Why is a 53-year-old out-of-shape sports junkie who lives baseball, breathes football, and eats basketball dressing up in fencing garb every week so he can wield a sword like a kid pirate on Halloween? Let me explain.
With epee in hand, the writer can always leave daily distractions behind. (Globe Staff Photo / Essdras M Suarez)
"The Capitan's blade is not so firm!"
- Tyrone Power The Mark of Zorro (1940)
There is no skeevy subtext as to why I still fence today, or why I was Zorro for seven consecutive Halloweens as a child. It wasn't the cape or the mask, or the cool black suit, either. It was the sword, damn it, and those movies. The Errol Flynn canon - The Adventures of Robin Hood, Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk - but, especially, the 1940 version of Johnston McCully's story of love and vengeance in old California. Fencing historian Nick Evangelista calls the climactic final duel between Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone, as the evil Captain Esteban Pasquale, the "finest example of movie swordplay" ever filmed. It is so brilliantly choreographed and exquisitely athletic that it's easy to lose the double-entendres among the redoublements; to the above gibe, Rathbone replies, "Still firm enough to run you through!" And, well, oh my - and to ignore the fact that, as Richard Cohen points out in his essential By the Sword: A History of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers, and Olympic Champions, Rathbone was the more accomplished fencer, but he loses here again anyway, just as he always lost to that hack Errol Flynn, this time to Tyrone's stunt double, on a brilliant disengagement that gets Basil perforated a few degrees starboard of his sternum.
I would sell something substantial for that move. I really would.
The line between athlete and spectator is thinner than it's generally acknowledged to be. All athletes are spectators, and all spectators, athletes. They are bound by a common desire to see things they cannot do, and to put themselves, if only vicariously, in a position to do them. At a PGA tournament, you can see NBA all-stars or NFL quarterbacks ringing the practice tee, watching Tiger Woods hit a 2-iron with the same avid longing that most fans bring to the arena or the stadium to watch the quarterbacks perform at their day jobs. Fans who compete believe that somewhere, out there, in that golden and hazy place where practice, luck, and desire come together, there is that one ephemeral moment that puts them on a level common with the people they watch on a weekend afternoon. It may be that knockdown 2-iron, hit perfectly down the left side of the fairway, or that turnaround jump shot that flows from the toes to the fingertips to the net in one graceful arc. For me, and it's happened maybe twice in my life, it's an eight-parry with a flick to the forearm. I probably should explain.
My weapon of choice is the epee, 3 feet long and 27 ounces, with a huge bell-guard protecting the hand. This is because I am old and have grown cranky. The other two weapons - foil and, for the crazy people among us, saber - have limited target areas, and the scoring is determined by a variation of Mother, may I? called "right of way." In simplest terms, you have to stop the other person's attack before launching your own. The result of this rule is that foil and saber occasionally erupt into fullscale German opera over a referee's interpretation of the right-of-way rules. In epee, any time a hit is registered by the electronic scoring box, it counts. I find that to be a more peaceable business. I can lose on my own, thanks. I don't need to lose by explanation, especially in French.
Anyway, because I'm right-handed, the eight parry is a downward sweep toward the outside of my body. What I'm trying to do is block the attack and then attack in return - what is called a riposte - by whipping the point of the epee over my opponent's wrist, above the bell-guard, and have the point land with at least 750 grams of pressure, which will depress the button on the tip of the weapon and register a hit on the electronic scoring box hanging on the wall. Do it wrong, and you're skewered coming back the other way. Do it sloppily, and you get hit on your own arm when you elevate your wrist to carry the blade over. This makes you feel remarkably stupid and, in my case, on occasion, gets your mask tossed across the floor.
Ah, but do it right. Do it right, and you remember, now three years later, how the blade moved over the top, and how the motion seemed to flow from your wrists to your fingertips, just like that one great jumper does, and how you don't so much feel the actual contact as much as you sense the sheer unstoppability of it. You're cheering in your head before the buzzer sounds and the light on the box goes off. You're an aging epee hack in love with your dreams.
I have never understood why fencing runs so earnestly away from the debt it owes to all of those movies. When I began, in college, for lack of anything to do on Wednesday nights in Milwaukee, I had a coach who actually told us not to watch them, because you would pick up terrible habits. Truth be told, a lot of the fencing in the movies was, at best, excessively theatrical and, at worst, ludicrously anachronistic. Author Cohen, a former British Olympic sabreur, points out that in The Adventures of Robin Hood, Errol Flynn uses techniques that weren't even developed until long after the fall of the last Plantagenet king. When I began, I confess that I was a bit disappointed by the fact that the fencing room in the basement of the old gymnasium lacked staircases to climb, chandeliers to swing on, and tall candles to cut in half.
It is pointless to run away from the romance of it, and there is nothing about competing with a sword in one hand that is not romantic. Romance has been drained out of so many other sports in so many other ways. In the four majors - which still, for the moment, include ice hockey - romance got sold off wholesale to corporations. NASCAR has left behind the moonshine hills of North Carolina in favor of megatracks in New Hampshire and drivers who talk like professional golfers, which is a shame, because professional golfers now talk like directors of marketing. The romance of boxing, like everything else in that benighted universe, found itself corrupted from within by the very nature of the sport. The lack of romance has leached into the recreational manifestations of the sports as well. (Do I need three kinds of wedges to shoot 101 on my local muni track? Why am I worrying about the degree of loft on my club face when I should be watching that hawk over the 10th green?) On the strip, wired up like a robot from a 1950s sci-fi comic book, standing behind 3 feet of steel, I can find myself very distant from all of that.
I think anyone who watches sports, or anyone who competes in them at whatever level, is looking for that place, far from the clutter and expensive distractions, a place that's not necessarily purer, but a bit more peaceful. Professional athletes often say that the playing field is their "refuge." This comes out in connection with a sudden and uncomfortable encounter with law enforcement. Nevertheless, I think it's at the heart of why everyone competes. I imagine Tom Brady is happiest in the middle of the pocket, surrounded by loud grunts and linebackers with their hair on fire. I know that, in the middle of a bout, winning or losing, at the best moments, an awful lot of the noise of daily life falls away.
Those moments are what get me through the grind of footwork practice, the crabwise 90-degree-angled basics of the sport of which I don't do half enough. I should be doing 100 lunges a day. I do that probably once a month.
But along about the 50th one, the mechanics of it - arm first, always arm first - is all there seems to be in the world. At those moments, I can see in my mind's eye a bout somewhere in the future. My opponent is dancing, up on his toes, the way the epeeists have come to dance. He's popping his point at my arm. Once, twice. Inside my mask, there's no sound except my own breathing, which is louder than it ought to be for a man my age. I fight down a dozen guesses as to where the attack will finally arrive. I fight down all the thinking that all those guesses require. My head feels like one of those old country switchboards, with old ladies in gingham plugging wires into a hundred slots carrying a hundred different voices, and it's probably not smart to be thinking this way, either. I don't think Tom Brady thinks of his mind that way when it's third-and-nine against Indianapolis. At least I hope he doesn't.
Finally, the attack comes, low and to the outside. My hand moves on its own, a tight sweeping half circle. There's a low clang that I only half hear because my hand already has swung back up, and I can see the point pass over my opponent's wrist as my arm moves forward. I feel the touch before the machine registers it. I'm celebrating before the light goes off, and, as it does, somewhere in a place close to my heart, Linda Darnell flutters a bit behind her mantilla, and Spanish guitars begin to play.