Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Reel To Reel: Invictus

It's not all fun and games when your country's image is on the line.

Going Rate: Worth full price.
Starring: Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon
Rated: PG-13 (but probably more of a hard PG)
Red Flags: Brief Strong Language

In 1995, South Africa was just beginning to heal from years of Apartheid, and President Nelson Mandela realized the nation couldn't move on unless it made peace with the white minority who had oppressed blacks for decades. You've probably heard about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission but not the true story of South Africa's Springboks as adapted from John Carlin's book Playing The Enemy.

The film opens with the Boks in a hapless state, rugby's equivalent of the Kansas City Royals. Yet they have a loyal contingent of fans, mostly white, and mostly fans of the old regime. South African's black rugby fans are cheering for every other team. President Mandela (Freeman) sees the team as device for unifying the nation, if only they could win more games and get into the Rugby World Cup finals, which South Africa is hosting after years of boycotts. Mandela invites team captain Francois Pieneaar (Damon) to tea, and in a simple but heartfelt meeting, inspires him to push the Boks to win it all.

Freeman is highly convincing as Mandela -- and the only person Mandela himself said could play him -- capturing the South African's quiet charisma and inner strength. He speaks with just enough statesmanship to remind us of his extraordinary stature while keeping him real and relatable. Damon is the unlikely diplomat as Pienaar holds the nation's future in his hands like a rugby ball he can't pass. His teammates want to win, but they're uncomfortable with their greater role as unifiers. Pienaar soon comes to embrace that role as he draws determination from retracing Mandela's past: "I was thinking how a man could spend thirty years in prison, and come out and forgive the men who did it to him."

Invictus will no doubt make the list of Inspirational Sports Movies. My Royal Father says it reminded him of the 1981 soccer film Victory featuring Sylvester Stallone and Pele. But it's not just another one of those movies in the vein of Hoosiers, Miracle, Friday Night Lights or The Natural. This is not a film about rugby, even though the movie offers enough smash-mouth action without padding to make the NFL look like Pop Warner football. This is a film about two men seeking to get everyone on the same team and triumph over the past.

(Tucson Weekly columnist Tom Danehy offers more insight on the Springboks' 1995 season.)

Monday, December 28, 2009

Reel To Reel: Avatar

"Dances with Smurfs?"

Going Rate: Worth full price and then some. Absolutely see it in IMAX 3D if you can.
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Sam Worthington
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Medium Language, War Violence, One Scene of mild Alien Sexuality

Never ever count James Cameron out. When he spent $200 million to make Titanic, people cracked the sinking-ship jokes long before the first reel unspooled. Then Titanic hauled in $1 billion and then some. So then Cameron decides to make a $200+ million sci-fi film using advanced motion-capture CGI technology and custom-built 3D cameras. Here come the jokes, but then again, we see the finished product and it's absolutely astounding. Avatar is the perfect synthesis of computer graphics and live action, seamless in every detail and full of visual excitement.

The story, to express it with the Francis Movie Equation, is Dances With Wolves + The Matrix + Jurassic Park. In the year 2125, a mining corporation is digging into Pandora, a faraway planet with an earthlike environment except for the toxic air, which will knock you out in 20 seconds and kill you in a few minutes more. Pandora holds rich stashes of unobtanium, an allegorically-named rare mineral used for... oh, I dunno... I guess it's Cameron's equivalent of dilithum crystals. Getting it would be easy if it weren't for those pesky Na'vi, an oversized indigenous race of blue beings with big eyes, tails, and flat noses -- sort of what you would get if you crossbred a cat with a smurf. The Na'vi speak their own language (developed for the movie by Cameron with help from a linguist) and strongly distrust humans, who can't survive in their atmosphere anyway without a gas mask.

A research team led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Weaver) is studying the planet's natural characteristics while the corporation tears it up, using "avatars" to get around and interact with the natives. Avatars are bioengineered Na'vi clones electronically linked to an operator who shares most of their genetic characteristics. Paraplegic Marine Jake Sully (Worthington) takes a job as an operator to fill the role his scientist brother was supposed to play before he was murdered during a robbery. Dr. Augustine resents a non-scientist grunt stepping in, but that's a minor annoyance next to the lack of respect shown her by company manager Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) or security chief Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who hires Marines to do his bidding. Neither of them have much regard for the "blue monkeys," and brush off Dr. Augustine's attempts at diplomatic relations with the Na'vi. Who needs detente when you can just detonate?

Sully goes in as an avatar bodyguard, but he gets separated from the research team he's protecting after stirring up trouble with the wildlife, and he's left to fend for himself in his avatar body. Now with all the advanced technology in play, why doesn't Sully's team have some gizmo to locate and rescue him? I guess the company has been too busy mining the planet to install GPS. In any case, Sully gets into more trouble with the wildlife only to be saved by a real Na'vi named Neytiri (Zoë Saldaña). Playing the Pocahontas role, she takes Sully back to her clan, and her mother -- who happens to be a high priestess -- instructs her daughter to show the newcomer the real Na'vi ways.

We see Jake learning the ropes, including how to hunt with compassion, fall without getting hurt, and ride large flying beasts and interface with them by plugging in their tails. Turns out the Na'vi have a cool way of networking with just about anything, and Dr. Augustine is anxious to learn more. Selfridge and the Colonel just want the minerals, and they want Jake to convince the smurf tribe to move from their tree so they can get at a huge deposit underneath. Sully's on for that mission until he ends up going native.

Avatar amazes in conventional screenings, but it really wows in IMAX 3D, which is how my family and I saw it. My Royal Father compares it to when he first saw Star Wars or even 2001: A Space Odyssey in that both those films raised the special-effects bar to new heights. The film also scores points for not exploiting 3D for 3D's sake; you will not see the compulsory elements of spears flying into your face. Mostly though, you can't tell if the Na'vi are CGI characters or humans in really heavy makeup and puppetronic devices. It's that clean. The amount of computer power that went into rendering the flying scenes has to be jawdropping.

The Queen Mother was also impressed, but she flashed back to Dances With Wolves, especially with the Na'vi's physical and cultural similarities to Native Americans. If Avatar wasn't so original and breathtaking in its effects work, I could easily dismiss it just like I did last year's The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button. At least this film tries to be fresh, and Cameron isn't rehashing his own material. The Royal Father also points out you can see this film over and catch some new detail every time.

The people who dislike this film are bothered by its anti-war tree-hugger vibe. And with names like "Selfridge," "Dr. Grace," and "unobtanium," the symbolism is a little overstated. But James Cameron didn't dump a bank of money into a protest flick. He sat on a script for more than a decade to let computer technology catch up with his imagination and do it right.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Stirring The Pot Who Met The Kettle

So Senate Republicans are hopping mad about all the Democratic deals needed to get the 60 votes to move health care reform forward, some going so far as to call them bribery.

So, what?

Let us think about this honestly. If the parties were reversed, and Republicans needed to hit that magic number, wouldn't you think they'd be doing their own wheeling and dealing and pork-barreling?

The outrage from the GOP over the gimmes to Nebraska and Louisiana and whoever else is simply laughable, willful ignorance of Washington politics. Dealmaking? Horse trading? Nahhh, we don't do that in the hallowed halls of Congress. My high-school civics textbook talked about logrolling and lobbying and buttonholing. We all know the game, and we know both parties play it.

