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Beginner's Corner

On Wannabes and Gonnabes

Missouri Iowa Nebraska Kansas

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On Wannabes and Gonnabes


Phil Jose

In this article, you're going to do something you've so far managed to avoid. I've decided that I've been lenient with you long enough. In this article, I'm giving you a homework assignment. Before you start moaning and groaning, and blaming your poor dog for eating it, relax. You're going to enjoy it since it involves a field trip. The next time you go to a rendezvous, I want you to take a good, long look at the participants. I want you to be aware of two different groups.

The first are the generics. They are the folks you see time after time who don't change much and aren't too likely to. If they're doing Western Fur Trade, they've got on the same leather or painter's pants and boatman's shirt that they probably started out in ten years ago. Bunch a few together and it'll look like they all bought off the same rack. Likewise with the equipment in their camp, right down to their poorly hidden cooler.

The other group I want you to notice is at the opposite end of the spectrum. These are the people that get the attention of not only the flatlanders, but their fellow participants as well. They're one of a kind. Their clothing, camp, manner, and gun all say, "Well done." The overall effect is that it looks like they've just stepped out of a time warp. Hopefully, you look at them and say, "Man, some day…"

What is it that makes the difference between these two groups? It's two things: The amount of research that's been invested, and the amount of effort that's gone into following up on the research.

I need to mention here that there's no right or wrong answer to the question "How much time should I spend doing this?" It's a matter of how much free time you have, how motivated you are to commit to the necessary research, and whether your pride will allow you to just squeak by, or if it pushes you to carefully craft both persona and camp. While it's a highly personal choice, I hope you choose to go in favor of more research and its application rather than less—events tend to already have enough generics.

Be forewarned that the higher the level of authenticity you want, the more time you're going to have to invest. It's one thing to throw on a boatman's shirt and painter's pants and call yourself a mountain man. To take it beyond that, though, will involve taking time at the events to seek out the more seasoned folks in camp and talking with them. (Their input and outlook will be a tremendous help to you.) It's going to involve hitting up any kind of lecture, talk, or demonstration you might find that pertains to your period or persona. It's going to involve finding relevant historic sites and talking with the staff and reenactors there. It's going to involve making contact via websites to cultivate both resources and newfound friends via e-mail.

Is it a lot to do? Yes, there's no getting away from that. But if you've been bitten by the bug hard enough to make the attempt, you're going to find it's worth it when that nagging question finally has an answer and you walk away with a better understanding of the world that your persona inhabits.

Another point I want to address to any card carrying perfectionists out there (And I know who you are—as president of the club I personally signed your card): I know how frustrating it is to show up at those first few events in just a shirt and funny hat when what you really want is to look just like this picture you once saw of John Colter. For the sake of your sanity, you'd best learn to deal with this dissatisfaction. No one starts out with a museum-quality persona; that takes years. If we waited until we were picture-perfect to start reenacting, we'd have some mighty small events, if any at all. (Waiting to attain a certain level before you start is like waiting until you have a million dollars to open a bank account!) Put on that shirt and cheesy hat, grit your teeth, and head for that next dress-out.

There is a positive channel for that dissatisfaction: It's a wonderful motivator. It keeps you from getting complacent, which keeps you from staying generic for too long. If you're embarrassed to go to that next event still in street shoes, good! Learn to make that pair of mocs you've been wishing for. When I was still dressing out half period proper and half twentieth century, I promised myself to show up a little more authentic each time I dressed out. It worked.

There's something else I want to touch on, and that is the fact that it's not disgrace to plateau for a while. There will be times when home or work have precedent, or the motivation's not there, or money's just too tight. Don't worry about it, we've all been there at one time or another. Remember that you're not on a quota system; nobody's going to ban you from the next event if your shoes still aren't period proper. Just hang in there until your situation changes.

Another decision you'll have to make is how you're going to balance convention and personal judgement. There'll be times when part of you says, "Well so-and-so says I should build a fire/dress/set up my tent exactly like this," and another part says, "Yeah, but would I have done it like that if I'd lived back then?" If you lean too much towards convention, you'll wind up uninteresting and generic. Yet without enough conventional wisdom, you'll be running the risk of your persona not coming off with realism—it'll seem more like your twentieth century self.

This balance will come with time and experience. When you first start out, you'll stick with a lot of conventional wisdom. That's fine—you're still in the generic and learning stages. But as time passes and you talk with more experienced folks and read more, and think long and hard on your persona's life, you'll start developing instincts about how far you can stray from conventional wisdom. For instance:

Suppose you're vacationing, taking in the scenic wonders of Kansas. One of your stops turns out to be Ft. Scott National Historic Site. In the museum, you see an original pair of moccasins, complete with beautiful beadwork. You scrounge a pencil and paper to make a hasty sketch and notes. Later, when it's time to make a pair of mocs for yourself and pull out the sketch, do you:

If you're just starting out, you may opt for "A," so you can say, "Yep, they're an exact copy of a pair in the Museum at Fort Scott," which tells folks that this pilgrim's done some homework.

If you've been reenacting for some time though, I'd bet that option "B" would appeal to you more. By then, you would have learned that conventional wisdom is a good, objective foundation and starting point for things pertaining to your persona. But you've also come to realize that within boundaries you're often allowed some variations. Those boundaries are drawn with some applied common sense.

You would also have learned a few Nuggets of Wisdom:

I had this point hammered home not too long ago. I had a written description from an archeological report of a mid-eighteenth century coat that the French used as a trade item. Along with it was and artist's conception of what it should look like. I took it to Making Time, (my favorite historic clothiers) and commissioned them to make me one. A little later, I got a call from them: "Phil, do you want tails on your coat? They're in the description, but not on the drawing."

So I looked, and she was right. I opted to go with the primary source written description, and got tails on my coat.

The discrepancy got past the author, artist, editor, proofreader, and a certain fat, balding coureur du bois before it was finally caught. It's something to think about the first time that you read something on page two that contradicts what you've just read on page one.

I'll leave you with one final thought. Once you've decided on what level of authenticity you're going to shoot for, (and I hope you aim higher rather than lower,) remember that attaining that authenticity is like a lot of other things in this hobby—you should make a small start and work your way up. You're at the beginning of a long, long, trail. Frankly, no one's really sure where it ends.

Take your time and make sure that you're enjoying the journey.

Copyright 1999, Philip Jose.


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