Man of War: My Adventures in the World of Historical Reenactment

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9780142196809: Man of War: My Adventures in the World of Historical Reenactment

“A rollicking good ride.” —Jay Winik, bestselling author of April 1865

It’s the middle of a heat wave, and Charlie Schroeder is dressed in heavy clothing and struggling to row a replica eighteenth-century bateau down the St. Lawrence River. Why? Months earlier, Schroeder realized he knew almost nothing about history. But he wanted to learn, so the actor—best known for his role as Mr. Pussy on Sex and the City—spent a year reenacting it.

Man of War is Schroeder’s hilarious account of the time he spent chasing Celts in Arkansas, raiding a Viet Cong village in Virginia, and flirting with frostbite en route to “Stalingrad” in Colorado. Along the way, he illuminates just how much the past can teach us about the present.

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About the Author:

CHARLIE SCHROEDER lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Wendy, who suffered through his awful haircuts during the writing of Man of War.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

Sleepless in Stalingrad

Bang. The Russian sniper had been perched up in a tree, about ten feet o? the ground and shrouded by branches. I hadn’t seen him from where I was, 150 feet away, half crouched over in bone-dry reeds. The only indication that he was there, straddling a thick bough, was the burst of ?re I saw shoot out of his ri?e. It ?ashed quickly, like a small angry dragon. Because the spark was so vivid, so direct, more yellow than orange, I knew that his weapon had been aimed at me. A few hours earlier I’d been told by the reenactment organizers that if I saw such a pointed con?agration, it meant I’d been “killed.” Now it was time for me to take what one of my fellow combatants called a “dirt nap.” Which I was more than happy to do, because my back was killing me.

After an hour-long break in which I unwisely lounged under a tree within spraying distance of an incontinent stallion, I was back on my feet marching with my fellow soldiers up a long dusty road. But I’d rather have been dead. Dead meant sitting down by the side of the road and chugging water. Dead meant resting my feet and massaging my calf muscles. Dead meant taking a time-out from being a grunt.

It wasn’t the three-mile hike that crippled me and made my back seize up. It was lugging the twenty pounds of military gear: a ri?e, C rations, canteen, shovel, parts of a tent, sixty blanks, gas mask canister, mess kit and my rolled-up greatcoat. Had I been to the gym in the last three years it might not have a?ected me all that badly, but I hadn’t. If I had to be honest, I probably hadn’t walked more than a couple miles in the last three years. I was an out-of-shape, soft twenty-?rst century American who’d just traveled back in time, and the thin leather Y-straps that held all my gear in place were digging into my shoulders like a three-year-old who’d never trimmed his nails. I wanted to go back to the future. Now.

Vroom.

A large hybrid military vehicle with wheels in front and caterpillar tracks in back, called a half-track, roared by, kicking up a cloud of dirt that coated my dried lips and stung my eyes. It was late afternoon in early October, the sun directly in front of me and autumn low. I looked down to avert my eyes from it. That’s when I saw the small swastika sewed onto my jacket’s right breast pocket. What am I doing? I wondered. How did I end up here, in the barren plains of Colorado, reenacting the 24th Panzer’s drive on Stalingrad? But deep down I knew the answer. I’d come because I wanted to learn about history.

The plan was for our division of Nazis to spend the night in an abandoned one-room schoolhouse, perched atop a rise in the otherwise ?at high-desert terrain. The ninety of us would all take turns sleeping— napping, really—then once we were rejuvenated we’d relieve other squad members who were hunkered down in foxholes and keeping an eye out for the Russians. Once the clock struck 3:00 a.m., the entire 24th Panzer would launch a surprise attack on Stalin’s Red Army. All seventy of them.

But with every labored step it was becoming more apparent that reaching the schoolhouse might be the most grueling part of our mission. Stretching far ahead, the one-lane dirt road rose out of the valley at a steep and steady incline. After our last skirmish with the Russians in a thick cluster of cottonwoods, I was covered in burrs. My legs buckled with every step. My squad leader, Matt, who marched behind me, could tell I was worn out and suggested I hitch a ride the next time a motorcycle passed by. As bad as I felt, it could have been worse. One soldier was throwing up from dehydration and a few other weary men threatened to quit if they didn’t start seeing more combat.

Vroom.

A motorcycle approached, looking very Hogan’s Heroes. I held up my arm like I was hailing a taxi. The driver stopped. Climbing into the sidecar, I wedged my ri?e between my legs and clamped my mouth shut so no dirt would get in. As we rumbled up the road I began to wonder what the point of the Drive on Stalingrad reenactment was. I wasn’t ?ghting for a cause, I wasn’t getting paid, my face and neck were sunburned and my hands were caked with dirt and briar lacerations. I hadn’t slept, brushed my teeth or washed in thirty-six hours. With every rotation of the motorcycle’s tires my sleep-deprived mind inched a little closer to delirium. I’d come looking for a history lesson, to learn about the Battle of Stalingrad, but so far all I’d learned about was suffering.

