|Jean Shepherd, in his classic semi-autobiographical
account A Christmas Story, tells the tale of Ralphie and
his legendary quest for his Holy Grail – the “Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot
range model air rifle with the compassinthestockandthethingthattellstime.”
Back in 1969, when I was 14 years old, my Holy Grail
was a "real" sword -- something I drooled over, feverishly
dreamt about, and never really thought I'd get.
my Dad's Marine Campaign Hat and holding a Sikh kirpan saber,
Why a sword?
I was the “weird kid” in the neighborhood that you always hear about
that just didn’t “fit in.” Don’t get me wrong -- I was as white
middle class suburban as you could get, with the comfortable kind
of sheltered upbringing rarely seen these days. As I grew older
I was genuinely surprised to learn about racial prejudice and domestic
or child abuse and the other ills that plague our society. It just
wasn’t part of the happy Leave
It To Beaver, Wonderbread world I grew up in.
But I had, for all the dull perfection of my upbringing
(or perhaps because of it), a raging thirst for adventure.
Where other kids my age were dreaming about their
first muscle car, their first date, or being the star football quarterback,
I dreamt about lost cities, damsels in distress, and desperate duels
with bare blades on a moonlit beach.
As early as 1960, when I was only 5 years old, I was already heading
that way. I remember very clearly one time when our family went
to a drive-in with our best friends, the Briggs. We went to see
a Disney movie at one of those double-screen drive-ins. While everyone
else sat up front to watch the The Shaggy Dog (or something else,
I don't recall), my best friend, Ricky, and I climbed into the back
of the station wagon to watch Ben Hur, which was playing on the
opposite side of the drive-in - without sound - on a screen that
looked hardly larger than a postage stamp at that distance. But
we watched the whole thing.
It all started with the soft stuff, my gateway drug – tales of Arthur, the King, and his Knights of the Roundtable that
my mother read to me, until I could read myself. In my pre-teen years, Walden
Books was my drug dealer – I would buy any book that had a sword
on the cover. I discovered Edgar Rice Burroughs and John Carter
of Mars. Heinlein’s Glory Road. Anything by J.R.R. Tolkien. That led to the harder stuff – the artwork
of Frank Frazetta and the tales of Conan by Robert E. Howard. I
stumbled on the swashbuckler films of Errol Flynn, usually airing
in the pre-dawn programming slot on the local television station
(this was in the days before cable). This dreamy romanticism and
obsession with the sword earned me derisive nicknames at school
like “The Golden Hawk” (after the old Rhonda Fleming pirate movie) as well
as a lot of other unprintable ones as a result of starting a fencing
club at my high school with my best friends (John Hatchett, Brad
Martin, John Breaux and Jeff
Mariotte - Jeff is now the author of several new Conan books,
among many other comics and novels.)
I got my first plastic sword out of Sears Wish Book catalog (my Christmas season
Bible, hoarded and dog-eared right up until the Big Day) as part
of a Civil War/Cavalry set when I was 6. I played with that sword
until I wore the blade down to a nub. I never missed the opening
credits of “Branded,” the TV show with Chuck Connors, because they showed someone break his sword as he was being dishonorably
discharged. I was a big fan of "Zorro" (Guy Williams)
and longed to carve a "Z" myself on the rotund chest of
Sargent Garcia. In my mind, I was with Richard Greene as Robin Hood
in Sherwood Forest. I looked for swords everywhere, but in those
days before the internet, there were no businesses offering swords
like there are these days.
I made swords out of wood and metal scraps my Dad left lying
around his home workshop, sometimes burying them in the backyard
so that I could unearth and “(re)discover” them (usually only minutes
One year, Yield
House, a furniture catalog, offered a couple of Toledo
made pieces and I bought them both. They were, frankly, tourist-type
sword-like-objects intended for decoration only – but I used them
until the soft metal blades were bent and notched, the spongy cardboard
grips had their cord-wrapping all loose and unraveled, and the fake-gilt
guard and pommel were worn down to the grey pot-metal underneath.
