It’s always one of the high points of my year when I get to go to Michigan and play with the sword geeks. This year my wife and I went out for Summer Weapons Retreat 3, run by our friends at the Polaris Fellowship of Weapons Study, with an unstructured several days afterwards for extra hang time. Some of you may have seen my Google+ microbursts about this trip, but I only posted them to circles distribution; here’s the rest of the story, or as much of it as I think is interesting anyway.
It’s a long haul to southeastern Michigan from Malvern PA, ten hours as the maniac drives. My wife and customarily I do it in five-hour halves with a layover in Pittsburgh, where we overnight with friend and occasional A&D commenter Garrett. I spent much of my passenger time learning the Google+ interface; it had launched about a week before we left, and I’d gotten an invite on about day 2 or 3, but for the first week or so the registration servers were so overloaded that I couldn’t actually connect. But the Android app is pretty well designed, and I had a car-charger for the smartphone; exploration ensued.
The view from the PA and Ohio turnpikes is bucolic and green and unvarying; I had time to reflect on the way technological change sneaks up on us. It’s not many years ago that the device I held in my hand would have been considered the stuff of a Star Trek episode, but nowadays I grumble when I have to suffer a few minutes of lost data service in the heart of the Alleghenies. Our first year doing the run by car we lost data connectivity barely thirty miles west of our house and didn’t regain it until four hours later in the the Pittsburgh ‘burbs, and then for nearly an hour in the flatlands of northwestern Ohio; next year the Ohio dead zone was gone and the central PA one shrunk by half. Indeed the buildout continueth.
There’s a little restaurant in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh called the Rose Tea Cafe that’s more than worth a visit if you’re in the neighborhood – Taiwanese cuisine by five sisters who I think must be goddesses descended to earth from the court of the Jade Emperor because nothing else could explain their cooking. That and the thunderstorm we punched through on I-80 were the most excitement of the trip out, though in retrospect a week later the latter was to seem like small change (cue foreboding music).
The reunion with our friends at Haven, the sprawling rural compound where summer sword camps have been run since 2005, was delightful. I introduced many of these characters in my series of posts about Sword Camp 2008; three years later the original Aegis school has fissioned into Aegis and Polaris but many of the same people are doing very similar things. It was especially good to see Heather and Doug the Death Turtle again; later in the week Lynda Gronlund would reappear. With Rose Massey, who is Heather’s right arm in running Polaris, these ladies make as beautiful and deadly a trio as you could imagine outside a martial-arts anime, or even in one. And Doug, who while always a capable instructor was something of the class clown and perpetual omega/kid-brother at early camps, is unequivocally a man now. It suits him well.
Cathy and I spent the day before the retreat opened chopping vegetables, shifting logs, and generally helping with camp prep. It is useful in circumstances like these that I like to cook and actually rather like even the more mechanical sorts of kitchen work; there’s the smell and taste of food to enjoy, and the mundane magic of turning ingredients into wholes more than the sum of their parts. I find it all relaxing and meditative, though not in a zero-point way – you get the most out of it not by shutting out sensory input but by dialing your attention way up, so that every small stimulus becomes a story in itself.
First day morning: glaive work. A glaive is a bladed polearm; our simulation weapons are fashioned to work like the kind called a glaive-guisarme, with a hook on the reverse side for snagging enemy shields and the like. It handles a lot like the Japanese naginata. I am very rusty at the technique – I got off to a good running start last year but haven’t had one to practice with at home. Glaive practice consists of pell work (slashing and thrusting at an upright 7 feet of 4×4 wrapped in layers of carpet) and light sparring.
Doug and I make my learning plan for the week. Doug is my official mentor, a role that didn’t exist in the old Aegis structure. We’ve been close ever since an afternoon at the first Aegis camp in 2005 when we were teamed in a tactical exercise and synchronized so well that Doug delightedly told the other instructors “Eric can fight beside me anytime!”, which was a pretty encouraging thing for me to hear as a raw novice in the style from one of its instructor-experts. We’ve had a lot of good fights since, both teamed and against each other.
I’ve come this year without much of a specific plan beyond working on the quals for my next belt level and, as usual, learning two-hand greatsword – a goal which, through scarcity of qualified instructors and time on the event schedule, has been evading me for years. But Doug dangles a shiny thing in front of me. Seems he’s been working up a new core weapons style, a form for hand-and-a-half sword based on German longsword. And, as it happens, I’ve been reading translations of Talhofer and stuff by the German-style reconstructionists at ARMA for years, wondering when if ever I’d get a chance to learn the style.
