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by

Frank Lurz, Maestro di Scherma

First Meeting

It’s been widely held among swordsmen that “fencing masters know secret thrusts.” Maybe, maybe not, but in 1993 I had far more serious concerns. In a country overrun with self-styled fencing “coaches,” my situation was typical of most American fencers trained by unschooled teachers who possessed a limited knowledge of fencing. As a fencer with 30 years of experience it was evident that there was a good deal about fencing that I still hadn’t learned, and as I neared the age of 50 it was beginning to look as if I was never going to learn it.

Five years earlier I had moved to a community where fencing was all but unheard of, and after a short while I decided that rather than commute to a fencing club, I would start one of my own. Through my town’s parks & recreation department I managed to get floor space one evening a week, on the condition that I teach a fencing class. With no idea what trouble I was getting into I accepted the conditions of the agreement, and before long began to realize that although my years as a competitor had made me a reasonably good fencer, they had done precious little to prepare me to teach fencing. The so-called “lessons” I gave my poor victims were haphazard, unsophisticated, and incomplete and in less than a year I found myself trying to “invent” what it took fencing masters 500 years to develop. Eventually my students came to me with problems and questions for which I had no solutions or answers. As ignorant as those who taught me, I discovered to my dismay that despite all my hard work, all I was doing was perpetuating the problem.

Most fortunately, I happened to live only about an hour and a half’s drive north of San Jose State University where Dr. William Gaugler, a graduate of the National Academy of Fencing at Naples ran his Military Fencing Masters Program. I had no idea how much the course would cost in terms of time, money, and effort, but it seemed to me that this was the only solution to my problem. Moreover, it seemed the only means readily available by which I would finally learn what fencing was really all about.

Not long after I sent a brief letter of introduction, the program’s director contacted me by telephone and invited me to attend the final examinations that soon would be held.

Traffic was difficult the day I left for my first trip to San Jose, and I took a number of wrong turns before I found the SJSU campus; by the time I arrived the examinations had already begun. Furtively, I entered the room and quietly took a seat on the far side, opposite the examining commission, as one of the two candidates was just finishing the foil portion of his exam. He had just begun the random action phase and stood attentively in first position while the maestri on the commission formulated the sequences. Much of what they requested was phrased in terminology with which I was not altogether familiar. In addition, what was being requested was so complex I didn’t see how anyone could possibly remember the entire train of actions.

The candidate called his pupil to the guard and slowly began working through the sequences, pausing on occasion to ask the commission to refresh his memory. As the phrases were constructed the movements became progressively faster, but throughout the actions what struck me was the clean and precise manner in which blades of teacher and student interplayed. The swordsmanship was unlike anything I had ever seen and appeared to be exactly what I was hoping to learn. I had come to the right place.

The exam moved along until by 1:30 P.M. the last candidate entered into the final phase of the test. Clearly, he was tired and the stress of the examination was beginning to tell. Taking a spada (epée) lesson from one of the members of the student body, the candidate executed a deep lunge as he attempted to deliver a straight thrust to the top of the wrist. He missed the first time, and the second, and the third, and the fourth. The target didn’t seem very large, owing to the fact that the fencer giving the lesson offered very little exposure of the target, but the candidate was supposed to be fencing master material; it seemed to me he should have done better. Evidently I was not alone in my opinion. The man’s failure elicited sharp words of criticism from the commission’s president, Maestro Gaugler, and consequently the situation seemed to become even more stressful for the hapless candidate. It seemed an intimidating experience and I wondered if I would be able to do as well under the same circumstances.

Mercifully, the examinations ended by about 1:45 P.M. with an announcement of the final scores to the spectators and the presentation of diplomas to the two candidates. A few minutes later, Dr. Gaugler gave me his full attention and introduced himself and his two colleagues, Maestri Ralph Sahm and Ted Katzoff. I was immediately struck by the man’s polite and gracious demeanor. He had a warm, but formal air with which most of us in the United States are quite unfamiliar. In time I was to learn that his many years in Europe as a fencer and as a scholar with impressive credentials had shaped this most uncommon man. After introductions the maestro spoke about the program, coming school year, and the possibility of my enrollment. At the conclusion of our talk I left with some decisions to make.

The First Semester

Three months after our first meeting, Maestro Gaugler welcomed me to the Military Masters Program. The first day of each new semester eventually proved to be part of what Maestro Ralph Sahm typically referred to as the program’s “Big T,” or “tradition.” In the program there were evidently lots of traditions, and in this particular case the tradition was to spend the first hour and a half of the first day of every new semester hopelessly entangled in the university’s fumbling bureaucracy. Registration lines, course identification numbers, computer codes, semester units, class fees; all seemed to be entirely foreign concepts to the small army of university students who, sitting behind their computer keyboards, were charged with the responsibility to make the simple task of registration in a single course an impossible enigma.

