There are martial arts classes. And there are role-playing groups. But there’s nothing quite like Joe Bozlinski’s Suburban Knights.
More than a half-dozen Saugerties kids and young adults meet in the basement of the First Baptist Church on Partition St. twice a week to do combat drills (weapons and hand-to-hand), learn manners and de-stress in a supportive circle of peers.
Bozlinski, 25, started the group several years ago in Kingston. He relocated the training operation to his parents’ Saugerties backyard when he moved in with them. When the sessions became “too much” for them, Bozlinski moved the group to the church’s spacious basement. (Girlfriend and group member Vicky Fitzgerald’s father is the minister.)
Though the group has medieval roots, it’s not exactly courtly in the old sense. I learned that during my visit. Seeking a place to sit, I picked up a heavy chair and struggled to move it across the room. There were no gestures of chivalry in sight. I quickly discerned that the ladies here pull their own weight. This is no boys’ club; half the Suburban Knights are actually female. Bozlinski said he encouraged females to join. “Then all the women showed up, and it was like we were drowning to death in estrogen,” he joked. The fights aren’t separated by gender — Bozlinski makes sure everyone gets experience battling the opposite sex.
Though their specialties are largely medieval-style or Asian weaponry combat, Suburban Knight members emphasized they are not to be confused with the Society of Creative Anachronism (SCA), who role-play medieval characters with names and period garb. Rather, the Suburban Knights are more about the weapons and techniques. That said, group members, in their wit, imagination, background esoteric knowledge and obvious brainpower, resemble SCA members more than your typical martial arts group.
The four-hour meetings are formatted, with one-on-one sparring, group activities and a discussion period. One staple group activity, called “Ninja,” is a series of “reaction exercises” Bozlinski designed, drawing from a childhood game, to increase perception and reaction time.
Once the group was in drills, some pairs grappled, others wrestled, and some swung weapons at one another while their opponents practiced defense moves. I witness the occasional knee to the groin, profuse sweating, struggling, choking, panting and purple faces. These Knights don’t hold back.
Melissa Constable-Graham, 24, and husband Justin Graham, 25, bring along their toddler, Dustin. Other group members play with him while they spar.
Justin joined the group first, and Melissa decided to check it out after wondering exactly where her husband was disappearing to “for hours at a time.” After one meeting, she was hooked. “I love it,” she said. “You get to learn how to defend yourself in a situation, and take out my frustrations too.”
Justin, a longtime friend of Bozlinski, came to the group with martial arts and weapon training — some self-taught, some through family as well as “from the streets.” Justin said he has been assuming a leadership role, helping the younger members with martial arts. “I’m really good with submissions,” he said. “When Melissa and I play with each other here, it’s a different experience… This is like an expensive studio where you could pay up to $100 for classes. Here, you’re doing it for free.”
After exercises, the group usually sits together for “circle time” during which they plan group initiatives, talk about their problems and get stuff off their chest. Several participants cited this time as a highlight of the meetings.
Jess Harrell, 19, of Saugerties, said she is normally a very shy person but has been able to emerge from her shell thanks to the Suburban Knight infrastructure. “You can be comfortable here,” she said of the circle time. “We are not just thrown together. We want to be here.”
Heather Decker, 23, is a stay-at-home single mother of a two-year-old son. She described herself as “mentally and emotionally handicapped” and admitted she faces difficulties most others don’t. “I have always had a fighting spirit,” she said. “You can get a lot of energy out here. I am the rough and tumble type.” Decker said the group helps her connect with people while offering stress relief. She likes to hone her skills with the escrima stick, a Filipino martial arts weapon.
Jacob Waldron, 17, of Saugerties said chivalry appeals to him. In keeping with the code’s call for public service, the group does volunteer work. He mentioned the group’s work at Queens Galley soup kitchen in Kingston. “It was the nicest thing I have ever done,” said Waldron. He said he doesn’t mind if people think it’s odd he spends his time with this unorthodox group. “Great is the human who has not lost his childhood heart,” he quoted.
“I’m weird,” smiled the group’s goofball, Saxon Searl, 17. “I talk in accents. I do strange things. This is a place I can play and not be judged. I relate to everyone in here.”