Memories of a Hobby*

nytimes.com and google images

*Fair warning, this post got a bit away from me. Slow work day and strong sense of nostalgia this morning. I got the bit in my teeth and just started writing. Thanks in advance for coming along for the ride.

We’ve all got hobbies. At least we should. As time passes though, some of our hobbies might change or go away completely. Maybe we’ve outgrown them, maybe we’re devoting more time to our families and jobs, or maybe…hell, there could be any number of reasons for it.

When I was growing up, my father- a history teacher, took a keen interest in the study of the American Civil War. So keen in fact, that we began to travel in the summertime down to Virginia to visit some of the historical sites. We spent a lot of time in Gettysburg Pennsylvania learning about the battle there. At first, as a kid, the stuff was pretty dry. We began to spent so much time there though, that it all began to grow on me.

One summer we followed a crowd of other tourists across a part of the battlefield as they walked behind a strangely dressed man. As we got closer, we learned that this man was what was called a “Living Historian.” Living historians take it upon themselves to do an enormous amount of research on an individual from the past, then do what they can to accurately portray that individual in the form of a presentation to the public.

This particular man I will never forget. He portrayed a Civil War doctor, Jacob Bender. I’ll never do his presentation justice by trying to describe it, but the man was good. Really good. To a small kid like me, he painted a picture for me of how things might have actually been in battlefield hospital. It was astounding. My father too, took a great interest in the man’s presentation, and began to research and put together his own living history persona.

As time went on, my father linked up with other living historians who formed an organization that did events all over the country. We, as kids went along.

Gradually, the interest grew to the point where we switched from buying toy soldiers and hats in souvenir shops, to uniform pieces and reading material. We were hooked.

Years before I met my wife, we were actually at a reenactment in her home town. Reenactments are a bit different than living historians, these guys actually put on battles and scenarios with blank-loaded rifles and cannons, it was amazing to see them. Anyway, at this particular reenactment, I decided I was going to buy my first rifle, to go along with the uniform I had been wearing. So I paid out my hard earned dollars and bought a shiny new 1853 Enfield rifle. Serial number E8328. From that day on, as we traveled to different events, we started meeting other reenactors who took us into their units to ‘fight’ with them. Reenacting often gets poked fun of for a lot of reasons, but it attracts people form all walks and positions in life. We met hundreds of people from the salty old Vietnam combat Marine, to the heart surgeon who 48 hours before having a beer with us around a campfire had his hands in the chest of a patient.
Blue and white collar workers by the score came together in the best of times and the worst of weather to educate the public on the history of the Civil War by day, and trade greatly inflated stories and flat-out lies around the campfire at night.

For fifteen years my family was deeply entrenched in Civil War Reenacting. We portrayed both sides, we camped in mud and rain, we made some of the best friends in the world, and we had some of the best times that I can ever remember sitting around a campfire in a Virginia hay field. We did small events where there were only a dozen or so of us out there having a skirmish. We did national events with thousands of others like us maneuvering across vast expanses of field and wood.
We fought the constant battle to stay authentic and avoid anachronistic portrayals or equipment.

Over one weekend in college, my sister, a college friend of mine and I left for a national reenactment. We left upstate NY, and drove to northern Virginia for the weekend. On Sunday night, we left the place at 5PM, drove north until we hit the NYS thruway, headed west for a few hours to drop my sister off at her college, back east PASSING our own college by an hour to drop off our equipment and rifles, then BACK the hour to school, parking his truck at 8am on Monday morning. Fifteen hours of solid driving, and it was totally worth it.

Then the bottom fell out.

Gas prices spiked, so 5, 6, 7, or 8  hour drives to events were not as practical.
The lower turnout numbers at events drove registration prices higher so the event coordinators could still make their money.
The Centennial anniversaries of the Civil War were getting closer, so the cost of equipment and gear was also going through the roof.
And, I was getting older. Married. Starting a family, holding down a job….the time just wasn’t there any more.
Not only that, but a lot of the people we reenacted with for the past fifteen years were….old. Many of them were retiring from the hobby or straight up dying off. Towards the end, there wasn’t a single ‘off season’ (winter) where we didn’t hear about the death of a friend.

The straw that broke the camel’s back though, was the flood. In August 2011, Tropical Storm Irene slammed the east coast and destroyed entire communities in my area. One of the homes that was completely lost was that of my parents.

We spent almost a week in knee-waist deep water looking for what we could find of their belongings over a stretch of about two miles of river. Among the wreckage, we picked up dozens of bits of kit from our reenacting and living history days. Then, three days in, a man on a bulldozer came up to me and handed me a twisted bit of metal and wood. It was that Enfield rifle I’d bought so long ago. It had been stored in the house since it wasn’t really practical to keep in our small apartment for any reason. The very first firearm I had owned, had put thousands of rounds though, cleaned religiously, and marched God-only-knows how many miles with was a hopeless wreck.

Not long after that I’d decided that I was pretty much finished with the hobby. I’ve scratched together a kit from pieces we salvaged, but I’ve only worn it once since we lost everything else. I couldn’t afford to get back into it, financially or time-wise. It was time to move on.

Part of me didn’t though.

There isn’t a hot summer day where I don’t remember the weight of a wool uniform. I can’t sit around a campfire without thinking back to some of those old friends, the ones who have move on, passed away, or I just don’t see anymore. Occasionally I’ll take my coffee black, just to get a taste of the days from long ago when the coffee was brewed so over an open fire in a tin pot. My old, canvas dog tent sits in a cabinet in our basement almost begging me to take it out. My parents bought it for me when I was just starting the hobby. It had been with me for nearly the duration of my time in the hobby. It is filthy, torn, patched, faded, and probably moldy in spots. But even though I can’t ever see using it again,  I won’t even consider throwing it away or selling it.

I miss those days. I miss the people mostly. I guess a small part of me clings to the pieces I have left in the hopes that someday I can bring my sons to an event like my dad did for me. I don’t know if it will ever happen. Part of me knows that I need to just say ‘adios’ to the things I keep around, hold the memories of the great times close, and find something else, something more practical to share with my family.

In the long run, it boils down to the need to create new memories and great times, while keeping the old ones sacred. I’ve got to find for my new family what reenacting was for my old one.

What about my readers?

– Have you got any favorite hobbies you were forced to give up for one reason or another?

– What are your new ones now? Do they include your families or are they solo activities you do to ‘get away?’

– Have you got any hobbies you’ve been involved with forever and can’t imagine quitting for any reason?

– Did you actually make it to the end of my post without yawning?

 

 

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