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This story is not science fiction. It is not fantasy. It is autobiography. This event actually happened while I was a member of the fencing club of the Arch Street YMCA in Philadelphia. I include this tale here because so many science-fiction readers are enamored of sword-wielding superheroes that I thought it would be fun to show what fencing is really like.


“What’re you grinnin’ at?” Jimmy Matthews shrugged without answering. But he kept on grinning.

“C’mon, Jimmy…what’s going on inside your pointy head?” Paul asked.

“Nothing,” said Jimmy, still showing a lot of teeth.

The boys were standing on the corner in front of Weston High, waiting for the bus that would take them into the city. It was a chilly late autumn afternoon. School was over for the day. Windswept clouds covered the sun and brittle leaves rustled along lawns and pavements.

Paul poked a toe into the equipment bag at his feet. It rattled like a plumber’s tool kit.

“You’re still grinning,” he said.

Jimmy shrugged and dug his hands deeper into his windbreaker pockets. He was tall for a sophomore, with the lanky yet muscular body of a good swimmer. A big mop of dark-brown hair flopped over his eyes.

“Come on,” Paul nearly begged. “What’s so funny?” Paul was shorter and stockier, with sandy hair and pale blue eyes. He was the kid who got to where he wanted to go by working stubbornly until he made it. He and Jimmy studied together a lot, after school. Paul got As and Bs. Jimmy, just as bright, barely squeaked through with Cs and Ds.

“Nothing’s funny,” Jimmy said, as if he didn’t really mean it. “What makes you think something’s got to be funny? Can’t a guy just stand on a street corner and smile?”

“Something’s buzzing in your BB brain.”

Jimmy rubbed the side of his nose. “Well . . .”

“Yeah? What?”

“I was thinking how hard it’s going to be not to laugh when I see you in that fancy outfit.”

“My fencing uniform?”

“Yeah. With the knee pants.”

Paul frowned. “You won’t laugh so hard when you try it yourself. It’s a tough sport.”

“Sure,” Jimmy chuckled. “In those pretty outfits. With the neat little knee pants.”

Paul kicked harder at the equipment bag. “You’re always making fun of everything. Always goofing off.”

“You sound like Old Lady McNiff,” Jimmy complained. His voice went into a trembling falsetto: “James, you have a million-dollar brain, but you’re only using ten cents worth of it.”

Both boys broke up laughing.

“Hey, here comes the bus,” Jimmy said. Paul became serious again. “You won’t goof up the fencing class, will you? No clowning around?”

“I’ll try not to laugh.”

“I’ll bet you’ll like it, if you just pay attention and don’t try any horseplay.”

The bus pulled up with a hiss of air brakes. Paul hefted his equipment bag and slung it over his shoulder. Jimmy carried only a sweatshirt and shorts, in a paper bag. As Paul scampered up the bus steps, Jimmy booted him in the rear. Lightly. With a big grin.

The Y was an old, brick building, in the middle of the downtown area. It wasn’t a good neighborhood to be in, especially after dark.

The gym was big, but old. High ceiling with dim lights that were covered by wire screening. Bare wooden floors. Basketball hoops without netting and backboards that looked as if they’d crumble if just one more ball banged into them. It smelled of a century of sweat, and Jimmy wrinkled his nose as he and Paul walked through it, heading for the locker room.

But his grin returned as Paul dressed in the white knee pants and high-necked white jacket of his fencing outfit. Jimmy himself simply took off his shirt and pulled a sweatshirt over his head. His jeans and sneakers completed his outfit. “You look just swell,” he said as they walked out of the locker room.

Paul was about to reply when he spotted the fencing instructor talking to a few other kids at the far end of the gym. He also wore a jacket and knee pants, but they were gray with wear and age, and looked very different from Paul’s spanking-white three-week-old uniform.

“Come on,” Paul said. “I’ll introduce you.”

Mr. Martinez was small and wiry. A friendly smile was the main feature of his tan face.

“Welcome to the fencing club, Jim. I hope you learn to enjoy fencing.” He took Jimmy’s hand in a strong grip.

“Uh, thanks…I hope so.”

“We’ll be starting in a few minutes, just as soon as the others show up. Paul, why don’t you show Jim a few limbering-up exercises until we’re ready for the starting lineup.”

Jimmy snickered as Paul demonstrated the deep hip bends and arm-stretching exercises.

“You look like you’re gonna dance a ballet, not try to stick some clown with a sword.”

Frowning, Paul said, “You try it and see if it’s so easy.”

But Jimmy was watching the other kids. Some wore sweatshirts with their school initials. Most of them were from the downtown schools. Three were girls.

Jimmy stood off to one side as Mr. Martinez lined everybody up and put them through a set of opening exercises. He demonstrated how to lunge with a foil: an explosion of purposeful motion, like a snake striking, so fast that Jimmy couldn’t follow it.

After about ten sweat-popping minutes, Mr. Martinez let the class drop to the floor and relax. He walked up to Jimmy, a chest protector and mask in one hand.

