It’s like fate or an inexorable draw. Or karma. That might be too strong. But if you’re named Michael D’Asaro, you eventually move to Texas. Maybe it’s the bbq. That would be the last entry on the ‘go’ side of my go/no go list. The Junior D’Asaro recently moved to the Lone Star state, but his father was the trailblazer. In fact, photos of Michael Senior as a soldier/pentathlete that were in a scrapbook of Charlie Selberg’s were some of the photos that made me first consider creating this Archive. I had always thought Michael was a good candidate for a documentary film and seeing those photos showed me a side of Michael I knew nothing about. Fast forward I-don’t-know-how-many-years and now my filmmaking partner Greg Lynch and I have shot 50 interviews, amassed a large collection of photos, videos and other ephemera and our documentary feature is now less than <unknown.number> years away from completion. So that’s exciting.
As often happens when I write these stories, one week connects to the next. Last week I wrote about Colonel Laurance Brownlee. One of the events he participated in was an International competition held in Mexico City. Well, in perusing some photos of Michael D’Asaro, I realized one of the photos that I’ve been staring at for years is actually from that Mexico City event.
Taken at the sixth edition in 1963 of the Torneo Internacional de Invitacion Esgrima in Mexico City. In the center is Alfonso Morales, a pentathlon teammate of Michael’s – and future NYAC teammate. Al is a 4-time Olympian, 2-time National Sabre Champion, NCAA Sabre Champion and a graduate of the Naval Academy. Michael is on the far right and unfortunately I can’t name the other three individuals. I’m guessing they were also stationed at Fort Sam.
Michael joined the Army in 1962. Now, I was going to say he was drafted, but I realized as I was about to type that that I didn’t actually know if it was true. So, rabbit-hole, thank you Google, and I learned that the US didn’t start the draft for Viet-Nam until 1964. So Michael enlisted? That seems to go against type. Maybe he really, really didn’t like working on Madison Avenue. He worked for an advertising agency after graduating from NYU in 1960. I don’t know how else he gets into the Army other than enlisting. However that worked, as an Olympic team member in 1960, he got a non-standard military assignment, landing at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. Fort Sam was the home of the United States Modern Pentathlon training center for 40 years and Michael was there in its hey-day.
Young Michael D’Asaro holds a 1913 Patton Sabre and compares it to his competition sabre while standing in front of some mobile field artillery at Fort Sam Houston in 1962.
If you’ve read this far and don’t know what the Modern Pentathlon is, here’s the scoop. It’s an Olympic sport comprised of five events: running, swimming, horseback riding, shooting and fencing. It’s fashioned after the skills needed by a cavalry soldier who finds him or herself behind enemy lines. If you’ve gone back in time. Still, great event requiring great skill at things Brooklyn born Michael D’Asaro did not grow up around. Like horses. And swimming pools.
I don’t know if Michael knew how to swim before coming to Texas. I assume that he did – I mean, he didn’t drown. But swimming was not his #1 sport.
Al Morales couldn’t give Michael too much credit as a pentathlete. He wasn’t a strong swimmer and had definitely never ridden a horse before coming to Texas and the pentathlete horse riding event requires trotting, galloping, jumping, you know, all the hard stuff. Al did say that for the most part, Michael’s role at the USMPTC was to fence and make the other pentathletes better fencers, and he did that very well. Pentathlon requires epee fencing and Michael was a silver medalist at the 1959 Pan American Games, so he was no slouch there. But he and Al would fence each other in sabre to stay sharp. They seemed to trade off victories at the tournaments they attended while training together, Al tending to win the sabre events, Michael the epee events. The two of them were often 1-2 in the final standings.
Not sure where the Vales Foil event was held, but presumably in Texas.
Michael and Alfonso take a break during training to get a photo-op with a staff officer at Fort Sam.
One story that I have heard others tell is that Michael assured them that he’d actually won a pentathlon event while he was in the Army. Having spoken at length to Al Morales about Michael, this was something I didn’t imagine ever getting a confirmation on. Lo and Behold! I give you the evidence!
There you go! Clearly Al caught a bad break that day and Michael reaped the benefit.
I’m not sure this award presentation goes with the above article, but it fits here nicely. Al mentioned that Michael wasn’t really cut out for the military life and I don’t have any trouble believing that.
Apart from Mexico, Michael participated in another international event while serving in the military. The US fielded a team for the 1963 World Military Championships with Michael alongside future NYAC teammate Alex Orban who was also in the military at the time, but stationed in Germany. There are several great stories about Michael’s antics during this event, but I’m not going to spoil the telling here. I’ve got to build up a little anticipation for the reveal when we finally finish making the documentary, right? Not to mention the stories are much better told first hand by those who were there to bear witness. So you’ll have to wait. Still, there’s this:
Pfc D’Asaro, in the front, wins the Individual Sabre at the 1963 World Military Championships. The sabre team also took gold and Michael fenced on both the sabre and foil teams. Alex Orban is on the left in the second pair of marchers.
Michael was in the Army for two years and spent a good deal of that time fencing. Al Morales said that at a certain point, the Army stopped requiring him to train in the other four events and just focus on his fencing. There is no question that this was the best conditioned he ever was as an athlete. It also was where he learned the conditioning techniques he passed along when he became a coach. While training with him at San Jose State, he showed us his weight room circuit, had us running on the track at the start of the season and encouraged us to cross-train with other activities. Since it was California, we mostly played ultimate frisbee in off hours. But mostly we fenced. A ton. I think he got that from his military training as well.
Fortunately, this was not part of the required SJSU training regimen as instituted by Michael during his time coaching there. I don’t know what they were trying to find out here. Whether he had a heart? The dinky little TV monitor back there is blank, so I’m not sure. As college students training under Michael, there were times when we wondered. Many of us began fencing at college, so Michael used physical conditioning as one way to counter our lack of experience. He put us through a lot. But not this.
In Modern Pentathlon competitions, you don’t get to ride a horse you’re familiar with. When about to ride in competition, you get introduced to the horse you will compete with about 20 minutes before you ride. The story goes that Michael didn’t get along all that well with the horse he was regularly training with on the base, so how he handled a strange horse during competition is tough to imagine. I suspect it was no small amount of relief to him that he focused most of his efforts on fencing.
So when Michael D’Asaro Junior, a newly minted Texan, has his kids asking what Grand-Pops did in the Army, this should fill in some gaps. Time spent in Texas is traditional, apparently, for Clan D’Asaro members. I’m sure Junior’s experience will be somewhat different that Senior’s.