Chapter Seventeen: The Show

Warning: This chapter is rather long. You might want to get comfortable, maybe put a pot of coffee up and then come back. I won't mind, really.

My mother couldn't come with us that weekend for some reason, so it was just me and my dad heading into the Lone Star State. After a brief layover in Memphis, we arrived in Austin. This was my first time south of Virginia (Florida does not count as the South, at least not when you get past the panhandle), and two things struck me about Austin: First, it was hot. Real hot. Not "It's a dry heat!" like Las Vegas, real explode your air conditioner hot. We were in town for about forty-eight hours, and it never actually dropped below 100 degrees. Second, there were billboards for topless bars everywhere. On the way from the airport to the hotel alone, there were at least thirty different signs on the ten-minute ride. We're not in Jericho anymore, Toto.

We took the shuttle to the competition venue next, just to see what was going on. I wouldn't have thought it possible, but the room was even bigger than the Junior Olympics center had been--and by a lot. There must've been at least forty strips, a bout committee center raised 10 feet off the ground that looked like an armored fortress, and honest-to-god bleachers--absolutely unheard of--for the championship strip. Vendors galore hawking merchandise, and my dad and I each bought a couple of fencing t-shirts and other memorabilia. From there, I made my way over to the armorer's table to get my equipment put through the mandatory inspection gauntlet--punch test on the mask, conduction test on the electrical jacket, and I don't even know what they did to my poor body cords. I also noticed that like everything else in Austin, the place was hot. There was supposedly air conditioning, but it didn't really help under five layers of canvas from neck to toe and a mask to top things off. At least half a dozen fencers had already collapsed because of heat stroke, and just everyone was walking around topless (the girls in sports bras) between matches to avoid passing out. Every two feet you walked, you tripped over another water bottle.

We then met up with the Kreidmans and the Wangners for dinner at some spaghetti place near Austin. This had become a tradition, our three families going out for dinner in just about every city we ended up in for competitions. We went to the competition venue afterwards to watch the women's U-17 foil finals. Then, straight back to the hotel for rest and sleep before the event.

Foil is invariably the first event in the morning at every single individual competition because it's always the most popular weapon and takes the longest to do. I'm not a morning person, to say the least, but my phobia of being late takes over for anything really major. So, with an 8 AM strip time, I'm awake at 6 AM, having breakfast at 6:30, and at the venue by 7:00. Of course, no one with keys had gotten there yet, so the twenty some-odd early risers and I stood around for a while stretching and trying to stay loose. Someone finally let us, and we went about finding a nice spot for the traditional Garden City/Jericho Tactical Control Center. I warmed up with Mike and some of the other Long Island fencers there, then sat down and waited for them to post the strip assignments for my event, Division III Men's Foil. I had qualified for Division II as well, but that would have meant staying five days instead of two, something neither my father nor myself had the time for. Plus, I probably would have really gotten my ass kicked.

They were forty-five minutes late in posting the strips--very uncharacteristic of a competition at this level--but they finally got around to it. I was on the furthest possible strip from where we'd put down our bags, of course, but I was more than happy to walk it as long as Davis Merritt wasn't there when I arrived (he had been in my pool at the Junior Olympics, going a perfect 5-0 and not giving up a single touch the whole round). He wasn't, and I didn't know a single person in my pool to boot. I like it that way--when you know someone's worse than you, you let up and get sloppy. When you know someone's better than you, or just someone you've fenced a lot before, you put aside the way you wanted to fence and instead switch to how you think you need to fence to beat this particular opponent. It's a sound strategy, but the trouble comes later when you try to switch back and forth. I called this the Zolan-Serotkin Syndrome--we had fenced each other so many damn times by senior year (or even junior year for that matter) that we didn't actually fence when we got on the strip. All we'd do was simple simultaneous lunges at each other. Every time. No parries, no feints, no head games, nothing. We knew that everything else would just be blocked and wouldn't work, because we could see each other's moves coming before we even knew we were going to do them. Starting senior year or so, we'd always attract a crowd when we fenced (The Mega-Powers Collide!), and anyone who was watching either of us fence for the first time would usually start laughing because they couldn't believe we were actually the best fencers on the team. Those were the ones we'd intentionally humiliate later when we got them on the strip ourselves, but I digress.

My faceless opponents and I set out on having ourselves a pool round. Everyone was pretty much amicable for a change, and I ended up going 3-2 with just about every match being close. The one exception was this kid whose father happened to be competing in the same event on the very next strip. The kid wasn't very good--probably one of the few flukes who made it this far--and his first three opponents had beaten him easily. He was only about fifteen years old, and he was really getting frustrated. I could practically smell it on him, just as it oozed from me at the qualifiers when I had to get eliminated by Mike Kreidman for the 17,001st time. So the match starts, and I'm up on him 3-0 pretty quickly. He takes a few seconds to regroup, walking all the way to his end of the strip and back again--you ever see anyone do that, and if they haven't been doing it out of habit every single point, you know that they're desperate and just trying to think of what to do next.

