(HOST) An historical re-enactment recently demonstrated to commentator Caleb Daniloff just how present the past can be.
(DANILOFF) On the fourth anniversary of September 11th, I found myself in 1863, heart jumping under the boom of canon-fire, nose filled with smoke from musket shot. I’d spent the day at a military encampment in Orwell, part of the annual Civil War weekend held on the sprawling fields across from the Brookside Inn.
Except for a couple Porto-Potties and the occasional pick-up cruising Route 22A, modern-day elements were absent. The re-enactors had gone to great lengths for authenticity: wool uniforms, replica weaponry, canvas tents, meals cooked over open fire. They told life stories, sang, and drilled for battle. Any thoughts of highjackers and skyscrapers were kept below the surface.
The only other present-day intrusion were a couple donation jars for Katrina disaster relief, a storm so mighty it had flooded even the cracks of time. One jar sat at a Confederates’ meal table. These rebels were Native American, played by an Abenaki named Debbie and her Cherokee husband. Decked out in Confederate grey, bone chokers and hair feathers, they represented the thousands of Indians who fought against the treaty-breaking federal government. Debbie said Hurricane Katrina had devastated Gulf-area reservations and planned to truck down donations in a few weeks.
A short while later, as I sat on a hillside watching a smoke-filled skirmish unfold, I thought about the numerous Civil War battles that saw thousands of Americans die in a single afternoon. I thought about the Union heroes who went on to decimate Native American tribes. Meanwhile, the names of thousands of September 11th victims were filling the air in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. In New Orleans, the list was still being compiled. National trauma renewing itself like some grim tide.
The uniformed men and women on the battlefield were drawn to re-enacting for various reasons: some were Civil War buffs, for others it was camping with a theme, for still others a way to connect with ancestors who took direct part in redefining the country.
No doubt, America was again redefined four years ago. And now with hundreds dead and almost a million spat out across the country, Katrina promises similar impact. Not since the evacuation of Richmond and Atlanta during the Civil War has a city as big as New Orleans been emptied. Not since the Dust Bowl have so many Americans been on the move. Katrina is still too raw and toxic for memory. But its reach is sweeping. We’re feeling it before we can name it.
Which brings us to the role of history, too often viewed as a collection of free-floating moments found in thick, unwieldy books. But, as the Civil War re-enactors demonstrated, history is dynamic. It lives and breathes, and pulls at our pantlegs. We must simply open our eyes to it.
In the four years since September 11th, we rallied and rose up, closed ranks and tightened fists. The depths of American trauma had been set, seemingly in stone. Then along comes Katrina with its own horrific spin to show us that you can always lose a little more. A reminder that nothing is static, least of all history.
As the last bits of smoke cleared from the battlefield and the dead soldiers brushed themselves off, the words of William Faulkner rose up in my ears: “The past isn’t dead; in fact, it’s not even past.”
This is Caleb Daniloff of Middlebury.
Caleb Daniloff is a freelance writer and recipient of the 2005 Ralph Nading Hill Jr. Literary Prize.