“I Just Came to Watch”

The “Season of Sports” continues…today, with a story from my own past. – Sarah White

I can feel its grip now, the cord tightly wound around the narrow metal handle. I can feel the spring of its blade as the red rubber button at the tip touches the jacket of my opponent, or more frequently, the plink of pain as my opponent’s blade touches me. The handle and blade are square in cross-section; this is a fencing foil. Women were not allowed to compete in epee or sabre until 1996, and this was only 1972.

It was the fall of my junior year in high school. Because I had broken my ankle badly that spring and spent the summer with a cast from toe to thigh, I needed a rehab activity now that my leg was finally free. Because I had spent the summer on the couch watching the Olympics on TV, it may well have been me who suggested to my friends Sue and Leslie that we find a fencing class. Or maybe it was Sue, who was reading Regency-era bodice-rippers where swashbuckling swordplay figured heavily. Or it may have been Leslie, whose reading leaned more toward fantasy fiction, also rife with swordplay. No matter who instigated it; that fall we three found ourselves enrolled in fencing lessons at the YMCA in Nora, six miles south of where we lived in Carmel, Indiana.

We met in a practice room with mirrored walls and narrow lanes taped out on the polished floor. Our instructor (name forgotten) was a serious man who assumed our interest was serious, and began schooling us in the gentlemanly art of dueling. We were the only teenagers; perhaps six or seven adult men and one or two women attended the lessons as well.

The room echoed with the slap of sneakers on hardwood as the instructor barked his directions in fencing’s creole. (“En garde!” “Allez!” “Lunge, parry, riposte!”) Blade clanged against blade.

As each lesson progressed the air ripened with the odor of sweat. The smell of our unwashed plastrons (borrowed from the instructor’s grab bag) grew worse each week, but we gradually grew better. Before long, Sue, Leslie, and I were investing in equipment of our own. I ordered a foil and padded white jacket—unnervingly similar to a mental patient’s straightjacket with its long tight sleeves and buckled strap passing between the legs—from the official catalog of the United States Fencing Association. I bought a second-hand mask, but balked at wearing the tight white breeches and knee socks that make up fencing’s official uniform. I think all three of us settled on lightweight white pants instead.

As seems to happen with every kind of physical activity that can be instructed or practiced, the fencing lessons were assumed to be readying us for something. It was unlikely we would be called upon to defend ourselves in duels, so the object was understood to be competition. We joined the USFA. One of the adult women (name also forgotten) took competition seriously and frequently drove to fencing meets on weekends. She encouraged us to come along and—even though we were rank beginners—to enter the meets as well. We weren’t certain whether we were fencing in earnest or being ironic, but we did it for something to do. It was kind of her to share her car with three giggling teens.

I was a dreadful fencer. I had no aptitude for sports, no instinct for strategy, and no muscle tone, owing to the six months with my right leg in a cast. My opponents’ many touches against me peppered my right breast and forearm with dark bruises the diameter of dimes. In fencing, the competition is always one against one. I would never have to know the shame of letting down a team. I liked that.

Sue and Leslie and I continued to practice our fencing, not just at the YMCA but at the high school too, where we got permission to start a “fencing club” in lieu of participating in gym. We carried our foils and masks to school, and took over a back hall near the exit where the greasers and freaks gathered to smoke cigarettes or pot. We flirted and carried on, and even occasionally fenced, but never recruited anyone else to our club.

Photo by Dave Fulton, Indianapolis, 1973. That's my foil pointed straight at his camera.

Photo by Dave Fulton, 1973. That’s my foil pointed straight at his camera.

Besides the trips to compete, there was another type of outing connected with our fencing—going out for ice cream at the Dairy Queen after class. There were two boys in our beginner class slightly older than Sue, Leslie, and me, but not yet adults, either. Larry and Marty had ended up in fencing lessons for reasons similar to our own—overindulgence in  “swords and sorcery” science fiction,  and a desire for some kind of fitness activity without the risk of being labeled a jock. Each week they came out to the Y from central Indianapolis, some fifteen miles to the south.

The boys invited us to the DQ, where multilateral flirting ensued. I was at this time in hot pursuit of marijuana. In my high school there was a strict social code prohibiting being the first to induct someone into the brotherhood of pot-smokers, and I had not yet found a sponsor. Finally that barrier fell when Marty made the universal suck-on-a-joint gesture and asked, “So, do you girls get high?” “No!” replied Sue and Leslie, looking startled and a little frightened. “No, but I’d like to,” I said.