But, the biggest discovery of my childhood came from an unexpected
quarter, the same source as my first toy sword: Sears & Roebuck.
|A Sears store very much like ours in Virginia back in the 1960's
(Thanks to the Pleasant Family Shopping Blogspot for the photo)
Sears (or Sears & Sawbuck as my Dad always called it) was the Mecca of the home handyman in those days before
Bob Vila, Home Depot and the hundreds of other lumberyard/home improvement
stores were born. My Dad was the ultimate do-it-yourselfer – he
could maintain and repair his cars, do his own plumbing, electrical,
carpentry, and cabinetwork. Sears was where he went to get new tools,
but also just to windowshop. He
loved well-made things, especially tools. He also believed that
you should have the right tool for every job (every
tool is NOT a hammer) and that it was always best to get the
highest quality tool you could afford – it would last longer and
never let you down. I’m not the handyman my Dad was, but those values
did stick with me.
It was on one trip shopping for tools in October of 1969 with
my Dad that I glimpsed, for the first time, my personal Holy Grail.
We had parked near the Men’s Department door of
a Sears at the Landmark shopping center in northern Virginia,
so we were forced to wend our way through cologne counters, necktie
displays and other signs of the Christmas-shopping-season-arms-race-like-buildup
that happened every year. The aisles would daily become more and
more congested with tables crowded with wallets and shoe-shine kits
and the other flotsam-type presents that you can swing by and grab
for those people for whom you have absolutely no
idea what else to get.
My Dad, as usual, was making a polite but firm bee-line for
the hardware department and apparently didn’t notice, at first,
that his gawky Ernie Douglas look-alike son had uncharacteristically
stopped dead in his tracks in the middle of the Men’s Department.
I had no choice.
Because there IT was, standing upright on a round
table (ironically) in the middle of an aisle, surrounded by racks
of shirts and pants and coats and other things that I couldn’t have
cared less about. It was like stumbling on an ancient lost city
in the trackless jungle, or finding a spaceship parked in your garage.
It was so out of place that it made me doubt my senses.
There was a blue square tablecloth going in one
direction, overlapping a white square tablecloth going the other
way, the corner points just touching the floor. More blue cloth
was bunched around the base of the mahogany plaque. On the plaque
was an otherwise plain-looking Medieval-type sword with a simple
cross, domed wheel pommel and a walnut grip (and most likely the
light shining directly on it from above and the choir of angelic
voices were added by my imagination.)
I was dumbfounded. I was in Sears
for cryin’ out loud, yet here was what I had been searching for.
It took me only seconds to ferret out the details
that were important to me. The pommel wasn’t the screw-on type – it was peened (permanently hammered on)! I didn’t
even know the term then, but I knew what I was looking at. The hilt
components were gold-plated, but with real
The long straight, two-edged blade had a fuller (groove)! Nobody bothered to put fullers in reproduction swords in those days.
The most you ever got were flat sheet metal blades, with
the suggestion of a bevel on each side, usually with a distracting “etched” (though often really painted in enamel) design to give
the blade some illusion of detail.
The brass plate on the plaque said something very
simple like “12th
Century Knightly Sword,” but it really didn’t need to say anything
else. To my fevered mind it said it all, in the quiet understated elegant ever-so-British
way that appealed so much to me.
There was a framed certificate sitting next to the
plaque that I devoured in an instant.
It was a commemorative sword, made by Wilkinson
Sword Ltd, for the investiture of Prince
Charles as Prince of Wales, a numbered limited edition of 1,000.
It was supposed to be an exact replica of 12th century sword, catalogue
(catalogue!) #1027, from the
Tower of London
Armouries (now Leeds.)
Everything about it was so classy. At the base of the blade was etched “By Appointment to Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, Sword Cutlers, Wilkinson
Sword Ltd, Made in England.” In the center of the blade the seal of the Prince of Wales was etched,
with his motto “Ich Dien (I Serve), Investiture 1969.” This was the
closest I had ever been to Royalty.
