"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
“Well, I’ve wrestled with reality for 35 years, doctor, and I’m happy to state I finally won out over it.” –Elwood P. Dowd, in “Harvey,” by Mary Chase
Cannon fire woke me up.
It was sometime around seven-thirty in the morning.
For hours I had listened half-asleep through my white canvas tent to a crowd of middle-aged men confabulating about their muskets, their outfits and the costs of their campfire boilers, but it was only after that big kaboom, the great wake-the-hell-up call for war, that I began heralding the day.
Immediately a question presented itself.
Was there time for me to walk a half-mile across the park to the outdoor, cold-water only showers near the swimming pool, or would I follow the advice of my tour guide, Old Hickory, who the day before said, “We generally don’t shower at events. We tend to use baby wipes for any special-needs areas.”
I looked at my modern-day timepiece.
I had a half-hour until the festivities began.
“War really is hell,” I said, rubbing my eyes and reaching for the moist towelettes.
The fake date was July 6, 1759; the real one was July 3, 2009.
I was among 2,500 otherwise normal human beings dressed as if fighting in the French and Indian War. Our raison d’être was the Siege of Fort Niagara, which this year was happening once again. Every year this fort 30 miles outside of present-day Buffalo gets “taken” by re-enactors pretending to be British and Iroquois Indian from other re-enactors pretending to be French. The whole thing conjures up Santayana’s line that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to fulfill it” — which makes me wonder if historical reenacting is its own particular brand of doom. At any rate, though, I was at “the largest event of its kind in the world,” according to the French and Indian War Grand Encampment Council.
It was fun.
It’s not every 4th of July you get to be around nearly 3,000 people inhabiting an amalgam of time, and especially in a place as lovely as Fort Niagara State Park. The water in Lake Ontario actually was blue. And the fortification, now known as Old Fort Niagara, has been well-preserved even though it was built by the French in 1726 and took a 19-day pummeling in July 1759, when a few thousand British and Indians out-maneuvered 600 Frenchman sitting pretty in a big castle protected by cannons and stone walls.
But being on the battlefield exactly 250 years later, I couldn’t help but imagine the 348 people who died and the many others who were injured or suffered. When they trembled for their lives could they ever have imagined that a bloodless, G-rated recreation of their deaths eventually would become someone’s hobby?
The summer of 2009 was particularly ugly. President Obama had just entered office and banks too big to fail had been saved. As a country, we were debating whether health care was a basic right for everyone. A few days earlier, the government in Iraq had declared a national “Sovereignty Day” after U.S. forces handed over security responsibilities following the six-year war for oil and the American empire. In Afghanistan that day, a U.S. soldier wandered off his base without body armor or a weapon and was kidnapped and three troops died in an attack on the eastern front. And back at home, one had the feeling of even uglier times ahead, with Tea Partiers and racists chipping away at the goodwill and hope of the president’s election, his vow to end torture and close Guantanamo Bay, and it seemed certain the superhero candidate abruptly would confront the limits of his power in this age of government dysfunction and concentrated wealth. All of these things were on the minds of the re-enactors at Fort Niagara.
Without the French and Indian War, I was told in one re-enactor’s cascading cause-and-effect lecture, the British never would’ve taken hold of the American colonies, never would’ve quartered soldiers and taxed tea and killed Crispus Attucks; without the F&I there would’ve been no Washington, no Jefferson, no Lincoln, and therefore no Civil War, and so on.
Winston Churchill called the F&I the real first world war, someone added.
“It’s truly our nation’s forgotten war,” another mourned.
“Now that the Democrats are in office they’ll fund every useless social program and gut the things that really matter, like the national parks system.”
Someone else said, “This battle here is the reason today we ain’t speaking French.”
And one re-enactor offered this insight: “We’re people with an appreciation for history. We don’t just take The New York Times and go glug-glug-glug.”
Very few, if any, re-enactors recycled their bottles and cans.
Like drag shows, re-enactments hinge on sartorial panache. If a man’s otherwise period-correct outfit includes modern-day buttons or eyeglasses, it might as well have come from K-mart.
