There Can Only Be One Foam Sword Fighter
Jim Gasser clutches his 5-foot-5-inch great sword as he advances down the center of Walnut just south of the Plaza Library. He ignores the nearby apartment complexes, rental bungalows, parked cars and other signs of civilization. He wears baggy chef’s pants and an apron. His sword is made of industrial-strength foam, but that’s beside the point. As Gasser wags the hilt of the weapon menacingly back and forth, he channels his alter ego, the Barbarian.
The Barbarian is a throwback, a gladiator who exists only to make war. On this day in late February, I have unwittingly become his target. I clutch my own foam broadsword like an oversized baseball bat and wonder how I got into this.
An hour earlier, Gasser fixed me a salad of mixed greens, tomatoes, olives and onions at The Mixx, a trendy joint about a block away, where he is head chef. I had met him there to ask about his company, Barbarian Battles, which makes foam weapons for troupes of medieval fetishists obsessed with acting out their anachronistic fantasies. I was curious how somebody could make money with such a business, but more than that, I wondered what kind of person would want to live out Dungeons & Dragons with play swords.
“From the minute I picked up a sword to the day I am talking to you, I’ve never lost,” Gasser explains. It’s quite a boast for a 44-year-old salad maker. I size him up: 5 feet 10 inches and 185 pounds of lean muscle. He lures me out of the restaurant and to his white Toyota Corolla for a demonstration. He hands me a sword from the mobile foam armory that he keeps stuffed in the trunk.
So I’ll know how to take a hit, Gasser turns me around and whacks me hard three times across the back. It feels like I’m being smacked by the meaty part of a closed fist: no pain but enough force to be startling. Gasser turns around and asks me to hit him back. Thwack! The 10-pound weapon connects with a sickly slap. It snaps back like a well-balanced fishing rod.
Standing in the center of the street just up a hill from the Corolla, I twirl my sword a few times, feeling foolish. I feel even more embarrassed when the Barbarian assumes a theatrical fighting crouch.
His first slash slams down hard on my right shoulder. His second hits my left shoulder before I have time to flinch. I’ve just been knighted like a bitch. The Barbarian swivels his weapon 180 degrees, chopping into my leg. I flinch again. I swing my sword in front of me like an old lady warding off a mugger.
“Are you scared?” Gasser asks as I shuffle backward.
“Sort of,” I say. But I’m more irritated than anything. Not knowing when you will get smacked makes it hard to get aggressive.
Instead of concentrating on the fight, I start watching passing cars, hoping no one will recognize me. A 20-something woman walks her dog about half a block away. I wonder if anybody in the surrounding offices has taken a skybox-style seat to watch my beating.
Gasser continues to stab at me. He drives me toward the intersection of 49th Street and Walnut while reciting the 500 B.C. battle cry of Greek philosopher Heraclitus: “Out of every 100 men, 10 shouldn’t even be there, 80 are just targets, nine are the real fighters, and we are lucky to have them, for they make the battle. Ah, but the one, one is a warrior, and he will bring the others back.”
He tells me that he hopes one day to be the One. A teetotaler, Gasser spends hours each day working on his swordsmanship, practicing hundreds of repetitions of his attack moves. When I tell him it sounds excessive, he shrugs. “What would the Spartans be doing?”
He asks if I’d like to be his apprentice. “It would take more than a week, but you would definitely understand.”
It would be easy to dismiss Gasser as a grown-up boy way too into his foam-sword hobby. But there’s something exhilarating about getting that beat down in broad daylight. I decide to take him up on his offer. Over the next two months, I will enter an underground clique of about 50 local fighters. They’re businessmen mostly, all following what Gasser has dubbed “The Path,” a spiritual journey based on sword fighting that leads toward enlightenment.
He has no idea that, ultimately, I will betray him to find out if I can beat the One.
Following Gasser’s instructions, I arrive unarmed at Antioch Park in Merriam on a frigid Monday evening in March. About 30 barbarians-in-training wear sweat suits or T-shirts and jeans. They duel in the circle-shaped parking lot near the arboretum.