Well, the director calls "Fence" and this kid starts dancing. Not just hopping, not moving side to side…this kid was doing the freakin' disco. As a veteran fencer, you have to be prepared for just about every attack and every possible situation. You go over strategies in your head for hours before every match, you think about new moves and better defenses in your sleep, and what you don't remember consciously, your muscles do for you. But dancing was definitely not in the game plan. It's like that famous high school basketball play where the defender started barking on the in-bounds throw, and now I know what that poor kid was going through when he got called for the five-second violation. I just stood there, not knowing what to do as the kid lunged and scored straight on my chest. These were the goddamn national championships, and I just lost a point because of the fucking funky chicken. I was trying to get mad at the kid and psyche myself up, but I'm laughing too damn hard. My father is smiling, the other fencers are grinning, I'm quaking with laughter and this kid is afraid to stop dancing--even in-between points--because he'll lose his momentum. Even the director is having a hard time keeping his composure, and directors at this level are usually emotionless (and sometimes sightless) zombies.

The next point, I come out charging, and I'm going for blood to put this kid out of his misery. Every single time I lunged, the kid was somewhere else, hips gyrating and swiveling and moving the hell out of the way. Usually, even if a fencer is moving fast, the trunk of his body stays in approximately the same place and you don't outright miss the kid…but then again, they're not usually doing the mambo. This went on for another minute or so, me easily deflecting his attacks but hitting nothing but air when I went on the offensive. Now I really am getting annoyed, so I ask for time to tighten my foil (which wasn't loose). The kid must've been getting exhausted, because he finally stopped dancing during the time out. As soon as he did, I ran back onto the strip and stood en garde. The director called fence, and I ran straight at the kid and scored a touch before he had a chance to start that nonsense up again. One more point just about the same way, and the match was finally over. We took off our masks and went to shake hands after the match, as is customary, and I see that the kid is about to pass out. I'm not feeling too terrific myself, but my ego is bruised more than my body. I knew he was now 0-4, assuring him of a pretty dismal seeding even if he won his last match. So, when we were in close enough that no one could hear us, I said, "Kid, that's the damndest thing I ever saw…I didn't have a clue what to do. Keep it up and you'll be alright."

I know it probably wasn't much consolation at the time, but there's kind of an honor code among fencers to leave the match on the strip and do anything you can to help another fencer out the rest of the time. We know we're not exactly the most popular sport around, so we don't (for the most part) have the luxury of having super-inflated egos and just worrying about ourselves. There have been a few times where I've had all of my weapons fail during the same match on some sort of fluke, and every single time someone in my pool--a direct competitor of mine--would volunteer to lend me a weapon so I wouldn't have to forfeit the match. Everyone knows the coin flips both ways, and the next time I might be the one with the extra foil when they're in a jam. If it helps out the sport, it ends up helping you in the end. It just doesn't pay to be rude. I couldn't exactly take the kid aside after the pool round in the middle of the national championships and give him pointers, something I might have done if it was a local competition, but there's no sense in giving the kid a hard time for original thinking.

I finished up seeded somewhere in the 70-80 range (in a field of over 200), and I reported to my strip for the direct elimination rounds soon after. I watched the bout before mine, and one of the fencers started having a major dispute with the director, a Spanish dude. I hadn't been paying enough attention to the match to tell who was right, but the kid didn't really seem like the kind to start trouble just because he'd missed a point or two. I took note of this, making a mental note to be on my best behavior and not piss off the director. Like in just about every other sport, it's just about the stupidest thing you can do.

So my match starts, and the guy I'm fencing doesn't seem to be much better than I am. In the first action after the initial feeling-out period, the kid starts to rev up and I hit him in preparation (I hit him while he's still preparing his attack, before he has his arm properly extended to constitute an attack and therefore seize right-of-way). The director doesn't give me the call. Most European directors hate attacks in preparation and won't give it to you unless it's very cut and dry. This guy wouldn't give it to me at all. It's like he decided to personally exclude it from the rulebook.

I loathe directors like this. I don't care how much you hate a rule, it's a rule and it's there for a reason. I consider myself a very good director, and the big things I pride myself on are not playing favorites and enforcing the rules fairly and completely. You're doing a job, and you owe the fencers the right to fence any way they want to within the rules without being penalized.

After I was down one point to nine, I started talking back to the director despite my good intentions. I was starting to realize why the guy in the previous match had gotten so upset--the director was arrogant, bullheaded, and probably flat-out wrong in that case too. Worse than that, he absolutely refused to acknowledge me. After every point that I felt was an attack in preparation that he didn't give to me, I'd say "Wasn't that an attack in preparation, sir?" Absolutely no response. Directors are required to reconstruct the phrase when asked, and he just acted like he didn't hear me. I think the poor guy I was facing had it the worst, because he knew I wasn't mad at him. But, he still had to deal with my wrath because I couldn't very well go and slug the director in the middle of the match. I think he knew he was getting points he didn't deserve, though, so he kept his mouth shut. I started going after him, hard, and he started backing off. The director was forced to give me points since only my light was going off, and just out of spite I kept saying, "Well shucks, sir, are you sure he didn't land an attack in preparation?"