If you want to get nasty about it, Cafe Sentido reminds us Republicans have been engaged in activities -- especially involving disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramhoff -- that went beyond mere dealmaking into the realm of criminal activity:
Sen. [Lindsey] Graham said that negotiating with individual senators amounted to offering “bribes”, and wants the specifics to be investigated, though nothing that is not part of the normal legislative process was done in the case of healthcare reform. On the other hand, there remain numerous cases in which real allegations of illegal threats and illegal bribery were alleged but have never been investigated. In the most infamous case, Republican House leaders not only extended voting in order to twist arms and let lobbyists roam the floor of the House making offers and claims to no-voters, but they allegedly threatened Rep. Nick Smith (R-MI) and offered a cash bribe (in the form of campaign money).
It's my conclusion that much of the anger over these deals isn't about the deals at all -- it's frustration. The filibuster has worked so well in the past for blocking controversial legislation, but it couldn't stand up against 60 votes. Health care reform is moving forward in spite of public opposition, town hall meetings, TEA parties, rantings, ravings, and whatever alternative the opposition has. To be sure, this horse that turned into a camel is gaining an extra hump in the process, but it's still walking and getting watered down. It's Frankenbill. It's alive... it's ALIVE... and nothing can kill it.

So instead of complaining about dealmaking to get 60 votes, Republicans ought to do some good hard thinking, shrug, and realize, "Hey, that's politics." Finding a way to win more seats wouldn't hurt, either.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Warning: Trying To Reform Health Care Is Hazardous To Your Political Career

The train may not be in the station yet, but I can see the smoke and hear the chugging. Unless it slows down or stops, health care reform is going to be the issue that kills many a Democratic congressional career next November.

The warning signs are there. We are seeing the Spruce Goose health care bill watered down to reach that 60-vote filibuster-breaking threshold. Sen. Joe Lieberman is satisfied, but Sen. Ben Nelson still wants more restrictions on abortion funding. And if the bill somehow makes it to conference, Southern Arizona's Rep. Raul Grijalva indicates he won't vote for something that isn't tilted enough to the left. The entire health care debate is turning into a gigantic game of a Whack-A-Mole.

The possible end product is a bill telling us to take two aspirin and call our doctors in the morning. A lot of you won't mind that; I oppose the current health care reform package simply because this nation can't afford it. I wish I had the smarts to offer a workable solution, but insurance reform would be a good start. I wish Republicans could stop flogging each other long enough to put together something like the Contract With America for health care.

Democrats are now fighting a two-front war: on defense from the right, who says their reforms go too far, and the left, who says it doesn't go far enough. With campaign season right around the corner, they are finding themselves right back where they were in 1994, when President Clinton's health care plan nearly nuked them. (To be sure, a large number of retirements did not help, something the party leadership is trying to prevent this time around.)

We want reform. We need reform. But Congress just can't pull it off. And if we gut the ranks next November, don't expect any self-surviving pol to go near the issue again for a long time. Perhaps lawmakers will try fixing health care in bites instead of offering an entire course. After this episode, however, I see a lot of people losing their appetites.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Teaching The Controversy

The recent debates over global warming remind me of this Doonesbury strip from 2006:

This edition of Doonesbury is Copyright © 2006, Universal Press Syndicate. Used with admiration. Please don't sue my behind.

The point of this, just in case you missed it, is the growing politicization of science... just like everything else. I fear for the day when we will reject scientific facts because they're too "liberal" or "conservative."

A Birthday Prayer

A friend sent me this blessing on my birthday, taken from the Anglican (Church of England) Book of Common Prayer. It's so beautiful that I had to share it with you. And by all means, you are encouraged to adapt it for those you wish to honor on their birthdays...

O God, our times are in your hands: Look with favor, we pray, on your servant Christopher, as he begins another year. Grant that he may grow in wisdom and grace, and strengthen his trust in your goodness all the days of his life. Watch over thy child, O Lord, as his days increase; bless and guide him wherever he may be. Strengthen him when he stands; comfort him when discouraged or sorrowful; raise him up if he fall; and in his heart may thy peace which passeth understanding abide all the days of his life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Continuing Education Of Viscount Christopher At Eight And Thirty

Last night I attended a beautiful performance of Handel's Messiah with a few of my friends. All of us dressed in 1700's attire, in tune with both the era of the work and the candlelight atmosphere of the evening. I have heard many parts of this work before, and who hasn't heard the "Hallelujah Chorus?" Yet this was my first time seeing it, and thus I became aware of the tradition of everyone standing during the famous chorus. At first, I thought this was merely a traditional show of reverence and honor to THE LORD, much like standing to sing a hymn. That, indeed, is true.

Then I learned the full story: When this chorus was performed for King George II, he rose. And when the king stands, you stand. Taking this further, His Majesty was recognizing he was the servant of the King of Kings. What an inspiring and humbling statement for a monarch to make: proclaiming to the world that JESUS is LORD!

Here on my eighth and thirtieth birthday, I find once again I have much to learn about history, even as I re-enact it. So much of what I learned in school, particularly grade school, failed to pique my interest. My freshman history course in college -- 200 years in 4 months -- presented some of the toughest academic challenges I ever faced. Multiple books and lectures piled up. I wrote two analytical papers constructed from historical source documents in Missouri dating back to the 1800's. I worked my tail off to get an A in that class, but not without benefit of a curve.

Sixteen years later, I recall a few lessons from that class to help people understand their heritage. I am also disposing of old, problematic lessons from my grade-school days or tacking on new ones. It's a constant process and a challenge. I have a wonderful book (The Revolutionary Soldier 1775-1783) that has helped a lot with my Revolutionary War portrayals, and I have "cheat sheets" for the Civil War era. I have learned many more things from other re-enactors on the field, in camp, and on the dance floor. To them, I am grateful beyond expression.

History, as I have pointed out before, is complicated and riddled with exceptions, stereotypes and gray areas. Unfortunately, the version we learn in school does not always reflect this. That alone is a major epiphany: realizing much of the early American history I learned in school left so much unsaid.

Yet I have undergone remedial education in other areas: GOD, relationships, news producing, leadership, communication. When I graduated from college in 1994, I could hardly believe it was all over. It wasn't by a long shot. In the last four years, it has intensified as I got right with GOD and received some intense life coaching. I feel like I am going through a second adolescence, taking in all those things I should've learned as a teenager but didn't. Sometimes I have to remind myself I'm not a kid anymore, especially when I attend so many events with so many enlightened young ladies and gentlemen.

Still, a second adolescence beats a midlife crisis any day. A midlife crisis says you've messed up and you can't go back. A second adolescence says this is a turning point, and you've got so much ahead of you. Getting right with GOD was a huge turning point. I did not start over from scratch, but I have disposed a lot of worthless things in my life and focused on pursuing meaningful passions. I have learned to stand, when to take my ease, and when to bow. If you haven't noticed, I bow a lot. I learned a long time ago a bow from a student to a teacher in Asian cultures signifies "I am ready to learn." Perhaps a few of our Colonial ancestors saw it that way as well.

Monday, November 30, 2009


As recounted from We Make History’s Victorian Christmas Ball by Private Christopher Francis of the 1st Virginia Volunteer Infantry.

Photos by Mr. Michael C.
(Click any picture for a larger view.)

I have barely greeted a family with a card of Christmas tidings when our eyes meet. She’s here -- the kindly schoolteacher Miss Kay. I consider her my adopted grandmother. She considers me her adopted patriot son. We rush to hug each other.

“I was telling people you’d be really excited!” she says.

“I’ve missed you,” I reply. She once told me, “Don’t be lonely,” where “be” was an action verb. I’ve been heeding that advice the best I can.

“I have something for you,” she says. She turns around to procure a tiny golden ring, which she slips onto my right pinky.

“You know the ’12 Days of Christmas?’” she says. “Five Golden Rings!”

We laugh while my mind takes note that this will probably be the only time I wear a golden ring for the foreseeable future.

Another lady spots me, a lady who can’t resist dancing with me. She comes bearing hugs and a request: “At least three dances!”

“My lady,” I politely implore. “There are many ladies and I have a gentlemanly duty to do!”

