At 4am on Thursday, February 28th, I lost a longtime friend.
Jess Roe was no ordinary friend. I met him on March 18th, 2016, when I was 15 years old. Yeah, I remember the date. A lot of important stuff tended to happen to me on the 18th of a month for a few years straight when I was a teenager, it made remembering it easy. I was a Freshman in high school. I had met a couple of girls in health class who said that they did martial arts and such out at a place called the Ranch. Since I’d been doing medieval long sword and dagger for about a year, I was really interested, and they eventually took me out to the Ranch.
The Ranch was Jess’s home, called such because it used to really be a Ranch. By the time I first went out there, there were only roughly a half dozen horses on it. It’s not the prettiest place by far. The house is very run down. The property is mostly gravel and mud, except for some nice parts of the horse pasture. There’s old trailers and run down cars and other junk, and most of the outbuildings are pretty makeshift. There was a blacksmith shop right at the entrance to the property when I first came. It burned down a couple years later and was re-established behind the house instead. And there’s lots of guns on the property. I mean, lots. I’ve said for years that they’re equipped for WWIII out there. You can even shoot on the property.
The best redeeming quality of the place is the dojo. The students built it to get out of the mud and the weather, and although it could use a little more weather proofing and some replaced floorboards now, it really is a wonderful building. There is a wide open wooden floor with a yin-yang symbol inlaid in the center, and mirrors along one wall. The place is very open, with removable plastic siding and a plastic roof to let in the light. There’s plenty of room to swing a couple of staffs or to dance a tango, whichever you prefer.
Jess was 82 when I met him, although he didn’t look it. He kinda freaked me out, to be honest. He wasn’t a very big man, being only a few inches taller than my 5’2″, but he could be intimidating nonetheless. He had pointed teeth, for one. They were dentures. The real ones were knocked out with the butt of a rifle, I believe. I never saw them, but I’ve been told that he had dentures that looked like normal teeth, and he looked even scarier with those in. He looked probably 20 years younger than he was and acted at least half his age. He could certainly beat many people far younger than him in a fight right up until the end of his life.
I remembered being very surprised and a little uncomfortable when he gave me and the girls I went to school with a dance lesson. It was the foxtrot. I’d never ballroom danced before. And he flirted with us. I had no idea how to handle that from someone old enough to be my great grandfather.
I kept coming out after that first time despite my initial hesitations and surprise. I really started to get over that at the Gig Harbor RenFaire, actually. I went with one of the girls who had first taken me out to the Ranch, and while there we worked in Jess’s booth a bit–he sold knives and swords and such for a living, many of which he made himself, being a blacksmith. I think I missed seeing some of his best work, though, as he didn’t do as much forging by the time I started going out there. I remember standing outside of his booth, and being very startled when a man’s arm went around my waist and he growled in my ear. It was Jess, of course. That didn’t startle me whenever Jess was around after just a little while.
He was a flirt, but it was very easy to tell him no, and he listened when you did. Any woman who spent much time around him learned that very quickly. In fact, we all knew that he’d flirt until he died, and if he didn’t then something was very wrong. That’s exactly what ended up happening.
Jess taught me to shoot. I fell in love with his Colt .45 1911, and I know I’m not the only one. I already carried a pocket knife before I met him, but he is at least part of the reason that I own and carry guns now; I was very used to people on the Ranch being armed, and often not seeing it. I remember him teaching me to handle a “civil discourse” with a snub-nose revolver, and when I was shooting to slow, he said, “Do it like this,” and pulled a gun that I hadn’t known he had and unloading it quickly, shattering the CD’s that were our targets. He was probably 87 when that happened.
Jess was at most events I attending: RenFaire, Cons, and especially medieval events. SCA and EMP soon became part of my life because of Jess and the people who had brought me to the Ranch. He was always there, with his booth and his swords and knives and even sometimes some pink fuzzy handcuffs for sale. My favorite blades came from him, whether they were ones he and his apprentices made or ones he bought wholesale and resold. Sometimes I worked at his booth. I even sold a knife to a guy who would (briefly) be my boyfriend once. I could always count on Jess and his booth to be at the events, and even attended some events based solely on Jess and the other people from the Ranch going.