The room in which the class was held was a large one, on the order of a 3/4 size basketball court, but there were no baskets suspended at either end of the room and none of the usual floor markings. In place for some 14 years, the program had been given a room of its own and on the floor were the permanent markings of two fencing strips. At one end of the room the high ceiling was bordered by a wall perforated with a series of exceptionally tall windows through which daylight generously poured; the wall at the other end was covered in large part by full length mirrors. It was in front of these that the Maestro usually sat during the course of the afternoon as he called out the actions comprising the lessons of the day.

Class always convened at 1:00 P.M. on Friday and began with a lecture which typically ran half an hour. Dr. Gaugler routinely spoke without notes and usually covered more material than I could possibly record in my notepads. Consequently, I purchased a tape recorder and used it to record the Maestro’s lectures for several years. I don’t know when, if ever, I’ll get a chance to transcribe them.

After lecture we repaired to the floor to begin the day’s exercises in foil. Students were paired with their instructors by Maestro Sahm at the beginning of each session and assigned to one of several “strips” which paralleled each other down one side of the room. On my first day I was assigned to strip number one, immediately in front Maestro Gaugler’s watchful eye. It was to become my “home” for three long years.

Because it serves as the foundation for saber and spada, the foil segment of the afternoon frequently lasted at least an hour and a quarter, oftentimes more. In the beginning I was assigned the role of pupil, no doubt so that the Maestro could gauge my skills as a fencer, but after just a few weeks my role on the floor was changed from pupil to instructor. Initially, it was an unnerving experience. The pupil I was routinely given for the foil segment of the day was a man whose reputation as a formidable competitive fencer had been known to me a full 30 years before. Had he been the arrogant egotist that so many successful competitors seem to become, my afternoons would doubtless have been difficult and unpleasant. As luck would have it, my “student” was quite the gentleman, as were most of the members of the program, and thanks to his affability I soon became accustomed to giving him commands and correcting his faults.

It did not take long to learn that giving fencing lessons is quite unlike taking them. First, there was the task of what I came to think of as “reverse formulation.” As Dr. Gaugler would call out the actions requested of the student, I would have to assemble immediately in my mind what actions I would have to execute in order for my pupil to be able to perform his. Of course lessons always began with simple actions. Calling for a straight thrust, all one usually had to do was invite. But if the action was more complex, things became increasingly difficult. Calling for an attack composed of a triple feint intended to elude both simple and circular parries, with a coordinated step on the part of the student; let’s see now, first I would have to engage the student’s blade, and then, how many parries would that be - and what kind? Adding to this, the Maestro would typically add one or more parries and ripostes from the lunge, or perhaps a renewed attack with one or more feints. What was the measure, should I remain static or retreat, and if so, when? It was clear this was going to take some getting used to.

In teaching I found there was also the problem of overcoming one’s competitive experience and instincts. As pupils delivered their attacks, those giving lessons sometimes found themselves uncontrollably parrying their student’s thrusts. On other occasions students would be instructed to lunge on ripostes in order to close distance that might be opened by a rapidly recovering attacker, only to find their instructors stepping into them at the same instant. After two such embarrassing blunders I began to become concerned for the safety of my partners. While teaching actions on the blade, instructors sometimes found themselves instinctively counterattacking their hapless pupils, and sometimes sequences of actions fell apart simply because they were too long to remember or too difficult for the lesser experienced candidates and pupils to execute. It promised to be a long year.

The saber portion of the day’s exercises followed that for foil and seemed to be at least as difficult, if not more so, on account of the numerous invitations, engagements, parries, thrusts, and cuts possible. Generally lasting some 45 minutes, the lessons did not seem at all familiar as they were quite unlike those I had taken as a competitor. My difficulties were exacerbated considerably as I was routinely required to give the lessons to the program’s Associate Director, Maestro Ralph Sahm. It was to be nearly a year before I felt comfortable teaching this weapon. The spada portion of the day also ran about 45 minutes, and although it had its own unique pedagogical challenges, its similarity to foil made teaching this weapon relatively easier to learn.

The conclusion of the spada portion of the afternoon came as a welcome moment for participants who had been working steadily throughout the day. Despite short rest intervals between lessons, everyone was usually tired and in need of a rest. On one particularly memorable day it seemed that the lessons for all three weapons comprised mainly simple attacks, attacks with feints, attacks with actions on the blade followed by feints, and renewed attacks. The foil lesson had featured no parries at all. Maestro Sahm routinely kept a log of every action covered, and consequently it was possible to review everything that had been done in the course of the afternoon. I recalled a friend of mine, who had trained in Italy, who told me that he typically did 100 lunges a day as part of his training. On this particular afternoon those of us who had been taking the lessons had, according to Maestro Sahm’s record, at a minimum of 5 repetitions for each action, lunged slightly more than 600 times. At the age of 50, I was feeling rather pleased with this accomplishment.

