Ahh, the Renaissance Fair, where the pale and chubby drop their 20 sided attack die and stumble out into the sun for their yearly exposure, where the VCRs are left at home to record X-Files, Xena, Star Trek and forgotten, where the email pagers are left in the car, where the drama club can act freely without fear of a severely deserved throttling. Hastily grown mustaches, dehydrated turkey legs, rotten cider, knee high moccasins, walking sticks – a scene that could be easily confused with Late 80’s Dokken concert in Tennessee if it weren’t for all the packs of confused senior citizens looking for the handicapped Port-a-Potties. Renaissance Festivals are scary to begin with, but experience one in suburban Minneapolis, and you have fully submerged yourself in the Dark Ages.
Powered by a pail of gas station coffee and the incessant chorus of nagging family members, I found myself parking the Driver family battleship at way too early in the morning in a foggy grass field under the parking direction of a suited jester who seemed better dispositioned to suggest a side accompaniment of fried potatoes than to decide the stationary destiny of my father’s Cadillac. I followed his silent cues, coming to rest in between a pickup truck and a minivan with a Jesus fish on the back. Instantly regretting not wearing the winter jacket offered by my mother back at the house, I pulled my arms inside my sleeves to protect myself against the numbing cold. A lady with a paper parking cone on her head greeted the stream of groggy Minnesotans with “M’lord” and “M’Lady” through a mouthful of gum and braces. We got in line with the other sheep and slowly wove our way through the castle gates, past the ticket taker, and into the festival.
Inside, it was a scene of prefabricated wonderment. Bands of merrily costumed dorks strutted about, yelling Medieval insults, trying to grab people and put them in the stockades. I made a mental note to smash the jovial face of anyone attempting to make me participate in anything more rigorous than eating. On tall poles, bright ribbons snapped in the wind. Storefronts selling bread bowls of potato soup and monogrammed crystal with engraved unicorns lined either side of a mazed pathway meant to break all resistance to not spending money. The smell of grilled meat would have probably been detectable to any nose that wasn’t frozen, but seeing how that was probably %4 of the total nose population, it should probably go without mentioning.
My family circled to discuss strategy. Feeling conflicting urges, I attempted to reconcile the juvenile need to run off on my own (not felt since the days of 8th grade in situations like getting dragged shopping for nice pants at the mall), and the newer feelings of respect and understanding I felt for the folks since getting older and learning to fend for myself. The newer mature feelings won out initially, at least until noon hit and beers went on sale. But those few hours before the beer were family memories that will stay with me forever, a special family time that still holds, ah, who am I kidding, the fun didn’t start till I wandered off.
I really wished it would have been more of a Renaissance. I wanted religious persecution, public execution, leprous beggars, plagues. The Fair was conspicuously missing any Black Death at all, unless you consider the pork chops they were selling. I wanted to assemble a team of toothless ruffians to attack food stands and plunder the gift shops. I wanted a pole ax to pierce the side of a burning witch. I wanted to meet my fertility cult in the woods and secretly sacrifice a newborn to the pagan god of autumn, I wanted to dump boiling oil on hordes of attacking Scotsmen, but in the end I was content drinking Pabst from plastic cups and watching fake knights hack at each other with plastic car antennas.
Where I really got in trouble was the games section. First of all, they were cheaper than your average carnival game, meaning my $20 lasted all afternoon. Secondly, most of the games revolved around fighting and weapons, both of which I am a strong proponent. Lastly, the prizes given away were coupons for wine. Yes, gentle reader, I was paying next to no money to fight people for wine. If you asked me “What would be your ideal afternoon?”, after mentioning hunting sharks on a jet ski with an assault rifle in Santa Monica Bay, I would probably mumble something to the effect of “Fight people for wine.” This was the fair I was looking for.
The first game was a snap. All I had to do was throw a knife and make it stick into a block of wood. Since spending most of my 19th summer laying on my girlfriend’s bed, listening to music, and throwing every kitchen knife I could find into her wall until chunks of drywall began competing with dirty underwear for floorspace, knife throwing was an impressive but useless talent I had acquired. Useless until now that was. I handed the aproned oaf a dollar and got two knives. Throw. Stick. Wine. I threw a second knife. Stick. Wine. I handed him another dollar and stuck one of those two knives, claiming another glass of wine as my prize. I tried to hand him another dollar, he wouldn’t take it.
“Give someone else a chance to win.”
“But there’s no one in line.”
“Come back in a few hours.”
I looked at my watch. “How many hours, two?”
“See you in three hours.”
I walked one booth over. I tried to throw an ax into a chunk of wood and failed miserably. Not wanting to waste another dollar, I moved one booth over and found my ruin – fencing.