The ballroom is full of the fair ones, in festive gowns of all colors, some from Victorian England, some from Civil War America, a few adapted from Colonial New England, and others just beautiful in their own special way. My estimation, likely conservative, is that at least 150 people are in the hall. It will make for an interesting grand promenade. Our hosting Colonel tries a new maneuver: routing the lines of lords and ladies outside the hall into the dark and cool of the early November evening through one door and quickly back inside through another. I glance across the road to see if any neighbors are standing about in curious observance. Nobody spots us. The Colonel once again demonstrates his flanking maneuvers, getting us into and out of a tight spot.

The lady who implores me for dances is my partner for this promenade, at my wholehearted request, yet I would be remiss in not telling you, Dearest Readers, that another is on my mind. Where is Madame Noire?

It does not matter what the fine musicians of Scrub Oak are playing at this moment, “The Girl I Left Behind” is on my mind. She is not among us, the elegant Victorian lady I have shared so many dances with. Where could she be? I cannot let it affect me. I have that gentlemanly duty!

A mixer helps in the fulfillment of that task, of course, and our caller Miss Becky is a master of them, leading us into a pair of concentric circles -- for the multitude requires such -- and having us swing and do-si-do our partners before having the gentlemen move on to the next ladies.

* * *

“It is a proven fact to at least one-sixth of the population,” the Colonel observes, that the brightest and most talented people are born in the final two months of the year. Thus he calls for those born in November and December to step to the center of the room, your humble servant included.

This is where those being honored for birthdays stand, or perhaps jig a bit, while our host leads the others in a round of “For They’re Such Jolly Good Fellows” while the others circle round. It is a hard concept for some to grasp, yet not surprising since the brightest and most talented are in the center of the room.

“Do we feel honored?” our leader asks us.


“Encore!” our leader shouts.

Sometimes one must step up to duty on a moments’ notice. So with nary a second of thought about it, I emerge from the center of the room and begin to sing in my tolerable tenor, enlightening the puzzled crowd and coaxing them to circle around as I walk about the room. They catch on quickly.

“Do we feel honored?” our leader asks again.

Yes, this will do. The honored now have the honor of being the first to choose partners for the next dance. For most people, that would be a dream. For me, it’s a bit more complicated.

When I seek a dancing partner, I am looking for a particular person: a lady who seems a bit lost or yearning, standing on the perimeter, eyes searching about, perhaps kneading her fingers a bit nervously. That is when I make my bow and offer. That is the lady I seek, for I was once where she stood, and part of my life’s Mission is to be a blessing for those who feel neglected, especially on the dance floor.

It seems to me every lady is taken. Yet before desperation can set in, I feel a tug at my side. A wee lass is asking me for a dance! It is I who needs the rescue as we form small circles for another mixer that shall take us around the room.

We soon dance yet another one, one that requires two ladies as my partners. I bow humbly to a pair who I know are exceptionally skilled in the ways of the ballroom, and we step through a series of circles and stars left and right as Scrub Oak takes us on a musical journey from Victorian England to Eastern Europe and points beyond.

Says one of my partners, “now they’re playing Russian music!” Or more specifically, the famous Hungarian Dance, a treat for those fans of the classics.

“Well now ladies,” I say to the fair ones of the 1st Virginia, “let us see if you might be able to top that!”

The gentlemen have just finished a round of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” and the challenge is now issued. The ladies, just as brave as their beloved soldiers, embark in song:

“Oh the Holly and the Ivy
When they are both full grown,
Of all the tress that are in the wood,
The Holly bears the crown…”

They sing a tune a bit different than the one we are all familiar with, but the challenge is no dissuasion, and eventually the gentlemen lend their voices.

It is merely a prelude. Later, when we are all gathered to carol, the ladies are invited to sing one verse of “Silent Night” by themselves.

“Silent Night! Holy Night!
Son of GOD, love’s pure light,
Radiant beams from Thy holy face,
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
JESUS, Lord, at Thy Birth,
JESUS, Lord, at Thy Birth.”

Their voices are in perfect unison, aided by perfect acoustics. They are choirs of angels, singing in exultation, their voices washing over us like a warm breeze or a gentle tide. I shiver just a bit. Nothing this perfect is of itself. As it is written in the Book of James, all good and perfect gifts are from above, and “cometh down from the FATHER of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.”

“Could you sing that again?” our host requests. I can see the penitence in his face, profoundly moved, sitting before us with his three daughters.

“Silent Night! Holy Night!
Son of GOD, love’s pure light,
Radiant beams from Thy holy face,
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
JESUS, Lord, at Thy Birth,
JESUS, Lord, at Thy Birth.”

Is that a flute I hear among the ladies voices? It has to be. But I cannot see one amongst the faces. Those voices are even more perfect than I could ever imagine.

* * *

“Ladies and gentlemen! Choose your partner for the Old Virginia Reel!”

I find the lady from the Promenade. She and I have danced it together in the past. I know she knows her stuff.

Every set should have an experienced top couple, our host announces. The lady and I are the second from the top, and I know they are no strangers to the dance, but without any request, they step aside and let us rise to the top.

Everyone dances it nearly flawlessly from the start, honoring, swinging, do-si-doing, sashaying and even reeling. It is a new move for many, but they pick it up quickly. And even if they don’t, we guide those lost souls through it and keep going. Perfection is not the goal.

We dance for at least ten minutes, maybe more, leaving us out of breath but satisfied and thankful for such an opportunity for liveliness. If that was not enough, we also have an opportunity to “Chase The Squirrel,” sending ladies and gentlemen running about the sets of dancers.

The Victorians of England would not have swung as hard or danced as fast, but as our host reminds us, “We are in America.”

One cannot celebrate the Christmas season without gifts, and in our case, we have lovely prizes of chocolate, cookies, and candies for those whose names our hosts draw by lot, with one simple request: be able to recite a historic fact, sing a Christmas carol, or dance a lively Christmas jig.

A few offer facts or beautiful stanzas of their favorite carols. The crowd acts as judge and jury.

“The Civil War began in 1860,” one lady states as her fact.

Not quite.

“Jig! Jig!” the gathered shout.

Our host dances it with her as we clap and encourage. Fifteen seconds of this forced revelry is punishment enough, and she claims her prize to our applause.

One winner is caught with neither fact nor carol. He offers a jig but needs some support. His sister joins him before the gathering, and I join them, having chauffeured them both to this soiree.

He jigs. She jigs. My jig morphs into a Confederate Highland Fling.

Our host has seen enough. “Now they’re just showing off!” he wryly notes.

* * *

Even with an extra hour devoted to the festivities, the final waltz comes too soon for many. Once again, I seek the lady I promenaded. I shall end up honoring her request after all. For many times this evening I have seen her searching for a partner, and she is left standing alone. My Mission continues.

So we share one last dance, trying a twinkle step before settling back into the familiar two-step. One always goes back to the things that work.

Yet the evening is not over, and we retire to a familiar haunt for a post-ball feast, to reflect, remember and reminisce and wonder why the rest of the world isn’t like the one we have made for ourselves. Thus it is not easy bringing the night to a close, even in the wee hours of the morning. Young and old spend many moments hugging and wishing each other well.

“Nobody wants to say goodbye,” our host says.

“It’s not goodbye,” I say. “It’s ‘See you later.’”

And thus it is with Madame, who never arrived. I later inquired of her, and she told me she ran into troubles with her modern-day carriage. I could feel it weigh heavy on her heart. It’s all right, I say. We will dance again soon. It will be my gift, my pleasure.

HUZZAH! Click here for more memories and photographs of this joyous evening!

Merry Christmas To All! More Life & Timelines adventures to come in 2010! (or sooner!)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Roger's Way

Are you sufficiently stoked yet for the Victorian Christmas Ball? You will recall in A Christmas Carol the mention of a dance named Sir Roger de Coverley. Of course, us Yanks (and Confederates) know it as the Virginia Reel.

But it's not quite the reel deal, as you can see from this performance of Sir Roger from the Gaskell Occasional Dance Society. Notice there's no reeling the set. Instead, couples weave about it:

Yes, Dearest Readers, I am asking the same question: What the Dickens is a penguin doing here?

