Some years ago I was accepted as an intern for my Senator in Washington, and went to live in the district. My cousin, long since graduated from Georgetown and off to the Navy helped me find a place in his old fraternity house in which to live. It was every bit of what one expects one to be, but that is not for this story. Of all the things I did in D.C. that semester, several things stand out: 1) My Senator swears like a sailor 2) Midwesterners really are nice and ) it was by chance (as most good things are) that I started to learn to fence. I only stopped a two months ago, in a club in Fargo. It may not be entirely for the last time, but then again, it very well could be. I didn’t stop because of a fight, or something dramatic- the season closed, and I was done. I wasn’t too sad to go, but I was sad that it ended. Fencing had been one of the better things about my twenties.
In late 2013, I was living inside Georgetown. The aforementioned fraternity house was a of a fraternity of which I wasn’t a part. Details of living there are really worthy of a whole blog in itself, which I did indeed start at the time, but suffice to say it was “eclectic” and “robust.” At the time, I lived on the third floor of what was once a Georgetown mansion, and a guy a little across the hall came down carrying fencing gear. He was an Italian-American guy from Philadelphia who I knew as “Dero” and usually hung around in the lounge with a few other guys. Like me he was a “Squatter” (my own term, we paid rent) and those guys and I tended to hang out together. I had always wanted to learn fencing, but never had the opportunity. I asked him if I could join, and he said “sure,” he’d grab me next time he goes.
The next time, as it turns out, I was busy, and left a note for him on my door (I think it was to an infernal “White House Garden Tour” which was really an overrated event, pawned off to the interns by a staffer) but caught him the time after. I wore gym shorts and a t-shirt when we walked to Georgetown University, and that night went in one of the many buildings that looked like a house, but was not. It had the peculiar orangish glow and humid halo of lightbulbs that I now associate with lights at Georgetown. He led me to a small room in the basement. Neither of us were Georgetown students, but the club was there.
There were around ten other members. A thirty-something guy, led the club, and was a foil, as were two others. Dero was an epee, and I met a few other sabers. For the first lesson or two, I tried out saber and epee (foil fell by the wayside). I remember going through drills with an epee, who said I had good control of the tip. Then I went through drills with a grad student everyone called “Chester” and a younger undergraduate girl. The girl said that she was a saber because she just “liked smacking people” and finding I too, just liked smacking people, went with that blade.
I make no illusion that I was very good there. If I won a match, I cannot remember it, perhaps I did, I think there were a few. But I enjoyed it. I knew the sabers best, and it was Chester who took the time to teach me anything, like to keep my elbow in so people wouldn’t whack it. I also enjoyed the warm-ups, and the people there were pretty open, more so than many of the interns I met while I was working at the Capital. Three times a week I went, and three times a week I was happy I found something to do away from home. It was also a welcome escape from the frat house, especially on pledge nights, when I was confined to my room. I even attended Chester’s birthday in “The Tombs.” It was one time where a bit bleary eyed he said I was “a good guy, a really good guy” which I decided to take as a sincere complement regardless of alcohol. He turned out to be one of the people I would end up respecting the most out of those I met in my youth, and certainly in D.C.
I left at the end of the semester. There was a Christmas party I was invited to. To this day I couldn’t find that house if I tried again. But there was also one at the frat house, and Dero invited everyone back there. That one ended badly- details of which I would provide perhaps another time and post, but suffice to say, I didn’t see them for another year, when I got an internship in D.C. and ended up living in the same place again.
The second time was still fun, but more muted. I was more tired that year, but still went to their meetings, this time in “Bulldog Alley,” behind a cafeteria, even as someone more fatigued than before. 2014 and early 2015 had slown me down. I don’t deny, I was lonely that year. The first time I was in D.C., things seemed to fall in place. The second time, not so much. Still, I enjoyed fencing.
Most of the same people where there, the newest addition to me being graduate student who was a saber. He was head of the sabers, actually, and the club. They played music during practice, and I never saw someone dance as gracefully as he did before beating the crap out of me with a sword. He reminded me a lot of my aforementioned cousin (the one who had attended Georgetown and had given me the connection to the DPE house) in that he was pretty smart, pretty quick, and talked about a mile a minute. Chester was busier with his own work, but I saw the young girl and the rest. Often the walks to practice in and of themselves were a break. I liked the campus at night, when there were deer in the graveyard and no one about. At times there I wished I was a student, as I looked at all the bright lights in windows and had nowhere to go except a place I was only mildly tolerated.
The fencing year ended, with not a lot of fuss. Our president was a controversial figure, but mostly for his seventy-something push-up burpees before and after class, among other warm-ups. An epee named nearly took out my eye, and at one time, one of the cleaners let her toddler son just wander in and hang with us while she went away. The child was about three or four. Some of the girls gave him a mask and a blade, and the foil in charge of the club went about crazy when he saw it. I think he was there for law school and knew about liability. There was a party toward the end- I learned a lot, including how to play “Kings” and what homemade wine tastes like. Good food too, if I remember correctly.
Then there was the end of the year dinner. I was a dues-paying member that time (I am embarrassed to say that I think I forgot the first go-around) and we went out to eat, which is traditionally how fencing clubs end. After that, we said our goodbyes- I never have seen any of them since, although I’ve kept up with a few. It meant a lot of me that they let me join them, and I didn’t forget it. It was an unofficial club- there wasn’t a prerequisite, they just wanted to fence and were happy to have a few members. I was always thankful to them for that. At the time, especially, it disproportionally meant a lot to me, and I didn’t forget guys like Chester or the girl or the rest. They were nice to me, I tried to do the same as I got older and went on in life. People and things like that need to be remembered.
And so I didn’t fence again until Missouri.