We hit the first period break, and I walked all the way to the end of the strip to avoid getting into a confrontation with him. Mike Kreidman had been watching my match, and he started to walk over towards me. I got an even sicker feeling in my stomach, because I knew Mike wasn't going to sympathize with me just because he was my friend. I could already hear him telling me that I was wrong, the director was correct, to get over it and try something else…but he didn't. He said, "Ian, at least 75% of the calls going against you should be your points. Half of them are completely cut and dry. I don't know what to tell you. You're better than this kid, but you're not going to win unless you change it up and appease the director."

Appease the director? Ha. It was much, much too late for that. I did realize I had to change my strategy up, though, so I started attacking full-blast and playing a parrying game as well to throw my opponent off. I made sure every point I was close on was one light, because I'd be damned if I was going to give the director any leeway whatsoever. I could tell that he absolutely hated calling points in my favor, and if I hadn't been ready to take a death warrant out on him I would have laughed at the situation. Midway through the second period, I'd amazingly fought back from 1-9 to 14-14…next point wins.

In big matches, I always reverted to the early days and got real defensive on the big points. So, I sat back and waited for the kid to attack me. It took him a good while, because I'd been murdering him for the last few minutes. Still, I couldn't bring myself to initiate the final action. He made a move towards me, and he just stopped midway through his attack. It wasn't a pause, it wasn't a preparation…he was so damn sure I was going to parry him that he just stood there and prepared to retreat. I lunged and hit him, and then he kind of snuck in underneath and hit me as well. It was probably the most cut and dry point of the entire match, but I had a really, really bad feeling because both lights had gone on. Sure enough, he ruled that my attack in preparation wasn't in time, point to the right, game, set, match, 14-15.

NOT IN TIME?!?! Right-of-way lasts for one "tempo"…roughly the length of time it takes you to snap your fingers twice. If a pause is longer than that, right-of-way gets reset because the action has effectively stopped. Most of my attacks in prep had been coming at just over one tempo, the ideal for fast action. Between the time the kid effectively stopped his attack and the time I hit him with what everyone but the director would have called a direct attack of my own was three tempos.

I had no idea what to do. I'd had some bad directors before, but this took the cake. I shook my opponent's hand and walked back to the reel to unhook myself, because that's what I always did and I didn't know what to do besides that. I vaguely remember seeing Mike, his parents, the Wangners, and my dad all staring in disbelief with their mouths open, half of them screaming at the director while they were at it. Directors are supposed to take the score sheet to both fencers after the mask and get their signature to ensure the score listed is correct, but the guy was so afraid I was going to physically attack him-which I would have had he gotten within twenty feet of me-that he just left it on the scorer's table for me to sign. The next time I turned around, he had gotten the hell out of there and probably went to hide under a rock somewhere. I'm not exactly a physically intimidating guy, but I could have beaten up Batman right about then if he had looked at me funny. Even my father was avoiding me, and I went to sit by myself somewhere for a very, very long time.

If that pathetic and sad excuse for a national fencing director is by some weird happenstance reading this right now, go fuck yourself. If I knew your name and address you'd find a dead skunk on your porch every morning for the next twenty years, even if I had to fly to Spain every day to do it.

I ended up in 92nd place, which means absolutely nothing. One more point and I'd have ended up in at least the high 40's even if I had lost 0-15 in the next round, so what's the real difference between a 40th ranked fencer and a 92nd ranked one? About one point.

On a much (much) more positive note, Lauren Wangner managed to get the silver medal in her event, which was women's U-19 epee if I remember correctly. It was one of the last matches of the day, and about fifty fencers were sitting around watching the finals, apart from the parents and other spectators. It's kind of like a fraternity…you might not like every person there, but they're all fencers and you don't cross anyone unless you have a real reason. Just sitting around there discussing the match with people I hardly knew made me remember why I was a fencer in the first place for the first time in several hours, arrogant Spanish directors notwithstanding.

We all went out again that night, this time to a pretty nice steakhouse in downtown Austin. Time for a little more culture shock. We pretty much all ordered some sort of steak, being in a steakhouse and all, and about five minutes later they bring the steak out. Raw. Apparently it's customary to inspect the meat they've selected for us before they cook it. I look over at Mike Kreidman, Mike looks at Ryan, Ryan looks at Lauren, and Lauren looks back to me, and the adults were no help either. I give my best "Uhh yes, this will be satisfactory" nod, and they take the uncooked meat off the table with a smile and go to, you know, cook it. I have a great photograph of all of us wearing out Summer Nationals T-shirts, sitting in the restaurant--Mike, his brother Andrew, Lauren (with silver medal), Ryan, and me. It our the last hurrah, the last time we were all together.

Soon after that, it was back on a plane to New York to finish off the rest of the summer, and in August I left for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to start my freshman year of college. So ended my high school fencing career.

Up to RimRod's Fencing Autobiography
Back to Chapter Sixteen: Summer Days are Here Again
Forward to Epilogue: And So It Continues

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