A Moment in Time: The Duel
By Nick Evangelista
This is not a made-up tale. As is the case with much of my fencing writing, it has been wrung from my own personal experience, sometimes with much discomfort. I serve myself up as both good and bad examples, mainly because fencing is made up of good and bad experiences. How we adjust to these will determine our fencing future.
The following was an important event for me, a life defining moment. I offer it to you with the hope that it inspires you to regard your fencing, not simply as a game of acquiring touches, but as a method of adding to your personal growth as a person. In this sometimes impersonal world of technology and artificial, and often remote, stimulation, we need all the human input we can get. Life is about experiencing life. The Romans had a saying, Magnae res non fiunt sine periculo; that is, Great things are not made without danger.
Here, then, is my story:
As I retreated down the fencing strip, my opponent’s foil point slammed against my sternum with the unyielding force of a stove poker. Despite the protective layers of a padded fencing jacket, pain drilled into my chest. A hollow buzz from the electric scoring machine off to one side taunted me.
“Touch right!” the bout director shouted, his voice filling the fencing room.
I stood there staring at the floor, groaning into my mask. With my free I hand rubbed the spot where I’d been hit. I did my best to smooth out the rumple on my lame over-vest where the attacking blade had gouged a neat little crater. Gripping my electric French foil in my damp, chamois-gloved right hand, I fell into a weary on-guard position.
I was doomed!
There, maybe twelve feet away on the narrow fencing strip, loomed the Professional Fencing Champion of the World. I closed my eyes for a long moment, in a vain attempt to block out his overpowering presence. But there was no place to hide.
The evening had begun innocently enough. The great room where we fenced—as wide and deep as an airplane hanger—was thrown open to the friendly sounds and smells of the warm Hollywood summer night. The hall was filled with fencers, some sitting around chatting, some practicing footwork in front of the room’s full-length mirror, some bouting vigorously. The click-clack of contradicting blades filled the air.
I was teaching, ensconced in my usual spot off to one side of the room. It seemed, for all intents and purposes, to just be another evening, no better or worse than any other. I had absolutely no inkling of what was to come.
I was the assistant of my fencing master Ralph Faulkner, former Olympian and movie fencing coach for the likes of Errol Flynn, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Basil Rathbone, swashbuckling actors of Hollywood's Golden Age. After years of study and apprenticeship, plus some time exploring European schools of swordplay, I had been made second-in-command at the famous Falcon Studios fencing salle. The Boss, as everyone called him, thought highly of me. I had become the heir to his rich fencing knowledge, the one student chosen out of all his students, to carry on the tradition of his teaching style and thought.
Often I would be working with students from five o’clock in the afternoon until eleven o’clock at night---sometimes longer—with almost no breaks between lessons. When we were really busy, teaching became an exercise in endurance for me. But on this particular evening, lessons zoomed by, and I found myself with some time for bouting. I congratulated myself on my good fortune. It wasn’t often I had free fencing time.
I began working out with a student on the school’s ancient electric scoring machine. It was a giant device, housed in a large, black leather carrying case. When it was opened up, it looked like something a traveling executioner might tote around to carry out freelance electrocutions. The student and I would fence a bit. Then, we’d discuss this attack or that defensive move. Nothing terribly competitive, just fun, with a bit of learning thrown in.
I was so intent upon what we were doing, I never noticed when He arrived. The Champion. But, suddenly, he was there, hovering, watching, staring at me, through me. I sensed his presence and looked over. I said hello to be polite. Without hesitating, or offered greeting, he asked to join in, with a firm insistence in his voice. Actually, it was less of a request than a command. “Nicky, we must fence now,” he said emphatically. There was no hint of please in his voice or his manner.
