Memories of a Saber
I was listening to an old record I had it when I was in university – Saint-Saens Violin Concerto Number 3 op 61. As I was looking at the vinyl record cover, I melted into the beautiful melody and some of my university life memories began to slowly appear. It is interesting how music can bring memories alive, just as though it was yesterday. People, friends, the scent of old buildings, studying, exams . . . then memories of fencing competitions started appearing. I actually lost more fencing matches than I won. So it not something to boast about!
In fencing there are three different weapons – foil, epée and saber. The saber was my favorite. It could have been that it seemed more like a real sword and was used with lots of cutting movements. I am quite good at using the saber. At least that was my thought. Combining my secret Kenjutsu techniques and the killer French saber moves, I was able to win a few small matches.
In our university study groups, we often would have heated debates and disagreements with each other. The topics were often about academics and politics – nothing personal. With strong opinions, the room temperature would often raise a few degrees. Soon we would be taking off our jackets and rolling up our sleeves. We were quite civilized – we would never have a physical fight, but would settle our challenges with the saber.
The rules were simple. We would fence on a short wall beside the Clare Bridge. Whoever steps down from the wall first would lose the match. We would put on the fencing mask and gloves. No fencing jacket - just a bare top, no thrusting, just whips and cuts. Those that cannot take the pain can came down from the wall without disgrace.
I heard from other colleagues that Phillip was a good fencer. We had never fenced with each other before as we were in a different fencing class. Phillip was not a very tall person, but had a strong personality. He liked to argue about everything, and this time we were arguing about politics and a few other things. It came to a point when it was time let out some of our steam with sabers.
. . . 5 pm. at Clare Bridge, the sun is starting to set, with a light cold autumn breeze across my face, no referees . . . sounds like a western move coming alive! That's what it was!
I start to take my jacket off. It was cold! And I was thinking this may not be such a good idea! My friends know me well. They know that I am not too crazy about the cold weather. But, I was the one that called the match. So let it be! I’d better win this one quickly! Now I am in my ‘en-guard position’, with my left hand down, right hand with my saber pointing at Phillip's mask! Looks great, feeling good, and waiting for his first move. After few quick exchanges, I received a cut on my shoulder – no big deal! I start attacking and then received another cut on my right arm. "You better get down you are bleeding” Phillip said, “not even feel it” I reply. He surprised me! Is he that fast! Another quick cut came my way! I block it and I responded with a counter attack! I received another cut on my right side just below my chest. I really felt this one!
“You better jump down! You are bleeding pretty badly!” I replied. “I am not going anywhere! Carry on!” Phillip took off his mask, saluted with his saber, put it under his arm and jump down from the wall. “You win" said Phillip he turn around and offer his hand to help me down; I did not accept it. I said “the match is not over!" Phillip replied “It’s over! You win! We have to get your wound look at, come down please!" ... It took five stitches to close the cut.
One evening that summer I told Yamamoto Sensei about this match. Sensei said "congratulations" and carried on reading his newspaper. I continuing talking about the match and my Sensei interjected by saying “congratulations, you have a good friend!” “Pardon?” I replied. Sensei put down his newspaper and said, “Are you happy you won that match? Do you believe that you really won?" I replied, "The rule is – the last one on the wall is the one that won the match, so I did win!”
“Sure, whoever can withstand the pain would be the winner! Interesting! That means you do not have to learn fencing, or waste time with me training Kenjutsu! Just having thick skin will do - so even a cow could have won!”
Sensei was not happy about my attitude that night. As he started to raise his voice a little, “one must accept a loss. Accepting a loss is not an easy thing to do. You must be honest with yourself before you can advance. The fact is that you got hit three times! And you claim to have won the match? Pardon me!"
“Losing is evidence of your true ability, your level. It is only through a loss that will tell you the truth. Based on your loss, you will improve and will win one day. Accepting the loss will allow you to know yourself better. You will also know your opponent better. Learn from your opponent and advance together to a higher level. That was no winning or loss or rules . . . you lost to this match because you are not good enough, your attitude, your ego, and certainly the cold did not help either. You won because you have a good friend."
I got to know Phillip a lot better over the years and become friends. We liked to practice outdoors instead of the gymnasium. We would fence everywhere on the university grounds, even at the Scholar's Garden. I would win some matches from time to time; there were no more bare top matches. I am not quite sure if I really won or if it was Phillip's empathy. I never ask him for that. Is it really true that I can learn from my opponent and win? May be! I wonder.
As the last piece from the record comes to end, I flipped the LP to the other side. It is moderato – a beautiful, but slower movement. For those that play a musical instrument will know that slower ‘moderato’ or ‘adagio’ is more difficult to play well than the fast movement such as an ‘allegro’. It cannot be rushed. It takes time and patience. It takes a life time of improvement to play it well.
Now that Yamamoto Sensei has long passed away and my saber shows its age with a little rust on it, it is still good. I think about my Sensei on occasion – his teachings and his wisdom. Do I really dim my ego and accept losing honestly? I do try. At least I try... But do I try hard enough? Well it also takes time and patience. I am not in a rush or it can't be rushed... I have plenty of time to keep trying . . .
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