Fear.

That’s the thing.  It’s a motivator for me.  Not the average, everyday kind of fear, nor an amorphous fear of zombies or clowns.  Rather, the fear of loss.  A very specific kind of loss.

The loss of fencing history.

I don’t know why it gets to me so much, but it keeps coming up.  In my line of work (fencing history), loss can be a very tangible, obvious fact.  Other times, it’s a bit more amorphous.  The latter might consist of having a picture of a fencer that I can’t name.  In the moment, I might be frustrated that I can’t put a name to that person.  However, I may have a known resource that can help.  Someone who may know or have a better guess as to the ‘who’ in a particular photo. Not always, of course.  The older the picture, the more limited the resources.

This picture was taken down off the wall of the Selberg Salle in Southern Oregon.  The damage from rodents and age is obvious, but there’s nothing written on the back and I don’t recognize a single person.  Anyone? 

But the ones that really hurt are the tangible losses.  Fortunately, sometimes the losses are manageable.  The water damage, curling, fading, physical damage of the type that is so obvious in many of the photos that bedecked the walls at Charlie Selberg’s highly unprotected-from-the-elements-and-rodents salle walls in Southern Oregon are frustrating and unfortunate, but I’d rather have a damaged image over no image at all.

More from Selberg’s wall.  Michael D’Asaro from his time as the fencing instructor at Halberstadt in SF.  Multiple damage hits, but at least I know who it is.

A little more obvious rodent-induced damage here.  I don’t recognize two of the fencers here, but I know Angela Dracott and John McDougall between them could tell me their names.

Another example is the fortunate fate of the scrapbooks kept by Hans Halberstadt.  The four books have survived to the present day, but not in their original state.  A burst pipe at Halberstadt in the early ‘80’s (I think) damaged both the building and any papers in the path of the deluge.  A concerned club member took the time to reconstruct the scrapbooks to the best of her ability (which was significant – thank you Lee!), preserving the photos, cards and news clippings that Hans had stashed away in years past.  That water had damaged and discolored much of the material is unfortunate, but they’re still here.

Some examples from the Halberstadt Scrapbooks:

Water damage caused ink from a backing page to seep through onto the cover of the PCC’s program from 1966.

Water damage turns to black mold residue on this photo of the very first Helene Mayer Memorial trophy, won – I believe – by Maxine Mitchell.

 

Ink runs and seepage, mold, and discoloration makes this letter from Harry Maloney, long-time Stanford coach, to Hans Halberstadt a very tough read.

And there are more examples I’ve been privy to since starting in this line of work.  Fencing great Heizaburo Okawa, in the midst of a remodel at his home, was near to discarding a great deal of memorabilia that had been in a small storage unit in his backyard.  Age and water damage (my forever nemesis) had caused no small amount of deterioration to the contents of his shed, and I can fully understand why it was an easier decision for him to move the pile to a dumpster rather than try to salvage it.

That’s most of Heizaburo Okawa on the far left of the photo.  And this scan was made from the film negative, not a print, so there’s not much that can be done to restore what’s lost.

Thanks to the aid and support of Jamie Douraghy and Greg Lynch, the West Coast Fencing Archive was able to take Maestro Okawa’s material – all of it – that was otherwise destined for destruction.  We saved some priceless treasures dating back to the 1940’s and the Joseph Vince fencing studio in Los Angeles, where fencers trained side by side with Hollywood stars like Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood and James Coburn, along with amazing stuff about Torao Mori, Heizaburo’s father-in-law.  (See: http://www.westcoastfencingarchive.com/2015/10/12/the-walls-of-the-joseph-vince-studio-los-angeles-ca/)

Like the photo above, this scan is from a negative, so the damage has been done to the original source.  Too bad, as this batch of negatives from an undated (mid-60’s) New York Martini & Rossi International contains what might be some terrific information. If only we could see it.

Now, all of these stories are things I’ve had first hand experience with.  I took all the photos down from the walls of the Selberg salle.  I scanned the Halberstadt scrapbooks as a service to that club (keeping digital copies for The Archive, naturally enough), and am now storing the material that we acquired from Heizaburo.  There are many other things we’ve been able to rescue, as well.  But the story that really got under my skin was one that I haven’t had any direct involvement in, and happened a long way away from coastal California.  And this is an example of tangible, irreversible loss.

In 2014, the Italian fencing powerhouse Club Scherma Jesi was heavily damaged in a fire.  If the Google-translated pages I read are accurate, it was an arson fire.  Jesi, founded in 1947, is the home club of some great champions, including Stefano Cerioni, Giovanna Trillini and Valentina Vezzali.  They’ve had a tremendously successful program for many, many years.  Take a look at the result of the fire.

Four pictures of the devastating results of the fire at Club Scherma Jesi.  There are lots more on their website if you care to look.  

These photos, showing the shattering damage done to the club, made me spend a great deal of time considering the ephemeral nature of all human history.  (I won’t relate the story of the hour spent shivering in a corner overcome by the horror I felt from looking at the pictures.  Even second hand, it gives me the shakes.  I can’t imagine seeing it in person.)  The sad fact is this; in one manner or another, this is the fate ahead for all the pictures, articles, letters, slides, film reels, videotapes – in short, everything I’ve been collecting in an attempt to stave off the loss of historic memory of the sport.  That’s the depressing part.

