You know me as Jonah Begone, but at home and among my friends I have another name: Chronos, from the Greek word for time. I am obsessed with it. I'm always thinking about what time it is now, how much time has passed, and even about the abstract nature of time. Ever since I was a kid I have been fascinated by clock and watch faces, and of the slow, steady movement of the hands across the dial. Consequently, I have grown up to be a watch collector, with my favorite watches being fine Swiss mechanical chronographs, which can measure durations as well as the current time.
In thinking about time, I have come up with a fanciful theory. I believe people have what I would call a "Chronal Orientation," to describe how they usually think about and deal with time. These people can be classified in three broad categories. The first group primarily thinks about the future a lot. These are the so-called visionaries, the people who spend a lot of their time planning for where they and society will be years down the road. They like computers for the sake of computing, and perhaps enjoy science-fiction. Maybe hardcore Star Trek fans - "Trekkies" - fall into this category. They do not fear high technology - they embrace it.
The second group are those who are primarily concerned with the here and now. The best I can say about them is that they are solidly rooted and practical, and not given to day-dreaming much. On the other hand, they are unconcerned with any planning and fail to learn any concrete lessons from the past. They do what is expedient at the time. We reenactors encounter this type all the time: "It's over and past. Who cares?", and it annoys us no end.
The third group is the category I fit into: those interested primarily in the past. Obviously, a great many reenactors fit into this group as well. These are the people who are interested in events simply because they have happened, and can be studied and analyzed. For us, antiques are valuable because they are old. Farbs, hardcores, progressives, buffs, war-gamers... this attitude about time classifies us. While driving, we exasperate our passengers by making sudden maneuvers on the highway to pull over to read historical markers. I suspect that if you're reading this article in this particular magazine, you can relate.
I also suspect that we Type III's dream about traveling back into the past, perhaps to experience a battle or campaign. After all, isn't this what we're trying to do at events? I once came across a great phrase for what we would like to do: "Vaccinated Time Travel"; that is, go back into the past to take part in everything but the plagues, nasty infections and bullet wounds.
And why not think about time travel? After all, some scientists claim nature only partially imposes a strict arrow of time upon us. For instance, if you filmed two tennis players playing tennis and reversed the film, there is nothing that couldn't also be done with time flowing backwards - in order words, in this case time is symmetrical. But film an ice cube melting in a glass of water, and you have asymmetrical time due to the laws of thermodynamics. You cannot reverse entropy to create the cube of ice out of the glass of water. Many of us have experienced an odd kind of time dilation effect due to thermodynamics; in this case warm bodies transferring heat to colder surroundings. When we camp this way as soldiers frequently did, the nights seem endless. Indeed, this effect is well commented-upon in diaries and journals.
I enjoy watching the British science-fiction TV character Dr. Who, a "Time Lord" from a fancifully-named planet called Gallifrey. The stories have all sorts of interesting plots and nuances dealing with time travel. Once, he and some companions stumbled across an American Civil War battle - however, that episode is best left to television and film critics. It was pretty bad. But one episode had a clever little subplot wherein Dr. Who and a companion were trapped in a time loop. (There was also an excellent Star Trek - The Next Generation episode that used this as a plot.) They got free by changing their circumstances; in other words, they interrupted the loop. Without going into details - and it was a trivial solution that wouldn't hold up to scientific scrutiny - it led me to wonder about the possibilities of altering time mentally. After all, we're all acquainted with the proverb, "Time flies when you're having fun," and "A watched pot never boils."
Ex-Confederate Mark Twain gives us a clue as to how mental time travel might be accomplished. In 1896 he wrote, "There is in life only one moment and in eternity only one. It is so brief that it is represented by the fleeting of a luminous mote through the thin ray of sunlight - and it is visible but a fraction of a second. The moments that preceded it have been lived, are forgotten and are without value; the moments that have not been lived have no existence and will have no value except in the moment that each shall be lived. While you are asleep you are dead; and whether you stay dead an hour or a billion years the time to you is the same." The key is in the moment.
Try this: find the most authentic surroundings you can. Go someplace where nothing makes any fingerprints on your window into the past. Sounds are important. You need the clanking of pots and pans and the murmuring of troops in the field. (Some sounds, like old bits of music, cause me to travel back mentally in an instant. A moment later, the effect is gone.) Smells are evocative, too: leather, black powder, sweat, wool, campfire smoke, straw, the smell of a field in the summer. Now, do something that is universal to the experience of humanity. Kiss a young woman for the first time. Or, run until you are overheated and badly out of breath. Or experience the kind of pain that makes you oblivious to anything other than your present condition. For the moment that you forget the past and the future and live just in that moment, you are experiencing exactly the same thing that someone 135+ years ago has done, and it no longer matters what year it is.
Reenactors do this all the time; we call it time-tripping. But it only lasts briefly. As soon as you think, "Wow, this must be like it must have been," you have taken a subjective stance that ends the moment. It takes a high degree of delusion to sustain the moment, and I'm not even sure we would want to. Fooling others is acting; fooling ourselves is folly.
In the seventeen years I have reenacted the American Civil War I can add up all those moments from each season, when the black powder smoke blows forth from the muskets in the first events in April to the last smells of the camp as it is being taken down in October or November. I would be hard-pressed to figure out which moment was supposed to be First Manassas and which was Gettysburg, or Antietam. But it doesn't really matter, and I am glad for them all. I suppose the Civil War veteran's recollections of the war is much like my recollections of reenacting it, which goes a long way to a claim of authenticity, despite the fact that I was wearing modern underwear all the while.
BEHIND THE BYLINE: Jonah has been scribbling for the Camp Chase Gazette since 1987. His website, "JonahWorld!" has been on the web since 1996.