The Five Worst Events I’ve Ever Done


By Jonah Begone



Stands to reason that if you’ve been in this hobby for a while you’ve experienced some clunker events. I certainly have. Sure, I could write an article about the best events I’ve ever done – and perhaps I will – but where’s the fun in that? It’s far more enjoyable to slag off the worst events. Here they are, the Top Five (or Bottom Five, depending on how you view such things):


1. The 125th Anniversary Battle of the Crater (4/5/6 August, 1989, near Richmond, Virginia). Specifically, not far from a noisy highway off-ramp (which one could see and hear from the Federal camp) somewhere in the Richmond environs.


In retrospect, the main problem with this event probably had to do with expectations being set too high. Men are gratuitously violent, and we were all possibly thinking that things will blow up! Dirt goes a-flyin’ in the air! Ka-BOOOM! Just As It Must Have Been! But, given the prevalence of 20th century litigation in America, could it ever be? No. No event sponsor in his right mind could have possibly staged an explosion to meet expectations and kept themselves from being sued by somebody or another for something.


Let’s set the scene: We Feds had the option of camping over where we could see and hear the traffic on its way to and from Richmond, or camp over by where the Crater would be set off. That’s right, camp not far from the explosives. So we did that. Why? I don’t recall. A death wish, perhaps. This was a major disappointment for one sleezebag in our unit, who optimistically erected his tent over in the Federal camp by some outdoor shower stall somebody had erected, hoping to catch a glimpse of a showering female. (He actually told us this.) And would you be terribly surprised to learn that he was a lawyer?


It was impossibly hot, which is almost always the ruination of an event. I recall sticking my face into the water collected in my slouch hat simply to stave off heat prostration. Often.

So, morning comes – the day of the Big Bang. I’m sure the event sponsor had to stage certain precautions in order to get permission for the event from the county fire marshal and police. A number of police cruisers pulled up, and after our morning breakfast (you will recall that the actual assault took place at dawn) we formed up into companies, awaiting the pleasure of the police. Plastic tape was erected to form a safe line, and after the police walked the area to make sure no reenactors were, say, snoozing on explosive charges, an “all-clear” siren issued forth from one of the cruisers. Needless to say, this was not at all How It Must Have Been. I think I recall a count down (once again, not at all How It Must Have Been). Fire!


We expected, perhaps, a Hollywood-style, audio-sweetened explosion which threw dirt up into the air and left a satisfying circular hole in the ground. What we got was a gentle pa-rummmmmp which lifted earth a few feet in a straight line from right to left, leaving a linear trench. “Underwhelming” doesn’t begin to describe it. Some unknown Yank’s comment was unforgettable: “Was that it? Hell, I’ve farted louder than that!”


What followed was even sillier. After some time was expended in making sure the ground was safe for personnel, which meant that event representatives were walking around the site, making sure all the explosives went off, the Confederates inexplicably took up positions in the trench. As we all know, historically, the Battle of the Crater involved Yanks trapped in the Crater, with rallied Confederates firing into their ranks – a slaughter. The historical reenactment, however, featured a Yankee assault on solidly entrenched Confederates. A fist fight broke out: I can still see, in my mind’s eye, one enraged Reb, veins sticking out from his neck, glaring at us and daring us to try to occupy the trench. One of our “officers” began to pour gasoline on the fire by angrily yelling, “Get in there and get those Rebs out of that trench!” My pards and I looked at each other, started laughing, and walked away from the Farb Fest – the first and, to this day, the only time I have ever abandoned a battle reenactment while it was taking place. Call it a vote of No Confidence in the event and the sense of responsibility of the officers.


The event wasn’t a total waste: we drove over to the nearby Cold Harbor battlefield to cool off, talk and take in the various sights and plaques, etc. and then left for home. A Sunday battle of some kind was planned, but we blew that off, too. What was especially galling at the time was the $5 per person pre-registration fee, which was a new high. It remains one of the very worst events I have ever attended. (NOTE: A souvenir: I found this near the Crater. Helpful info if you plan to blow something up.)


