Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Christmas Past

I suppose you’ll be wanting the whole evening off for a We Make History Victorian Christmas celebration guaranteed to make even Ebenezer smile -- no ghosts required.

As experienced by Christopher Francis
Photographs By Michael Cynecki
(click any one for a bigger view)

Funny how one cufflink can turn you from Crachit into Scrooge. That salvation of sleeves refuses to cooperate with my ruffled shirt, constantly undoing itself as I prepare to slip away in time with time slipping away. Why is it always buttons, or their cousins, that test my patience?

Enough, I decide. I’m wearing my other shirt, plain and unruffled but fully buttoned and reliable. Now where in blazes is my bowtie?

Emerging into the ballroom in my top hat, tail coat, and red waistcoat, I find myself in a scene more reminiscent of 1861 Virginia than 1840 London, with the gentlemen of the 1st Virginia Volunteer Infantry in full dress uniform. They welcome the arriving guests and put out the call for more recruits. Those Yankee aggressors must be stopped.

A charming schoolteacher arrives with some extra holiday cheer, greeting me with a joyous hug as she passes out decorated jingle bells which we happily place on our jackets, or in my case, in my hat.

Our gracious host and hostess calls us together after an hour of meeting and greeting and sets the scene for the Victorian era, the time of Charles Dickens, a time of dignity, charm, and manners in which a gentleman was the servant of a lady… and men did not dance with their hats on.

So much for worrying about that top hat sitting too low upon my head.

As I doff my headpiece and the traditional promenade begins, my schoolteacher friend has already sought out my first dancing partner of the evening.

“The blue, the blue, the blue!” she whispers to me.

My eyes dart amongst the crowd. Several ladies wear blue. Which one is it?

“The blue, the blue!” my advisor continues as she hastily orients my gaze in the right direction.

I find her standing next to another lady in the corner, not sure at all if she has already accepted another invitation. But I bow to her and ask, and she accepts without hesitation. The satisfied schoolteacher signals success with a raised thumb.

The lines of couples snake about the ballroom as we parade around, more than a simple single circle can handle. We need two for the first dance, a merry mixer where ladies and gentlemen switch partners at least a dozen times, an opportunity to exchange greetings as well as hands.

When the set dances begin, so begins my time-tested ritual of seeking out a new partner. I wander onto the floor, pacing slowly, looking for the nearest lady who I can surmise is desiring a dance, my hands clasped in front of me in anticipation she is near.

“You look lost,” observes a lady behind me.

I turn around to find her alone, smiling.

“I am seeking an available partner,” I say, quickly following it up with a bow before she can surmise the wrong impression, “and I gather you are available?”

Even as a guest of six previous balls, I still consider myself somewhere between a beginner and an expert when it comes to set dancing. So when we end up as head couple to begin the dance, I know I have to prove my worth. But more than that, I have to convince my partner as well as the others along the line that any mistakes are no cause for alarm. Do not fret. Do not panic. Continue on with the joy of the dance in your heart and all deviations will fade like snowflakes into the white drifts of winter. “You’re doing fine!” I coach. And at the end, I bow deeply and offer my thanks and compliments on my partner’s dancing, which require no embellishment.

Sometimes a problem will arise, however, where words will not suffice. During a lively set of “Speed The Plow,” my partner suddenly dashes from the line with a hurried, unintelligible explanation, leaving me facing open space. I have no problems improvising, but at some point, I might have to sashay by myself, a challenge I at least feel up to. Fortunately, my partner rejoins the set only a few moves later. A hoop problem with her skirt, she explains. I understand immediately and welcome her back with no shred of offense taken. After all, I know all too well about wardrobe malfunctions.

We require many waltzes to help cool ourselves down, if nothing else, as the sweet sweat of celebration runs down many foreheads and guests fan themselves a welcome breeze.

I know the gloom of being left out, cast aside, and sidelined from a happy diversion. So when I approach two charming ladies who stand together in seeking a partner for a waltz, I cannot bring myself to simply choose one. One offers to step aside, but I will not have it.

“We can dance as three,” I say, and that we did, in a small circle. In and out, in and out -- beautiful, elegant, simple.

“Not too fast,” I offer. “Enjoy the moment.”

Later, I share a waltz with a fine young lady.

Do not look at the others, I think. Set your eyes upon the countenance of this beautiful dancer you have chosen. Feel the warmth of her smile as you share this moment of elegance and peace in three-quarter time. Worry not about your technique or feel yourself inadequate to the Fred Astaires of the world. Step simply. Step as one. Step as friends.

She smiles, and I know she will remember the moment.

And now, the Virginia Reel. Start the clock.

My partner is a novice, but she quickly picks it up. And for those times of doubt after the caller turns us loose, I provide some unobtrusive hand signals for the next figure to reassure my dancing companions as we work our way through it.

But to nobody’s surprise, the figures are the easy part. The reel’s real challenge is endurance. Five minutes elapse… then ten… then twelve. We swing through it all, offering no hint of fatigue. Some record is on the line. Could this one beat the mark set at the 1861 Remembrance Ball? I cannot recall what the mark was, even though I danced in that marathon reel myself. Legend says thirty minutes.

Fifteen minutes later, the music ends and we honor our partners, winded but satisfied.

