As an actor who loved experimental theater, and a transplant to Los Angeles - where life centers on the here-and-now or the next big deal - Charlie Schroeder might seem the least likely guide through the rigid, arcane world of historical re-enactment. Turns out he's perfect for the job.
Schroeder, a public radio producer and actor, awoke to this fringe movement revolving around history and battles while visiting an event billed as "the largest multicultural living history event west of the Mississippi." There, he watched a Roman legion, a Viking horde, Civil War soldiers in blue and gray and Redcoats and Colonials squaring off over independence.
So begins Schroeder's firsthand history lesson, a funny and often touching peek into re-enactment, where historic accuracy is esteemed, if rare.
Take his first re-enactment, on the empty plains of Colorado subbing for the empty plains to the west of Stalingrad, where the 24th Panzer Division was bearing down on Stalin's Red Army. Before Schroeder arrived, he'd received a list of do's and don'ts - no "shooting" POWs, no Nazi salutes. If you're "killed," lie there until the battle passes you by. Even the food was wrapped in tinfoil or waxed paper, to appear "authentic."
It was cold and exhausting, too, marching in heavy uniforms, carrying bags with straps "digging into my shoulders like a 3-year-old who never cut his nails," Schroeder writes. So when he sees a flame burst from the end of a Russian sniper's rifle, he falls over, convincingly dead. But the skirmish ended and he was alive again on a long march to an early-morning assault on the Red Army.
That one never happened. An angry landowner arrived with the sheriff - someone hadn't been notified - and Schroeder went back to a motel.
Next stop, the American Civil War, where a modest skirmish in Florida had grown into a full-fledged battle in Brooksville, and Schroeder marched with both the Union and Confederacy.
Later, he became a soldier of Rome fighting the Celts from a wooden fort measuring 175 by 150 feet in north-central Arkansas. He joined a former heavy-metal bassist as a Polish Winged Hussar from the 17th century. He fought with the Continental Army's Virginia Regiment and captured the British-held Fort Sackville in what is now Vincennes, Ind. And he fired a cannon in the siege of Old Fort Niagara in the French and Indian War.
Along the way, Schroeder developed a fascination for history. He began to understand that re-enactment was more than just dress-up. He found a certain honor, even nobility, in the people dedicated to keeping history alive, even if in altered form.
Schroeder has a sharp eye for detail and sharp sense of humor. The smiles and outright laughs come frequently.
He is quick with the cultural references - the chicken farmer "who bore an uncanny resemblance to John Goodman in Waiting for Godot" perhaps the most memorable. But he never makes fun of the people he meets.
In the end, while Man of War will make you grin at Schroeder's predicaments, it might also help you appreciate everyday folks who are dedicated to something they love. Maybe some of that history stuff will rub off, too.
'Man of War: My Adventures in the World of Historical Re-enactment'
by Charlie Schroeder
Hudson Street Press