You don’t forget your first team, or your first teammates. The fortuitous circumstances surrounding my introduction to fencing couldn’t be more memorable; a time filled with remarkable personalities. Fencing was my first college course. Fencing, the game I’d always wanted to play, was finally right in front of me. A high school chum had taken some courses at our local community college, Cabrillo, during our senior year, one of which was fencing. Knowing that was my destination to start college and that they offered the sport I’d been intrigued with since elementary school, I had 1/6th of my first semester schedule selected before looking at the course catalog. And fencing was literally the first class, 8am Mondays and Wednesdays, so that first Monday of class, I found myself here:
Fifth in from the left. That’s what a beginning fencing class looked like in the 1977 of Santa Cruz, California. Len Carnighan looks very proper there on the far end. My good friend – still – and toughest bout in the class, Debra Allen, is on the left end.
Len Carnighan was teaching his first college course that day. He had inherited the program from Darlene James who had taught at Cabrillo for some time, but was moving up to be an administrator and couldn’t continue teaching. She sought out advice from Charlie Selberg at UCSC, who recommended Len for the job. Len had attended UCSC after a year or two at LA Valley College, where he first learned to fence. His coach there, Joe Abel, recommended that he look into attending UCSC and learning from Charlie. Len took his advice and during his second year there, decided he wanted to dedicate his life to teaching fencing. Charlie taught and mentored him, sent him to Michael D’Asaro for additional tutoring, hooked him up with Jack Nottingham, who was one of Charlie’s formative teachers and recommended him to John McDougall as an assistant at John’s new club, Freedom Fencers.
Young Len Carnighan, fencing coach.
When I started at Cabrillo, Len had just taken over the Freedom Fencers Club from John. Now, if you think it was called the Freedom Fencers club as a statement of wrapped-in-the-flag patriotism, I can tell you, it wasn’t. The building it was in was an ancient hay and feed barn that had been repurposed by John, established in the dinky community of Freedom, California, on Freedom Blvd., the connecting thoroughfare between Aptos and Watsonville in southern Santa Cruz County. It had four short strips, two on a warped concrete slab and two on 2×6 painted boards, scarred and pitted, with half inch gaps between, that were, if anything, harder than the concrete.
*sigh*… That’s me on the left, sometime during my second year at Cabrillo trying to get away from my teammate, Kevin Kelsen. If I remember correctly, this photo was taken shortly after Len had returned from seeing – and videotaping – the Junior World Championships at Notre Dame in 1979. Len was watching us “fence” while basically standing in one place. He stopped us, reminded us of the tape he’d shown us from the Jr. Worlds and asked why weren’t we try to incorporate movement like we’d seen on the screen? This was our attempt at movement. *sigh*
As you can see from the above, it really was a ratty old barn. The paint was coming off the floor, the interior walls were full of spiderwebs and Len had yet to learn how to decorate a fencing club. And I don’t know what intergalactic force makes old wooden floorboards take on the quality of iron, but these boards had that quality. Those were some really hard oak beams. When Len taught me to fleché, I wasn’t getting it. I was too concerned with catching myself with my crossing foot. Frustrated, he finally yelled, “Stop trying to catch yourself! Just land on your face!” I was 19, so I did just that, fleching for all I was worth, fully stretched out. He was, I think, shocked that I’d actually done it, me face down on the floor learning just how hard oak can be. I think I completed a full-body rebound bounce. Still, I’d hit the target. My fleché improved markedly after that.
In addition to Kevin and myself, the other fencers who most dedicated themselves to learning from Len in those first couple of semesters were these three women: Claire Braunhut, Diane Russell and Debra Allen, with the proud coach tucked in between Diane and Debra.
At the end of our 4th semester of fencing, the Cabrillo women won the Northern California Junior College Women’s Team Championship. There were six or seven other schools but these three were unstoppable, taking, in order, 3rd, 2nd & 1st in the individual, as well. Kevin and I, along with our teammate Steve, didn’t fare quite as well. I think we took 3rd.
This article was from the Cabrillo school paper, the Cabrillo Log. The “bout official’ is none other than Ferenc Marki, whose San Francisco City College fencers had lost to the team from Cabrillo.
