I've started fencing.
There's a group that meets Saturdays at Edith Cowan Uni Mt Lawley, for the purpose of waving pointy sticks at one another and saying things like "En garde!", and "I am not left handed!". One of my friends, Cornflake Mike, invited me along. He started mentioning names of other club members, and once he'd listed three or four of my old friends, I agreed to go.
The club has a break over summer, when the non-air-conditioned gym is just too hot, but it picks up again in late February. So I joined the beginner intake. Fencing skills break down into two main parts: the sword hand's wrist, and everything else. Everything Else is referred to as footwork, and our beginner class began by teaching us to step forward, step back, step forward, step back, step forward, lunge; all while standing sideways. After footwork, it was onto holding actual weapons.
The weapon they start teaching you on is the foil, the wimpiest of the swords. But before you actually get to use one, you have to put on a jacket, glove and mask. The real fencers also have fencing britches, head scarves, a piece of cloth under-armour called a plastron, and, for the girls, a chest protector. This all makes you rather warm.
Then we hack away at each other with the swords.
The challenge is that in order to whack the other guy, you have to get within sword reach of him. But his sword is exactly as long as yours, so if you can reach him, he can reach you. The basic trick, then, is to disengage; in other words, arrange your blades such that if he pushes forward, his blade will slide harmlessly past you, but if you push forward, you'll get him. Of course, he's trying to do the same thing to you, so there's a lot of stepping forward, clashing blades once or twice, realising that you're not going to get past his guard, and hastily stepping back before it all goes wrong and he gets you.
Fencing happens faster than the concious mind can handle. If you try to fence using the front of your brain, you'll still be thinking about where to put your sword when the other guy's already got you. So you have to use reflex. Of course, reflex alone is not smart enough to deal with the cut and thrust of all the complicated action, so what you really have to do is connect your frontal lobes and your hind-brain together into one seamless whole, so as the other guy leaps in and waves his pointy stick at you, your hind brain parries, while your frontal lobes are thinking, "He's attacking from my left, so I should parry, oh I seem to have already done that bit, and then riposte."
Having made this observation, I invent a trick that I can use to beat other novice fencers. I step forward, feint to the left, feint to the right, feint to the left, and attack to the right. This rapid sequence of moves is easy for me to execute, because I've pre-programmed it; but it's difficult for them to deal with, because they keep having to refer up to the front of their brain for advice. So I run their frontal lobes out of processor power, and then when I make the pre-programmed attack I've got about a 50% chance of getting through, depending on where their blade happens to be.
And then I let some of my friends talk me into entering a tournament with them.
The tournament in question is a team affair. Teams are of three to five players, with three plus an optional reserve taking part in any given tournament bout. There are about nine tournament dates, spaced about four weeks apart, and on each date, each team fences against another team. My team mates are Cornflake Mike, Simone, and Burke. The first tournament date is immediately prior to our third beginner lesson.
Burke is handy as a team mate: he's the club armourer, so he can get us all the various equipment we need. He's also the only one on our team who isn't a novice. So of course he begs off on the first tournament date: we only need three of the four of us actually in the bout, and Burke appoints himself the reserve.
For tournaments, we need even more equipment than for regular fencing. We need an electric foil, which has a pressure switch at the tip and some tiny wires running up a channel in the blade; a body wire, threaded through our jacket sleeve and hooked to the sword; and a lame (/lah-may/; imagine a little squiggle over the 'e'), which is a conductive vest, and which also connects to the body wire. At each end of the piste (the long, thin playing field) are auto-retracting reels of wire, referred to as "turtles", because of a passing resemblance. These connect to our body wires, and also back to the main box, referred to as "the box". The box has some lights and a buzzer, and when one of us successfully touches the other's conductive jacket, a circuit is made from box to reel to body wire to sword to opponent's lamé to body wire to reel and back to the box, and lights flash and buzzers sound. It's very exciting.
The president for our bout (she's called that on the basis that "referee" doesn't sound French enough) realises that we are novices and goes easy on us. She explains the slightly odd scoring system. Every time you hit the other guy, you score a point. In one-on-one bouts, you just go until somebody gets to a pre-determined number, like five points. But in this team bout, we will play a series of nine "boutlets", in which each one of our team will fence each one of theirs. The first bout will be to first-to-five, but in the next bout, scores do not start again from scratch; and it's first to ten. The next is first to fifteen, and so on. So going into the ninth and final bout, the scores might be 40 - nil, and the team that is behind can score 45 points in a row, and win.
