Last weekend I achieved a small personal milestone that has been several years in the making. Namely, I participated in a living history event at Gettysburg.
[ pause for applause ]
This will probably surprise exactly no one that my historical interests were tending towards this, but I myself only became aware I was going in this direction about a year ago. Almost exactly a year ago, to be specific, when history friend Mel and I went to the Eisenhower Farm for their annual WW2 day. I wrote about that in one of my very first blog entries. And the rest, as they say, is history.
[ Get it? Get it??? History!!! Like this blog! … okay … ]
I joined my friends the Polish Army at Eisenhower Farm on the participant side, specifically the 10th Dragoon Regiment, 2nd Squadron. Once I know exactly what that means, I’ll let you know. I must also regretfully inform you that no actual dragons are present in this group, much like how the Union Jack recently got jipped out of including the Welsh Dragon
And so to the weekend:
I arrived Friday evening around dinnertime and the group kicked off the weekend with a Polish style dinner, complete with kielbassa, sauerkraut, and bread. My contribution were fig newtons (which are period appropriate!) and some Grandpa Charlie cookies. Thankfully there was no borscht. I just can’t really get behind the concept of beet soup, or whatever it is. It just doesn’t stick to your ribs like any of the 42,000 Irish potato dishes I know.
After dinner, one of the guys in the group took some of us on a nighttime tour of the battlefield. In his other life, he’s a Civil War reenactor so he was able to provide a lot of specific information. I felt like I was better at giving bigger picture explanations while he was really on point with specifics. The other members on the tour didn’t know much about the Battle of Gettysburg but I like to think they got a pretty good tour. They certainly wanted to come back to see it in the daylight. Because it already dark, there were lots of jokes about ghosts, and our “tour guide” gave us stories of his own ghost encounters. Most involved camping out at various battlefields and still being awake at 2am when most of the stuff happens. Interesting. Do you think the ghosts set their watches?
He also said that he likes to creep other people out by walking along the side of the road in the dark, dressed in his Civil War gear and ignoring passersby. Do they think they’ve seen a ghost?
I called it a night relatively early (10pm) and got prepared to spend my first night actual-facts “camping” (ie, in a tent). On my way to the restroom for a good tooth brushing session, I passed a GI who expressed his sincere jealousy that the women’s room had no line. If only he knew what it was like for us the other 96% of the time….
“Morning” came all too soon. At 5am the British Paratroopers began quoting Monty Python to each other. (“Listen, strange women lyin’ in ponds distributin’ swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony” and then “Help! Help! I’m being repressed!”) Weirdly enough, that kind of set the tone for the whole weekend. And then some [ stupid person ] played reveille on the bugle, and didn’t even play it well. There was a collective groan from the entire camp, but that actually got people up and moving. More Monty Python from next door, and another botched rendition of reveille, and then over half the camp had disappeared to go pretend to liberate a nearby town from Axis occupation. So camp was quiet again around 0600.
From the other tent, I heard our fearless leader say, with much regret, “Drat. I can’t go back to sleep now. I already combed my hair.”
And then he shaved with an authentic razor (but new blade) and nearly bled out from his face.
After a delicious breakfast, courtesy of the XXth Shmoopy Division, everyone was assembled and ready for the 9am flag raising ceremony. I noticed that as each unit raised their flag, all the other units in the vicinity will stand to attention. Interesting. The MFAA across the way and the British Prestiges next door stood all saluted while our group raised the flag. I was responsible for playing the phonograph at the right time to play the Polish National Anthem on an actual vintage vinyl. And then shortly afterwards, the entire camp saluted while the main US flag got hoisted up, got stuck, had to be lowered, and then reraised while the enthusiastic bugler from dawn powered his way through whatever he was playing with more vim and vigor than accuracy. He gets an A for effort though.
By this time, the public was freely milling around, poking at things, and asking questions. Gametime.
It was quite enjoyable, sitting in the tent. I had brought my knitting with me so I could do something useful, and a couple of people actually asked me about it. And I also got sunburned. This is where sunscreen would have come in handy. But I was told I was meant to be part of the group because I was being too Polish to get out of the sun.
Later, I caught the tail end of a talk by veteran Chuck Caldwell, who had enlisted in the US Marines in December 1941. He served overseas for 30 months with both the 1st and 2nd Marine Divisions, and is a veteran of Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and Guam. He was rather frail and had begun reading his diary from this time and couldn’t continue speaking. And he had been standing for so long I think it overtaxed him because they actually had to call an ambulance. He seemed to be in decent shape, but I bet his talk and the standing had just been too much.
This talk was again moderated by the same derpy ranger from last year. I was pleased to note the ranger had a better sense of what to do around a) the elderly and b) crowds, and he seemed to handle the whole thing well. I wonder what that job description must look like: “Must be able to give tours, moderate discussions, look after veterans, wrangle children” ?
