Over the weekend of September 21-22, there was a Living History event at the Eisenhower farm, which happens to be at Gettysburg. During WW2, the battlefield was owned by the Department of Something, so Eisenhower and Patton and those guys brought tanks up to practice shooting them.
A brief history of the farm, according to the NPS pamphlet:
The Eisenhowers bought the house and farmland in 1950 from a fellow named Allen Redding, planning to retire. They had to structurally restore the building, and the finished product had eight bedrooms, nine bathrooms, and an extensive kitchen, among other rooms. The land itself is at least 189 acres. However, two years later he was elected President and served two terms in office before they finally retired to the farm. According to the literature, their favorite spot was the glassed in porch, where they could watch the sunrise over the rolling Pennsylvania mountains. I bet it was glorious. The front drive to the main property is lined with trees, one from every state. Mamie would ask him how far he’d walked, and he would reply with, “Minnesota” or “Oregon” and she would know how far he had gone.
Ok, now to the weekend.
Friend Mel and I had discovered this event last year and had so much fun we blocked this weekend months ago. Saturday morning, we leave around 8 and get there in time to hear a veteran, Wild Bill Guarnere, speak. From the program: “He was a combat infantryman with Easy co., 506th Parachute Infantry Regt., 101st Airborne Div. In January 1945 he was severely wounded. Portrayed in the mini series Band of Brothers, he wrote Brothers in Battle/Best of Friends with friend Edward ‘Babe’ Heffron.”
“Old Gonorrhea” was slightly deaf but still sharp as a tack and swore like a sailor and didn’t care. His was definitely the most attended vet talk. The park ranger who was supposed to be moderating the talk wasn’t doing a good job of calling on people, but then I guess it wasn’t in his job description. Confession: I have never seen Band of Brothers so most of that session didn’t make a lot of sense. Mel was really excited because she knows way more than I do. He answered questions from why he wrote the book to what did he think of the series, and did this part in the series actually happen in real life. He wouldn’t answer questions about the actual fighting itself, something I’ve noticed from all the veterans who spoke. His two sons were also there and attested to the fact that they rarely heard his old war stories outside of events like this. For being 91 years old, he was still pretty spry. He had only given up his fake leg about a year ago but still lived on his own. Not bad.
Immediately after the talk, Wild Bill was going to be signing books in the gift shop. Of course we want books. While waiting in line (for about 30 minutes), there were two college aged guys behind us providing the most amusing commentary. History nerds are the best nerds and these were no exception. According to them, Hancock lost the 1880 election to Garfield because the US was tired of Civil War generals (ie, Grant). I was sorely tempted to ask them if they knew Garfield had actually served in the Western Theater of the War (Shiloh, Chickamauga) but refrained because their knowledge was extensive and I would lose. Neither liked MacArthur. Patton was too much of a loose cannon. On maps, they loved how the Allies got the worst landing positions for D-Day. Had one seen this website http://fuckyeahhistorycrushes.tumblr.com (note: full of modern internet jargon) which, that very day, featured Tom Chamberlain of Gettysburg fame? One was too liberal for history and hated Reagan. The other didn’t like FDR. They shook hands and called a truce.
We got our books signed and then we wandered to the rest of the encampment. I should clarify something. While in the community, “living historian” is the politically correct term for “reenactor”, I personally define them differently. A person who interacts with the public at an event like this is a living historian, while a person who is out on the field reenacting a battle is a reenactor. One person can be both. So this was primarily a Living History (LH) event, but I also use the terms interchangeably.
Anyway, at the encampment, we didn’t see anything that draws us in immediately. There was a German camp over to one side, being given a wide berth. There were a couple of men in snappy uniforms (Hitler had hired fashion designers) and a nurse with a nursing station but we weren’t compelled to go talk to them. One bystander started talking to the nurse in German, which told me they were taking this FAR more seriously than I was. Thus, we left. The next tent we stopped at was the 2nd Division, and they were recruiting. We talked to the guy about joining and I got a sheet for Mel because she wouldn’t, and then we thanked him and left.
We passed through a small fleet of Jeeps and trucks with their hoods up but didn’t stop because they were surrounded by American GIs talking about engines and car stuff. I know how to check my oil and where my engine is located. Mechanistically intimidated, we went on.
In the middle of the field, not fitting in with all the guns and Jeeps on display, was a tent set up with boxes of fake jewelry and paintings in frames. So we stopped to talk with the Monuments Men.
The Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program was created to help preserve items of cultural and historical importance. Members of this program were eventually nicknamed Monuments Men, and they still exists today, recently working hard in Tehran and Baghdad. I wonder if they, too, get a little choked up thinking about the fire at the Library of Alexandria. Anyway, Monuments Men were a little older, being composed of librarians, archivists, professors, historians. It would not be unusual for a 50-year-old tenured professor to sign up. Interestingly, they were not considered non-combatants. I asked because these men were wearing holsters, which seemed odd for a bunch of nerds. But these scholars had to go through basic training like everyone else because their job put them at risk of drawing enemy fire. Huh. Interesting.
