Rest in Peace, Dear Friend.

Last Friday, on the 9th of March, an old friend passed away. Not just a friend, but also a teacher and a mentor who in many ways, altered the course of my life and became a part of my own history and personal mythology. He was a man of principle and authority, with a quick wit and the bearing of a Shakespearian actor.

He was the Fencing teacher at the University of California in Santa Cruz when I was a lad of 18 and I was lucky to know him through my father and to live near his home in the Santa Cruz Mountains. He lived at the base of a sand stone hill known to the locals as Moon Rock, which had been carved by the wind into a series of fantastic sculptural shapes and was rumored to have been a sacred holy ground of some Native American tribe.

It was a story we never really believed until one day a large group of Native Americans showed up on his doorstep in a ragged collection of station wagons and pickup trucks and said they wanted to stay and perform spiritual rituals on the hill. Charles welcomed them with open arms and during the next couple of weeks the entire area was blanketed by the sounds of beating drums and inspired chanting. It was just one of the many Selberg stories that were told and retold among his legions of eager young students.

He was adamant that he was a teacher and not a coach. In 1970 he had been a member of the three man fencing team that took the only Gold Medal that America had ever seen at the World Masters Championship and the University of California tried to pressure him into developing an exclusive college team focused on winning tournaments and bringing accolades to the campus.

He refused and accepted as a student anyone who walked in the door with an interest in fencing and a willingness to work hard at it. He was a true teacher and taught above all how to learn. He was not interested in certain styles or dramatic flourishes and drove you learn the absolute basics until it was like breathing. He said, “If you can recognize a style, you can beat it. When you see my students, you will not know who taught them.”

I had the opportunity to see the truth in that lesson after studying with Charles for just a year. I went to a Salle (School) in Sacramento where I was living at the time and asked to join the beginning lessons. The teacher pulled me out on the floor to see what level I was and when he gave me an ornate salute at the beginning of the first bout, everything Charles had taught me about style and ego fell into place. It was an easy win, 3-0 and when it was over the teacher asked me, with a red face, who I had studied under, and I replied, “Selberg.” The teacher said, “Name dropper.” and walked away. Needless to say, I was not welcomed there.

Charles was playful with his students. He had a trick called “The Fencers Handshake.” He would walk up to you with hand extended and a cheerful greeting, and then, when you reached for his hand, he would disengage and strike you in the chest. It was irresistible and you fell for it over and over again much to his delight. He would laugh and say, “Students! They can walk, and they can chew gum, but they can’t walk and chew gum at the same time!” We adored him.

On returning from Sacramento, I came back to the University at Santa Cruz and went to ask Charles if I could enroll in class. He was in his trailer behind the gymnasium holding court with his students. I crawled into the group on my hands and knees, interrupting the story and bringing a surprised silence to the room. I crawled straight up to Charles and said, “The poor humble student prostrates himself before the great master… Will you take me back?” He laughed and roared “Of course!” I sat up and said, “Great!” and then extended my hand… When he went to shake it, I disengaged and hit him in the chest.

Amidst the room’s laughter, he exclaimed, “The bastards! Won’t let you win!” Then he said more quietly… “Free lessons.”

Along with all the other things I learned from Charlie, was that good teachers are also usually good friends. That the best of them are not threatened by their students. They welcome challenges and delight in communication. They don’t get upset if they are wrong and they are always open to learning from their charges. The better they are as teachers, the more approachable they tend to be and if you pay attention, they teach you much more than the subject at hand.

He accepted us as equals, teased us, tortured us on the court, and honored us in profound ways. I once had a private lesson with him covering some very basic move… Perhaps it was a parry, disengage, thrust. Simplicity itself. He told me what he wanted, ran me through the moves a few times and then, blasted me with the fire of a true teacher. He would thrust, I would make a mistake, he would yell at me, I would try to apologize. He seemed to become enraged; he shouted at me, he yelled, “I don’t want you to apologize! Just do it!” The more he yelled, the more upset I got. The more upset I got, the worse I did and the more he yelled and berated me.

I was sweating, I was embarrassed, my brain seemed to start to feed on itself! I had never had anything like that happen to me before and finally, I just shut down. My brain turned off and I just… did… what… he… told… me… to… do.

The change was instantaneous! Suddenly, no matter what he threw at me, I just did what he said. Everything changed! He was like someone who had just won the lottery. He literally jumped up and down, yelling, “That’s it! You did it!” He was ecstatic!

