The weather is dreary and I’m bored with the gym, so why not take a free fencing lesson?
Accordingly, a few minutes before ten o’clock on a Saturday morning found me and a half dozen other wanna-be swordsmen milling about the gym of a local church and sizing each other up as potential targets. Promptly at ten we gathered around our coach, a genial, burly chap who introduced himself as “Robin.” Immediately, an image of the swashbuckling outlaw of Sherwood Forest flashed into my mind.
I was hoping we’d jump right in and start swiping and thrusting at each other with our aluminum spears, but Robin had other plans.
“OK, let’s get warmed up!” he announced. “Grab a stick!” The group trotted obediently over to a tall canvas bag crammed with plastic hockey sticks in a range of primary colors.
I was confused. Were we going to joust with hockey sticks? Was this a new variation of the sport? Had I stumbled into the wrong class?
Several of my teammates, obviously familiar with the routine, grabbed sticks and jogged off to different points on the gym floor. A ball appeared, and in horror I realized our warm-up would consist of that loathed sport of my junior high school days, indoor field hockey.
Up and down the length of the gym we chased the ball, the clatter of our sticks ricocheting off the walls like rifle shot. Thwack! The ball slammed into my ankle. Smack! This time it collided with my shin. Twice, I was knocked over by a rangy, sixty-something woman with a long gray ponytail that whipped about her shoulders like a mini-tornado. “Sorry!” she shouted cheerily both times I went down. Finally, limping and cowering, I decided the safest strategy was to simply run away from the ball instead of towards it.
This went on for about twenty minutes, followed by ten minutes of stretching. Then we sat on the floor in a circle while Robin gave a brief lecture on proper fencing footwear, including lacing techniques, prices and brands. My mind wandered … why did Steve Bannon always look like he had a wicked hangover? Should I cook yams or rice tonight with the shrimp?
Finally, Robin directed us upstairs where our gear was stashed. The pony-tailed thug, whose name was Debbie, began handing out equipment. First came a plastic, anatomically correct chest protector that, once strapped to my torso, gave me a pleasingly busty appearance.
Next came a white, high-necked jacket. I handled it gingerly. The neck and wrists were grimed a tobacco brown, and I suspected it hadn’t seen the inside of a washing machine for months, if ever. But I wriggled into it and presented myself to Debbie for inspection. Reaching over, she Velcro-ed the collar tightly around my neck. “Don’t want to get jabbed in the windpipe, now do we?” she said in that same cheery voice. Then I selected my headgear. The official term, “mask,” makes it sound flimsy, like something the Lone Ranger might wear. In fact, it’s a snug-fitting padded helmet with a thick bib and mesh porthole. I pulled it on and peered through its wired window feeling as if I’d just clamped a cat carrier onto my head.
Between the collar cutting off my air supply and the mask encasing my face like a caul, I began to experience the familiar signs of claustrophobia: shortness of breath, sweaty hands, dizziness. I pressed my face against the mesh and forced myself to take deep, regular breaths.
Once the tiny spots in front of my eyes had subsided, I looked around at my fellow combatants. In our masks and white jackets, we resembled a gang of welders prepared for surgery.
At long last, I found myself back on the gym floor, epée in hand. I whipped it around, slashing the air and feeling very Zorro-ish.
“Line up, everyone,” Robin commanded, “and we’ll practice a few simple movements. Watch and follow me.
“Advance!” He scampered forward. “Retreat!” He scampered backwards.
For about a minute he drilled us: “Advance twice! Retreat once! Retreat twice! Advance once!”
Most of us got the hang of it, while others lurched randomly forward and backwards. My breathing became increasingly ragged, due partly to all the to-ing and fro-ing, and partly to the aforementioned claustrophobia.
With fifteen minutes of class remaining, we wired up for our first matches. We threaded electric cords through our sleeves, plugging one end into our epées.
When it was my turn on the competition mat, I plugged the other end into a wire reel connected to the scoring machine. Basically, I was tethered like a dog on a retractable leash anchored to the floor. When (or if) an epée came into contact with a solid surface (i.e., my body), the scoring machine would flash red or green, indicating a hit.
“You will be bruised,” Robin warned us. “But nothing disfiguring.”
I faced off with Tara, another newbie, and got creamed, 4-0 in my first round. Humbled, I stood on the sidelines for several minutes watching others feint and parry, the scoring machine blinking red and green like a stoplight as the epées made contact.
Robin scuttled back and forth between pairs, shouting encouragement. “Watch your stance!” he called out to one fencer. ““Very Errol Flynn!” he shouted to another.
My turn again. I scrutinized my opponent, Maria. She was a little scrap of a thing clad in tie-dyed cutoffs over turquoise leggings. She was not, I noticed, wearing the appropriate footwear. Rather, she sported black, knee-high lace-up boots with short heels. Maria had been fencing for six months and had demolished her first challenger, a gorgeously tattooed sculptor named Josh, also a newbie.
Maria and I faced off in our en garde positions. Summoning my inner samurai, I glowered at her through my mask. “You are Donald Trump,” I mouthed silently. “And you ain’t getting out of here alive.”
This time, I won.
“You were scary with that sword,” Maria commented later as we shrugged out of our jackets. “Thanks,” I replied modestly. “Beginner’s luck.”
Will I return for another lesson? Maybe … though there’s that panic-inducing mask to contend with. Could I get used to it? Perhaps I could wear one around the house as I dusted and vacuumed … or while cooking yams …
But for now, looks like I’ll be sticking with the gym.