During my second year at Cabrillo, a new group of beginning fencers had begun to show real interest in the sport. Len had put a duplicate copy of the Junior World tape at the Resource Library that we could check out and watch in a little private booth. I often found, when going up to check it out in my free time (no telling how many times I watched that tape) it was sometimes already being watched by one of new fencers. That’s how I met John Ryan and Noel Hankla, soon to be fast friends and teammates. It became a habit that if the tape was being watched by an early bird, the second one in would just drop into the little booth and we’d watch together. At the end of my second year, Len decided we would have a Cabrillo intramural championship and stage the finals on a raised platform at an evening performance.
Kevin, on the left, helps me with warm ups for the finals as Charlie & Julie Selberg and Ted Pryor look on. Funny story about the platform. Len arranged to borrow the risers from Santa Cruz High School and sent Kevin and I over there to pick them up. We loaded them into the back of his ’72 El Camino. We drove down the hill from the school – we weren’t taking this load on the freeway – and crossed the railroad tracks for the Roaring Camp/Big Trees line that went from up in the redwoods down to the Beach Boardwalk. As we bumped across, we heard a “ssshunk!” sound. We both looked back to see that all the risers had slipped off the back and were right on the tracks. As we turned to look at one another in surprise, our looks turned to shock as we heard from up the street the “wheeeeeee!” of the steam whistle as the Roaring Camp Steam Train headed toward the Boardwalk. The only thing in their way was our stack of risers. We leapt out of the car, raced to the tracks and moved the risers – there were 10 or 12 of them, 4×8 1″ plywood boards with legs – faster than humanly possible. If we’d been filmed, we would have shown up as mere blurs. The whole time we were rushing to clear the track and reload the car, we both were laughing hysterically. I think we laughed the whole way back to Cabrillo.
The intramural was a hard-fought affair, as the evening finals event had been so hyped by Len in the classes that everyone wanted in on the action. I think about 40 fencers came out for the qualifying rounds and bouting continued until we were down to six for a round robin final pool.
The newcomers, Noel and John, both made the finals. They were roommates at the time, sharing a little house in Capitola. This is the final order, 6th to 1st from left to right: Kevin Kelsen, Diane Russell, Noel Hankla, John Ryan, Debra Allen, me, then Len and his son, Lencin Carnighan. Debra and I had each dropped a bout in the final. She’d beaten me 5-4, but lost to Noel. In the fence-off, I was able to win 5-4. Ever a tough bout between the two of us.
There was other excitement in the finals, too. Charlie Selberg had come down from UCSC to officiate the bouts. During the match between Noel and Kevin, Kevin’s blade broke, pierced Noel’s lamé, jacket and t-shirt, and ripped a not-deep, but bloody gash across Noel’s chest. While Noel was getting patched up, Charlie paced up and down in front of the audience of the 70-ish friends and family in attendance, and loudly assured them that it was, really, a very safe sport and that in his 25 years of fencing (at the time) he’d never, ever seen an accident like this. Noel, patched up and given a tetanus booster, got back on the strip and finished the bout, beating Kevin handily.
Noel Hankla grew up in San Bernardino, CA and was a star linebacker on his high school football team. His dream of going to college on a football scholarship evaporated after facing a player from another team, a running back who was the only player he ever met that was bigger and tougher than him, and near impossible to bring down. He described having foot prints up his front and down his back from this monster of a player. Playing against him made Noel realize that he would be overmatched at the next level if he would be competing against guys like that. That player’s name? Ronnie Lott.
Each of my teammates and training partners from those days at Cabrillo were unique, interesting and creative, each in their own way, and continue to hold a special place in my memory.
Diane Russell, wearing the Freedom Fencers patch – a California flag with “Freedom Fencers” embroidered under the bear’s feet – straightens a blade in preparation to hitting hard enough to bend it again. Although lacking in fencing experience – as we all were at the time – Diane was a mentally tough competitor and had some great finishes at big events. A competitive climber, she won the speed climbing competition at the very first X-Games and remains involved in that sport as co-owner of Santa Cruz’s Pacific Edge climbing club.
John Ryan and Kevin Kelsen at a Santa Cruz beach. As is happens, they were watching a fencing match when this photo was taken. These two, like me, ended up spending time at San Jose State to train with Michael D’Asaro, John first, then Kevin. John was part of my Western Regional-winning foil team in 1981. Kevin and I were roommates along with Spartan fencing teammates Joy Ellingson and Laurel Clark. That was a house to remember, believe me.
Leave it to Debra Allen to make the cover of the local paper. She fenced with classic form and was a tough competitor. On the local scene, she won a lot of tournaments. Only when the nationally ranked ladies from San Jose showed did she have to look at fencing for less than first place.
