An Interview with Joshua Call
David C. Madden
Editors' Note: This piece is the second in a series of interviews with
people who love something—a hobby, a place, an idea. Look for more of them
in the summer issues of The New Yinzer.
Joshua Call, twenty five, is best described physically as stout, and one may imagine it’s also the style of beer he prefers to drink. In his living room closet, he delicately stores over fifteen bladed weapons. He also has throwing knives, which I saw at a party once, and asked a lot of silly questions about. Josh was courteous enough to sit down for a bit and talk about his love of blades in a more formal setting, and after the good coffee house in town was packed and noisy, we ended up moving to the sterile environment of the Student Union to conduct the following interview.
DM: Starting at the beginning is usually boring in these kinds of interviews so let’s start at the end. What’s the most recent blade you bought? And then is that the way I should be referring to the umbrella term? “Blade”?
JC: You can really refer to it as anything. I mean you can’t say “sword.” That doesn’t necessarily work because I buy knives, too.
JC: Most recent one I bought was a Scottish claymore [for friend Jason].
DM: How is a claymore different from any other blade or knife?
JC: There are two basic styles. One is the basket-held claymore, which was probably less common. It was more the nobility version. Okay, you’ve seen Braveheart obviously.
JC: The sword that Mel Gibson’s character carries is a variation of a claymore. It’s actually more of a bastard sword.
DM: Which is?
JC: A bastard sword is more English in origin as opposed to Scottish. It’s a hand-and-a-half sword. If you're very strong you can use it in one hand. I’m not strong enough. I have to use two. It weighs about five pounds, pretty heavy. It’s a good five feet tall when you stand it on its tip. A claymore is between five and six.
DM: So these would be the kinds of swords that certain knights and kings are buried with that go all the way down their body? When you see knights in coffins?
JC: A lot of times, yeah.
DM: So where did you get the claymore?
JC: They actually just opened a store up at the mall called Baubles and Blades.
DM: And then what was the last one you bought for yourself?
JC: The last one I bought for myself would have been a zatoichi, which is basically the Japanese stick katana. During the Meiji era, when the carrying of Samurai swords was outlawed, what a lot of people transitioned to was a zatoichi. It’s a straight-bladed sword which, when it’s in its scabbard, looks like it is one long piece of wood. [It looks like] A walking stick. It’s a derivative of the shirasaya. It has no guard. It has no....
JC: No, the hilt is actually the back of the handle. It has no tsuba—the piece that covers your hand.
DM: Where did you get the zatoichi?
JC: That one I ordered from Museum Replicas, Ltd. It wasn’t a very good sword. I was really disappointed in the quality.
DM: How could you tell?
JC: The blade’s decent. It’s got enough carbon in it that it can be used in combat. But you can always tell a good sword-make by its balance and by its deadweight. When you grab a sword by the hilt and you just hold it, you kind of get a sense of its deadweight.
DM: Hold it parallel to the ground?
JC: No, perpendicular.
DM: Oh just from the top?
JC: Right, so it just pulls. If you can feel it start to drag in your arm, then you’ve got some heavy deadweight.
DM: And you don’t want that.
JC: No. I mean if you’re strong enough to handle it, you can compensate for it, but the less deadweight obviously the easier the sword’s going to be to use.
DM: I see. How much does a zatoichi run?
JC: This particular one was a closeout. They were having overstock on that, so I got it for about a hundred fifty dollars. Which I didn’t expect phenomenal things for a hundred fifty dollars. To buy a really nice sword you’ll spend a thousand.
DM: I heard some rumors that there’s a process with which blades are broken in, or I guess sworn in might be a better term.
JC: The christening of the blade?
DM: Christening. Okay, so what is that process?
JC: It actually depends. Different cultures have different traditions. The tradition for Japanese swordsmanship was to cut through corpses to determine how good the blade was.
DM: Like which corpses?
JC: Usually corpses of executed criminals. Sometimes if they had an overstock in the prisons they would use live prisoners. How many you could cut through in one slice was recorded on the blade’s tang. They would take the fittings off and notch the blades so you could tell how effective it was. In some of the Chinese cultures there was a bloodletting tradition. This was one of the more common ones. If the sword was given as a gift, the person who either forged the sword or gave the sword would literally draw their own blood with it and cover the blade with their blood. And then you have to wash it off of course because blood will eat away at a blade very very quickly. But the idea was this weird sort of symbolism that the blade would not break until the person who either forged it or presented it as a gift did.
