I was thrilled to receive an email back in December from Archive reader and Friend of the Archive Kevin Murakoshi who, while perusing Ebay, came across a selection of papers and books that were related to John McKee and the Cavaliers Fencing Club that was in existence in Los Angeles from 1935 until sometime in the late 1980’s or early 90’s.
McKee’s Cavaliers were a very strong club for a long period and McKee himself is credited with training numerous excellent fencers, foremost of which has to be 1952 Olympic finalist and 4-time US National Champion Maxine Mitchell.
The only picture I have of McKee so far, thanks to Andy Shaw of the Museum of American Fencing. McKee in black, standing far left presenting a large plaque. Maxine Mitchell is 3rd from the right.
Kevin was kind enough to scan some of the loose documents he acquired and share them with me. I’m still going through all of them to dig out interesting details, but I thought it would be fun to share two stories in McKee’s own words that were part of a larger document he wrote about the history of his Cavaliers club. Because what’s better than fencers telling fencing stories to other fencers?
Here are the transcriptions, with pictures I’ve added to enhance the story!
THE GERMAN CHALLENGE
This happened at the Pasadena Y during the War. A young man came to class and asked to see the Master. Bill Lundeberg broke into my lesson with Maxine and told me I had a visitor.
I introduced myself and asked if I could help him?
“Yes”, he said, “I would like to challenge you to a saber bout. You may use your own judges and director and if I win, you are to acknowledge, here in your Salle, that Adolf Hitler and his soldiers are better than the Americans!”
I was utterly astounded. My first thought was how did this Nazi escape our concentration camps. My second thought was that we were dealing with a nut. He stared at me waiting for me to make up my mind. I thought I hit upon a solution.
I called George Seibert over and told him about the challenge. I could see he thought the same as I did. I said, “This is most unusual, you know, but I will accept on one condition.”
“And what is that?”, he asked.
“That you acknowledge before the entire class that Hitler and the Third Reich are a bunch of madmen, if you lose!” I replied.
He looked us over for a moment and said, “That seems fair. I’ll be back next week with my equipment and we can have the bout.” With this he turned on his heel and left. Needless to say, the class was disrupted for the rest of the evening. All the rest of the week I received calls from my students and some of our opponents. Was I really gong to do this? Yes, I was!
The night arrived and I never saw so many students show up at once. There was a reporter from the Pasadena paper. I picked Seibert to direct and Bill Lundberg, Maxine, Moreene and Todd Ryder to judge.
He never came back! We didn’t know his name or where he lived or anything about him. We all agreed on one thing. He was deadly serious when he made the challenge. We figured that he couldn’t take a chance on losing. Or maybe he had been picked up by the police. Anyway, the excitement was over!
THE ENGINEER’S CHALLENGE
This happened during the war also. One night at our Long Beach Y class, a young man (about 30 years old) came to class followed by about ten of his students. He was an engineer at the local airplane plant and conducted classes in saber at his home. He was of Hungarian descent and fencing was in his blood. So he told us.
He wanted to challenge our best saber man to a bout. He had promised his students that he would show them some action. I asked Pat Lowery, our reigning saber champion, to oblige him. Our challenger had a saber, a mask, and a sweatshirt for a jacket, and no glove. I told him that he couldn’t fence in this outfit and that we would have to lend him the proper attire. He became irate at this and stated that he always used this sweatshirt and didn’t use a glove. He seemed quite desperate about being allowed to fence this way that I assumed he had bragged about this to his students and not to do so would ruin his Macho image in their eyes.
I consented and told Pat privately, that he as to go lightly on him and to avoid hitting his hand. We squared away and they fenced ten touches. It was obvious from the start that this Engineer had had only two saber lessons. Possibly three. He did not know how to move. Pat hit him at will simply reaching out and hitting. Mercifully, Pat got it over with as quickly as possible and I didn’t think he had done much damage.
When the engineer took off his sweatshirt to put on a slip-over sweater, his torso was red with light red welts. All over. Front and back. Across the back of his hand was another one and it was starting to bleed. I expressed apologies for allowing him to continue when I could see that he knew nothing about it but he would have none of it. His students thought he was a hero. They ooohed and aaawed over his welts and the girls looked upon him as a hero. I guess he had accomplished what he came for. Pat and I were the victims. They looked at Pat as though they could kill him. God help him (the Hungarian challenger -ed) had I turned Armand on him. There was an aftermath!
Several years later I became head of Engineering Research at the same company he worked. He didn’t work for me in a sense but was under my management. I called him into my office one day and asked him to sit down. I gave him some coffee and asked point blank why he had done it?
“Why did I do it?”, he asked. “I had to. I had been telling my class about saber as the Hungarians do it. How brave they are and how you steel yourself to take the blows. It was the only way I could get any of them to do saber. Then I read about your class and an idea came to me. I would challenge one of your students to a bout and show them that I wasn’t afraid and would even wear a sweatshirt and use no glove. This they had to see, so we all came to your class.”
I laughed and said, “Did it work?”
He also laughed and said, “No, it didn’t. Shortly after that they all quit. They were afraid I was doing to ask them to go through the same thing. I guess, in a way, it backfired. I know now that it was a very poor idea and I am glad that my opponent took it easy on me.”
“Yes he did”, I replied, “for awhile I was tempted to turn you over to one of our better hitters.”
He grinned, “Thank you for sparing me that!”
I looked at him for a moment and said, “Pardon me for asking, but where did you learn to fence?”
He replied, “From a book. Wasn’t that obvious?”
I mercifully dropped the subject.