Four decades ago, way back when we got the latest news only each evening from avuncular anchors like Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley on the big three broadcast networks, I knew I was living through the kind of history that would show up in schoolbooks within a few years. Every evening we’d tune in to see what the latest Watergate revelation was, who’d said what at that day’s hearings, which administration official had been the one to scoff or rage at the most recent accusations. And every morning we’d scour the newspaper for more gory details.

Every few years, I’ve thought back to Watergate and how engrossing and important and historic it all felt. In 1999, its 25th anniversary, I thoroughly enjoyed watching all those documentaries with my daughters and trying to explain to them what it was like.

But over the past couple of weeks, I’ve thought about one specific bit of the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment hearings that’s stuck with me—indeed, I consider it part of my DNA as an American—through all those decades. It echoed for me through both conventions—but especially resonated through the Democratic convention, which I kept wishing she could have seen.

This voice:

(The video is about 13 minutes, but if you don’t have that long, at least watch from 0:45 to 1:50)

James Earl Jones and Morgan Freeman can only aspire to the majesty and grandeur with which Barbara Jordan invests the word “Constitution.” Hers is the voice I hear in my head when I read its Preamble.

But this is the single most American moment I will see in my lifetime:



Ooof. Hearing today that Gerrie Baumgart died is a tough one to wrap my brain around.

I first became aware of Gerrie Baumgart during the 1999 Summer Nationals in Charlotte, when my older daughter, competing in her first national tournament, signed a pool sheet that showed her winning one bout fewer than she’d actually won. Gerrie was the person who met Kate and her coach at the bottom of the stairs to the BC stage (like all good fencing parents, I was across the room, though paying close parental attention) to explain that verifying that her scores were correct was part of what Kate had done when she signed her scoresheet and that the scores would stand as entered. Gerrie was nice about it, even sympathetic, explaining that this was something most young fencers did once and only once, but Gerrie was clearly not someone who would be moved by piteous looks from fencers or rants by angry coaches.

When I began working as a bout committee trainee the following year, Gerrie was even more intimidating. She understood that some of us were new and just learning the ins and outs of running events, but she also expected us to pay attention and learn quickly. Making a mistake was regrettable but forgivable, as long as any regret didn’t interfere with the smooth running of the tournament and was not repeated. Repeated errors were likely to earn the offender one of Gerrie’s ferocious but discreet little chats in an out-of-the-way corner.

Gerrie was almost always head referee at the March NACs, back when they were the Division II/III/Veteran combination and always the tournament that brand new half-trained bout committee chairs—including me—were handed. I may have been terrified of Gerrie but I recognized immediately how much she could—and did—teach me about running strips, handling complaints and protests, and managing my crew. More than anything else, she taught me how to think not just two or three rounds ahead, but through the entire day, to make sure I knew when bottlenecks could occur and to assign strips to allow for possible double-stripping or other impromptu rearrangements as conditions changed throughout the day.

Mostly, though, Gerrie was a referee, and a developer of new referees. One of the most fun talks I ever had with her (after five or six years, I wasn’t scared of her anymore, and she seemed to think I’d become acceptably competent) was when I was writing this article about referees for American Fencing. She had great stories to tell from her decades fencing and refereeing—more than I could use—and we laughed a lot. With fencing daughters, including one who herself became a referee, I especially appreciated her stories about becoming one of the earliest women referees with an international license.

Baumgart says attending an engineering school for college got her used to bias against women. She wasn’t happy with it, but it wasn’t so unexpected to find it in fencing, too. “But I’m competitive and wanted to be better than I was, so I worked at it.”

“Ralph Zimmerman was good at seeking out younger referees and taking chances on them,” she says. “Women were chancy assignments. He asked me if I was willing to do whatever I was asked to get to the Olympic Games. I said yes.”

It turned out to be a huge commitment. She worked 17 world cups in about a year and a half to build her reputation as a suitable selection. But in 1996 in Atlanta, she became the first American woman to referee at the Olympic Games.

Occasionally—and considerably more than occasionally in recent years, at least when we were done in time—Gerrie would join the BC gang for dinner. Especially on the last night of a tournament, she liked a good steak, often followed by an Irish coffee—and stories and laughter and more stories and more laughter.

