Thursday, December 07, 2006

Doing Stuff: Day 9, Society for Creative Anachronism Sword Fighting Night

GUY WHO LOOKS LIKE LATE 80's-ERA GEORGE CARLIN: "Are you here for the fighting?"
ME: "Yes."
GUY WHO LOOKS LIKE LATE 80's-ERA GEORGE CARLIN: "Great. What's your name?"
ME: "Lord Littlepants. You?"
GUY WHO LOOKS LIKE LATE 80's-ERA GEORGE CARLIN: "Darmon. But my mundane name is Paul."
ME: "Oh, cool. My... uhm, real name is Gregg. Good to meet you."

It's not every night that you can have this dialogue, and it's not every night you can wear a purple shroud and not stand out so much. But for most of us, it's not every night you get to hang out with the members of the Society for Creative Anachronism.

The SCA, as it is better known, is a group boasting 30,000 members internationally (if Wikipedia is to be believed), all of whom share a love of all-things Middle Ages. The members of this group dress in period costume and also give themselves and their regions names straight out of a Dungeons and Dragons fieldbook. For example, Philadelphia is referred to as The Barony of Bhakil under the leadership of Master Lorcan Dracontius.

Googling the Society for Creative Anachronism and their related sub-groups is a fantastic way to spend a day at work. I am sure the people of this group understand that their hobby and interest is a lot more intense than most people. This leads to some very interesting juxtapositions on their webpage biographies. For example, Lady Lilia de Vaux is a member of the Tadcaster Militia, a "rapier academy" located in Northeast Philadelphia which specializes in fencing. He in-character biography follows first: I am a 14th Century Frenchwoman from the Loire Valley who had to relocate to the Paris area in a hurry when my merchant father got caught reselling stolen goods... I dabble in herbcraft/gardening, archery, and brewing, and am pretty good at embroidery... I am a member of House Gryphonhaven & House Black Dog (that last is based around The Sin Pit, my Pennsic home).

And now, her real-life biography:
I've been married since 1997 to William Neale , a.k.a. the Rent-a-Spouse. We produced a beautiful Pennsic baby in May 2004. I'm currently working for a pharmaceutical company as the supervisor for the report coordination group & archives in a preclinical research department.

Most of the people I've encountered in this project have been escapists -- people looking to forget about their lives for a while and trying to be something they're not. Most of this has been a lot of fun and totally relatable -- social dancing, ping-pong. Some people have been vapid and delusional in their misplaced dream of stardom and fame via being an anonymous face-in-the-crowd in a movie no one will see.

But these people tonight were something else entirely.

They're creating their own version of reality.

And tonight, for a few hours, at the Hawthorne Cultural Center in South Philly, I got to be a part of it.

The SCA literature I read online made it seem like everyone who attends these events gets decked out in capes, wizard's hats and robes. So, when I got home from work, I scurried through my closet and found a purple shroud I had owned from a few Halloween parties ago, where Ilana and I went as Siegrifed and Montecore, The White Tiger That Ate Roy.

When I arrived, Darmon was there in a black jacket, regular button down shirt and jeans. We chatted for a while, and then two other people came in -- an attractive, normal looking brunette in her 20's and her boyfriend, a bearded guy roughly around the same age, carrying a ton of equipment. I again introduced myself as "Lord Littlepants." They introduced themselves to me as Josh and Laura (and Josh tried to suppress a laugh when I told him my name.)

Josh asked me to come to his car with him. There, I grabbed a green duffle bag, the kind serial killers use to dispose of headless prostitutes, which weighed about 30 pounds and lugged it inside.

I went through the bag, pulling out metal object after metal object, like I was at a car parts store. Josh started going through his belongings, pulling out large, black rods with large silver acoutrements attached.

"Here, put these on. This is your armor."

I started to get dressed. It certainly takes a lot of commitment to get involved in an organization like this -- the leg armor alone weighed 15 pounds, which caused my chronically stiff right knee to start to ache. The last piece of equipment to strap on was the head gear -- a cast iron piece which looked stolen from an antiques dealer.

I looked at myself in the mirror, now dressed like a Knight of the Roundtable.

And I looked completely ridiculous.

I'm someone who has done a lot of strange and inappropriate things in public. I've written dozens of stories here on my blog about really personal and embarrassing moments. I have a thick skin when it comes to potential public ridicule at my expense. But now I know the limits of my self-consciousness.

Because at the exact moment I had on the entire gear but had my face exposed, if someone came in and recognized me, my face probably would have melted off.

But Josh and Darman? They put on their gear with no care about any of that. They're either delusionally obsessed with their hobby or they really and truly do not give a fuck what anyone else thinks about them and how they spend their spare time.

And now we were joined by two more people. The Russians.

If a movie was going to be made about Ukranian cigarette smugglers, Sergei and Greg would be two lurking henchmen standing outside the limosine door of their silver-haired mafioso patron. Sergei came in carrying a bag of equipment which included chainmail.

The Russians had apparently asked to fight in a previous week. Darmon (who carries some sort of rank in the world of Middle Ages-era re-enactment fighting) was apparently wary of doing so -- not knowing if The Russians were familiar with the fighting style of the SCA. But tonight, Sergei came equiped in proper and safe equipment.

I inquired if he had ever done this before. Greg said that they did, claiming that this time of activity is very popular in Russia.