“Anything worth doing once is worth doing again!” our host proclaims, and an hour or so later, we repeat the reel, this time for thirteen minutes. Put it in the books.

If we could reel for half an hour, we could surely do the Candy Cane Dance for twice as long. Lines upon lines of ladies and gentlemen sashay down the rows of couples moving towards three chairs to be occupied by three people. One will hold a candy cane in the center, pass it to someone either on their left or right, leaving the person on their opposite side as their desired partner to sweep off their feet. We have performed it with fans, with pineapples, with pumpkins, but the candy canes, albeit large, cannot take the pressure of our merriment and crumble from hand to hand.

Hey, ya wanna piece of this?

The ladies and gentlemen of the 1st Virginia gather together for a story of Christmas from Richmond.

“My husband tells me that the ladies’ chorale will be hosting a benefit to raise funds for medical supplies for the troops.”

No male chorus exists to support them, but the ladies suggest the recruits give it a go.

One private is skeptical. “No doubt your intentions are the best, but I’m afraid after hearing some of us gentlemen sing that it might be the audience who would require the medical supplies.”

Nonetheless, the men belt out a working rendition of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.”

“Now ladies,” a sergeant says, “let us see if you might be able to top that.”

“Sergeant, you wouldn’t have issued that challenge if you had ever heard my daughters sing. We made a brave effort, but the day shall be theirs.”

At once, his daughters launch into a soaring harmony, enhanced by the echoing acoustics of the hall.

“Once in royal David’s City,
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her Baby
In a manger for His bed…”

To call their voices perfect is only faint praise. Their flawless melody brings pause to everyone it touches, aiming for the heart by way of the ear, a rainbow of tone and tempo. They continue for six verses, drawing in harmonizers as the song builds to its conclusion and fades with grace.

“Bravo! Bravo!” several of us cry in praise of this choir of angels who have somehow made their way to Earth for one night.

We sing more carols this evening, culminating in “Silent Night.” Our host invites us to reflect upon the words and their meaning as they purse our lips. In that moment of collective song, all of us are touched -- reminded of who we are, why we are here, where we are headed, and how to get there.

I think of the gifts I have received this year, all the unforgettable moments of seven balls, two picnics, and one historic weekend, spent with people I am proud to call my friends… no, family. I think of all of us going about our other lives and times, taking lessons from the ballroom back into the world and improving it.

In January, after my first ball, I wrote: “I felt like a better person, someone more well-mannered and wiser, and I didn't want to let go of it.”

I didn’t. It consumed me in a manner I had not imagined, this desire to live as an honorable person born out of curiosity, loneliness, and a deep longing to heal emotional scars from my younger years. Society is flooded with motivational devices, but never did I imagine the past could be the key to the future. My only hope is that I have brought as much joy and service to others as I have received. It is a continuing mission, one I know I can always improve upon.

It took many years, but God finally reached me. I have always been faithful, but I never truly felt His Love until now. I can’t think of a better Christmas gift, one given to all of us.

Each ball may end, the year may end, but the journeys into the past do not. History repeats, and I’m grateful that it does.

Merry Christmas to All! And see more of this evening's Christmas cheer HERE!

COMING IN JANUARY: In Her Majesty's Elegant Service

Gone For A Soldier

A story of the American Heritage Festival, as told through a recruit of General Washington’s Continental Line.

From the battlefield journals of Christopher Francis
Photos by Michael Cynecki
(Click any one for a larger view)

A spontaneous cheer arose from the throngs of children as the commandants of His Excellency took the wide, grassy battlefield. Flanked by wind-lifted flags, the troops fell into line with the dignity befitting soldiers: the Continental Line in their red, white and blue uniforms; the allies from Spain in their blue and gold; and a few militia. An ornately dressed French officer accompanied them.

“Today,” General Washington proclaimed to the warriors and spectators, “we have the chance to strike a decisive blow for freedom.”

The redcoats soon marched into place, supported by a few turncoats -- militia urged at the last minute to switch allegiances and even the sides. His Excellency and the Frenchman walked to the center of the theatre of combat in the noonday sun to discuss a possible aversion of hostilities, although everyone understood the hopelessness of such formality.

I stood with the Americans at this parley, a man of four and thirty who had traveled more than a hundred miles, temporarily abandoning my other life as a journalist to serve the noble causes of liberty and education.

Those in my township saw me off at dawn, emerging from my second-story apartment clad in white breeches, puffy shirt and knee-high stockings. Two women at the foot of the stairs halted their coffee-and-cigarette hyphenated conversation as they observed me on the landing, placing a three-cornered hat on my head and smiling at their befuddled gazes.

“I’ll explain in a moment,” I said before descending to them, taking care not to slip in my pewter-buckled shoes.

“Don’t you look cute, Chris!” said the tenant of the residence below.

“I’m going to Phoenix to educate some children in history,” their Colonial acquaintance offered with pride before strolling off to his modern carriage.

Now I stood silent as the conversation between the commanders deteriorated by the word. The British commander would have none of the rabble standing before him, especially not the Frenchman.

“This froggy,” the redcoat sneered, brushing off the alliance between the General and the Gauls.

Very well then. It would come to blows. I returned with the commanders to the line of patriots and promised myself I would not die this day, even if a bayonet should charge me.