The outfit I borrowed from Old Hickory probably cost $500. The clothes were soft and baggy like elaborate pajamas, and they consisted of one puffy striped linen shirt; a pair of navy short pants; one black vest that hung past my hips; one long mustard coat; green wool thigh-high socks; two black leather garters; one brown leather belt; one pair of uncushioned moccasins; a navy linen scarf; and one blue, puffy wool bonnet.
I also carried a haversack for journalistic supplies: a tape-recorder, a camera, several notebooks, a few Ticonderoga-brand pencils in honor of the F&I battle there, a flask of whiskey, a one-hitter, and a modest supply of marijuana. Aside from hard-tack, I couldn’t think of anything else I’d need…
“You look like a natural,” Old Hickory said that morning.
He was drinking caffeine-free diet soda from a tin coffee cup. He corrected my scarf, which I’d assumed was an ascot, and he tucked in my overlong belt. Would a real frontiersman have cared about such things? Probably not. But Old Hickory was doing me a favor.
“Now you look spit and polished.”
In disbelief, I asked if he’d photograph me. As Old Hickory took the picture, a group of re-enactors walked past us and one of them teased, “So how’s it looking out of a camera from that end?”
Old Hickory grinned, but otherwise ignored the man.
He and I examined the photograph. Round-headed and with chipmunk cheeks, I looked like a twelve year-old colonial dork.
Old Hickory, by contrast, looked pretty good.
He was dressed as a Roger’s Ranger: the great-granddaddies of the U.S. Army Rangers, who in frontier times were badass guerillas who fought for the British and were commanded by a woodsman named Robert Rogers. My tour guide’s outfit consisted of a period-correct, perfectly stitched green wool coat and thigh-high boots atop skintight khaki breeches, with extra accoutrements that included a green wool bonnet, a powder horn, a knife, and a musket. Unlike me, he seemed to disappear into his clothes, which in effect was his goal.
Real life, as we all know, can be hell, too.
The Tour Guide
Old Hickory was a handsome man of 60. Lean and high-cheeked, with strikingly blue eyes, he had sandy-brown hair that he parted in the middle and combed onto his forehead. We first met when I worked as a journalist in Kansas City, roughly in 2004. I was at work one day when an editor took a call from a man suggesting we write about his performance in an upcoming History Channel documentary called “Andrew Jackson: Conqueror of Florida.”
We first spoke in his antiquarian house in the suburbs. I remember a console television and the musty smell of a used bookstore. He came to the door wearing a white button-down shirt tucked into blue jeans and, though obviously friendly and kind, he looked uncomfortable in his own skin. Expecting to meet a thespian, I pressed him for an hour to tell me about himself. He said he lived alone, and that he wasn’t an actor, but a re-enactor, and he only appeared in historical documentaries. He said he mostly portrayed the French and Indian War time period but occasionally dabbled in the War of 1812.
“No Civil War?” I asked.
“Nope, never ever,” he replied.
He explained his career in what he called “the movies.” After auditioning for the role of a historical figure named John Stark, he received the part from a historical documentarian who told him he looked like the Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. This led to a title role as Jackson in another half-hour show, “The Decisive Battles: The Battle of New Orleans,” in 2000. By now he had played Jackson probably four times on screen, he said.
For many reasons, this surprised me.
Namely I was struck that Old Hickory seemed low-key and passionless, the antithesis of a 19th century general, duelist, president and Indian killer.
He was a difficult interview, too. Barely answering my personal questions, he preferred to talk about historical trivia and the hobby of historical pretending. The man who plays Thomas Jefferson at colonial Williamsburg, Old Hickory said, knows his subject so well he can tell you what Jefferson ate for lunch on a given day, which I thought, or rather hoped, was an exaggeration.
I’m still not sure.
But Old Hickory captured my imagination when he said that reenacting, in various ways, had given him his “credibility.”
“What did you do before this?”
He explained that he’d quit a pretty lucrative full-time job in the insurance industry, and that his decision now allowed him to reenact up to 20 weekends a year, in places as far away from the flat Midwest as the fantastic rolling hills of upstate New York.
