A Knight for a Day

Giving a sharp sword to a hyper-ass eight-year-old boy goes against all parental logic. But
that’s exactly what happened at the "Knight for a Day Camp," a place
where kids are whole-heartedly encouraged to go completely medieval.

The
"Knight for a Day" summer camp was put on by The Oakeshott Institute, a
Twin Cities foundation that promotes the interest of ancient arms,
armor, and legends, through hands-on education. The Oakeshott Institute, nestled in a remodeled 1880s church, is a virtual Hogwarts Academy right in the middle of Dinkytown. Ever
since Harry Potter rode in on his magic broomstick, whipping up a wand-waving fever, children of all ages have been looking for
mythical activities to partake in. To accommodate all
these eager Muggles, the Oakeshott faculty has put together a Viking
and chivalry summer course as an alternative to the usual park-board fodder of hula hoops and endless games of tag-you’re-it.

On
a recent Friday morning, I watched weapons instructor Galan Poor, a
wiry young man with a huge thicket of hair so wild it looked like it
might come alive and talk, stand before a captivated classroom of
children and teach them the art of war.

"Get me a sword!" Mr. Poor told his assistant. A
college intern then raced to a glass case housing a treasure chest
of ancient killing devices that included a sword used in the First
Crusade. Amongst the axes, spears, and daggers, a rusted Viking sword was chosen and handed to Mr. Poor. He
demonstrated to the class how the Vikings used a chopping and hacking
motion, and not the sharp-pointed fencing-style attack that has been
made popular in movies. In long elaborate swoops, Poor gently brought the blade down on a dummy’s neck and wrists.

"Hack here to cut off his hand!" explained Poor. "Hack it like a piece of tough meat. And swoop down to cut off his foot!"

The blade made a slight ting as he connected with the metal rings of the chain mail draped over the dummy. The
class sat still as crows on a wire, anxiously awaiting their turn to
engage each other and pretend to have their own limbs hacked off. It wasn’t exactly a game of kickball.

Mr. Poor then moved to a dry erase board, where he gave a detailed NFL style play-by-play of Friday’s lesson: The Shield Wall. The
kids were going to reenact the legendary 1066 Battle of Hastings, where
the Anglo-Saxons held off an entire Norman army by standing atop a hill
and forming a tight barrier with their shields. The kids learned all about the war for England’s crown, the ancient art of defense, and the physics of the Shield Wall: If
the shields were lined up correctly, even these little runts would be
able to withstand the mightiest of blows (in this case, rubber dodge
balls.) A dozen boys were so enthralled in the lesson
about flaming arrows and knights on horseback that there was no mention
of boobies, wieners, or farts, which is the holy trinity of discussion
amongst pubescent boys.

The
campers had spent the entire week building helmets, shields, and chain
mail and were finally ready to use their wares in action. Today was battle day.

With
the boom-boom base of low riders bumping down Como Avenue as a
backdrop, Van Cleve Park near the University of Minnesota campus became
the battleground for the thrown of England. On a small grassy knoll, the kids formed a Shield Wall using wooden replica shields that had authentic paint and art design. A tiny kid, who resembled Chicken Little in every way but the beak, pounded his shield and howled with rage. A big lunker of a ten year old stood in the middle and smirked, "This is soooooooo Brave Heart."

Rubber balls flew through across the park and tagged the Shield Wall, filling the air with a sharp slapping sound. The
inner city tuffs playing pick-up ball on the basketball court adjacent
to the fields stopped their game to watch the mayhem exploding all
around the children. A camper with shaggy, summer-streaked hair bent his knees and deflected the balls being thrown at him from the camp councilors. He yelled out in delight as the balls ricocheted off him and back down the hill. The big kid in the middle shouted out, "Hold the wall! Hold the wall!"

After twenty minutes, the kids were spent and Battle of Hastings turned into a glorious massacre. The
runts stationed at the corners of the Shield Wall grew tired and were
picked off. The wall loosened and all the kids were bombarded with
rubber balls. The history lesson was lost as one solitary Velcro shoe was shot into the summer sky as a sign for peace. The kids crumbled to the grass in theatrical mock death.

But a lone girl kept the battle alive. She stood amongst the wiggling bodies of her fallen comrades and tried her best to soldier on. Seven balls came at her and she was comically peppered in the head, stomach, and leg. She wailed with sheer joy.

"She
would’ve cried for days if I had sent her to soccer camp like the rest
of the kids," Maggie Swanson’s mom said about her courageous daughter. "But she loves this."

The beleaguered campers took a break and sat in a shady grove of trees. Then
a burly instructor laid out spears with tennis balls on the tips and
boasted with a great Hail Caesar flair, "Let the Children play with
spears!"

The kids sprang up, grabbed spears, and bolted through the park. A gangly boy, who couldn’t throw a ball to save his life, chucked a spear and hit a target dead on. Congratulatory cheers rang out as chivalry was brought back to the Twin Cities.