Claire Braunhut was like my twin sister. We were born less than a day apart and both loved this crazy fencing sport. She eventually got her little brother Ed into it, too. She lived up in the Santa Cruz mountains with her family and I often gave her a ride home after fencing at Freedom, about a 45 minute drive with a return drive back to my home in Aptos of a half hour. Still, you’d do anything for family, right? Claire stopped fencing a year or two after leaving Cabrillo, leaving a hole in my heart that was made permanent when I learned of her suicide in 2008, age 49 years. I miss her still.
When you live and fence near the beach, it only seems right that you and a few friends along with some swords and masks would make their way to the beach once in awhile. During my time at Cabrillo, we had a couple of very memorable beach tournaments with rather unique adaptations to the usual rules. The “strip” was basically the entire beach from sand to shore and into the water as deep as you cared to go. There wasn’t an end-line, so you could run as far as you liked and everyone acted as a judge, majority rules, no exceptions. We would draw names out of a hat for who fenced who and the first name drawn could pick the weapon, single elimination down to the last fencer standing.
Debra went with the classic look of a white skirt, but nowhere near as hazardous as the very short 80s sportswear we men were wearing. John Ryan, on the far left, to the surprise of no one, went without bothering to don a fencing jacket for his bouts, no doubt assuming he’d go through the day without being hit. He likely came close. I think he won that day. With John, Noel and I looking on, Debra is up against one of Len’s UCSC teammates, Jonathan Holtz.
Really though, you never quite knew what to expect. Len attempts to use a chair against Diane Russell. I suspect it didn’t do him any good.
But every now and then, a fencing bout would show up. This one is Jonathan Holtz and Noel Hankla.
In addition to the occasional beach tourney, our Santa Cruz contingent hit the road for all the Central Cal and Nor Cal tournaments and often drove down to Los Angeles to brace the SoCal contingent. This photo was taken late in the day at LA Valley College, a frequent venue for LA division tournaments at that time. John, far left, clearly eliminated, is starting in on the beer supply. Then Marc Walch, Kevin and Noel. If my memory serves, this was at the Mori open. I’m pretty sure Noel beat Marc which put him in the final match of the day where he got a chance to fence Heizaburo Okawa for first place. Noel got in some touches, but that match finished out the way you’d expect. The biggest treat was, since Okawa was there to put on a show as much as win the tournament, he hit Noel with his patented touch where he twists, drops and turns to face you upside down – the move immortalized in the famous poster. Not once. Twice.
By 1982, our Santa Cruz group was running the Central California division. Len, rightly, strategized that if we ran the division in a ‘Santa Cruz’ fashion, some new blood from San Jose would eventually get frustrated and take back the running of the division with new energy and focus. (‘Santa Cruz’ fashion meant hold the tournament in Santa Cruz with a noon start time.) He was right, but it took 2 years and coincided with the opening of The Fencing Center in San Jose. Noel and I ran the 1982 Pacific Coast Championships and did a decent job, but there wasn’t enough room to hold team events. This was us near the end of the event. Exhausted, we both went out in the early rounds.
I’ll end with this one. Me and Len, taken at the First Annual Buchwald Open, sponsored by Alan Buchwald, and held at Cabrillo College in 1982. The summer of 1982 was a watershed moment. Len was one of the finalist in consideration for the job of taking over the UC Santa Cruz fencing gig when Charlie Selberg retired, but lost out to Delmar Calvert. He decided to leave town, left the job at Cabrillo and moved to Ashland, Oregon. Charlie, too, moved to the woods outside Ashland and John McDougall followed not long after. In 1985, after leaving San Jose State, Michael D’Asaro and then wife Gay also moved to the Ashland area. That’s a lot of fencing coach talent in one place. Len is another of the folks on this list that I miss dreadfully. As I write this on September 1st, we’re just ten days away from marking the 3rd year since Len committed suicide. He was another veteran who, as a teen, had PTSD imprinted for life onto his DNA during his time in Viet Nam. That sad end doesn’t resign him to a mere statistic about military suicides. His memory is too vivid, his influence as teacher, mentor and friend too current. And those memories are intertwined with those Santa Cruz-centric summer days spent with special friends whose essence and presence remain unchanged as I reflect back on the times we spent. Fortunately, these aren’t maudlin remembrances. The admirable qualities of the individuals and the combined energy of this group was all too grand in the moment to reflect upon it with anything other than joy in the memory.