My story about him appeared, and yet I remained intrigued. As a lonely child and teenager, I had lived vicariously through movies and television, sometimes even to the extent that I considered many movie characters my friends and role models. So being no stranger to the modern-day ambivalence of wanting to be a fully realized person and yet wishing desperately to be someone else, I corresponded off-and-on with Old Hickory for several years. Then as luck would have it I moved to central New York and offered Old Hickory an apartment sofa to sleep on instead of his normal accommodation: a bedroll in the back of his minivan.
On the way to Niagara, Old Hickory had explained that re-enactors always drive big vehicles because the airlines won’t let them fly cross-country with their muskets and period camp gear. “That’s probably a re-enactor there,” he said many times, pointing at other overstuffed SUVs, trucks, trailers, and vans on the highway. “See the tent poles sticking out?”
The Mess (as in Messdeck)
At an outdoor commissary, a few hundred re-enactors drank coffee and ate muffins and donuts. A man in a British red coat peeled a banana. A man dressed as a French marine yelled at his wife when she took out a cell phone from her 18th century dress. “Why can’t you understand we’re doing something important this weekend?!?” the husband snapped.
A few people talked about the night’s upcoming fireworks extravaganza.
“Bring out your dead!” crowed an old man in rags as he pulled a rickety wooden cart.
“Good morning, young scribe,” a large bearded man said when he saw me taking notes.
Luckily he didn’t see what I’d written: Why aren’t we repelled by the bloodshed that made and maintains the republic?
After breakfast I returned to the British Advance Camp, where the Rangers were bivouacked near a large maintenance shed. Fifty or so men and one woman dressed as a man already were marching toward the fort’s wonderfully curated museum. Their muskets were shouldered, their faces grim. Most of them were drastically overweight, and the median age for the group hovered at forty-five. (“As far as the war goes, we’re ancient!” one of them later told me). In a grassy patch they settled in three different formations and clumsily walked forward, turned right, left, wheeled around, and stood at attention. Their platoon leader sounded like a movie drill sergeant: “Poise your firelocks! Shoulder your firelocks! Rest upon your arms!” This went on for about an hour, with the soldiers showing little improvement as time passed.
As a captain lieutenant of his battalion, Old Hickory stood outside of the drill lines and chatted with the other officers. The plan for the morning was to drill like this and do safety inspections, then walk to the Battle on the Beach. As an officer his obligations were to pretend to whisper orders to the platoon leader who then relayed the messages to the men in a simulated version of chain-of-command, which made this rather tedious affair seem official.
During a pause in the action one of the privates asked who I was.
“A journalist,” I replied.
“We have an embedded reporter with us!?!” the man laughed.
“Where you from, son?” another asked.
“Ithaca, New York.”
“So you’re gonna just march around with us?”
“Yeah, Old Hickory brought me,” I said, thinking it would help me gain trust.
“Ooooooooooooohhhh,” several of them cooed, causing Old Hickory’s face to redden.
They teased him like schoolchildren ragging on the kid at the head of the class for receiving yet another award.
“Well, thanks for joining us anyway,” someone said.
“I’m happy to be here,” I replied. “I hope it’s in the script that we win.”
People generally assume that any reenactment is a Civil War reenactment. It’s the most popular kind, for sure, but there are other time periods and conflicts. The Vikings. Rocky Mountain Fur Traders. Revolutionary War. World Wars One and Two. Korea. War of 1812. Vietnam. One imagines there eventually will be reenactors of Afghanistan and Iraq, too.
America’s earliest reenactments were arranged by real veterans. In 1822 some Revolutionary War soldiers revisited their 1775 conflict in Lexington, presumably to recognize the “first shot” that led to independence. Then some Crow Indians from the Battle of Little Big Horn commemorated their 1876 battle against General Custer with a bloodless redux in 1902. Probably there were others, too, but those are the most well-known.
Psychologically, those reenactments must have been a way of keeping past traumas real and under control; a means of talking about tough experiences with people who’ve been through the same. But I’ve never understood why anyone would reenact a war in which they’ve never fought.
Who are these people beneath their funny clothes?