It doesn’t take me long to do the minimax calculation. I can see that the style has a lot of the same body dynamics as Japanese katana fencing, which I’m already pretty familar with – not expert, but I have muscle memory for all the basic strikes and guards. This will mean I get a really fast takeoff in it. Thus: I can spend four days on hand-and-a-half with high confidence of being able to fight effectively in the style at the other end, using a sword I already have. Or, I can swing at greatsword, slightly improve my very minimal competence, then not be able to practice for a year because I have no greatsword.
With a sigh, I put off learning greatsword for another year. I will concentrate on hand-and-a-half, and cut the amount of time I’d been planning to spend on glaive. This will prove to have been an excellent decision; by the end of the retreat I will not only be certified as sparring safely (e.g., without overpowering), but will be using the form naturally and comfortably. I am not yet fully proficient by the school’s exacting standards for a core style, but it is perfectly clear to Doug and myself that I will become so in relatively little additional time. It is unlikely I would have improved nearly as much with greatsword.
Cathy, too, elects to put significant time into hand-and-a-half. She won’t get as good at it as I become, but this is largely because she’s spending a lot of her effort on improving her two-sword technique, which she’s already much better than me at. Having a two-sword fighter come at you is a lot like being attacked by an enraged threshing machine or a pair of pissed-off helicopters; it’s very impressive, but requires a level of ambidexterity and whole-body coordination that’s more difficult for me.
The evening’s fighting includes grand melee, which I suck at, and bear pit, which I’m quite good at. The difference is that in grand melee you have to run around like a gazelle on the Great Lawn attacking and being attacked from all sides, while bear-pit is dueling in a confined space. Having the mobility issues that I do because of cerebral palsy, grand melee is about the worst possible combat environment for me; on the other hand, close-quarters dueling suits my physical and psychological capabilities very well and I’ve always fought somewhat above my nominal training level there.
Afterwards, mead and tales from Norse mythology around the campfire; I tell the tale of Ginnangu-Gap and the creation of the world. The historical theme for this year’s SWR is Vikings, and I fall very naturally into the role of the ‘scop’ or bard. This theme will, as it turns out, work very well for everyone; Heather has used Dr. William Short’s Viking Weapons And Combat Techniques as a main source, a book I recommended to her after reviewing it, and the techniques Short has reconstructed are so similar to our school style that a trained period fighter might have trouble telling the difference.
Day two: I launch seriously into learning hand-and-a-half. The basic form drill resembles a Japanese two-hand-sword kata because, given the mechanics of the human body and the weapon, it pretty much has to. I feel as instantly at home with this as I expected to; both the physical and mental stances are familiar. The main difference is that the German form uses a sort of hanging guard that is not present in any Japanese style I know of, probably because it wouldn’t work very well with a curved single-edged sword.
I will learn the following week that Heather had confidently predicted to the other instructors that I would grab onto Doug’s hand-and-a-half-hand style with, er, both hands. This was well before she had any idea I’d been reading Talhoffer et al., and simply because she knows my fighting style, and knows that I learn well from Doug, and knows that what interests him in technique is likely to interest me, too. She was right on every count. This woman heads a school for good reasons.
The day’s tactical exercise is an obstacle course of gods and monsters. We run it in pairs. Each instructor is a monster with a special power; one can only be killed with a strike to the rear of the body (so you have to attack him coordinated from different directions); another’s first hit freezes the victim for a count of thirty; in the domain of the third it is death to speak, so you have to coordinate using body language and hand signals..and so forth. Each monster presents a different tactical challenge for the pair.
My wife and I are teamed. The best moment of the exercise is undoubtedly when we’re facing Doug the Invincible Dwarf, who cannot be killed and must be successfully evaded by both of us. This is not easy when I’m slow on my feet and Doug – who is not – is constantly charging at us with manic glee, babbling threats in a demented leprechaun accent like some sort of Lucky Charms commercial gone horribly wrong.
After a couple of failures and resurrections, we finally beat this one with use of terrain. Doug’s area, which we have to cross, includes a small building with a narrow plank path running along one edge; the other side of the path is dense undergrowth. All three of us are fighting sword-and-shield. Cathy and I manage to dodge to the end of the path before Doug can engage, then back down it while presenting shield-wall to him and being enough of a threat with two swords that he can’t just shock-charge us.
I remember as we’re backing up flashing on something they teach military officers about a coordinated fighting retreat being the most difficult of all tactical maneuvers to successfully execute. It’s true, and I’m rather amazed we managed it. Afterwards the instructors are full of praise for this. Entertainingly, I judge that the single other person besides my wife with whom I’d have had the best odds of pulling that off is Doug the mad leprechaun himself.
