Living History a la Mal
by Mal Stylo
My pard Jonah Begone once wrote that a living historian is "presumably any historian who is still breathing." We've reduced the requirements still further: you don't need to be a historian, you just need to be breathing (at least until you get to the event). This doesn't mean that there aren't still important guidelines to be observed - au contraire! - but they are uncomplicated and can be mastered by anyone.
FIRST, never bring excessive amounts of equipment to a living history event. Remember, if you carry it in, you've got to carry it out. Someone else will bring tents, camp stools, cooking equipage, etc. You should bring you. The musket and accouterments are encumbrances that can be easily dispensed with, too. We don't use 'em at living history events anyway. You will need, besides the basic Federal uniform, your poncho, blanket, knife, fork, plate and tin cup. This enables you to do our unit's justly famous impression of a "sleeping soldier." One of our members sustained this impression for over four hours at one event, and did it so well that he made a television newscast that night!
SECOND, there's no way to avoid 'em: sometimes the public shows up (they're known as "spectators" when they're paying to see reenactments). When this happens, never, ever, make eye contact. (Sleeping soldiers don't have this problem; wakeful ones with lots of gear do.) If a member of the public sees you looking at him, before you know it those old familiar questions, "Are those uniforms hot?/Are those guns real?/Which side are you on?," etc., start flying. There is only one exception to the eye contact rule, and that's if the person is an attractive young woman in light, revealing summer attire. You can and ought to talk to her.
Helpful hint #1: if you get stuck giving the firing demonstration use somebody else's musket so you don't dirty yours (and try not to disturb those doing the sleeping soldier impression).
Helpful hint #2: if cornered by a member of the public, whip your first person impression on 'em (the old I-don't-know-nuthin-about-anything-after-1865 routine; not even the location of the restrooms - "What's a restroom?"). This will rapidly produce nervous laughter, discomfiture, then a rapid retrograde movement on the part of your audience. The classic employment of this technique occurred at the 1988 Gettysburg event, when an entire regiment, en masse, responded to questions with a smile, a wave and a notably sarcastic "Hi! We're the FRIENDLY regiment!" The precipitous retreats by the curious that resulted was amazing! [For the record, this was the 125th New York "Orange Blossoms" - Jonah]
THIRD, you'll sometimes see an event flyer advertising "Authentic Civil War Drill." Demand that drill be limited to one minute! Think about it: as a visitor how long would a bunch of guys marching around hold your attention? Drill at every living history event should be held precisely from 11:00 AM to 11:01 AM. Remember, our regiment is a Montessori regiment - it is incumbent upon officers and NCOs to ask us if we feel like drilling and then gracefully accept our thundering cries of "NO!"
At one event we listened bemusedly as a vacuum-headed reenactor explained his rationale for long and pointless drill sessions. We then watched as this regiment of Drillmeisters made up and executed freeform commands such as "undouble files on the fly by columns into twos MARCH." This for about 45 minutes in a temperature in the upper 80 degree range with an equally high percentage of humidity. For good measure, everybody in this 20 man Grand Division echoed the commands (despite the fact that we could hear their fearless leader shout his military improvisations from 80 yards away). Just when one would think they couldn't climb any higher on the Bozo-Meter, they began firing volleys in the general vicinity of the town's outdoor REAL church service. Obviously, we still have much to learn.
Helpful hint #3: when performing company volleys during church services, use Pyrodex instead of black powder. It burns with a whisper soft "Phfffffffft" which will scarcely be noticed.
FOURTH, use this newsletter to your advantage: READ IT! Besides directions and schedules of upcoming events, it tells you when you will be fed. If it's a two day "sit around", only go on the day the meal is being served. This is why you need your plate and fork - the tin cup is for the continuous authentic consumption of mootched Coca Cola from someone's cooler.
FIFTH (and finally), if your life is so humdrum that you feel living history weekends are worth going to, mosey over and fraternize with the ubiquitous Clog Dancers. They always appear to be having all the fun anyway.