(Fellow Facebook readers and penguins, please click "View Original Post.")

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Are You Waiting For An Invitation?

Practice time is over. As we await the Victorian Christmas Ball, let's hit the floor with the Social Daunce Irregulars:

(Facebook viewers, you know the moves: Click "View Original Post" to see the videos!)

Those Optimistic Puritans

My Dearest Readers, this is adapted from a presentation I recently gave to the Casas Adobes Optimist Club in Puritan attire. As we sit down to the table of gratitude once more, I feel compelled to clear the air surrounding a much-maligned group commonly associated with this day. In truth, we're more like them than we will admit...

History -- or at least the version we know -- does not treat Puritans very well. In fact, we get them mixed up with the Pilgrims. A lot of people use the words "Puritan" and "Pilgrim" interchangeably when they are most certainly not one in the same. "Pilgrims" with a big P refers to that small set of men, women and children who came across on the Mayflower. Puritans with a big P refers to something much larger. They are a religious movement that started in England -- and to make a long story short -- were opposed to many of the practices of the Church of England, especially those practices they thought were too Catholic and weren't backed up by the Bible. They also didn't believe that the king of England ruled by "divine right," which didn't make them too popular with the monarchy.

Most Puritans stayed within the Church of England, but many split and came to America, many of them forming Massachusetts Bay colony -- And so here is one of the reasons we get them mixed up with the Pilgrims. Note that the Pilgrims arrived in 1620. The Puritans didn't start coming here in large numbers until the 1630s. Like the Pilgrims, they were seeking freedom of religion, but in different ways: the Pilgrims were seeking freedom from religious persecution. The Puritans who came to America, on the other hand, believed the Church of England had corrupted itself beyond all recognition, and they felt the only thing to do was break away and start their own "pure" church.

So now that we've cleared that up, let us return to the main question. Why do Puritans have such a bad reputation? Why would anybody consider them optimists, let alone us? The truth is, they are, despite what our history lessons have taught us.

Who out there is holding the placard labeled "Number 1." Please hold it up! Ah, yes: "PURITANS WERE HAPPY PEOPLE!"

You know the stereotype: a pilgrim is a dour person, clothed in dark attire, hated dancing and drinking and lovemaking. You've probably heard that saying that comes from H.L. Menken that says Puritanism is "The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy."

Well, my friends, the truth is a little bit more complicated.

Puritans had their radical elements, as do many movements, and American Puritans were some of the most radical, which is why they left England in the first place. They didn't approve of theatre, dancing and drinking because those things had led to corruption back in England -- not that they were bad in themselves.

But most historians have also found most Puritans, in America and elsewhere, didn't fit the stereotype. They dressed in bright colors besides brown or black. You notice I'm wearing brown here, but this is my Sunday best -- and did you notice I have my Optimist pin on? But this is the attire I choose in honour of such fine upstanding people.

[Bowing here to applause from the audience.]

We know the Puritans enjoyed the arts. The great poetess Anne Bradstreet was a Puritan. And as for dancing, they thought it taught poise. The great Puritan Oliver Cromwell, one of the leaders of the English Civil War, is said to have danced all night at his daughter's wedding! A famous book called "The English Country Dancing Master," filled with dozens of dances and how to do them, was compiled by a Puritan named John Playford.

Drinking? Puritans were not teetotalers. One historian tells me studies have been done that found the Puritans drank more rum in the 1600's than Americans in the 1900's. I'm not sure how they figured that out, but we do know this: Making rum became early Colonial New England's largest and most prosperous industry. That is not something that would happen if you had Puritan Prohibition. Of course, they believed in moderate drinking, not four ales and the floor.

And now the big one: the lovemaking. Or I will just call it, "benevolence," as they did. I will not tarry on this subject but merely tell you that the Puritan church insisted married couples give themselves plenty of it. In fact, if a husband or wife did not give each other due benevolence in due time, he or she could be excommunicated from the Puritan church.

Indeed, the Puritans note -- as does the Holy Scriptures of James -- that all these good things come from GOD. One Puritan wrote: "the Christian gospel was good, merry glad and joyful tidings, that maketh a man's heart glad, and maketh him sing, and dance and leap for joy." Hardly the portrait of a dour Puritan.

Now, who has the second placard? Please hold it up. Yes. "PURITANS WERE HEARD WORKERS!"

One thing people seem to forget about Puritans is their sense of industry. They had passionate beliefs, and that passion spilled into their trades. They believed that hard work was a way of gaining honour and favour with GOD.

And so that belief has permeated deeply into what we believe as Americans, this notion that anything is possible if we're willing to work hard enough for it. My good citizens, how many of you hold this belief? Don't be shy!

[A great majority raise their hands.]

So they worked hard. But like I said earlier, the truth is complicated. All of us know people who seem to be "creatures of sloth" -- if you good people will excuse that term. In fact, it seems early America was prosperous in spite of hard work. Have any of you ever heard of Saint Monday? Well, Saint Monday was a holiday taken every Monday by otherwise industrious people who had imbibed themselves too much on Sunday.

Benjamin Franklin, who wasn't a Puritan, once said that Saint Monday "is as duly kept by our working people as Sunday; the only difference is that instead of employing their time cheaply in church, they are wasting it expensively in the ale-house."

Still, those alcoholic spirits do not dilute the human spirit. Who is holding the third placard. Please lift it, sir! "PURITANS WERE ON A MISSION!"

Puritans had a sense of purpose. They believed in creating a shining city on a hill, as you might have heard, an example for the world... especially their children. They believed they were creating something better, and they believed GOD would bless them if they did.

It's that sense of purpose that drives one onward, through daunting and dangerous tasks -- oh, like sailing away from the only homeland you've ever known, across rough and stormy seas, to a new world inhabited by mysterious beasts and unknown aggressors, with disease waiting to claim you if the weather does not.

How many of us have this sort of purpose? Granted, we don't have to settle new worlds, but we do have to build our lives, our businesses, and our communities. And at times it can feel just as tough. All of us, at one time or another, are our own personal pioneers on an uncertain and dangerous mission. And I'm sure each one of us, at one point or another, wishes we could start over, abandon everything around us to begin again like those Puritans did.

But we don't. We're not those kinds of people. Everybody in this room is here for a reason, and I can surmise that it's something more than just a good meal from our friends the Spaniards. In a few minutes, all of us will recite the creed of why we're here, but I will attempt to summarize our mission into one succinct sentence: "We are here to leave this world for our children better than we found it." I know a lot of Puritans who would agree with that mission statement.

Without that mission, without any sort of purpose at all, then we really can't answer that question, "Why are we here?" We're still out there at sea, letting the wind take our ships where it will and delivering us either to shore or to disaster. That is no way to live your life.

Please hold those placards up again. So we know they were happy people. We know they worked hard. We know they were on a mission. So why is it that Puritans, when we see the truth, still have such a bad reputation? It is because we have let the extremists define the whole. And when we dwell on the worst, we forget the best. That happens a lot in history.

So when you start passing the turkey, please give thanks to those Puritans who helped build this nation. They weren't Pilgrims, but they were still on a pilgrimage. We all are.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Learning On The Floor

Dearest Friends, one of the wonderful things about the Victorian Christmas Ball -- coming this weekend -- is that you don't need to know a single solitary step to have a wonderful time! My friends in We Make History believe in keeping things simple and enjoyable.

So what you're about to see from Dancetime Publications is a little more complex than we will ever attempt -- but feel free to take a few lessons:

(As always, Facebook readers, you will need to click "View Original Post" to see the embedded video.)

Monday, November 23, 2009

Start While You're Young

Dearest Dancing Friends, the Victorian Christmas Ball is this weekend, so let us prepare with treats for the feet!