Because he was a failed artist, Hitler wanted to have the most extensive art gallery known to man, so he stole a lot of art. It was the Monuments Men’s job to reclaim that art. The Nazis had stored that art in some salt mines but to date, they have only discovered one mine. They are still searching for others. How did they know what was missing or how to look for it? Sometimes they came across something by accident. Sometimes they had informants. They knew a lady who worked at the Louvre who secretly cataloged everything the Nazis took. They would try and preserve buildings as well, coordinating with the commander and suggesting maybe they draw fire over there instead. The German(?) commander who controlled Paris made it an open city rather than blow up Notre Dame Cathedral. Likewise, Rome had also been made an open city. When you think about it, for being in the center of the European Theater of war, Paris and Rome have quite a bit of medieval/ancient history still extant. I guess this explains why.
These Monuments Men in front of us averred that this is what the real Indiana Jones would do. This makes sense. History professor by day, Nazi fighter by night? The cool perspective-y portion of this lesson was that they still exist and are rising in popularity and notoriety. In fact, George Clooney and Matt Damon have a movie coming out this December called The Monuments Men. I’d actually rather see that than Thor 2.
The next place I recall stopping was the Polish National Army (?) tent, which caught our eye because they weren’t dressed in American GI Green. They were wearing a dark tan color, which looked different and was enough to draw us in.
I forgot who we spoke with. I think it was the man with the mustache. He was pretty engaging and we learned a lot, like Poland had the 5th largest national army serving. Their display had a Bren gun and a Vickers arranged with sandbags. I knew these guys were pretty cool when they explained the Bren gun was pointed at the cows across the road and the Vickers was pointed at the Russian encampment several yards away, “Just in case.”
They also had wired their exhibit with a telegraph so they showed us how to flip the switches and plug the plugs to make the phone ring. Most of the details of that encounter have escaped me because I didn’t write anything down. I recall asking how the Polish army was supplied but I don’t recall the answer. Maybe England outfitted them? Unknown.
We thanked them for their time then wandered to the back corner of the field. There were two men around a Jeep and we walk up to them and asked for a Jeep ride. They introduced themselves as Hunter and Hector from Her Majesty’s … paratroopers of something. The Jeep ride was fun. We went to Hector’s truck to pick up his phone, which had been charging all day. When we arrived back at their camp, we didn’t have much time to talk before it started raining so they invited us inside their tent. Inside was an odd mishmash of authentic weaponry, modern coolers full of modern beer, and a verboten battery powered cd player covered with a blanket. At least it was playing period-appropriate music. These guys were a lot of fun. Hector’s real name is Doug, and they are from a small town in PA but like playing British because they can make fun of all the American GIs. In real life they are firefighters and were so nonchalant about this whole living history thing they were practically blase. They are quick-witted, sarcastic, and sit in the back and throw popcorn at everyone, but in a well-educated, well-informed way. I never did get a chance to ask them why they did this.
In a lull in the rain, we ran to the car and drove to town to eat dinner at O’Rorke’s, the pub. Due to the skewed nature of the parking lot, we needed some GIs to help us extract our vehicle. It was awkward. Then there was still some time before the dance so we drove to the visitor’s center and napped until it was time to dash inside and change in the bathroom. As we had told Doug and Hunter, we couldn’t miss the dance because we had brought pantyhose. We meant business. Our outfits were mostly period appropriate. Add some lipstick and a hot iron and we were ready.
The first part of the dance was a little awkward because we didn’t know anybody and it seemed like there were an abundance of girls from the college in town. We found some seats to watch people dance and judge outfits. Then out of nowhere, one of the Polish men from earlier came to ask one of us to dance. He was their commander and he was quite good at swing dancing. He said I was pretty good too because by the end of the night, he was showing me advanced moves. While I was out with him, Mel had found the rest of his group skulking outside the dance room. Obviously they weren’t much for dancing. We spent the rest of the evening with them, engaged in lively conversation, with a few more dances thrown in for good measure. I also danced with the commander’s 15 year old son, who was in the middle of a growth spurt and was too afraid to ask a girl to dance. When I said he should just go for it because he won’t have to see her again, what does he have to lose, he shrugged and answered matter-of-factly, “What little is left of my self-esteem.” One of the other company men bopped him kindly on the shoulder and advised, “It’s all about the confidence.” The reply, with another shrug, was, “But I don’t have any.” I’m glad I’m not 15 anymore.
