Knatz.com / Personal / Writing / Journal /
@ K. 1996
The following was scribbled in September 1987 as relief from my struggle to finish my second novel (a long short story actually) and submit it to the mags before I ran out of food, gas, and hope. I was camped at a brook side in West Virginia. The cooling evenings were just beginning to touch the leaves of the trees. (You may recognize the influence in Beginning.) I ran a spell check on this excerpt before sharing it with my son, who was living on a Kibbutz note in Isreal. He responded that he’d laughed so hard his fellow kibbutzim felt they had to rescue him from choking.
If I corrected note much more it would cease to be my journal and become an essay.
I have though corrected my memory of the Burns’ quote.)
That situation in fencing class with that spastic guy is emblematic of my life. or at least so i was dreaming it be this am: I’ll write it first and see if I understand it later. Irv Dekoff was a great athletic teacher, the only great one I’ve ever had. We knew nothing about fencing, nothing about balance, counterbalance or using Newton’s third law to recover. (or was it some law of angular momentum that we used?) dekoff never mentioned either of these things; i was only trying to save time — anyway, he showed us how to reel ourselves back in from the lunge by pulling back inward with the left arm), but he showed us a bunch of basics in about five minutes. then the rest was all competition and combative psychology. he was also the best I’ve ever seen at intimidating us in order to illustrate how not to be intimidated by an enemy. dekoff would have been Killed note every day of his life if his intimidation had ever failed. Anyway, i feel like a champion after 10 minutes. We fence for a week or two and by the last day, I’m undefeated round robin champion. No one had scored a point off me until the last round and that guy was on the saber team; I’d never even heard of a foil. 30 plus years later i can’t be sure that I did beat the saber guy. One had the other two zip and the other came back to two all. Next point won. Was it me or him? i don’t know. Regardless, i won the round robin, either by beating him or because he didn’t count and was there to show us something suddenly more difficult. And in between, in case we couldn’t think of something more difficult, there was dekoff — thwack … thwack — splitting padded canvas open with his saber. OK, what’s emblematic? The winning as a beginner? the not being sure? Actually two things: neither yet mentioned. After the round robin i was sure dekoff would come up to me and beg me to be on the team. he didn’t. finally I went up to him. what did you think? pretty good, huh? nudge, nudge. He says, “You’re great at creating openings, but you can’t follow through.” and he walks away. Still, that’s not the one the dream was about. You see, earlier on in the intra-class tournament, i had been paired against this nerd. 5’3″, 150 lbs, looked like his eyes had never been exposed to light before, totally uncoordinated. Begin. He stands there like a sack of potatoes. i merely practice my balletic thrust: extend the right arm toward the target, arm not locked, inner elbow up like Ben Hogan. Lift right foot to step toward target and propel forward off left leg. Score. Touché. Smack in the center of his heart. He never moved. I’m there, all stretched out like Danny Kaye, for everyone to see and admire. The statue of a dancer. Best dancer at South Side High? Best dancer anybody there had ever seen, you’d better believe it. The foil is all bent over in a bow. The guy’s dead, lost, pierced through. The canvas holds the blunt tip unwavering. What I don’t know is that this toadstool’s reflexes are just beginning to work. His right hand comes forward. Not at all like dekoff showed, but forward it comes. He doesn’t move his feet — there’s no telling how the guy even got to the gym — but he leans forward. He’ll topple on his face for sure if something doesn’t catch him. Not arced in a nice parabola toward the heart, but jabbed up from the floor comes his foil: the guy’s been dead lost for five seconds and here comes his attack or counter attack or whatever. He leans forward and my foil bows out further, still caught at his heart. Here comes the sword. This guy couldn’t pin the tail on the donkey with his eyes open, his glasses on, and a warehouse of prostheses to guy him, but here come the sword: jab! right in my balls. “Huhnuhh,” he says. I’m speechless. He drools. His eyes: one eye meets mine, the other is looking through my skull somewhere. If his eyes matched, he’d either be looking right at me or right past me. He’s certainly not looking at his target.
They give me 30 seconds to recover. 30 seconds?! I need a month in the country. No one instructs the guy that once you’ve lost, you’re supposed to cease hostilities. Make these real swords, and I’m invulnerable. At least in this match. Anyway: point one for me, first to reach three. Begin. Like a morning glory opening to the sun my sword extends. With the thrust of the left leg the whole flower unfurls, the right leg catches and holds the magnificent bilateral symmetry. touché. Right on the heart. I’ll bet my point is bent over against the same thread of canvas. Two points to nothing: me. i hold the pose. i maintain the full extension like i jelled the curves of my form that night we all got drunk and went bowling. Maybe i bowled a ninety, maybe a one-thirty. I don’t remember whether I won, came in last, or in the middle. But John kept intoning, “My god, look at Paul’s form.” Now, i think you sacrifice some of the dynamic of the left arm’s ability to haul you back in again if you don’t spring back to en garde right away. My right thigh had been screaming note long before this match began. Me: a miler, a long distance man. But i feel it’s worth it. Look everyone. If the photographers haven’t arrived yet you can still all see: i got him right in the heart.
If there are an infinite number of points merely between any two atoms and there are a trillion atoms in an ordinary breath of air, how many possible points are there that his foil’s tip could hit once it finally got moving, up from where his simian troll’s arm held the sword just off the floor some full half-second or so after he had been killed for the second time? Just one. They give me thirty seconds to recover.
Before you believe anyone who tells you that lightning can never strike twice in the same place, talk to me. When my vision focuses again, i see the guy is still there, still in the same place, like there were footprints painted on the floor and the script had said ‘put the tarbaby here, on spot x’. He stands there. i suppose his drool is as close as he comes to smiling social grace. He held his sword around whatever you would call what comes between his calf and his ankle. When the en garde came, he was already as ready as he would get.
