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

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Welcome to the Preenactment...

Preenactment: n. the weekend before a reenactment, usually filled with various and sundry reenacting-oriented projects, only 50% of which will actually be finished before zero-hour.

This weekend consisted of finishing off the button-holes and hem for my new workdress.  Tah-Dah!  (It only took me 3 months to make...). 
I made the mistake of going to Joanne's to pick up more thread.  After being sucked into the vortex of New-Seamstress-Retail-Doom (40% off final purchase coupons!!), I came home with this new fabric in my bag (NO idea how they got there):

 So, I decided the dress needed something - maybe a bonnet?  I set to work:
Then, of course the cat wanted in on the action:
I ended up having to call for back-up in the form of the Sunny Seamstress, who cheerfully spent this afternoon coaxing me through my first slat-bonnet.  Here we have the finished product modeled by a local:
Self-titled, "Bro-Peep"

The Seamstress also helped wax the inside of my washtub (a two-person Preenactment task if there ever was one) and together we planned the menu for Knotts.  Now I just have to pick up laundry to wash from various non-participants in the troop, wash my dresses, collect and pack my various sundries and I'm ready for the first reenactment of the year!  

At this point in the game I always wish I had done more research - my book on Winchester civilians is still languishing, and my laundress manual isn't near memorized.  This is where the improv skills learned in acting classes at LBCC come in handy.  

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A Touch of Self-Abasing Nostalgia

It's been quite a long while since I wrote what I consider to be a "good" poem.  But shuffling through some old writing of mine today, I was reminded that my writing passion was birthed, truly, at a reenactment.  The first "series" of poems I ever wrote were composed shortly after visiting both the Gettysburg battlefield and the Huntington Beach reenactment for the first time at the age of 13.  I can laugh at their maudlin awfulness now, but am still delighted and bemused by the continuity of my hobbies 12 years later.

For your tongue-in-cheek pleasure, I give you a sampling of the "best" to be had from my budding, 13-year-old pen (present-day comments in italics):

Thoughts at Devil's Den
The following is what happens when you let junior-highers read Pablo Neruda and forget to explain the purpose of enjambment.  

Pale grey sky
to Mourn
For souls
long ago

The brook
Down, down
From the hill
Did it once
Run red?

Wind, past my ears,
Cool, it goes by
Was it once
With the smell
Of Death?

Cold stone
Piled like blocks.
Were they once
On a fine
summer's day,
The Last to
The bodies of

Wind pas
Maybe I was channeling the memories of an asthmatic octogenarian veteran climbing the famous pile? ;-) 

 The next one did once make Karen Turner cry.  From joy or pain, I'll never know.  Come to think of it, she was probably imagining it set to music - as you can see, it came complete with a chorus.  Now, just imagine the "warbler" (some of you will know who I mean) singing it through, and, yes, the tears will come . . . Miss Copeland would tell you that comfrey is a great remedy for, you know, ear-bleeds ;-)

Sons of the South

Sunlight streams down through the trees,
Upon the Grey and Blue,
Their banners ripple in the breeze,
Their hearts steadfast and true.

Ah, look!  How young is the cheek of one,
How grey and old is another -
Oh, do they know that across the field
Stands a man they once called brother?

And so they stand and lean
'Gainst the muzzles of their guns
How many souls will die today,
How many mothers will mourn for sons?

For every cannon, an empty embrace,
Every order, they're down by one 
Every charge, another orphan,
Every bullet, a mother's son. (I obviously overestimated the accuracy of blackpowder rifes...)

Without a warning, fire pours forth
From the dark blue line ahead,
"Charge!" shouts the man on the great, grey horse
As he rides o'er the fallen and dead.

Fast and thick falls the snow of lead
Hear the shriek of the Rebel Cry!
Brave as lions they charge the lines
And silent as panthers, they die.

What now becomes of that Barred Red Flag?
Is it flutt'ring atop the hill?
Or does it hang now from the hands of a boy,
As he lies, cold, and still?

As you can see, I have not grown any less morbid in 12 years...  If I don't get alot of "stop, you're making my soul hurt" comments, I may later choose to inflict y'all with an almost-decent-ish poem about a cannon, and the pretty-much-tripe poem I once dedicated to Steve Fry of the 3rd Texas, 9 years before I knew everybody who knows him . . .

Thoughts a