I nodded. Fencing etiquette compelled me to agree. I immediately felt a wave of anxiety flow over me. I didn’t want to face the Champion, not now, not ever. I knew why he was here on this particular evening. He was after me. And this was no paranoid delusion. At one time or another, since he had come to Southern California from Europe—where he had been a successful master—he made it a practice to fence with and beat every fencer who showed up at our school. Experienced, inexperienced, it didn’t matter. It wasn’t enough that he was an acknowledged champion of his profession, he had to show everyone he was their superior. With this fact in mind, thus far, I was the only one left who had escaped his indomitable onslaught. I was keenly aware of this, and obviously so was he. Up to this point, by always being busy with teaching, I had been spared the “privilege” of being publicly thrashed by this god of fencing. That grievous oversight was about to be rectified.
The Champion was a world-class competitor, ranked number one in the world as a professional fencer in sabre and number five in foil. He was a fencer with few rivals. But, for him, this fact couldn’t simply be understood or implied, it had to be demonstrated forcefully to all concerned. The Champion couldn't fence with the Boss, because the Boss was old. Besides, to challenge a fencing master in his own domain would have been a breech in fencing tradition. I, on the other hand, as Maestro Faulkner’s protégé, was not covered by any such convention. In a way, I was the symbol of everything the Faulkner School of Fencing stood for. Moreover, I was the chief obstacle to the Champion’s adamant statement of superiority. He had to make certain that all the students, the Boss, and I clearly understood I was his inferior. If there was to be peace in Falcon Studios, it must be a Carthaginian peace. Totally destruction, not blade of grass left standing. The proving, however, was something I would rather have not faced in this lifetime.
To be honest, I was aware that I’d been dodging the Champion for some time. Maybe not overtly. But I always felt secure in my industry. My teaching was my armor. And that was the crux of the matter. I was a teacher, after all. I worked with every student that came to our school. I had given most of them their introduction to fencing. I had achieved a position of authority and respect. These people believed I knew something. What would they think if I was ground into atoms before them? And this was clearly the fate that one person in the room was anticipating for me. The Champion wanted to crush me and all signs of my ability. I knew everyone would be expecting me to hold my own with him, but I personally doubted that I could. The entire school would then be a witness to my inferiority. I think to be exposed for our weakness in a public arena is everyone’s fear. Still, even the Catholic Church, with its emphasis on soul cleansing confession, allows for private disclosure of one's failings. But here I was, I imagined, about to stripped naked publicly, my fencing defects, whatever they might be, revealed to the world. I didn’t want to lose what had taken me years to build up. This was my life.
But by seeking me out this day, the Champion had brought the matter to a head. He had thrown down the gauntlet, a challenge as meaningful as any issued in the heyday of dueling. If I said I was too tired, or too busy, or too anything, it would have been clear I was backing down. I was trapped. Not fencing would have been more humiliating than bouting and losing.
Using the electric scoring machine made the meeting all the more convenient for the Champion. With the box’s flashing lights and blaring buzzer, there would be no doubt when a touch had been scored. One, two, three, four, five touches! Bout over. Everyone would be aware of his triumph over me. A moment of paranoia slithered through my brain as I wondered if someone had tipped off the Champion to the situation at Falcon that night.
(Modern competition fencing weapons are wired to score touches electronically. Both fencers are hooked up, via extension cords, to a piece of machinery that both detects and announces when a blade has made contact on an opponent. There is a small depressible button on the end of the blade. When it is pushed in fully, it establishes an electrical connection that triggers the box. It is not unlike pressing a door bell. For fencers, ding-dong, your dead, metaphorically speaking.)
As I waited for the Champion to suit up, I did my best to bolster my resolve. After all, I might not lose badly. I reminded myself I was a pretty fair fencer. But I was not the Champion. The Champion was six feet, five inches tall, and two hundred muscular pounds of lightning responses. The Champion had, from a very early age, been trained and molded in Europe’s finest salles into a polished fighting machine. The Champion was ranked with the finest fencers the modern world had produced. I, on the other hand, was five feet, ten inches tall, one hundred thirty pounds, and, most definitely, not the champion. There was not a lot of buttressing I could do with these particularly stark, uninspiring facts.