Dossier No. 1
Old Hickory grew up in white, suburban Kansas City and enjoyed his childhood with his father, the quiet son of Swedish immigrants, who became a department store window dresser; and his mother, of British ancestry, who kept a tidy house and loved Old Hickory and his older brother.
Like other boys of the 1950s, he developed fantasies of frontier heroism and respect for the American story by watching Walt Disney shows about Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. But in real life he avoided putting himself out there, as if resistant to risk and effort. Once he told me he loved the musical “South Pacific” because he’d watched his more-outgoing older brother practice the play with drama club friends in their living room, and he told this story with an undertone of self-knowing: at times his shyness can be stubborn, self-defeating.
He followed his brother to the same Kansas university and took pre-law classes but quit with just credits shy of a degree. He joined the National Guard to avoid becoming a soldier in the Vietnam War and ultimately finished college as a “C” student before returning to Kansas City. For three decades he worked in various jobs writing insurance policies. Around age 30 he tried being a marketing representative with a 10-state territory; it involved lots of travel, a company car, and an expense account — and he hated it. He also once moved to San Francisco, stayed a month, “hated every minute of that, too,” missed Kansas City and came home.
He’s never been married or had children or pets. “I don’t think I’ve ever truly been in love either,” he said on the way to Niagara. These days he’s looking for an attractive, independent, middle-aged, single woman interested in history, who reenacts the 18th century and sews. One imagines he may be looking for a while.
Shock and Awe
Once the men finished drilling, they waited for the order to begin marching. Contrary to the stereotype that reenactors spend their time running around like 5-year-olds, not once during that weekend did I see a man move faster than 3 miles per hour. The published schedule of events had the opening Battle on the Beach set to begin at 10 a.m., once the public parked their cars, bought their tickets, and meandered to the gawker’s fence near the Lake Ontario shore. According to the program, the reenactors were tasked to play out the following scenario: “A French hunting party from Fort Niagara discover that British forces have landed east of Fort Niagara. Rangers, Native American warriors, and French troops engage in combat. Both sides are reinforced until a major battle unfolds…”
As they waited for their marching orders, the men began looking restless. “We need to eat time,” Old Hickory told them. “Our whole purpose here is to save the skin of the guys already fighting on the beach because they’re getting pretty beat up.”
Of this sort of slip into fantasy, Old Hickory explains he never loses track of himself as a 21st century man — “I’m a little too practical, too down to earth,” he says — and so rather than succumbing to period rush he keeps in mind that he’s always being watched by the public and other reenactors, and he likes that. “I never forget that I’m a reenactor,” he once explained. “Even when I’m at a Civil War event I want to walk up to the guys and say, ‘Hey, I’m one of your brothers — I’m a reenactor, too,’ because I miss being identified the way I am when I wear my period clothes.”
Dossier No. 2
“In real life I’m just a wallflower,” he once confessed to me, before adding, on a brighter note, “but when I found reenacting everything changed.”
In 1992, at age 44, he took up black powder shooting and visited a War of 1812 site in Kansas called Fort Osage. There he met some F&I reenactors (anachronistic, yes, but who really cares), and he barraged them with questions. He bought clothes, a musket, and slept in his car at events. Some considered him “a suit” and “a mooch,” given his white-collar job and healthy diet, his constant requests for help and lack of handyman skills, but he paid those criticisms little mind. At events he was approached by the public, asked questions, even photographed. For the first time in his life he felt appreciated, like he had something to offer the world.
“Now when I’m in my street clothes I don’t feel like that’s my identity,” he said when I once asked him, Who are you outside of this?
In that conversation I drew a circle in my notebook and asked him to fill in the elements of his life — family, hobbies, friends, the job he’d quit, whatever — and to shade in the categories that involved reenacting. The exercise perplexed Old Hickory; he pushed my notebook away. “I don’t need to do that,” he said. “Reenacting is the circle. That’s it. There isn’t anything else anymore.”