The British carried muskets. I carried a flag.

= = =

Two years ago, I stood behind the safety line, watching the combat unfold before me as a curious spectator. I did the same the next year, and upon the conclusion of those battles, I determined I could not -- and would not -- merely watch again.

The path to the battlefield wound through several social adventures, divergent in time and place. I perceived myself more gentleman than soldier, but I gathered many of my ancestors found themselves in the same situation, taking up arms when confronted by tyranny even though they had never dreamed of shedding another man’s blood. That was provided, of course, they had arms to take up.

In July, four months before battle, I placed an order for a musket and expected it would meet my hands in time for at least a few practice shots. Weeks elapsed, and the French firearm under Indian craftsmanship failed to arrive. The delay frustrated the middleman as much as the buyer. No explanation surfaced for the holdup other than copious holidays in the faraway land.

The possibility of arriving on the battlefield unarmed disturbed me, but surrender was out of the question. I possessed the Continental uniform, tailored to exact dimensions by expert tailors. They required numerous precise measurements, which required me to perform numerous feats of dexterity with a tape measure. But lo, the result: a colorful vesture I could not wait to wear, topped with a black-and-white tricorn hat decorated with a huge cockade.

As for the musket, I found a solution in a Brown Bess I could borrow from a fellow patriot who would arrive later. Yet with hostilities sure to arise long before then, I informed General Washington I held myself open to other ideas: “I’ll chase those wretched redcoats with a pitchfork if I have to!”

= = =

The opening shots from the British immediately felled the three Spanish allies. Those redcoats made better shots than I realized, even over the sizable distance between the lines.

“They always shoot the flag-bearers,” a colleague had informed me.

My safety and the standard I held now depended on the half-dozen men under General Washington’s command.

“Fire at will!” he ordered, and the controlled sequence of volleys loosened.

Musket fire crackled from both sides. Jets of smoke zinged from muzzles -- sans balls, of course -- punctuated by the frightening flashes of flame all along the line… except for the weapon of the French officer next to me. Powder from cartridge after cartridge flowed into the pan and down the barrel with no incendiary result, just a click. Other Continentals soon found themselves plagued by misfires. The British fired and advanced with no sign of weapons trouble.

“Let’s give them a volley,” General Washington commanded.

The troops opened up on their foes with dismal results. Now we had no choice but to charge. Rushing the redcoats, they surrendered before a bayonet pierced a single ounce of flesh. Hands went up, weapons went down, and the battle ceased. Somehow the patriots won this round, against all odds and all weapons, much to the joy of the children on the sidelines.


Like waking up from a deep sleep, our fallen comrades arose, brushed themselves off, and fell into line again as the young spectators cheered an American victory. Huzzahs for the patriots. A cheer for the redcoats. Honors for the Catalonian allies, the militia and mountain men, and the French officer.

Now another volley hit us: the questions from the children. I soon noticed they preferred one more than others.

“Did you die?”

“I am still standing, no?” the Frenchman replied.

“Not today,” I said. “Some musket balls came close. Tomorrow, I might not be so lucky.”

I made note of a small scab on my right hand. I knew not where it came from, but I could surmise a period guess to convey a sense of danger. “That was from a bayonet.”

Children swarmed around me as my fellow Continentals fell out to leap forward along the timeline for the next skirmish.

“Is that flag heavy?”

“Not really.”

“Are those stockings comfortable?”

“Yes, more than any trousers I’ve ever worn.”

“Are you a redcoat?”

“No. Don’t let the red facings on my coat fool you.”

“Can I wear your hat?”

“Yes, for a moment.”

“Can we take your picture?”

I would pose several times for the wee folk, letting them gather round while smiling and striking a proud pose with the sun in my eyes. I would also sign several autographs. I beamed with happiness to be their hero for this moment, having taught them something about their heritage.

One child had something more in mind.

“I challenge you to a dance-off!”

In the brief showdown between capers of 1776 and 1976, no distinct winner emerged, but my spirited jig left the youngster in stitches.

= = =

I have never seen so many children fascinated at a hole in the ground, I thought as multitudes of children crowded around a work in progress: an 18th Century camp kitchen. The trench still needed three holes in the side and three more in the top -- pits for fire and chimneys for it to rise.

A Connecticut militiaman and his son took turns digging, breaking a sweat early in the morning, but they summoned me for help and a momentary respite from tossing aside shovelfuls of dirt. I jumped into the pit without hesitation and went to war with the soil. Heaving lumps of earth reminded me of back-weary campaigns against driveway snow during many a Missouri winter.

Waves of children crashed into the camp as the Connecticut duo explained the mechanics and use of this six-foot long by two-foot deep hole.

“Is it a grave?” one child asked.

New groups of children arrived and the spiel began again until the militiaman extended an invitation to me.

“You can explain what we’re doing.”

Me? Now?

Uncertainty of all the facts gnawed at me, but I started repeating the ones I picked up moments ago.

“This is an 18th Century camp kitchen,” I began. The words labored from my mouth as I checked every one of them for accuracy.

“They’re digging three holes in the side here. That’s where the fire is going to be built. They’ll dig more holes on the top, and the flame will come through there, and you will put your kettle on top to cook. The reason it’s built like this is to protect the fire from the wind and rain.”