“See if these fit you. You’ve got to have the right protection when you fence. There’s no real danger in this sport if you’re properly equipped—unless you break a blade and fall against your opponent with the broken end. But that almost never happens, unless the fencers aren’t working correctly and they get too close to each other.”

Jimmy strapped on the chest protector, wormed the fencing mask over his head, and Mr. Martinez started to show him how to lunge. But Jimmy kept getting it all mixed up. He couldn’t seem to get his arms and legs working together right.

Finally Mr. Martinez whipped off his mask. His face was very grave. “Why did you come here this afternoon?” he asked.

Jimmy was surprised by the question. “Huh? Well, I guess I wanted to see what fencing is like.”

“And what do you think of it?”

“It’s all right, I guess.”

Mr. Martinez said, “You’ll never enjoy fencing or anything else if you don’t apply yourself. You’ve got the size and reflexes to be an outstanding fencer, but you’re just not interested, are you? Why not?”

Staring down at his sneakers, Jimmy said, “Well, it’s kind of silly. Not like football or basketball. All you try to do is touch each other with these dumb fake swords.”

“You think football is tougher? Or basketball?”


“All right. Try this little exercise, then. Maybe it’ll show you there’s more to fencing than dancing around.”

Mr. Martinez called one of the girls. “Donna, will you show Jimmy here the glove exercise?”

Donna worked the fencing glove off her right hand and held it against the wall a little higher than her shoulder. “You take the on-guard position. When I drop the glove, you lunge and pin it against the wall with the point of your foil before it hits the floor.”

“Is that all? That’s easy!”

She grinned at him. “Try it.”

Jimmy squatted into the on-guard position and held his foil the way Mr. Martinez had shown him. Trying hard to remember how to make a good lunge, he noticed that Donna was smirking, as if she knew something he didn’t. She dropped the glove.

Jimmy lunged smartly. And missed. The glove slithered down the wall and hit the floor.

“Let’s try that again,” he said.

They did. And again. And again. Each time Jimmy’s lunge was too slow to catch the glove against the wall. Once he lost his balance and fell on the seat of his pants.

He mopped sweat from his eyes.

“There’s gotta be a trick to it.”

“No,” Donna said. “You’ve just got to be fast.”

“Let’s see you do it, then.” Jimmy held the glove and Donna speared it. She missed a couple of times, but she hit it more often than she missed. He could feel his face getting red.

“If you can do it, I can do it!”

They reversed positions again, and still Jimmy missed the glove as Donna let it fall. His face twisted into a tight frown of concentration. On guard, watch her hand, lunge! And again he missed.

“Can I tell you something that Mr. Martinez told me last week?” she asked.

“Sure, go ahead.”

“He said I should try to think that the point of my blade is alive, and that it’s pulling me to the target. Stop thinking about making a lunge; don’t worry about your arms and feet at all. Just let the point pull you to the target.”

Shrugging, Jimmy said, “Okay.” But it didn’t make much sense.

She held the glove up against the wall again. Jimmy stared at it and pointed the tip of his foil at it. She dropped it and the blade leaped at it.

“You did it!”

He had caught the glove by a corner of its cuff; a fraction of an inch more and he would have missed it again.

“Let’s try a couple more,” Jimmy said.

He still missed more than he caught, but he hit the glove squarely twice.

“That’s terrific,” Donna said, looking really pleased. “I didn’t hit the glove at all the first day I tried.”

Jimmy’s legs were trembling with exertion. “It’s not as easy,” he puffed, “as it looks.”

Paul came up with a mask under his arm. “You want to try a little fencing?”

Jimmy thought about asking him to wait until he had caught his breath. But he saw the crooked grin on Paul’s face, and answered, “Sure!”

“Okay, put on your mask,” Paul said. “You’re gonna need it!” He cut a “Z” through the air with his blade.

“We’ll fence along this line,” Paul said, pointing to a barely visible, red line along the worn floorboards. “Don’t get too close. That’s the way you break blades, and then you have to pay for a new one. Just try a couple of lunges at me…try to hit my body. Arms and legs and head are foul territory.”

Paul stood fairly straight and held his blade down, to give Jimmy a clear shot. Jimmy lunged and hit him squarely on the chest.

“Not bad!”

They tried a half-dozen lunges. Then Paul showed Jimmy the two simplest parries—the way you blocked your opponent’s blade with your own blade, to make him miss the target.

Jimmy lunged and Paul parried. Then Paul lunged and Jimmy parried, but too late. Paul’s point hit Jimmy on the shoulder. They lunged and parried, and soon they were moving back and forward. Hey, just like the movies! Jimmy suddenly realized he was really fencing. And it was fun.


“Naw, you missed.”

They went at it again, more furiously than ever. Mr. Martinez shouted, “Hey, you boys . . .”

But Jimmy couldn’t hear him. He and Paul were locked in mortal combat: Zorro and his enemy.

“You’re too close! Stop!” Mr. Martinez raced toward them.

Jimmy hacked at Paul’s blade and then lunged. He saw his foil hit his friend’s chest, bend almost double, then snap in half. Horrified, he felt himself falling off-balance against Paul, the broken end of his foil still in his outstretched hand. Like watching a slow-motion film, he saw the jagged end of the blade enter Paul’s body just under the right armpit.