The commanding officers were visited by the battalion’s co-founder. A circular, froggish man of 62, Tim wore a black tricorn hat and carried the title Battalion Adjutant. After Old Hickory introduced us, Tim and I spoke privately under an oak tree. For years Old Hickory had told me about the amazing history of Jaeger’s Battalion, how it’s the oldest and largest recreated Roger’s Rangers unit in the country, with members from 26 states, plus Canada and England, and more than 400 enlisted members. Old Hickory also considered Tim one of his heroes: “He’s been having fun with this all of his life, whereas I took 30 years off from ‘cowboys and Indians’ before starting again.”
When I asked how Tim got into reenacting, he said, “Back in the 1950s, the F&I was considered pretty obscure.” Immediately this made me chuckle: What does he think it is now? (There are only about 3,000 F&I reenactors compared to 40,000 in the Civil War, which itself remains a relatively fringe hobby). But Tim went on to say that in 1956, at age 9, he co-founded this battalion with his 11-year-old best friend John. They lived in the same neighborhood in Grand Rapids, Mich., and had seen a rerelease of 1940’s “Northwest Passage,” widely considered the F&I’s answer to “Gone with the Wind,” with Spencer Tracy as Robert Rogers and Walter Brennan and Robert Young as two buddies who help the famed woodsman wipe out Indian villages. Mesmerized by the movie, Tim and his buddy returned to the theater nine more times and began play-Ranging. (“I’m Robert Rogers!” “No, I am! You’re the Indian savage!” I can imagine them saying). Then as teenagers they shot muzzleloaders and began reenacting after college.
Hearing all of this I wanted to ask Tim if they’d signed their charter in a tree house, but when he said John died a few years ago, making him the commander, I didn’t have the heart to be ironic.
The author of several F&I books, as well as a memoir about Boy Scouting in western Michigan, Tim admired his fake troops: “We’re a family-friendly organization. Our members all look alike, they all get treated alike, but some of them are very interesting. That one over there is actually female; she’s a graduate of the Air Force Academy. Him over there, he’s a real Army colonel. Another is a meteorologist. Another is a schoolteacher. One’s a naturalist for the state of Ohio. And we have one young man with us on leave from Mosul in Iraq.”
“Which one is he?”
“He won’t be on the battlefield today.”
“Nope. He’s cooking with the women back in camp.”
Our conversation ended as all of my previous and future ones had and would: with me taking a picture of the reenactor. These people must have unwritten rules about photographs: They never smile or look at the camera, and they always try to look stern and important. As such, Tim stared off toward history and greatness, and he suggested that I capture the French fort in the background, because that’s the direction we were headed.
The route to the beach was a long one. Through the park, across soccer fields, past a swimming pool, and through the woods along shoreline cliffs. The reason for the distance, one reenactor said, was a “bunch of asshole French separatists.”
Earlier that year, a group of French-Canadians had threatened to ruin a reenactment near Quebec City of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, in which the French were defeated and their foremost general was killed. The battle had been canceled over the plans of angry Quebecans still pissed off about France’s defeat, to storm the battlefield with paintball guns. As a result Niagara had swelled, bringing more reenactors and in turn more spectators whom we had to journey around; we didn’t want to shatter the public’s suspended disbelief, after all.
The reenactors’ physical conditions, ranging from bad feet to morbid obesity, led them to take many breaks. Yet unlike the masses, Old Hickory was physically fit. Just a few years prior, he and a few others had dressed in Revolutionary War clothing and walked almost 700 miles recreating the Washington-Rochambeau March (sans, of course, a land war in the background). Averaging 16 miles a day, they walked up hills, through strip malls and housing developments, and across water and countryside and rain swept cities. “We’d walk seven hours a day and set up our tents immediately. We’d sleep and then start walking again. We wore modern sneakers, but still the blisters hurt so bad every step hurt,” Old Hickory told me. “But we got celebrity treatment. Every town we stopped in there were people who appreciated us, thanked us. Journalists interviewed us I don’t know how many times. The Pentagon even let us inside. It was the greatest thing I’ve ever been a part of.”
