Web Exclusives: PawPlus

April 5, 2006:

The Duel  

By Jonathan Ames ’87

In this excerpt from Coach: 25 Writers Reflect on People Who Made a Difference, published by Warner Books in November 2005, Jonathan Ames ’87 describes his “commando training” with his fencing coach, Michel Sebastiani.   Sebastiani is retiring at the end of this season after 24 years at Princeton.  


“Pull your balls in. Create a band of steel from the hips on down.”

“Yes, Coach,” I said. And I sucked in my balls and I assumed my en garde position. Then the coach came at me with his heavy lead bar and I retreated. He swung the bar at my ribs and I parried it with the guard of my sabre. There was a great clang of metal. I held the parry. I was strong, powerful, youthful ­ the sabre weapon-leader of the Princeton fencing team, 1983­84. These were the days when I was fit, an athlete, my body uncorrupted by age and drinking and adult heartbreak.

The coach attacked me this way up and down the floor of the fencing room. I parried his blows and then I would riposte ­ return with my counterattacks: chops to his mask, slashes across his belly, cuts to his rib cage, and slices down his shoulders. He was wearing the thick leather suit of a coach so that I wouldn’t raise welts on his body. And he was using the lead bar to make me strong, inviolable.

“Commando,” he’d say every few minutes to urge me on, to keep me fighting.

The coach and I would practice like this at six in the morning. Just he and I alone, no one else from the team. It was my special commando training to turn me into a champion on the fencing strip. The coach, a Frenchman, had been a commando in the French-Algerian war. And he believed in fitness and combat even more than most fencing coaches. He was in his early fifties, but was still in trim, fighting shape, and he was a good-looking man, even though he was bald. He bore a resemblance to Sean Connery, but his eyes didn’t twinkle like Connery’s ­ they were cool and gray, assassin-like and somewhat mad.

After my morning lesson, we’d sit in his office and cool down. My legs would be swollen and exhausted ­ from fencing you develop incredibly muscular thighs and calves, since in the en garde position you are always crouching, always maintaining one’s groin in a band of steel. I would drink some water and the coach with his beautiful bald head glistening with sweat would regale me with long-winded war tales from his days in Algeria. He spoke in a thick French accent and often told me the same story ­ perhaps because of battle trauma he was somewhat repetitive.

“We were making our way through this little village, which we had seized,” he would say. “We were checking the buildings for snipers. I was carrying my rifle, of course. Always ready. Always alert. But then suddenly there was a great searing pain in my buttocks. I’ve been shot, I thought. But then I realized I was flying through the air. I was 20 feet off the ground; I saw my men below me. Was it a mortar? No ­ it was an electric cable that had come undone and it had whipped through the air and bit me like a black snake. Thousands of volts I received and so I was flying. But I landed, like a cat, on my feet, ready to fight, to survive. A commando.”

When I’d leave the coach, I’d jog slowly back to my dorm, furthering my conditioning. Then in my room, I’d do 100 push-ups, even though my right arm, especially, was aching from parrying the coach’s lead bar. I was driving myself like this because I was bent on revenge. I wanted to defeat all my opponents, but I had become fixated most of all on destroying the number-one sabre fencer at Columbia ­ George Leary. For years, he’d been beating me in national competitions when we were both in high school, and he had continued his dominance our first year in college. I had never beaten him in more than a dozen bouts. But now my sophomore year, 1983, I wanted to end his dominance of me. I wasn’t going to lose to him again.

What had made his reign over me so dreadful was that he was not an athlete, at least in my arrogant eyes. He was chubby and his face was pasty. He would whine to the judges during his bouts, and then politic with them afterwards. And on the fencing strip, he was savvy and tricky, not graceful. He grew up in New York City and before attending Columbia he had studied with a famous exiled Hungarian sabre master and had learned many exotic moves. So even though Leary was fat and ignoble, he was unbeatable, one of the best in the country. Also, he had snubbed me once at a party at the Junior Olympics in 1981 in Cleveland. Claimed to have forgotten my name. I detested George Leary.

