Corrections or additions?

This articles by Phyllis Maguire was published

in U.S. 1 Newspaper on Wednesday, June 3, 1998. All rights

reserved.

Good Fencers, Good Neighbors

Live in the suburbs long enough and "fencing"

becomes the stuff good neighbors are made of. The sport lives on

metaphorically,

with "rapier wit," a holdover from a medieval activity that

gets resuscitated — like jousting — in Hollywood swashbucklers

or Renaissance fairs. But, en garde! New Jersey is in fact a fencing

enclave, and if you stand outside the West Windsor-Plainsboro High

School on a Wednesday or Thursday evening, you can hear the clash

of swords.

They belong to the Call To Arms Fencing Club, a merry band of amateurs

who have been meeting twice a week since September. Call To Arms is

the progeny of the former St. Paul’s Fencing Club of Princeton, which

met for seven years under the tutelage of the dueling pastor, Father

Evasio DeMarcellis. Following DeMarcellis’ death last year, Call To

Arms’ founder Dennis Reisert sought a new site, and the club that

began with less than a dozen fencers has now grown to over 20 members.

Luis de Agustin, a 44-year-old New Yorker who moved to the Princeton

area five years ago, has been a member since October.

It is not a big sport, de Agustin admits, but it is an organized,

association-sanctioned collegiate and Olympic one. In the United

States,

aficionados are found in the Northeast, with pockets in California,

and around the Great Lakes. Never as popular here as it continues

to be in Europe, fencing is offered at many Ivy League colleges and

an increasing number of high schools.

"We are lucky here in the metro area" — de Agustin is

referring to New York City — "to have probably the finest

fencers in the country." Club member Harry James, who coaches

the boys’ fencing team at Somerville High School (his sister Molly,

another Call To Arms member, coaches the Somerville girls’ team),

points out that New Jersey has more high school fencing programs than

any other state, with 24 girls’ fencing teams and 22 for boys.

Princeton’s proximity to New York also means easy access to

distributors

of fencing gear — the different swords, with a variety of grips;

the cotton and leather gloves and footwear; the jackets and uniforms,

which are called armor, though made of layered cotton or of ballistic

material for competition, and the electric hardware needed for

regulation

bouts. When competing, not only is your sword electrified, but so

is your uniform; a wired jacket — called a lame — is connected

by cables to a box which lights up when the circuit is broken by a

valid "touch," for which a point is scored.

Since Call To Arms’ members don’t compete, no electric set-ups are

required. De Agustin estimates that the basic gear — a sword,

a glove, the mesh mask, called a helmut, that feels like a combination

beekeeper’s hat and neck brace, a cotton jacket, and (for women) a

molded plastic breastplate worthy of Brunhilde — costs around

$140. The club charges no fees or dues, unless you want a private

lesson with one of the coaches. In addition to the James duo and

Reisert,

Eric Wolarsky, a veteran of Columbia University’s fencing team and

now assistant fencing coach at the Hun School, is also available to

give lessons. Club equipment can be used free by novices until they

are ready to purchase their own gear.

"It’s a sport that demands visual and mental acuity," says

de Agustin. "I’ve heard it referred to as `physical chess.’ It

is also a martial sport, based on battle and weaponry, and approached

by some as an art." Competitions entail scoring points on an

opponent,

"but as a martial art," de Agustin continues, "it is a

battle of wits with a certain beauty of engagement accomplished,

hopefully,

in a `gentlemanly’ manner." Fencers begin a match by saluting

one another — with their helmuts off, a throwback to an earlier

age when swords were sharp and one needed to make sure who

one’s opponent really was — and end by shaking hands.

It is also a sport with a strong dose of romance, and some feel called

to arms after a particularly rousing Errol Flynn or Zorro re-run.

But staged fencing — those slashing forays down grand staircases

and over battlements — has about as much in common with sport

fencing as Hulk Hogan has with collegiate wrestling.

"Watching sports fencing is not particularly compelling,"

de Agustin concedes. "The movements are so small and fast, that

when a group like ours gives a demonstration at a school or fair,

we incorporate some staged fencing just to give it a bit of

`buccaneer.’