Dossier No. 3
“My dream is trying to create Andrew Jackson in a 40- or 45-minute presentation, basically a one-man performance,” Old Hickory told me more than six years ago. We were talking in the Starbucks where every day he gets his social fix talking to baristas while he reads his history and reenacting books. At that time, Old Hickory already had paid a scriptwriter $1,000 to write him a Jackson monologue. He’d purchased a few thousand dollars worth of Jackson clothing and had a website and business cards, too. He was still riding high on the fact that he made the May/June 2000 cover of a reenacting magazine called Muzzleloader, on which he appeared as a gallant General Jackson sitting atop a horse at the Battle of New Orleans.
Since that Starbucks conversation, he’d also become the main men’s model for Cobb Creek Merchants (“purveyor of 18th Century fine clothing & accessories”); been profiled in another long Muzzleloader article about the filming of the PBS special “The War That Made America;” appeared in short films for Mount Vernon and Andrew Jackson’s hermitage in Tennessee (the latter is a low-budget movie called “An Encounter with Old Hickory,” now available on YouTube); and he modeled in a project called EPIC ART in which oil tankers outside of Houston were decorated with historical images four stories tall and 140-feet long, meaning that on a certain highway in Texas, Old Hickory can be seen as Andrew Jackson from literally a mile away.
But battle reenactments and photo shoots are one thing — real acting is another. Old Hickory doesn’t think he’s got the talent: “I’d really feel shy and self-conscious doing some kind of actor thing,” he told me. Plus, he’s too impatient for acting or public speaking classes. “I don’t want to be an actor,” he replies whenever anyone makes the suggestion. “I just want to be Jackson.”
The old man talking to Old Hickory called himself Captain Titus, and he was ghostly, with a turkey-like face and shoulder-length white hair. He wore a long red coat and a black tricorn hat and he carried a saber at his side and smoked a long, curvy corn pipe. (Later at this event, at the fireworks show, I would meet Captain Titus’ men. Five bearded and friendly middle-aged guys, they told me Titus often organizes multi-hour hikes during the winter, when most reenactors hang up their muskets. Apparently he leads his men through steep gorges in their period clothes and shoes, yelling at them to keep up. Another tale involved a time when Titus inspected a man’s musket and found it dirty. As punishment he pressed the man’s $2,000 gun into some mud, saying, “Don’t you just hate it when that happens?” You’ll never see a reenactor more hardcore than him, one of his men said).
Watching Titus talk to Old Hickory was like seeing a teacher and student; Titus was so lost in his character that nobody knew his real name, or if he had one.
“Did you enjoy yourself when we last engaged?”
“Yes, sir, I did,” replied Old Hickory, who told Titus he drove 30,000 miles for last year’s season of reenactments.
“My God, you go a distance for the cause, my boy!”
When they parted ways Captain Titus tipped his hat.
“Good luck killing the French!”
We crossed a four-lane divided highway to enter the woods that took us to the beach. A platoon leader yelled “Hold the road!” to some men who stood with their muskets across their chests while SUVs and sedans idled down.
At the highway, Old Hickory and I saw his pal Mike. A documentary filmmaker from Connecticut, Mike was one of the reenactors with whom Old Hickory marched the 700 miles. Claiming he was dressed as “Bobby Rogers” himself, Mike sported a long gray ponytail that swayed as he stepped through trees and brush. He bragged that the Yorktown march damaged his knees so badly he now held railings whenever he walked on steps, but still he planned to march again someday. Of his obsession he explained that his relatives have fought in every American war since the F&I and the hobby brings him closer to his roots. For 20 years he researched his genealogy, even bought a computer program to manage its 3,000 names, and he boasted to me that his relatives include Abraham Lincoln, John Hancock, Paul Revere and 21 people who survived the Mayflower voyage.
Wanting to ask how much cannon fire he’d absorbed throughout life, I instead congratulated Mike on his discoveries. He added, “And my son and daughter-in-law just had a little boy. Some years ago I asked for all of her information, and after a lot of digging I found out she’s related to the first settlers of Jamestown, which means my grandson is the byproduct of the first people to settle this country. How about that for awesome, huh?”
“I’m sure he’ll have a lot to say at show and tell,” I said.
The crack of musket fire interrupted us.
We arrived at the Battle on the Beach.
