The Academy 2B

Coach Dan’s sorted through all our equipment, handed it out to everyone. Annie takes off the jacket she had borrowed from the Academy, the one with her family name, HUTCHINSON, on the back. It surprises me that Annie uses the same crummy equipment that everyone else does at Bark Bay, considering how loaded her family is. Her father’s running for state senate in the spring, taking on old man Fischer, and her mother drives a Cadillac. You don’t see many Caddys driving around the dirty, decaying roads of Bark Bay. Her mother’s car sticks out like pearls on a t-shirt stained yellow at the armpits.

“Let’s get warmed up,” Coach Dan calls, and we all fall in line in front of him, Butch to my right and Annie on my left, with Kassie and Rex beyond her in line. Kassie’s left-handed, and she watches Annie throught our warm ups.

The Academy 2A

Pssst. I look over at Butch, who’s waving me over, his eyes nervously scanning the area around us like a character in a bad horror movie. He waits until I’m close enough to smell his breath (I recognize the chocolate donuts he picked up on the road this morning) before whispering “what does that mean? The A and C stuff?”

I nod, then shrug and explain what little I know about how rankings work. Rankings are based on points you earn for winning bouts in tournaments — have to be real sanctioned tournaments, not like the glorified practice we’re having today in the Academy’s field house. The higher the rank of the fencer you beat, the more points you get, and the more points you get, the higher your rank. Everybody starts out as a U, which I guess means unranked, and the first real ranking you can get is an E. You go up the alphabet from there until you get to A.

“So you’re an E?” Butch asks. I laugh, tell him I’ve only been in one tournament and won one bout, I had a long way to go before I earned my E. He points in Annie’s direction. “She’ll probably get to E before I do,” I say. “Rex, Double-J, they might already be E’s.”

“Coach Dan used to be a C?”

I shrug. “Don’t know. That’s what he says.”

“If he didn’t injure his knee in college, would he have gotten his A?”

I can’t help rolling my eyes. Butch, I was like three years old when he was in college, how should I know? Fortunately Coach Dan calls us over, saving me from having to respond.

The Academy 1Z

Don’t know why Coach Dan doesn’t compete. Sometimes in practice he’ll get in a bout with one of us, usually to work with us on something like parry/riposte, but every once in a while it’ll be a for real bout, and when he stops coaching and just fences I’ve never seen him lose, not once. There was one time last spring he was in a match with Miles, might have been the last practice before States, and they went at it. Miles was not only fast and skilled but canny, always saving his best moves for his toughest opponents, but that last practice match with Coach Dan, I saw him do things I’d never seen him do before — attacking the back, running attacks, leaping lunges — and Coach Dan held his ground. Miles got to five touches first, but right when Miles started pumping his fist Coach Dan started waving his fists, said this was going to be a full fifteen-touch bout, an elimination rather than a preliminary.

And Coach Dan won, by four. He was breathing hard when it was over and the next day I noticed him limping on his left knee, the one he tore up in college, but the thing is he won, he beat Miles who wound up fourth at States in foil last year, Miles was easily a C perhaps even a B. So yeah, I’m with Coach Sarah, I don’t understand why Coach Dan doesn’t compete.

The Academy 1Y

Coach Dan sorts through our sack of suits. He finds the one with the orange stain on the left sleeve, looks like someone rubbed it with a mango — nobody knows what the stain is or how it got there, whether the stain was there when the State university fencing team handed it down to Coach Dan when he started the team four years ago or was acquired during its time in Bark Bay — but it doesn’t smell, it’s not on my weapon arm, and the jacket fits me better than any of the others, so I actually like the stain. Makes it easier for me to find.

“Here you go, Bernie,” Coach Dan says, tossing me the jacket with the orange stain.

“You joining us today?” Coach Sarah calls to Coach Dan. For the first time that morning, I register the fact that she’s wearing a fencing jacket. Fencing isn’t like baseball, coaches never wear jackets for tournaments, even the most comfortable will be tight and restricting, heavy and hot. If a coach is leading drills then yeah, of course they wear jackets, even with the rubber tip at its end a foil’s gonna sting when it hits you if you aren’t protected. But this being a tournament — holy crap, Coach Sarah’s going to compete?