"It's huge. It's like sport," he said.

(My MA degree is in Central and Eastern European Studies. I am now wondering how it is that this aspect of Russian life escaped me. I would have done my thesis on Middle Ages-era Russian re-enactment fighting if I had known this.)

Before the fighting began, I expressed my worries about getting hurt to Darmon and Josh. I had never seen this type of fighting before and, also, I am a huge pussy. They told me it wouldn't hurt and everyone would take it easy on me. Then Darmon decided to show me what to expect.


Darmon swung at me with his "sword" -- a heavy plastic stick -- and struck me over the head several times with me. It didn't hurt at all, but this was still absolutely terrifying. There is no way on earth to adequately prepare for this -- someone swinging a fucking sword, plastic or not, repeatedly at your head while you're wearing a mask which looks like someone ripped apart from a broken down furnace.

Josh, nice as can be, started talking to me about his experiences as a fighter. (He's been doing this for one year.) The SCA has big festivals with tournaments and battles, some of which see two teams of 300 knights each doing battle all at once in some big field. He assured me that he's never seen an injury, except for the time someone accidentally tripped over fencing and sprained an ankle.

I managed to get him to elaborate about the battles. He started to quickly go through the hierarchy of the SCA -- there are sorts of rankings and codes in this group. He's at a low level of warrior, and two levels above him is a knight who oversees this region.

"My knight has won several tournaments," he said.

The SCA websites are filled with information on tournaments. In fact, information about any aspect of life as a SCA member -- ranging from a highly-structured list of duties for regional officers to details about how formally file a challenge in fight tournaments -- can be found. Fully understanding all of their bylaws is the equivalent of obtaining a law degree.

Fighting began with Josh and Darmon in their armor, both holding shields and swords. The object of a battle is to "kill" your opponent by striking him in the head. These two spent about five minutes whacking each other around until they had to take a breather.

Next, Sergei was up to go against Josh.

Russian fake swordfighting is a lot different than American fake swordfighting. Josh and Darmon parrying and going back and forth, like a slightly more physical form of Olympic fencing. Russian fake swordfighting involves a lot of attempted tackling and violently swinging the fist holding your sword at your opponents face, all while your friend screams advice in Russian in between fits of diabolical cackling.

Even more insane, at one point Sergei attempted to deliver a karate kick to Darmon during their battle. This caused an understandable uproar from Darmon, who started reading the SCA riot act to the confused Russian.

After the battle, Sergei threw off his helmet. His face was beat red and he was huffing and puffing like he had just ran a marathon.

And now it was my turn.

Well, I wasn't going to be doing battle. Darmon and Josh just wanted to show me the basics of what fighting is like. I held a shield and had my sword hand behind my head, just so I could practice blocking another person's attack.

"The key thing to do is to stay alive," Darmon said. "Everyone forgets that. Just stay alive. Do what you can to don't die."

Darmon had me hold a shield, which in the back had a hockey glove for needed hand protection. He then showed me the basic move of swordfighting -- a forward attack with the sword, spinning at the wrist, hand above the shoulder, striking your opponents head. He then instructed me on how to properly block, by moving the shield upwards, at about eye level.

He swung. I blocked. He swung. I blocked again. He swong, and then clobbered me in the face with his sword. And again. And again.

Lifting the shield up was very hard, even though it probably weighed about 10 pounds. I felt my left shoulder tightening up. It felt like I had gone for 100 pitches in a baseball game. Trying to lift this shield up repeatedly, while trying to get used to wearing this heavy gear, which makes your normal body movements completely impossible to make, beat the hell out of me.

After about 5 minutes of training, I was done. My whole body was stiff.

"You know what to do," Josh said. "Get a gallon of water or milk a night and flex with that and hold that. That's what I did when I first started."

I nodded.

"Or maybe you can check out the SCA's archery section. if you don't like getting his in the head," he added. "You can shoot arrows at people instead."

After my first training session, the Russians left. I decided to also call it a night.

When I left, Josh asked me eagerly if I was going to be coming back again. I told him that I was. Obviously, I'm not. I just tell this to people at their events for politeness. At the events I can join in, I'm doing my damndest to not tell people I'm actually writing about their world. Identifying myself as a reporter would put people on guard and make them not as honest. This Quantum Leap-style of participatory journalism undercuts that, but it puts me in the awkward situation every night of telling people how much I enjoyed it and how I'm definitely coming back for more.

"Are you DEFINITELY coming back next week," he asked me.

I told him that I most likely would be.

"Do you want to borrow my shield? You can practice with it," he said.

I then had to call an audible. I told him I'd rather not, because I might not be able to make it and then after that I was going away and I didn't want to have his shield for too long a period of time.

Obviously, I'm not going back. I've told people at every one of these types of events that I would be coming back, with no intention of doing so. I'm doing this to cover my bases here. I want to honestly go to these things and meet these people and see what their lives are like. If I tell people that I'm writing about what they do, then I'm afraid I won't get an accurate portaryal of what it is I'm looking for.

I felt really bad for telling Josh that I was coming back. Josh was so earnest in asking me this question. I'm sure there's not a lot of regular newcomers in the world of SCA. I'm sue there's not a lot of people who share this interest with him. And he was hoping that Lord Littlepants was somebody who did.


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