Coming out of the tree line, the Rangers saw hundreds of spectators behind the gawkers’ fence that extended all 500 yards of the battlefield. The Rangers organized themselves in a long horizontal line — which I guess is how the guerilla forest warriors actually fought? — and negotiated several picnic tables and stationary barbecue grills. As we walked forward, I saw several reenactors (as frontier medics?) pretending to carry the dead and wounded off the field, with several of those men aptly moaning.
Slowly the Rangers advanced into the battlefield, knelt, fired on the distant enemy, and advanced again. As for me, I alternated between scribbling in my notepad and lying on the ground to take battlefield photographs.
On the drive up, Old Hickory had told me that battles can be exciting, with all sorts of things happening, but really, it was just a bunch of yelling, gunfire and smoke. With everything scripted, they’re a cross between goofy and dull. I got a kick out of making chit-chat with the dead soldiers and hearing a few of the commanding officers crack jokes. One man quoted a line from “Stripes”: “If we ever find ourselves in heavy combat, just know I’ll be right behind you guys the whole time.” Others, however, were hardcore: they shouted “Huzzah!” after firing every round.
After 20 minutes the battle was scheduled to wind down. “If you’re having musket problems, start dropping out as casualties!” a commander yelled.
Added another: “But wait for the next round of enemy fire! Don’t just suddenly die!!!”
“Nicely done, boys!” said another when the men managed to fire in unison.
“Two more rounds, hold your fire, and then we’re going right after them!”
To my right I saw French navy forces on the lake shoot at us with cannons and muskets. A few men dressed in loincloths loped around the shoreline, ostensibly pretending to be warring Indians but instead looking confused as they wandered toward and away from the war. Noteworthy, though, was their body paint: Depending on the man, it was either crimson red or soot-black, and it covered them mohawk-to-toe, including all over their bare middle-aged buttocks.
At some point Captain Titus emerged from a cloud of smoke.
“You’re not afraid are you, Nick?” he asked in his thick Southern drawl.
“No, Captain Titus,” I said, lying on the ground with my notebook. “I’m just fine.”
“That’s good,” he hollered. “I didn’t think you would be!”
Then after the French fired another round of blanks he shook his head and again turned to me, totally serious: “Boy, that was a close one, Nick!”
After the battle ended, young girls in matronly outfits walked onto the battlefield carrying canvas sacks. “Would you like some water, sir?” one of them asked in a fake British accent nobody except the two of us could hear. I drank from a plastic squeeze bottle and surveyed the field. In accordance with the script, a Tambour-Major on the French side had declared, “La Retraite” and the Frenchmen and the Indians had run into the fort. Dead soldiers rose and walked away. Old Hickory wandered off to model for sculptors and painters who’ve used his image in all sorts of artwork. But I stayed behind watching the crowd applaud us, wondering why they’ve paid $25 a ticket, for this.
Among them was an attractive young mother with two little boys. One of them sat in a stroller and the other ran around pretending to be a soldier. Despite being in uniform, so to speak, I explained to her what I was doing and asked why she brought her family to a battle reenactment given the kind of message it imparts. She answered, “It’s just something to do. And this is what boys do anyway. They’re conquerors — they think they’re born to be conquerors. I used to get tired of them playing war games, but then I got tired of trying to redirect their imagination.” And together we watched her son pretend to kill an imaginary enemy as we walked off the battlefield.
Later, and mildly depressed, I went to an ice cream shop inside the fort. As luck would have it, I sat beside two other mothers and their four little boys who were arguing. Naturally I eavesdropped.
They were civilians, and I assumed the mothers also had brought their children to foster an all-American, male fascination with fighting and war. But these boys didn’t care at all about the battles, the reenactors or the fort. Like the reenactors, but also unlike them, these children were somewhere outside of real life and real time.
“I’m Mario,” one of the boys yelled.
“No, I’m Mario,” another said.
“OK, can I be Luigi,” the third asked.
The whole thing went on for five minutes, until one of the exasperated mothers put down her fudge sundae and snapped. “Half a day! Just half a day,” she pleaded. “Can you guys please go one day without arguing who’s who in the video game world.”
Nick Kowalczyk is a professor of writing at Ithaca College.More Nick Kowalczyk.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)