In this semi-regular feature, writer Dakota Sexton will document her travels through America’s towns and cities, and the people she meets along the way.
Before heading on a road-trip to Gettysburg, my car has a faulty gas gauge, a non-functional 12-volt adapter, a damaged but functional back hatch, and is missing a radio. The “check engine” light remains on at all times.
I have never actually parallel parked—let’s just say that, like me, this car has junk in the trunk. I like to think it has the sensible, somewhat-boxy curves of Diane Keaton’s best pantsuits. I am terrified of ever backing up.
It silently takes on Pennsylvania interstates without an issue. At one point a bird loudly poops onto my windshield. I am also briefly afraid when I catch a glimpse of congestion in the midst of Harrisburg, about 40 miles from the battlefield.
A nondescript, dated travel guide I find suggests setting the mood in Gettysburg by getting a taste of the Civil War. Literally. Try baking hardtack for your kids, it notes, with only a few biscuits, lard, and flour.
Bonus: want extra realism? Add a healthy dose of protein-packed mealworms to your batter before it hits the pan. My travel guide leaves that ingredient out. (Probably in the interest of equal parts tactfulness and decency.)
I spend my first night in town in a rocking chair on the front porch of the Rupp House & Museum, waiting on a female civil war re-enactor to show up wearing just over 13 pounds of era-appropriate clothing. She’s going to be an hour late, but I stay put, rocking—watching the ordinary traffic that passes slowly through town.
A 1940s-era standard-issue Jeep on the road sticks out as it skirts by. It’s carrying two men in army-green World War II uniforms, an otherwise bizarre sighting that’s even more ridiculous in the context of Gettysburg’s civil war architecture, many monuments, petticoat- and trouser-clad re-enactors, and themed restaurants.
Another jeep rolls by, then three—four—six—and then, curiously, a camouflage-painted VW Bug. All of them are in town for the same reason. It’s World War II weekend at the Eisenhower National Historic Site: a simple, preserved farmstead (with a one-hole golf course) that sits parallel to Gettysburg National Battlefield.
The weekend honors Eisenhower’s much-praised “Average GI” by featuring talks by veterans and inviting World War II re-enactors to camp out at the farm and portray one aspect of the war in 1944, on the eve of the allied invasion of Normandy. When I arrive at the farm the next morning, this means large and small tents are pitched in clumps in a field near the Eisenhower’s main barn.
A Red Army soldier complains to me about the rations that the Americans have been sending. They want—he says with emotion—Eisenhower to open up a second front in the European theater. He hasn’t. America has instead tried to help out the Soviet Union’s war effort by sending over large stores of Spam and powdered eggs.
“We call this second-front spam,” he explains in a thick Russian accent. “And powdered eggs? Roosevelt eggs.”
A sign in front of a miniature mock minefield reads, “All military problems can be solved by the use of excessive amounts of high explosives.”
After learning my name, a younger re-enactor of the Scottish Black Watch compares me to a plane: the Douglas C-47 Skytrain, aka The Dakota. Memorably, when I mishear him, thinking that he said, “That’s a very nice pain” he simply replies, almost sheepishly, “Geek talk. Sorry. The Dakota was—sexy.”
An American-enlisted sailor later agrees with him. “Yeah” he says, not blinking or breaking eye contact as he looks at me with a smile, “It had curves. Nice lines.”
The next morning I wander aimlessly past the many slow-moving motorcycles, jeeps, and covered trucks that periodically putter through the grounds and head towards the sound of a typewriter in nearly constant use.
The tap-tap-tapping is happening in a makeshift Navy recruitment center filled with military-issue uniforms, rifles, and a selection of ephemera ranging from a working radio to a pulp novel titled Rosy of the WAVES. A younger re-enactor tells me it is basically terrible, but “highly accurate.”
He hands me one of three rifles on display and tells me that this one is unique. It’s a toy, for new recruits. In the midst of a massive weapons shortage, he explains, the Army commissioned a toy factory to make these so that enlisted soldiers could at least have a facsimile of a rifle to train with. And even that was a step up: before they arrived, new recruits made due with broomsticks.
I stand in line for lunch at a food truck run by the Heidlersburg Fire Department, just behind a man who orders an egg sandwich with Spam. A re-enactor cuts in line to ask for cardboard boxes to use as bases for a 40s-era game of baseball.
Eager to see the game, I follow him to a field on the outskirts of the farm, where several other re-enactors are already spread out, throwing baseballs to each other and catching them with faded gloves. “If we’re gonna play a game I’m gonna lose the wool” says one re-enactor across the field in a long-sleeved Army-green wool shirt. It’s a sentiment apparently shared by his teammates; they all strip down, pulling off their shirts as they head off the field. When they come back, the catcher straps on antiquated looking gear and both teams spread out to play.
Someone gets a bloody nose within a minute, while attempting to catch a pop fly. A redheaded teenage boy approaches me before the end of the game to say, “Be sure to write that we kicked kraut ass.” I nod, promising to include it, and he walks off.
I’m already sold on returning here. This is probably because, like anyone else at the farm, I wouldn’t rate the years I’ve spent learning about the minutia of American history as just a personal hobby—I’m a fanatical, dyed-in-the-wool historical re-enactor.
Or at least, I was.
I grew up at a historical site in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where everyone still parties on the bluffs of the Mississippi river like it’s 1827.
Throughout the nineties I repeatedly introduced myself to visitors as Rose. As “Rose,” I am barefoot and wild. I heavily enjoy starting fires. Adults call me “wild” Rose, because aside from a premature bout of acne at around age 10, I feel more than enough self-confidence about who I am: A Swiss immigrant who died over a hundred years ago, pursued wildly by a hot young gun named James Clewett, who spoke both French and English as a cartographer. He followed her home to her family’s barn at night and refused to leave until she said yes, yes, yes, that she would marry him.
What girl doesn’t want a moment like that?
On my way back home alone from Gettysburg, I promptly get lost near Scranton, Pennsylvania, in an unexpected exit lane from I-81 North that takes me directly to I-81 South. The ABS warning light joins the Check Engine light in lighting up my dashboard. Both go off when I eventually park.
Dakota Sexton grew up exploring the wild Minnesota frontier. She now has a soft spot for both slightly inaccurate maps of the world and printing inventions almost no-one knows how to operate. She is a frequent contributor to Yoga International and her writing can also be found in the anthology The Way We Sleep.