Arm

Coach repeated an interesting perspective on arm positioning this week.

“Imagine your carrying a BIG BARREL,” she blared, arms making the largest circle she could in front of her distended tummy, back bowing under her imaginary burden. “Now, take your arms back,” she said, straightening her body and dropping the cartoon voice. “Drop the back arm — just leave it there, all it can do for you is get a yellow card — now look at your weapon arm. Wide, just outside the shoulder — bent at the elbow — goose-neck the wrist. You’re pointing in, at your opponent.”

Coach Dan’s Tale 1L

“That’s a tall order,” said the man in the baseball cap. “Saving the soul of a country by coaching a fencing team.”

Coach Dan murmured a laugh, then appeared to look inward a moment, searching for words with the care of a shopper inspecting a jewel case of diamonds. Excited sounds of young girls, discovering joy from the movement of their bodies, came through the large glass window that looked over the gym floor.

“I — would say — that what I do with my students barely qualifies as coaching,” he said, now looking out into the small room. “More like monitoring, really. Back when I was competing I was never really a student of the game — I was blessed with swift reflexes, and I survived for years on skill and instinct. When I started the team — and after that conversation with Josef, there was no way I was not going to start a team — it had been ten years since I had picked up a foil, I could barely remember any of Josef’s drills.”

“So what did you do?” asked Gandy.

“Made some calls. I had kept in touch with a few of my college buddies, some of who were still competing.”

“There’s fencing for adults?”

“Of course! There’s some clubs in the city, they meet a few times a month. And there’s tournaments, there not always easy to find, you have to know what you’re looking for, but you can find them, yeah.”

Coach Dan’s Tale 1K

Not about you, old Josef’s yelling at me now,” yelled Coach Dan. “Is about sport! Is about country!

Coach Dan caught himself, realized his small audience — Gandy, the short-haired woman and her husband in the baseball cap, the olive-skinned woman — all of them were leaning back in their chairs, their eyes wide, fear not in their faces yet no comfort either, as they wondered how agitated he would become relating the tale.

“You see,” he continued, lowering both his arms and voice, “old Josef had this theory, that America — he loved America, had no regrets about coming over — but America was missing something he called honor, and he felt only fencing could teach it to us. You live by guns, he’d say” — Coach Dan reflexively made a pistol with his hand — “no see your enemy, too easy to kill. Live by sword” — now he held out his arm, his extension resembling a blade more than a firearm — “face opponent, look in eye, not kill so much.

“So you see, for Josef, coaching wasn’t about what I wanted, or having an impact on kids’ lives — it was about saving the soul of the country.”

Coach Dan’s Tale 1J

Coach Dan came up from his lunge, returned to his seat, down jacket swishing loudly as he moved in the small room. “And that’s what I told Josef — I’m done, I said. My fencing days are over. I even pointed my knee, I remember.

“Old Josef, though, wasn’t having any of that. Arthritis, both knee, he told me. I taught you sitting in chair, no? And yeah, that’s exactly how he ran the team, sitting from the bleachers, yelling out instructions. You get chair, he tells me, go back to Bark Bay, teach fencing.

“That’s when I said probably the dumbest thing I could have told him at the moment. Sorry, I’m just not interested anymore.

Coach Dan rose from his chair suddenly, his action drawing surprised stares from every member of his small audience.

Coach Dan’s Tale 1I

“I have a feeling,” Gandy said, tugging her sweater over her shoulders, “that Josef was not particularly impressed with your description of Bark Bay.”

Coach Dan sat upright, down jacket swishing loudly in his chair. “Not particularly, no. I don’t even think I got the name of the town out of my mouth before he cut me off. Fence? he asked, and I said no, not since I blew out my knee, but he starts shaking his head” — Coach Dan began shaking his head left and right — “No, not you fence, students. And then I realized he was asking about fencing at the school I was teaching at, and I said no, Bark Bay High School didn’t have a fencing team, and he does that head shake again and he’s like You start.

“Surprised the thought hadn’t come to you before then,” said the short-haired woman. “We hear Rex talk about fencing all the time, he says you’re a great coach, really enjoy it.”

