Tuesday was designated MacGyver Day — all about cleverness, improvisation, and thinking outside the box. This sounded like fun, right enough, but what I was really looking forward to was…holmgang.
We opened our morning with a class in paired-partner conditioning exercises run by Lynda, who is capable and beautiful and smart and hires out as a personal trainer when she’s not teaching at the school (yes, that was a shameless plug for a friend). Many of these were familiar, pretty standard stuff you’d get at an Asian martial-arts school. One, a kind of reverse crunch in which you arch your back off the floor with your partner sitting on your calves to pin them, was new; Cathy and I both liked it and plan to incorporate it into our home workout.
Then we did a survival exercise. The premise is this: Your team is the 4 or 5 survivors of an air crash in arctic Canada. It is 25 degrees Fahrenheit below zero, man-killing temperatures. The nearest town is about 20 miles away; you can see the sky-glow of the town lights, but the intervening country is taiga forest. You have the following salvage from the plane:
- Steel Wool
- .45ACP, loaded with 7 rounds
- 4 newspapers
- Empty cigarette lighter
- 20×20 canvas tarp
- Plastic sectional air map
- 1 quart of whiskey
- 4 chocolate bars
- A wrecked airplane
The challenge was: come up with a survival plan.
I’m not actually going to reveal what Sal told us afterwards was the key fact about the situation, because you might have to do the exercise yourself someday. I will, however, record that three of the four teams (including mine) failed to get it and were pronounced dead. The fourth was judged to have a slightly better than even chance of surviving.
Funniest remark of the exercise: “Rose was cutting steaks off the pilot’s ass before the plane hit the ground.”
Sal told us afterwards that he’d actually modified this from a survival challenge scenario he’d been presented once that involved a plane crash in the Arizona desert with a town 60 miles away. That one has an obvious optimum strategy; if Air Search and Rescue doesn’t show up within a few hours, you hike out, moving at night. There was general agreement that any of the 30 or so people present could deal with that one with relative ease.
The next couple of exercise had to do with, of all things, improvisational comedy. They were intended to teach mental ability and the ability to improvise under stress. First, we did a game called “freeze”, in which pairs of players improvise comic scenes — but, at any point, any other player can call “Freeze!”, at which point the player can walk in, tap one of the players to leave, and start a new scene. You are expected to wait on calling a freeze until either funny has been achieved or it is clear the current scene is not working.
Another game was Questions: we formed two lines. The people at the head of the line imrovise a dialog that must be all questions; when you utter any non-question, you go back to the rear of the queue. The object of this game (we were told) is to learn how to avoid making declarative statements that can be checked when you’re on an op and trying to deceive, say, a security guard. People got better at this over time, and there were some very funny moments;
The funniest moment happened to involve me.I found myself facing Cathy.. I started a dialogue based on Zen koans — “Can you show me the face you had before you were born?”, “Does a dog have the Buddha-Nature” and that sort of thing. Cathy retreated in confusion fairly quickly, and then I found myself facing Matt, the class instructor.
Matt forced me out of my script by asking “Do you think using scripted questions is going to help you in an actual infiltration exercise?” So I stopped quoting Zen sources, but continued asking questions in a rascal-guru style. And defeated the instructor when he became unable to summon up a coherent response! My classmates were amused.
The afternoon also included an egg-drop challenge. Each team of two was expected to design and build, in an hour, a device that would enable a raw egg to survive an eight-foot drop to the ground uncracked. To make it difficult, Sal added two constraints. One: we could only use materials scrounged from outdoors — anything under a roof was off limits. Two: We only got to use two materials without penalty. For each additional material, four feet would be added to the drop distance.
I was teamed with Marcus Watts, a luxuriantly bearded software geek fairly well known in Michigan SF fandom and known to me from previous Sword Camps. We succeeded in landing an uncracked egg by stuffing my T-shirt with weed foliage, nesting the egg inside, and putting a modest pile of more weed foliage on the landing spot. I suspect we could have done without the pile.
That exercise was not very hard. Three of the four teams succeeded. The next was more difficult. Given just three 8-foot two-by-fours, 25 feet of rope, and an empty sealed 40-gallon drum. You need to get your team, and an unconscious injured comrade, across a 250-meter-wide lake.
None of the solutions were super-convincing. My team, which again included Marcus, opted to try to build a raft from found materials around us (lots of deadwood and pine boughs) using the two-by-fours as transverse stringers and the drum for flotation. Alas, Sal was probably right about the raft having a high probability of falling apart. Another team came up with a sort of outrigger-boat design using the barrel as the main body; that was probably better.