The band ranges in age from late teens to mid-40s. Its ranks include general war enthusiasts such as 24-year-old Matt Williams, a former infantryman who fought in Operation Iraqi Freedom and is now a prelaw student at Johnson County Community College. Then there are the fringe outcasts, such as a 37-year-old guy who home-schools his kids and claims to have legally changed his name to Coyote. With long gray hair and a pentagram tattooed on his chest, Coyote calls combat “outstanding catharsis.” Coyote continues, “If I go without it for a long enough time, my health starts to suffer.”
Everyone claims that Gasser is unbeatable.
“When he beats your ass, remember, he does that to everyone,” says a 30-ish guy in camouflage pants and an un-ironic ’80s headband.
The legend of the Barbarian began when, at 5 years old, Gasser molded clay daggers in art classes at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. At age 16, he convinced his dad to help him make steel replicas of 6-foot swords and battle axes in their Prairie Village garage. Gasser went to the University of Missouri-Columbia and the University of Kansas, but he wasn’t interested in taking classes unless they were related to the Middle Ages. After learning Viking history, Medieval Latin and mythology, he dropped out. He fell into the restaurant business and worked for a decade as a corporate chef for Planet Hollywood, writing menus and opening new franchises.
About six years ago, Gasser attended a Renaissance festival in Ohio and spotted a 6-foot-1-inch metal sword that called to him. “When I saw that great sword … the clouds opened up, babe, and the angels started singing,” Gasser says. “It’s really cool how all things flow together in your life.”
In 2001, Gasser, who was divorced, returned to Kansas City to be near his daughter and stepson. A friend convinced him to try out for one of the staple character positions at the Kansas City Renaissance Festival in Bonner Springs. “I said, ‘Listen, I just want to carry my sword around.'” He was cast as a barbarian who simply wandered around and grunted. Gasser got bored with posturing. By his third year, he made swords of PVC pipe wrapped in blue foam. He handed them out to kids and adults, asking them to fight him. Soon, he was taking on as many as 400 people a day.
The demand for safe assault gear was there, but the technology wasn’t. At the time, most homemade swords were nothing more than PVC pipe wrapped with pool noodles. Gasser says he sank $10,000 into experimenting with PVC and steel rods wrapped in foam insulation. He visited a psychic who told him that he had been through battles in past lives, and this quest was his attempt to atone. “The goal of my company was just so I could sword-fight all day long,” he says.
The weapons evolved into a 25-step process that turned out Fiberglas rods encased in sheets of industrial foam and wrapped in fabric. He formed a company, Barbarian Battles, and rented a warehouse at 31st Street and Main to mass-produce his swords.
Then Gasser found a self-proclaimed “barbarian woman.” In March 2006, he joined forces with Mary Hill, an office manager at a drug and alcohol assessment center in Olathe and freelance interior designer. The 54-year-old Hill began traveling weeks at a time with Gasser to Renaissance festivals and comic-book conventions across the country. Her daughter agreed to wear leather and strike chivalric poses for the launch of Barbarian Battles’ Web site. But Gasser adds that his relationship with Mary Hill is strictly platonic. She’s going through a divorce, and he’s too focused on his business — and on becoming the One — to have time for romance, he says.
Gasser estimates that he has sold more than 10,000 weapons. He says his clientele includes customers in Trinidad and Canada and soldiers in Iraq. His weapons retail for as much as $58 (for a great sword). But Gasser says he barely covers costs. Earlier this year, Gasser halted production and gave up the warehouse in a last-ditch effort to accomplish what he calls his “epic quest for the ages.” He dreams of building a realistic yet cost-effective foam sword.
At the park, Gasser watches his men battle back and forth across the parking lot. For most, he notes, the hardest challenge is finding the right weapon. He talks about weapons like most men talk about women. Finding your true wartime companion can be tricky, he says. For instance, sometimes you want a great sword because it looks “sexy,” when really you’d be happier with a staff, a more defensive weapon. A weapon should become an “extension of the body,” Gasser says. “Ultimately, you want no difference between your offense and defense. It just is.”
I grab a great sword from his trunk arsenal. This will let me learn about his fighting style. We are both left-handed, so I mimic his movements as we square off. I spread my hands a foot apart on the hilt. Mimicking my master, I shift weight to the balls of my feet for leverage.