Coach Dan shrugged. “I do enjoy it. But not at the time, not when I was staring at my old coach’s face. That day was the first time I had seen most of my fencing teammates since college. When I blew out my knee — it was stupid, not a fencing injury, happened during a pickup basketball game — I didn’t rehab like I should have, lost all my power. It was my left knee,” Coach Dan said, rising from his chair and moving to the only open space in the little room, “that’s where your power comes from when you lunge.” Coach Dan crouched into en garde position, right leg pointing forward and left perpendicular to his body, held his right arm out and extended, his body following the motion of his arm and propelling forward, right foot lifting slightly and landing a foot’s length ahead, the swift action punctuated with a pained grunt.

Coach Dan pointed to his left leg, a straight diagonal from his hip to the floor. “You push off the back leg. After I ruined my knee, I couldn’t lunge without pain any more. And when I couldn’t fence without pain, I wasn’t going to fence any longer.”

Coach Dan’s Tale 1H

“I had heard they were throwing a retirement party for Josef, so I made my way back to the college, first time since I had graduated. He hadn’t changed much in those six, seven years — his hair was exactly the same, no more or less of it than before, all of it no more or less gray. Eyebrows still huge, like caterpillars. Still didn’t look you in the eye, unless he was agitated. And that growl,” Coach Dan continued, lowering his voice, “low and guttural, whether he was happy or angry.

Resuming his normal speaking voice, he continued. “That growl caught me right when I got there. None of this Hello Daniel how’s life from him, he got right to business. He must have heard that I had gone into teaching, because the first thing that growl says to me is, Where you teach?

Coach Dan looked around the small room, made eye contact with everyone sitting there as he smiled and said, “And I tell him about this wonderful little town I found one day on vacation. Where the air, the water are clean. Where you can hear and feel the beauty of stillness. Where the people look after each other, while still minding their own business. Whee nobody’s too busy to lend a hand, or too scared to say a kind word.”

“Mind telling me where this place is,” said the man in the baseball cap, the darkness on his face demonstrating his seriousness. “Ain’t anywhere around here, I’ll tell you that.” The short-haired woman turned, slapped him on his arm.”

“Sorry, got a little self-indulgent there. Yes, Bark Bay has its problems, but when I stumbled on this place — literally, I was on a fishing trip with an old buddy from college, up to Greenwich Lake,” he said, waving his arm in what he believed to be towards the northwest, “I slipped on some rocks getting into a boat, had to stay at the Inn a few days to recuperate — I just fell in love with the place, with the people. Met Steph, she was waitressing that summer, found out she was a teacher, kept in touch with her and when a job opened at the high school a couple years later, I made the move. Haven’t looked back since.”

Coach Dan’s Tale 1G

“So your coach — pardon me, instructor,” said Gandy. “He was from Hungary?”

Coach Dan nodded. “An outstanding instructor. Very old school, not personable at all. If you were a woman or member of a minority group, he’d see that as a weakness, and if you were the right gender and race, he’d think you were soft. But if you could put up with his prejudices, his abrassiveness, his temper, and listened to what he said about fencing, it was like listening to Einstein talk about physics. He had a few collegiate champions in his time.”

“He’s not coaching any longer?” asked the short-haired woman.

“He retired, about five years ago. The college went through a budget crisis, cut funding for a lot of the non-revenue sports. Fencing was one of the first to go. They offered him an administrative job at the gym, said he could run the team as a club, but he said that after twenty years he’d had enough. So they had this big retirement party for him — and that’s where the Bark Bay fencing team comes in.”

Gandy leaned forward in her chair, while the short-haired woman and man in the baseball cap maintained their attentive stares. The olive-skinned woman rose from her chair behind Coach Dan, moved down to the end of the first row of chairs, behind the man in the baseball cap, and stared at Coach Dan with equal attention.

Spaz

The term spaz is clearly derogatory, used to describe someone not in control of their actions. As a younger man, this unfortunately described my general approach to life — respond immediately to pleasurable stimuli with far more enthusiasm than thought. And while I like to think that I’ve learned to control myself emotionally (I submit as evidence my being married for nearly two decades to a wonderful, beautiful woman who appears to be sane), I still have not controlled the physical impulses that lead to bad habits in fencing.

My coach talks about the Engineer and the Robot. “Your Robot’s programmed incorrectly — your mind knows what to do, but when you get in a competition you give energy to the Robot inside you, and if you’re Robot does the wrong things. You have to be the Engineer — reprogram your Robot, force it to do things it doesn’t want to do. That’s why I want you to walk through your drills, show them to your Robot until it understands that’s what I’m supposed to do. Once you have your Robot reprogammed, it will do the right thing when you give it energy.”

