Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Opening Day
Galahad shows up on my doorstep and the day is already feeling warm. Too fucking warm. We try and make small talk about the warmth but we both know the truth. Today is going to be hot, ninety to ninety-five degrees. It is 9 am, 3 hours till show.

T piles more food on our plates as we silently try to eat. Our bellies too knotted with preshow stress to be hungry, we force the food down knowing that by day’s end we will be glad we did. Eggs, bacon, pancakes, coffee and water… lots of water. Before the day is over we will have consumed and sweated more than 3 gallons of water.

10 am, 2 hours till show.
We load the gear and do a last check. My armor bag, a huge wheeled suitcase, is loaded down with the tools of my trade. Weapons, armor, medical kit, munchies, and my ever present water skin. It’s an hour’s drive to the show site; a forgotten item now would spell disaster. As we pile into Galahad’s car, T presses bottles of water into our hands. Grudgingly we accept.

We sing along to the radio as we drive to ease the tension. We will drive this route many times over the next 6 weeks, but today is opening day and the drive seems to take forever.

11 am, one hour till show.
Check in with the director, he nervously tells us that the gate is higher than normal. Even with the now oppressive heat, more folks than expected are coming out to see the show. The horses stand off in the shade; riders lovingly brush down their powerful flanks. I make a mental note to be sure I have some extra carrot sticks in my pouch, just in case. Nothing distracts a nervous horse better than a nice treat.
Actor’s call is in 30 minutes. Just enough time to give the gear a last check.
Opening my case I let out an exasperated “fuck, I just cleaned this!” as I stare at my gear. The once shinny armor now peppered with dirty orange rust. Rust, a knight’s worst enemy. I set about with scotch bright pad and wd-40 in a nervous rush to return the gear to some semblance of clean. The “Knight in Shinning Armor” is a myth my friends. An invention of the movie industry. Men wore this to stay alive, not look pretty.

11:30 30 Minutes till show.
Actors call.
We gather around the director as he gives us our last minute instructions. There are 6 of us, 4 on foot and 2 on horseback. It will be our job to entertain the growing crowd. We are the headlining act, the best paid, best fed, and best equipped at the show. The vendors and sponsors are counting on us to wow the crowd so they will come back again, and bring their friends.

“Knight, armor up!”

Every knight has a different ritual for donning armor. Every suit a different ritual. I start with the under layer, the only modern technology we are allowed. Heat reducing under armor, designed for football players hugs me like a second skin. It’s not much, but anything that can keep me in armor and upright longer is welcome. Next the low profile knee and elbow pads. Thin enough to hide under the armor yet still allow for movement, they offer some protection. I make note of the huge purple bruise forming on my elbow and think “gotta find thicker pads”. Next comes the simple cotton tunic with its extra cotton padding sewn into the shoulders. It may not seem like much, but anything to ease the load that comes next. My leg armor weighs 15 pounds each, they attach to my body by way of an over the shoulder harness. I pull the harness’s rigging tight; check to make sure the mount points for the arms and legs are properly aligned. Nothing is more annoying or painful than a strap pressing against a unpadded muscle or worse across a joint. I walk around a bit to make sure the legs are properly strapped and fit, sweat marks bloom through my tunic. By the end of the show I will look like I walked into a shower fully dressed.

My chain shirt, (never call it “chainmail” or “ringmail”) a garment made from over 35000 individual rings a beautiful piece made by my much adored wife comes next. I hold it in my hands and feel it’s weight. 35 pounds. Holding it in my hands I take deep breaths, each one quicker and deeper than the next. I imagine this is what a cliff diver does to prepare himself before taking the plunge. With a quick heft I raise the garment and slide it over my head. As I shake the shirt into place I can feel it’s dead weight press back against me.

Galahad, already suited up in his chain comes to help with the next part. Somehow he drew the short straw and wears only his shirt of chain for this show.
“How ya doing cutie?” he asks.
“I’m…” I pause to take a deep breath and shake the chain into place, “ok. Help me with these arms”
Each arm covers me from wrist to the tops of my biceps and weighs 10 pounds. As Galahad cinches them tight I flex and twist my wrists to ensure that they do not rest on any bones or joints. By now the pressure from the weight of the legs and shirt on my shoulders is a lot. Add the arms and every move now causes pain across my back.
The jack of plates, my least favorite armor piece, is a heavy leather vest like garment that goes from neck to knees. In between it’s 2 layers of leather, a network of thin steel plates have been riveted. Lastly the gorget, thankfully the lightest and most useful piece. As Galahad clips it around my neck he grabs me firmly by the shoulders and ask, “Ok, you’re in. You going to be ok?”
“Yeah, let’s do this” I respond as I swipe sweat off my face with gloved hand, thankful to T for plying me with extra water.