Gasser tells me to forget what I’ve seen from drawn-out sword fighting in most movies. Banging swords together is called “killing air.” It might have looked cool for Conan, but in a real battle it would ruin your weapon and drain energy. He has a fighting philosophy that guides his economy-of-motion fighting style: “As barbarians, we don’t fight one at a time — we fight 15 at a time.” Gasser slashes toward an invisible enemy. “You want to be like a surgeon out there. Kill! Next! Kill! Next! Kill! Next!”
Gasser calls out like a photographer at a modeling shoot: “You are a snake!” Swivel the blade out front like a cobra head floating back and forth in “relaxed readiness,” he says. Attack directly, without swinging wide or pulling back to telegraph a shot. To block, go back to snake mode, moving the hilt back and forth in a pendulous motion.
It’s hard not to feel like a geek with a foam sword in your hands. But I’m starting to like something about this. His analogies may sound goofy, but they make a lot of sense. And with Gasser training me, I might one day rule this clan.
Gasser pairs me with Baer Kenney, a 44-year-old computer programmer. The guy wields a foam spear that looks like a long, padded pole with a foam tip. Husky, sweaty and constantly out of breath, Kenney uses his nearly 7-foot-long weapon like a pool cue, slamming the tip directly into my chest. Kenney manages to connect enough times to have killed me about five times.
Next, I face Colin Buell, a 23-year-old heating-and-cooling mechanic. He wallops me on the elbow, the shin — anything I leave exposed. My shoulders burn from exertion. I’m nothing more than target practice. Finally, I switch up attacks, flipping my sword to score a hit to Buell’s leg.
Gasser has been watching me fight. He decides that I have chosen well. “The great sword is your weapon,” he says.
My first kill changes everything. On a pleasant March afternoon, Gasser calls roughly 30 players to the top of a hill for a melee. He picks teams, and it’s clear that my value as a fighter is low. As he divides us, I seem to have been exchanged for two high school freshmen.
The rules of this free-for-all are the same as in a tournament: One body shot or two appendage hits and you’re gone; head shots are illegal. Today, Gasser adds that anyone hit in the legs has to fight from his knees, as though on stumps, until he is put out of his misery. The last crew standing wins.
“Fighting is the only time you get to use 100 percent of your mind, body and soul,” Williams says.
I’d like to say that I fought gallantly that day on the hill, challenging fellow adults and slaughtering them. But as the battle began, I realized that it was a lot easier to challenge the kids. Spotting a freshman from Shawnee Mission North High School coming from the left, I bum rush. This kid, like me, is about medium height, but he’s 50 pounds lighter.
Flipping my sword, I cut out his knees, and he drops to the ground. I watch him flail for a minute, then stick him square in the chest.
Gasser cheers for me. “Ben! Your first kill!”
There’s something empowering about knowing that you can kill somebody, even when it’s just a foam sword in your hands and a kid with a bowl cut and thick glasses under your feet.
The next morning, I practice my slashing moves with Metallica blaring through my headphones. I keep my sword riding shotgun in the passenger seat of my car like a trophy. One weekend, a friend is helping me move, and I toss him a smaller foam katana sword that I’ve borrowed from Gasser. With my great sword, I beat my buddy like a piñata.
During my once-a-week training, Gasser sometimes stops blocking and allows me to wail on him to fix my mechanics. “This is probably the most I’ve ever been hit,” he says. He points out that I’m too tense, which slows my reaction time. I have no poker face, making it easy to tell if I’m frustrated or tired. And it’s easy to anticipate my attacks because of my tendency to strike in a pattern, like chop, chop, pause; chop, chop, pause.
There are occasional victories in my training, but mostly I’m getting murdered. One day, while recovering from an all-night bachelor party, I chase down Williams during a melee. The Iraq veteran stabs me directly in the eyeball. The hit is illegal, but we both decide to let it go because I basically stumbled directly into him. Another time, Hill mistakenly stabs me in the groin. “Sorry about the boys,” she says as she continues bashing me.
Each practice ends with Gasser offering me a manly hug. “I feel that you are really on the path,” he says. Whether I will achieve true warriorhood depends on my continued dedication, he reminds me. “It is really a matter of you.”
