My daughter had been asking me for weeks to teach her to fence and today was her first lesson.
Back in my time with the Society for Creative Anachronism, I had learned, for lack of a better term, to fence in the Renaissance style. To be exact, what I practiced is classified as heavy rapier and more like a martial art than the sport of fencing,
The weapons are tipped, and not sharp, but they’re not the light tools that have evolved after years to be used in a lighting-fast game of tag. The weapons used in the SCA simulate the ones carried by men for self defense in alleys and streets back in the day. Though made safe, they are implements of destruction.
I’d not had my swords or other gear out in years, so earlier in the week I spent some time unearthing everything and making sure it was safe and ready for our first lesson. I offered my two best swords to my girl. “Choose your weapon,” I said. She picked the lighter and the shorter of the two blades, deciding she wanted speed and control over reach.
She had made her first decision and she’d have to live with it. The lessons had already started.
As an armchair historian and high-functioning nerd, I have a lot to say about warfare and martial arts. It’s been a passion of mine for years.
In the early, early, early 1970s, I took a few years of Kenpo karate. That was before karate studios were commonplace and belts could be purchased for children if they were willing to show up and attend the classes. The idea of a black-belt who wasn’t old enough to drive himself to a lesson, or hold a job, or get drafted was laughable as a junior high kid competing in the NBA.
Sure, even then it was business, but part of the mystique, and a key selling point, was that it was a difficult, exotic path. Sure there were kids’ classes and lessons but the main focus seemed to be adults. It was less commercial, somewhat seedy and pretty serious stuff. Even at age 10, I felt the gravitas.
I drifted away from it when I moved to Arkansas. There were no karate studios at the time and when they finally came to my locale I’d lost interest.
In college at almost the exact time I discovered Dungeons and Dragons and Olympic fencing. An instructor at Arkansas Tech had an informal weekly fencing class I attended religiously.
I got a mask and foil and drilled and drilled and drilled. I was good at it, and it was a sport where my small size and quickness helped and my lack of raw muscle and strength wasn’t a general handicap. Eventually though, the thing fell apart and my mask and foil went into the closet.
My path eventually took me to the SCA, where I took up armored combat. It was a hard sport for a short guy who weighed 115 pounds soaking wet but I loved it and pursued it for years. I pulled most of my friends into the hobby and it was pretty much my lifestyle for years, my existence revolving around fighter practice and weekend events scattered all around the South.
I never played football in school so it was my first real contact sport. I sweated and bled and got myself hurt. I made wonderful friends who are still friends today. But I eventually left the group, drifting away as my priorities changed. But like a boomerang, I kept coming back.
For a while I stopped armored combat and picked up the rapier. I sold all my SCA fencing stuff when my daughter was born, thinking I’d not have time for it, using the money to help pay the hospital bill. But when she was toddling, I slowly got more gear and we’d travel down to Fort Smith on Sundays for practice.
I wandered back into the SCA for years but eventually my swords were buried in my closet, left there gathering dust as I learned to mountain bike, or got back into shooting, learned about the finer points of beer and sushi, or just sat on the couch.
When my daughter said she wanted to learn to fence I was a little surprised.
She was in soccer when she was younger but never really hit her stride though she had fun. She did a few seasons of basketball where her height and strength should have given her an advantage but she never enjoyed the competitive aspect of the game. Instead, she became known not for her rebounds but for making friends with the girl she was guarding.
I had to admit that this sometimes frustrated me. I was always a scrawny kid with few physical gifts when it came to sports. I would watch my girl and know she could dominate on the field if she chose to. Eventually, thick as I was, I realized it was her decision to do that. It was her choice to make, not mine.
So, here we were, on a fine fall morning, learning the sword.
I showed her how to hold the blade and how to find her range to the target she wanted to hit with the covered tip. I taught her to parry with the sword, how to bat an attacking blade away with her gloved left hand. We worked on her en garde position, making sure her feet were oriented properly, that the tip of her sword was always aimed at her opponent’s mask.
She paid attention and did what I asked. She made cracks about the heavy gloves I had her wear making he feel like she should call a falcon to sit on her arm. She asked a thousand questions and clearly was ready to get beyond this silly talk of footwork and on to exciting stuff like fighting while swinging from a chandelier.
She wore my mask for a lot of the lesson, its black wire blurring her features and somehow making her voice sound sweeter when she made a joke, laughed, or uttered and astonished “Whoa” as her block caught my sword just enough to make the tip miss her.
We advanced and retreated around the Halloween decorations in the front yard. We fought imaginary opponents. Her arm got tired but she didn’t ask to stop. When she was corrected, she didn’t offer an excuse and did her best to not repeat the mistake.
At one point I looked over my daughter’s shoulder and I saw my wife watching us from the front door. She was smiling.
After about a half hour we were finished. I’d tossed a lot at the girl in a short period of time and she’d been a good student. We headed inside to clean up. We had errands to run but we set a date to fence next weekend, sooner if time allowed.
“You know, my leg sort of hurts where you poked me,” the girl observed in passing from the backseat of the car as we headed out.
My wife cut her eyes at me.
“I was just showing her that it doesn’t really hurt to get hit,” I explained.
“Way to go, Merlyn,” my wife quipped, likening my tutelage to that of Malcolm Merlyn, a villain in the TV show Arrow, who, shall we say, uses extreme methods to teach his daughter the way of the sword.
Touche, I thought as I winced. I had just been skewered.