension distance.” Got it, Coach. I back up a step from Rex, then remembering my past experiences with Rex and this drill, I take another step back. This time I’m sure I’m far enough away, perhaps even too far. “Check your distance.” The Slinky in Rex’s arm uncoils and bam, his foil hits me in the chest again.

“Sorry,” Rex says to me. “No, it’s OK,” I say as I step backwards again, and think I’m the one who should be sorry here. I hear Coach Dan talking to my left, and look over and see him explaining something to Butch. Rex sees them too, and when he rises out of en garde position I also relax.

“Really, I am sorry,” Rex says to me. The filter of our gray fencing masks makes the apologetic look in his face seem all the more solemn. “I should be apologizing to everyone here, I’m the reason Coach Dan was running late.”

I take off my mask. “What’s going on?”

The Academy 2D

Coach Dan leads us through our warm up drills. It’s the same stuff we do in practice — advance/retreat/lunge, vary the pace, keep the front foot pointed forward, don’t turn the back hip in, get that arm out before you lunge.

The Academy fencers have already finished their warm ups, so they’re just standing around, some of us watching us. I wonder what they’re thinking, in their customized jackets and regulation pants, watching us in our ill-fitting second-hand jackets, many of us in jeans which no serious fencer would wear even to a practice. If I were them, I’d certainly think we didn’t belong here, on a campus where the rich from all over the country send their children — no, the students of Bark Bay High School have no place here, we belong back in the town many of us have never left in our lives.

I see them watching us, and can’t help wonder if I’m imagining them judging us, or whether I’m the one who’s doing the judging.

The Academy 2C

Kassie’s a piece of work, let me tell you. Looks like she weighs about three pounds, two of which are from her hair — long, black and straight, going down to her waist in the back, then tapering up over her shoulders and up to her face, where it hangs over her eyes. She talks (a rare occurrence, and almost always in response to insistent demand) in a whisper, soft and tentative, as if she thought her words could cause harm. And when you talk to her, you can see her eyes darting around behind her overhanging hair, like she’s searching for something. Talking to her is frustrating, like talking to someone behind a black curtain.

The word frail doesn’t begin to describe her body; even the tighest fitting clothes (Coach Dan found the smallest jacket he had, one he had considered throwing in the trash, believing no high schooler would ever fit into it) seem to drape over her body, which always seems to be struggling under the weight of her clothes.

When she joined the fencing team, I remembered seeing her in the halls at school. It’s ironic that her efforts to remain unnoticed — waiting for the halls to clear before going out, walking quickly with head down, never making eye contact — make her one of the most noticeable people at school. I was kind of put off when Annie all but dragged her into practice that day (I know she’s anxious to have more girls on the team, but please), and I hoped she’d be like all the other one-timers we’ve had on the team. But she’s not only stuck around these past couple of months, she’s also showing a side of herself that I doubt anyone else has seen, a side that only comes out when she’s in full fencing gear: she’s friendly and talkative, the shadow of her smile visible through the gray metal of her mask. She suddenly becomes outgoing, eager to learn, and while she’s of course not as skilled at fencing as me or Annie, or even Butch, you can tell she’s improving. Well maybe she’s at Butch’s level.

High Fidelity

I’ll admit that I read this Nick Hornby novel almost entirely because I thoroughly enjoyed the 2000 movie adaptation with John Cusack (and was hopeful for a literary experience that would drive Lisa Bonet’s dreadful performance from my mind). And maybe it’s because I’m not only American but also have very fond memories of my youthful years in Chicago, but I think I enjoyed the movie more than the book. The narrator’s comic self-absorption is certainly entertaining, but very little of it comes off as profound, and I guess that’s my level of expectation when it comes to novels. Fortunately, the most memorable character in the novel is Marie, who is certainly no Cosby Kid. Makes me wonder if I should try reading Hornby’s “Fever Pitch,” with the hope that it will cleanse the part of my memory that holds the image of Drew Barrymore in a Red Sox cap.