FUQUAY-VARINA — Every Wednesday, a 45-year-old telecom worker from Fuquay-Varina puts on a stainless-steel helmet, drapes himself in armor and becomes Sir Rodrigo Falcone, who is deadly with a rattan staff.
Such is the hobby that has consumed Donald Wagner for nearly 30 years, since he first saw members of the Society for Creative Anachronism staging armored medieval combat, clad in leather, steel and brass. It's not just clubbing other men for fun. It's obscure research into feudal Europe, scouring the Internet for details on how to grow flax for costumes or make pigment for calligraphy.
But even though membership in this 44-year-old group is growing, it's also graying. So this month, Wagner's fighters in Fuquay-Varina posted this invitation on craigslist.org: Join our merry band.
"Some people fish on the weekend," Wagner said. "I'm a 12th Century Catalan knight."
It's not that there's a shortage of re-enactors in armor, eager to vault once more into the breach. Membership in SCA worldwide has climbed to more than 30,000, up roughly 20 percent in the past decade. That a group, or "canton," meets in Fuquay-Varina's community center speaks to the SCA's appeal.
The urgency for new blood springs more from girth, shortness of breath and other consequences of age. When the SCA surveys its ranks around the globe, it sees a lot of graybeards taking blows to the helm.
"In the early days, it was teenagers and college kids," said Scott Farrell, the SCA's national spokesman. "These days, it's more middle-agers and even retirees. Back in the '60s, it was more kind of counterculture, subversive only in the sense of not being mainstream. These days, young folks see dressing up in costumes as not really that different of a thing."
Between the "Lord of the Rings" movies and the World of Warcraft game mania, there's already a touchstone into the medieval world, Farrell said.
"We can show that, while watching a video or playing a computer game may be a fun way to taste the medieval world, getting involved and taking part makes the experience more real - and more educational - than merely sitting and watching," he said.
Every chapter has a volunteer officer in charge of welcome and outreach called the "chatelaine," Farrell said. Many of them place booths at college rush weeks. In Fayetteville, there's an active drive to recruit new soldiers.
"We'd like to replace ourselves," joked Wagner.
For years, the Fuquay-Varina canton practiced outside on the grass. Moving into the community center for all-weather practice came with this edict: Offer classes, which we'll call Western martial arts. So far, the Craigslist call hasn't attracted any new blood. But the SCA is hopeful. After all, the Elks Club hasn't been stopped by dwindling membership or elderly members.
As they swing their staves and thrust their rapiers, SCA members rhapsodize about the chivalry and honor that comes from medieval contests - and about the chance to experience history firsthand, physically rather than via the printed page . Every year, as many as 10,000 SCA fighters converge outside Pittsburgh for the Pennsic War - a 17-day medieval squabble.
There's a sense of a simpler time, Farrell said, though he acknowledged that it's debatable that the European continent in the Middle Ages, beset by wars and plagues, was any simpler.
In Fuquay, members say they'll loan gear and won't quibble about anybody's authenticity if they don't want to go full bore. It's a hobby, and the bigger the band of brothers, the better.
"It's like stamp collecting," said Arthur Donadio, a longtime SCA member and attorney from Southern Pines. "Stamp collecting and hurting people."
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