Fencing, you enchanting whore. My mind drifted back to my stint in school, I was on the fencing team. I originally took it as an elective, hoping it would help me channel the male pattern aggression that was constantly getting me into trouble. Without really knowing what I was doing, I ended up winning a campus wide tournament, where, afterwards I was approached by a funny little foreign man. Originally I thought he was trying to pick me up, but it turned out he was the fencing coach trying to recruit me. I joined the team, won a few tournaments, got to skewer a few jocks, had some fun, but eventually it got too expensive and time consuming, so I quit. On a sad day in February, I put the school owned foil back in its case, hung my helmet up for the last time, hugged the coach, and then the team, put on my civilian clothes, and, with a tear pooling in the corner of my eye, walked that long stretch out of the locker room onto the cold pavement, never to fence again.
Or so I thought. But here I was, with an opportunity to once again pick up a foil, and this time, it was for alcohol. I paid my $1.50 and went to get suited. They didn’t have a vest that was tall enough for me so I had to hunch over a bit with a cloth strap going between my legs and perfectly bisecting my netherparts. The way the match was designed, each fencer had two balloons taped to his mask, Mickey Mouse style, and the object was to pop the balloons, requiring more of a slap to the head than a lunge, but I was up for it. I met my competitor, a little wiry guy with long arms. I felt the comfort of the foil in my hand. The flag was dropped and we went at it. I got one of his balloons right away, catching him off guard. He was trying to size me up, waiting to see how long to let me try before finishing me off. Little did he know that I was no yokel, I was a fencer, the practitioner of the ancient art of – bam! One of my balloons was popped. Now I was annoyed. This wasn’t so much like fencing as it was like carefully swatting flies off a decorated birthday cake. Bam! My other balloon was popped. The little jackass, assuming I was defeated, shook my hand. I shook his and secretly vowed revenge.
I walked back around and bought another ticket, put on the same vest, and met up with him again. He seemed amused, but his amusement shifted to confusion, and then slight fear when he saw the very real, very piercing glare of a professional fencer who would not be put down any longer. I steadied myself, gripped my sword with the firm but loose grasp I used so long ago, did a few lunges to establish my range, stretched my legs, and got both my balloons broken in under 10 seconds. Now I was really pissed. With the vest still on, I jumped the haybales outlining the fighting area, bought another ticket, ran back around, and put my mask on. My opponent tried to get someone else to fence me but I would not hear of it, I didn’t just want balloon, I wanted blood.
I decided a change in strategy was in order. He was used to people just standing there in the bulky overcoat, waiting for them to drop their guard so he could pounce with his sissy little wrist flicks. I would move around. Plus, he was smaller than me, I decided to use my size against him, making this more of a physical match. As the round started, I jumped up onto a haybale. When the judge yelled at me to get off the haybale, I leaped to the top rung of the surrounding fence, no small feat considering the encumbrance of the heavy suit. The crowd cheered, the judge blew his whistle, I attacked anyway, and was yanked back by the judge and one of the other fencers. He pulled off my mask and told me that I forfeited the match. “Fine,” I said, walking around and buying another ticket. “Let’s go again.”
“No, you’re done for the day.”
“Fuck you, I just bought a ticket.”
“Give this guy his money back.”
“I don’t want my money back, I want to fence.”
“Well you’re not going to fence. You’re out of control!” A crowd was starting to form.
“If this was a real Renaissance Fair, you’d fight me for real!” It sounded stupid coming out, but it had obvious intimidating effect on the judge, whose 5’6″, 250 pound frame probably couldn’t defend itself very well. He took a step back. “I’ll be back in an hour,” I said, starting to walk away.
“No. You’re done.”
I turned around and started walking back towards the judge. “Fuck that, I’m coming back for you, tubby.”
That’s when security showed up, two dorks dressed in red Norman uniforms with spears. “What’s going on here?”
“This guy’s out of control. He’s threatened me and he attacked one of the fencers.”
And with that the guards escorted me out of the park. I couldn’t really protest, I was, after all, being a total idiot. Hell, I had a good time, I got my money’s worth, I was ready to go home. The only problem was explaining to my family that I got kicked out of the fair without being able to go back in to tell them. The guards weren’t much for conversation. “You guys rent those suits or did your wives sew them?”, “Have you ever had to spear anybody?”, and “Did you have to take a test to get this gig, or is it part of your community service sentence?” were all ignored. I was led out the back door, smiling at the girl working the re-entry booth as they pushed me out. The guards watched me fish the keys out of my pocket and walk back to the car. As soon as they were gone, I ran back up to the re-entry girl with the best frantic look I could muster.
“I just got thrown out because they thought I stole something and I really didn’t but I’m supposed to be watching my little sister and now she’s by herself. Please let me run in and get her, I’ll come right back, I swear.” Puppy dog eyes don’t fail me now.
The girl considered me for a few seconds and stamped my hand. “You better not be lying.”
“I’m not, I’ll be right back.” That was the last time I ever saw her. I went back inside and bought a sweatshirt, ordered a turkey leg, and got another beer. I sat down at a picnic table, took a big swig, and searched the milling crowd for someone I knew. Damn, it was cold.