After a few rounds with different groups of children, I hit a stride. The youngsters could not tell how green this recruit was in his red, white, and blue.

“The life of a Revolutionary War soldier wasn’t all marching and drilling.”

The militiaman and his son continued their labors as water poured down their foreheads, stopping only to inspect their work and answer a few questions. They reached for their bayonets.

“General Washington doesn’t like us to use these for digging,” the father explained. “But they make excellent vent picks.”

One hour of digging and picking, and the kitchen stood ready for service. But a flint failed to start a suitable fire.

“We’re going to cheat a little,” said the militiaman, turning to an oil lamp.

A fellow Continental observed the process with a teacher friend who had brought her class.

“Hey, I learned something new today,” he said. “You know what the difference between a pot and a kettle is?”


“A kettle has straight sides. A pot has a curved side, like a pot belly.”

I had never thought of that, either -- another new fact to pick up and pass on. On this day, the children would learn as much as I.

= = =

Christophe!” the French commander called to me at sunset, advising I should seek a certain gentleman for some brief instruction in the proper firing of a musket.

The lesson took place behind the Confederate encampment. We used a rifle different than the flintlock I would fire the next day, but nearly the same procedure applied.

Set the lock here. Reach for a cartridge. Tear it open with your teeth. Not too deep, or you’ll eat gunpowder. Put a little in the pan. Close the frizzen. Put the rest in the barrel. Set the hammer all the way back.

“Fire in the hole!” I shouted before pulling the trigger, mimicking the warning I had heard my instructor give in the camp.

Click. Thoom! A flash of fire and smoke burst forth from the muzzle.

“Eureka!” I cried, eyes wide and mouth open in joyous satisfaction. “That’s the first time I’ve ever fired a musket.”

“Rifle,” my instructor happily corrected.

= = =

A mist of smoke from cannons and campfires loomed over the twilight battlefield. The commanders had decided on a skirmish at dusk, and the Union forces had invited me into the fray, adding some red and white to their blue even though I was still unarmed.

With the public now gone, the rules and timelines would both bend this evening. Japanese fighters from World War II fell into line with the Confederates. An Allied gunner and his automatic weapon joined with Grant’s forces, and he quickly fell to his stomach, making a long crawl to penetrate enemy lines.

A patriotic boy slipped me a toy musket as I set off behind a mountain man to flank the rebel troops. Both of us knew a lack of cover would doom the operation to failure.

“What do we do?” the mountain man grinned as the men in gray approached.

We decided to keep walking until the 1st Virginia unleashed their opening volley.

“Let’s die,” the leader of the hopeless plot declared, and both of us tumbled to the ground.

The rebels yelled and cannon fire exploded, shaking the ground with every blast. I stared straight into space as stars emerged from the blanket of darkness.

“You really look dead,” an observer pointed out as he passed by the two fallen fighters with a camera in hand.

Yet we had enough life to crack inside jokes as the battle played out, chuckling at the creative anachronism and wondering about mixing and matching soldiers from other eras. Sizable patches of smoke hung over the battlefield when we resurrected ourselves, the fog of war.

“We gotta do this again.”

= = =

The British formed in front of us, always second on the battlefield. We stood as we did before: the Continentals on one side, Catalonians on the other, our French ally in the ranks, and a cannon primed to fire.

The redcoats sent a contingent to the center of the field to discuss terms, but they mainly wanted our surrender.

“Give them our answer from Pennsylvania!” shouted General Washington.

The cannon was lit. Nothing.

Crestfallen, we would have to talk with the lobsterbacks after all.

As the officers ran through the formalities, all I could think about was the loaned Brown Bess on my shoulder and the steps for firing it. Rolled cartridges of black powder waited inside a hip pack. My gaze hung on the redcoats in front of me.

A year of exploration and curiosity had culminated in this moment, stoked by travels to Williamsburg, Yorktown, and Jamestown, a dance every so often, and a determination to conduct life in a manner befitting the better bred. Now the next step laid in front of me, and I reminded myself, even in this predetermined battle, this could be the day that I die.

“Load and prime!”

I pulled back the hammer halfway and opened the musket frizzen. My right hand dug for a powder cartridge. I tore off the paper end with my teeth, making sure I spit the wad out with the gusto of a whole-hearted soldier. My hands trembled, though, as I filled the pan with a touch of powder, snapped down the frizzen and poured the rest of the charge down the barrel.

“Come to the ready!”

I aimed for the nearest redcoat. Any of them would do, whether I could see the whites of their eyes or not.


My finger pulled the trigger, and to my intense relief and satisfaction, the pan flashed and white smoke exploded from the muzzle.

“Load and prime!”

The process sped up as I repeated it. The redcoats refused to surrender, and I couldn’t waste time as I squeezed off more shots, falling behind my brothers in arms but still firing. The others on the line shouted the praises of our French and Spanish allies. In the rush to keep up with the rest of the line, I bit off too much of a charge and ended up spitting powder out of my mouth along with the wrapper. I did not think I would have enough left for the gun. A click from the trigger confirmed it.

“Load and prime!”

I went through the motions again, adding more powder to the barrel and the pan… wait. What am I doing? I have put too much in there! I promised my family, my friends, and my colleagues in my other life and time I would return with all ten of my fingers.



