The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Opinion

February 14, 2014

The smell of burnt hickory

I was out for my daily walk one day early this week, after the storm that unexpectedly dumped more snow on us than previously forecast, bundled against winter’s chill until only my nose and a small part of my cheeks were exposed.

Had a half-dozen people drive by me, probably shaking their heads at that “crazy guy” who doesn’t even know when to come in out of the cold.

Yet, while sliding a bit more than usual down a modest hill in my hometown, I happened upon one of those ah-ha moments I’ve written about in the past.

The air as I walked was fairly thick with the smell of bacon cooking, mixed generously with wafts of burnt hickory from someone’s fireplace, as Old Man Winter did his number on Garfield County.

Can’t remember having a more genuine olfactory flashback to my earlier days as a veteran Civil War living history re-enactor, when some of my old buddies from the Trans-Mississippi Rifles, 1st Arkansas Battalion or the 10th Kansas and I were trekking to far-off re-enactments, to hone our appreciation of America’s greatest conflict.

The Civil War has no peer when it comes to books written about it, from the earliest first-person accounts by veterans who fought in the conflict, to deeply researched and scholarly tomes on subjects ranging from Robert E. Lee’s horse to the everyday sublime details of a soldier’s life in the army.

For the CW re-enactor, nothing is more important than the latter topic, as each of the estimated 50,000 in the hobby during its heyday strived, in his or her own way, to recreate the look and feel and fabric of an American — whether North or South — those 150 years ago.

Now I’m not saying the hobby is for everyone. It’s extraordinarily grueling at times. Like soldiers of any war or conflict America has produced, the re-enactor is subject to all the fair and foul of weather — from 100-plus degree days to bitter wind and bone-chilling cold.

Recreating a battle in the U.S. can range anywhere from 100 to 20,000 Union and Confederate re-enactors, who take to highways for two- and three-days events.

The first nights are the worst, as people show up at all hours to pitch their tents and stoke their campfires in preparation for whatever battle is to be recreated — preparing for historical portrayals.

I’ve been to events from Missouri to Mississippi, Louisiana to Tennessee over the years, at largely rural sites, with about the only amenities you have what you can carry in on your back.

I’ve lost 10 pounds at one event (Honey Springs right here in Oklahoma), to waking up having my period leather brogans frozen to the ground in my tent in Arkansas.

I’ve had to battle fire ants carried on water pouring through my tent during the remnants of a hurricane that washed out the final day at the Battle of Pleasant Hill, La., to shivering so hard on the cold ground at the large-scale national re-enactment at Franklin, Tenn., I couldn’t sleep.

The meat and potatoes of the hobby are the individual portrayals of the common soldier of the period, be he wearing the brown/grey or butternut of the Confederate, or the deep-blue wool and kersey of the Union man. Authenticity counts, and everything from the correct uniform pattern and fabric to the proper shoe to the hand-stitching of button holes on a soldier’s uniform is open to inspection and interpretation.

I remember standing in ankle-deep mud and intense sun throughout the Battle of Vicksburg, Miss., to allow the public to view Confederate soldiers as they were a century and a half ago defending their city.

I’ve forced marched in the dead of night down a narrow dirt lane at Pea Ridge, Ark., carrying everything from a 10-pound musket to food, water and a blanket, to set up and march on the field the next day for a battle recreation.

The wear and tear is palpable on the body and muscles, having broken a bone in one foot, broken a finger, had sprains and been gashed and scratched and eaten on by bugs of all kinds — for my hobby!

Yet, all re-enactors live for those fairly frequent moments when we could step back into time, and see many of the daunting trials and tribulations of our ancestors — without all the blood and gore and mental anguish of those Civil War years.

I’m sure each re-enactor has hundreds of stories to relate, of sitting by a campfire, blankly staring into the orange-licking flame and experiencing the smell of burnt hickory, of the wafts of bacon cooking ... going back to a day when history was reality for our forefathers.

Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at http://enid news.com/historicallyspeaking

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