Journals of an Insane Genius - June 2001
So it was the movie "The Princess Bride" that taught us all that sometimes the things that annoyed you as a kid would be something that you "wouldn't mind" as an adult. I mean, now that I'm 36 I've already accepted the fact that my dad was a lot smarter than I gave him credit for when he was 36 and I was a 13-year-old punk. But now I have to deal with the fact that he was a lot cooler than I gave him credit for too.
The year was 1977, a lot more tolerable than '76 because everything didn't have to focus on tying into the bicentennial theme. Except our family. My dad had hooked up with a motley gang of Revolutionary War re-enactors a few years back and we were doomed (as I felt at the time) to go along with him. How does an "Industrial Rodent" (translation: shop rat) hook up with these guys anyway?
So for the past few years, I had adjusted to the fact that every summer for the rest of my foreseeable future we would be hauled out to an encampment of soldiers about to fight a mock battle. Cynically seeing the worst in anything that dragged me away from the hours I "needed" to spend in front of the television to see if a cartoon cat would ever outwit a cartoon mouse, I stubbornly refused to accept this as cool. Until the summer of '77 when I turned 13 and was finally old enough to be a 'runner' in one of the battles.
I don't know how much money my dad had to shell out for this, but I'm sure it's more than his ungrateful boys realized at the time. The previous two years we had been 'forced' to spend a weekend with full run of Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum near Detroit (even after the park closed when we could 'borrow' the courtesy wheelchairs and have races down the hill), and at Kearsely Park in Flint. My dad outfitted all five of his boys in replica wardrobe and had his own snazzy uniform.
On top of this he had to purchase tents made of the same material and workmanship used in the Revolutionary War era. This means cloth. Why on earth would you say to a weirdo kid who didn't have enough sense to get his hair cut so he wouldn't look like Garth in "Wayne's World" and would grow up to be an engineer, that the tent would only leak if you touched the inside of it while it was raining. Inevitably it would rain at least once during the re-enactment and, obviously, I would have to touch the inside of the tent. Guess what… it leaked. Right above my side where I had to touch it 'just to see.' Same as it did last year and the year before.
So in 1977 one of the organizers (a Mr. Dave Crompton - a man of only slightly less dubious character than Mr. Joe Rundell, another one of the organizers of the whole thing who lured my dad into this - despite that fact that my dad wouldn't even drink Grog!) set aside an entire section of his multi-acre farm just outside of Clio, Michigan so that their group would always have a host site for these events. A group from Canada was invited down to be the British (translation: bad guys.)
Crompton's Farm was great! Dave's son had what he referred to as his 'Vine Camp' out in the woods behind the encampment. These trees actually had vines you could swing from. Several bruises later I learned that Tarzan used a stunt double that made it look easy.
There was a working Blacksmith's Shop and they would let the kids work on 'projects' to develop an interest in the art. My project was always a nail, one of the few tools I ever understood, being as its usefulness can always be heightened by the combination of brute force and ignorance. To make a nail you had to heat a rectangular piece of metal until it glowed white-hot, and then beat the heck out of one end of it until it became a point. As therapeutic as that was, my favorite part was when you finished pounding on it and dunked it into a bucket of water, releasing a satisfying 'hisssssssss'.
It was at the first Battle of Crompton's Farm that I worked up the courage to ask Joe Rundell if I could be a runner in the battle. Runners were kids who would sprint between the companies on the battlefield, relaying 'important messages' to the commanders. Joe put on his best 'official' air, eyed me up and down skeptically, and asked how old I was. I said I was thirteen and the fastest kid there (a lie, my brother Bill was the only one faster than me - look at him in the picture, he was fourteen, already taller than my dad, and needed a shave - well on his back anyway, his beard didn't come in for another six months.) Joe said that was the cut-off age and agreed.
Each soldier was responsible for building his own replica of a Revolutionary War musket, kind of like how each Jedi Padawan has to build his or her own light saber in Star Wars, it's one of the trials. The replicas would fire homemade black powder blanks in the battle. To encourage maintenance of the weapons, the rule was that during a battle you didn't die until your musket misfired. This sometimes caused the amusing effect that a round from a replica cannon (and boy did those things make a satisfying sound, sometimes accompanied by a perfect smoke ring) would fail to cause any casualties, while a single round from a musket five minutes later might knock out a dozen men. I suppose that Freud might have had something amusing to say about men in their mid thirties firing blanks from their guns at each other and 'dying' when there was a malfunction, but at age thirteen my sense of irony was still developing.
The battle started, and despite it being a re-enactment, it was very realistic in terms of nobody having a clue what was going on once the first shot was fired. I soon discovered that the 'important messages' I needed to deliver always consisted of the single word 'Retreat!'
Exhausted and out of breath, I found myself near the edge of the battlefield where my younger brothers and their too-young-to-be-a-runner friends were. The captain was yelling retreat just as I was running up to give him the order to retreat. Being without a musket, it was left to the discretion of the runner when they should 'die.' Seeing my oh-so-jealous audience off to the side, this was the perfect place for me. It's unfortunate that they don't give Oscars for overly dramatic Revolutionary War re-enactment battle deaths; I'd have been a shoo-in.