As I train, I secretly compile information to use against my master. I rent Gasser’s favorite fighting movie, a bad Antonio Banderas flick called The 13th Warrior. Surprisingly, it describes my exact situation: A novice outsider joins a pack of established combatants and learns their customs and moves. When Gasser isn’t around at practice, other fighters provide tips about his weak points; they say he dips his right shoulder before an overhead attack and his left shoulder before a stab. At one point, Williams offers up a cheap shot: a swipe to the outside right ankle that’s hard to defend. Hill breaks down one of Gasser’s special offensive moves, a fake overhead swing that ends in a chest stab. That move had been crushing me.
On a rainy day in mid-April, I decide to use Gasser’s move against him. Without warning, I execute the maneuver, sticking him in the chest.
Gasser stands up straight. His eyes widen. “Ben’s got a new shot.” Next time I try it, he forcefully knocks my sword out of my hands.
“You can do that once,” Gasser says matter-of-factly.
As though to punish me, he begins to increase his pace, driving me across the parking lot. For my one wound, he spanks me a hundred times over. But it’s worth it: I learn that Gasser keeps a mental dossier of his opponents’ strengths. It reminds me of a moment in The 13th Warrior when Banderas’ character is told that a true warrior must “calculate what he can’t see.”
Finding secret moves will be my strategy to beat him.
As I plan my attack, Gasser and Hill spend several late April nights in the kitchen of her Olathe home, trying to forge new weapons. In a bid for a foam-sword commercial empire, they want an armory to sell at the Wichita Renaissance Festival on April 26. But things aren’t going well.
Hill uses her interior-design skills to craft ornately detailed prototypes from wood and household decorations, including bamboo blinds and curtain tacks. Gasser, the chef, moves to the kitchen, churning a series of toxic chemicals barehanded to create rubbery molds. Into the molds, he pours chemicals that dry into foam. Gasser whispers excitedly over and over: “This is the stuff of legends.”
Alas, numerous mistakes force delays and run them over budget. Some of the new swords are the wrong density, too limp to be fun or too hard to be safe. Others dry in the molds and can hardly be removed, like foam Excaliburs.
At the Wichita festival, Gasser downplays his sword-making defeat. He stands in a grassy valley filled with carnival-style tents and villagers speaking in bad Old English accents. The Barbarian is in full battle regalia: a bearskin cloak and a helmet made from animal hide. His leather armor weighs more than 35 pounds. Three sets of cow horns jut menacingly upward from his shoulders. Two coyote pelts grace his pecs. Hill stands beside him, clad in a caribou cape, a short leather skirt and a corset. They’ve brought more than 100 swords that hang from racks near a booth with a cash box and a foldout table.
Gasser insists that I wear festival garb to unleash my primal persona. He gives me some hand-me-downs: black parachute pants, a leather tunic and a coyote pelt across my shoulders. I have even shaved my head bald, like Gasser, to look more ferocious. But my fierce get-up does little to stop an old man in a kilt who keeps petting my fur and cooing that my outfit is beautiful.
At 3 p.m., Gasser shouts a rallying call. About 80 combatants emerge from across the fairgrounds to duel in a roped-off battleground about the size of a baseball infield. We’ll compete in a bracket-style elimination contest. Gasser will be the judge. One hit, and you’re out.
A crowd of roughly 300 spectators sprawls on hay bales, chanting, “Blood makes the grass grow! Kill! Kill! Kill!” Others shout, “Murder! Maim! Mutilate!” We split into two opposing lines on either end of the arena. I line up beside a guy in his mid-30s who’s smoking a cigarette. His hands are gnarled from fighting with wooden swords. He looks across the field toward his first competitor. “I can’t wait to tap that ass,” he shouts.
I’m embarrassingly jacked on adrenaline. It surprises the hell out of me how thrilling it is to fight in public against unknown legions. For weeks now, I have mocked the idea of wearing a warrior outfit on a day that’s not Halloween. Now, with the great sword and the warrior garb, I’m confident.
My first match is against a role-playing high-schooler from Warrensburg. He’s wearing a leather tunic. I win in seconds by bludgeoning him with a series of overhead shots that Gasser taught me.
My next foe is a guy in his late 30s. He wears a pirate bandanna and a Marvin the Martian shirt that reads “This is civilization?”
Feeling cocky, I point to a pile of weapons laid out on the ground. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll even let you use two swords.”