Coach Dan laughs. “I’m a coach, not a competitor,” he says, increasing the volume of his voice. “I’ve got enough to do keeping my team in line.”

Coach Sarah mutters impatiently, ooooh. “You’re no FUN, Daniel! You need to get back out there, get your A again!”

“Highest I ever got was a C, my dear,” he replies, “and that was a long time ago.” He leans back down over the sack of jackets, resumes his search.

The Academy 1X

“She’ll be alright,” Rex says. That’s what he always says, but his mother’s never right.

Coach Dan gasps loudly, the exaggeration in his voice echoing off the cold stone walls of the field house. “We have GOT to get you out of that jacket!” he says, wide-eyed and staring directly at me. “We can’t afford to loan any of our fencers to the Academy today!”

“But they’re so GOOD!” Coach Sarah calls to him. “Especially that new guy — yeah, I mean you,” she says, pointing directly at me as I look at her in confusion. “Have you seen him in drills? So precise, so FAST. Another Bark Bay fencer we need to watch out for!” I smile, turn back to Coach Dan. Coach Sarah’s always like that, building people up, exaggerating their skills. Last spring she made the same comment about Stan, a real clumsy doofus who showed up a few times and quit before he hurt himself, which always seemed like a distinct possibility.

But today, I want to show that Coach Sarah’s not just blowing smoke. It’s our first real competition of the school year, first one since spring, and I’m anxious to get started. Coach Dan’s been telling Annie and I in practice that the restrictions he placed on us last year are gone now, he’s going to enter us in as many tournaments as he can get us to. I’m pumped — haven’t felt like this with any other sport, where I’d actually dread the start of each season, feel sick to my stomach before each game, felt relieved when each game ended.

I like all the traditional sports — baseball, basketball, football, soccer. Fencing, though, is different. This is the first time I’ve actually looked forward to competing, been anxious to stop practicing. No, I’m not a ballplayer, but I definitely am a fencer. And today’s the day I stop drilling, stop preparing, and start fencing again.

The Academy 1W

Coach Dan calls to me as I’m walking over. I must not be concealing my impatience well, because the first thing he says, well after saying Hi Bernie of course, is “Had some trouble getting out of Bark Bay this morning, sorry we’re running late.”

“It’s my fault,” calls Rex, standing over the canvas equipment bags. “I wasn’t ready when Coach Dan came to pick me up.”

Coach Dan turns to Rex with a patient smile, the curls in his hair and beard seeming to bristle with the energy radiating from his face. “We understand. You’ve got a lot to take care of at your home. I’m just glad your mother was well enough for you to come to this tournament.”

“She sick again?” I ask, and immediately regret the incredulous tone in my voice. Rex’ mother has some kind of disease, he described it once at fencing practice but to be honest, I was so grossed out that I tuned out halfway through his explanation. All I know is that she’s too sick to work, doesn’t even leave the house much, and with Rex’ father being dead or gone, nobody’s sure which, they all live off government assistance, he and his mother and two sisters, both younger than he is. They’re really poor. I went to their house once, it’s an old trailer room, the siding’s rusted and the roof’s all busted up, couple of windows taped over with plastic. Smells really bad inside, like a sandbox, kittey litter even. Rex talks about quitting school, getting a job to support the family, but Coach Dan keeps saying the best thing he can do for his family is finish his education. Frankly I don’t see much difference either way. Any job he’d get probably wouldn’t pay more than they get in assistance, and a high school diploma’s not going to improve his chances of getting a better job all that much. I feel bad for him, but hey, that’s life.

The Academy 1V

The drill ends soon, which is good because I’ve lost interest and Wanda, sensing my apathy, has lost patience. Coach Dan, Rex and Kassie have brought in what passes for Bark Bay High School’s fencing equipment — two large canvas sacks, one for masks and the other for jackets and gloves, and a long duffel bag for our weapons. They’re weapons, not swords. As they place our dirty, unlabeled equipment bags next to the Academy’s rolling duffels, all clean and perfect and adorned with the large Academy shield, I feel embarrassed, like we’re third-class passengers sneaking into the first-class cabin.