This all means that you never reach a point where the conclusion is foregone, and theoretically keeps the excitement up to the finish; but it also creates a tendency for teams to arrange their roster so that their strongest player is in the final bout, and means that to some extent, the first eight bouts are just warm-ups.
We don't have a strongest player. Nevertheless, we appoint Mike to the position. We send Simone in first, and seeing as how she's fencing their best player, she loses. Then Mike does alright, and then it's my turn. Luckily, I'm against a Little Fat Kid. There's an LFK in almost every laser tag centre in the world, so I'm pretty used to dealing with them. Burke hooks my body wire up to the reel, and I manage to avoid making a fool of myself while plugging in my sword. We do a vests check, wherein we both touch our swords to each others' lamés, to verify that the appropriate lights come on on the box. And then we're into it.
The actual fencing part is pretty much the same as in my beginner class. The difference is that now I have a president telling me what I've done. After one of us scores a hit, the president calls "Halt!". She then verbally plays back the last few moves, leading up to the hit, accompanied by much arm-waving in the Secret Fencer's Sign Language. It often goes something vaguely like, "Attack from my left is no, parry-riposte from my right is touche. Point." The arm-waving conveys much the same information as the speech, in a less rich form; but you have to know the language. So I mostly ignore the action replay, and concentrate simply on the president's commands to us. "En garde. Ready... fence!" Step forward, pause, step forward, lunge, miss, recover, step back, step back, step back. Step forward, feint left, feint right, feint left, attack right. "Halt! Attack from my right is no, renewal from my right is touche." Hey, my trick works on this kid.
All of this is made substantially more complicated by the right of way rule. Foil is a refined form of duelling, and you're not just allowed to wade in and whack the other guy. Firstly, you can only hit them on the body, not on the arms, legs or head. And secondly, there's this rule about who has right of way. If you start your attack first, then you have right of way. I can take it away from you by parrying your blade. Now in real life-or-death, separate-the-other-guy-from-his-limbs combat, a parry is where you knock your opponent's blade aside in order to assure that he doesn't perforate you. But foil is sufficiently stylised that you don't necessarily have to do this: for right-of-way purposes, simply tapping the other guy's blade is enough. So as he attacks, you tap his blade on its way in, and then attack him. Then, even if he hit you first, you win the point, because you had right of way.
I score about seven points against the LFK before he racks up the five points necessary to end our bout.
A couple of bouts later, with our team substantially behind, Simone starts getting "off target" lights at funny times. The box signals off target when it thinks that you've hit something other than your opponent's lamé. But if you get an off-target signal when the fencers are nowhere near each other, it generally indicates dodgy equipment. The president checks Simone's wiring, and wiggles all her connections. We give Simone a different foil, and they start fencing again. Pretty soon she gets another off-target light at an implausible time. This time we change her body wire. Since the body wire is threaded through the sword-arm of the jacket, this either involves stripping off most of the layers of gear, or doing a sacrifice pull. In the sacrifice pull, we clip the new body wire onto the end of the old one, poking out of the jacket at Simone's wrist. Then she does an impression of the Statue of Liberty, while we pull the old wire out through the back of the jacket. When we have pulled the old wire right through, voila, the end of the new wire appears. We hook her up again, she fences on, and gets another off-target.
This time, we find problems in the cables hooking the turtle reels back to the box. Basically, both ends of both cables are dodgy, and wiggling an end produces an off-target light. Probably the original foil and body wire were OK, and it was these cables all along. After more delay, we locate some suitable tape, and tape all the ends down, into hopefully immobile positions, and once more, fence on.
Burke kibitzes to the effect that this box and its associated cables and reels are borrowed from another club for the tournament, and that's why they're so poorly maintained.
It doesn't take long, of course, for another off-target light to show up. Rather than try and locate the problem, which is probably cable ends wobbling despite the tape, we simply up stakes and move to another piste -- our delays have taken so long that some other groups have finished their bouts, leaving their pistes free.
We continue without further eventuality, and our opponents demolish us in fairly short order. The final scoreline is 45 - 22, very creditable given our inexperience.