A huge cloud of smoke poured out, but my limbs remained unscathed.

“A double dose for you!” I shouted to the redcoats.

The cannon started working, finally, as we traded shots with the British. But it did not hold them off. They kept advancing, and I could not tell who was living or dying, but I knew this battle -- adapted from an actual skirmish -- was not ours to win.

The General ordered us to retreat, our numbers thinned. I survived to fight again, and His Excellency promised the crowd we would receive drilling from Baron von Steuben before the next battle. The barrel of the borrowed Brown Bess still smoked from firing all but one of my shots, so I declared a personal victory.

We returned to do battle again after a quick lunch, this time with some cunning and misdirection thrown into the plan. Our militia men would fire and fall back, serving as the bait to draw the British forward into a trap, at which time the Continentals and allies would unleash their black-powdered wrath upon them.

It worked beautifully. The second battle found me getting the commands down, and my timing at firing shots with the rest of the line improved. We set off at least two or three good volleys, but I heard talk of running with bayonets.


We didn’t have time to fix any bayonets. I never heard the order to. I chased after the redcoats with a glorious grunt.

General Washington delivered an insider’s command: “Somebody needs to take a hit.”

A loyalist militiaman knelt with his rifle not fifty feet in front of me. A puff of smoke bloomed from his piece… and down I went.

Death came quick and merciful -- no time to fester on the field of battle and reflect on the price of liberty, facing towards Heaven and consoling myself that the cause of the righteous would not die with me as the life drained from my body.


The crowds of spectators applauded and cheered as I arose, swept the grass from my breeches, and fell back into line with my fellow Continentals. Three cheers for the Spaniards. Three cheers for the French. Three cheers for our worthy adversaries -- small cheers.

Questions followed, and I answered many of them about the musket. The spiel had firmed itself in my mind by now, and although my first official day on the battlefield continued, I spoke with the confidence of a seasoned soldier. A group lingered around me after my fellow linesmen departed for the next battle on the timeline.

= = =

“What are your plans for dinner?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

I had no cooking supplies, no foodstuffs, no mess kit except for a tin cup purchased only that morning. I had no tent, relying on the hospitality of a nearby inn. The realization sunk in that I needed a lot more than just a musket of my own, something I had not wanted to admit around seasoned re-enactors who had been doing this for years.

“We’re having lamb,” the Connecticut militiaman offered. Lamb with asparagus, bread, peach cobbler and lemonade, served in period-correct style. His family was putting the camp kitchen I helped build to use, and he invited me to share in the feast.

That was only the beginning. Before we sat down to dinner, he had donated the beginnings of what I needed: a tin plate, a wooden bowl, a spoon, and a lead mug which came with a warning: “Don’t drink out of it too often. You’ll go stupid.”

Our Catalonian friends soon joined us with Spanish stew, and we all enjoyed a twilight meal next to the well-performing fire trench helmed by its talented chefs. The lamb bathed my mouth in flavor, a welcome surprise having never tasted that delicacy before. I enjoyed every bite while sharing warm conversation and sipping the double-lemony lemonade. The cobbler took longer to cook than we expected, but the wait proved worthy. For a Continental private, I ate like an officer, the generosity of the militiaman’s family catching me by surprise and humbling me beyond words save for the ones of gratitude I spoke with an 18th-century bow and deep appreciation. Thanksgiving dinner had come early. And after this feast, I still had room for pie offered by the gracious Catalonians.

Across the camp, candelabras glistened from a long table and bursts of laughter pierced the night air as the Officers’ Social came to life. Campfires dotted the encampment, bathing the tents in an orange glow as the long day of battles and demonstrations wound down and the soldiers swapped stories of life. Music from a guitar floated through my ears. Capes covered arms as the wind chilled underneath the starry sky. I put some thoughts to paper by the light of an oil lamp, but curiosity would not allow me to sit still the entire night.

As I soaked in some tales of the Wild West from a nearby tent, I noticed the officers approaching, merry from an evening of fine food and drink. General Washington and President Lincoln were in excellent company with General Grant and a host of military leaders from the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a collusion of friends in history united in a common mission to enlighten the future.

“Are you a wandering minstrel?” General Washington asked as he caught a glimpse of me.

“A wandering writer,” I smiled.

The gathering halted by the eighteenth-century encampments, where an officer presented His Excellency with a gift: a medallion of General Washington taking command of this troops.

“You have opened the gates and they can’t be closed again,” an officer praised, noting how the work of We Make History marked a fresh and uplifting new start in the future of recreating the past in Arizona.

I heard His Excellency repeat a maxim of service I have often heard: “If we will live a life giving what we have to give, we will not only enrich our own lives but enrich the lives of others.”

Others soon gathered around, and an early Christmas celebration manifested itself with caroling and the peace of good will towards all under the stars.

“You look exhausted,” General Washington observed of me in the dim of night.

Exhausted, yes, exhausted physically and emotionally. In the course of a single day, I had re-enacted two battles, firing a musket for the first time in my life via the generosity of another. I saw children and adults fascinated and brimming with questions. Several re-enactors offered generous invitations to join up with their units. I broke bread with newfound friends. I heard numerous and fascinating historical accounts, more than I would ever recall. And this day had followed a day of enlightening excited youngsters and taking my first opportunity to teach as a living historian.