By the time we ?nally reached the old schoolhouse—shuttered, I’m sure, because most people aren’t crazy enough to live in this desolate part of Colorado—I’d lost any enthusiasm I had for the reenactment. Spotting a rusty merry-go-round, I hobbled over to it, plopped down and buried my face in my hands.

“Hey, propaganda minister, how’s it going?” I looked up to see Cli?, the squad’s youngest Nazi re-enactor, gleefully skipping up the road with his two other Hitler Youth pals. Fresh faced and ruddy with a bandana neatly tied around his neck, Cli? gave o? the impression that he was out for a leisurely pre-dinner stroll, not an intense march into no-man’s-land.

“Uh, well,” I said, trying my hardest to sound upbeat. “I’m out of shape.”

“That was intense for us too!” he said, clearly not picking up on my subtext of misery. “That was rad!”

Directly opposite me, low in the eastern sky, the moon crept over the horizon. Behind me the sun hung on the same angle. It was as if the two balls were on a long, invisible seesaw. At that hour—what I can only guess was 6:00 p.m.—the sun was the heavier of the two, but only by a little, so that it fell toward the earth at an imperceptibly slow pace. As it sank, the moon rose just as slowly. It was almost unbearable to watch this inevitable, unstoppable exchange between the two, their falling and rising, the light and impending dark, the waning warmth and encroaching bitter cold. At base camp the night before, huddled inside a sleeping bag and trying desperately to ?ght o? the twenty-degree temperature—and the dissonance of ninety snoring, farting men—I didn’t sleep a wink. Tonight it’d be just as cold except there’d be one major di?erence: we wouldn’t have sleeping bags.

My mind started racing to what lay ahead: no sleep tonight + a surprise attack on the Russians at 3:00 a.m. + soldiering again all day tomorrow + event lasting until midnight tomorrow + likely no sleep tomorrow night + catching a plane back to L.A. at 6:30 a.m. = no sleep for seventy-two hours and guaranteed madness. Former Nazi POW Jean-Paul Sartre may have said, “Hell is other people,” but he obviously never spent any time with Nazi re-enactors. Otherwise I’m certain that he would have revised his famous line to read, “Hell is Nazi reenacting.”

I shu?ed over to the one-room schoolhouse and stepped inside. Crunch, crunch. My hobnailed boots had ground up something hard. The room, not much larger than a one-bedroom apartment, had been stripped of everything except an old stove located behind where a teacher once stood. Crunch, crunch. I took a couple more steps and again the ground cracked under my feet. “Careful, Charlie,” Matt said. “This place is caked in rat shit.” In the fading light I could barely see the dried excrement, white and globular, like congealed paint splotches. I pressed my boot down again and a dollop shattered like glass. “They say this stu? is toxic so don’t lie down on the ?oor until I’m ?nished sweeping,” Matt said. The room had retained the afternoon heat well. It was at least ?fteen degrees warmer than outside—a major relief given that the mercury was supposed to drop into the twenties again. I couldn’t have cared less whether rat dung was toxic or not; all I wanted to do was get some rest. If it meant spooning with feces then so be it.

Outside, guys dug foxholes and pitched tents while a cook in a white smock ?red up the ?eld kitchen. I could see steam rise from a large kettle where the world’s blandest potato and leek soup simmered. Once we had cleared out all the rat crap I helped a few guys spread out our tent canvas on the creaky wooden ? oor.

After easing myself down on it, I slipped my arms into my overcoat like it was a Snuggie and placed my wool gloves under my head. Then I folded my arms mummy style and shut my eyes. But I couldn’t doze o?. People kept walking in and out, people kept talking.

I missed my wife, Wendy, terribly—I felt sick to my stomach the way I did after we’d met in Hong Kong and fallen in love. A major investment bank had hired us and a few other actors to teach its employees how not to sexually harass each other. In the scene we performed, Wendy was my underling and the object of my a?ection. I like to tell people that when we met I was sexually harassing Wendy onstage and that once the scene ended I tried to sexually harass her o? stage too. We’d been inseparable for three weeks, then I got on a plane and ?ew eight thousand miles back to New York, not sure if I’d ever see her again. Somewhere over Taiwan, I remember feeling nauseous, like someone was kicking me in the gut. At the time I hurt so much I considered unbuckling my seat belt and parachuting back down into her arms. Now as I lay on the schoolroom ?oor, I felt exactly the same way. I’d have given anything to transport myself back to the future, to snuggle with her under our freshly washed duvet, to slip my head between our two feathery pillows, to squeeze her tight and bury my nose in her shoulder. If I could just be home with her now, I swore I’d never complain about all her idiosyncrasies: how she never throws out junk mail, how every horizontal surface in our apartment doubles as her “desk” and how she takes corners at twice the posted speed limit. I even silently promised to stop teasing her about watching all those Charmed reruns.

