Sword Play

Many thanks to everyone who has visited this site and left such kind comments! You are welcome to explore our website and learn about some of the US fencers and international fencing masters with whom I have worked. Fencing’s true nature is based on centuries of history (dating back to the time of Ghenghis Kahn and the Roman gladiators).

This site is primarily dedicated to my former fencing masters (the majority of whom are no longer with us), some of whom have taught swordplay for several generations, as well as the interesting and accomplished fencers I have known. New fencers of all ages and abilities will find some advice on how to get started in fencing, while more experienced fencers may learn some new movements. This website is free to use, although donations are welcomed, and is intended for all fencers of honor, good will, and high standards.

En Garde!

Fencing Masters That I Knew

Derwood (Frenchy) Bible

Frenchy was one of the most audacious and bold persons I’d ever met, and what a character he was! I first met him when I strolled into the Phoenix YMCA gym to study fencing years ago. He wore a neck brace and carried a hooded hawk. He placed the hawk on a wooden seat, and it remained still the entire time we were there. However, I did observe a mound accumulating beneath the hawk perched on the bench. When I asked Frenchy about the neck brace, he explained that he was in a fight with a dozen youngsters at a drive-in, and they fractured his neck. I was shocked that he would take on such a huge bunch, given his diminutive height. But it didn’t appear to upset him. Frenchy raised his pant leg, exposing his horribly scarred leg, as he put on his fencing shoes. He claimed to have been a flame thrower in WWII and to have been injured during fighting.

Frenchy didn’t receive his nickname until he and I went to the North Mexico International Invitational in Chihuahua, Mexico. We opted to grow Van Dyke beards, and Frenchy looked every inch the French count. From then on, he was known as Frenchy.

The trip to Chihuahua and the event were both exciting. We took his automobile, which was a huge mistake. He had acquired a car from a used auto dealer who refused to refund his money after discovering all of the problems with it. As a result, he spray-painted a giant lemon on the side of the door and parked it across the street from the vehicle dealer. This drew media attention, including a photograph of him with his car in the local newspaper. The car was in bad condition, clearly having been in a wreck. He used a rope to tie the passenger door to the post because it wouldn’t lock. The windows didn’t fully close, and it was winter, so it was quite cold driving over the mountains. Frenchy was a quick driver, speeding down the mountains. Our first stop was for gas at a mountaintop, where he asked me to park the car. When I applied the brakes to come to a halt, I was surprised to find that the pedal almost reached the floor before the brakes took effect. That made me perspire for the rest of the journey.

That evening, we ate at a little restaurant with a giant square hole in the ceiling that was evidently constructed that way. Unusual and intriguing, yet very cool. A tiny child brought in a basket of cheese that had been shaped into spherical patties that appeared to be fresh and tasty. We were about to buy some when one of the customers returned a piece of cheese and pointed to a spot on it, at which time the boy pulled out a giant bug out and flung it away. He returned the piece of cheese to the basket, unafraid. We decided not to buy the cheese.

We returned to our motel room after dinner, and we could smell gas. We knew there was a leak in the pipe leading to the heater, so we sniffed along the pipes to discover it. However, because the odor was strong everywhere, we didn’t have much luck. “I’ll locate it!” exclaimed Frenchy. He took out a piece of paper, coiled it up, and lighted a match to it. “Frenchy, I wouldn’t do that,” I remarked, but he disregarded me and continued to run the flame along the pipe. He discovered the leak. It began with a loud whoosh, followed by the appearance of a big flame emerging from the pipe. It was close to a curtain that was threatening to catch fire. I felt my face, which was warm from the blast but not painful. “We’re going to burn down the place!” I said as the flames climbed the wall. We threw down the curtain and poured glasses of water on the flame, eventually extinguishing it. The wall, on the other hand, had a large black burn area around the leak and up toward the ceiling. The floor was soaked from the water that had soaked into the falling curtain. I had images of spending a significant period of time in a Mexican jail, but we were fortunate and avoided incident. “I’m going to have to be assertive,” I thought to myself.

We continued on our journey the following day. The previous night’s events, the leaky windows and creaking car doors, and the brakes’ state were less than reassuring. It didn’t get any better from there. Frenchy began telling me about all of the car accidents he had been in, which made me feel quite uneasy. One of these stories in particular made me shiver. He described traveling down a hill in his automobile and missing a bend. In the crash, he was ejected and ended up in a tree with multiple injuries. The cops arrived, pulled him from the tree, and took him to the hospital. He mentioned it casually, but it didn’t seem that way to me. From then on, I insisted on doing the majority of the driving.

We arrived in Chihuahua without problem and discovered that the tournament was sponsored by the university’s School of Music and Art. Our hosts served us extremely well, and after the morning fights, we went out for lunch. When we returned to our car after lunch, we discovered that the trunk had been wrenched open, and we were missing some clothing. Our dress clothing and shoes had vanished, leaving us with only our uniforms and a few shirts to wear.

After lunch, we continued competition, fencing all three weapons. One match in particular stands out in my mind. Frenchy is back, this time in a saber fight. Midway into the fight, Frenchy launched a fleche attack from his end of the strip to the other end of the strip, but he didn’t stop there. He ran to the end of the gymnasium, turned left, and exited through a door. We all stared at each other, puzzled. We waited a few minutes before Frenchy reappeared. I asked him what had transpired after the fight and burst out laughing at his response. He was suffering from “turistas” and needed to use the restroom immediately!

