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Gasser calls out like a photographer at a modeling shoot: "You are a snake!" Swivel the blade out front like a cobra head floating back and forth in "relaxed readiness," he says. Attack directly, without swinging wide or pulling back to telegraph a shot. To block, go back to snake mode, moving the hilt back and forth in a pendulous motion.
It's hard not to feel like a geek with a foam sword in your hands. But I'm starting to like something about this. His analogies may sound goofy, but they make a lot of sense. And with Gasser training me, I might one day rule this clan.
Gasser pairs me with Baer Kenney, a 44-year-old computer programmer. The guy wields a foam spear that looks like a long, padded pole with a foam tip. Husky, sweaty and constantly out of breath, Kenney uses his nearly 7-foot-long weapon like a pool cue, slamming the tip directly into my chest. Kenney manages to connect enough times to have killed me about five times.
Next, I face Colin Buell, a 23-year-old heating-and-cooling mechanic. He wallops me on the elbow, the shin — anything I leave exposed. My shoulders burn from exertion. I'm nothing more than target practice. Finally, I switch up attacks, flipping my sword to score a hit to Buell's leg.
Gasser has been watching me fight. He decides that I have chosen well. "The great sword is your weapon," he says. My first kill changes everything. On a pleasant March afternoon, Gasser calls roughly 30 players to the top of a hill for a melee. He picks teams, and it's clear that my value as a fighter is low. As he divides us, I seem to have been exchanged for two high school freshmen.
The rules of this free-for-all are the same as in a tournament: One body shot or two appendage hits and you're gone; head shots are illegal. Today, Gasser adds that anyone hit in the legs has to fight from his knees, as though on stumps, until he is put out of his misery. The last crew standing wins.
"Fighting is the only time you get to use 100 percent of your mind, body and soul," Williams says.
I'd like to say that I fought gallantly that day on the hill, challenging fellow adults and slaughtering them. But as the battle began, I realized that it was a lot easier to challenge the kids. Spotting a freshman from Shawnee Mission North High School coming from the left, I bum rush. This kid, like me, is about medium height, but he's 50 pounds lighter.
Flipping my sword, I cut out his knees, and he drops to the ground. I watch him flail for a minute, then stick him square in the chest.
Gasser cheers for me. "Ben! Your first kill!"
There's something empowering about knowing that you can kill somebody, even when it's just a foam sword in your hands and a kid with a bowl cut and thick glasses under your feet.
The next morning, I practice my slashing moves with Metallica blaring through my headphones. I keep my sword riding shotgun in the passenger seat of my car like a trophy. One weekend, a friend is helping me move, and I toss him a smaller foam katana sword that I've borrowed from Gasser. With my great sword, I beat my buddy like a piñata.
During my once-a-week training, Gasser sometimes stops blocking and allows me to wail on him to fix my mechanics. "This is probably the most I've ever been hit," he says. He points out that I'm too tense, which slows my reaction time. I have no poker face, making it easy to tell if I'm frustrated or tired. And it's easy to anticipate my attacks because of my tendency to strike in a pattern, like chop, chop, pause; chop, chop, pause.