The last couple of years were pretty rough on Gerrie, with the death of her husband, along with her declining health. Though it might have been better for her, she wasn’t the type to abdicate what she viewed as her responsibilities to the fencing community. I hope that same fencing community recognizes how much Gerrie Baumgart gave us.


We Get the Job Done

hmi701_1I’m obsessed—for entirely opposite reasons—with this year’s memorably insane presidential campaigns and with Hamilton: An American Musical (or more precisely, with the soundtrack, since both the commute and the ticket prices are well out of my range at the moment). But a peculiar synergy between the two sent me digging into the family history and genealogy files that I’d essentially ignored since I took possession of them after my dad died.

You see, I’m a product of white American suburbia. Not only that, I was born in the ’50s into a family that looked like every family you could see on TV back then. Just like in Father Knows Best, we lived in a house with a lawn front and back, and were a father with a job, a mother who took care of us, and three kids—me and my younger brother and sister. Oh, and most of the time, at least one dog. We ate hamburgers and meat loaf and hot dogs and Kraft dinner (sometimes with ground beef mixed in) and scalloped potatoes, with sides from the official rotation of suburban American vegetables (green beans, corn, peas, and carrots, with rare additions of asparagus or artichokes when in season). For exotica, there were occasionally ground beef tacos with faux guacamole (without chillies or tomatoes or tomatillos but with lemon juice and mayonnaise—shudder).

I’d been aware that my ancestry was mostly Scots-Irish and German, that one grandmother had come from England as a child, and a great-uncle many times removed had signed the Declaration of Independence, but that was about it. I’d never bothered to dig deeper. It was bound to be pretty dull, right?

Turns out, not so much.

Dad had pulled together information from various cousins who’d been interested in genealogy and added more from various online databases and more correspondence with distant relatives. Among my various boring ancestors were:

  • a guy who came to the Mother Lode for the Gold Rush from Maine and who, when the boiler exploded on the steamship he was going home on, ended up back in California as a rancher in Tehama County.
  • the Polish Jew who married an English Jew in Pittsburgh, upon which event her family disinherited her, apparently because he was the wrong kind of Jew from the wrong part of Europe.
  • a German family descended from at least eight generations who were born and died in the same Bavarian village who ended up starting vineyards to produce “medicinal and sacramental wines” in a Kansas that was turning Dry.
  • another German came to Chicago as a carpenter and cooper in 1860, stayed long enough to experience the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, and ended up in St. Joseph, Missouri.
  • a retired colonel who rejoined the U.S. Cavalry to serve under General Zachary Taylor in Florida, where he managed to get himself killed by Seminoles in the Battle of Okeechobee, which for some reason was seen by his relatives and many of his descendants as a “glorious” death.
  • a great-grandfather who served in the Army Signal Corps in the early 20th century, stationed in Seattle, Juneau, and Sitka, where he apparently became acquainted with Roald Amundsen.

Dad documented American ancestors back to the mid-1600s, to English and Irish who came to Virginia. But in that generation, which would include 4096 ancestors for me, he only found four individuals. For well over half the ancestral lines, the information just stops, usually because female surnames are unknown or the individuals had migrated to parts of the continent that maintained few vital records at the time. Maybe someday I’ll try to follow up on some of those missing people.

What I did recently, though, was make a diagram (below) from those ancestral charts, noting which ancestors were immigrants (green dots), which were born here (black dots), and where the trails stop (red dots). What jumped out at me almost immediately was that those green dots show up at least every two or three generations. I’d be willing to bet that beyond the red dots are at least as many immigrants as there are among my known ancestors.

immigrant tree

What you can’t see from this diagram, either, is that even that longest-documented line, the one that goes all the way back through colonial Virginia to England and Ireland, is full of people who didn’t stay where they were born, who moved hundreds of miles to explore unfamiliar places and build new communities. Or that some of those ancestors in both Virginia and even New York, far enough back, were slaveowners, so that it’s likely, given the reality of slave-based economies, that I’ve got more than a few undocumented and less white distant cousins I will never know.

Which brings us back to that synergy I mentioned at the beginning of this post. I am who I am because of not just where and when I grew up, but where and when all those ancestors grew up and lived, where they came from and what they built and moved on from and rebuilt. And that’s true of all of us. Whether our immigrant ancestors came for adventure, for a better life, for simple refuge, or because they were brought here unwillingly, we Americans are who we are because of them. Because of all those generations of immigrants who’ve never stopped coming, who’ve never stopped making us stronger, who even now make us more than we were.