I remember what my father said when I told him I wanted to try out for the fencing team. He couldn’t believe Bark Bay had a fencing team, said he thought fencing was an elitist sport, like golf or polo. I hear pretty much the same thing from a lot of my friends. And if the only fencers you ever saw were from the Academy, or one of the other private schools or larger public schools around the state, in their immaculate white uniforms with names down the legs, carrying their weapons that glisten in the light, wearing masks that shield their heads in a gray shield that looks impenetrable — you couldn’t help but think all that equipment looks expensive, and sure, you’d think fencing was an upper-class sport.

But if you spent more than fifteen minutes with the fencing team from Bark Bay, or most any of the other small public schools in the state, you would see an entirely different picture. You’d see uniforms turned grey from years of use, always reeking of old sweat no matter how frequently you washed them. You’d see gloves that are so dirty, so sweat-drenched, so frayed and torn, that they make the uniforms look good. You’d see weapons with bent blades, dented hilts, grips that rattle loose with every movement. You’d see masks faded and dented, none fitting perfectly, the cloth neck aprons flacid and tattered, the padding having long been knocked out.

Public school fencing is largely invisible, and there are times I certainly appreciate that, because if someone were to look at us they would know, even without knowing anything about the sport, that we look like a sandlot baseball team, pulling together whatever equipment could be used to start a game (we’ll use this block of wood for first, that tree will be second, small kids use the wood bat and big kids use the metal, we’ll have to share gloves. And if they compared us to the Academy, they’d think these Bark Bay guys are out of their league.

So yeah, I understand why people think fencing’s an elitist sport. And it bothers me to know that because of this belief, teams like ours will never be taken seriously.

The Academy 1U

For the next several minutes I fumble through the drill with Wanda, Coach Sarah stopping by occassionally to correct what I’m doing.

“You need to respond to touch, not to sight. You need to see with your fingers.” See with your fingers — I have no idea what she’s talking about.

“Don’t use your wrist when beating the blade.” I wasn’t. “Just squeeze with your hand.”
That’s what I did. “Try it.” OK. “Don’t move your wrist — just squeeze.” That’s what I just did! “Again — no!” Now she’s grabbing my arm, holding my wrist. “Just squeeze. See your blade move? That’s all you need, a quick movement, just enough to knock your opponent’s blade out of line so that if they lunge, they’ll miss wide.” I nod, thank her, say that I understand even though I don’t see any difference between what Coach Sarah just showed me and what I was doing before.

A moment later, I see the door through which I had come in with Butch and Annie open. I see Rex walk in, followed by Kassie and then, finally, Coach Dan. At least I’m pretty sure it’s them, the door’s pretty far away and the weak lighting in the field house is further diluted by the gray fall sky and my mask, but they’re body shapes are distinct — long tall Rex with his crew cut, short Kassie with the straight dark hair, Coach Dan’s hefty body and curly hair and beard.

I’m relieved at the prospect of finally being free of the Academy fencers, from Coach Sarah. Coach Dan’s always on my case about something — dragging my feet, holding my arm too high or too low, not standing straight — but I can understand him. When I follow his advice, I can see that it works. I really like Coach Dan.

Raceball: How The Major Leagues Colonized The Black And Latin Game

It is a common theme in baseball literature, as familiar as the manicured grass of the verdant field and the raised red seams on the ball — the game was different back in [pick a year, a decade, an era], until the innocence and beauty of the game were corrupted by [choose a villian — greed, dilution of talent, the loss of social cohesion], the same force that has lead to the downfall of American society in general. The game is not the same, just as the country is not the same — you see this theme in Roger Kahn’s “The Boys of Summer,” Roger Angell’s “Five Seasons”, Peter Gammons’ “Beyond the Sixth Game,” David Halberstam’s “Summer of ’49”, even Bernard Malamud’s novel “The Natural,” where the intrusive, scandal-obsessed press contributes to Roy Hobbes’ tragic fall.

