Jim Rivington ran a cheesecloth along the curved blade of his dragoon sabre and lay it unsheathed on his bed with the rest of his re-enactor uniform and equipment: His forest green coat with gold braided collar, pewter buttons and red tuck tails, black leather waist belt with ‘US’ stamped in relief on the cartridge box, shako hat and weathered corn cob plume, vintage burgundy sash and braided shoulder epaulets he recently bought online for $59 Canadian. A north martial musket pistol with walnut stock lay polished and ready--though controversial as some would claim that this particular weapon issue wouldn’t have made it to the border regiments before 1813. Jim had already decided on the off-white roundabout that he’d slept in that night to lend some authenticity to the garrison’s surprise at the British attack across the St. Lawrence river in February, 1813. He opted this year to wear the grey wool pantaloons for expediency rather than the time-consuming knee length breeches and black wool button-down gaiters. He was ready for another year of skirmish in retreat through the streets of Ogdensburg, New York, as British regulars, militia and flank reinforcements marched into town with the boom of light cannon and the crackle and haze of musket fire for the 35th year in a row.
Jim, as the ranking member of Forsyth’s Rifles, would be playing American Major Benjamin Forsyth, leading a moderate defense against the much larger British invasion force engaging from across the frozen river.
“Why you guys re-do a battle that you lose every year?” his nephew Augie—a chunky teenager with a shocking lack of historical interest—asked. “Because history is the way it happened, not the way you wanted it to happen,” Jim said, watching the kid scroll a phone and pack bread sticks in his mouth simultaneously. To Jim, a re-enactment held the same excitement as catching a fish or trapping an animal in a cage. You could acquire a closer look at these mysteries without getting shot, bitten or even going underwater.
But Jim felt heavier this year. Looking down at the squared-off display of what he would wear and carry, laid out on a rough umber camp blanket, he had that gnawing ache of going into re-enactor battle with something essential missing: An order ungiven, a strategy unmade, an unforeseen foresight. Then he remembered he forgot his powder horn at the engravers in Watertown. Jim wasn’t remembering as well as he used to and getting some pressure to retire from the DWP office down on Park Ave. He put his time in with a city job: sorting old deeds and new titles, unrolling clay pipe diagrams when problems arose. But like anywhere, they wanted to hire younger and cheaper. Lee Ann, the City Manager, wanted to hire that young surveyor who played lacrosse at St. Lawrence University. At least Jim would have more time to focus on Forsyth’s Rifles. Since Mitch Winters moved down to Naples, Florida, Jim had been commander. Some Northern people keep that secret in their heads, a life in Florida. They go there mentally when shoveling snow and spreading salt on the driveway, or taking a shower just to get warm. Then fifty years later they spring it on everyone else and move, like they should have known it all along. Damn Florida Jim thought, it’s taken enough of his friends. Nobody ever fought over Florida. Well, the Seminoles did and maybe Mexico, but they got a shit deal everywhere.
Jim sat in a white oak chair at the foot of his bed. An antique chair from the Psychiatric Center. Patients made them when the State would let them do jobs back in the early 1900s. Jim’s mother left it to him. She’d been a nurse, strapping people down for shock and cold water treatments, the whole thing. He called it his sock chair. He bent over, compressing his thick midsection and tugged on one of his own hand knitted foot socks. He made a note to ask if others in the company had similar difficulty and could share their strategies. Sean would be sympathetic. Gary probably doesn’t wear them, though asking anyway might be a disarming lead-in to suggest he post up at the arsenal in time to surrender the cannon if he wanted to play the village hero, Sergeant York.
Snow had fallen the night before; about four inches. The parking lot of the community center at the ice-locked marina was looped with tire tracks as trucks, SUVs and Ontario plated Subarus found their spots closest to the entrance. Some of the visitors lumbered about the glass doors in black tricots and madder red coatees, smoking and sniffing at the American air, the rest were inside drinking coffee from tin cups and snacking on homemade galettes and hard tack. The Canadian units were always early: The King’s 8thof Foot Infantry, the Royal Newfoundland Fencibles and Glengarry Highlanders with their black leather and plaid vests. Three decades of re-enactments still couldn’t repress their avidity for the opportunity to stage an invasion on American soil, discharge vintage firearms in an urban environment and win, every time.
