BACK IN THE MID-1980s, I was all about Robert E. Howard’s fictional badass Conan. As I tore into each carnage-and-cleavage-adorned Conan paperback, I imagined myself stabbing and hacking alongside my hero, whether he was a Destroyer, an Adventurer, or a Usurper (whatever that was). I memorized every leaden line of Teutonic dialogue from Schwarzenegger’s Conan the Barbarian. And when I was 12 and my mom decided to throw a Halloween party, I dressed up, naturally, as the Cimmerian swordsman, a roll of nipple-chafing shag carpet thrown over one shoulder, leather sandals on my feet, and a section of metal vacuum-cleaner tubing serving as my broadsword. (All pictures have since been burned.)
In short, I dug swords. Fortunately, before I did any irrevocable damage to my reputation by, say, performing in medieval reenactments at some renaissance fair, I discovered girls and rock ’n’ roll. Blades and steel were all but forgotten—until recently, when I caught sight of a photo of another hero of mine, Iron Maiden lead shrieker Bruce Dickinson, in a storefront window in St. Johns. He was decked out in all-white fencing gear, brandishing a different kind of heavy metal—a foil. A sign identified the otherwise nondescript business on N Lombard Street as Fencing Center Salle Trois Armes (“Three Arms Hall,” so named because the school teaches students to fence with three different types of swords). If Dickinson—without a doubt one of the scariest rockers I know—was man enough to don tights and a face mask, I figured I could, too. I signed up for a lesson.
Inside, 12 people thrust and wave their épées like giant wands.
When I arrive to observe a lesson I find a narrow room lined with all sorts of swashbuckling paraphernalia: Zorro movie posters, suits of armor, and rusty 19th-century combat swords. Inside, 12 people are jumping about, thrusting and waving their épées like giant wands. The studio’s location seems odd, given St. Johns’s working-class reputation and the fact that I consider fencing a pastime for aristocratic prep-schoolers. But when I meet the center’s owner, Rocky Beach (yes, that’s his real name)—a fixture on Portland’s fencing scene for 40 years who helped select an Olympic coach for Beijing Olympic medalists Mariel Zagunis and Becca Ward—he explains that the sport is more tough-nosed than I thought.
“This was basically the sidearm of the 1700s,” Beach says allowing me to fondle the business end of a short sword. “It was made to drop someone—to penetrate vital organs.” Awesome.
Of course, today fencing is a civilized game in which heavily padded uniforms, round-tipped swords, and mesh face-masks minimize danger. It’s played out on a narrow strip of raised wood called a piste, and the type of blade used determines how points are scored. Épées and foils both look like oversize needles, but the blade of a foil is lighter and more flexible than that of an épée. When sparring with an épée, a player can target the entire body.With the foil, however, only shots to the torso are considered valid. In contests involving a saber, which has a wider base that narrows at the tip, anything above the waist (except for the hands) is fair game. All combatants are rigged to extendable cords; these attach to electronic vests that register hits on a small digital scoreboard. The first person to score 15 hits wins the match.