The evening tourney simulates a Viking raid; the objective for each team is to capture loot that the other team is defending. During the first run Heather gets mildly concussed when a glaive shot bounces her head off the ground; following this the instructors all withdraw from the exercise, leaving student-only teams, one of which I find myself in command of. That’ll happen when you’re (a) the seniormost student in your group of four, and (b) have significant command presence even when you’re not really trying. Everybody gives you this look…I remember saying “OK, we don’t have the numbers or the experience levels for a complicated plan, so we’ll have to run a simple one.”
We do a slow advance in line to just outside engagement distance, chanting a war-cry as menacingly as we can, and shock-charge the enemy. The fighting is intense and exhausting; the weather is building up to the record heat-wave we’ll have the following week. My team comes out on the short end of the looting, but afterwards my teammates honor me by insisting that I take first pick, which is how I come to own my second cheesy plastic Viking helmet. I was going to pass on it until Heather pointed out that this one would actually fit on my head.
Afterwards at the fire I tell the second part of the tale of the creation of the world; how Odin and Ve and Vili made the earth and heavens from the slain corpse of the giant Ymir. Not only have I fallen into the role of the teller of myths in my own mind, the other campers are coming to expect it.
Day three: We start the day by getting acquainted with the Viking axe. This involves both sparring with simulation weapons and throwing steel replica axes at a stump a couple dozen feet away. I have a lot of fun with the latter; nobody is surprised at this, as I have something of a rep for being good with thrown weapons from previous years. Meanwhile, Cathy is falling in love with the short-handled fighting axe used, with a shield, rather like a tomahawk; she declares that she’s going to make herself one. I find the “Dane Axe” a bit more interesting – that’s a larger blade on a polearm-length haft, wielded two-hand in a manner not entirely dissimilar to an Asian long staff. Neither of these are core styles yet; the weapons are new to the school, included because of the Viking theme, and nobody has worked out a form for them. We’re all exploring, instructors as well as students.
Later, drills on handling multiple opponents. I’m not good at this; my mobility issues are a serious problem when fleeter-footed opponents can get behind me. Afterwards, Heather suggests some drills I can try to do a better job of engaging and disengaging, not getting stuck in one fight long enough to get bushwhacked by the other enemies.
More fun after lunch with test-cutting. We use actual steel blades on various targets to learn what actually powering through feels like and how much force is required. The sensation of cutting through three pounds of raw pork at speed with a live steel blade is indescribable. Also: I watch Heather slice through a lemon hung from a string (no trivial feat as the lemon will just bounce off your blade if you don’t hit it fast enough) and find myself thinking “She brings death, destruction, and a fresh lemony scent!”
The day’s tactical exercise has us fighting the magic monsters from yesterday, only this time they’re in the woods at the back of the property and we’re broken up into two teams that are competing to capture a flag from them and get it back to the Great Lawn. Once again I find myself running one of the teams. I survey the terrain, take note of the fact that the woods are fenced off from the Great Lawn and accessible only through two gates, think about how much it’s gonna suck running through the woods in the 95-degree heat, and divvy my team in half to block the gates. Let the other team do the work, we’ll whack them and take the flag as they come out!
Alas, this plan fails because the other team has glaives and can blow through Cathy and me at the upper gate using local superiority of numbers before our other half can run up from the lower gate to support. Well, that’s why they call it a learning experience. I am, however, praised by instructors for my sneakiness. Gaming the exercise rules like that isn’t really discouraged, because commanders are expected to be creative in achieving the objective rather than simply scoring kills.
Three days of appalling heat are beginning to take a toll and everybody pretty much falls out after that exercise; the scheduled evening tourney doesn’t happen. At the fire, I tell the tale of how Thor and Loki were tricked by the illusions of the Jotun king Utgard-Hloki.
Day four: Ragnarok! Well, that’s not the only event of the day – we get to lean some basic archery. Also there’s an interesting workshop on how two people can fight one effectively even if the two have only one sword between them…basically, you have to get pretty good at throwing and catching a sword. And I’m continuing to practice hand-and-a-half sword during personal goal time.
But it’s all buildup to what everyone knows is coming – the last battle. At the briefing, we learn that all seven of the instructors and black belts will defend Asgard as the Norse gods. The lower-belt students – nine of us – will be the invading Jotuns.
It doesn’t take long for the student team to shake down, as Lynda Gronlund – a former instructor who’d be a black belt if she hadn’t dropped out of participation for a couple years – is with us. She starts talking about tactics and unit assignments like a CO right away, I point out that she’s doing that, and as she’s doing a double-take the rest of the team elects her commander by acclamation. I explain to her that she has just become Hel the queen of the dead, and she grins and says she’s cool with that. It is almost equally obvious that I’m her most natural line sergeant in this group, which makes me Surtr, more or less. Lynda delegates to me the job of mythologically trash-talking the gods.