The snow crushed and squeaked under Jim’s ten-year-old round-toed Hessians that were lifting away from their soles. He’d been challenged annually on that kit-issue, but with the German Flats and craftsmen in nearby Herkimer of the 18thCentury, it was not beyond the pale that a restless and dashing garrison commander like Forsyth would have approved of an investment in his footwear. Jim noticed Clancy Muldoon’s all-wheel drive Audi with Ontario plates that he claimed he paid so little for the seller called the RCMP on him. You can’t put too much acting into re-enacting, Jim believed. Sure, know your character but actions need to be justified. Last year when Clancy gave the order to Pillage the town of value and sundry! Jim thought that was pushing the historical record a bit too far. And his choosing to yell it with dozens of local onlookers nearby just wasn’t… it just wasn’t right.
Jim felt the rush of warm air inside the center, like he’d stepped into the future. The long plastic tables had been set up with fold-out chairs for the visitors, but most re-enactors stood with wives in more peaceful cloth, checking kit and costume. The Fencibles had a woman among their ranks this year, smart and confident with her blue wool. She had short hair, ruddy cheeks and radiated a general romantic disinterest as she tested the firelock and pan of her Brown Bess Musket. She could probably hold her own and was in it for the right reasons. Refreshing to see someone suiting up as a grenadier and not looking like Benjamin Franklin mustered into military service from his research library. The new re-enactors, from the mason jar generation, were passionate about re-enacting. Even Darin from the Rifles claimed to be obsessed with history; all zealous about it like he was in the Taliban or something.
“Jimmy Rivington, good to see you fella,” Clancy barked. He was all outstretched hands and smiling. Jim matched the squeeze of his large knuckles as a brief and intrusive image flashed of Clancy holding a hefty iron broadsword surrounded by his clan of Viking marauders still ravaging the Maritimes.
“Glad to see you made it back, Clancy,” he lied through his teeth. But the truth is if the Canadians didn’t show up to invade, then no re-enactment. Just a normal day in the present with an expensive costume. Clancy fluffed up the braid on Jim’s new epaulet.
“I see you got a new pair going here.”
“They just came in,” said Jim. “Ordered them a couple years ago from Cordwainer-dot-com.”
“Ah, Cordwainer, know a lady who works for them... ” Clancy seemed to have more to say but, as if sensing Jim’s subtle desire for approval, he withheld. “Nice touch Jim. British only gave epaulets to non-coms, but it looks good on you.”
“American officers wore epaulets,” Jim countered, a drop of uncertainty diluting in his center.
“That so.” Clancy went into a broad grin. “See you on the field.” Then, almost as an afterthought, he nodded to a couple college age kids. “We have an auxiliary force.” One of them didn’t bother to look up, intent on screwing a photography camera onto some kind of shoulder rack. A skinny guy dressed like a lumberjack slung a complicated box over his shoulder and pointed a microphone on a stick toward Clancy.
“You don’t mind if we document today’s events?” Clancy asked Jim. “University of Toronto History Department wants to follow us around for some damn reason.”
“Sure, fine with me,” Jim said, caught off guard but trying not to show it. “Whatever brings attention to the river campaigns is worthy of our support.” Jim just came up with ‘river campaigns’ right then and liked how it sounded. But before he had a chance to clarify the parameters of this exception to the longstanding rule NO CAMERAS ON THE FIELD OF BATTLE, Clancy gripped him on his shoulder epaulet as if he were a loyal son and said:
“You’re a good man, Jim Rivington.”
Clancy then turned to his plaid people in various states of casual readiness and gave the order with his outdoor voice: “Alright Highlanders, pack and boots on, hug the wee ones—keep your eyes and powder dry. Today, we too shall be remembered…”
Throaty cheers erupted.