As much as I was a True Son of the Land of the Free and the Home
of the Brave, I have to confess that the idea of Royalty
appealed to my romantic, Anglophilic
side. If you owned such a sword, could an honorary
(since I was an American citizen) knighthood
be far behind?
There was a small white and blue card that spoke
about the quality of the sword and that, if it should ever require
it, “refurbishment of your sword is available at a nominal fee.”
”Refurbishment? Nominal? Who but the English still used words like that? It
was just so achingly cool…
I was so enraptured that I am surprised that I didn’t
have to be forcefully removed from the premises in a straightjacket,
or hadn’t at least soiled myself.
But as sure as this perfect sword had fired my overactive
imagination and boundless lust, I crashed just as hard. No LSD-tripping
hippie ever came down as badly as I did, when I saw the other printed
card on the table – the price tag: “$250.00.”
Now let me explain to the modern reader – this was 1969. Today, this is probably the average
teenager’s monthly cellphone bill. In those days, $250 was a LOT of money.
My Dad had suffered two heart attacks and had been honorably discharged
from the Marines on a medical disability. He now worked for the
Federal government. Even then, $250 would be something upwards of
3% of my Dad’s entire annual income – and on his (even adjusted
for inflation) tiny income, he managed, by being very careful, to afford a nice suburban
house, 2 cars, a stay-at-home wife and two teenagers. Conservatively,
I’d estimate that at today’s average government salary $250 was at least the equivalent of $1,800 to $2,000.
These days, a quality sword generally sells for
anywhere between $500 and $3,000 – a commemorative sword with a
plaque, made by a company with the history and legendary reputation
of Wilkinson, would be on the higher end of that scale.
Unthinkable for a 14-year-old kid’s Christmas present
in those days.
I was crushed, dismayed, depressed, hopeless, helpless, paralyzed
-- in a word, destroyed.
It was some time before I realized that my Dad was
standing next to me – looking at me, not the sword. He had a kind
of half-smile on his face at the no-doubt stunned, horrified look
on my face.
“You coming with me?” he asked, turning away and
heading toward Hardware.
I looked at the gleaming vision of swordliness
again, savoring every last shape and color, memorizing every detail,
burning it into my brain. And then I turned and moped along after
In the weeks that followed, I remember trying to
get my Dad to go to Sears every chance I got. It wasn’t hard to
convince him – it was his favorite Saturday afternoon activity.
He’d head off to the Hardware section, I’d stand and stare (and
drool – “clean up in aisle
In my always far-too-fertile imagination, I already owned the sword – dragons were no match
for me, orcs would flee at the mere sight of my bright blade, and
the incomparable Dejah Thoris
could stand at my back and sing the hero songs of Helium without
fear, knowing that my magnificent sword would weave an impenetrable
net of steel that would protect her.
My Dad seemed to understand and accept my obsession, but we never
spoke of it. It was too much for me – I was overwhelmed by the sadness
and injustice of it all, knowing that as great as my desire was
for this magnificent object, it was far too much to ask. I suffered
in silence and he seemed to know that, and did not torment me by
asking me about it.
Wild and desperate fantasy had me firmly in its grip. Would the newly invested Prince Charles perhaps
soon visit the US -- and could I foil a dastardly attempt to kidnap him? Wouldn’t
he then be so grateful that he might then reward me with one of
these swords? (Prince Charles would be insistent -- though the first
few times I would nobly refuse any such reward for simply doing
what any Hero would have
done -- and then, only reluctantly, would I accede to his kind offer.)
Every mad plan conceivable went through my head, but nothing seemed
workable within my limited resources and opportunities.
I remember how heartbroken I was when, just a few
weeks before Christmas, the sword disappeared.