Don’t mess with immigrants—you’re talking family.

The Agony Indicator

[WARNING: This post contains discussion of statistics by a non-statistician (last stats class I had was 44 years ago, a political science methods class I wasn’t much interested in even then). The numbers discussed are for entertainment purposes only and have not been analyzed for validity or reliability or any other measure of accuracy or usefulness. Not only that, while anyone is free to run amok playing with the potential implications or flaws in these numbers, I have no interest in doing so myself and will not participate in any discussion of them.]

Last week, while I was looking through old blog posts for something completely unrelated, I came across this Playing with Numbers post, which I’d forgotten about. It was a serendipitous find, since I’d been thinking about entry numbers since I saw the unexpected jump in entries for last month’s NAC in Richmond.

In that March 2011 post, I played with what I then called fencers-per-strip but is more accurately individual entries-per-strip (BC lives and dies by the number of entries, not by the number of fencers), and which I am now naming the Agony Indicator, after Hipmunk’s agony view, where you can see flight itineraries sorted by how awful the times and layovers are.

Back then, I looked at that season’s NACs to see whether the Agony Indicator correlated at all with what I called “perceived difficulty of tournament”—not the quality of the fencing but the difficulty of the schedule (flighted events, delays, strip & ref shortages, late nights). That year, as was often true with the event combinations then, the December and March NACs were significantly easier tournaments to run than the others, and October, November, and January (then mostly either Junior/Cadet or Junior/Division I combinations) were noticeably more difficult to fit into the available days. Here are the indicators I came up with for those NACs:

October NAC: 44.8

November NAC: 51.98

December NAC: 19.7

January NAC: 45.47

JOs: 40.1

March NAC: 34.63

There appeared to be some correlation—the size of the indicator varied directly with the perceived difficulty of the tournament, and the more difficult tournaments had indicators above 40.

Since I had been looking at those Richmond numbers a couple of weeks ago, I wondered how recent tournaments fared with my Agony Indicator. With a bit of research (I still have most of my Masin spreadsheets from tournaments I’ve chaired over the past few years) and a calculator, I took a look:

October 2012 NAC: 49.898

November 2012 NAC: 49.184

JOs 2013: 43.102

October 2014 NAC: 47.143

November 2014 NAC: 55.265

January 2015 NAC: 33.816

JOs 2015: 47.551

Those line up in the same range, reasonably correlating with the challenges. (One caveat: some of these tournaments also had team events, which are not included in the Agony Indicator calculation.)

So what about this season? Just for fun, I ran the numbers for the Gutenberg SYC Alia and I ran last month, and it came out to a not-at-all-agonizing 20.759. That’s the only regional tournament I’ve calculated the Agony Indicator for, though, so I’ve no idea whether my indicator correlates across a range of smaller regional tournaments.

The Richmond NAC last month came out to 57.984, the highest I’ve yet seen, which seems to be in line with what I’ve heard about how things went—multiple flighted events and very late Saturday and Sunday nights. The NAC coming up this month in Kansas City looks to be slightly better, at 57.164, and that number should improve slightly with the no-shows there. Baltimore in December, using the entry numbers as of last week, is in between at 52.776.

What about Summer Nationals? The Agony Indicator for SN calculates out to a completely different range, since the numbers are often three times those of a typical NAC, with only half again as many strips. The 2010 SN in Atlanta was 108.84. The more recent SNs worked out like this:

2013 SN Columbus: 107.369

2014 SN Columbus: 137.4

2015 SN San Jose: 114.344

Note: The entry numbers for 2013 and 2015 were almost identical, but 2015 had 4 fewer strips. Columbus 2014 had  as many strips as the year before but nearly 2,000 more entries.

What’s the takeaway? If you happen to come upon entry numbers and the number of strips planned before an event, you can calculate the entry/strip ratio for yourself. If the Agony Indicator works out to more than 40 for a NAC or for SN, more than, say, 105, you can expect multiple flighted events and late nights.

Got any spurious statistics of your own?

[This is my last post about (nonfiction) fencing for the foreseeable future, though I will blog on other topics occasionally while I work on finally finishing what I hope will be a publishable draft of my SN murder mystery.]