The meet against Columbia was scheduled for late February. The season began in November and I trained hard all those months. And in practice every afternoon, I, as the weapon-leader, challenged my sabre squad to keep up with me. I gave them all nicknames: Sir Gawain, Green Knight, Black Knight, Lancelot, Don Quixote ­ and myself, I called El Cid. Don Quixote, a lumbering freshman, bore a passing resemblance to Leary and I would take great pleasure in chopping my blade against his ribs and slashing his ample belly.

Against the other teams ­ the Penns and Yales and Harvards ­ I was doing very well, winning three-quarters of all my bouts, but always I was aiming toward my confrontation with my Columbia nemesis. The school newspaper, the Princetonian, caught wind of my nickname and they would dutifully report that Jonathan “El Cid” Ames had thoroughly vanquished his opponents. And along with my pretentious nickname, I tended to be theatrical on the fencing strip. I was very much caught up in the myth of sword fighting and whenever I struck my foes, I would scream in French, “Et làaa!” which sounded like, “Aye lah!” French is the language of fencing, all its terms are Gallic, and “et là” is often shouted by fencers ­ it means, “And there!” as in “And there! Take that, you swine.” I just happened to scream “Et là!” louder than most.

Two days before the big Columbia meet it was unusually warm and I took my sabre squad out to our ancient football field, Palmer Stadium. I had us climb to the top of the bleachers, and then over a wall. At the very top, the stadium was surrounded with what looked like the battlements of a castle. I had us duel up there and we engaged in a dangerous free-for-all of three against three. I drove my teammates to the edge of the battlements, slashing at them with mania and bloodlust; it would have been tragic had I sent one of them falling five stories to his death.

Finally, the day of the Columbia meet arrived. The coach, like myself, was particularly anxious for a victory against the Lions. We were the underdogs and this fueled the coach’s commando spirit. Also, he and the Columbia coach had once, in their past, been romantic rivals for the affection of a certain lady, and so the lingering effects of this old romantic triangle added to the drama and pathos of the whole thing, which is what sex will always do. Add drama and pathos, that is. In short, my coach wanted to win. He wanted me to win. I sat near him on the van ride up to New York and he told me another war tale: “We were in a marketplace and I saw this Algerian sneaking up on one of my men with a knife; so I moved like a cat and came out with my own knife ­ one, two, one, two. And he went down. But I didn’t kill him. I could have if I wanted to. But I had control of my blade, and we had him arrested. You, ‘El Cid,’ must control your blade to beat Leary.”

When we got to the gym, the Columbia team was nowhere to be seen. We started warming up and then the room was filled with music ­ Wagner’s eerie “Ride of the Valkyries.” Then the Columbia team raced into the gym, all of them resplendent in their white uniforms, waving their weapons above their heads, and they circled us. And all the while Wagner’s horrible music played. We were supposed to be scared. But in my case, it only made me hate them even more ­ made me think of them as storm troopers, and Leary as a corpulent Gestapo chief.

The meet began. In fencing there are three weapons: foil, épée, and sabre. In foil only the blunt tip of the blade is used and the target area is the torso. In épée, like foil, only the tip is used, but the whole body is the target. And in sabre one can use the tip, but the primary way to score is to cut and slash. The target area is everything above the waist, including the head and the hands.

We had our opening rounds of all three weapons; in my first bout, I faced the number-two Columbia sabre man and I lost. I was too hyped-up wanting Leary. Then the second round came, and as a team we were behind and we needed a victory. I was scheduled to face Leary. The moment had arrived. Before going on the strip for my bout, I asked a teammate on the épée squad to punch me in the face. He was a strong fellow ­ he had attended a Texas military high school, which had toughened him up considerably ­ and he gave me a really good shot to the cheekbone. A little too hard, actually. But it got my blood racing and I put on my mask and went out to face my enemy.

As per custom, at the start of the bout, I saluted Leary by bringing my sabre to my mask, though I was leering at him through the iron mesh, and then I saluted the director. Bouts are refereed by a director who determines which fencer has initiated the attack and which fencer has scored. He watches keenly to see if one’s blows land or are parried; and when I was fencing, the sabre blades were not yet electronically rigged up, unlike foil and épée, and so the director was aided by four judges. This made sabre fencing at the time the least modern and also the most exciting; it was the closest thing to real dueling.