Like the arm clothed in the purest samite, disappearing with Excalibur into the lake without leaving
a ripple, so my dream sword had vanished as though it had never
been. Where it had rested, on its mahogany plaque in the middle
of the aisle, was now a table laden with
cheese and sausage gift packs. I searched the store to see if they
had moved the precious object to a more fitting location – but no,
it was just gone. Gone
before I could work up the nerve and vain hope to actually ask for
it, nay, beg for it -- or to seize the opportunity
to pledge myself into a lifetime of indentured servitude to my Dad
(or frankly anyone else with the necessary funds) to purchase it
It was gone, and life seemed so much more dull and
lackluster than it had before.
Christmas and my birthday used to be the cornerstones
of my year (one good thing about being born in June – only a 6 month
stretch to endure between presents). But this year was different
There was no maddening anticipation. No holiday-inspired
insomnia, no visions of sugarplums, dancing or otherwise. No shivering
with my sister in our pajamas on the stairs, waiting for the signal
that it was ok to come down and see what wonders lay under the tree.
That was all in the past.
As you move into your teens, it is natural I suppose.
The wonder and the joy slips away a little
more every year. You now know the Awful Truth About
Santa Claus that your parents tried for so many years to protect
you from. The highly anticipated, exciting, cool toys of childhood
gradually give way to the unmemorable drab parade of shirts, pants
and gloves. You can dress them up in all the fancy wrapping paper
and bows that you want, but they are still the same old shirts,
pants and gloves.
Opening presents was once a thrilling, mad orgy
of ripped paper and flung boxes – as a teen it becomes more of a
chore, the hardest part becoming the quest for something nice and
sincere-sounding to say about yet another pair of socks.
My sister and I dutifully trooped down to our finished
basement when Mom and Dad called. Off to the right of our (admittedly
fake) fireplace stood a relatively short Christmas tree surrounded
by the usual (though every year a little smaller) pile of wrapped
My Dad sat in his recliner and my Mom sat with us and our beagle,
Cassie, (probably the most excited of all of us) on the floor and
handed packages out. I had, admittedly, already scoped out the presents
that bore my name, and except for a long unmarked package off to
the side in front of the television (that I assumed was whatever
big thing my Mom got for Dad that year, like a shiny new weed whacker
or something), there was nothing that promised anything spectacular.
Christmas Tree, 1969.
Note the long package in front of the television.
We got through the presents slowly, like the young
adults we were becoming – I am sure that my sister was probably
pretty happy with some of the clothing she had gotten. I hate to
admit that I don’t remember a single gift I received. And my parents
were, I am sure, doing their level best to act thrilled at whatever
silly things we had gotten them.
At last, My Dad leaned over and said, “What do you think is
in that big box?”
I looked at him. No, it couldn’t be. Totally
out of the realm of possibility. I got up and dragged the
box, wrapped in red Christmas paper, garishly festooned with big
Santa faces and Christmas trees, over to the middle of the floor.
I was puzzled, because it was so heavy.
“Go ahead and open it up,” my Dad said.
My hands were trembling, the way they used to when
I just knew that there was some kind of amazing
toy inside -- like the year I got the official 007 Attaché Case. “Bond. James Bond.” People quickly got tired
of hearing that from a kid at Christmas (especially since my Mom would never let me see a Bond film - too much "sex" for a youngster.)
The paper tore away easily and revealed a severely
plain crate made of fiberboard and masonite,
that bore no markings of any kind. It was nailed shut.
I had never gotten anything delivered in a crate before. It conjured up images of turn-of-the-century archaeologists
digging through excelsior to find some precious object buried within,
like mummies in sarcophagi.
My Dad just smiled and got up, a few loooooong minutes later returning
with a small steel pry bar (Craftsman,
“Careful, now,” was all he said.
By then I was shaking so much that I am surprised
that I didn’t do serious damage to it, but I did eventually get
the lid off in one piece and with only a couple of the nail heads
pulled through the masonite. Inside, all I could see was mahogany
– it turned out that this was a slipcase that further protected
the contents. It took Dad’s help to figure out a way to get it out
undamaged, but finally we got down to the good stuff.