Rob Ruck’s “Raceball: How The Major Leagues Colonized The Black And Latin Game” (Beacon Press, 2011) echoes this theme with the ease of a pitcher gracefully toeing the rubber at the start of his winduup. This time, the baseball paradise consists of the professional baseball organizations that competed with the established major leagues for much of the 20th century — the Negro Leagues, a cherished institution in the African American community in the years before Jackie Robinson’s shattered the color barrier; the Mexican League, a legitimate rival of the American majors in the late 1940s; the winter Caribbean leagues, which successfully recruited star players from all the continental leagues for spirited off-season competitions through the 1970s. “Raceball” is at its best when it recounts the life and operation of these rival leagues. Particularly memorable are the descriptions of the business and social communities that evolved around Pittsburgh’s Negro League teams, the Crawfords and Homestead Grays; the pre-game excitement and post-game celebrations during Caribbean league championships; the discrimination experienced by the pioneering black and Latin ballplayers in the major leagues in the early 1950s; and the squalid living conditions for players in the Mexican League. Black and Latin baseball brought energy to the game and inspiration to their fans, and “Raceball” is at its best when it describes how these players and leagues thrived in the era of institutional segregation.

However, there’s a larger agenda to the book, one made evident in its title. Ruck argues that the American major leagues felt threatened by these rivals, and used their monopolistic power to run them out of business. (Here’s your corrupting influence on baseball and society — corporate greed.) It’s an interesting argument that rings true, but one that’s unfortunately not very well developed. There are too many times where Ruck simply asserts, without providing evidence. “African Americans were perceived as genetically inferior athletes” he writes, describing one of the arguments that ostensibly justified excluding black ballplayers from white professional baseball — such attitudes certainly existed and could be easily revealed in any number of quotes, but in the context of Ruck’s argument the absence of any documentation only weakens his assertion. At other times documentary evidence is mishandled, such as when Ruck recounts Reggie Jackson’s claim that he was denied treatment at a hospital after being injured in a minor league game — a claim that is qualified immediately by the admission that Jackson’s story was later disputed by a newspaper investigation. Given that Ruck at other times provides ample verifiable evidence of discrimination against black and Latin ballplayers, recounting Jackson’s disputed story does little to advance his argument.

For all its errors in argumentation, “Raceball” is nevertheless an enjoyable, engaging cultural history of minority baseball. Ruck doesn’t strike out, but neither does he hit a home run — give him credit for a deep drive that rattles the wall for a double, and don’t fault him over much for not clearing the fence.

The Academy 1T

Soon as Coach Sarah’s done with her instructions, I line up opposite Butch. Don’t want to have to do this stupid drill with no Academy fencer. I see Annie out of the corner of my eye, lining up opposite Jenny Wagner like she was her teammate already. But before Butch and I can start the drill, I feel this hand on my shoulder, and I turn to see Coach Sarah pulling me back and waving to Francis. “You go over with Wanda,” she says to me as Francis walks over to Butch and me. Francis’ face doesn’t betray any emotion — I wonder if he thinks this drill is a dumb as I do, if he resents being paired up with strangers to appease whatever agenda her coach is pursuing. I hope he does, because for some reason that would make these proceedings somewhat more palatable.

I stand across from Wanda, who smiles at me as we salute. “Bernie, right?” she asks. “Yes,” I say. We put on our masks, move closer to her, extend my weapon arm so that our foils cross. “I think you go first,” she says. “So I close my eyes?” Wanda nods, so I close my eyes.

In the darkness I feel her blade touch mine. I lower my arm, feel the foil in my hand tilt down, then bring my arm back up, search with the tip of my blade for Wanda’s chest, press hard when I feel contact.

“Too much arm,” I hear Coach Sarah say behind me. Dammit. I cringe when I feel her hands grab my arm. “Open your eyes,” she says, so I open my eyes, see her glaring at me in a way Coach Dan would never do with any of us. She’s got her right hand clasped over my fingers. “Use your fingers on the disengage — loosen the thumb, use your index finger as a fulcrum, let the weight of the blade bring the tip down. Try it.” She lets go of my hand, and I follow her instructions, the foil feeling like a see-saw balanced on my fingers as I loosen my grip, let the tip fall. “Now bring it back up, with just the fingers.” I press down on the grip with my thumb, feel the weight of the blade teeter back up. “Good. Keep going,” she says, moving on to the Annie and Jenny.