I wanted to kill Jack Opdyke. I never told anyone. It wasn't personal, and I was just a college kid of nineteen at the time. Jack was a retired engineer of some indiscernible age. Fifty and seventy seemed equal to me, incalculable measures of years beyond mine. The way he walked hunched over, a gauze pad of hair slapped on his spotted skull, a face indelibly sad, Jack seemed really old. He came to fence with our club at the University of Florida. His wife came with him, though she sat on the sidelines doing something that required her eyes to be on her hands, like knitting or sewing. At practice, the two of them resembled Hummel figurines of gender roles: she, sitting there, working something in her lap; he, on the strip holding a foil. But while they formed the tableau of gender roles, on strip a different kind of drama was taking place.
Fencing, l'escrime in French—the game that simulates combat, mock sword fighting, the courtly practice for battle—that was my game, this sport I chose to last me for life. In those days, the early seventies, everyone I ever dated made crude jokes about the way woman fencers suffered from penis envy, the foil a displaced phallus. Potential dates were not the only ones who gendered the game and its players. Competitive events reflected the comparative "weakness" of women, who fenced to fewer points (four rather than five) in one-weapon events (Individual Women's Foil or Team Women's Foil). Men fenced to five points in three weapons: foil, saber and epée. Even my 1950s mother, who imagined the feminine packaged in a poodle skirt, yanked on my choker chain when it came to competition. "Let him win," she lessoned me after I raced Peter, my next door neighbor. "Boys do not like it when you beat them."
My first instructor was a gray-haired, mustachioed Italian sabrist named Nicolo Buono, whose class I sought out at 17, while I was in high school. Rumor held he had once been an attorney in Italy; then he owned a restaurant in Jacksonville, Florida. On the competition circuit it was said that Nicky parried so fast, the judges could not see his parries. During one match, the director could not assess the right of way (who initiated the attack), and so he gave points to Nicky's opponent, who had not acknowledged any hits. (Acknowledging touches formed part of the code of fencing saber because, in those days, no electrical equipment could track cuts made with the edge of the blade.) On the next point, Nicky lightning parried, and then gave his opponent a steel-whip hit on the ribs. The opponent fell to the ground clutching his side from the pain.
"You can see that," he said to the judges.
Five or more others of different ages had turned out for the fencing class, but everyone was a beginner so Nicky started us off with the en garde position. En garde: front foot facing north, back foot facing west, with some space between them; knees bent ninety degrees till they balanced over toes. Right arm extended from the shoulder, with the elbow slightly bent. Left arm, behind, bent as if holding an invisible lantern to light an illegal duel. Head up, facing forward. We had no foils that first class but raised index fingers. To move forward, advance—front foot moved first, then the back, no springing up on the move, always with the knees bent, head up, back straight. A plumb could trace a straight line through the back of your head down to the ground. To attack, sink by bending knees, extend the blade, and push off the back leg to lunge. Project the body forward while spirit and mind turn into an arrow that moves through the extended arm and blade—the two now one—into the target. The lunge arrives with the front leg bent, supporting the body's weight, the rear leg straight, and the body leaning forward, sword arm fully extended.
We never forgot: a foil was always a weapon. Even though a plastic button tipped the end, which was blunt anyhow, the momentum of a moving body behind the tip could create enough force to puncture flesh. The curve in the blade allowed it to skate down shingled ribs on a hit—rather than curve upward and impale the heart.
Nicky put us through footwork for what seemed ages before we held a foil. We advanced and retreated the length of the basketball court. All the way down. Two steps into the exercise, my thighs burned as if acid seeped out of my bones. My legs shook, the muscles stretched like rubber bands at the breaking point. My skin was flushed, and my face felt like a water blister ready to burst. Simply holding the en garde position produced agony and panting breaths. After a combination of advance, retreat, and lunge down the length of the basketball court, we came back up with series of continuous lunges the other way. And then, one more time! I can't remember what the others were saying or doing, though each would have awakened to the same agony the next morning. Later, we paired off to practice timing and distance, with one partner taking the lead in a kind of dance. The goal was to stay just beyond the distance of your opponent's extension. Taller people had the advantage—fewer steps to close the distance of your opponent's extension. Longer legs meant longer arms. At 5'4' I stood among the shortest. I was going to have to be fast.