If I could change one thing about my youth, I would've found a way to learn more historic dances in my pre-teen and tween years, preferably among people who appreciate it and know what they're doing... like these children here, enjoying something resembling a reel to the tune of "Pop Goes The Weasel:"

And maybe a few years later, I would've made it to this point...

Funny how some modern moves tend to slip in.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Free And The Brave - Part 3: Missions

Memorable and miracle moments from the 2009 American Heritage Festival, as presented by We Make History

From the journal of Private Christopher Francis, soldier of the Continental Line, recruit of the The 1st Virginia Volunteer Infantry, and Prancing Puritan.

Pictures by M. Cynecki

The Power of GOD’s Word is such an amazing thing. It can be eloquent and yet simple, and I think of this as Reverend Charles Whitfield stands before us and tells us of CHRIST’s mission to save us all, and the offer HE makes to all of us, appealing to the businessman and pilgrim alike. No wonder Benjamin Franklin -- a man of science and that Patriot with whom I identify the most -- found the Reverend’s teaching both dazzling and inspiring.

Afterward, a pair of a ladies and I are discussing our congregations, and how we have all had to withstand schisms and faults that have divided us. From the Anglicans to the non-denominationals, nobody is alone in finding themselves having to deal with troubles in their church, finding themselves separated from GOD, or perhaps even lost.

I know that feeling. “I grew up in the Presbyterian church,” I say. But, I explain, it was the love of history that would ultimately connect me to GOD.

And so, once again, I’m sharing my testimony, of getting right with GOD after getting sick on the battlefield and hearing others were praying for me, baffled by their love, and astounded that General Robert E. Lee found himself feeling the same way when he found his chaplains were praying for him. “I’m just a poor sinner!” he said. I felt poor in so many ways the day I heard my commander recount that historical fact: poor in soldiering, poor in spirit, poor in purpose.

If a great general like Lee could find himself poor, and admit it, and cry out for help, without fear or shame, I could too.

“I didn’t want my life to end up as a dash between two dates,” I said to them, voice cracking, humility overcoming me.

The same thing happened the first night at camp after our Thanksgiving feast, when I told a redcoat my story of getting right with GOD. Sometimes I feel like I’m crying out for help again and again every time I tell this story -- especially since I know I’m talking to Believers when I tell it.

So what is the point then?

Hope. Praise. Reassurance. Faith.

“GOD doesn’t give up on us,” I tell them. “HE didn’t give up on me.”

And HE doesn’t give up on those who seek him, through schisms and everything else. Reverend Whitfield knew that.

* * *

The redcoats look impressive in their drill. They have polished drummers and fifers. Their officers wigs sit powdered and proper. They have at least six in their numbers, compared to our four.

But we have milita, Spanish allies, and moxy.

“Company!” shouts General Washington as we march by the British regulars, “Stick out tongues!”

We are following the Cowpens scenario once again, drawing the redcoats in and then routing them. And again, the plan develops some unexpected but typical unplanned variations. For me, everything is fine as long as I can get my flintlock to fire.

“Load!” General Washington shouts.

More powder in the pan, I think. That ought to solve some of the problems. I tear off a cartridge end and heap it underneath the frizzen. The rest goes down the barrel and I hope it’s enough.

“Come to the ready!”

I raise the musket straight up before me, like it’s standing at attention.

“Take aim! Fire!”


It works. It works again through at least two more volleys. It will give me great pleasure to make it to the end of the battle and chase those redcoats back to England.


Powder in.

“Come to the ready!”




My hand reaches for the whisk and pick hanging from my waistcoat button, and I feverishly brush the pan off once again. I reload.



I need more spark. Wrestling with the flint, I pull it forward on the hammer, a move intended to get more striking surface against the frizzen when the hammer comes down. Powder is still in the pan, enough for a decent ignition. I snap the frizzen down again and recock.



It is a satisfying sound, a triumph of man against mechanisms, but at a considerable price. My flint leaps out of the lock and into my hand after it strikes the frizzen.

I cannot get it back in. We are advancing.

“My flint came out,” I whisper to a compatriot.

“Go down on this next volley,” he advises.

The redcoat muskets crackle with smoke and flame and I take the hit: “Aaagh!”

Another life sacrificed for Liberty. I wonder how the real Continentals could tolerate such flint issues. “It’s better than a matchlock,” they probably said.

* * *

“You switched accents!” a boy observes after hearing my drawl paired with my powder-grey Confederate uniform.

“You must be confusing me with my great, great, great ancestor,” I smile back.

No confusion about one thing: happiness is a working 1861 Springfield, shooting orange flame in the general direction of those Yanks across the field from us. I hope they’re taking casualties. We are supposed to win this first battle of the day.

“Fire at will!” our captain commands. He is a bit iconoclastic. His voice does not boom like a drill sergeant, but his tactics and command are nearly flawless as he leads us into battle, even though he’s learning alongside us. He’s the seasoned veteran; we’re the young whippersnappers.

Those Yanks aren’t going down. At least, it doesn’t seem like they’re falling. But that may only be because I’m focused on the ones still standing, trying to make every one of my limited cartridges count.

“Somebody needs to take a hit on this next volley,” our captain says.
I think more of us would be down by now, given the number of shots the Federals are squeezing off. Yet that’s historic warfare: ranks of soldiers shooting across the field at each other without anyone getting hit. One can aim, fire and miss many times. We are not sharpshooters, and neither are our weapons, but we’re coming into range, and it is high time somebody eats the ground.

“I’ve got it,” I whisper.

Not many from the front have gone down, to my knowledge. If they have, I am too focused to notice, but I sense the need is now for another casualty, and I drop to the ground in groaning agony of feigned pain.

I’m playing dead -- no wounded limbs like yesterday’s first battle, in which I hobbled around on a crutch in my right hand with the gun in my left as the rebels routed the Federals. I am dying with dignity.

From the ground I hear the rifles crackling off in the distance as the 1st Virginia pushes on and over me to victory.

* * *

The command: “Count off by twos… COUNT!”

The response: “One!” “Two!” “One!” “One!”

And to think we laughed when our Northern counterparts couldn’t do it.

“Count off by twos… COUNT!”

“One!” “Two!” “One!” “Two!” “One!” “Two!” “One! End of file!”

“Left FACE!”

Bumbling. Shoving. Confusion. Disorder. Back to place.

“Count off by twos... COUNT!”

We repeat the numbering.

“Left FACE!”

Do I step to my left or stay in place? Every move I make is wrong. It can’t be the fault of our two guest recruits -- redcoats who have turned gray for this battle. Why can’t I move into the right place? My frustration simmers, and I gather it is showing.

“Are you all right, Christopher?” our commander asks.

“Yes, sir,” I reply, bewildered.

At least one of my fellow soldiers thinks I am sweating too much and listing with my weapon, perhaps even dehydrated. They’ve seen it before. They worry about my patched-up arm. They won’t take chances.

I certainly don’t feel weak. What is the matter? What is my commander seeing?

Put down your weapon, my commander instructs.

I do not want to debate the issue. Sometimes others know your health better than you do, and the prudent thing is to heed their concern. So I march into drill without the Springfield to learn the “column of companies” formation sans rifle and sandwiched between two soldiers with EMT training.

The command is designed to get soldiers marching in rows of four quickly swung around into battle formation of two ranks if a threat develops on either side. From above, it resembles the shutting of Venetian blinds. We pick it up quickly, to the praise of our leaders.

At the earliest opportunity after drill, I grab the gun and march into to battle for Pickett’s Charge, Lee’s disastrous episode. In a small company of less than a dozen solders, it is a cannon blast that topples me, not my arm or anything else. The last battle of the day is over and I have made it to the finish line.

“You look much better, Christopher,” my commander observes some time later.

“I was frustrated over the drill,” I explain.

“We’ll get it,” he reassures me. I know we will, but I forget sometimes.

