My husband Patrick and I are bickering more these days. It may be the heat -- around October 1st, we both start thinking that the autumn cool should set in, and then we get blasted. Or it may be the extra 20 pounds we're hauling around between us. Or maybe we're just in a rut. We decided to try to find a way to mix exercise and together time. Patrick hit upon fencing -- he'd always admired it, ever since Sports Illustrated ran an article on the sport during the '84 Olympics. I thought it might be a better way to do our dueling. I met with Edwin K. Hurst, fencing master and owner of The Cabrillo Academy of the Sword in Normal Heights (619-584-2478; cabrillosword.tripod.com ). He assured me that I'd fit right in, despite my thirty-something years and the lack of famous women swordfighters in history. "About a third of our members are female. And this is a lifetime sport. We have a couple of members who are 8 and 9, and from there it ranges up into the 60s." And fencing would be good exercise. "It's definitely an aerobic activity; it's about 75 percent legs."
The sport of fencing, said Hurst, "is directly evolved from European or Western sword fighting. Everything we teach as far as movements and positions was developed back when you did this for real. Fencers learn to move sideways, because a long time ago, it was determined that standing sideways and not using the unarmed hand was a better way to stay alive than standing front-on and using both hands."
There are three sorts of swords used in modern fencing --- the foil, the epee, and the saber. "In the 18th Century, the small court sword was used for dueling, and the foil was the training sword. The code of honor at that time said that you should not fight a duel unless the injury to your honor was so serious that you intended to kill the other person. As a result, you trained to thrust only at the trunk of the body; you would not try to deliberately wound the other person; that was considered dishonorable. So, in foil fencing, you get points only when you hit the trunk of the body."
Things got a bit gentler in the 19th Century. "The code was modified so that you could satisfy everybody's honor as soon as someone drew first blood. So, with the epee, you train to hit anything you can hit; every hit scores a point. The foil and the epee are thrusting weapons; the saber is made for slashing. "The saber was developed out of the Turkish oriental scimitar. It gained popularity as a one-handed cutting weapon in Germany and Central and Eastern Europe, where it was used as a dueling weapon. They're all fairly thin swords, but they have different cross sections."
None of the swords have sharp tips, "for obvious reasons." The blades for the foil and the epee are similar, but the epee hand-guard is much larger, "because the hand is a target. But you're still trying to hit with the point. The saber's hand-guard comes all the way around the hand," protecting it against slashes. Other protective gear includes "a mask to cover the face, a jacket with a high collar, made from a durable enough material that it won't get penetrated by a broken blade, gloves that come up and cover the forearm so the blade can't slip inside the sleeve, fencing knickers, and long white socks." (Equipment is provided for the first eight weeks as part of the instruction fee; after that, it may be rented. "We want to give people a fair crack at seeing if this is something they want to do," said Hurst.)
Over the jacket, competitive fencers "wear a vest of metallic thread. The sword is wired and plugged into a cord that runs under the jacket and onto a reel. A machine indicates a hit by a colored light. It's electronic because everything happens so quickly." But for Patrick and I, human judges would suffice.
When we showed up, said Hurst, the first thing he'd teach us was "how to salute. It is required that you salute your opponent, the audience, and the referee before you start a match and again at the end. Then I'll show you how to stand on guard, which is the basic stance. I teach how to advance and retreat, and then the key element -- the lunge. It looks very much like a first baseman stretching out for a ball." The lunge is the attack; the parry is the defense. "I teach the four basic parry positions, one to defend each quadrant of your body." Everything builds on these basics -- striking a riposte after parrying, deceiving the opponent's parry, and so on.
"Beginners spend the whole hour of each class on instruction," Hurst continued. "Then, as they become more experienced, they start spending the last 20 minutes of class fencing. Then, as they continue, they fence in class more and more. You can come to as many classes as you want, but if you attend at least the equivalent of one class per week for six months, you will be more than able to fence on your own."
Matches are fenced "on a strip that's 14 meters long and two meters wide. Just as in real sword fighting, it's over pretty quickly. That's why fencing matches are conducted for either 5 points or 15 points." One hit and out wouldn't be much of a sport.
The six-month instruction fee is $145 for one person, $240 for a couple, and $300 for a family. Beyond that, there is a $55 monthly membership due for one, $90 for two, and $115 for a family, plus an annual membership with the U.S. Fencing Association (which provides insurance coverage) of $50 per person. The gym is open from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Saturday, for people to come in and fence. One-hour group lessons start at 6:30 p.m. on Monday and Wednesday and 10:30 a.m. on Saturday.