Discover Magazine just had an article on jelly fish. They float around at the speed of the tide or the current. When they wash up on the beach, that’s it for them. But their stings are incredible. Eighty-five different mechanisms to do one lethal thing and very fast. And they had one story about a researcher who got stung by a dead and dismembered jelly fish fifty years after he had fled to Mars or something to get away from it. I don’t remember exactly, but he chopped the jelly fish up, sent it to the cleaner who nuked it under the Manhattan Project, got the instructions wrong, and instead of further preparing it for analysis, buried it under the laws of toxic waste. Then, working from Jupiter, his grandson or something, opens King Tut’s tomb and, jab! Faster than lightning, up from the floor, set unerringly somehow in a cosmic groove … They gave me thirty seconds to recover before i had to progress to the next level of the competition or default.
Memory is funny. That had to have been my first match: first of the day, first of the tournament, as well as my first ever; there’s no way that guy could have progressed past anybody. You shoot him with a paint bullet; he shoots you with lead. He could have killed everybody in the class and still not have won a point. Maybe he could have defeated the padded girder that Dekoff punished with his saber. It’s a good thing the coach didn’t do that during a match, ’cause we would have all froze at the sound. But i don’t positively remember it being the first. i remember still being paralyzed during my final match, the one against the guy on the saber team. But I don’t at all remember the ones in the middle. i was probably paralyzed then too. Or maybe what I’m remembering from the final match was my right thigh’s solemn refusal to cooperate in a lunge. Till that day it hadn’t known what work was. Maybe it’s from then that i can still, at age 49, practice ten or twenty squat jumps, give myself an hour or so, and then reel off 100 of them before walking away no more than a little rubber legged. Or why i can still jump my ski tails around the top of the mogul at the end of the day, or land on one in spring and send a rainbow flying.
But that’s alone, and solo, and for nothing but my own sport. Make it a tournament, with society and rules involved, I start in like Baryshnikov, and come away sterile. On a million subsequent occasions i know what dekoff meant by not following through. But I’ve retired, and built a monument to myself just on the natural brilliance of the opening. I wonder now for the first time ever where that other guy is. I’m reminded suddenly of the short guy in Faulkner’s Old Man. He must have looked like a wart to all of us. But what did we look like to others? This was a gym class, remember, and gym class was only for people not in a sport that semester. i had retired from competition at the end of my freshman year after coxswaining the first heavy weight crew to last place in the IC4A or something regatta at Syracuse. Mike, the nerd that was cox for the seconds now owns P&S or something. What was that one guy doing there if he was on saber? Maybe he had come in last the other semester and dekoff had excessed him. What would any of us have looked like if Chet Forte and the basketball team had walked by? i remember changing, i think it was in Princeton’s boat house on Lake Carnegie. No, it was more likely when we were first moving in at Lake Onandaga. The Yale frosh had to pass through our locker room. That’s who Al, the crew coach, said had to come though in another minute. Jesus, what a bunch of fairies. They looked at us like we were mold growing on the drain. The Yale varsity that year was great. I think they won. Even their coxswain looked like a gymnast. He had forearms like woven rope. But the freshmen! I remember the scene in Tony Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner with Tom Courtney where the English public school boys come into the locker room with the jail birds: “Ohh … Helllo? Rah-ther!” Or some such.
Anyway, i think Robert Burns was wrong: it would not be such a blessing ‘… wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us/ To see oursels as others see us!”
Amazing. When I thought to prepare this excerpt as hyper-text I had no awareness that the final paragraph precisely forecasts my third novel!
2005 10 11 Fencing is such a great sport. [Here I linked to a fencing slide show, now evaporated.]
“Knatz, Knatz … What kind of a Jewish name is that,” asked the women of the Jewish Theology Center just north of Columbia. As my son’s mother didn’t wish her relationship to her employers altered in any way, she kept her own councel. Many Jewish names are German; not all German names are Jewish. So? My son can’t join a kibbutz for six months? He came back speaking Hebrew fluently, even giving a talk in Hebrew.
Prefatory to teaching rhetoric, I quoted Oscar Wilde to my freshmen: “‘A gentleman is someone who never offends another … unintentionally’. I don’t care whether or not you split your infinitives, but in order to maximize your own effectiveness in society, you will want to know whether or not you are doing so. In your future as in your past, you are going to have to speak to and write for persons who have power over you. Some of them will care very much whether or not you split your infinitives. To control whether or not you are offending them, you must learn what a split infinitive is.”
[If you want the members of Congress to follow your speech and not be distracted by your costume, dress as they dress.
Contrarily, Napoleon dressed his generals like peacocks while he wore basic black. Guess who stood out? (Shakespeare invented the trick nearly two centuries earlier with Hamlet.)]
[If you want to see me disguised as a mensch, read my fiction and my essays; my journal is me naked in the bath. For your sake, I cover part of me with a wash cloth.]
The scene reported would have taken place in the old gynnasium, Columbia College in the City of New York, late 1957 or early 1958. Coach DeKoff would place one of us in front of him in combat position and order the student to touch him (the tip of the foil anywhere on the trunk of the opponent is a legal touch). He would then make weird noises while contorting his face and pirouetting around like a clown. The simplest, most straightforward lunge would have scored on him. But he was the teacher, and none of us dared to score on him even when invited. Still, I think his point was communicated: don’t confuse bullshit with defence: you see an opening? Score.
Earlier I mentionted that my thigh was screaming before the match began. You might think that this could not therefore have been the first round. But the torment in my right thigh came prior to the tournament, from learning the lunge and, worse, the return to en garde.