Right after Mr. Caldwell was Art Staymates, who was a soldier in the 26th Regiment, 1st Division, and landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day. I believe he was a medic and spent a lot of time driving ambulances, but I didn’t take notes. What else struck me was that he was in really good shape, considering. He was engaged with the audience and stood the entire time. He talked about luck and how he was alive because he was at the wrong place at the wrong time, depending on how you looked at it. More interestingly, he was in charge of the guys who guarded the top 21 Nazi officials during the Nuremberg trials. A local paper did a recent write up and it’s more or less the same story he gave this weekend, truncated to fit in a paper article.
Those were the only two talks I heard. After rejoining the group, several of us went to the field Mass in the barn offered by an actual chaplain. For some reason the Mass was in Latin and the homily was about radical Islam. He handed out supplemental brochures. I have mine somewhere to read later. (Or never. Let’s be realistic here.)
After Mass, it was time to lower the flag and go get ready for the USO dance that evening. Which almost didn’t happen.
A few members had chosen to stay in hotels rather than camp. They left early to get showered and changed, and then the campers were dropped off at the various hotels. But someone forgot his shoes at camp so we had to turn back for those, and then there was a flat tire, and then they got lost on the way to their hotel because they didn’t know the town’s geography and were driving by committee (“If you turn left here -” “No, your other left, okay now make 3 rights” “Wait, did we want to make that turn we just missed?” “This sort of looks familiar but I’m not sure..”) There were three of us at the first hotel and we decided to get dinner on our own because it would take too long to wait for the bulk of the group. And boy were we right.
The dance started at 7:30. We arrived there at at 9:30 after we changed and got dinner. The others didn’t show up until about 10, after the bar’s last call. Because they had gotten the wrong hotel. And had tried breaking into the wrong room (Imagine four middle-aged men with their dress uniform finery trying to sneak out past the lobby person they had so jauntily passed on their way in). And then the restaurant had gotten their dinner orders wrong. Sigh.
BUT. Despite all of that, the dance was enjoyable. My friends the British paratroopers were there and some of Mel’s friends, American GIs, were there. Nobody really knew how to dance, but like the day’s bugler, there was a lot of enthusiasm which (sort of) made up for any missing accuracy.
After the dance, our Civil War tour guide took Mel and myself to a railroad cut north of town that was haunted. During the first day’s battle, the railroad had been unfinished and a lot of Confederates had gotten trapped inside and killed. It was apparently very haunted, but we (thankfully) didn’t see any ghost activity. It was kind of creepy and he said he’s heard things and seen things there before. Because he’s crazy enough to camp out on a haunted battlefield.
We closed the night out at O’Rorkes and everyone went back to camp and to bed. I went next door and bummed some chocolate pudding off the British paratroopers but left them around 2 am when they were choosing between driving around the battlefield in search of ghosts or driving to Maryland to restock their (empty) beer supply. There had been many toasts to the King.
Sunday was much more subdued. Breakfast again with the XX Shmoopy Division, but we were still in our PJs. Overall this day took a lot longer to get started, such that the 9am flag raising ceremony came after 10. And it was hotter than heck. But the RAF Prestiges across the way lent us some sunscreen, which is probably the only reason I don’t have skin cancer right now. Our guys practiced some rifle drills and went and triumphantly took over some nearby cows. I spent less time with the group than I probably should have, but I did get to go through the Eisenhower House, which was interesting. I always forget President Eisenhower lived in actual modern times, and his house had tiles, indoor plumbing, and really terrible looking appliances from the 50s. And everything was pink. Because Mamie looooved pink. The one room where Ike had any say was decked out like a Western, with wooden beams andCivil War era cavalry swords over the mantelpiece.
The best part of this time was when our fearless leader pulled me aside and asked where I saw this relationship going. So I think I’m officially IN and no longer a provisional member/enthusiastic fangirl. Sweeeeeet.
Around 3 we began to seriously think about packing up and going home. There was a rather informal flag lowering ceremony and then BOOM time to break everything down, distribute between proper owners, and get everything Tetrised into cars. The only jeep ride I got from the British paratroopers this time was back to get my car, but at least I didn’t have to walk. I returned the borrowed uniform (same one I used in February, complete with hobnails) and spent most of this time trying not to get in the way.
Once everything was packed and tetrised away, it was time to say goodbye. Firm handshakes all around and a “See you soon!” and they were gone.
Some of us were unwilling to call it quits just yet so we went into town and grabbed some pizza at a local pizza joint, which I really enjoyed. And then we all had to split up and get ready for work the next day. So… we split up. Two to DC, three to CT, and one on to VT, to all be reunited again in February.
Until then …