Thursday, February 24, 2011

Typing Through my Time-Machine-Lag (Knott's Encampment, 2011)

My friend Miss M. says that "spending a weekend at a reenactment is like hitting Life's reset button."  For a few days work, bills, and other concerns fade away into the light of campfires and the smell of woodsmoke, hay, lye soap, and canvas.  One's cares are condensed into remembering one's research for the benefit of the public, keeping the fire under your laundry-water going, and praying that the rainclouds pass you by.  No fashion-statements to make, no deadlines to remember, no alarm clocks - just an enthusiastic rooster at 6:30am on-the-dot.

The Knott's Encampment almost didn't happen this year.  For one reason or another, most of the troop wasn't planning on coming, but the few crazy "hardcores" in the group, chafing for action after a long winter season (well, long for us So.Cal. types.  I guess you East-Coasters still have to wait 'til around April.  HAH!), wanted to make a weekend of it anyway.  We planned to take advantage of our smaller numbers by planning a period-correct menu (no sandwiches or pasta salad allowed!), a farb-free tents, and hoped to practice our 1st-person impressions on an unsuspecting public.

Then the weather man predicted rain.   This being So.Cal., everybody panicked.  4 of our originally-planned 8 participants dropped out.  Half of that 4 didn't plan on camping.  But the few, the happy few - namely, me and the Sunny Seamstress, refused to give in.  We'd been sewing and planning and cooking and gosh-darnit we were gonna see this event through if it drowned us.  I took off Friday afternoon to try and get everything in my truck and set-up in camp before the rains came (they were predicted to start @ 5pm).

Of COURSE the first droplets hit my windshield at 3pm, just as I was pulling away from my house, "Gettysburg" soundtrack blaring.  But, thanks to the Seamstress and a couple brave Yanks, we got camp set-up without TOO much soakage. 

You can see the nice dip in the canvas where the water started collecting almost right away.  But Sunny & I put buckets under the leaks and refused to fret.  We bunked in our tent, protected by a ground-layer of tarping, canvas, and (*farb alert*) plastic bags, while most of the bold men and boys of both armies retired to motel rooms and "tin teepees."  We stayed remarkably dry, considering.  We sewed and chewed on sugared ginger and held a "sing-off," taking turns singing folk songs we could remember, until a strong gust of wind called us out into the wet to re-stake 4 fly-poles.  Then it was time to retreat to the sleeping bags.
Next morning, our leak-catching buckets were full:

But the sun was shining against-all-odds, the public showed-up despite the relative lack of reenactors, and there was breakfast to be made and laundry to be done!

It took all four of us to figure out a good strategy for keeping the fire going long enough for our oatmeal, but by 10:30 we had made breakfast and had started the water boiling for my load of whites:

Hauling my own water is always an interesting part of the laundress-impression.  Sometimes I can get the boys to volunteer to haul the necessary 10+ gallons, but I was on my own this time.  That is, on my own only until I beguiled a kindly Yank to help me finish my haul.  A hearty Southern "thankee" to D. of the California 100!

 I didn't work as hard at the laundry on Saturday because the public was relatively sparse, and I knew my clothes had no chance of drying before the rains came again:

But we did get in at least one delicious period-camp-food dinner and some time for spinning before the skies broke:

Bacon, corn-bread, and "Hoppin' John:" a mix of black-eyed peas, brown rice, and more bacon :-D

Sunday was the day that really hit-it-out of the park for me as far as reenacting experiences go.  The weather was warm and gorgeous, the public was really engaging, and the dearth of other civilian portrayals meant that my display got a lot of traffic.  I stumbled on my "spiel" the first time someone tried recording me, but the by the 3rd & 4th times I had it down.  The kids were the best:

They were incredibly exicted and eager to come stand on an upturned bucket behind the display and help me wash the last of my clothes.  Once you let them wash once piece, they wanted to hang around until the last little article was scrubbed, rinsed, wrung and hung.  I'm thrilled by the idea that I helped bring their minds into history in the same fun and creative spirit with which long-ago Civil War reenactors inspired me to love history when I was that age.

I also got the "laundry process" down pretty well on Sunday.  I was helped by the fact that there aren't any scheduled battles at Knotts, so one can pretty much continue one's impression for hours without the public disappearing at regular intervals.  I started with cold, clean water and mild soap for the Lieutenant's woolen trousers, gradually adding warm water and harsher soap as I got towards the dirtier, heartier fabrics.  By the time I got to the ultra-soiled dishrags, the water was nicely boiling, so I threw out most of the cold, dirty water, poured in all the boiling water and a lump of lye soap, then "agitated" the clothes with a wooden spoon for a good 15 minutes.  Another 20 minutes of scrubbing per item brought out most of the cast-iron-and-bacon-grease stains . . . and by that time I'd been going at it for 3.5 hours and was plain bushed:

I took up my spinning again, but still drew a bit of a crowd that'd never seen a drop-spindle in action before. I was able to tie it into the practice of Southern women patriotically showing-off their homespun dresses, and was bemused listening to a couple of Indian families comment to their children that "that is exactly how Gandhi used to do it."  The Sunny Seamstress was asked a question about her costume, and she had the bright idea of stripping down to her undergarments (*gasp of Victorian horror*) to demonstrate all the layering that went into a dress of the era.  Of course, the minute her dress came off the small crowd of 5 grew to something like 30, and even after she had finished the demonstration the crowd stayed put, firing off questions for another 20 minutes.  It was really incredible to feel like we were helping to educate and enlighten those that listened to us rattle off our half-confident answers about mourning practices, laundry, mending, cooking, and "days-in-the-life."  

The last hour was quiet enough, filled mostly with picturesque food, including Miss M's delicious "Martha Washington Cake:

We packed up and came home. We put away the washboards, jars, cast-iron, and cage-hoops. And Sunny Seamstress and I awarded ourselves the "Plum Craziest Pair of Hardcore Reenactors We Ever Did Know in 2011" trophy.  Being young and vain, we browsed the web and tried to find pictures of ourselves and stories about the weekend.

 Now come the weeks of what I like to call "time-machine lag," when one listens to nothing but roots-music and can think of nothing but what one's next sewing project should be.  It can be hard to "reset" oneself back into contemporary life.

Which is why I'm glad I only have to wait 8 more days 'til the next reenactment. 

With much affection,

M.E.H. Copeland
Company Laundress

1 comment:

  1. WO! That was a rather exhaustive treatment.

    My vote is for "laundresy: the art and study of soilage removal..."