At that point my life branched as dramatically as Alice in Wonderland’s when she fell down the rabbit hole. Soon I was spending time with Larry and Marty’s inner city friends who were authentic “hippie freaks.”

My bifurcated world still included weekend trips to fencing meets, but I began bringing along a joint and contemplating sneaking off to smoke it. The time I actually tried this, we were at a meet at Culver Military Academy, a boarding school. The premises were appropriately Napoleonic, with the military uniforms and turreted buildings. Inside the gymnasium, the fencing strips were laid out along narrow mezzanine bridges overlooking tennis courts.

I slipped off to the women’s bathroom to smoke my joint. The beams of light slanting through the high windows were suddenly spangled with jewels. Back on the mezzanine, I found myself mesmerized by the sonic landscape—the slaps and clangs and grunts of fencing merging with the thwonks and thwacks of the ball sports. The foil seemed alien in my hand. The mask felt stifling. The idea of striking a sideways stance and bouncing up and down a narrow lane while attempting not to get stabbed seemed ludicrous. The pot had rendered me distant from it all.

“I just came to watch,” I announced, even though I was dressed and registered to compete. I do not recall anyone’s reaction.

I did continue to compete that spring, but I never again attempted to combine smoking and fencing. The ultimate irony is that I received a very small plaque declaring me eighth in the state in Women’s Fencing in the 1974 season. There were eight registered female fencers in Indiana that year. I liked that.

 

Essays welcome for the “Season of Sports.” Your writing prompt:

You didn’t play or you did play or you took the middle ground. You were male, or female, or transitioning between one and the other. What was the role of sports in your life as a young person? What has the impact of that been on your life since?

See guidelines for submissions here. Play along and send your sports story for publication on True Stories Well Told?

Posted in Sarah's memoir | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

To Watch or to Participate?

The “Season of Sports” continues…

By Marjorie Turner Hollman

I spent many of my early school years being a spectator. I was always the one to wait, to let others go first, to see what might happen before I jumped in. But in my last year of high school, I was bored with being a spectator. When my friends told me that the swim team needed an additional springboard diver to constitute a “team” for competition, with their encouragement, I “dove in.” When I first stood at the end of the 1-meter diving board and was urged, “Jump up,” all I wanted to do was to get down as fast as possible.

That’s where Mr. Crane came in. The parent of one of my fellow divers, Marvin Crane would arrive from work each afternoon in his coat and tie, and we would immediately begin diving.

Among us were three state diving champions, another who came in close to top in the state, a few experienced divers, and me. It didn’t matter—we each got his undivided attention, precise suggestions, and his encouragement to try again.

mth diving 01 mth diving 02

For an entire year, I headed to the pool after school, wriggled into my bathing suit, and hit the water. Each new dive was terrifying to me, and since six different “dives” were required to compete, Mr. Crane “held my hand” as I struggled to learn each of the main dives—back dive, front dive, inward, reverse, half twist, and forward 1½. By the end of the year, I had made it—I could “do” these 6 dives, more or less, with some degree of skill.

One day another coach approached me, asking if I would like to add a few more dives to my list so that I could help the team participate in a larger event. “Uh, no, I don’t think I could,” was my answer. The truth was that I’d just about reached the limit of my illustrious springboard diving career.

When I left for college, people asked if I would continue to dive. Not a chance. College diving starts with the 3-meter board and on up to the 10-meter platform—thirty feet up. This was not my cup of tea at all. But I had learned that I could step out of the crowd, stop being a spectator, and participate.

I later learned that Mr. Crane had never jumped off a diving board in his life. I have no idea whether he could even swim. It didn’t matter. He paid attention, understood how bodies moved, and was able to teach clearly. Whether he could dive or not had nothing to do with how he taught us. He would stand at the pool’s edge in his coat, tie, and business trousers, and confidently describe us what we needed to do to be better, more polished, and more able to cut a clean line into the water as we dove. And it worked.

