It is noon on a Saturday, and I am face to face with a masked man, blades drawn, bodies tense, feet steady on hardwood floors in an old building in south Minneapolis. Shapes move in my periphery, but I stare straight ahead. Fluorescent bulbs burn above. The room is hushed but for the zing and clash of metal on metal -- the clanging of blades that is the sound of the Minnesota Sword Club.
Then a quick movement. A long reach. A lunge, and a point is pressed to my chest. "You're dead," says Rich Jacobson, pulling back to remove his blade.
We're facing off in a former bowling alley, a space renovated in the 1980s one story down from street level. A bakery hums on Chicago Avenue above, patrons milling in, coffee steaming from cups. But down here it's all business, wood beams and dusty floors, mirrors on the walls, swords drawn or lined up in wait for battle.
"You probably won't bleed to death," says Jacobson, the club's founder and head coach. "Most people die from the infection."
He is smiling. I can just make out a grin through the black mesh of his mask. Jacobson is giving an introductory lesson, which doesn't mean he's going easy.
Since 1982, the Minnesota Sword Club has taught thousands of area kids and adults to wield sabers, épée and foil swords -- the same weapons employed for fencing in the Olympic Games. In addition to Jacobson, six coaches and 244 members make up the organization, which has produced top national competitors in recent years.
Classes for all levels run multiple nights per week and on Saturdays. Club members range in age from 8 years old to 70. "You get better with age," said Jacobson, who is 62.
The power of the mind
I jumped in during an open Saturday session in March, where a dozen adults lunged and retreated to practice footwork in front of mirrors before picking up their blades. Fencing requires a refined athleticism, with slices, parries, deflections and quick jabs accompanying an intricate dance to mimic a life-or-death duel. But an understanding of the game -- an awareness of what your opponent is thinking, where he will move and when he will strike -- is as important as knowing how to go in for the kill.
"Beginners fence with their bodies, and intermediates fence with their blades," Jacobson says. "Experts fence with their minds."
The Jedi master talk makes sense when you're staring down the point of a 3-foot-long blade. During my introductory bout -- a 10-minute swordfight after a lesson on footwork and strategy -- Jacobson seemed able to deflect my every move with just the subtle twist of a wrist.
While I hacked the blade, Jacobson swished his saber a few degrees back and forth, body still, eyes locked on my erratic effort. Then, whenever he felt the need, a quick thrust past my advance would plunge his point into the jacket's padding above my heart.
"Fencing is an art form," said Casey Clayton, a 20-year-old instructor at the club. "It's all about concentration and strategy and skill."
Clayton fought his brother with sticks as a young kid, playing pirates and knights-in-armor in the backyard. By age 10 Clayton persuaded his mom to sign him up for formal lessons with the Minnesota Sword Club. He's been at it ever since, up to four days a week for the past decade.
Young fencers like Eddie Chen of Plymouth and Braedon Beck of Apple Valley, both 14, don't get too deep when talking about their sport.
"It's fun," Eddie said when asked why he comes in three times a week to train. "We just like to fight," added Braedon.
I watched the pair face off before my bout against Jacobson. They fought with épée swords, which are heavy thrusting weapons that require stabbing -- not swinging, as with the saber -- to score.
Tethered by cable to an electronic signaling system, the boys leapt forward, swords clashing, feet pounding the varnished floor. At any subtle contact -- whenever a sword point touched an opponent's body -- an unnoticeable charge of electricity closed a circuit loop, setting off a beeper alarm on the ceiling to show who scored.
Braedon moved in fast halfway through the match, slicing the air twice, then clanging down Eddie's blade. They pushed each other back, but Eddie reached as he was falling away, stabbing his foe.
"That was cheap!" Braedon yelled.
"But legal!" Eddie responded.
"Yeah, but still cheap," Braedon said, resigned.
Jacobson said his teaching technique is unusually open in a sport built upon centuries of formal tradition. Many fencing instructors, he said, require students to master a repertoire of moves -- the flick, feint, prise de fer, riposte, the attack au fer -- before facing off blade to blade. But at the Minnesota Sword Club Jacobson lets beginners jump right in.
"I like them to get the big picture, to try fencing no matter how rough their technique," he said. "We can refine things from there."
My bout was undoubtedly rough and ugly. But even as a consummate beginner, fencing did not feel awkward. The club provides equipment for first-timers to try, and as soon as my mask and jacket were on -- and sword in hand -- the stabs and swings and swashbuckling swipes acted out in my childhood began to resurface.
"Salute first," Jacobson said, raising and dropping his blade as if to knight. "Now, ready."
I ease forward in quick little steps, reaching out to touch blade on blade. Jacobson twists and flings my sword away, then steps ahead.
We cling and clang, pushing back and forth, a strange dance. I go in for a stab, an aggressive reach, but Jacobson deflects the effort with a smirk. "I'm reading your moves," he says.
In a blink, the point of Jacobson's foil -- a blunted 3-foot-long sword -- finds its way onto my abdomen.
"You're dead," he says.
We step back and start over. This time I stay low, letting Jacobson make the first move.
He comes in without swinging, just a sword tip thrust straight at my eye. I duck and deflect, then start in for a kill.
"Got me!" he says, jumping back.
The bout goes on for 5 minutes. I swing and clink metal to metal out of nervous defense. Jacobson is a statue, feet apart, eyes unmoving. His wrist rotates a few degrees, blade redirecting, fending, deflecting.
A leap. A thrust. Some fancy footwork, and I am dead again.
Jacobson steps back. A dark knight under basement lights. I shake out my arm, muscles tense from holding the blade.
"Give me a sec'," I say.
The room is quiet. Jacobson is still, waiting. I take a breath and raise my blade, the village idiot swordfighting the king.
Stephen Regenold is a Twin Cities writer and author of the syndicated column www.thegearjunkie.com.