In the seventh grade at Hudtloff Junior High School I signed up for an evening course in fencing. I had always loved stories of The Three Musketeers, pirates and duels of honor. I thought fencing would be fun. No one told me that it was a lot of work.
All you need to start with is a weapon. I bought mine at a sports shop in Villa Plaza. The sport faces off with two competitors fighting with “rapier-style” swords. Fencing recognizes three fencing blades: the foil, the epee, and the sabre. The foil has a rectangular blade. The epee has a triangular blade (this was the sword of duels). The sabre has a round shaped blade. A rapier sword is designed to skewer rather than hack. Beginners start off with the foil. You purchase your own. The foil with its rectangular blade give you the slight bend that you see in the sport of fencing.
The foil is a light thrusting weapon and targets the torso, but not the arms or legs. Each fencing weapon has different target areas. The school provided a jacket (padded vest) that covered the target area and a face mask. Students and members of the community who signed up for the class were advised to wear sweatpants and a sweatshirt and some sort of glove. An athletic cup is a splendid addition. Mostly people showed up wearing jeans and shorts. Scoring with the foil is done by touching your opponent somewhere on the front of the torso only. Each “touch” or “touche” in French is a point.
The foil has a circular guard that protects the hand. The glove gives you a better grip on the handle as well as protecting against possible damage from the opponent’s foil, which always has a button on the end so there is no sharp point. No one gets run through on purpose, but still when you are poking and thrusting accidents happen. Bandages were always on hand . . . or on the hand.
I started off at a slight disadvantage. As my mother dropped me off for my first lesson I closed the car door on my foil giving me a slight bend about two inches from the button. I’m sure it was that little bend that kept me from advancing further in my fencing career.
Basically, fencing is a combination of attack and defend. So, it is like business and life. If both contestants attack at the same time, both could get hurt. In Olympic scoring the first touch counts. The person attacking thrusts and lunges forward. The defender reacts with a defensive move (there are eight basic positions) which will parry or block the blade of the attacker. In competition today the padded jacket and swords themselves have sensors that register each touch and keep score.
In practice, a matched pair of fencers alternate advancing and retreating. Even in the 1960s there were special fencing academies around, and now there is at least one fencing club in the Tacoma area. Fencing requires quick reflexes, stamina, concentration and mental agility. It’s like a physical game of chess. Very, very physical. The instructor might call “advance, advance, advance, advance” as one contestant keeps advancing on the other. Then the instructor would call for the other contestant to “advance, advance, advance, advance.” So in training you are constantly doing a see-saw battle of thrust and parry. This sounds easier than it is.
Many years later as a Rotarian in Tacoma an Australian exchange student asked me to dance with her as part of her presentation about her home country. She showed me the dance steps and right away I recognized the dance. It was the Cotton-eyed Joe, a country-western dance: “heel, toe, step, step, step . . . heel, toe, step, step, step.” I said, “No problem.” At the appropriate time in her presentation she left the microphone and asked me to join her in her national dance in front of about a hundred and fifty people. The music was much faster than I thought it would be. It wasn’t “heel, toe, step, step, step . . . heel, toe, step, step, step” it was “heeltoestepstepstepheeltoestepstepstepheeltoestepstepstepheeltoestepstepstep.” Thankfully, the song only lasted a couple of minutes, but I finished red-faced and out of breath.
That speed is the killer of fencing. It is all action. It is not like The Three Musketeers . . . it’s more like The Three Musketeers on “steroids.” Although competition is tough for the Olympics and people really interested in fencing, it doesn’t compare to when people actually used deadly equipment and fenced without protective clothing.
My fencing career lasted just a few weeks, but I kept my foil for over thirty years. It moved with me seven times. I think I finally sold it in a garage sale. I still remember some of the defensive positions and I still enjoy a good sword fight in the movies. Competitive fencing is one of the five sports represented in every modern Olympic Games (summer). Today, just watching the speed of fencing in the Olympics takes my breath away.