Throughout my life I have looked back at the lessons I learned at the swimming pool in high school, and have felt such deep gratitude, not only to those friends who encouraged me to try, but to Mr. Crane, who offered me his attention, regardless of what I would do with his lessons. He was my model for what teaching is about—being there, showing up, encouraging, and not worrying about the end result. These have been life lessons for me throughout many different life circumstances.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Another lesson learned? That, like Mr. Crane, I didn’t have to always go out on a limb (or a diving board) to be able to help others. I could keep my feet firmly planted on the ground as long as I let my eyes and my voice travel wherever my students needed me.

Marjorie Turner Hollman

Marjorie Turner Hollman is a personal historian, Certified Legacy Planner with legacystories.org, and is the author of Easy Walks in Massachusetts, and More Easy Walks in Massachusetts, guides to walking trails in south central MA. She has presented numerous workshops at regional conferences and was a classroom teacher for nine years. She has been a freelance writer for the Bellingham Bulletin and numerous other local, regional and national publications for the past 17 years, and is the chapter coordinator for the southern New England Chapter of the Association of Personal Historians. www.marjorieTurner.com

Essays welcome for the “Season of Sports”! Your writing prompt:

You didn’t play or you did play or you took the middle ground. You were male, or female, or transitioning between one and the other. What was the role of sports in your life as a young person? What has the impact of that been on your life since?

See guidelines for submissions here. Play along and send your sports story for publication on True Stories Well Told?

Posted in Guest writer | Tagged , | 2 Comments

On Becoming A Jock

The “Season of Sports” continues…

By Donna Biddle

As a kid, I mainly played games: Tag, mother may I, red rover, cowboys and indians, made model planes, and of course board games on hot Indiana afternoons when we were not allowed to run around.  Usually after lunch as it got hot and sultry, we had to play quiet games until it cooled down.  This meant making model air planes and playing board games like Monopoly and Calling All Cars.  Often the radio would be on and we would tune in the baseball game.  These afternoons are probably where I began to love baseball.

Some of our tag games were played in the street in front of my house.  We always watched for cars, but one day when I was about nine, one of the little girls in the neighborhood got hit by a car.  She wasn’t really hurt, but our parents began to keep us out of the street.  That was the summer the bachelor stepped in.  Mr Connor was a manager at the glass factory at the end of the street and lived in a room in a house owned by an older couple.  He was from North Carolina and had only one hand.  He lost the other one at a saw mill in Asheville.

He rented a field at the end of our street and each year had a big garden that kept the neighborhood in fresh vegetables.  We watched with interest as he took one end of his field and cleaned in up.  He made odd paths that formed a diamond and us kids weren’t sure what it was for.  Then one day he knocked on our door and when we answered he was standing there with three bats and three softballs.  He gave my mother a softball and I thought “Oh boy I get a neat ball.” But it wasn’t for me, it was my mother’s.  She was only to let me have it, if I took it to his garden where he had made a small baseball diamond with a back board.  If I played in the street, I could not have the ball, in fact he would come and take it back.

He proceeded through the neighborhood stopping at different houses giving each mother either a bat or a ball with the same message he gave my mother.  Thus started our summer of softball.  We would go there every afternoon to play softball starting with our own idea of the rules.  On weekends when Mr Conner was off work, he would teach us more about how the game was really played.  These games continued several years before we grew older and had different interests and the balls had no covers and the bats had begun to crack.

I played a little softball in junior high school, but after that I went on to high school, college and then on to Wisconsin to graduate school.  As my career moved on and I lived in Madison, Wisconsin, sports were really not part of my life other than watching a few games on TV and cheering for the Badgers.  That is until I was 44, then I became a jock.

It all started with a call from my friend Jane.  “Room of One’s Own (the feminist bookstore) is starting a city league softball team.   Do you want to play?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I haven’t played since Junior High. Let me think about it.”

“It’ll be fun.  We’re all going to be older.  No pressure.”

After talking and talking some more, I decided to give it a chance.  At the organizational meeting there were about twenty people.  We decided we would all play so each person would get a half a game, but we would all bat the whole game.  Given my skill, I was put in right field. Gives you an idea of the confidence the team had in me.  Right field is where you go to die.  We were not good.  We did not win at first.  Luckily we were in a low level slow pitch league.  But we did have fans.  Our friends came out in droves to see us.  I always thought they came for the entertainment value not our skill level.

The average age of our team was 54, our second baser was 70.  We played bravely, if not well, and we had fun.  We practiced once a week and played on Tuesday evening at the various city diamonds although the field on Fish Hatchery Road was where we usually played.  After the game we always went out for a burger and a recap of the game.  We had three rules for our team:  Have fun, everybody plays, and don’t collapse on the field it’s bad form.

