Step Back in TimeBy Caroline Ryder
Photos By Dan Monick
Illustration By ThingMaking
There are some things adults never outgrow – dressing up, for example. Whether you’re a Halloween party goer in a mask or a closeted transvestite “borrowing” your wife’s panties, costumes provide a safe (and hallucinogen-free) way to explore different realities. This manner of escapism exists in its fullest glory in the realm of historical reenactment. Populated by Vikings, Roman centurions, pirates, and civil war surgeons, each reenactment is like a little terrestrial wormhole, where participants can not only be another person, they can be another time.
The concept of reenactment has actually been around for a long time. In the Middle Ages, people would hold battle tournaments and pretend to be Roman gladiators. But only in recent years has reenactment become an obsess ion, with thousands of so-called “living history” groups across the world.
Why the current boom? Is it because we have more time and money to spend on looking like pirates and gladiators? Or is there a deeper reason behind this modern-day nostalgia? It seems that in the nascency of the 21st century, living in any era is fine—as long as it’s not this one. Contemporary fashion, music, and art all seem to be looking backward for inspiration. Young people are dressing up like Lynyrd Skynrd and singing like Spandau Ballet. Do we retreat into the past because we don’t know who we are anymore?
I ponder these questions while wandering around the annual Old Fort MacArthur reenactment show in Long Beach, California. It’s one of the largest events of its kind, a place where nostalgia and historical role-play are taken to their extremes. Participants often spend months, even years, preparing for their weekend trip back in time. My guide is an Irish fashion designer named Owen Thornton who just happens to be obsessed with playing soldiers. “When I was a kid, I had GI Joe sand Action Man,” he says. “And now I get to look like that too.” He’s taken part in more than 100 reenactments in the last eight years, and his specialty is Vietnam,something that stems back to when he saw The Clash wearing tiger-striped pants. Then he saw Apocalypse Now, and decided that vintage army gear was definitely where it was at.
When I arrive, Owen has already been at Fort MacArthur for a day and a night,setting up a full ‘Nam-style encampment.
He’s dress ed up as an SAS trooper who served in Dofar in the Middle East in 1973. “It’s a very obscure little war that only lasted for a year,” he says. “There isn’t a lot of interest in it. I’m just doing it because it’s kooky.” He is carrying a British self-loading rifle—a deactivated one. But guns are the least of our worries, apparently. “ Watch out for the pirate women.” warns Owen. “ They’re gun-toting, hard wenches. And make sure you call them wenches, otherwise they get mad.”
As we walk through, I see 15th-century German mercenaries carving weapons and antebellum babes strolling by, parasols twirling. In the distance is the sound of cannon fire. I notice a couple of oiled-up gladiators in kilts and silver helmets engaging in some serious swordplay. Nearby, an armored Roman is watching them. “Are you a centurion?” I ask. “No,” he says, “I’m an optio.” An optio is a low-ranking officer, and he’s been one for 17 years. If he hangs around long enough, he might be promoted to centurion one day. “At least I ’m not a slave,” he sighs.
Owen takes us past a trench, where some World War II soldiers are hanging out and puffing on Gauloises. Moments later we’re in a Wild West mining town, complete with undertaker, bank,saloon, and surgeon’s tent, where we find a corpse (fake), a brain in formaldehyde, and a jar of leeches. We try to check out the bank but it’s shut. “I think someone tried to rob it earlier,”says Owen. The saloon, however, is open for business . The swing doors bear a sign that reads: “Cowboys leave your guns at the bar.” Inside, another sign tells us: “This is a men’s bar. Females are tolerated only if they refrain from excessive talk.” I guess some things never change.
As we walk around the different encampments, taking leaps back and forward in time as we go, I wonder what kind of dynamic exists between the various groups of reenactors. I mean, do the barbarians want to beat up the Romans? Do the Elizabethan dudes and the medieval princes compete to see who has the coolest puffball shorts? The answer is yes, according to Steve Nelson, who organizes the event. “When we first allowed medieval reenactors in,some of the later-era folks came to us and said, ‘Don’t you know that medievalists are the lowest form of scum?’ Then we had the medievalists asking, ‘Why do you have to keep those modernists around?’ There’s definitely competition going on.”
But the thing that annoys Steve the most is when outsiders laugh at them. “People don’t feel that we’re artists. They think we’re nuts,” he says. “ But that short-sells us.” He waves across the site. “These people research textiles, plastics, metal, paper. They use restoration skills which require craftsmanship. It takes intellect to research all the detail. Plus, it’s theater. How can you not call this art?”
We move on, and spot more Romans preparing to march in formation. I pull one of them aside. He says his name is Decimus Maxius Carigorious, and he is a probationary legionnaire in the Miles Legio Nano Hispania,stationed in Scotland during the building of Hadrian’s Wall in around 90 AD. He is wearing a pair of caligae sandals hobnailed for traction, over his udonis(socks), which were in high demand in freezing cold Britannia. His helmet was hammered from sheets of iron and bronze. He speaks a little Latin, and is trying to get better. Before joining this group a year ago, he was a medieval reenactor for around 1 5 years. “ Being able to talk to people and look good is the thrill,” he says, looking out from prescription glasses beneath his helmet. “Sometimes I go to the grocery store in my getup, and people stare.” His modern day name is William Stephanson, but he likes to keep things authentic, often spelling his name Uilliam, using the Roman version of the letter “w.”
People like William—sorry, Uilliam—are clearly passionate about their hobby. But some take it even further. “A lot of these guys think they are reincarnated,” Owen remarks. “They say, ‘I feel like I was there.’” Shortly after hearing this, I feel strangely drawn towards an encampment of Polish nobles. I see a statuesque man wearing an enormous pair of feathered wings and carrying a saber. He looks like the angel Gabriel, but his name is Rik Fox, and he once played bass in the hair-metal band W.A.S.P. Now he is a Polish winged hussar by the name of Rotmistrz Pan Ryszard Sulima Suligowski, captain of a hussar unit serving under King Jan III Sobieski. Hussars were 17th-century Polish warriors and, for a while, it was the in thing for them to wear angel wings as they rode into battle.
His is one of the smaller groups at the event, apparently because representing the 17th century is deeply uncool in reenactment circles. “ When I first started walking about in this armor at renaissance festivals, people would make fun of me and say rude things,”says Rik, who wears a luxurious fur hat. “ They would see the wings and ask, ‘Why would a hussar be in Elizabeth’s England?’ Basically, there’s jealousy and condescension towards what we are doing.”
Fox started attending renaissance festivals in the mid ‘90safter giving up metal. “ I came out of music and I realized I was still looking for another platform where I could act and portray something and be on stage,” he says. Then tears start rolling down his cheeks. “When I first saw real hussar armor, the hairs stood up on my whole body,” he says. “I said, ‘I’m home.’ That feeling has stayed with me ever since. I feel like I have found what my goal in life is supposed to be.”
Ashe wipes his cheeks, I realize Rik Fox, Polish winged hussar, has truly mastered time travel. Forget Einstein and wormholes; all Rik needs to bend time and space is a pair of feathered wings and the power of his own imagination. As I walk away, I almost envy him.