* * *

As day dissolves into night, soldiers and civilians are cleaning guns and disassembling tents under the setting sun. First the smaller shelters collapse, and then the large hospital and equipment facilities. Uniforms come off, replaced with sweaters and jeans as we begin the long journey back into our other lives and times. I help my French friends disassemble their canvas chateau and then help with the 1st Virgnia’s needs.

This is the world we built, the world we long to remain in. Just 24 hours ago, a string of campsites bubbled with laughter and happiness. Now most of it is fading with the Arizona sun’s rays, save for some colonial friends who are staying one more night.

Tearing down is a bigger task as we imagined, as we struggle to fit tent poles, chairs, canvas, and miscellaneous boxes and supplies into the Colonel’s truck and trailer. A handful of us stay into the night and chilly air to get it all loaded up.

“You guys are fantastic,” says our commander, hugging each of us, telling us once more how much he appreciates everything we do. He urges us to write and tell us how we’ve been inspired over these past three days.

We will be back here next year, back to rebuild this world, to skirmish and sing and dance once more. Until then, we have the warmth of our memories and the satisfaction of fulfillment in an ongoing mission.


Friday, November 20, 2009

The Free And The Brave - Part 2: Way Of The World

Memorable and miracle moments from the 2009 American Heritage Festival, as presented by We Make History

From the journal of Private Christopher Francis, soldier of the Continental Line, recruit of the The 1st Virginia Volunteer Infantry, and Prancing Puritan.

Pictures by M. Cynecki and Mr. Jones!

I’m heading into the Quartermaster’s tent, looking to resupply my cartridge box from my private stash of powder.

“Is everyone decent?” I ask before sticking my head inside.

“No, but they’re all dressed!” quips a Civil War recruit. Laughter rips through the morning air.

“I walked right into that one,” I smirk.

* * *

“Order Arms is by your right foot.”

“Oh. Thanks.”

I flip the musket around to my other side, opposite from where I’ve just shouldered it. It’s an interesting paradox: in the 18th Century drill, I carry the musket with the left arm but rest it next to my right, which is opposite from the Civil War drill, which involves mainly my right arm. Given the patched-up condition of that formerly bum wing, I don’t mind one bit. My left has the right amount of strength for a long march.

We are part of a grand procession of time on this second day of the Festival, starting with Colonial America and proceeding through our alliances with the Spaniards and French to the Loyalists, the Yanks and Rebels and then WWII and the modern era of Vietnam and Gulf War veterans. It is a long and impressive line of dozens upon dozens of re-enactors stretched out parallel to the rope line separating the spectators from the participants. It reaches nearly the entire length of the battlefield, the largest group we have yet seen. As we march, we are first serenaded by the bagpipes and then by the crisp and patriotic whistle of the fifes—even if those redcoat musicians are playing them.

“Parade rest is like this,” our commander explains to me as I come to what I think is the proper position of my gun and hands along the line, only to find out I need to fold my hands in front of me with the barrel tucked in my elbow instead of keeping one hand on the barrel, or something like that. Four years playing soldier and I’m still learning the drill.

General Washington introduces himself and all the soldiers before the opening-hour crowds of families. He reminds everyone that while America still has a lot of problems, “America is still the greatest nation on Earth.” The crowd applauds.

We underscore it by paying tribute to our real-life veterans on both sides of the rope line, saying the Pledge of Allegiance and singing the National Anthem.

“O Say Can You See, By The Dawn’s Early Light...”

I have sang this song countless times, but never with the fervor or intensity of now, and much of it is due to the finely-tuned voice of our French commander immediately to my right. As his singing rises to the moment, so does mine—and miracle of miracles, in key. Just like Proverbs says, as iron sharpens iron, man sharpens man. The last time I possessed such musical passion within me was in New Market, when our small contingent of the 1st Virginia belted out the Doxology before marching onto the battlefield. Such holy harmony drew a reverent silence from the other companies and a few Confederates to tears.

“You have a beautiful voice,” a lady later compliments as I walk through the camp. I halt, speechless.

“My lady, you are too kind to me!” I say with a bow. “You must be confusing me with the gentleman next to me with the better voice.”

* * *

Happiness is a flintlock that fires when I need it, and it’s starting the first battle strong, even though we are scheduled to lose it to the British. We push in on them, keep on pushing and advancing forward, getting off several good volleys—defined as synchronized and loud—before we discover we’re being flanked by the Spaniards to our left.

Make them Hessians. Once again our commanders up with a creative scenario—use the Spaniards in a new role, one that takes into account that their uniforms of yellow and blue aren’t that much different from the German mercenaries. It can work, and it does.

My weapon, meanwhile, wants to surrender before the rest of us. After about six shots, the throw of the hammer is not sparking any jets of flame and smoke. It’s frustrating but commonplace. Hasty scraping with my pick and brush cannot get it working again, so I have to deduce it’s the flint. After we’re vanquished, I clean it up and adjust it.

In our second Revolutionary War skirmish, we are slated to win. But it will be no easy march to victory. The sun emerges from behind the partly cloudy sky, beating down on us in our wool uniforms with 70-degree heat. The British are taking the field fashionably late. When they do arrive, they start making up for lost time.

“The British are moving too fast. The Hessians are moving too slow.”

It’s another instance where the plan is detouring in front of us, and we have to make adjustments.

“Forward, march!”

We give the redcoats our best shots before turning on some turncoats attacking our artillery. As we are aiming for them, my weapon wants to surrender again. No flames, no smoke—just that heartbreaking click after the trigger is pulled. Another shot fails to fire. It’s time for me to take a hit.

I go down on the next British volley. Within seconds, our beloved Molly is there to tend to my wounded leg.

“Some water for your mouth,” she says, pressing the liquid to my lips. Those blasted Brits had better not be aiming for her this time. I can’t even shoot back. She can’t, either.

After we claim victory and resurrect ourselves, I note the continuing problem with my gun.

“I think your flint is upside down,” a compatriot notices. If he’s right, the soldier next to me also has a flint with the same issue. If it is, we’ll have to wait until tomorrow to find out if a flint flip is the solution.

* * *

Many of our Civil War recruits possess fine voices, and so they are a natural fit for a presentation of 19th Century music, accompanied mainly by a lady skilled with the hammered dulcimer. They sing “The Bonnie Blue Flag” and several songs of war and faith. As I am turning to return to camp, I spot the man in the top hat and tailcoat portraying the Governor of Minnesota. He asks me for a favor.

“I’m supposed to give a speech to the 1st Minnesota before the battle. Do you know anything about that battle?”

“No, I don’t.” But it doesn’t matter. The Governor has just flicked the switch of passion within me and instantly I feed him some words to use.

“You have taken heavy casualties. You have lost many of your brethren, and many of you may be wondering, under these gray and cloudy skies, whether the cause is lost...”

The Governor perks up. “You ought to write this down!” his wife whispers.

My voice is rising. Heads turn.

“But now is not the time to surrender, even in the darkest hours, for you know your brothers and sisters would want you to honor them by continuing the fight for this nation of ours...”

His wife is motioning me away from the crowds for fear of stirring up an accidental historic portrayal to compete with the other performance. I tone down my voice.

“There’s the idea,” I say. “You may use my words or make it your own.”

He makes it his own, indeed, keeping his address to the troops succinct, restrained in passion but with the reverence intact, saying all of Minnesota is proud of them. So are their fighting buddies in the gray.

* * *

Far away from the skirmishing, the young ones are in school, drawing on chalkboards and pads with quill pens and ink wells. Their young teacher looks after them with a warm countenance and a soft voice in front of the colonial flag of circled stars and stripes, the “Betsy Ross.”

Their neighbor the blacksmith is staying busy. A large table of his works -- candle holders, horseshoes and other creations -- draws many to sample and hold. Not far away, the WWII contingent is camped out in their camouflage and covered truck.