DM: Did you do that when you gave that blade to Jason?
JC: No. I don’t think Jason would have liked that. Ironically enough he drew his wife’s blood with it about ten minutes after he took it out of the box. He was holding it and looking at it, and Brandy reached up to touch the edge to see if it was sharp. And it wasn’t actually edged enough to cut, but when she put her finger on it Jason turned it because he wasn’t paying attention. So it hooked and pulled and sliced her thumb open.
DM: [Squirms, shudders, moans.] Yikes.
JC: I don’t know much of a tradition about stabbing your wife to christen a blade.
DM: Maybe that’s the new American tradition.
JC: Yeah well they are from Texas.
DM: Now to the beginning. How did you get interested in blades?
JC: My mother made me watch Excalibur when I was a kid. That’s literally where it started. And I absolutely loved Tolkien. I loved the Knights of the Round Table. Tolkien’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is still one of my favorite books. Part of the reason I thought about going into Medieval and Renaissance lit was because I loved epics. Odysseus is one of my favorite characters ever. Greek mythology, you name it. Every sort of fantastic fiction a young boy could have growing up. Also, I have a deep amount of respect for things that require a lot of skill. And actually require a lot of thinking. Sword fighting and blade fighting of any kind is definitely a thinking game. Shooting a gun requires a lot of skill, but it’s a different kind of skill. Sword fighting is a lot like mental chess.
DM: You have be a few beats ahead of the other guy I guess.
JC: You literally want to think at least five attacks ahead. You want to plan like that; otherwise you’re probably going to get impaled.
DM: You have a long fencing history, right?
JC: Well, I started learning knife fighting when I was eight. My grandfather was a marine, and he gave me a military issue Marine Corps stiletto from World War II. I’ve still got it. So he taught me you know: here’s how you stab, here’s how you cut, here’s how you hold the knife, here’s how you do a basic block. [It was] Really simple stuff. And then any time I could find a martial arts school that taught a little more about knife fighting I gathered stuff as I went along. Then I found a fencing school in Tulsa, and I started learning fencing, which is the modern equivalent of rapier fighting.
DM: How old were you then?
JC: Seventh grade. Then I found another fencing academy in Oklahoma City. So I started driving from Tulsa to Oklahoma City four nights a week.
DM: How long of a drive is that?
JC: About an hour and a half. Then I started fencing the national circuit, trying to make the world cup. Was thinking of going to the Olympics, all that, and in the process of doing all that my fencing coach introduced me to choreographed rapier fighting. And it just carried on from there. I took the basic forms I learned from that, I started practicing, and any time I could find somebody to do anything on sword fighting, we’d practice.
DM: So when did you stop doing fencing?
JC: I stopped doing fencing after I got my knees blown out. And it was painfully clear to me that if I kept going I would have a very hard time walking.
DM: When watching sword fighting on the stage or in the movies, I’m always impressed by all that choreography, but are you? Do you find your eyes rolling?
DM: What is it? What do they get wrong?
JC: Sword fighting is really hard to do well, because you have to be very strong to do it, and it’s not a matter of brute physical strength, it’s really a matter of stamina and control. Some of the better movies, like The Mask of Zorro, had good sword fighting. Really some of the best swords fighting scenes are in Japanese and Chinese films. Like Kill Bill, they have the Woo-Ping fight team, who does all the martial arts choreography—some very good stuff in there. You don’t often find it in American movies.
DM: Such as The Princess Bride?
JC: Actually, The Princess Bride has tolerably good rapier fighting. It’s one of the better rapier scenes because it emphasized that rapier fighting is all about distance and setting up action. So you see a lot of parry riposte, parry riposte. The only difference is that they weren’t actually trying to hit each other. If you watch, they’re actually doing the beats and the parries up at only the first quarter of the blade. The tips, even when they’re extending their arms, are still a good two, maybe three feet from each other’s bodies.