Following the competition, tournament officials and some of the fencers stated that when we first stepped through the door to meet them, they mistook us for European fencing masters, owing to our beards. The fencing master, who was also the head of the School of Arts and Music, gave us a fascinating tour of the University of Chihuahua. Leater invited us to a special operetta he and his pupils were performing for the governor of Chihuahua that evening. We couldn’t say no, and it seemed interesting, so we went to a store in the middle of town and bought ties to wear. We met the governor at the Opera while sporting our new Mexican ties, fencing pants, and athletic shoes. We must have made quite a spectacle! After I returned home, a letter from their fencing teacher to our club showed that I had officially taken second place in saber (a result I did not expect, given that I had only been fencing for a year or two). Maybe a friendly gesture?).

Under the supervision of Lathrop Gay, who kept the action from getting out of hand, Frenchy and I had some true (friendly) duels. We used to use pointe d’arrets, which are three-pointed tips attached to epee blades that we honed to advantage. During one of these battles, he poked a small round hole in the crook of my arm and squirted a stream of blood out. When it punctured my arm, it felt like a hot poker, albeit it didn’t go in very far. After that, I was able to parry the attacks much more effectively since I maintained my arm considerably straighter. It was a priceless lesson. These duels were held bare-chested but with masks, with the main target being the arm, as we did not want to cause any severe injuries. We also fenced saber while naked. In these fights, the authenticity of a touch was unimportant because a cut to the chest resulted in a crimson welt. This is not a sport I would advocate to anyone, but it did happen, therefore it can be reported as a real story. It is, as they say, unlawful. Later, after a disagreement with another guy over a girl acquaintance, Frenchy challenged him to a more serious combat. He wrote to the fencing teacher, who was also the head of Chihuahua’s School of Music and Art, and requested if he might supervise the duel, but the professor rejected. I’m not sure what happened, but given the lack of a suitable site, I doubt this combat ever went place.

I and my family moved out of the Phoenix region a few years later, and I haven’t kept in touch with this wonderful fencing club since. “Derwood A. Bible, former US Marine Corps soldier, died February 1966,” according to an Internet search for “Derwood Bible.”

Lathrop Gay

Lathrop Gay, my first true fencing instructor, taught in the Phoenix YMCA. I assume he studied under the Italian instructor Joseph Vince, a former Olympic silver medalist in saber who had moved to Los Angeles. Lathrop excelled in all three weapons and was ranked tenth in the US in epee. I attribute the majority of my epee expertise to the techniques he knew and taught me.

Lathrop was a skilled artist by trade, and he produced some excellent works of art, which have become quite valuable and collectible. He had a huge stature and was muscular. Many fencers in Southern California knew him, including notable ladies’ champions Maxine Mitchell and Janice Lee Romary. He was brave, like Frenchy Bible. This bravery was motivating, and it really aided me in gaining confidence in my fencing abilities and tactics. He and Frenchy performed the swordplay at the Phoenix Little Theater since they were involved with the arts. In one act, Frenchy went too far and struck Lathrop in the head with a wooden sword, causing real blood to stream over the stage. It doesn’t get much better than that in terms of acting! I quickly became a competitive fencer under Lathrop’s coaching and began to win gold medals in tournaments. I earned the bronze medal at the Southwest Regional Championships after less than three years of instruction, which is a testament to Lathrop’s teaching ability. Having a great fencing master is a major advantage, and I will always be grateful to Lathrop for providing me with the information and training I needed to become a competent fencer.

Here’s how I got interested in the “duels” at the Phoenix Fencing Club:

The pointe d’arret is a circular tip that was added to the tip of the blade in an era before electrical weaponry. It has three points and is attached to the blade using durable thread that is threaded through the crevices between the points and back around the weapon’s flat tips. Until they were filed, the three points were never extremely sharp. Frenchy and Lathrop pulled off their fencing jackets and fenced bare breast epee with the sharp tips on their blades the first time I saw a battle. Both fencers were very cautious in their assaults and kept a respectable distance (a very good practice). Eventually, a blow was delivered to Frenchy’s arm, and blood poured from the cut. Someone brought a cloth, which they wrapped around the wound. This was the first time I’d ever seen a true duel. This dueling sport, in which the flow of blood represented a touch, became rather popular in the club. So much so that these matches had to be relocated to the handball court, where the door could be sealed from the inside to maintain privacy. I got into a fight with other club members, including Lathrop, and had a little puncture on the underside of my hand. I wanted to continue the fight, but Lathrop warned that when blood flows, the fight is over. On one instance, I hit Lathrop under the arm, causing a lengthy cut that required seven stitches to repair. My one major defeat came from Frenchy as I bent my arm and he answered with a swift thrust. When he hit my arm, it ripped a small hole in the crick of my elbow, allowing a small stream of blood to escape (it felt like a hot poker stuck me). It didn’t require stitches, but it did take some time to heal. In retrospect, these duels appear to have been pretty risky, and they are now outlawed. We were lucky not to be kicked out of the YMCA, but we were never caught. Despite this, it gave me a true sense of what the sport is all about.

I’ve lost touch with Lathrop, but I still admire him and wish him well, wherever he may be.