The first cannon shot cracked a boom from up near the library that shuddered the new bay windows of the community center. Several dozen British invaders marched off in formation along empty Riverside Avenue past the tennis courts and snow covered gazebo with their two-man film crew shuffling after like dogs chasing a car. Several blocks further down Jim stood with the American defenders at the intersection with Washington Street, near the old Melton offices—the last petroleum company to leave the city in the 1980s with an uncertain future and acres of contaminated shoreline.
The shaggy group of eleven Forsyth’s Rifles wore red wool tuques and hunter green frocks with frill on the edges designed to break up the human form. They looked like Davy Crocket impersonators. Which made sense, Forsyth was from the South and claimed to have walked his men all the way here. Sherman Ivy, an accountant and writer of historical fantasy, dug through his shoulder bag. Darin Plaiget, the youngest and still in high school, stood ready, relaxed, authentic and early 19thcentury. They were all there. Even Sean Beauchamp, the stout municipal planner from Gouverneur cleaning his round copper glasses.
Re-enactors were usually 30 years older than the actual soldiers. Actual-age modern men and women were probably working and trying to do things worthy of re-enacting. “The Hobby” usually attracted a certain kind of person with the ability to focus on something esoteric with a full suspension of the current time-space continuum. They liked history, not for how it repeats or rhymes or informs the present, just history for history’s sake. Like Trekkies—but for something that really happened and wasn’t on TV. Maybe some were on the spectrum. But some were definitely in it for all the wrong reasons: the present and all its potential glory. A good re-enactor had no ego, no dog in the fight, no horse in the race. And Jim knew the difference. Not re-enactors, but the Actorswith a capital A, the ones who sensed and needed an audience outside of themselves and their outfit. They stuck around but weren’t well liked.
Clancy’s camera operator came loping up the hill and kneeled in front of Jim’s men to catch the distant approach of the Highlanders in their ridiculous kilts with a wheezy bagpipe growing louder as it meandered through some sad and incomprehensible Celtic melody.
“Detachment,” Jim said. “Form a skirmish line. Hold the street.” Next to him stood a kid about nine or so, curious, bundled up in purple nylon. “Are the British coming?”
“Scottish, yes. They’re coming,” Jim said, bristling at having to break the 4thwall twice so early in the battle. At the end of the block he could see the enemy approaching: A formation of red coats and black hats, rawhide shoulder bags and yellow lapel trim, led by the Black Watch Highlanders and Clancy with his hairy knees and dragoon sabre pointing to the sky. They clomped in step over the light slush forming from the melting snow. The battle was about to begin. They say in war no plan survives first contact with the enemy. But here the routes were marked, the points of engagement agreed on. As on the actual day, February 22nd, 1813, it would be over in less than an hour.
“Where’s Gary?” Jim asked, drawing his sabre.
“Not here,” said Sherman, sounding sarcastic.
“I see that,” Jim said, aware of the respect he would have been given for drawing a backsword—more for deserters from his own ranks than for the approaching enemy. “Where the hell is he?” Jim demanded, adrenaline rising.
“I think I saw him,” Darin tried to answer everything. “I saw him headed toward the cannon crew up at the Library.” He added: “He’s got a grey cap on today, with a Carhart tag.”
Gary got a pass with all thing military related. He was in a real war, Vietnam, and he’s half native with a bunch of cousins still up at Akwasasne. Jim felt guilty telling him what to do. His people owned all of this, least Jim could do is let him roam around and re-enact that during the initial phase of the battle.
“Okay. Fine. Thank you.” Jim lifted his chin, then said: “About face men. Ready muskets. Prepare to volley fire as we stand... ”
The fog hung so low over the river one couldn’t see the other side. You had to admire those attackers back in the day. They marched well over a mile on the ice and snowdrifts with no reward but frostbite and a chance to pull a festering piece of metal out of a comrade or whatever they called each other. As for the modern versions, Jim envied their single-payer health plan and the great job they did with the Fortress of Louisburg in Nova Scotia but that was about it.