My personal goals of doing my hair, dancing with someone who knows how, and not buying my own drinks were all met. This night was a success.
After the dance, we all went out to O’Rorke’s again for drinks but our conversation ended at midnight when the pub closed. One of the young men of the group, after hearing our car camping plans, suggested we park where the rest of the reenactors had parked their cars. Which we did. It was cold as the 10th Circle during the night, but the reward was watching the sun rise over the PA hills. This is what Ike saw every morning.
Driving into town for breakfast, I made Mel pull over so I could take another picture of the sunrise over the battlefield.
Breakfast was a stack of flapjacks and bacon at The Avenue Restaurant. So good. Back at the encampment, we saw the good Reverend Rene was setting up for his Sunday service. He was too busy to say more than a quick hello, but it wouldn’t be a trip to Gettysburg without seeing him and his lovely wife. Another mission accomplished.
We went straight to the British camp again and talked about nothing for a while, shooting the breeze about upcoming history events, drama in the living history community, and how Doug wants to buy the other half of Jeepie to own it outright. (The other owner calls it Jeepie.) Again, they were fairly nonchalant about the hobby (“Of the 7,000 watching a Parade, I bet you TWO people will know that a British Marine’s Jeep didn’t have camo! So it doesn’t matter if Jeepie is painted!!”), but when a man came to ask him about a pair of braces he had bought, Doug ripped them apart figuratively. The stitching was wrong, at the wrong angle, the buckles were made from the wrong metal, etc. So he does care after all!
This was a good time to take our leave of them and rejoin our Polish friends. They offered us some seats and we had been there for about half an hour before Doug and Hunter drove up in Jeepie and asked if we wanted to go on a tour of the battlefield. Um, duh! We left our bags in the Polish tent and what followed was the worst Gettysburg battlefield tour known to man. (“On your right is the Wheatfield … where things happened and people … died.”) They thought it was hilarious, like their very own Drunk History. I was actually a little flattered. Success by underachieving?
There are few moments in my life where I can look back and say that I was definitely Cool, that is, in a position enviable by others. This was one of those moments, driving through town and around the battlefield in an authentic Jeepie with two guys dressed like British military. We even passed the two young men from the signing line, who stared at us, eyes agog. Sometimes I forget that not everyone who comes to Gettysburg knows as much (or as little, apparently) as I do about the town, certain themes and figures, When our British friends asked what had caused the Civil War, I had difficulty paring the Big Thesis down to something digestable by the uninitiated. At the same time, we drove past the high school’s football field, and fueled by this monument, they concluded that the Confederacy lost by a field goal with 3 minutes left in the game and Jackie Robinson struck out in the 9th inning and couldn’t get the safety. Which also explains why the Confederacy is racist.
This was some highbrow conversation.
They dropped us off at the Polish camp and invited us to an event in November. Mel and I accompanied a few of the Polish guys to another veteran’s talk, Abner Rainbow. From the pamphlet, “Rainbow flew 105 combat missions in Europe as a P-47 fighter pilot in the 391st Squadron, 366th Fighter Group, 9th US Army Air Force. The 391st supported American ground forces in Normandy, at St. Lo, the Falaise Pocket, in the Hurtgen Forest, and during the battle of the bulge.” Like every other veteran, and possibly man of his generation, he was incredibly humble and wasn’t entirely comfortable talking about his wartime achievements. I think at one point, he even made it clear that no one was looking for medals or Purple Hearts; they were doing their job and, if we were in their places, we would do the same. I hope he was right.
Then, before we knew it, it was after 3pm and the trickle of reenactors going home became a flood. It was time to pack everything away and break down the tents. Neither Mel nor I were ready to head back yet so we stayed and helped them pack everything away. I’m not sure we actually helped but they appreciated whatever our contribution was. It was a good way to break the spell, as they gradually changed into jeans and tshirts, and backed their cars in, empty trunks waiting for tent poles to be tetris-ed in. We also got to see how two tents, several cots and some telegraph equipment collapsed into something portable through really good product design and engineering. The leader had rented a trailer for his equipment. I wonder what other drivers thought, seeing a trailer pass by brimming with wires, old tires, and sacks of green tent bundles. They divvied up the equipment – the sandbags were going to Niagara Falls, the Vickers was going to New Hampshire, the Bren was going to Albany. One of the men let me play with an air raid siren but had to pack it up before I could figure out how it worked. Something with how the hand-crank pushed the air through the vents.
In the distance, I waved to the British guys as they packed Jeepie on its trailer and drove off.
After most of the stuff was packed up, Mel and I made our goodbyes, thanked them for a wonderful weekend, and drove back with springs in our steps and stars in our eyes and some new friends.
After all, it’s about the people, isn’t it, and we met some great people.
This post is long enough so the reflection part will come later.