He looks feeble, but I have completely misjudged him. He takes me by surprise with a block-and-counter combination. The hit glances off my elbow. Two rounds in, I’m out.
Later, I find out that my nerdy-looking foe has studied martial arts at a dojo in Oklahoma City for 20 years.
But I have some training that I’ve kept secret from Gasser. A week ago, I took an aiki ninjutsu lesson from two seventh-degree black belts, Steven Crawford and Thomas Jotoshi Maienza, at Crawford’s Mixed Martial Arts dojo on Metcalf in Overland Park. They’ve taught me three katas, or Japanese fighting moves. They’re called the nimitsu, the santobi and the juji — and they should give me an edge against Gasser. I’ve been sandbagging all day so that he doesn’t see my new attacks.
After the main battle, I catch Gasser near his equipment tent.
“No one has wanted to fight you today, so I’m issuing you a formal challenge,” I say.
Hill overhears me: “Oh, honey, he’s going to kick your ass.”
Gasser looks confused. “You want to fight me? You are my brother.”
I suggest that we duel for the one thing I know he won’t refuse: glory.
A hard wind blows as I draw foam to face the Barbarian. We stand in the center of the fairground, between Gasser’s booth and a village of mobile ATMs and concession stands. For the first time, I notice that we have identical attack postures. We crouch, swords ticking back and forth hypnotically. A small crowd has gathered. Our eyes are both scanning, looking past each other’s weapons for a telltale signal that a blow is coming.
Gasser sets the terms of the duel. Each body shot counts as a point. The victor is the first to reach 10.
I blitz, rushing forward and swinging my sword, telegraphing my intention. Gasser raises his sword and blocks me. I keep advancing, swinging sloppy stroke after stroke in rapid succession.
My attack plan is scripted. First, I will employ the nimitsu. It’s a maneuver that’s designed to catch an enemy by making him think you’re retreating. When he gives chase, you catch him off guard. As instructed, I stop my onslaught as he counters and I hop three steps backward. Then I jump back toward him. But Gasser isn’t there. He stood his ground the entire time that I retreated. I rush forward again and feel a light thump on my right shoulder. Damn. First blood is his.
The next two hits come quickly, striking my chest and elbow. So I switch into santobi mode. I will try to control the movements of the attacker by allowing him a specific place to attack. I move in a circle, exposing a strike zone on my shoulder. When Gasser strikes I’m supposed to jump out of the way and counterstrike. Too late, I realize that I’ve exposed the wrong shoulder. Instead of jumping to avoid Gasser’s strike, I jump into it. When Gasser strikes again, I counter, but we both hit each other. That negates the points. Gasser sees the pattern, and I abandon the santobi.
At 5-0, I get frustrated and swing wildly, slamming my sword hard. I strike the side of Gasser’s face.
“Oh, shit, Jim! I’m sorry!”
He notices that I’ve lowered my guard. “That’s OK, baby,” he says, thumping me square in the chest with the tip of his sword.
A minute later, we lock swords, and I try the juji: Rather than pulling away, I shift the angle of my blade to bring my sword into his neck. Gasser just takes a few steps to his right. He changes the angle on me and pushes me backward.
Sweat and sunblock sting my eyes. One point away from a complete shutout, I resolve to use the cheap shot that Williams taught me. I charge forward and lunge for Gasser’s ankle. At the last second, he sweeps his foot away. His sword comes slamming down hard on my back. He has won, 10-0. But as I’m coming up, he swings the blade around and catches me in the chest. A second later, he lands another blow to my side. It’s like he’s entered a bonus round of beating.
He gives me a consolation hug.
Afterward, I duck into the tent to change back into my street clothes. Lying on the floor is a poster for Gasser’s company. It’s emblazoned with one of his favorite catchphrases: “It is better to die with honor than to live without it.” It reminds me of the warning that Gasser offered at my first practice. “The ego says win,” he told me. “Once you get away from that ego, once you clear the mind, it’s amazing what you can accomplish.”
Beside the poster lies a flier for an event that Gasser is planning at the Renaissance Festival Fairgrounds in Bonner Springs on May 19. He’ll assemble foam-sword fighters for a war raging throughout a medieval township. He calls it “The Battle for Karnath Village.”
If he will have me, I will follow him into battle. After my treachery, I hope I’m still invited.