Biddle IMG_0117 Biddle IMG_0123

I played on the team from 1983 until 1999 when I ruptured my quad on my right leg, not in a game but on the ice in the winter.  The longer we played, the better we got, I moved to catcher and we even won our league a couple of times.  I enjoyed softball so much, I helped organize a Room of One’s Own volleyball team and basketball team.  I had become a middle-aged jock.

One of the biggest lessons I learned from my jock days is that women miss out so much by not playing team sports.  We tend to play individual sports like tennis and golf.  Men play team sports and it shows at work. While they are competitive, they also understand team work.  When I taught a leadership class for women, I always recommended that they join a team.  Learn the hard way that you can’t do it all.  If you’re in right field no matter how much you want to get the ball in left, you can’t.  You also may have to take one for the team.  You may want to swing for the fences, but you have to make a sacrifice bunt to advance the runner.  You are part of a team and there is no better feeling.

And though I can no longer play, there is never a spring that I don’t pass a diamond and long to play again.  To smell the grass, slap my glove and make that impossible catch.

Donna Biddle is an occasional writer who knows she has a memoir or novel to be told and hopes to finally write it.

Essays welcome for the “Season of Sports”! Your writing prompt:

You didn’t play or you did play or you took the middle ground. You were male, or female, or transitioning between one and the other. What was the role of sports in your life as a young person? What has the impact of that been on your life since?

See guidelines for submissions here. Play along and send your sports story for publication on True Stories Well Told?

Posted in Guest writer | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The Gift of Sports

We interrupt this blog post to encourage you to visit my Upcoming Workshops page to see my exciting new summer offerings! Now back to “The Season of Sports.” 

By Dawn Crim

As told to Sarah White at a story capture event for A Fund For Women’s book, What She Said.

Dawn Crim

I accepted a position as assistant women’s basketball coach at University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1996. I coached for four years, and in two of the four years I was able to recruit classes that were ranked in the top ten. One year I actually signed the number one player in the country.

Sports give many gifts to the girls who participate. Obviously, you get fitness, understanding the importance of taking care of your body. You learn to compete. You also get the opportunity to learn how to work toward a common goal as a team and how to face adversity, with a little a. You learn camaraderie, leadership, how to operate under pressure, how to adapt to a variety of environments situations. You learn how to be compassionate and to build friendships.

You get the gift of opportunities. I’d never flown before, but because of sports in college, I flew for the first time—to a basketball game. I’ve now traveled to 43 of the states and three foreign countries. I’ve lived in Germany because I played professional basketball. Sports are life-changing!

Dawn talks about her inspirations, challenges, and observations in this excerpt from the story-capture event for What She Said, the book created for the 20th anniversary of AFFW. To get your own copy of What She Said, contact Melinda Heinritz at affw@madisoncommunityfoundation.org or (608) 262-1763.

Dawn Crim with First Lady Michelle Obama at a tea held in Madison, Wisconsin

Dawn Crim with First Lady Michelle Obama at a tea held in Madison, Wisconsin

Dawn Crim at Mother and Daughter Tea

Dawn Crim at Mother and Daughter Tea

Dawn Crim, a native of Philadelphia, has called the Madison area home for the past 19 years. An engaged administrator at UW Madison, Dawn has nearly 25 years of higher education experience in advancement, university relations, and athletics.

 

What has been the role of competitive sports in your life? Comment! Or better yet, send me your stories to publish. See guidelines here.

Posted in Guest writer | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

I Can’t Join the Tennis Team

The “Season of Sports” continues! What has been the role of competitive sports in your life? Comment! Or better yet, send me your stories to publish. See guidelines here.

By Joan Collins

As told to Sarah White at a story capture event for A Fund For Women’s book, What She Said.

Collins_JoanI’m a tennis player, and when I was in high school in the late 1950s, I wanted to be on the team—but there were no girls’ teams. I heard the coach over the PA system say, “anybody who wants to try out for the team…” and I noted that he said anybody. He didn’t say any boy. I couldn’t wait to get up there after classes ended.

When I got there, he said, “This is the boys’ team.”

I said, “I think I can hit the ball just as well as some of the boys I’ve seen play tennis.”