The flourish appeals to some who then find they like the sport."

Club members range from youngsters — though de

Agustin

says the group now limits enrollment to those age 14 and over —

to octogenarians. The mother of 11-year-old Stephanie points out that

it is an excellent sport for girls, building as it does on ballet;

the basic fencing stance is similar to a fifth-position plie with

a body twist. There are several West Windsor high school seniors,

both girls and boys, including one aspiring actor, for whom fencing

might come in handy for those Shakespeare in the Park auditions. Other

members, like de Agustin, are former college fencers who laid down

their weapons at graduation.

De Agustin first fenced while earning a bachelor’s degree in fine

arts at Hunter College, coming under the influence of coach Julia

Jones, who, he says, was considered "the finest woman fencing

coach in the United States and a legend in her own time." Though

the two intervening decades have made a difference in his speed, de

Agustin finds there are definite advantages to being more mature.

"Wisdom and experience," he says, "will best good

knees."

There are three types of swords, each with its own blade shape,

different

"bell" or grip, and target areas. The foil is a point weapon,

and scoring touches are valid only against an opponent’s torso. It

is, says de Agustin, "the foundation weapon. The foil attracts

someone who likes the finesse of small movements and concerted

control."

The epee, the longest of the three weapons, can score anywhere on

an opponent’s body, and "it attracts someone who tends to be more

quick and agile." De Agustin’s weapon of choice is the saber,

a slashing sword, which "requires more strength, and appeals to

more powerful fencers."

While each type of blade has its own devotees, there is a distinctive

fencing type. "It is a sport that attracts people who don’t

participate

in other sports," says de Agustin. "Even when you fence on

a team, you compete as an individual, so fencing draws people who

want to be the lone sportsperson."

And it attracts those who are comfortable with targeted aggression;

instead of vying with a team for territory, you are scrambling for

blade right-of-way and lunging with a sword (though blunt-tipped and

rubber-covered) directly at someone’s body. "You must exert

aggression

to win," de Agustin says. "As in so many sports, you can

easily

read or explore people’s personalities in how they fence."

A significant attraction, he points out, is the element

of the mask. The mesh helmut, covering the face and most of the skull,

must be worn — disguising the facial expression that inevitably

accompanies all those thrusts and parries. "To be able to exhibit

aggression without anyone seeing it in your face is liberating,"

de Agustin admits.

Though all the sword edges are blunt, the sport does involve some

risk, and anyone using a weapon dangerously will be, says de Agustin,

"immediately put down and discouraged." There is virtually

no danger of being stabbed. "The worst that happens is raised

welts; maybe a small cut if you’re unlucky, but most injuries are

the standard sports ones: pulled muscles and strained ligaments that

we try to avoid with warmups and floor exercises."

Members’ professions range from coaches to dentists, to a pharmacist

and a novelist. De Agustin, who received an MBA from Columbia

University

and a master’s in urban planning from Hunter is a self-employed

commodities

trader affiliated with Atlas Capital Management in Princeton Junction.

He says his vocation and avocation share many traits.

"The fundamentals of investment have to be learned, but the

make-or-break

point in trading is psychological," he says. "How you deal

with success or pressure, how you respond to failure — those are

attributes that come from your personality and your attitude toward

discipline. The same holds true in fencing: you have to learn the

techniques, but those get sifted through your psychological makeup.

The result is your own fencing style."

And which of the two, swordplay or trading, involves more risk?

"Fencing

is much safer, by far," says de Agustin without hesitation.

"You

might die fencing, but only once. In commodities, you can get killed

every week."

— Phyllis B. Maguire

Call To Arms Fencing Club of West Windsor meets Wednesdays

and Thursdays, 8 to 10 p.m., at the West Windsor-Plainsboro High

School, Wednesdays and Thursdays, June 3 & 4; June 10 & 11; and June

17 & 18. When school re-opens, the club will resume under the auspices

of the West Windsor Recreation Department. Call 609-951-9138.


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