Tuesday night was fencing night with Nicky. By Wednesday, I groaned trying to climb stairs. There was a three-inch rise to the floor at our front door. How could it hurt to lift a leg up a step only a few inches high? How could it? It did, day after day. I would not ever want to start this sport again from the very beginning, to teach those muscles how to bend and stretch in ways unnatural; to teach the body to move in different time, with legs going one way, head another way, and arms doing two different things. My will took its part in the body's conversation; it, too, grew in a new direction. If I had grown mentally lazy, there would have been no point to continue the physical element. Those agonizing advances on the basketball court under Nicky's direction initiated me into the physical and spiritual demands of this sport. Grueling practice in asymmetrical movements made the human body into part of the equipment, creating metamorphoses from the inside out. Over time, my elastic muscles grew sinewy as my body began breaking down fiber. My round frame acquired definite contours. My right arm bulked more than the left. Ben-Gay became my best friend.
Off the strip Jack Opdyke was a nice man. His wife was a wonderful woman. They both supported the team. She made cookies. He showed up when he was strong enough. Usually I would fence him to a few points and then call it a game. After a while, I tried not to fence with him at all. "Everyone knew that Jack was a klutz," teammate Chris Miller told me many years later when I compared my experience with his. Everyone avoided fencing with Jack.
Jack fenced foil like saber—with the tip in the air. In saber, a hit is made with the upper and lower edges of the blade as well as with the tip. Foil strikes only with the tip. Excluding hands, everything from the waist up counts as valid target area in saber; in foil, valid target area is more restricted, only the torso—front and back—which, in competition, is covered by the electrical vest, the lamé.
For the most part, Jack avoided blade contact. His vertical stance made it hard for me to feel him out with my blade though normally I followed his blade by watching the hilt shift right and left. He waved the blade side to side and then brought down the point with the whole blade delivering a descending chop like a guillotine. He was stronger than me, so when our blades connected, he usually forced mine to the ground, then whipped the point up and out and hit me. I always went home bruised after fencing with him. Not just point bruises, which come from a blunt tip with force behind it, but long welts, that swelled and turn red.
This day, he had asked me once if I wanted to fence, and I said, "Maybe later. I'm still warming up."
"No, come on. Let's do it now," he said.
All his usual partners were already paired up in play. My usual partners sparred with others: Christian negotiated Bob Lightner's longer extension in epée, ruddy Shamus hovered over a cute newcomer, showing her how to hold the foil. Because we were a club not a team, no coach organized the practice. No one would save me from a bout with Jack, not even myself.
"En garde," I said, assuming the ready position on the fourteen by two meter strip Bob had marked out with masking tape on the gym floor.
"Fencers ready?" I asked. "Ready," Jack said. "Fence!" I said.
Jack got the first hit on me. I got a hit on him. Then he came in for another attack, waving that foil back and forth, his target area exposed, but his quivery arm meant I had to gauge the time to place the point so I wouldn't be trapped in a chopping death blow. I extended, he parried me to the floor. I pulled my blade out, but in the meantime he moved his blade up and slapped the long side of his blade on the inside of my thigh. This was also a snapping slap, because the blade, being bent out of its normal range, was placed under tension. When it snapped back, it carried more force than that of a simple slap. Bursting fireworks of pain exploded behind my eyes. I was blinded temporarily by the pain. I knew I was going to have a horrible bruise.
In foil the thigh is not legitimate target area. Nor in saber. In epée the whole body forms the target, and because no rules of right of way are observed, epée consists of two players trying to hit each other anywhere they can. An aggressive epéeist might try to psych-out an opponent with a deliberate hit to a vulnerable spot like the crotch, the knee, or the ankle. Those spots are off-target in foil, and a foul hit stops the action.
Jack kept coming.
I had taken a hit in the thigh before, from a blade equipped with an electric tip (no plastic button but a flat metal edge). The hit produced a quarter-size bruise, deep and black, that took a day to appear. At the worst, a tip could produce a hematoma.
But the edge of Jack's blade covered much more surface area than a tip hit. An area about six inches long was the area of impact. Impact with a snapping cold blunt instrument. After I saw red, I became a fury. I hated him with every part of me. The ancient beast curled up in my animal brain came alive with a roar.
My first parry of his blade hit hard and the air cracked with the metallic steel on steel like a car hitting a metal trash can. Possessed with hitting him back, hitting him hard, hitting him good, I closed the distance with a lunge knowing now I would overpower that waving back-and-forth motion of his blade. I didn't stop after the first lunge, I lunged again, point out, arm straight, all body parts united under the drive to hit back. "Die, you old man. Die," I thought. Once I saw his body, my arm, my point, his chest fused into one and I hit him with a force driven by fury.
Jack rubbed the spot where I had landed. He returned to the en garde position dragging his blade.
"Ready?" he asked. Deliberate will restrained me behind the en garde line before I said, "Yes."
Once again my legs became huge springs that covered distance in great gulps of ground. My focus was cold this time; every ounce of passion converted into bloodless calculation. The animal became a machine. Again I hit him. I hit him hard and fast and without any blade work. The end of the bout came quickly.
As we removed masks and shook hands, Jack said something like, "You sure came alive on the strip."
Jack's mask dangled from his free arm. He appeared too worn out to cradle his mask or keep his point off the ground. Basset-hound jowls and fish eyes tented under blue lids underscored his age. Jack and his wife were much beloved, and I felt ashamed to have been filled with so much energy totally focused on the desire to annihilate him. The instinct to survive, to remove the source of pain, to destroy what would have destroyed me—those were the energies unearthed by the game. But the purpose of fencing is not to cause pain. In fact, the sport is designed for just the opposite. The point is to touch the opponent on the legitimate target area. A clear hit. A clean hit. Miami foilist, Manny Forrest, possessed such incredible skill that in his sixties, even with two feet in the grave, shot knees, and low endurance, he could win bout after bout. A younger fencer once asked him how he did it. "I put my point where you're going to be," Manny said.
In competition, the foil's metal tip is held in place by a spring. With a hit, the tip depresses the spring to complete a current made with the lamé. The spring must be able to support 500 grams when stationary, which means that only a little more than a pound of pressure will register the hit. Thus, only a touch is required—not a skewer.
But Jack never knew what went through my mind. There is a reason that fencing is called ritualized combat; in learning how to fight, a fencer learns how not to injure. The rigorous training in movement (advancing and retreating)—the repetitive practice with parries, the practice at hitting a golf ball suspended on a string, extensions made until a shoulder aches—shapes the body. By the time a body can fence, it has become a different body. Muscles, reflexes even the dominant one-handedness inculcated by the form tool the human body into a complement of the blade. An undisciplined body can barely move on a strip. Training produces form, and form, once (literally) incorporated, controls the most ravaging emotions. Body becomes mind: that was the reason Nicky Buono put us to repetitive motions on the gym floor.
My form was Jack's friend that day. I don't remember fencing Jack again, but I do remember the way animal instinct made me understand how close to the beast I am. I understand these feelings in a Darwinian sense, about the contest for living, about the way that an organism will fight to the death for dominance or territory. In the narrative of nature about the struggle to survive, even plants, in their slow growth, squeeze out other plants. Everything wants to live: this is where winning begins.
Thirty years later, my hand still hungers for a blade. It's a palpable desire, a call to matching, the way a lover's hand finds mine mid-air and fingers twine. Even now, when I pick up my blade, a great calm descends. As fingers close around the hilt, the outer boundary of my form expands; my chi enfolds the foil as an extension of being. Eyes sharpen and the rhythm of my heartbeats becomes the tide I hear between the ears. Armed and mentally armored, I have changed who I am by my mental stance.
Fencing at an older age calls for a longer warm up and cool down, as well as an elastic brace to hold the rear knee in place. Apart from a match when I was 52, I haven't fenced competitively since I was a graduate student, though now the fencing coach at the university where I teach calls me out a couple of times each semester to test her best novices on me. I show up because I still test myself, wanting to know if I can hold my own, wanting to measure the long retreat between fifty and seventy. I never let the young ones win; unearned success is meaningless.
Usually after some free fencing rounds, I wired up to fence the best one on the team, this time a tall statuesque young woman with dark hair. Normally an epéeist, she was working on foil as a strategy to improve epée. At 5'10" her height gave her the advantage. Rusty reflexes and a bad knee marked my limitations. My progressive lenses, too bulky to fit under my mask, remained behind on a bench.
When the bout started, Cecilia had the reach but lacked the point control and presented an attack with a bent arm. As long as I stayed away from her tip, I could bide my time till I saw an opening. Her point appeared as a blur, so I'd have to gauge its position from the bell and the angle of the blade. If I closed in swiftly through a compound attack with a lunge, I would have to be prepared to draw back fast to parry; my slow reflexes made that a questionable option. A better approach: keep distance, work with timing, and then lunge when she went off time.
I advanced twice, hitting her blade with single beats in time with my footwork.
At first Cecilia stiffly held her ground, frozen in position, her foil extended as I beat her blade with no return pressure. "Hit back," I thought. "Hit me." After a time she gave me some pressure back and then returned some beats. I beat her blade harder. What would it take for her to move? She retreated. Tentatively she beat my blade and advanced; I retreated. Then I advanced and she retreated. By my physical motion, I tried to control her time. After we danced this two-step a few times, she would then think she could predict my next move. I made as if to retreat. She, following my time, started to advance. In her mid-motion, I extended, a stop thrust. My point against her.
I never was very good at parry-riposte—the one-two movement that is the staple of the game—but I got the next point on that combination. Cecilia got the director's permission for a time out after using the standard code (pointing her tip up and stamping her foot). Then she pulled off her mask, wiped her hair out of her face, mopped her forehead, and then signaled ready. Whether her interlude would work for or against me, it was clear she would try something different. Her next motions came faster, her beats harder, and her lunges longer. As she pressed her attacks more, she eventually landed a touch on me in a long extension with no blade contact.
No more time-biding: I needed to rev up.
Although Cecilia was now thinking through her strategy, her body telegraphed her intentions, and once she started a line of action, she stayed committed to it. Her height, a seeming advantage, hindered her because discernible seconds passed as she gathered her parts together. Like a time-lapse movie of a flower unfolding petal by petal, the hand came out, the elbow opened, the knee crept close. Dodging a few points to get rested, I changed my timing. My last few touches flew fast, direct hits, one made by a series of double-lunges that my legs would remember for weeks later.
At the end of the bout, we shook hands. "Thank you, Professor."
I was her college advisor, and she had taken a course with me; fencing me could not have been easy for her. On the other hand, now I was the old one at the end of the strip, slower and perhaps vulnerable. I knew my place on the ladder of nature; time had made me the lion on the rock, the thing standing between her and being the one. The primal psychological drama revealed us to ourselves but we did not speak it then. She wanted to beat me—did she want it enough? I hoped she did. Although the sporting rules had changed to even out the gender differences, Cecilia would still need more aggression to grow into the sport. I would not be the one to beat it out of her.
You never know who will show up at the end of the strip, whether it's a Jack with his meat-cleaver chop or a fast, young Cecilia with long epée arms (or, for Cecilia, a doubled authority figure in her teacher/advisor). The opponent can be faster, stronger, leaner, or taller. Maybe the opponent placed in the Pan-American games in Buenos Aires, or practiced foil in a Tampa mirrored dance studio. Maybe that morning the opponent ate her Wheaties, and you did not. Maybe someone spilled coffee on your lamé, broke your blade, slept with your husband, or snagged your body cord. Your opponent could be anyone—mother, teacher, child, student, God or devil—it doesn't matter. There's no such thing as an even match. The fight is always unequal. So a fencer has to assess a multitude of strengths and weaknesses in self and opponent, where the opponent is also a partner in the game. Such judgments remove the sport from the realm of pure physicality. By the time a person has the ability to use the power she's acquired through training, she's also knows how and when to win a fight without it.