And he said, “You can’t be on the team.” And I said “Why?”

He said “WIAA rules.” and I said, “I won’t sweat and I won’t use the locker rooms, I’ll just play the game.”

He said, “Well, if you can beat the number two seed, come back and I’ll let you be on the team.” He meant it as a joke. But even if he said it as a joke, I didn’t get it as a joke. I only heard the words. So I practiced and practiced and actually did go out and play the singles number two seed. He never knew why. I beat him—barely, but I did. The next day, I couldn’t wait to tell the coach, “Guess what I did!” The coach—in front of everybody, I’ll never forget it—he just turned white. “You didn’t actually think I was serious?”

I thought how do I hold back the tears? I can’t cry. I have to hold back the tears. And I said, “Yes, I’m ready to be on the team.”

Well of course it could not and did not happen. As a consolation, he said he’d give me six one-hour lessons on how to play chess. I didn’t learn how to play chess. But whenever I see a chess set I think back to that.

Just last year I was playing tennis on some public courts where the Edgewood High School team was practicing. They were waiting for their coach and kind of complaining. They’re on their cell phones. And I thought do they realize how I would have loved to do that? I went over to the four that were closest and told my little story. Three of them rolled their eyes but the fourth one got it. Later when I left, she came up and thanked me. And then the coach invited me to practice with the team for the rest of the season!

Tennis continues to be a passion for Joan Collins, founder and owner of Joan Collins Publicity, Inc.. She plays competitive singles tennis several times a week,  with many male opponents. She was the first woman to write a column for the sports section of the Wisconsin State Journal-Tennis Talk in the summer and Ski Scoop in the winter. 

When she started playing racquetball, she signed up for a men’s league under the name J. Collins and by the time the matches were scheduled, it was “too late” to be kicked off because she was a woman. She decided not to “ask questions about gender.” She had many great matches with men,  plus opened up  league play to other women who wanted to compete with men. 

Joan Collins can be reached at Jpublicity@aol.com or (608) 222-2899. www.JoanCollinsPublicity.com

What She Said, the book created for the 20th anniversary of AFFW,  includes stories from 70 women about their experiences navigating career and family life as a woman. To get your own copy of What She Saidcontact Melinda Heinritz at affw@madisoncommunityfoundation.org or (608) 262-1763.

Posted in Guest writer | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Get Your Skates On!

The “Season of Sports” continues…

By Linda Lenzke

“I want anyone who has ever said or felt that women are weak in any way to strap on a pair of skates and play two minutes of roller derby with them.” — Emily Mills, “Hammer Abby,” Quad Squad, Mad Rollin’ Dolls

As a writer, I’m sometimes invited to participate in a collaborative project or respond to a writing prompt. The day before Mother’s Day, I had the pleasure of joining three writers for what was described as a “writing attack.” Each of us was to interpret the call-to-action in our own way. The assignment was for the blog, True Stories Well Told, managed by my reminiscence-writing coach and mentor, Sarah White, for her summer series, Season of Sports.

Writing AttackWe joined hundreds, perhaps a thousand or more, local flat track women’s roller derby league fans for the Mad Rollin’ Dolls final championship bout at the Alliant Energy Center Exhibition Hall in Madison, Wisconsin. In addition to women’s roller derby, there were multiple events Saturday evening at the convention center, including wedding receptions and a leadership conference including team tailgating in the parking lot.

It was easy to identify the roller derby fans, not by their common dress or demographics, but by their diversity. There were families with children and babies of all ages in tow, motorcycle aficionados, Furry’s, tattooed members of the LGBTQ community, cheerleading fans, and face-painted superheroes off all ages. This was a tribe, an affinity group brought together to root for their sheroes on wheels. The battle cry: Get Your Skates On!

Emily Mills Photo Credit- Dave Schrader Fans

As I prepared for this writing experience I looked for a hook, and it didn’t take me long to look back at my childhood in the 1950s and 60s. As an active preteen tomboy, admittedly one on the chubby side, I searched for strong, athletic women who competed in sports. What I discovered however was that besides tennis players in white skirts, gymnasts and track athletes with their lithe dancer-like bodies, and the rare Colgate Dinah Shore Women’s Golf Tournament founded later in 1972, women who participated in sports were largely absent in the public arena.