From across the camp, an occasional shout and cheer tingles the ears. Upon further inspection, you see it’s coming from in front of the Quartermaster’s tent for the 1st Virginia and 1st Minnesota. The young recruits, finished with the morning drill, are huddled around a small table slapping cards into the center. It’s not poker, but it might as well be given the intensity of the play.

Before long, they’re drilling again, marching into the center of camp and around the perimeter in a hodgepodge of Union and Confederate uniforms. A young captain-in-training who’s developing the growl of a drill sergeant leads them through the paces, stopping them and turning them to pose in front of tents for visitors snapping pictures.

“Only Black and Decker does more drilling than you all,” I observe.

* * *

That cannon blast nearly exterminated our entire company. The ball went right through our center, taking me and two fellow Confederates down. I lie in the grass moaning and groaning half a minute before succumbing to death.

The medics know I’m a lost cause, but I can still be useful. With eyes closed, I feel them using my legs as a device to prop up somebody’s head. Bandages are going on. Are they wrapping up my legs, too?

Moments later, a northern Nurse arrives screaming and belittling my brethren still left alive.

“Prison camp will feel a lot worse than this!”

“You’re gut shot, and you’re gonna pay!”

“You know what they do to people like you!”

Snickering dribbles out of people’s dead and wounded mouths. “Can you bandage your mouth while you’re at it?”

She only grows angrier. “Look, you’ve made me spill my morphine!”

I know it. It bounced all over my pants.

* * *

The public has departed and dinner is cooking, but I can hear the clapping off in the distance. While the officers are toasting at their Saturday social, some of the others have organized their own social event, an instant ball in the Civil War camp to the accompaniment of our 19th Century musicians on dulcimer and fiddle with a few jammers filling in.

I’m thinking about it with every bite. I’m back in my Puritan clothes this evening, and I’m feeling more than a bit like John Playford.

“I can’t stand this anymore,” I say, finishing up. “I must get a dance in!”

I dash off with the blessing of my dinner companions and find lines of young ladies and gentlemen finishing up a round of “Chase The Squirrel.” But they’re running out of dances they know, and so they look in my direction.

“Do you know any dances?”

“All the dances I know are mostly 18th Century,” I admit. “But if you’re willing to try, we can improvise, too.”

Someone suggests the Pineapple Dance—although it will have to be with an apple this time. I give my go-ahead for that, and volunteers quickly arrange three chairs as I explain the dance’s progression from three seated people. “One of you will take the apple and the other two will sashay off. Or you may give the apple to somebody in the line and all three go down the line. PLEASE BE DELICATE! The person who wins this apple has to eat it!”

The music starts and we’re off and sashaying. A lady ultimately ends up with the fruit. All end up out of breath. Now is the time for a waltz.

“Gentlemen, you are expected to do your duty!” I bellow. “I do not want to see any waiting lady deprived of a dance!”

Those who don’t know how to waltz learn from those who do, choosing either an easy two-step or a more-mannered box step. I am alone, unable to woo a lady from the sidelines who is trying to keep warm. Another one eventually steps up to me midway through the number, and I take her arms cheerfully, with much admiration.

I help call a Virginia Reel... and then a marathon reel to the tune of Jingle Bells. The Christmas season is officially underway in all of our hearts, something reinforced by the officers, who are merry from their evening together and parading through the camps with gifts and carols. They arrive as we’re attempting a polka.

We sing “O Come All Ye Faithful,” and “Feliz Navidad” in honor of our Spanish allies. Their commander returns the favor with a hilarious rendition of something I could only call “The Tortilla Song.” A gentleman dazzles us with a humorous reading, and a few ladies regale us in more carols and hymns.

General Washington, quite delighted with everything, remarks that with all the talents of those around us, we cannot let the evening go by without seeing “the talents of our prancing Puritan!”

White steam in the cool evening air pours from my mouth.

“Yes, take a breath.”

What, dear me, shall I do? The “Prancing” part is the hint.

“I am not much of a singer,” I begin. “But I think now we should turn to the dance! Someone suggested a jig.”

I call over two of the 1st Minnesota who were in the mood for one earlier. “I don’t know what John Playford would think of what we are about to do, but I know that there is a myth that Puritans abhor the dance!”

The three of us start slowly, but then we work up fervor as the music proceeds beyond the first few bars, jigging and prancing about as the crowd cheers us on -- “Yes, cheer us on!” -- with clapping. In short order, we pull in a few ladies.

I cavort all over the place, pulling a lady in and jigging to each other, rounding a circle in a mad promenade.

“Come on in! The water’s warm!” I cry.

A few more do. But most are just content to watch and admire. “This is exactly what they did in camp,” I overhear General Washington say, and I know my display is winning approval.

We had one last hymn, from our beloved Molly Pitcher, who chose a favorite hymn from the Church of England: “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day.”

“Tomorrow shall be my dancing day;
I would my true love did so chance
To see the legend of my play,
To call my true love to my dance.
Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love...”

As she is singing, General Washington whispers a suggestion to me: “Why don’t you dance as she is singing?”

Dance to a hymn? It does not seem proper, especially not for a Puritan. But her voice is so beautiful and the allegory so fitting, I accept the invitation.

Many a time I have danced an improvised solo minuet when I have found no available lady for a waltz. So that is my caper now, stepping gracefully in a circle around her as she sings, toes pointed every so often, turning occasionally in place, sometimes with a honorable glance. But we are giving GOD the ultimate honor. The original Puritans may have frowned. The colonists could have scoffed, but nothing in this moment invites any jeers or cries of irreverence.

“Then was I born of a virgin pure,
Of her I took fleshly substance
Thus was I knit to man’s nature
To call my true love to my dance.”

I worry about upstaging her, so I attempt no overtly fancy steps or flirtatious gestures save for a low and courtly bow at the end, where unfortunately I have ended up behind her. The audience gives enthusiastic approval while the warmth of it all continues to radiate through me.

“This is my favorite night,” General Washington tells me as we walk towards the next camp to honor with carols and pies.

I can feel it. “All is right with the world,” I tell him. “It doesn’t matter what’s going on in the rest of the world, all is right here.”

IN THE CONCLUSION: The final battles... and the ongoing mission!

After Oprah

The end of Oprah Winfrey's talk show in 2011 may mean more relief than TV stations are willing to admit. It's because the show, while delivering solid ratings and reliable lead-ins for early evening newscasts, has slipped from its massive dominance into a position where stations are seriously weighing its costs versus benefits.

Oprah's hefty numbers come with a hefty price tag. Stations are paying several hundred thousand dollars a year in license fees to carry her show. That's compounded by limited amounts of commercial time for those stations to sell -- most of the commercial time in The Oprah Winfrey Show is sold to national advertisers, and the stations don't see one penny of that revenue. Back in the 1990's, you could justify such a cash outlay. But since then she's lost a large chunk of her audience according to Nikki Finke, and even if she were to continue her show past 2012, you would probably see her affiliates demanding lower license fees.

With Oprah off the air, stations will have much more cash to sink into other programming, or back into their infrastructure. Early evening newscasts will take a ratings hit, no doubt, but how much of a hit is still uncertain. If a station's general manager can replace Oprah with another effective lead-in, that hit is going to be minimal. I can forsee stations replacing Oprah with Ellen DeGeneres' show, or perhaps Judge Judy, which by the way has been drawing about the same numbers as the big O. For that matter, Two And A Half Men re-runs have been beating both these shows in audiences -- and likely for a much lower license fee.