“Come with us,” the General offered. “You are family now.”

Oh, how I knew it. How blessed was I. How blessed was this hobby I had chosen and its practitioners, a blessing reaffirmed the next day when The Rev. George Whitefield -- an outstanding clergyman with an unmistakable gift for oratory -- drew us together for morning prayers and hymns in a nearby field. During the course of his sermon, he spoke of the meaning of names and how many were chosen in reverence to God.

I recalled the meaning of mine in Greek: Christopher -- the bearer of Christ.

Tears streamed down my cheeks.

= = =

The fourth and final Revolutionary War skirmish repeated the scenario of using the militia to draw the British into a trap. Again it worked. The final score for the weekend: Patriots 3, Redcoats 1 -- not exactly fair to both sides, but more than fair when the crowds were expecting American victories.

Afterwards, my turn came to leap forward a century on the timeline. The friend who lent me the Brown Bess lent me a Union army uniform, cartridge case, belt, haversack, bayonet, and rifle, and I fell in with Grant’s forces.

I quickly found my manual of arms a comedy of errors. During the commands “left shoulder arms” and “protect arms” and “support arms,” either my hands or my rifle were not quite in the correct position, so I would manipulate the rifle to the correct position, then manipulate my hands, then eye the soldier next to me and make adjustments.

The recruit on my left helped immensely as we marched onto the field of battle.

“It helps to think of every command as three positions,” he told me and showed me how it worked. It may have helped him, but I don’t think it helped me. I needed to drill more than anything else, looking sloppy as I readjusted my hands with every command.

“I’ll never get the hang of this,” I mumbled during one march.

“It gets easier,” my comrade replied.

I had never fired a Civil War-era rifle before, but I picked up the procedure on the field. In some ways, I found it easier than the Bess, pouring the whole cartridge of powder down the barrel without sparing some for the pan. A percussion cap set it off, something not too dissimilar from the ones I used to shoot off as a kid. But as I would soon find, those caps were a pain… in more ways than one.

During the first volley unleashed with the Yanks, my ears rang and a chill ran through my body. I knew I was in trouble when I saw my comrades sticking plugs into the sides of their heads. The other problem: those metal caps refused to stay on. The helpful recruit recommended squeezing each one together a little. I tried it, and one time I squeezed the cap into a unusable crushed lump. Sometimes I would reach for a cap and dig out two stuck together, or they would fall out of my hands and into the thick grass. I lost two caps in a row that way. Meanwhile, my fellow recruits came to the ready and fired effortlessly.

I was out of step, out of sequence with the rest of the unit and it annoyed me terribly. I thought of what it would mean in actual battle. I would not survive 10 minutes in the ranks of Lee or Grant. But then again, perhaps my historic persona was drafted, no professional soldier by any means, no ace with a rifle nor any overwhelming desire to handle a firearm. I am sure I had more than a few historical brethren in that respect -- good people, poor soldiers, the rifles like butter in their fingers.

Never have I served in any military unit in any capacity. My dexterity with a rifle would incur the wrath of any drill sergeant laced with a sizable earful of spittle. Here, I was lucky to get off with friendly words of advice from fellow re-enactors who have learned their lessons on the battlefield.

“You’re holding your rifle there,” one Union commander informed me as he saw the stock of the rifle slipping into my armpit. “If there would have been a real ball in there, you would’ve felt that kick like a mule.”

I had felt it before, long ago in the Boy Scouts, when I fired a black powder rifle and the recoil stabbed me in the shoulders.

“It backfired!” I cried.

The adult leaders laughed about it around the campfire after supper, not minding I was in earshot.

We lost one battle to the rebels, the 1st Virginia even taking one of our cannons and mounting it in victory as we marched into retreat. We would take them out in the next skirmish, one where my borrowed brimmed hat would blow off my head on the battlefield while I ran after a rebel.

I hardly knew what I was doing, and yet my commanders and comrades were glad I was along to fill out the dwindling ranks of re-enactors. The crowds did not mind either as they applauded the blue and the gray.

The afternoon dissolved into evening, and I switched back into my eighteenth-century attire for a remaining hour at camp, the spectators leaving and the participants packing up. I made my rounds of goodbyes and thank-yous and see-you-soons and slipped back into my modern-day self-driven carriage.

Three days of living in the past, now concluded. Or maybe not.

I thought my newsroom colleagues would get a kick out of seeing me in the full uniform of the Continental Line, so I made a stop there on the way home, even though I was tired, achy and coughing from residual effects of dust and gunsmoke.

And I wanted them to see it -- wanted them to understand my love for living in the past and what it did for others.

To my surprise, the general manager, the general in my other life and time, had dropped by for a Sunday visit. From across the workplace, he grinned as he saw a figure approaching in red, white and blue, topped with a tricorn hat.

“Mr. Arnold!” I greeted, still in my 18th Century mannerisms as I presented myself to him, a humbled soldier fresh from the battlefield, eager to tell a tale of fighting for liberty.

More from this remarkable weekend at www.americanheritagefestival.com!