2. The Mont Alto, Pennsylvania Tactical (May 1986). This one was described as being a real tactical; that is, the Yanks and Rebs were initially posted away from one another and would need to find one other, marching down crowded forest trails and up mountain inclines, and engage authentically. The result of the skirmishes would be judged by a team, who would instruct either side to advance or retreat, etc. At least this is what I recall of this event. It was intriguing. What should have sounded loud alarm bells in my head was, 1.) The presence of the world “Mont,” signifying a mountain, in the event name, and 2.) The fact that it was sponsored by a cavalry organization. (The kind with real, live horses, not dismounted cavalry.)


Friday night we camped at the base of Mont Alto and were awakened by a rooster, which was commendably authentic, if annoying. The main thing I recall about the Friday night camp was that we managed to push a big, tall, dead tree over, which fell with a satisfying crash. The reason stated for the tree’s execution was that it was too near one fellow’s tent – and it seemed better to push the tree over than to move the tent. Little did I know that when all was said and done this would prove to have been the most enjoyable thing about Mont Alto.


The Saturday morning hike up Mont Alto was miserable. The mountain seemed to go on and on… of course, the cavalry guys riding horses could care less. We hated them more and more as the day wore on – which was also commendably authentic. Getting staged to where we were supposed to be took hours – and then we headed off on more or less level trails to find the Rebs. Hours passed by, no contact. Guys dressed in cammo clothing holding maps (the judges) started talking to other guys on walkie-talkies; at one point we thought we heard that we were separated from the Rebs by thirteen miles. Thirteen miles?!? This sparked off a minor revolt and a heap of grumbling.


We finally made contact with some Rebs, and it was a fairly pitiful affair, a little skirmish. By this time, however, we could see that the sun was beginning to set and we had all had enough.  We decided to hike down the mountain and abandon the event. On the way down, which was actually harder than slogging up because we were tired and very footsore, we found farmers in pick-up trucks who offered us rides down. We gladly accepted – a farby end to a badly-executed event. The whole Mont Alto experience was summed up in my mind with the image of one Yank cavalryman. Some Yank infantryman had weirdly decided to bring an original canteen to the event, perhaps not realizing that those things were and are worth serious money. Anyway, he lost it on some trail, and it was recovered by the Yank cavalryman – but not before his horse stepped on it, caving it in. In my mind’s eye I can still see him riding up to us, holding the badly-damaged original canteen. “Does this belong to somebody?”


3. Rouzerville, Pennsylvania (October, 1986). One thing that made this such a colossal disappointment was the fact that Rouzerville 1984 and the same event in 1985 were two of the very best events I have ever done, so expectations ran high. Be that as it may, the urge was there by the event sponsors to mess with a good thing, and they did, announcing that the 1986 edition of this event was to be a tactical (tacticals seemed to be all the rage in 1986).  Given the fact that I was a Mont Alto attendee that past May, you’d think alarm bells would be going off in my head, but no. Or I ignored them, I forget which.


Friday was dismal. For some reason none of my pards showed up, so I was in a camp full of strangers on Friday evening. Dinner was at the Gettysburg McDonald’s – for some odd reason I recall having Chicken McNuggets. What’s more, it was incredibly cold. So, for the first (and last) time ever I slept in the back of my 1979 Toyota Celica hatchback. Every now and then I’d start the engine to run the heater, and then worry about possibly becoming asphyxiated by exhaust fumes creeping in somehow. Then there were the oaves (plural of oaf) leaning against my car in the middle of the night, waking me up. Suffice to say, I got very little sleep.


Saturday my pards showed up, and fully outfitted in backpacks, we set off looking for Rebs. Hours later we found some, and then various riders, staff officers, etc. were dispatched. We asked one what the hour or so delay was all about, and one responded, “We’re in talks.” Talks? Given the peaceful overtones of the reply, one Yank sensibly asked, “What, are we doing Gandhi reenacting now?” We all very much desired to go out and shoot something, anything, to justify being away from home for what was obviously now a wretchedly boring event. We finally had a frontal fire kind of thing – two forces shooting at one another with nobody taking hits. Been there, done that (countless times).