The first battle of the exercise is at Haven’s gate, which is a big old-fashioned fortified gate with a bar that could stop a light truck. (Haven used to be owned by a Michigan Militia guy; the fence around it is serious and is backed by actual, no-fooling tank traps.) We don’t have to force the gate itself, but the gods of Asgard fill the gap pretty well, bristling with weapons.
Our Jotun team forms shieldwall on the dirt road (watching for oncoming cars). I yell “To wrath, to ruin, and the world’s ending!”, and it is on. Damn, that was a fine fight for as long as it lasted; I love a good shock charge.
Once we’d won that one, we had to search the grounds for the magic blade that could kill the otherwise invulnerable Baldur, and take out two guards that, like some of the monsters in the previous exercises, could only be killed from behind. Of course while we’re looking for this thing, all seven gods (including the annoyingly invulnerable Baldur) are attacking us constantly. I was very pleased to see that Lynda, who in spite of amazing skills has some self-confidence issues and has been known to freeze up when in command, did an excellent job of running formations under stress; I think this may have been a breakthrough experience for her.
Once we found the magic blade and whacked Baldur with it, we had to find where Fenris was chained to a tree and take out her two guards. After this Fenris became our ally, making it eight on eight. And it was into the woods and up the hill for the last stand of the gods.
That was the tough part for me. I don’t move well in the woods and I was badly overheating – and I had reason, as it was pushing 100 degrees and the exercise got delayed two hours into the evening so it wouldn’t kill us. As it was, I temporarily collapsed twice during the exercise and kept moving on sheer willpower. I was in at the end, though, and came damn close to making the battle’s last kill. Would have, too, if Heather hadn’t adroitly throat-punched me as I was landing a side-neck chop; her strike was just a bit faster than mine, but someone else gacked her with a weapon a half-second later.
All in all, despite the brutal Fimbul-summer weather it was by common consent the best exercise they’ve run in the six years I’ve been coming to these. The variety of tactical challenges, and the fact that we had a bit of time to plan before each one, was greatly pleasing. Dunno how we’ll top it next year.
Day five and the close of camp: Heather and I co-taught a class on Viking runes and runic symbolism. Students had had the option of kicking in a few extra bucks to get shields with a central metal boss and a Viking-style central hand-grip, and after the runes class we painted ours. Annoyingly, I had taken Heather’s well-meant advice and was thus only one of two people to opt for the larger and heavier 29-inch shield rather than the 26-inch version. Doug was the other, but he gets shield practice several times a week – unlike him, I found that the damn thing was too heavy and awkward for me to actually use in motion with my weaker arm. Going to be arm-curls for me over the next year, I guess.
The rest of that day was personal goal time (more hand-and-a-half sword practice for me) and some nice relaxing bear-pit fighting. The fighting at the end of these camps is its own special thing; everybody’s exhausted, nobody’s expecting peak performance, so the competitive aspect is dialed way down; people use it as a time to experiment and have fun. After closing ceremonies everybody hauled off to see the last Harry Potter movie together, and I can’t even imagine a better group of friends to have done that with.
Cathy and I stayed out in Michigan for four days longer as the record heat-wave came down, feeling deeply grateful the retreat hadn’t been scheduled a week later as pretty much all the outdoor activities would have been slagged down by the heat. We got some personal hang-time with the Doug and the Heather, who are just as much fun when they’re not wearing their instructor hats and just being among the most valued friends we have. We built a pair of glaives, so we’ll be able to practice with each other and should be fighting much more effectively in that form next year.
I’ll pass lightly over the rest of our escapades as they wouldn’t make very interesting reading unless you’re personally acquainted with our friends out there. A couple of nights of boardgaming (Smallworld Underground, Evo, Alien Frontiers, Dominion), lazy mornings eating breakfast at the Pinckney diner and reading books, and watching the insect bites and bruises on our bodies slowly fade. It was a good time.
The only incident of real note was that we got caught in a truly nasty storm eastbound on I-80 coming back. We’d thought the one we drove through on the way out was bad, but this was a man-killer. We hit the edge on the outskirts of Toledo driving east – monstrous jagged forks miles high on either side of the road and ahead of us. Visibility dropped to near zero and it got too dangerous to drive. We took cover in a rest stop, but minutes after we arrived the storm took out the power. It was emergency lights only, with the shops all shut down. High winds, driving rain, and the radio told us there were flash flood warnings in three neighboring counties.
As I posted to G+ at the time, “I feel like I’ve walked into someone’s disaster movie. If you’re anywhere near this crap, stay the hell indoors. It looks uncommonly dangerous out there.” I wasn’t joking or dramatizing, but we did survive it and got home.
This was Part One because we’re going to the World Boardgaming Championships next week. I may report from there.
UPDATE: I ended up doing a bunch of short-form posts from WBC on G+, so there won’t be a long-form Part Two.