Friday, November 24, 2006

The Lightning Round:

Once upon a time before the Internet, the night before Black Friday meant sitting around with the newspaper inserts and drooling over the sales with the cranberry ice still fresh on your lips. Now, it's up from the table and out to the stores. Shopping has gone the way of the 24-hour news cycle: always on, always open. Closed for Thanksgiving? Not if people are opening their wallets.

Those spare morsels of Pilgrim Feast can wait. You'll be eating them through mid-December, anyway. So in that spirit -- and also because the combination of eating and shopping has shagged us out -- the staff of The Lightning Round present a few stories and sites we've been meaning to talk about but pushed aside.

THE SECRET LIVES OF DELIVERY DRIVERS. They do more than just deliver hot slices. According to Cortney Philip, pizza delivery drivers are the people to ask if you want to know the inside dope before moving into a neighborhood. They go where real estate agents don't, often times risking their safety to get it there hot and fresh. They also do more drugs than you expect, and some often end up driving for life.

Says Philip:
As a non-drug user, it took me awhile to adjust to this particular aspect of pizza delivery. I’ve seen just about every form of illegal and legal drug ingested during my days as a pizza delivery driver. Drugs flow freely through the back rooms of pizza shops, and many pizza delivery drivers double as dealers to their friends. The pizza that arrives at your door may have been made by someone on cocaine, taken out of the oven by someone on prescription pain pills, and delivered by someone who smoked pot on the way to your house.
Mmmm... wait a minute, that's not parseman cheese!

DREAMLAND. Many teenagers sleep 'till noon, and some sleep for a fortnight. The problem is a rare disorder called Kleine Levin Syndrome, which keeps you sawing logs for up to two weeks at a stretch.

Every four months or so, [Spencer] Spearin climbs into bed and sleeps for days or longer... "I might not be with you for a couple weeks," Spearin said. "I missed my birthday. I missed my graduation. I can't remember what I ate yesterday. I can't remember what I did yesterday."
What's more, people with the syndrome don't just lie there.
During the dream-like state, most patients only get up to use the bathroom or eat -- often enormous amounts of food.
So not only will you wake up confused, you'll have gained ten pounds.

A LA CART. In the continuing game of advertisers seeking out new territory because you've ignored billboards, zapped TV ads, dialed through radio spots, and turned the page, the new frontier is shopping carts. True, those have had ads for years, but not with video.

Meet MediaCart, the video screen on a shopping cart. Looks like I'm going back to the bag.

LIFTING THE VEIL. As I have pointed out before, moderate Muslims are suffering because radicals have stolen and corrupted the faith. But Haroon Siddiqui goes further, saying the problem is more complex than you think:
One of the strangest aspects of the post-9/11 world is that, despite all the talk about Muslim terrorism, there is hardly any exploration of the complex causes of Muslim rage. Muslims are in a state of crisis, but their most daunting problems are not religious. They are geopolitical, economic and social — problems that have caused widespread Muslim despair and, in some cases, militancy, both of which are expressed in the religious terminology that Muslim masses relate to.
Siddiqui's article is enlightening reading, delving much deeper than the standard-issue "they hate us because they hate what we stand for" explanation without sympathizing with terrorists.

FOR YOUR LISTENING PLEASURE. This time of year, many FM stations flip their formats to Christmas music, but if you want a gift that will last you all year long, check out KCDX in Florence, Arizona, available over the Internet and also on 103.1 FM if you live in the eastern Phoenix area.

What will you hear? Loads of eclectic rock and roll, deep album cuts, and songs people just don't play on the radio. You may know Procol Harum's "Whiter Shade Of Pale," but how about "Simple Sister?" When was the last time you heard the Boomtown Rats' "I Don't Like Mondays?" Think of it as a classic rock station with a college-radio mentality -- and without commercials. Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Hold It Right There, Katie

When I visited the CBS Evening News last April, I found the production crew at the top of their game. But disasters happen to even the best.

Last night, Katie Couric had to apologize and stand in place for several minutes when the final story in the show had no audio and the producers didn't have anything in place to make up the time. At least we got to hear more of James Horner's theme.

UPDATE: YouTube has pulled this video down, presumably because CBS complained. Bummer.

Monday, November 20, 2006

An Historic Weekend

Many of you are here seeking the story and pictures from last weekend's American Heritage Festival. I assure you, that story will come, along with many pictures.

However, the astounding experience of living an entire weekend in the past (save for the trips back to the inn at night) requires many words and time to arrange them. Hopefully, it will not take too long.

To tide you over, I'll include a couple of photos from my friend Mr. Cynecki. Click either one for a close-up.

First, here is your patriotic blogmaster with an 18th Century counterpart:

And here is the entire 18th Century contingent, including mountain men, militia, Spanish allies (in the blue uniforms) and a few redcoats.

More to come...

Friday, November 17, 2006

The Lightning Round:
All-American Edition

In celebration of this weekend's American Heritage Festival in Queen Creek, Arizona, the staff of The Lightning Round offers up its slice of Americana in the news...

TESTING THE TEST. The exam for new U.S. citizens is changing, and newcomers in several cities -- including home base in Tucson -- will try it out. Historical facts are taking a back seat to how democracy works.