DM: So they’re not hitting close to the hands at all?
JC: They’re not even aiming or trying, they’re just smacking the blades. The tempo looks good but the distance is actually wrong.
DM: Have you been victim to or witness of any especially noteworthy blading accidents?
JC: There’ve been a couple [of accidents]. I’ve been knifed a couple times, impaled once at the end of a rapier. That was fun.
DM: Where at?
JC: Um, side right down here. [Points just below right hip.] It hooked a piece of flesh and tore through. I impaled my fencing coach in the leg about two inches short of his groin. I was still learning, and for choreography purposes, you always lead with your arm. Get your arm out there as much as you can. That way they can clearly see and judge distance between end of blade and target. I was coming forward when my arm was still going out which makes it harder to judge.
DM: So it went through the leg?
JC: Went into the leg. It didn’t go through the leg. He was my fencing coach so he knew enough to start backing up. Probably only went in a quarter of an inch, half-inch at most. Still hurt.
DM: Is that something that requires stitches?
JC: Um, it depends. I’ve actually never been stitched.
DM: Even I’ve been stitched.
JC: I hate stitches. I’ll take care of it myself, which basically entails wrapping it, keeping it compressed and tight and letting it heal itself. Of course you get scars that way.
DM: Anything else?
JC: I’ve been challenged to a couple of duels.
DM: Oh, yeah?
JC: At Renaissance fairs. My coach ran his own fencing school. So we would dress in garb and go to Renaissance fairs and put on demonstrations to advertise the school. And Renaissance fairs are an interesting place because, invariably, everybody thinks that because they put on costumes and put on a sword they actually know what they’re doing with an edged weapon. And so you go to Renaissance fairs and you bump into somebody and all of a sudden it’s a duel, which never would have happened. It’s completely historically inaccurate.
DM: So when somebody challenges you to a duel what do they say?
JC: I had one instance where another guy dressed like a musketeer took a glove off and slapped me. And I tried to just walk away, and he’s like “What? You’re a coward?” and draws his weapon. And I’m like, “Just go away.” And of course you duel. I figured if he’s going to pull a sword on me I’m not just going to stand there, because he’s probably dumb enough to stick me with it.
DM: And did he bring out an actual sword?
JC: That particular one wasn’t a decent rapier. It was like the kind you’d find at the mall—really heavy and clunky. And he didn’t know how to use it properly, so it was a simple matter of smacking the blade at a certain point and knocking it out of his hand.
DM: How long did it last?
JC: Twenty seconds? Thirty seconds? I don’t know, not very long at all. It’s the same sort of thing you learn in fencing. You learn how to judge your opponent. How are they standing? How are they holding their weapon? Where are they looking? If the opponent is looking me square in the eye, then he’s not paying attention to what my hands are doing.
DM: So you watch the hands? You watch the sword all the time?
JC: Yeah. They call them “tells.” Just like in poker or chess or anything else, you look for specific cues. And if you know how to read cues and you can’t read any, chances are you’re probably fighting somebody who’s pretty good. And this kid wasn’t one of those.
DM: If someone like me, who, as I’ve said, is afraid of blades and slicing, were to want to get over this fear, or maybe just if anyone were interested in exploring blades and blading, do you have advice for these people?
JC: Again the basic rule for any sort of knife or sword fighting is just understand that if this is a real fight, you’re going to get cut. You’re going to get hurt. It’s going to be painful; you’re going to bleed. Just accept it and move on. It’s like anything else. The second you start to get really scared and panic, you make stupid mistakes. And the second you do that is when the really nasty injuries happen. You impale yourself. You drop your guard, whatever.
DM: You started with knife fighting. Do you recommend people start there?
JC: It depends on what you want to do. I started knife fighting just because I have a love of any sort of bladed weapon. It doesn’t matter what it is. But knife fighting is more practical in a self-defense sort of way. If you want to go into sport fencing, just go to sport fencing. You’ll use totally different system of thought and moves for sport fencing than you will for knife fighting or rapier fighting or any other kind of sword fighting. Basically the key is to find out what it is you really want to do and see what you can do to learn it. There are so many different styles and schools out there, your options are pretty endless.