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“There’s far fewer women doing this than men,” Jensen said. “It’s not like women can’t [fight]—they can. They just have to adapt to fighting a 300-pound man.”
The SCA’s Darkest Hour
Though SCA members try their best to live in the Middle Ages—where courtesy, chivalry and honor are the principles they abide by—members still exist in a modern world and are subject to modern problems. In 2003, Ben Schragger, a SCA member known as Lord Ben the Steward, who, according to news reports, hosted weekend fighter practices at his farm 60 miles northeast of Philadelphia, was charged with multiple counts of child sexual abuse. He pleaded guilty by reason of mental illness in 2004 to 11 criminal counts and was sentenced in 2005 to a 62-year sentence.
Repercussions of his conviction were felt throughout the organization. According to online SCA documents, a civil suit was filed in 2009 against the SCA, claiming that the organization should be held liable for not having “effective policies in place at that time to protect these children.” The suit named the Pennsylvania SCA officers at the time as defendants, demanding $7 million in damages. The organization’s bylaws required the SCA to defend and indemnify the three officers.
Only one of the SCA’s insurance companies would defend and indemnify the organization, requiring the SCA to file a lawsuit against its other insurance companies.
In October 2011, the victims agreed to settle with the SCA for $1.3 million. One of the SCA’s insurance companies paid $450,000 of the settlement amount, while the other refused to pay anything at all. The legal battle with insurance companies is ongoing.
However, the settlement had to be paid, and with legal fees, it left the SCA hanging with a balance of over $1 million. Even though the abuse took place in Pennsylvania, the SCA board asked all its U.S. kingdoms to chip in and help pay the settlement.
“That was a horrendous, horrible thing that happened to those kids,” Oppenheimer said. “It really changed the whole infrastructure of the organization. Not only did everyone pitch in to cover those costs, but we had to incorporate new rules about being alone with kids—rules that we probably should have had in place beforehand. It was an awful thing for the victims and for the SCA. Really, nobody saw that coming.”
The Other Battles
Keeping the mundane world out can be a struggle, but most SCAdians seem to balance their fantasy lives with the real world fairly well. “Your personal life is your personal life, and I try to keep the two separate,” said Cameron Fullmer, a 20-year-old rapier fighter and windshield installer. “Some of my best friends are here in the SCA. I don’t even know what their real names are.”
Fullmer’s parents are SCA members, and he was essentially born and raised within the society. Recruiting young fighters like Fullmer is one of the SCA’s biggest challenges. At Arabian Nights, there were plenty of little kids, middle-age adults and seniors. However, out of the hundred or so people in attendance, there was only small handful in their late teens and 20s.
“It seemed like the coolest thing to me when I started,” reminisces Jensen. “But now America is so centered around instant gratification. People will ask, ‘How long does it take to become a knight?’ and I’d say, ‘Oh, five to 10 years.’ The next response is usually, ‘Well I could get knighted on World of Warcraft in a weekend.’ ”
One of the ways the SCA addresses this issue is through its weekday practices in the park. “People see us out there with our swords and armor. They either think it’s cool, or they think it’s stupid. Either way, it’s good exposure,” pointed out His Majesty the King.
Being visible, though, can have its pluses and minuses. “In the late ’80s and early ’90s, we a had kung-fu guy who would come out in his robe, run around and try to fight every one. It was funny, I guess, but you know, we’ll always have our hecklers.”
A Call To Arms
Back at Arabian Nights, the herald summoned all SCAdians to the showdown. Little kids dueling with foam swords stopped beating on each other and turned to watch as their dads raised up battle-axes, spears and broadswords. Standing on either side of a dusty field, two groups of roughly 10 or so fighters began marching toward each other. Almost as though plucked from a scene in Braveheart, the two forces clashed into each other with tremendous force. Shouts and cheers could be heard from the crowd as swords and spears collided, and “wounded” men dropped to the ground in a lifeless heap.
The heavy fighters are the rock stars of this society. Their battles are recorded and joked about. Sometimes these tales are elevated to the status of SCA legend. One of the most talked about battles is the SCA’s premiere event called the Pennsic War. Every July, in Slippery Rock, Penn., more than 10,000 SCAdians from all over the world descend upon the small town for a two-week full-scale war (or party) usually involving archers, catapults and even castles.
However, during small gatherings like Arabian Nights, it’s more about hand-to-hand combat. At this event, the fighters act out different scenarios such as last man standing and capture the flag. After wailing on each other for a few minutes, the men stop, take off their helmets, pat each other on the back and laugh about what just went down. The ladies run up and offer their men pickles and oranges (a SCA tradition). After a short huddle, the helmets go back on, and the fighting resumes until everyone’s too whipped to continue. In the end, there’s no definitive winner or loser. In fact, fighters often switch sides because, to them, it’s not about the victory, it’s about the experience.
That evening, as the sun dipped behind the cliffs, the village became a place of celebration and reflection. Campfires popped up, each with a different feel. Some were entertained by bards while men puffed on pipes and women and children listened to ancient stories and poems. Others were circled by belly dancers while food and drink were passed to those in attendance.
As violent as the SCA may seem at the surface, the true identity of this society can be found in these nightly gatherings. The family atmosphere is calm and respectful. People from all walks of life sit around a campfire, oblivious of their troubles in the mundane world.
Looking into the fire as the bards told their tales, Salt Lake City seemed farther away than ever. No one was thinking about the drive home.