The director was a Holocaust survivor and a legendary person in the fencing world. He was bald and had a strange lump on his forehead. With his German accent, he began the bout by saying in French, “Allez!”

Leary and I began our dance, our movements back and forth. The first one to score five touches would win. I was deep in my crouch, my band of steel keeping my balls in and lowering my center of gravity so that I could spring out and catch him by surprise. I scored the first touch by feinting to his head and then cutting his exposed ribs. Then I scored the second touch with a beautiful riposte to his head. I was up 2­0, and with each touch I would scream, “Et Làaa!” Then we exchanged touches and I was up 3­1. Leary rallied and tied me, 3­3. Everyone in the gym, about 200 Columbia fans, were watching our bout and they were cheering against me. My teammates were shouting, “Go, El Cid!”

I went ahead 4­3 by chasing Leary down the strip and then executing a beautiful flèche with an attack to his shoulder. Flèche means arrow, and that’s when you literally leap at your opponent, both feet going in the air, so that ideally you appear like an arrow. Then Leary parried my next attack and cut me across the arm with his riposte. It was tied 4­4. The next touch would end the bout, and when you are at 4­4, the director calls it La Belle, because the next touch is the beautiful touch, the final touch, and in real dueling it would be the death blow.

The coach called time out and came on the strip. He gave me advice in French, and I was too frantic and mad to understand a word of it. But I nodded as if I did, so he walked away from me, but then he turned and looked at me with his cool gray eyes and he said under his breath, “Commando.”

I felt like the electric cable had struck me in the ass ­ I assumed my en garde position, I tightened my band of steel. “Allez!” commanded the director. Leary came after me; he pushed me to the end of the strip. I sensed he was going to try his patented attack to cut my left arm. But if I overcompensated with my parry he would then deftly cut my right arm. I waited for him and then he sprang; he was quick and deadly when he needed to be. I met his blade. I didn’t overcompensate. The clang of metal was astounding—I had him parried. He was mine. He was off balance and his head was only a foot from our locked blades. All I had to do was move my sabre efficiently and directly to his mask and for once I would beat him. But something primitive happened to me ­ I reared my arm back like a man lifting an axe over his head to chop wood, and this was foolish, it left me exposed. But Leary didn’t react and so I brought my blade down with the tremendous force of a woodcutter on his head and my blade snapped in two. I saw silver glistening in the air as the severed portion went over the hysterical crowd. But it counted, I had broken my blade over his head, and I was bellowing, “ET LÀAAA!!!”

Leary was woozy, and I was so passionate that I was pumping my now jagged and dangerous sabre up and down. And later I was told that it looked as if I was going to run Leary through. His father, who had paid for all those lessons with the Hungarian master, was shouting irrationally, “His blade is broken! His blade is broken!”

But I didn’t stab Leary, and the ancient director with the odd lump on his forehead shouted above all the screaming and said, “Touch to the left, to Princeton!”

And my teammates lifted me up and I shouted again, “Et là!” It was the most glorious moment of my athletic career, and then from my teammates’ shoulders I looked down and saw Leary. His mask was off; his hair was matted with sweat. I reached out my hand and said graciously, “Good bout.” I hardly meant it, though, but it was the right thing to do, and Leary shook my hand and then my teammates carried me away. I had my vengeance!

When my teammates lowered me, my coach, maintaining his commando-ish dignity, calmly shook my hand, but I could see that his cool eyes were quite happy.

A few years ago at a dinner party, I reenacted this story using my steak knife as a substitute sabre. A woman at the party said she knew George Leary. She later got in touch with him and when she recounted my story, he claimed not to remember me.

Jonathan Ames ’87 is the author of six books; his most recent are Wake Up, Sir! (a novel) and I Love You More Than You Know (essays).  He is the winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship and is a recurring guest on the Late Show with David Letterman. He was a member of the Princeton fencing team in 1982-83 and 1983-84. His Web site is http://www.jonathanames.com/

From the book COACH: 25 Writers Reflect on People Who Made a Difference, edited by Andrew Blauner.  “The Duel” (c) 2005 by Jonathan Ames.  Reprinted by permission of Warner Books, New York, N.Y.  All rights reserved .