They amassed in the grass behind the Bonner Park backstop on a sunny spring afternoon, this motley assortment of costumed medieval warriors. Brandishing foam rubber swords, spongy maces, and various other fake weaponry, they split into two packs and faced each other, awaiting the signal. And then it was on like Donkey Joust.
Welcome to Missoula’s Belegarth combat society.
When their shaggy-haired leader, an Aidan Quinn lookalike in a chinstrap beard, gave the sign, they began beating the holy bejesus out of each other with their less-than-fearsome, specialized weapons. They swung maces, swords, axes, bats, spears and something that looked like a Nerf Garden Weasel. They tried to ward off the blows with giant, padded shields that bore Middle Age rune symbols and hand-painted death skulls. There was plenty of screaming and hollering, grunting and yelping as the make believe riot exploded on the lush, city park turf.
We’d come down to Bonner on this brilliant Sunday afternoon to soak up some much-needed sun, and listen to the music provided by Missoula’s Zoo FM. They were hosting a barbecue, and Aaron Traylor, the World’s Tallest DJ, was onstage in the band shell, MCing a baby dance-off. It don’t get no more Missoula freaky than this, I thought, as we sat on our blanket near the edge of the warrior brawl, sipping cold drinks and taking it all in.
The two dozen combatants, all men, were dressed in medieval garb, although the level of commitment to the look seemed to vary. One guy wore a graceful suede cape over a custom leather and brass chest plate, and camouflage cargo pants. Another guy wore M.C. Hammer pants and nothing else. Not even underwear, judging by the flop factor. One dude, a stocky bald guy in his late 20s, wore a coarse-knit sweater that, from a distance, looked like chain mail. It was bright purple.
Occasionally a fight would spill away from the group and threaten to overrun our blanket. I raised my hands in supplication and shouted, “Neigh, we are but simple peasants, trying to drink our Diet Pepsis and enjoy the warmth of the sun! Do not oppress us!” They backed off.
In the early going, there was a woman in the mix, serving as a referee between the two battling mobs. She wore a bright yellow tunic, and I couldn’t help but wonder why she didn’t have one with black and white stripes. Could’ve used a whistle, too. She was definitely not involved in combat, but I didn’t see her calling any penalties; just explaining the rules to a few overzealous participants. I couldn’t tell if there were any rules or boundaries at all. There were a few traffic cones scattered about, but seemed to serve no purpose other than their occasional use as a bullhorn.
At one point Aidan Quinn, wearing some kind of black martial arts skirt topped with an Under Armour shirt, raised his cushioned sword in the air, held a traffic cone to his mouth, and hollered for everyone to stop the action. “I have an announcement,” he announced. “This will affect everyone here deeply. It will affect everyone on this Earth deeply. The greatest man who ever lived has died this morning.”
“Chuck Norris?” somebody said.
“No, not Chuck Norris. Ronnie James Dio passed away this morning. Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow. Deep Purple. Black Sabbath. Dio!”
The group was visibly stunned. “Oh my God!” “Not Dio!” “No way!”
“I was just listening to ‘Holy Diver’ this morning,” one of them cried.
“That’s all we can do,” intoned Aidan Quinn. “Listen to his music and help it live on forever.”
“For Dio!” went up a cry, as the warriors fell on each other again, even more impassioned than before. Guys were flying through the air, somersaulting over arcing swords. Legs were being “chopped off,” fighters were being “decapitated,” and men were being hacked “to death,” all to the pumping beat of the dance hits drifting over from the bandshell. One warrior, an archer who was dressed head to toe in flowing robes and a long wizard hat, could not keep himself from dancing to “YMCA.” He hopped and capered to the Cha Cha Slide, and it was all he could do to keep himself from doing the Macarena. He fired boxing glove-tipped arrows into the fray, occasionally taking out some flailing warrior.
The one thing they all seemed to share, beyond a horrible fashion sense, was the discipline to suffer their wounds. When hit in the arm, for instance, they would hold it behind their backs and keep on fighting. If a leg was sliced off, they would drop to one knee and try to avenge their severed limb. I was reminded of the Black Knight in Monty Python’s Holy Grail: “It’s only a flesh wound.”
They were pretty good sports about dying, too. Most of them.
“Did you take him?”
“I think he’s dead. He’s supposed to be dead.”
“He doesn’t look dead to me.”
“I don’t think he thinks he’s dead.”
Most of the dialog I overheard didn’t seem era-appropriate, and taken out of context could be easily misconstrued. For instance, “Wow, that’s the most dudes I’ve ever done in a Highlander.”
To a guy swinging a mace in each hand: “Well, it looks like Malthus finally got a pair!”
Or when the Archer was being hotly pursued and ran right past our blanket in his Mexican sandals, nearly taking out a young sapling. “I can’t corner, man! These tires are balding.”
“Hey, I’m demonstrating shit, dickhead.”
“You eyeballin’ me? You fuckin’ eyeballin’ me?”
“Ow! My eye! I just got blinded by my own garb!”
A couple hours into it, one guy was the last warrior standing in a highlander battle, having valiantly fought off several foes. He stood in the middle of the group of fallen bodies, surveying the carnage he’d created. Then he sheathed his sword and said, “I gotta go. It’s Caitlin’s birthday and I’m cooking dinner.”
We decided to call it a day as well, and I rolled up the blanket while Rusty and Speaker stashed all our stuff into a tote bag. As we walked past the dwindling ranks of the medieval combatants, two guys were still going at it, furiously stabbing and slashing each other with their foam rubber swords. I overheard a comment from one of them, a guy with a tablecloth around his waist and a t-shirt bearing a zombie torso.
“Dio, man. Fuck.”[Bookmark NewWest.net/BobWire and check back frequently for more slightly moldy slices of life.]