It was all
The rich lustrous mahogany plaque with the shining
etched brass plate, the rolled up parchment Certificate
of Authenticity (with a big, red Wilkinson seal complete with
red ribbon) proclaiming it to be #1128 of a Limited Edition of 1,000
(I assume that they started with the “catalogue”
number of the original sword, making mine the 101st),
the little blue and white card promising a Product of Quality and
the gentle assurance of Refurbishment services should I ever need
And the Sword.
(cue the light shining
down from the heavens and the angelic choir – I swear
it really happened that time.)
close-up of the hilt, as it looks now
The long, gleaming blade with its deep fuller and softly-rounded
lenticular cross-section, the gold-plated unassuming straight guard,
the rounded dome of the small gold-plated wheel pommel, the deep
etching on the blade, the fine balance that made the blade seem
so lively and so unlike the Toledo wallhanger swords I had owned,
the red-brown richness of the walnut grip that seemed to fit my
hand like it was made just for me...
I could go on and on about the way the sword looked,
the way it felt to finally
hold it in my hand and know it was mine.
But the funny thing is, that isn’t what I remember most about it.
What I remember most is my Dad and how he gave me -- one more
time before the inevitable onset of true and terrifying adulthood
-- the feeling of excitement and childlike wonder that I had lost.
To this day, I don’t know how my Dad swung paying
for that sword – I never asked him before he passed away many years
later. I regret that – I know that it wasn’t easy for him and that
he probably had to make some pretty severe sacrifices to do it.
I wish that I could tell him that he is the real hero of my childhood -- not John Carter, Oscar Gordon,
It was also with a real sense of sadness that I
read this notice posted on the Wilkinson Sword Ltd website earlier
Wilkinson Sword Ltd regrets that after very careful consideration
of all alternative options the Company has made the difficult
decision to announce that it intends to close its specialist
sword-making division in Acton, West London. As a
result of falling demand over many years, we have been left
with no option but to consider ceasing production of the high
quality specialist sword and knife products made by Wilkinson
Sword at the end of September 2005. If you have any queries
before this date please phone +44 208 749 1061 or for US Callers
1-866 THE SWORD (1-866 843 7967).
Thank you for your interest in Wilkinson Sword.
Even though the company that my wife, Amy, and I have created
is a “competitor” in the sword manufacturing world, so much of what
we have done has been influenced and inspired by Wilkinson. Limited
editions, shipping crates, Certificates of Authenticity, emphasis
on quality (not to mention offering Refurbishment services) and even trying to help our customers’ dreams become a
reality -- all grew from that one sword.
It was (and still is) one of my most prized possessions
(and is hanging in a rack behind me as I write). The crate was dragged
around with me for probably 20 years until it at last was so battered
that it had to be discarded. The
plaque was loaned as a model, in Albion’s early days, to a woodworker
in Maryland who was going to make plaques for
our swords – he went out of business before the work was done and
the plaque was lost.
The sword itself is in sad need of refurbishment (but now that offer is no longer valid, sad to say). Much of the
gold-plating is gone and the protective varnish on the blade is
chipped where rust has started beneath it – but on the whole it
is sound and still tight after all of these years.
Years later, when I saw a photo of the original
sword, I realized that "exact replica" was a bit of a
stretch. Beautiful sword still, but it wasn't even close to #1027,
except maybe in spirit. Even that, however, was a lesson learned
and inspiration gained from that sword – our Albion Museum line
was inspired by that idea and is faithful to the last detail of any original we recreate.
I have always wanted sword that is truly like #1027, so Peter Johnsson was kind enough to indulge me
and design the Albion Next Generation Hospitaller
to fill that need, based on the original swords he has documented
in European museums.
But as perfect a recreation as the Hospitaller is, it will never take the place of my Wilkinson -- my
first real sword, and my last gift of childhood wonder from my Dad.
Albion Swords, Ltd
©2005 Albion Swords Ltd, LLC