Saturday night was also very cold, with frost. The campfires weren’t especially warm and, once again, nobody slept well. On Sunday we abandoned camp early and fled for the cars as it started to rain. And that was what put the stake into the heart of the Rouzerville events.

4. 130th Anniversary of the Battle of Antietam (September, 1992). My pard Mal Stylo, not wanting to put any superfluous miles on his painfully new Ford Taurus, rode with me in the Light Infantry JonahMobile, my restored 1973 VW Super Beetle. It was a good thing we took it, because as we drove onto the event site (the location of the epic 125th anniversary battle, one of my all-time favorite reenactments), the universal presence of mud indicated that I would require the superior traction of the Bug to get in and out of the field which doubled as a parking lot. It had rained heavily on Friday night – and promised to for the remainder of the weekend. After passing the usual Confederate parking lot attendants and a sign saying "The event is still on!" we slid to the registration desk and parked. The hag at the desk bade us "Welcome to the Antietam Mud Wallow!" - an ominous greeting - and we followed a Cub Scout-aged kid towards the Federal camps, "...just over the hill."

Imagine my surprise when I didn't see a vast acreage of white canvas. What I saw was a wall tent with fly, four A-tents, and four guys doing some stationary drill. I also saw our beloved unit captain, who hadn't even bothered to put on his uniform. He informed us, much to our amusement, that the four guys constituted three units, and another unit of hard-cores was tenting out of sight behind the tree line. We wondered if anyone else in our unit was going to appear and decided to browse through one of the three (count 'em, three) sutler's tents while waiting. The big sale of the day for one sutler, I think, was Mal's purchase of a hat cord.

Outside of the sutler row - which name dignified the affair considerably - I viewed the six or eight A-tents of the Reb camp. Off in the distance, some dogsbodies holding shovels were seen poking around in a slight scar in the earth, which represented the famous "Sunken Road." I can't remember when it was we decided to cut our losses and get the hell out of there. It was either when the Federal commander struck up some exploratory conversation to see if we planned to leave or stay, or when I spotted the ratty plywood construction I earnestly hoped was not the prop Dunker Church." Realizing that Antietam didn't even qualify for even a zero rating on the Event-O-Meter, we all drove to the nearest phone booth to give our wives an earnest "Don't drive out here to visit us!" and had lunch at the Red Byrd in Keedysville, MD. Lunch redeemed the morning somewhat.

As we drove past one of the Confederate parking lot attendants who waved goodbye to us, knowing full well that "Jonah's Flying Camp" was on the move and would not be seen again that weekend, I reflected gleefully that the psychotic "State's Rights Is Where It's At" sutler (whom I unfortunately met at a prior event) had set up there with his oil portraits of Robert E. Lee and Bedford Forrest on display. I was even happier the next day, when the weather turned dismal, gray and rainy. Antietam 130th was a disaster. In fact, Mal claims it is now the standard by which future bad events would be judged. I didn't even get my uniform out of the car - which was a first in my reenacting career.

5. A Parade/Encampment in Kettering, Maryland (August, 1984). We quickly discovered that Kettering was a poor, mostly black D.C. suburb. No dishonor in that, of course, save that very few people from the community showed up and I had the distinct impression that we (and any recollection of the American Civil War) were not wanted. It goes without saying that there were no Rebs present. The only lasting thing I remember about this one was a bit of ghoulish and disgusting pantomime involving two of our members. One fired at another from across a baseball field; the target feigned being hit in first one leg (hopping about screaming), then an arm (holding his arm and hopping about, screaming), then being hit in the other arm (grasping both arms and hopping about, screaming), then the other leg (rolling on the ground, grasping both arms and screaming). The target finally expired. The odd thing was that the gunfire attracted no attention whatsoever from the homes of the locals nearby. We all guessed that they were used to it. We left quickly.


I am unsure how my unit leaders vetted this event for possible attendance, but I think I recall that it triggered a subsequent new election for unit officers.


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That’s it. As bad as those were, I have read of worse. Oh, yes, it can always get worse…