The exception was televised roller derby tournaments replacing the dance marathons and walk-a-thons of the 1920s and 30s. The bank-tracked roller skating tournaments were part performance art and a rough and tumble, fast-paced, bruising competition of teams and individual players with monikers representing good and evil. It was easy to select and cheer for a team and individual skater. It was the female version of televised wrestling of the 1950s and 60s. Like wrestling, the athletes needed to be in shape so they weren’t seriously hurt and yet they still often were and that always added to the drama.

Vintage Roller Derby Photo Credit - Life MagazineJudy1031

I sought out images of athletic women by watching roller derby teams compete. The skaters pulled their long, often bleached platinum blonde hair back into ponytails and lipstick painted their lips, but in the era of black and white television it was difficult to discern whether it was lipstick or a bloodied lip. Elbows were thrown, pushing and shoving was commonplace, and the physicality and action was real, but like televised wrestling, often exaggerated.

In another intersection of past and present, the day after the Mad Rollin’ Dolls Tourney Championship, I returned home to celebrate Mother’s Day with my family. I walked into the kitchen while my sister Cindy led both the youngest and the oldest of my relatives in a rousing rendition of a song from 1961, Robert Preston of the Music Man era Broadway show, singing Go You Chicken Fat, Go! The song was selected by our young President, JFK, to promote physical fitness. Each day in gym class we’d don our periwinkle blue one-piece unflattering short-legged gym suit with a cinch clasp waistband belt and do jumping jacks, pushups and other exercises to the song ad nauseum. I credit that experience with my abhorrence today of any kind of fitness exercise. The song had the opposite of its intended effect.

Beginning in the 1950s and through adulthood, my competitive athletic resume included the following: Mitchell Junior High School 4th grade marble champion (see my story, Pocketful of Gumballs), city recreation girl’s softball-throw blue ribbon winner, 1972 Bristol Renaissance Faire Women’s Archery Champion, and in the late 1970s workplace ping pong winner in the Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs Tournament. Years later in the late 1970s and early 80s I was a Madison recreation league women’s fast pitcher (though I must admit, a slow one) on teams such as the women-owned Jade Construction, F.O.E. (Feminist Odyssey Express) and finally the Lysistrata Fireballs.

Today, I’m more apt to watch women’s sports rather than participate and gratefully I have lots of options from the University of Wisconsin Hockey team, UW Volleyball and Basketball, tournament golf, tennis, Olympic competition and race car driving, horseracing and extreme sports. Yet when I want to see the most awe-inspiring, cheer-inducing, rousing women-loving feminist competition, you’ll find me sitting with the throngs of roller derby fans, yelling, cheering, calling out fouls and infractions, and screaming the monikers of individual skaters and all-in-all having a great time! Get Your Skates On!

Sheroe

 

© 2015, Linda Lenzke. Linda is a Madison-area writer, poet and playwright who blogs at Mixed Metaphors Oh My!

What has been the role of competitive sports in your life? Comment! Or better yet, send me your stories to publish on True Stories Well Told. See guidelines here….

Posted in Guest writer | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Me@20: Trial by Firelight

We pause in the True Stories Well Told “Season of Sports” to celebrate the Association of Personal Historians‘ 20th anniversary with a “Me@20″ post. Around the world, personal historians are blogging and posting to social media, reminiscing about our life at twenty years of age. Follow these links from my colleagues Kathleen ShaputisJill Sarkozi and Rhonda Kalkwarf to read other “Me@20″ stories. -Sarah White  

MeAt20-rgb-1200x

In June of 1976 I returned to Indiana University, where my freshman year had been interrupted in 1974 when I became too groovy and floated away, resulting in my spending the next three semesters in the mental-hospital-like confines of tiny Franklin College. Improbably, on my return I repeated the actions of my first day at IU—I fell in with a strange band of costumed characters. (Described in Leon Varjian and Me: Class  Clowns.)

This time the group was the Society for Creative Anachronism, or SCA. Dedicated to recreating the Middle Ages “as they should have been,” this group’s activities consisted of assuming medieval personas, dressing in costumes, and fighting, drinking and wenching according to taste. Local chapters organized weekend events with sword tournaments, craft competitions, dancing, and banquets, all conducted in mock medieval form. Members drove hundreds of miles to indulge in this silliness.