The tournament was three formats in sequence. The first was buzkashi on foot. This Afghani game, the ancestor of polo, is played between two mounted teams each attempting to knock a goat’s head through the opposite team’s goal; within historical memory this was ritualized combat and the head was human. The Aegis version is played on foot and is essentially a running melee battle in which a team can win by killing enough opponents to control a goat-head-sized rag bag through the goal.
In general, I wasn’t very good at this. I seldom am in open-field battles where mobility and agility are at a premium. But I had a couple of good moments. One thing that worked well was posting Doug the Death Turtle and me as goalies. I’m pretty good at defending a fixed position; Doug is better. And we team well, especially in that tactical role, becoming more than the sum of the parts. Jordan Malokowski, one of the school’s most senior students and Sal’s long-time best friend, once said of us that we have “rocklike ki”, and it is true. When we take a defensive position together, the enemy just…doesn’t engage, not if they have any other targets available. It’s like we emit some kind of invisible don’t-fuck-with-us deflector shield — and so it proved in the buzkashi game.
The next format was much kinder to me. It was a bridge battle. The bridge was a wooden platform perhaps two feet high, 4 feet wide and 8 feet long, with gentle ramps the same size each leading up to it on each side. If you fell off the bridge to either side, that was considered a kill. The objective: to win, a living fighter must have two feet on the ground on the land off the enemy side of the bridge.
The fighting was a brutal, close-in scrum with ferocious charges and countercharges over short distances. My team commander figured out the exactly right way to use me, which was as a shieldman protecting the polearm shooters and then going into total shock-trooper mode fronting the charges. I liked this role and I was good at it; in fact in one round I was the survivor who met the victory conditions.
Then…ah, then…the real fun of the evening: holmgang.
Our holmgang ring is a roughly eight-foot circle marked out by tiki torches. Fighters form a line; current holder of the ring and the first in line fight, loser goes to the back of the queue. To win, score a kill strike or induce your opponent to step or fall out of the ring.
I love this game. It’s fast, hard, short-range fighting. The constrained combat space makes my mobility problems a non-issue and puts a pretty high premium on my exceptional upper-body strength. Also, this is the format in which my hand-to-hand skills are most likely to be relevant. Normally, Intermediate-level students like myself are not permitted to kick-punch-grapple, but none of my instructors acted even a bit surprised when Sal qualified me for it. In this respect, if no other, I fight at Advanced level.
The sum of all these factors gives me a significant edge in holmgang that I don’t have elsewhere. Some of our best fighters, senior students and instructors who effortlessly clean my clock in open-field fighting, will smile and admit they have good reason to be wary of me in this format. I don’t mind admitting I’m proud of this, because I’ve earned that pride with talent and sweat.
Flickering torchlight, the watchers cheering and whistling, rap-metal blasting out of a boom-box, dust and the smell of lamp oil, and combat, combat, combat. Only sex is as good as this, and that not always. It was a damn fine three hours.
Probably my best and funniest moment was in one of my fights with Doug Tobin, who I had felt roughly equal with last year but has since become one of the school’s strongest fighters and much more than a match for me. We were both using sword and shield and had gone close, each hunting an opening. Something happened and I dropped my sword…but I still had a right hand, and Tobin’s neck was exposed mere inches from me. With the “YAA! YAA! YAA! school form requires to announce such a move, I gave him three knife-hand strikes to the neck (stopping the power at skin contact, of course).
Tobin called himself, quite properly, dead. Then somebody outside the ring, obviously aware of my Intermediate rank but not my history, said “Um…are you cleared to do that?” Before I could open my mouth several people said in near-chorus “Yes, he is!” Laughter ensued.
As the night deepened and more rum was consumed, some (eventually all) of the men in the holmgang queue shed their shirts for that berserker look. I went along with this. Several onlookers opined that the women should follow suit. While this did not occur, Lynda-the-instructor (who can accurately be described as “seriously hot chick” as long as you also bear in mind that she can almost certainly kick your butt into next Tuesday if she so desires) did consent to have her spaghetti-strap top crudely hacked into a bikini-oid thing by Matt-the-Instructor’s penknife.
After the holmgang came the traditional hosing down of the fighters, made more entertaining by the fact that the water coming out of that hose is damn cold. It is also traditional that Lynda is the first to, as it were, get the hose. She screams most entertainingly.
Thus ended the holmgang. And it’s a damn frickin’ shame I’ll probably have to wait a whole ‘nother year before I can do it again.