He was like a surgeon. He had carefully opened up my mind, turned off all my self doubting voices, shut off the images of what I should do or shouldn’t do, moved my ego off to the side, and placed a lesson in my body. It was revolutionary to me. Not only a completely different way of learning to fence, beyond the left-brain and beyond the constant commentary we subject ourselves to, but it was a different way of approaching life. One year fencing with Charles was worth many years fencing anywhere else.

Charles was funny beyond words. He would march up and down the line of fencers mimicking ridiculous stances, making caricatures of awkward advances and stumbling retreats, but he was always present and as he entertained, he nipped, adjusted, guided, and educated. It was always brought back in some way to the point of his weapon. He would yell, “No Bliss Bunnies on this bus!” There was no room for fantasy there, when you were wrong, you found the point of his, or someone’s point against your chest, and his point control was perfect.

He had a lesson where a circle of students hung a small ball on the end of a long string and they would each take turns lunging towards it with their weapons. Each time it was struck, it would spin wildly out of control and the next student would take their turn. The secret lay in your expectations. If you wanted the target too badly your hand would tense up at the moment of impact. The minuscule contraction of the hand would make the point of your blade describe a little circle in the air, not much bigger than a quarter, but just enough to make you miss your target. It was strange, until you knew what was causing it, it seemed like your weapon was passing magically through the target, as if it had become a ghost.

Again, the lesson was to just do it. No words, no aggression, just do it. The same is true with shooting, fishing, archery, pottery… in fact, almost everything.

One lesson, Charles told all the students to bring a small ball on a thin string to class for practice. He told the class that no matter what he said, some student was still going to bring a huge, inappropriate ball on thick twine and that when that happened, he was going to kick them out of class on the spot. He raged about it for quite a while. He said it didn’t matter what he said, some student always screwed it up.

The next class when students arrived, there, hanging from one of the basketball hoops was a huge rubber softball hanging from, of all things, a long piece of baling wire. Charles flew into a fury. He demanded to know who had brought this miserable target. Everyone looked at the hanging object and shuffled their feet. No one looked Charles in the eye, his rage was awesome. He stormed around the room confronting students and examining their targets…

He came up to me and demanded to know if it was my offering. I held out a small red ball on fishing line and he said curtly… “Perfect.” Class proceeded, but that ball hung from the basketball hoop like an albatross around a neck all day. Charles would look at it and glare around the room trying to figure out who had brought it and no one dared take it down. I think it might even have been up there for several days… I didn’t tell him it was me for years.

“Charlie” I said to him as we enjoyed iced tea at his remote and idyllic home near the Oregon border. “Remember that big ugly ball that someone brought to class years ago?” Yes dammit! He did remember! In fact, it still made him mad. “That was me.” I said.

“The Bastards! Won’t let you live! Lets fence.”

He was a teacher, a mentor, and a friend. He was a true champion in a world of pretenders. He was honest and direct and as they say about fencers, he always came to the point… or at least brought the point to you.

One of his prize students and his good and life long friend Angela did a series of videos with him in which he explains various fine points of fencing. They are not only a treasure trove of strategic information, but if you watch them you can catch a glimpse of a truly extraordinary man. As always, the instructions for good fencing are also the instructions for good life. There is also educational and equipment information there along with his obituary. He influenced and guided thousands of students who feel his absence like a pain in their hearts.

The Selberg Fencing Website

Video of Charles Selberg

4 Responses to “Rest in Peace, Dear Friend.”
  1. What a wonderful tribute.

  2. howanxious says:

    He would have bee a great teacher… And a great mentor as well…

  3. Mary Land says:

    Thank you for a beautiful tribute to the Maestro. Charlie also changed my life and I have held him in my heart for years as the benchmark of teachers. He, like my kindergarten teacher, had great and grand stories that opened doors to the world along with the best of playtime. I’m a couple of years older than you are so not sure whether we fenced at the same time; I was foil and sabre, back before the later was sanctioned for women.

    As an aside, one day after a class – perhaps in Thiemann Hall – a young man handed me a small folded paper pyramid that sat perfectly in the palm of my hand. When I showed it to a friend and expressed my delight, saying I didn’t know who the donor was, she gave me a name and said it sounded like something that [you] would do. If you were that person that little paper pyramid followed me for many years and I always viewed it with delight.

    I’m happy to have found your blog from the tribute & look forward to reading more of your posts.

    • That might have been me, I did make Origami and did hand them out to strangers who seemed to need them. Usually cranes, but also boxes, frogs, boxes, and other various shapes. I still make them, still mostly cranes and usually out of gold paper. It’s like leaving little blessings wherever you go.

      I started out with foil at a fairly young age and then moved to epee. Charlie was tremendous! Like a dancer on many planes…

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