Aging Children of Reenacting

by Jonah Begone

The first sentence in J.M. Barrie's classic Peter Pan is "All children except one grow up." What he should have written is "All children, except avid reenactors, grow up."

We living historians occasionally justify our hobby in terms of seeking after or celebrating a less complex time in history. Perhaps what this statement really represents is a seeking after a simpler, less complex time in life, i.e., childhood. This truth dawned on me once during a sequence of events that began by opening my front door to a little boy who wanted to know if my son could come out to play "combat," and concluded with a phone call from a fellow reenactor who wanted to know if I was planning to "come out" that weekend. Despite what we claim about commemoration, etc., I strongly suspect most of us are still boys who reenact not Gettysburg or Antietam but the vacant lot dirt clod battles of our youth.

Don't take this as an insult. Looking backward - something we reenactors do quite easily - is as natural as the first gray threads we find in our hair. Nostalgia, what Mark Twain called "mental and moral masturbation," is common in any complex, demanding society. It could be argued that the more stressful the society, the more a desire for simplicity manifests itself. For instance, it's no accident that "Main Street USA" at the Disney parks invoke the idyllic, mostly rural pre-World War I society of America. The restored historic districts we use as a backdrop for our living history activities serves the same function. We reenactors simply take the need for simplistic recreation to an "authentic" extension and call it a hobby (or "THE Hobby," as if there were no other!). Others call it an "avocation," and for some it becomes a lifestyle. Whatever it's called, it's a weekend return to the undemanding days of our youth and a departure from the mean and anxious Nineties - after all, when we're apprehensive about the future we're more willing to retreat into the past.

A friend of mine once told me that reenacting is escapism and fantasy, and in the same way that a woman reads a romantic novel and feels an affinity with the heroine, we men identify with the soldiers we portray. The logical extension of this is the "first person" portrayal of someone who actually lived. For me, however, the reenactment soldier isn't another person because playing at being someone else isn't relevant to me. My reenacting persona is me at a more innocent and inexperienced age; a younger me. And looking back on some of the events I've done, the best weekends have been characterized by their difference from my normal workaday responsibilities at the office. (Which explains why I find "shop talk" at events irritating!)

Think about it - don't we act differently at reenactments than we do at work or around the wife and kids? Aren't we more boisterous, noisy and troublesome at events than we are normally, and isn't there a separation between the two worlds that is never quite breached? (If you don't believe me, try recounting the big jokes and routines of the weekend to your office mates and check out their polite laughter or their blank, uncomprehending stares.)

As prominent an element of reenacting as the hooliganism is, it's interesting that we never see "We goof around a lot" and "We stress recreation" in the recruitment ads reenactment organizations publish. Usually we read the more orthodox "We're committed to authenticity" or "We stress drill," or something like that. I've spoken to enough "veteran" reenactors, however, to realize it's the goofy socializing that most people look forward to on the weekends. (It's certainly what makes up most of the past event talk around the campfires in my group!) We could be honest and emphasize this childish aspect of reenacting, but I suspect it'll never happen. We reenactors have an infinite capacity for pretension and seriousness, often manifested in the "We educate the public" rationale. It's hard to feel light-hearted with that kind of a burden!

A truly curious thing about our hobby is seeing the varied attitudes about the military that surfaces on the weekends. Some of these attitudes can be traced to age and experience: the teenager is ready to grab a musket and go blow a few pounds of powder on a tactical weekend, while those who have been in the real armed services and have reached or passed the mellowing mid-thirties rediscover (usually during a long drill session) why they got out of the service in the first place! Not all of our elders are pacifists, of course. I'm sure everybody who's been in this hobby for at least a little while has viewed a reenactment commander in the light of "...this guy really thinks he's an officer! What an egotist!" Let's face it: there are crackpots in the command echelons of reenacting, and while many of these have had little or no connection with the real military they still affect truly inspirational martial airs. These wanna-be martinets who are in reenacting to drill or to be drilled are more to be pitied than emulated, I think.

For some, real-life youth and innocence ends as the reenacting childhood begins. In my illustrious career I've known many who have found themselves with living history-derived divorces; some of these people used to show up in camp Friday night relating their victories over the wife in getting away for the weekend. I'm sure if sutlers sold such a bumper sticker you'd see 'em in event parking lots: "My wife said if I go reenacting once more she's gonna leave me. I'm sure gonna miss her." Many of these folks, having proven their dedication by sacrificing all, ascend the event sponsorship and command ranks of the hobby. (Maybe we need to dedicate a monument to them!)

As for myself, I'm an aging child, too. I've lost the sense of responsibility as a "Guardian of American History" that reenacting inspired in my early days, and like many veterans am now in it to socialize, mostly. And while I find myself becoming more detached during the battles and less willing to suffer the pomposity of "educating the public," I still look forward to the event weekend's return to simplicity (reenacting's greatest allure). Perhaps at the next one I'll play hooky during drill and find a creek to wade around in, or do something equally childish. Anyone for marbles?