Coach Dan’s Tale 1F

“Well,” said Coach Dan, his mind a study in concentration as he contemplated how to begin his story with the intensity of someone looking for his car keys, “it really began when I met my old fencing coach a few years back.”

“So you used to fence yourself?” asked Gandy.

Coach Dan nodded. “Started in high school, continued in college, which is where I met my coach. We didn’t call him coach, he didn’t like that term.” Coach Dan straightened himself in his chair, stuck his chest out, spoke in hyperbolic gruffness, “I am instructor, not coach. You want coach, play basketball.” He relaxed his body, resumed his normal speaking voice. “Josef Hadik, immigrant from Hungary. Family came here during the Soviet occupation. A lot of our fencing coaches in America come from that area.”

The man in the baseball cap asked why that was. “Well — because we’re Americans. We like to do things our way, think of ourselves as self-made people, so while we’ll admit that our ancestors came from Europe, we go out of our way to dissociate from them whenever we can. Fencing’s like soccer, it has a long tradition in the old world, it doesn’t have a distinctive American origin like our most popular sports. Surre, baseball’s descended from cricket, football from rugby, but we’ve transformed those sports so radically that they look nothing like their European ancestors. That hasn’t happened with fencing — it doesn’t have an American flavor, it seems archaic, traditional, too European for us.

“So we don’t have the tradition for fencing in America that exists in Europe, just like we don’t have a tradition for soccer. And without that tradition, there isn’t that much enthusiasm for the sport. In America, you don’t go into fencing for fame or fortune — it’s like deciding to become a poet. So it’s not the best environment for nurturing fencing coaches.

“But Europe’s a different story. The tradition of fencing may not be as strong as it once was, but it’s very much alive. So there’s a lot of fencing coaches over there, good ones too. And in the eastern countries, when communism rose, a lot of coaches decided to flee, for political reasons. And when communism fell, and state funding for athletics collapsed, a lot more coaches left, for economic reasons.”

Coach Dan’s Tale 1E

“Don’t see as much of Annie ever since she started fencing,” Gandy said. “Last fall, I think it was.”

Coach Dan nodded, returning to his seat, his face and posture relaxed again. “Yes, that was about when she started. Practicing with the team, that is.”

“That was when you had that boy, Miles?”

Coach Dan nodded at the man in the baseball cap. “That was a good year for her to start. Miles was a real mentor to her.”

“Didn’t he win the state championship in fencing last year?”

“Fourth, in foil,” Coach Dan corected the man in the baseball cap. “Sixth in epee. A remarkable achievement, considering it was only his second year in the sport.”

“He went to State, right?” asked the short-haired woman, and upon receiving a nod asked if Coach Dan had heard how Miles was doing.

“I — saw him last week,” Coach Dan replied, and though the occupants in the room had only known him a few minutes, they sensed he suddenly did not seem himself, that what he was now saying made hi uncomfortable. “He’s — had some issues, like a lot of young people their first year in college. But he’s a good kid, a good student. He’ll be alright.”

“You know,” said Gandy, now taking the seat next to Coach Dan, “when Annie told me she had joined the fencing club at school, I was amazed that Bark Bay even had a fencing team.”

“I get that a lot. Bark Bay’s one of the few public schools in the state that has a fencing team, or club. It’s more common in private schools, like the Academy.”

“And this is what — your team’s third year?” asked the man in the baseball cap.

“Fourth, actually.”

“So, tell me,” Gandy said, eyes blinking and a playful smile creeping onto her face, “if fencing’s such an uncommon sport in public schools — what posessed you to start a team at Bark Bay?”

Coach Dan scanned Gandy’s face, saw her amuse,ent replaced with what seemed like genuine curiosity. He glanced quickly at the shoet-haired woman and baseball-capped husband, saw they were equally attentive, and sensed that from behind him the olive-skinned young woman was leaning forwrard in her chair. It was a moment he cherished as a fencing coach, one he hardly experienced his first two years with the team. Miles had changed that, Miles the football coach’s son, Miles the multi-sport star, Miles the celebrity in the tiny town of Bark Bay at the age of fifteen. When Miles joined the team, leveraged his natural athletic skill and harnessed his competitive drive to enjoy nearly immediate success, he had put fencing on the front page of the Bark Bay Beacon each week, had brought attention to the sport Coach Dan had never imagined possible.

But Miles had graduated, and there was no one, not even Annie, a Hutchinson, who could replace his star power. And Coach Dan knew that he could not miss opportunities like the one he was now presented with, an audience eager to hear about his fencing team.