I suddenly felt the borders of the fencing strip closing in on me. Forty feet long, six feet wide. It didn’t seem like much room to maneuver in. And as the Champion approached, his reach resembling an extension bridge, it seemed to grow smaller by the second. I was thinking a football field would have been worth a lot of money about then. People, I noticed uneasily, were already assembling to watch the carnage.
The Champion slowly attached the cords that connected him to the electrical circuit we were now sharing. “Are you ready, Nicky?” he said amiably, his voice full of a mocking self-assurance that told me I had already lost. He was saying to me, in his own professional way, he could make it a thousand touches to zero if he wanted to. He really wanted to rub it in. I had escaped my fate for too long. “I’m ready,” I replied, my stomach flopping over. I ground my teeth together to keep them from chattering.
Then, it was time to start. The director of the bout called us to attention. “Fencers salute.” Then, “Fencer’s on guard. Then, “Fencers ready?” We nodded in unison “Ready.” Then, a crisp “Fence!”
The Champion immediately exploded down the fencing strip like a freight train caught in a tornado, his blade whipping through the air like a swarm of bees. He hit me with his point harder than I’d ever been hit before. It hurt so much, I thought he’d broken something inside me. He’d meant to do that as a warning of things to come. Intimidation is a proven negotiating tool. I stared up at the ceiling and sighed. I folded inward. I cannot beat this man. I cannot beat him. He can’t be stopped.
Then, suddenly, something inside me spun around. A light came on in my head. This wasn't what fencing was about. I stepped back and shook my head, realizing what I was actually thinking. My negativity was a slap in the face. Wait a minute. I’m not approaching this like a fencer. I’m giving in to an idea, a preconceived notion. I’m not just being beaten, I’m helping to cause my own downfall.
That provoking jab of the Champion’s foil blade into my body had done me a service. It snapped me out of my despair, and made me start thinking. There was no point in dwelling on the outcome of this encounter. It was going to be whatever it was going to be, whether I worried about it or not. If I was going to accomplish anything, I had to forget about winning and losing. I needed to fill my head with fencer thoughts, and get on with the business of fencing the way I’d been taught. I needed a plan. I needed to think about strategy.
There are four questions to be asked in fencing: What is my opponent doing? How is he doing it? What can I do to counter it? And, finally, Can I do what needs to be done? These are not only the stepping stones to understanding every opponent, they are the foundation of traditional scientific inquiry. If I played my cards right, I might even learn something to become a better fencer.
I launched an attack, a one-two. Not as fast or as forceful as the Champion’s onslaught, but well-timed and deliberate. My intent had caught him by off guard. He had expected to keep me totally on the defensive. I touched him on the chest. My light blinked on the scoring machine.
Then, I got another touch. A coupé into sixte. That one surprised both of us. Suddenly, I was ahead. Now, I felt loose and ready for action.
Two touches to one.
This was followed by an insane, straining fleche into quarte, and that hit, too. Was I fencing? I was fencing!
But, now, the Champion hunkered down, realizing he had underestimated me. Using his powerful footwork to threaten me, he moved forward aggressively; got me to fold and run, instead of thinking strategically; and hit me with the fastest disengage into sixte I had ever seen. When I finally tried to parry, it was too late. His blade simply pushed mine aside like a straw.
A crowd began to form on either side of the fencing strip. The bout had become the center attraction at Falcon Studios.
A moment later, I did a coulé-disengage from quarte into the low outside line. The feint of coulé in the high line masked my true intent. Coulé-disengage, dessus-dessous. I had once been told that no one could watch a well-framed feint of coulé running down their blade without making a forceful parry of opposition, which would then tell you immediately when to derobe off their blade. This was no exaggeration. Even better, the Champion did not know I was familiar with low line actions. I had tried nothing in the low line thus far. Surprise is always a potent factor in fencing.
Four. I was at four touches.