I remember how Oprah came out of nowhere in the 1980's to revolutionize talk television, single-handedly dethroning Phil Donahue as the leader of the genre. But back in the day, Oprah was more of your favorite gal-pal than media-savvy, socially-conscious baroness. If you want to play the "Jump The Shark" game, I nominate her massive giveaway of automobiles in 2004 and her establishment of her academy for girls in South Africa as the beginning of the slow slide. When Oprah stopped being Oprah, the show lost its connectivity factor. Oprah became more like Martha Stewart, so rich and so polished and so far removed from the 9-to-5 grind.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Free And The Brave - Part 1: School Of The Soldiers

Memorable and miracle moments from the 2009 American Heritage Festival, as presented by We Make History

From the journal of Private Christopher Francis, soldier of the Continental Line, recruit of the The 1st Virginia Volunteer Infantry, and Prancing Puritan.

Pictures by M. Cynecki

“Are you willing to enlist in the cause of Liberty?” I ask.

Some of the first schoolchildren stand before me -- this Yankee Doodle Dandy soldier in the red, white and blue uniform -- puzzled.

“Do you think you can fire this musket?”

That they understand. Anything involving firearms tweaks their curiosity, and I can fill their cups many times over, starting with the priming and the loading, showing how I tear off the cartridge tip with my teeth and pour a little bit of powder in the pan before dumping the rest down the barrel.

“I pull the trigger and that sets off the charge in the pan, and some of that explosion goes through the touch hole -- I don’t know if you can see it there -- and sets off the powder in the barrel, pushing the musket ball out and hopefully into one of those redcoats.”

I motion to the open field in back of the line of canvas tents, where the British are practicing their drill and march. They have a precision that inspires the lackluster regimental. One or two occasionally collapse into the grass in deference to the children opposite them with the wooden toy rifles.

“They do a good job of falling down,” I note to a fellow Continental soldier during a spare moment when the young ones are enthralled with a leg-stock punishment device.

“For a shilling, we can hold them in place for you,” a Colonist offers the parents.

“For a little extra, we can also hang a sign around them that says ‘Insubordinate,'” I add.

The others on this School Day are milling about the Colonial camp, watching someone melt lead into musket balls or watching the ladies cook breakfast. The more adventurous are trying their skill at the game of Graces, tossing hoops back and forth to catch them with sticks. Across the way, the French Tent is up, and Le Comte and La Comtesse -- dressed in their lacy full court beauty -- are explaining to the wee ones why they are involved in this fray.

“Can we take your picture?” one visitor asks.

“Of course, My Lady!”

Whatever we say or do, the groups lap it up. I explain the musket spiel at least a dozen times to the kids who pass on through in their official polo shirts and name tags, more interested in the weapon than anything else they see before them.

“What rank are you?” a child inquires.

“I am just a private. But he,” I say to a redcoat who has just sauntered up to a fellow Patriot and myself, “is an officer.”

Lt. Radcliffe is casually drinking from a tin cup and thinking he’ll be the one to drop us in battle. He has that confident swagger about him, the product of somebody who has not tasted defeat, not even sipped it. A few moments later, we are all summoned to muster.

“This isn’t quite the Battle of Cowpens,” General Washington informs us. Cowpens, after all, didn’t involve our Spanish allies -- those proud and honorable men in the blue and yellow uniforms -- gladly adding to our numbers.

“Battle of Fountain Pens,” I jest.

“Or Pig Pens,” remarks the British commander, eager for a smidgen of levity amid his predetermined loss.

The gray skies let loose a shower, and children shriek and dive under tent flies. The outpouring does not last long.

“It’s a great day,” His Excellency observes. It reminds us all of Virginia and its sudden shifting skies.

The shrieks and screams in our favor multiply as my fellow Continentals and I take the field. Young ones are eager for us to get out there, as the British are already pushing back our militia. The Catalonians have some artillery fire for support.

We advance on the British, greeting them with more cannon blasts and musket volleys. I worry about the light sprinkle in the air and what it can do to a flint. Even as something as innocent as a gentle November breeze can snuff out my sparks and leave me unarmed.

“Load and come to the ready!” General Washington orders.

My 69-caliber smoothbore’s hammer gives me as much fight as the redcoats, even after a good oiling. It resists the pull-back. But even with the battle-within-the-battle, I can still stuff a load down the muzzle in 20 seconds or less, which is the goal.


The orange flame of the pan stands out amid the morning grey. I don’t know if the load in the muzzle followed, but I don’t have time to worry about it. The redcoats are still advancing, all half-dozen of them plus their militia and musicians, and another load has to go down the gun.

“Aaaaagh!” screams a fellow Continental as he drops by my feet. I’ll make those bloody scoundrels regret it.

Three more volleys from us, and we’ve got them on the run. Even their artillery is no help now. We’ve got them running —- “CHARGE!” I am screaming. The children are hollering along with me.

Their general is left abandoned with three Patriot soldiers running him down. He offers his sword. “Disarm him!” I cry. But I wait for General Washington to handle the matter diplomatically.

“Your men fired at one of our ladies,” he points out, indicating the extinguished British officer on the ground: Lt. Radcliffe. So much for that confident swagger.

“It is fitting that his wig is unkempt.”



Later, I learn the full story. That swaggering Radcliffe felled a Molly Pitcher, to the horror of the Patriot cause and the boos of the children. But what that redcoat and the kids didn’t know was that Molly took the hit on cue, leaving her aggressor officer with a reputation that would add to his persona and probably elicit a few more playful boos and hisses long after the battle.

For the victors, though, it’s nothing but cheers. I march past the crowds of children, giving high-fives to anybody who can show me their hands. “Huzzah! Huzzah!” I shout as I slap palms. They come from everywhere in the crowd, running up to the safety line.
Everybody wants to be a part of a winning team, and no doubt some of the kids will be picking up a Charleville of their own one day and marching into the battle with visions of jet-smoke rifle fire and falling redcoats cavorting about their minds.

* * *

Advancing forward 100 years, it’s time to let the Yanks hand out a whupping to the Rebels in front of the children. My 1st Virginia compatriots and I think we’re beating the bluebellies back, but a detachment of their forces flank us and mow us down in good fun.

It’s a different perspective for one officer, now a private, right next to me in formation, not minding any of it.

“Did you lose your rank?” someone asks.

“No, just trying something different.”

He’s talking about more than just himself. Young men in the 1st Virginia Volunteer Infantry and our fighting friends the 1st Minnesota are stepping up to try out the ranks of NCO’s and officers. They are taking on more responsibility and a new learning curve for a position that our superior cautions isn’t as much fun. But the reward is a sharper edge in leadership, one that will seep over to everything else in life.

We’re reorganizing our Civil War soldiers into a battalion structure, in preparation for bigger things ahead. Multiple layers of leadership on the battlefield mean multiple companies and multiple commands repeated multiple times.










It’s easy to discern what’s coming when it’s said three times, but the challenge for the officers is making sure they’re in the right position to move: out in front of the troops, which means they scurry like squirrels into position out of their respective companies, or back from behind if we’re moving after firing.

The logistics of a simple advance can be head-scratching at times: the flag-bearers have to be in the center and the Captains have to be in front of their respective companies. They have assigned positions for everything—no walking about to survey the troops during a battle like some prize-fight referee. It’s an adjustment for everybody, even the privates who are learning new ways of falling into columns of twos and fours. It will all be worth it though, when we journey to Virginia once more.

* * *

My friends in time gather for a potluck Thanksgiving dinner after the children have departed. It’s the closest I will come to the real meal two weeks later, which isn’t real at all given I’m working between bites. I prefer it this way: breaking bread among the people whom I love and give Thanks for every day.

Several of those people express their thoughts out loud at the invitation of our commander, who thanks us once again for inspiring the hundreds of young ones we met today.

“I am thankful for our freedom,” a young girl says, “that I can do what I want.”
Several others share. I am silent. Part of me wants to speak out, but I don’t want to make a long speech. Something inside of me is telling me to hold my tongue, that people have heard enough of me, that I should instead hear from others.

But later, I open up to our leader in soft confidence. “This is my favorite of the three days. I am so thankful to be here for it.”

IN PART TWO: Flint follies! High drama among felled men! Getting jiggy!