From UPI:
"A lot of the current questions really are trivia questions," [Office of Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesman Shawn] Saucier said. "The new test is designed to encourage immigrants to really look at our history and government and what we value as a society."
Some of The Lightning Round's suggestions for new questions:

* What is a lobbyist, and how can one be harmful to your political health?

* What is the only poll that matters on Election Day?

* Why do we need an Electoral College?

* How has the Libertarian Party existed so long despite losing in countless elections?

* EXTRA CREDIT: Demonstrate how to hack a Diebold voting machine.

FREEDOM OF SPEECH.The Al-Jazeera news channel, derided by many as the Osama Bin Laden Channel, just launched its English-language service... if you can find it.

From the AP:
At least for now, most Americans will have no chance to see Al-Jazeera to judge for themselves. Al-Jazeera's list of U.S. carriers included none of the major U.S. cable TV providers: Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications, Charter Communications or Cablevision. Neither of the two major satellite TV providers in the U.S. - Dish Network and DirecTV - are carrying the network.
We report, you... uh.... you... uh... hello?

PRESUMPTION OF INNOCENCE. O.J. Simpson is coming out with a book called If I Did it, in which he describes how he would have killed his ex-wife and her friend, slayings for which he was acquitted but found liable for in a civil suit. He also sat down for an interview with Fox News.

From the AP:
''O.J. Simpson, in his own words, tells for the first time how he would have committed the murders if he were the one responsible for the crimes,'' the network said in a statement. ''In the two-part event, Simpson describes how he would have carried out the murders he has vehemently denied committing for over a decade.''
The Lightning Round wonders if Simpson is pleading Not Guilty by Reason of Confusion.

OUT OF THIN AIR. We are learning of a breakthrough in rock and roll, that all-American musical genre. Seems some Australian scientists have whipped up a t-shirt that transforms your air-guitar fantasy moves into music.

From the Sydney Morning Herald:
Scientists at the CSIRO's Textile and Fibre Technology division in Geelong have woven electronic sensors into a T-shirt so that it can be played liked a real guitar.

Movements by the wearer's arms are mapped and beamed by radio to a computer which interprets them and turns them into musical notes.

The wearer only has to act out playing the instrument to make sounds.
Next up, the air drum shirt and the air synthesizer shirt. Air vocals... hmm... that's a little tougher, but we seem to think you could make something out of an interpretive dance, perhaps?

Monday, November 13, 2006

Reporting Is A Drag

When you're getting ready to do a live report, and you can't hear your cues, it's no time to take a smoke break.

Unless you're Mike Dello Stritto of KOVR in Sacramento:

Friday, November 10, 2006

The Lightning Round:
Post-Partum Election

This week's midterms proved without question the American People are not the American Sheeple. When they get angry enough, they clean houses -- both of them. President Bush told the Democrats not to measure the drapes. Now he's recommending an interior decorator for Nancy Pelosi. So in the newfound spirit of bipartisanship, we offer these observations from the middle of the aisle.

GIVE IT UP. Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano -- arguably the state's most popular Democrat next to Raul Grijalva -- crushed Republican sacrificial lamb Len Munsil. He never had a chance. The victory was so decisive, the Associated Press declared Napolitano the winner minutes after the polls closed, before a single return was in, based on exit poll data.

"Janet," as her campaign signs said, ran on her strong record. And the day after the vote, she talked about spending some political capital.

From the Arizona Republic:
"I clearly won a resounding victory. I mean, come on.

"It's time for the Legislature to recognize that a majority of Arizonans want to accomplish what I'm working on."
In other words, it's time for Arizona's GOP leadership to stop throwing hissy fits and start finding solutions.

DOWN FOR THE COUNT. The Republicans may have given up in Virginia, but Arizona elephant J.D. Hayworth isn't getting up from his hotly-contested House seat until every vote is counted. He was losing to Democrat Harry Mitchell on Election Night, and the continuing count isn't promising.

Mitchell, meanwhile, is putting together his transition team. Maybe he can't measure the drapes, but he can at least pick the color.

SPLITSVILLE. Provided Mitchell does win, Arizona's congressional delegation will be split dead even: four Republicans, four Democrats. The GOP is lucky they weren't playing against the Arizona Wildcats on Wednesday night.

ROOM TO RECOVER. Disgraced former Republican congressman Mark Foley will spend more time at a rehab center in Tucson, presumably recovering from alcoholism, fetishism, and dumbism. Now that facility plans to expand.

From the Tucson Citizen:
"We have to educate the American people about addiction," [former drug czar Barry McCaffrey] said. "And by the way, there is hope."
And no shortage of people running to rehab, we might add.

Now that we think of it, a lot of people run to Tucson for recovery. We call them "snowbirds."

RUMMY'S OUT. Donald Rumsfeld ankled the Bush administration, presumably telling Democrats, "You can't fire me! I quit!"

An insider tells The Lightning Round of a few parting words by the outgoing Secretary of Defense: "You deal with the Congress you have, not the one you would like it to be."

Monday, November 6, 2006

Moving Target

A few years ago, a simple political leanings test put me dead center. Now, a more elaborate test at Political Compass shows some drift:

Economic Left/Right: -1.50
Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -2.51



Interesting. I'm more libertarian than liberal. I would have pegged myself more center-right.

Take the test yourself here.