And yet, thinking about that made me realize that, in this modern era of cloud storage and cheap backup drives (8 terabytes for under $200? Where’s my checkbook?), there is no reason why a concerted effort couldn’t be made to push all our Historical Documents into a preservable state for future fencers.  I’m doing that on a small scale myself, but why not a larger, sport-wide effort?

Think about it.  Every fencing club I’ve ever set foot in has had some unique bit of memorabilia.  A photo, a tournament poster, a trophy – something that only they have.  How many of you reading have experienced this?  I believe we all take it a little for granted.  You see something you’ve never seen – or something you seen every day – and you pay more or less attention to it based on your own personal interest in history, in memorabilia, in the particular subject.  I think back now, with the advantage of age and experience, to all the things I saw as a youngster that I should have paid more attention to.

Today I can whip out my iPhone and take a digital picture, download it to my computer, drop it into an “Interesting Things I’ve Come Across” folder in a backup drive and suddenly there are 3 more copies of that <object/thing> than existed previously.  Which one will last longest?

Two scans of film fragments so aged, shrunken and dried that they fell apart upon attempting to get the film off the reel and onto a film scanner.  The only way to make anything of this would be to take each crispy bit, scan it on a flatbed scanner one chunk at a time and then reassemble it in a digital editing program.  Not impossible, but time consuming.  And costly.

When lumped all together, it sets me thinking about what might be done.  How does one go about creating a consortium of collectors/historians/like-minded fencers, all folding their various assemblages into a repository that can be handed forward in time?  There are so many ways this could be accommodated today.  Local storage is inexpensive.  Cloud storage and sharing services like Dropbox are available almost universally.  File formats for images or movies – tiffs, jpegs, mov, etc. – have now been carried forward intact for many generations of software upgrades.  The hardware requirements are a flexible hash of possibilities, with the addition of a couple of hardware extensions like a good scanner or two.  The main effort is in the hours needed to do the scanning, and that isn’t a technical challenge but more a trial of patience and file management.

What if?  What if Andy Shaw’s entire collection at his Museum of American Fencing was available digitally?  Or mine?  I try to share what I’ve got through these stories, but I haven’t the resources to create an online presence to share the collection in its entirety.  What about the things that might be found at long established clubs like the Boston FC or the NYFC?  Or moving further afield, Paris’ Racing Club, the Oxford Fencing Club or Hans Halberstadt’s former home club in Offenbach?  What material does each of these repositories of fencing history have that none of the others have?  And truthfully, their storage situation is ‘for better or worse’ since fencing clubs are just that; fencing clubs.  They’re not libraries, nor establishments set up for long-term storage and preservation of ephemeral bits of history.  Each club does its own thing with the on-site material that gives evidence to their own history and/or the larger history of the sport.

How much better if we could consolidate it all under an umbrella organization that could provide a storage strategy and advise on technical or methodological approaches for creating a digital record of all the history lying about in all these various places?

And for precedence, we need look no further than some of the other sports out there.  Here’s a quote for you:

“The International Tennis Hall of Fame preserves and promotes the history of tennis and celebrates its champions, thereby serving as a vital partner in the grown of tennis globally.”

As you might imagine, sports like tennis and golf have very fancy Hall of Fame websites.  But the handful of other sports whose sites I took a quick tour through – boxing, bowling, skiing  – all have a web presence that denotes a professional organization with employees and a budget.  So apply the quote from the tennis HOF to the sport of fencing and think about what it would require of fencing and fencers to establish a similarly driven cabal of like-minded preservationists to collect, digitize and disseminate fencing’s long history.

Websites like Andy Shaw’s, both his Museum of American Fencing and Hall of Fame sites he created and manages – and this West Coast Fencing Archive website – are essentially labors of love.  The US Fencing website has a smattering of history up, but several of the links go straight to Andy’s Museum or HOF sites.  The FIE website has a few pages of historical information, some photos and videos from their 100th anniversary celebration, and some documents that list results of Olympic or World Championship events.  (In the FIE’s defense, I’ve been told that what history had been collected up to a certain point was all lost during the Second World War.)

What I wonder is this; what is the appetite across the fencing community, both locally and internationally, for establishing an organization that could look after our history and preserve it for the future?  Remember the old saying, ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’?  Is there the will for preserving the history of fencing?  I feel like there might be.  The reaction I get from fencers when they find out what I do has been universally positive.  Andy no doubt gets the same reaction and he’s been at this longer than I.  Fencers thank me.  It feels good, but it makes me wonder what more I could do.  How much more material can I find before it’s lost?  How could I do my job better?  What would it take to pull together even the handful of people I’m aware of that are making attempts to preserve information?  Is there the will and a way forward for this idea to coalesce into action?

I don’t have an answer.  Or maybe, I don’t have an answer yet.  Perhaps one of you reading this might have an idea of a way.

Let me know!

So that you don’t think such an effort would be starting from scratch entirely, here’s a collection of websites that give an idea of just what is known to be out there.  I therefore offer you this opportunity to cruise the web with purpose.  Don’t get (too) lost.

http://museumofamericanfencing.com/wp/

http://www.synec-doc.be/escrime/musee/index.html

http://musee.escrime.free.fr/musee%20right.htm

http://www.fencingmuseum.com/index.htm

http://www.propatriascherma.net/index.php?option=com_oziogallery3&view=nano&Itemid=419

 

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