I learned a fair bit about fighting from Jess and his other students. I am no expert. I have much still I wish to learn. But I can honestly say that I could probably handle myself against the average person on the street, who usually has little or no training, even though they are usually much bigger than I am. I’m one of those weird people who says, “Look at this bruise I got last night!” in excitement because I got it sparring or learning a new throw or something else along those lines. Heck, men who fight are attractive to me because of my love for martial arts — it’s part of why I married a man who puts on armor and hits other armored people really hard with rattan for a hobby. Life would just not be as interesting and exhilarating without hitting the ground or learning how to hit harder on occasion. And nothing beats the feel of a knife or a sword in your hand and an opponent standing opposite you. Jess and his dojo and his other students were where I found that knowledge and thrill for a while, although I sadly didn’t attend very regularly for a few years.
Jess taught me to dance. I can foxtrot, tango, salsa, waltz, and more thanks to that old man. I don’t even have to know a dance well in order to do it if the man has a strong enough lead, because Jess taught me that as well. The tango was my favorite, and he taught the Argentine tango: the real tango. For my 18th birthday he took me out to dinner and ballroom dancing in Seattle, and the first place we went to was a Latin dance place. All the Latino boys wanted to dance with the white girl who could actually dance! In the last year or so, a bunch of us would go out dancing with Jess; students, most of us in our 20’s, out at a bar with live music and a dance floor, and we’d all take turns dancing with Jess and each other. I even was able to get my husband out onto the dance floor thanks to those nights. I had my last dance with Jess on one of those nights.
Jess was a friend. I remember shortly after I turned 21, I went out to the Ranch one evening after work on a whim. It wasn’t a training night, I just wanted to see the people out there. Jess and I ended up chatting for hours, occasionally passing back and forth a bottle of Sangria, and just enjoying each other’s company. He told me that he was very glad I had become a friend, and that we was proud of how I’d turned out over the years. That meant a lot to me. Jess’s opinion of me — and by extension my husband, my marriage, and other significant things in my life — always was important. Probably because he was usually right, and I knew it.
Jess had lots of stories. And jokes, usually dirty. But the stories were more interesting. A man who had been as many places, done as many things, and been shot as many times as he has ought to have some crazy stories, and the scars to prove half of them. (He did.) I once asked him what he hadn’t done in life. He thought for a very long moment, and finally said, “Wrestled and alligator.” But then I found out later that he’d brushed a crocodiles teeth once, and I figured that counts.
When Jess first got cancer, he kept outliving the doctor’s predictions. It was his modus operandi, and I wasn’t really worried for a while, even when he said things like, “I think this is my last RadCon.” Jess was going to live to at least 100, in my mind. For a while, I was right. His cancer went into remission, training nights went on and he was still at events. I wasn’t around very much during his first fight against cancer, as I was a newlywed and didn’t make much time for training, but I started getting out there regularly again a while after the cancer went into remission. He made it to another RadCon. We still went dancing. Many of us students became very close, being close in age and all in Rose Haven, the EMP household run out of the Ranch. And the old man was always there.
But then he got lung cancer. We thought we would still have a couple of years. And then his first cancer came out of remission, and his health started to go downhill quickly. In the fall of 2012 we found out he’d been given 6-12 months. We didn’t get that long. He went into the hospital just a few days before Christmas, where he was told he had no more than a week to live and could die there or die at home. He went home, but didn’t die right away.
He made it to another RadCon. Mostly by sheer force of will. He had plenty of that. The fight demo and fire show were very much in his honor, and he even got out of his wheelchair to attempt a light saber duel during the fire show.
Jess decided when he wanted to go, and went when he decided to. He said that on Wednesday he was going to let go. He died a few hours after midnight Wednesday night/ Thursday morning, with friends and students around him, many of whom considered him a father. I was not one of them; it’s hard to explain it, because I would have been there had he requested it and I could have been there, but I didn’t really want to watch the death of a man whose life I treasured so much, especially since I knew he was already surrounded by others who were more willing to stand vigil at the hour of his departure and who would see him through to the end.
I am one of many who will miss Jess. I feel this world lost someone who was an amazing repository of wisdom, knowledge, and experience. I can’t even begin to describe everything I’ve learned about the old cowboy, Korean war vet, martial artist, and unabashed womanizer who was Jess; certainly not in a simple blog post. But hopefully much of his memory and knowledge will live on through us, his students, his friends.
Rest in peace, Jess.