10 minutes till show till show:
Quick re-check of all the straps. Quick re-check of the weapons, the sword in my hand feels good. Even under the weight of the armor I move with fluid precision as I do a last minute sword drill. My heart pounds, the knot in my stomach will not let up until we are actually out there doing it. I walk out and place my extra gear, sword, shield, helm, and ever present water skin. I can feel the noon day sun as it warms the steel on my body. With everything else covered in leather and steel, my face sweats profusely. I’m constantly wiping my eyes with the back of a glove. I once described the feeling as “like having the thumb of god pressing down between your neck and shoulders”. Only thing you can do is to push through it.

We help the horsemen into their armor and saddles. We may have it tough, but they have it worse. Add a 2000 pound nervous animal to the mix and you have a recipe for disaster. Already this year we have seen one too many horseman face down in the dirt with his stubborn mount charging back to the stables.

As I hold the lead lines and brace so the rider can get on the beast, I coo in the beast’s ear, “easy big boy, your doing good. Keep this up and I’ll have a nice carrot for you.” The creature responds by rubbing his muzzle against my chain covered shoulder. Little known fact, horse snot is the MOST armor corrosive substance on earth. I cuss under my breath but allow the beast to keep scratching. Anything to keep him calm and in the game.

11:55. 5 minutes till show.
The crowds are gathering, groups of families find shady spots near the perimeter. Rows of tiny pink faces sit along the guard rail. They point and let out “ohhs” as horses and riders take a last minute lap around the field. We gather in the wings, the footmen, and give each other knowing nods.
“Ok, so who has the opening pole arm fight?” someone asks.
“Yeah I got it. You want to win this one?” another asks.
“Sure, you can win the dagger fight in act 2”
Right now we are all friends, brothers in arms, but when the horn blows and we take the field we must convince the audience that we are sworn bitter enemies who would like nothing more to than to cause the other pain.

At this point I should mention that in 1375, the time period we are basing the show off of, the average summer temperature never got above the low 70’s. Dressed in steel and leather we fill our boots with sweat, it is 95 degrees.

Noon. Showtime.
As the heralder calls out those words we march onto the field. Helmets on, shoulders squared, looking powerful and confident, we carry the banners of our knights. The heralder does his job well, with each introduction the noise from the crowd swells. The trick is to look for the kids, if you can get them on your side they will cheer and scream with wild abandon. By the time the horses take the field, they are cheering like mad.

Galahad and I walk to the center of the arena, swords and daggers drawn. We call out taunts to each other as we approach the perimeter line. This fight is a good one and we want to make sure the kids in the front row get a good show.
We turn and bow to the crowds; we are rewarded with a roar of applause.
We turn, face each other and lock eyes. Galahad slightly bows his helmed head and touches sword to forehead. I sneer and slap my sword filled fist against my shoulder. We slowly circle each other, muscles coiled like snakes ready to strike. In lighter armor, he hunches low and circles me with cat like grace. In turn I square off and stare him down, a bull twice his size and in 60 pounds of steel ready to crush him.

At this moment, the world becomes very small. Only Galahad and I exist.
We have done this particular dance many times before. Our fight is one of the show piece fights, something flashy and dramatic to hook the audience early. Built over the course of 5 weeks, every move, every blow is calculated and perfectly timed.

In a fury of clashing steel we begin our dance. Weapons swinging, bodies moving like seasoned dancers. This is why we are here. The sun shines off our swords as they swing at each other, right now we must trust each other completely. A misplaced blow or late block could cost us a finger. We both wear scars from such mistakes, but not today. Swing, duck, swing, parry, block. With fluid precision we work, building the fight till its climactic ending.

In that moment, as I lay flat on my back, Galahad poised over me, his blade ready to pierce my chest, that is when my hearing comes back. I can now hear the crowd cheering. They scream and holler their praise.

As I take Galahad’s hand and stand up, I realize we are both shaking. The burst of adrenalin that fueled our previous speed now gone. Panting, we collect the weapons and armor strewn about the field from our spectacle. Locking eyes one last time before we depart to our respective sides, we give each other a mental pat on the back. Good job.

As I reach my corner of the field a hand offers me cold water. Shaking, I gulp it down and try to regain my breath. Only 50 more minutes of show to go.

The rest of the show is much the same, horses charging and kicking up dust, men in armor swinging weapons at each other, crowds cheering.

The last 5 minutes are the hardest for me. By that time the mixture of heat, weight, and physical exertion have taken their toll. All I want to do is fall down somewhere shady, but not yet. Now is the best part. We stand at the edge of the perimeter, weapons in hand, and answer questions. My chest is pounding; I know we must smell horrid by now. A mixture of horse and sweat, but they don’t care. Little kids, stare up at us in awe. They reach out tiny hands to touch the armor and feel the chain. In small exited voices they tell parents, “I wanna be a knight when I grow up!”

In that moment I no longer feel the armor. In that moment the heat really isn’t so bad. Sure, tomorrow I’ll be covered in bruises and unable to move, but in that single moment I’m 9 feet tall. In that moment I am a hero.