Afternoons did not end with the spada lesson, but continued on after a rest of some 10 to 15 minutes. For the most part the lessons of the day were primarily of a technical nature, but after 5:00 P.M. the Maestro took the floor himself, selecting a pupil for a tactical lesson. Highly mobile, these lessons were extremely demanding physically, and in addition taxed the student’s ability to make rapid decisions based upon those choices the master randomly offered him. After moving quickly up and down the strip, the Maestro might place his blade in line. As fast as possible the pupil could execute a simple beat, followed by a straight thrust and a rapid lunge. In some instances the Maestro might allow the thrust to arrive, on others he would parry. If he did parry, sometimes he would riposte, causing the student to counterparry and riposte; in other instances, however, he could hold the parry, in order to elicit a renewed attack. Occasionally, as the student executed the beat, the Maestro would counterattack with a disengagement in time.

While the Maestro conducted these tactical lessons, candidates in the program typically followed his lead and conducted identical lessons on adjacent strips, listening carefully for the actions as they were called out. These, of course, were the most difficult lessons for candidates to give, especially new ones. Because of the rapidity of movement, the complexity of the actions, and the spontaneity of the options presented, there was little room for error. Timing had to be perfect, distance controlled, and appropriate blade movement on the part of the master executed without error. In addition, the lessons were physically demanding, not only for those taking the lessons, but for those giving them as well. At the conclusion, students were left panting and soaked with perspiration. As a novice instructor, giving these lessons was quite beyond my limited capability.

 

The Second Semester

Unlike the first semester, the second differed in that the lessons covered frequently featured actions executed in tempo and with mobility. In addition, because final examinations for prospective candidates would be taking place in just a few months, there was a heightened state of anxiety shared among many of the students. The tension seems always to have begun with Maestro Gaugler’s announcement that those who felt ready to test would be required to submit a letter of intent, along with samples of lessons they had written themselves for use in the final exam. Classes also differed in that the day’s work was frequently punctuated with spontaneous questions from the Maestro on fencing theory. It was at this juncture that I had learned another of the program’s traditions. Although the Maestro had published a book on fencing , no one had explained that this book was, in fact, the text for the program. Furthermore, I learned rather late that there were over 200 questions and answers on fencing theory enumerated in the book, and that candidates were to be held responsible for all of the material, regardless of the level at which they were to be examined. Before long it became apparent that the answers to the questions on fencing theory had been very carefully drafted, and that to guarantee successful mastery of the material it would be prudent to memorize the material, word for word. Life became centered on a rapidly growing pile of flash cards.

Several weeks before final examinations, a blue book examination was administered to prospective candidates which, lasting an hour, tested students’ mastery of fencing theory. In addition, the exam typically included at least one “decomposition” of an attack, complete with possible parries and ripostes. Those for saber were particularly challenging. The examination was an important one in that it determined whether a candidate would be allowed to take the oral and practical examination at the close of the semester.

The written exam was not the only hurdle to overcome in preparation for the final test. Although a candidate might be able to demonstrate a sound command of fencing theory, his ability to do the practical work might not necessarily be up to standard. Of course, no one is prevented from taking the practical examination as long as the other requirements have been fulfilled, but if after a year’s scrutiny under Dr. Gaugler’s watchful eye a candidate does not appear to be ready, the Maestro will advise him to refrain from testing. One such student had hoped to test with me that spring, but his questionable performance on the floor had thus far left Dr. Gaugler with some doubts. As the day of the final exam approached, the Maestro quietly took my colleague aside and advised him to pass on the exam this year. For reasons of his own, he chose not to do so.

 

Final Examinations: the First Year

As the spring semester came to an end all of my attention became focused on passing final exams. Although class officially ended at 5:00 P.M., my colleague and I continued to give and take foil lessons, under Maestro Sahm’s guidance, with other members of the program, usually working until 8:00 P.M. In addition, the Maestro frequently formulated lengthy fencing phrases for us to execute in preparation for the “random action” portion of the exam. When off the floor, flash cards on fencing theory dominated the rest of my life.

Yet another tradition of the program became evident on the day before the final examinations when Dr. Gaugler made his annual “I am not your friend” speech. As class for the last day concluded, he spoke of the long year the group had spent, explaining that having worked so hard together one might naturally develop a sense of familiarity and cordiality with all involved, including the program’s director. He cautioned, however, that these feelings would have no bearing whatever upon the events about to unfold, and that any friendship developed over the year carried no weight whatever in the determination of the final outcome of the examination. This caution was delivered in the cordial manner fairly typical of everything the Maestro did, but it had an ominous ring to it that suggested that he meant what he said.