Now, I needed only one more to win.
But the Champion came back with a long, unstoppable beat-straight hit. I should have countered with a non-resisting parry to channel his energy away from me. But I’d hesitated for just a second, which caused me to absorb all the power of his beat.
The score was now four to three.
The next action came out of nowhere. The Champion disengaged into quarte. I parried contra de sixte with a croisé. The croisé, with leverage behind it, miraculously displaced the approaching blade. My point landed right below my opponent's bib.
I couldn't believe it. I did it. I’d won! I’d actually won!
The Champion switched to Plan B.
When I went to shake his hand, he stepped back, pulling his hand away. “Nicky, you know we are going for ten touches.”
No, I did not know that. I think this was a bit of improvisation that would never have materialized if the score had been turned around the other way. But what could I say? Liar, liar, liar! To a world champion fencer? I don't think that would have helped. I just shrugged.
My spirits plummeted. This was the end. The Champion had obviously under-estimated me--even more than I had--but now he was surely going to pull out all the stops. He took off his mask for a moment to wipe the sweat from his face. It was a face that was determined and confident of victory.
I pulled myself back together. I regrouped my forces. The Champion was going to have to work for his triumph over me. I reminded myself I was still in the lead. I would not be bullied.
The Champion did not get his wish. Over the next few minutes, we traded touch for touch. I had never fenced this well in my life. Letting go of losing, letting go of winning, I just fenced, finding myself, finding my potential.
I brought the score to nine-seven with a quick parry-riposte in quarte. Once again, I was one touch away from winning, this time really winning. I could actually do it. And there would be no continuations.
One more touch. Just one. But some touches never materialize. They linger in the air, like the image of the Holy Grail.
Abruptly, the champion lifted my foil tip into high septime with a horizontal flip of his blade, slamming a touch square into my solar plexus. It was meant to hurt more than any of the other touches, to shake me up. It did. It took me a minute to catch my breath.
The score was nine-eight.
Sweat dappled the ground around the Champion’s feet. His chest heaved, and he tapped the floor impatiently with his foil blade. The crowd pressed closer. Even Mr. Faulkner came over to watch the outcome of the match.
The director held up his hand. “Fencers ready?” A slow nod. “Fence!”
The Champion advanced on me with an aggressive burst of speed, his blade waving back and forth menacingly to throw me into a panic. This was his favorite move. I had seen him use it repeatedly on other fencers. Based more on sabre actions than foil, it was nevertheless very daunting. I realized what he was doing, but I fell into his trap, anyway. Sometimes, just knowing isn't enough. You have to feel what you are doing to be in control. I retreated, reacting without thought, my blade beating the air wildly, my body tightening. His previous touch had accomplished the result he wanted. He's sucked me into his trap. He forced me to open my guard. His weapon, shooting out and downward in a deadly arc, found its mark just beneath my sword arm.
I looked down helplessly, shaking my head.
The score was tied: nine touches to nine.
Lungs laboring, I stooped over, my hands resting on my knees. I thought about the distance I had traveled in my mind since the bout began. From self-styled loser to an opponent with purpose. Now, I was one touch away from actually winning. But so was the Champion.
I realized abruptly that I wanted this bout more than anything I had ever wanted before in my life. But it had nothing to do with merely winning or losing. The Champion could beat me, and no one could possibly fault me on my performance. Even Mr. Faulkner would be pleased with my fencing. It was something else, something that had more to do with who I was. It was about completing the journey and becoming. Becoming what? A real fencer? A real fencer, yes. That was it. With the whole thing boiling down to a single touch, that one touch was all touches for the rest of my life. Could I reach down deep inside myself, and control that which had once mastered me? Could I create, under the greatest pressure of my life, one unknown something that would truly say, This was fencing. Or would I be left at the gate looking in? The fight was not with the Champion but with myself.
