Sunday, May 26, 2013

Memorial Day: Reenactments

Tomorrow is Memorial Day. In the past, I've written about the history of the holiday and listed off several suggested nerdy activities related to honoring those who've sacrificed their lives for others. I have a strong military tradition on both sides of my family, so this holiday is particularly important to me. My father, my grandfather, and several of my uncles have all served in the military, and their service informs who I am and how I think. My brother serves in the Air Force today, and one of my highest priorities as a father is to ensure that my sons grow up honoring and appreciating the military legacy of my family. But since I'm just a civilian and a nerd, I approach this problem from a different angle.

So today, I'm going to spotlight a special event that happens every year in Union, Illinois. The Illinois Railway Museum hosts a reenactment weekend each May called "WWII Living History Days." This event features the museum grounds as a parallel for the strategic rail-yards of Anzio, Italy in 1944. With over 150 re-enactors dressed as Allied soldiers, German soldiers, partisans, and civilians, they set up camp around the open lawns of the museum grounds and occupy the period-authentic trains and trolleys that guests can ride. And all of this culminates in a pitched battle as Allied forces assault German positions over a quarter mile of scrap yard and rails.

Military reenactments are a fairly common staple in the midwest, and I've probably gone to at least a dozen Civil War reenactments throughout my life. But this was the first I'd ever been to that was set in World War Two. For those of you who don't know, reenactments are like interactive performance theater with an emphasis on education and authenticity over individual characterization. So a bit more museum docent than Tony and Tina's Wedding, but still with an eye towards entertaining and engaging youngsters as much as any dinner theater. Of course, I don't know of any dinner theater with firearms and tactical maneuvering, so a good reenactment blows them out of the water right there. Now if someone made a Godfather dinner theater experience, wow. That'd be cool.

"But since I'm just a civilian and a nerd, I approach this problem from a different angle."

This was another event that my wife and I had heard of years ago when she was first pregnant, but we didn't want to try it then because we were stupid first time parents scared of every time our unborn son got the hiccups. At least my wife was, and I was just too cowed by the whole Alien-like process to make any imperative suggestions. This year, my wife was hugely 8-months' pregnant, but neither of us were really all that worried about anything other than the process of waddling her onto the 1940s passenger car. Plus, my son is a fanatic for trains, and so we made this year the first for yet another annual outing.

Stepping past the gates onto the grounds of the Illinois Railway Museum, we found a small camp of several tents belonging to Allied forces, completely decked with bedrolls, cots, personal gear, and a selection of weapons. Re-enactors in uniform squatting on camp stools swapped stories and would explain the significance of their paraphernalia to anyone with questions. Opposite them was a train platform with a 1940s passenger train taking on riders. We got aboard--I'm not sure how my wife hefted herself aboard, as I was carrying my son who was bucking for my vitals in mad locomotive mania--and shortly after we took our seats, some squads of the occupying forces lined up on the platform and boarded as well.

"Now if someone made a Godfather dinner theater experience, wow. That'd be cool."

The train took us out to the far end of the museum's property, stopping on the way for the Germans to pile out and capture an American flight crew. One of the pilots was brought aboard and kept under armed guard just a few seats behind us. A German officer tried to recruit my son to watch over the prisoner, but my boy was conscientiously uncooperative towards that assignment. Mostly, he was too busy chanting "faster, puffpuffpuff, train go faster!" as the wind blew in through open windows through his flaxen hair. On our way back, the train stopped again, this time to pick off some partisans cutting telephone wires. But while the Germans piled out of the train, three jeeps full of American GIs pulled up a nearby road and attacked them. With the train under Allied control, we returned safely to the station where we'd left to amble about the museum freely for a bit.

Toddler snatches canteen in 3...2...1...
You don't amble anywhere freely when you have a toddler. No more than you get to amble freely in a game of tug of war. Even if you're stronger and sure to win, the constant struggle of trying to restrain the rampant, sprint-grab-and-shake interests of a two year-old defines the experience. Sure, we might go where Daddy pushes the stroller or carries the Buck-Buck, but the conflict is what defines the journey, and there is nothing free about it.

"You mean this isn't a gigantic cast-iron jungle gym?!?"
My guy, for instance, loved the playground and picnic area near the trolley station. And apparently by his determination, the trains on display inside the museum buildings were indistinguishable from the brightly colored toddler-friendly playground outside. It didn't matter if he was looking at a sixty foot-long thousand-ton locomotive with six foot-tall wheels and covered in more protruding bolts than Pinhead from Hellraiser, my son wanted to climb it, and fought constantly for the privilege. We got to see some awesome sights though, and our little train-enthusiast was cotton-mouthed with panting joy throughout the afternoon.

The highlight for me, though, was the battle of the rail-yard in the mid-afternoon. The crack-crack-pow of eardrum-splitting rounds going off was a lot of fun, and put me at once in the middle of my favorite movies, vague histories, and secondhand family stories. It also freaked the crap out of my son. Even though he was at least thirty yards away from any of the noisemakers, he looked about as worked up and flushed as my childhood Cocker Spaniel in the middle of a thunderstorm. Which was license enough for mom to call a hasty retreat and end to our day, even with the echoing crack of rifle fire pinging off sheet-metal buildings around us as we left.

"You don't amble anywhere freely when you have a toddler."

If you are in the Midwest next May, I strongly suggest you look up the Illinois Railway Museum and see if you have a chance to visit during the re-enactment weekend. And if you're elsewhere in the country, look around for similar events in your region. It's a great visceral way to make learning something insidiously fun and ear-poppingly unforgettable.

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