I didn’t know it at the time, but nearly halfway around the world, in Mian Poshteh, Afghanistan, the 240 Marines of 2/8 Echo Company were taking shelter in an abandoned school as well. Bereft of water, electricity, beds or bedrooms in a “vacant, dirty building,” as New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins would write, “They sleep on the ?oor, a dozen to a room, or they sleep in the dirt outside, shirtless in the heat. They ?ght every day. When the Marines don’t attack the Taliban, the Taliban attack the Marines.”

How do real soldiers do it? I wondered. How do they spend months, years away from their wives and children? How can they survive the real danger, the everlasting pain, the heartache that must linger within them and never go away? I hadn’t given much thought to the men and women of our military—of any military—but I did then, and now I always will.

“We’ve got to vacate.” A voice in the darkness wrenched me back to the present. I wondered for a moment if I’d fallen asleep, if I was being summoned for guard duty. Then some shadowy ?gure shined a ?ashlight in my face. “Let’s go guys,” he said, “now.”

“What’s going on?” I asked, rising slowly.

“There’s a guy outside, claims he’s got the lease on the schoolhouse . . . and he’s pissed.”

A handful of groggy soldiers gathered their belongings—tent tarps, shovels, canteens, ri?es—and headed outside into the frigid, starlit night. A pickup truck was idling in the middle of the road not far from the schoolhouse, its high beams illuminating the dirt strip that stretched from here to eternity. Swarms of Nazis bundled in long overcoats scurried about, moving supplies, ?lling in the craters they’d dug for shelter. Steam from the ?eld kitchen wafted into the air in thick plumes.

I sni?ed around for information but it was hard to gather. Apparently the Drive on Stalingrad (DOS) organizers had gotten approval from a local landowner to hold the event here, but not all the neighbors knew about it. So when an uninformed cattle rancher drove by and saw ninety Nazis setting up camp for the night—not to mention the tank, half-track, motorcycles, horses and that steaming Gulaschkanone—he freaked. Now the event’s organizers were trying to calm him down so things wouldn’t get really out of hand.

I dumped all my supplies next to a ditch that some guys were ? lling in and asked them what was up, if they’d heard any updates, but they hadn’t. One of them, a tall, doe-eyed guy, shrugged his shoulders. “This happens with this hobby,” he said, tossing another shovelful of dirt back into the hole. But his thick-lipped friend, bundled in a head scarf, was livid. “People usually look at us and think, ‘That’s cool,’ but this guy . . .” He gestured at the parked pickup. “Why does he have to ruin everything?”

Over time the truth came out about why the rancher was so irked. Turns out he didn’t have a lease on the schoolhouse, but he was a Vietnam vet with three bullet holes in his chest to prove it, and he did not think Nazi reenactment was “cool” at all. “Why don’t you go educate people about [Nazism] instead?” he asked from the safety of his truck.

The air was tense and I put the odds that he was carrying a gun at roughly 100 percent and the chance that his ammunition was blank— like ours—at approximately zero. For all the sophisticated historical weaponry that everyone brought to this grown-up version of cowboys and Indians, this was the ?rst real danger we’d faced all day. At one point while I was eavesdropping on the tense convo, one of the Nazis went nose to nose with him, really got up in his grill. That didn’t help matters. Soon two other pickup trucks—friends of the rancher— arrived and parked about ?fty feet away at a nearby crossroads. With headlights shining and motors idling it was a passive-aggressive posture that bellowed, “Don’t mess with Colorado.” One fair-haired Hitler Youth who couldn’t have been more than twenty muttered about the vet, “Leave it to some dumb redneck to ruin it for everybody.”

While the stando? continued, the rumor mill churned. The event was going to be canceled; we’d have to move for the night; etc., etc. It didn’t take long for morale among the troops to disintegrate. At one point I overheard a group of guys from Texas bemoaning the “long walks and little battle.” A couple members of their squad had already dropped out, and the rest of them were now considering throwing in the towel. “Too much walking, not enough shooting,” one said. When I heard one of them utter the word “motel,” I pounced on him.

“Please take me with you!”

“What squad are you in?” he asked.

“Um,” I said. I couldn’t remember its name. In a panic I blurted out, “California!”

“That’s not a squad name,” a shadowy ?gure with closely shorn hair replied.

“Please,” I begged. “I can’t feel my toes anymore.” Another hour or two outside and I feared I’d be the (very) last German casualty on the Eastern Front.

One of their guys who’d quit had hitched a ride back to base camp. Now he was returning in his truck to pick up the rest of the deserters. “Oh, all right,” one of them said, taking pity on me. “Meet us at the crossroads in ?fteen minutes.”

“Okay, great, yes, than you so muh! Than you so muh!” My cheeks were so cold I could barely form the words.

“Oh boy, here come the cops,” a guy in a Se...

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