On that June morning, having finished moving into my apartment, I wandered past a public park where I spied medieval action and, realizing I had just unpacked an Elizabethan costume (liberated in a prank on Franklin College’s theater department) I went home, put it on, and came back to join the revelry. In no time I was attending meetings of the local chapter and developing my persona as Eluned engen Elvedorn, an Irish maiden circa 1200.

The fall I turned 20 I was spending as much time on sewing and embroidering new costumes, practicing medieval ballads on my recorder, and learning flirtatious dances as I was on my schoolwork. As the business of the club unfolded around me—the election of officers, the undertaking of event planning—I recognized a parallel universe in which I could practice being a functioning adult without consequence if I got it wrong.

1977 SCA Oliver WineryIn early 1977, the chapter I belonged to in Bloomington was due to host an event. I was asked to be the “autocrat” or organizer  1977 SCA Oliver Winery seatedof it. Thinking that it could be a good management experience useful in some future unspecified career, I said yes. A date in late March was chosen and planning began.

And then the lights went out. Jimmy Carter begged the nation to conserve oil. In Bloomington, the city government decreed that streetlights be turned off except on major arteries. I walked through the newly dark streets to meetings where we perseverated on whether to continue with our plans in the face of this energy crisis. Would it be unpatriotic to encourage those hundreds of car miles? And think of the energy we’d consume at the church hall we’d rent. The lights! The heat! The cooking, all those ovens on for hours!

It was a new idea for me, patriotism. Up to that point I had mostly dedicated myself to being unpatriotic. (I had even desecrated a U.S. flag, sewing a surprisingly uncomfortable shirt from its flame-retardant fabric.) But one of the more remarkable aspects of the SCA was the way it brought people together from different circles and mindsets. There were born-again Christians, serious scholars, hippies, greasers, all mixed up in the colorful background of each other’s fantasies. The patriots among us strongly opposed hosting our event. I didn’t want to cancel, and neither did others cut from less patriotic cloth. But with the darkened streets and President Carter in his sweaters on TV, what was the right thing to do? Could we in good conscience continue with our obviously pointless recreation?

In a meeting where secret ballots were tallied, I was given permission to go forward, with instructions to pursue every possible way to conserve energy. We agreed not to use the heat, and hoped for warm weather—in late March in Bloomington, it could go either way. We agreed to light the hall by candlelight. We emphasized carpooling in our invitations (which attendees did anyway, being impoverished students). The cooking we couldn’t do without, but we’d minimize energy where we could.

Leading this group of misfits was like the proverbial herding cats. Delegation was not a skill I’d ever attempted—and turns out not to be one of my talents, then or since. Committees formed, more or less, around the needs of the day—organizing and judging various competitions, decorations, the evening banquet, entertainments for the revel to follow. The committees carried out their charges, to varying degrees.

The day of the event arrived, chilly but bright. The combat events—men in homemade armor wielding rattan bats wrapped in silver duct tape to simulate swords—were held outdoors. The rest of the event took place inside, in beams of natural light from the church hall’s windows. I scurried around like the organizer of any event down through the centuries—how can we get people to make room for us to set up the tables for the banquet? Where is the decoration committee? How are the cooks doing? (Nearly losing their heads, was the answer.)

That banquet remains a vivid memory. The candlelight was beautiful, shining down the long banquet tables from tall torchiers borrowed from the church’s Christmas decorations. The effect was more authentically medieval than any event in SCA history.

From an energy consumption standpoint, the net result of our patriotic intentions was probably negligible. But we cared enough to try, and that, for me, was a novel experience.

I received compliments for months on the splendid atmosphere of that evening. And I received my initiation into organizational leadership. Who would have predicted, based on that modest leadership success, that I would later spend a decade of my life on the Association of Personal Historians board of directors—most recently, four years as its president?

© 2015 Sarah White

Follow these links to more “Me@20″ essays by my friends in the APH.

Kathleen Shaputis, Gorham Printing

Rhonda Kalkwarf, My Stories Saved

Sue Hessel, Lessons from Life

Jill Sarkozi, Safekeeping Stories

For more links to “Me@20″ essays, check out this post on the APH blog.

About Me@20 Day:

Me@20 Day celebrates personal history and the 20th anniversary of the Association of Personal Historians on May 20, 2015. APH supports its members in recording, preserving, and sharing life stories of people, families, communities, and organizations around the world. 

Posted in Sarah's memoir, Writing prompt | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments