I picked Camp Pocono Ridge partly because it was one of the few sleepaway camps I looked at that didn't wholly emphasize sports. Funny how those things work out.

'Twas the summer of 1994, my third year of spending my summer in the deep recesses of the Poconos and just before my freshman year of high school. It was a nice little camp, one of it's main selling points being that you got to choose which electives you wanted to do each afternoon from an always-changing list we filled out at breakfast every morning. I had settled into a pretty comfortable routine of playing an hour of Dungeons & Dragons (an elective my friends and I pretty much had the staff add just for us), heading over to the computer shack for an hour of Apple IIe floppy fun, and then sneaking back to my bunk to sneak in an illegal hour of peace and quiet. It wasn't the most physically demanding regimen available, granted, but my rationale was that it took so damn long to get anywhere in the camp--from the boys' bunks to the dining lodge was a solid quarter-mile--that additional exercise was just unnecessary.

After one particularly grueling day of rolling dice and calculating hit damage, while trekking back uphill towards Boys Bunk 8 I noticed something rather odd going on in one of the pavilions-about twenty students dressed in white jackets and beekeeper's masks were smacking each other rather liberally with swords! This is not the type of thing one normally sees during daily life at summer camp, so I decided to investigate.

Everyone knew that Joe Santay's son, Sean, was going to eventually run the camp whenever Joe decided to step down as principal owner. Alas, that time had not arrived yet. He was too old to be a counselor (and the complaints he received after making his campers run laps and roll around in horse shit the last time he was in charge of a bunk might have had something to do with him not repeating that particular assignment), but about a year away from having enough experience to be Head Counselor. Rumors had been circulating for years that he owned twenty handguns, that he had a machine gun under his bed, that he was a black belt in five different martial arts disciplines…the usual ghost story bullshit. He did actually own a few guns and have somewhat of an infatuation with the martial arts, and somewhere along the line he'd apparently taken some fencing lessons. We already had riflery and karate instructors, so Sean decided he'd start offering a fencing elective and teach it for the summer. If I recall correctly, it had been offered years ago and the equipment was still sitting in an old storage shed somewhere. He gathered it all up, and presto--instant elective.

Some of the guys in my bunk had been fooling around with it for a week or two and were constantly fooling around at night attacking each other with mop]s, sticks, tennis rackets, fishing rods, and pretty much whatever else they could find. I picked their brains about it, and it certainly seemed like they were having a good time with it. I had always wanted to learn a martial art, but my only experience with it had been about three weeks of judo lessons in second grade--learning how to fall and trip the guy from behind wasn't exactly the art in motion I had envisioned. So, the next day I got off my lazy butt and went to fencing practice.

Ever join an instructive class late? You're basically a second-class citizen, because no one wants to spend the time to teach you the basic skills the rest of the class had mastered weeks earlier. Sean certainly didn't, so myself and the other two or three kids who decided to try the quirky little sport out that day got paired up with some of the more "advanced" students. I still laugh about this, being taught how to fence by a couple of kids with barely two weeks' experience who weren't even being taught correctly in the first place--more on that a little later.

The first step is learning how to stand. It might seem simple to stand en garde, but, well, it isn't. Show me any fencer with a major flaw in his tempo and body movements, and chances are it's because he's simply in the wrong stance. Weight in the center of your body, both knees bent, weapon arm slightly extended and pointing outward, back arm held up and limp, head straight, torso perpendicular to the ground…it can be daunting for the beginner, and everyone ends up looking like a nightmarish recreation of Vogue at first. I was no exception, and I can close my eyes and remember how ridiculous I must have looked raising and dropping my legs like a marionette from one end of the pavilion to the other, desperately trying to stay in the proper stance and not keel over at the same time.

After a day or two of that madness, it was time to pick up a weapon. There are three main variations of modern fencing--foil, epee, and sabre. Foil is the most popular style and also the one usually used to train beginners. I'm not quite sure why, as epee's scoring system is infinitely simpler, but foil it was. I was taught how to lunge--the simplest attack you can make on your opponent, extending your front arm and kicking your front leg out, thrusting your weapon towards your adversary. From there it was on to basic defense, learning basic blocking techniques (called parries) to avoid getting hit.

And that was about it. Now having spent about an hour a day for a week in the pavilion fencing, I was supposedly an advanced student! In other words, there were only two weeks left in the summer and Sean wanted us to actually get some fencing experience. So, the other 99% of what we needed to know was conveniently cut out and we got a one-day crash course on the rules of fencing. We quickly learned where to stand in the beginning of a match, what a director was (the fencing "referee" who presides over the match and awards points), and how to score touches: Hit your opponent before he hits you.

My first match was against a kid one year older than myself. I don't remember his name or exactly who he was, but he was tall. Real tall. I was not. He played lots of sports. I did not. He saw this little fourteen-year old snot staring back at him and figured it'd be easy pickings. I figured he was right.

I've never had a very aggressive style on the fencing strip, and this was especially true when I first started. I just kind of stood there and waited for him to attack me…and having absolutely no clue what I was doing, I continued to stand there even as he lumbered down at me and lunged. Then, a "Stop!" from the director. "John (or whatever his name was) misses, Ian hits. One point to Ian."

Huh? I opened my eyes. The kid had missed me by about two feet on his attack and then impaled himself on my blade (not that I attacked or anything) to top it off. I wasn't quite sure how I had done that, but I certainly wasn't going to open my mouth and complain. The next three points ended exactly the same way. As the coup de grace, the kid tripped over his own feet trying to attack and I kinda nudged my blade at him for the final point. Ian wins, 5-0. It was a small camp, so just about everyone there at least had some idea of who I was and how little athletic talent I had displayed in the past. Well, what greeted me next was music to my ears: Dead, complete, shocked silence.

I was hooked!


Up to RimRod's Fencing Autobiography
Forward to Chapter One: Re-Education

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