Gray Metal Faces – September 11

“Hmmm.” Gandy contemplated his words like a judge deliberating a case. “So, you stopped fencing after hurting your knees?” Dan considered challenging the nature of her question, yet settled for a reluctant nod; the three-month membership at the St. Louis fencing club, and not finding any of his old magic, also didn’t seem worth mentioning. “Aren’t there other things you can do in fencing, besides competing? Coaching — aren’t there referees in your sport?”

“Of course, my friend!” He grinned, tilted his head, shrugged. “But — what can I say? I was young, frustrated that I couldn’t compete, not without pain. Felt like it was time for me to turn the page, move on to the next chapter in my life.”

“I see.” Gandy pulled her sweater closer. “So I take it, you weren’t in contact with your coach, until his retirement party.”

“Hadn’t spoken to him in a decade.” And not entirely Dan’s fault; Josef’s distrust for nearly every technological innovation that had appeared after his youth, especially those involving communications, posed a unique obstacle.

“I see. So one day, you have this conversation with a man you haven’t talked to in ten years — and the next day, you’re a fencing coach?” Dan felt the three other three members of the room lean a little closer towards him.

“Not that simple, no.” Of course it wasn’t; Dan had left that reunion weekend without any thought of actually taking up Josef’s challenge. Yet two days after his return to Bark Bay, a letter arrived at the Odd B. A handwritten letter, much like the one Dan had received the day before, and the dozens Josef had sent in between. Dan had been dumbfounded by that first letter, realizing Josef had either remembered his name or more likely had asked one of his other former students, had found out where Dan taught, had contacted the Bark Bay High School, had gotten his mailing address. Then sent him that letter, no salutation, three sentences all in capital letters – YOU START TEAM IN FALL. NEW SCHOOL YEAR. BE PATIENT, NO CHAMPION THIS YEAR – no signature.

Coaching? Dan wasn’t even sure if he knew the rules any longer. He’d decided to write a terse response back to Josef, when his phone started to ring. Stu Johnson, Bark Bay’s assistant principal and athletic director. Got this weird letter today from this guy, said he was an NCAA fencing coach. Tells me you’re starting a fencing team this fall? Dan let Stu continue talking, about the unexpected surplus in the athletic budget, the edict from the state’s educational department regarding support for non-revenue sports, what did he have in mind for starting the program? Sure, you can get back to me.

The following two weeks had been a blur. A call to the Academy, Dan had competed against a few of their alumni in college; he expected their fencing coach to give him some reason or other to dissuade him, but instead seemed on the verge of combustion as they talked, of course they had spare equipment available, so did State! More calls with Stu; a school district meeting, his first sense of suspicion (so you don’t have any previous coaching experience), but he had the support of Stu and his considerable clout. He told Dan exactly how much to ask for (the Academy coach had said he would need twenty five percent more, at a minimum, but Dan knew he was in no position to negotiate), what to say in his presentation to the board (you’re a club, not a team – that eliminates a lot of interference from the state), and by the week before school began that fall he had purchased seven used foils (two French grips and one pistol to share among the lefties, four righty pistols), five less than perfect but functional masks, a dozen soiled and torn back-zipper jackets of various sizes, four right-handed gloves and two for the lefties, two plastic chest guards, and, through the end of September anyway, half of the basketball court from 3 to 5 each Tuesday afternoon (they’d have to see about practice time once basketball tryouts began). And the town of Bark Bay, for the first time in its history, had a school with a fencing club.

Dan wasn’t sure at what point in that whirlwind of a fortnight he stopped going through the motions, started not only to believe that Josef’s and Stu’s idea was possible, but to actually want it. At some point he realized this was an opportunity to re-open the book of his fencing career, to turn what had ended with injury and frustration into a new story, one which he could control. No, he’d never coached before, but at least he didn’t need to fence competitively himself. The team, or club, may not succeed, but this time the power to determine success and failure rested solely with him – if he wanted it to end, it would end on his terms this time.

The letters from Josef came at a steady pace, at least one a month, and during the zenith of Myles’ career, sometimes weekly. Josef showed no interest in Dan’s cautious expectations, did not care about the school’s size, did not care that few other public high schools in their region had an organized club or team (YOU HAVE LUCK SCHOOL SUPPORT YOU, and on that point Dan wholeheartedly agreed). The impatience was always there, the insistence on perfection. Josef was the sole person to be displeased with Myles’ second-place finish last year, he wanted to know why both had settled for second best. It was important for Dan to expect success, and Josef demanded Dan devote his energies more to his coaching than his teaching. TEACH THE ENGLISH, IS YOUR JOB. COACH FENCE, MAKE WINNERS. Without ever having seen any Bark Bay fencers in action, Dan’s former coach was convinced none were living up to their potential, a failure he attributed directly to their coach, who did not expect enough from them.

The letter he’d just received was dominated by one question: WHO IS MAKING THE REPLACEMENT OF MYLES AT THE POSITION OF CAPTAIN? A series of additional questions followed, offered with no readily apparent organizing principle and showing the coach’s distinctive command of his second language. The letter contained all the exhortations from previous letters — he must continue the work he had begun four years ago, he shared a responsibility with all fencers to spread the tradition of their sport.

“Took a lot of meetings and phone calls, but we got the team up and running, managed to somehow keep it going those first two years.” The aluminum chair creaked under Dan’s weight as he turned in the direction of the man in the baseball cap. “Having Myles on the team, yeah that made some things easier. A lot easier. And now that he’s gone, to State, those old challenges have come back.”

“I still don’t understand something.” Dan returned his attention to Gandy’s inquisitive eyes. “If starting this fencing team was so difficult — and I believe you — and you had left the sport so long ago without ever intending on looking back — then why’d you do it? What would possess a man to give up so much of his free time? Excuse me for being so bold — ” her voice as unapologetic as a man taking back the power tool from the neighbor who’d borrowed it over a year ago — “but this fencing team has a lot more to do with you, than with your coach.”

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