The two boys collided and went down in a tangled heap. Paul was clutching at his right side, and Jimmy could see his grimace of pain even through the fencing mask.

Mr. Martinez yanked Paul’s mask off, and he and Jimmy gently unbuttoned the high-necked fencing jacket and eased it off Paul’s shoulders. Everyone else was standing around them in a tight, silent knot.

“Doesn’t look very bad,” Mr. Martinez said, examining the gash under Paul’s arm. It was bleeding slightly. “Donna, go over to my fencing bag and get the first aid kit.”

“I,” Paul’s voice was shaky. “I taste blood in my mouth.”

“Oh no,” Donna gasped.

“Punctured lung,” somebody whispered. Mr. Martinez’ jaw muscles tensed. “Help me lift him…gently,” he said to Jimmy. “We’ve got to rush him to the hospital.”

Dazed, scared, wordless, Jimmy took one of Paul’s shoulders. Mr. Martinez took the other and a couple of other boys lifted Paul’s legs. As gently as they could they hurried him out of the gym and down the musty-smelling hallway. The whole class followed.

They went through the Y lobby, where they startled a couple of old men playing chess, and out into the street. It was getting dark. A chilly wind was blowing. Jimmy felt nothing; he was numb.

They carried Paul down the shabby street, past a restaurant with grease-streaked windows, an empty store, an abandoned church, a group of tired people waiting for a bus. One of the kids sprinted out into the street ahead of them and held up his arms to stop the traffic. Jimmy barely noticed the cars and buses and trucks growling in the city’s end-of-the-day traffic snarl.

A tough-looking gang of kids and young men stood on the street corner and watched them as they hurried past. Jimmy saw that the next building was the hospital; gray cement walls and a faded old sign lit by a single bare bulb: outpatient clinic—cashier—emergency.

They hustled Paul right past the startled receptionist, through a half-filled waiting room, and through a double swinging door into the emergency treatment area. There was an empty white-sheeted table on their right, and they laid Paul down.

A frowning nurse bustled up to them, but before she could say anything, Mr. Martinez puffed, “Punctured lung accident.”

Her mouth clicked shut. She said, “I’ll get an intern. You go to the waiting room, all of you.”

They clumped into the waiting room, suddenly filling it to overflowing. Donna took Jimmy by the arm and sat him in one of the creaking plastic chairs, next to a fat woman who scowled at the gang of silent, scared kids. Mr. Martinez went over to the receptionist, who pulled out a long, blue-paper form and started asking him questions.

Suddenly Jimmy wanted to cry. He held back the tears, just barely. But he sank his head into his hands.

“My best buddy,” he heard himself say, his voice sounding all choked up. “I stabbed him.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Donna said gently.

“Maybe he’ll die . . .”

“You didn’t do it on purpose. It was an accident.”

Jimmy straightened up and looked at her. She reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. “It wasn’t your fault,” she repeated.

“Yes, it was,” Jimmy knew. “I was goofing off. Just like I always do. If I hadn’t been such a jerk . . .”

A doctor pushed through the double doors. He looked very serious, almost angry. Mr. Martinez went over from the receptionist’s desk to the white-jacketed intern.

“You brought in the boy with the laceration under his arm?” the doctor asked.

“Yes,” Mr. Martinez said. “His lung . . .”

The doctor shook his head. “He tasted blood in his mouth?”


“That’s because he bit his tongue. There’s nothing wrong with his lung.”

Mr. Martinez’ jaw dropped open. Then he smiled. Jimmy felt himself take a deep, relieved breath.

“He’s just got a scratch,” the doctor said. “He’ll be out in a minute.”

Jimmy wanted to laugh, to jump to his feet and shout. But he felt too weak to move.

In a few minutes Paul came back out into the waiting room, grinning sheepishly. There was a bandage under his right arm. They all clustered around him.

“Where’s my jacket?” he asked.

Jimmy started to make a teasing answer, then realized that this was no time for being funny. “We must’ve left it back in the gym.”

“We’ll have to walk back to the Y dressed like this?” Donna looked aghast.

Jimmy realized that they were an odd-looking crew: wearing knee-length fencing pants, or shorts, or sweatshirts, or chest protectors.

Mr. Martinez grinned. “I guess we’ll have to walk the two blocks dressed this way, all right. We’d better stick close together.”

“Maybe we should’ve brought our foils,” one of the kids said. They all laughed and started for the door of the waiting room.

“All for one, and one for all,” somebody shouted.

Mr. Martinez pulled up beside Jimmy. “Do you still think fencing is for sissies?”

Jimmy could feel his face go red. “Naw, I guess not. It’s a tough game. I’ll have to work real hard at it.”

“You’re coming back next week?” Paul asked.

Jimmy nodded, and inside his head he realized that something good had come out of all this. “Yep. I’ll be back. And no more goofing off. I want to see if I can really become a good fencer.”

“Good!” said Mr. Martinez. “We have our first competition against another team at the end of the month. I want to be able to depend on both you boys for our team.”

“You can,” they said together, then laughed at how much alike they sounded.

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