Later that evening my wife met me at a local hotel where we planned to stay in order to avoid the long drive home that evening, and the return trip next morning. I recall little about dinner: it was excellent I’m told, but as I pored over my flash cards at the dinner table I might as well have ordered cat food; I never tasted a thing. Later we went to bed where I lay awake most of the night; my head reeling with questions on fencing theory and nightmare random actions. I found myself amazed at being so concerned about the coming test. After all, considering the things that truly matter, how worked up can one get over something as relatively unimportant as fencing?

My nervousness of the previous evening reached its pinnacle as my colleague and I were asked to wait outside the examination hall while Dr. Gaugler addressed the members of the audience. Sitting on the examining board were Maestri Gaugler, Sahm, Katzoff, and a new face, Lieutenant Colonel Philip W. Gaeling, who commanded the ROTC program under whose aegis the Military Masters Program operated. What transpired next seems all a blur after so many years have passed. I recall screwing up on an important point in the oral examination, and going through the giving and taking of lessons in the practical portion. I knew I could have done better, but the tension of the experience proved to be a serious distraction.

To my surprise, the random action portion of the test seemed to go well until Maestro Gaugler asked for a fairly long series of actions. Instead of building the phrase step by step, I simply repeated the entire series to my pupil and hoped for the best. Luck was clearly on my side as I managed to perform the task as requested without, I thought, too many faults. Upon completion of the exercise I stood before the commission as each member offered a criticism of my performance. As I nodded politely and said thank you, I found myself fearing that although I had done fairly well up until then, a request from the commission for one more series would expose my weakness, and I would fail miserably. To my great relief I was dismissed, however, and I returned to my seat as the other candidate stepped onto the floor to finish his share of the ordeal.

Nervous in the extreme, his voice quavered as he gave commands to his pupil, often so haltingly that he seemed nearly on the verge of choking. The pace of his lesson was irregular, his command of presence nonexistent, and the technical execution of his own actions though acceptable, were far from what I thought he was usually capable. It seemed he would pass with a mediocre score until he was given his “random actions.” Although he managed to perform two, it was only with considerable difficulty, and with his already mediocre performance, things suddenly looked rather more perilous. Like a shark smelling blood in the water, Maestro Gaugler called one last action: transport to second with an advance followed by glide, recovery to the guard, and on the retreat a number of parries and ripostes. The candidate got into trouble immediately, advancing into the student as he advanced with his attack. In one instance, the pair nearly collided. After four or five attempts the candidate managed to get the first half of the phrase working, only to get into trouble with the second half. Without warning, a much irritated Maestro Gaugler interrupted the action saying, “Thank you - thank you. That’s enough . . . that’s a disaster - a complete catastrophe!”

One could have heard a pin drop. For the first time I saw this man, whose words penetrated like a rapier thrust, in an entirely different light. His words ushered a vast departure from his usual cordiality and his visage conveyed a severe displeasure I had not witnessed before - or since. It seemed as though it took a lot to get the good doctor angry, but once the line had been crossed he was capable of showing a formidable temper. Everyone present felt ill at this scathing chastisement, myself in particular. It seemed that what had happened to my colleague could have, with a capricious turn of fate, happened to anyone. When the final scores were announced it came as a great relief to everyone to learn that our colleague had not failed, but had narrowly passed the exam with three points to spare. Undoubtedly he had learned his lesson and next time would do better. Later that evening the group reconvened for its annual dinner, and in the relaxed environment of good food and good friends I finally breathed a deep sigh of relief. Thank God I wouldn’t have to go through that again - for at least another year.

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The Naked Truth | If I Had a Hammer
The Sabre's Edge | Swordfight at the OK Corral
How to Defend a Monopoly | A Propos d'un Accident
The Dubious Quick Kill part 1 | The Dubious Quick Kill part 2
Review and Commentary | Duels with the Sword | Starting with Foil
Liancour's Tercentenary | The Manuel d'escrime of 1877 | The Military Masters Fencing Program
Analysis of the Patton Fencing Manual | The Red Court Fencing's Royal Connection
| The Practical Saviolo part 1 | Saddle, Lance and Stirrup
Demystification of the Spanish School 1 | Demystification of the Spanish School 2
Demystification of the Spanish School 3
| A Brief Look at Joseph Swetnam
| Ithacan Retains Title | Third Time's a Charm
Cross-Training Not Cross-Purposes | Riposte Direct | Use of the Word "Sparring"
Chivalry Makes a Come-back | Teachings of Marozzo |

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