The director glanced in my direction. “Are you ready?” I took a deep breath. “Yes.” He looked at the Champion? “Are you ready?” “I am.” This was it. “The score is nine to nine, la belle. Fencers ready?" A long, long pause. "Fence!”
I came on guard with a snap.
Now, there are moments in fencing when ability and true potential intersect, and you transcend your usual approach to technique and strategy; when the veil lifts and the truth of the fencing experience becomes apparent, crystal clear, converging to a fine point of awareness. Where this recognition comes from, I have no idea. But when it descends, it feels like a gift.
For me, it happened here.
I looked at the champion, and instantly I knew what he was going to do. I thought to myself, he’s going to try the same attack he just hit me with. He can’t help himself. I was certain of it. Maybe it was the way he came on guard. Or the way he held his blade. Or the way he shifted his weight to his front leg. I simply knew. It was also his favorite attack, and it had just worked extremely well against me. I was obviously susceptible to his bait. I had flinched. I had backed down. It seemed obvious he would pick such a move to end our bout with.
If I retreated, as I had before, if I locked into his fanning blade motions, attempting to parry, as I had before, he would have me for sure. I would be fencing his game. His speed and strength would shoot his point right through my defenses, and the bout would be over. How satisfying for him.
But I knew.
All this passed through my brain in the instant I came on guard. I also knew what I had to do. Yet, I wondered, would I have the self-discipline to carry out my plan? I relaxed, breathing deeply, fighting back a tension that was attempting to wrap its paralyzing fingers around me.
The room grew still. Suddenly, the action is now, forever the present….
The Champion steps forward.
Everything is in slow motion. In my mind I am both fencer and casual observer. I see everything clearly, with an unhurried sense of peace and certainty. I hold my breath. Sound fades away.
The Champion raises his sword arm first, his foil point dancing in the light. His feet float above the floorboards, carrying him, like a huge wave, toward me.
I feel the thump of my heart, the push of blood through my veins. Or is that the beat of the universe?
He comes on, but I hold my ground. I do not retreat this time. I won’t retreat, I tell myself, I won’t. Instead, I simply extend my arm straight into the Champion’s advance—a counterattack-- a stop thrust, a tactic as old as fencing. My foil is an extension of my body, of my nervous system. It is part of me, responsive.
The Champion has been ambushed. He actually did expect me to back down. He tries to change his plan. As he comes forward, he swings his blade in a huge circular parry, to scoop my blade helplessly out of the way.
With a tiny twist of my fingers, barely visible, I deceive the savage, desperate sweep of his blade. Motion blends into motion with the softness of water meeting water.
The Champion, to his surprise, misses my blade entirely. It is there, but not there. Two bodies opposed, yet working in perfect harmony.
Carried forward by his own momentum, the champion falls onto my waiting foil point. It hits him neatly in the middle of the chest. The blade bows deeply, then relaxes.
I don’t hear the buzzer on the scoring machine, but I look over slowly to see one light, my light, flashing.
Suddenly, I hear a voice. The director. “Touch left. Bout!” he announces in long drawn-out words, lingering forever in my ears.
The image of one touch freezes in time….
It was over. I looked at the Champion. The Champion looked at me. I had won. I had beaten him. We shook hands. “Thank you,” I said, and meant it. “Nicky, my boy…!” the Champion returned, crushing my hand in his. He meant that.
Still, at that moment, I felt like he was my best friend in the world. Maybe, in a way, he was. He’d inspired me to the best fencing of my life. He was, of course, a much better fencer than I was. I know that. And he would most likely always be that. But, in those brief moments of exchange and opposition, he helped me see how good I could really be. I’m sure he’d have chosen otherwise. Oh, well…!
I glanced over to where Mr. Faulkner was standing.
He nodded once, then turned away, heading off to his office.
Fencers began packing their equipment bags to depart.
The class, for the night, was over.
Although this bout, this duel, took place over forty years ago, I remember it as though it happened only yesterday.
From Nick Evangelista's The Inner Game of Fencing (McGraw-Hill Books).