Jim gave the order to fire and a series of pops dispersed a white cloud of sulfur into the air above them. That smell and crack of battle always brought him back to the past that he got to do over and over again. The Forsyth regulars rotated like Prussians as trained, the first row to the back to draw fresh powder, bite open the cartouche, sprinkle into the pan, pour down the barrel, scour down with the rod and prepare to fire just as the British unleashed their first well-coordinated volley—an explosive sneeze that rattled the old structures and set the house dogs to bark and howl. Though colorful and loud, these days of frontier musket warfare were much like shooting bottle rockets at each other. Not much accuracy, but it was exciting. Even back in 1813 change was afoot. Napoleon was wheeling horse drawn howitzers to the front lines in Europe and wreaking wild tactical havoc, giving the Austro-Hungarian ranks a taste of modernity as exploding shells shredded their well-tailored cloth. 1812 was the last of the Lace Wars as they were called, more a fierce game of intimidation with pyrotechnics and bold fashion choices.
“To the rear. Defilade!” Jim barked, pushing his voice into lower registers. He had a boyish voice. It never quite dropped all the way down, not like the kids who became men in front of everyone. The kids who could buy beer, hunted with their fathers and washed blood from their garage floors with a garden hose. Some boys like Jim had to work at becoming men their whole lives. You fight with the hormones you have, not the ones you want.
Forsyth’s Rifles retreated fifty paces, settled into position and discharged musket salvos by rank once again. Sherman’s bent wood canteen he got in Ticonderoga fell to the ground and was kicked around in the retreat skidding to the curb under a dinged-up Ford Focus filled with used clothes and old electronics. Sean’s period authentic glasses had already lost a lens. It was getting warm and the air was moist and smelled like matches. The Rifles were tiring already, even Darin seemed to be watching his own feet again, a bad habit that Sherman would occasionally correct with ribald perjorative. Jim’s wool pantaloons were chafing his inner thighs and they still had a few blocks to go. A distant rumble of cannon signaled the fight still going on near the Library as the British two-pronged attack attempted to split the American forces. It remained an effective strategy, splitting re-enactors over 200 years later with Gary still nowhere in sight.
A young face appeared at the hooded window of a Victorian. The last of the Queen Anne’s still occupied in town. Balustrades, friezes and garlands long gone under a century of winters and an inch of oil-based enamel. His men in retreat, Jim offered a curt wave to the boy who jerked the curtain shut as if to unsee all. The battle continued apace with accuracy of record as Clancy’s commands closed the distance. “Make READAYYY” and “FIIIEERE,” he shouted with a kernel of mania creeping into his additional vowels. The camera man writhed on a snowbank in some kind of creative ecstasy up ahead adjusting his lens dials as the sound fellow wandered about ostensibly looking for interesting sounds.
Shortly after the complicated dress-left-turn-under-fire at Gerald’s Diner, the opposing outfits blasted remaining powder at each other down the home stretch. Under the tower of a vacant City Hall, past the parking lot of oversized pickup trucks. A crew cab Dodge Ram with 395 horsepower here in 1813 could have altered the course of regional history—a thought not lost on Jim watching his re-enactor men scramble to their final and untenable positions at the entrance of the long-shuttered movie theater. This was the only show in town.
The four-foot brass cannon stood defiant in the intersection, knee high and alone on its red iron carriage with a stack of shells, coil of rope and hickory ramrod left leaning from the hasty retreat. The Highlanders spit fire with their last full volley at a safe distance as the Redcoats emerged from their cloud. Jim and his Rifles waited at the theater as the enemy made steady approach toward final position: The cannon in intersection of State and Ford Streets, once the bustling center of a prosperous city. Just down the street a policeman, Nick Rhodes, stood vigilant in his body armor next to a black and white SUV with lights flashing for some reason.
“Where the hell is Gary?” Jim whispered to Sean, seated on a low and crumbling wall.
“Amvets on tap.” He said, pointing his thumb past the theater.
Jim gathered some command charisma. “You can be Sergeant York... ”
“You can be Sergeant York.” Sean demurred. “I’m exhausted.”
A little ways behind him, Darin shook his head noleaning against a cracked window casing with a bleached-out movie poster for Cool Runnings. The British formed their lead rank twenty paces from the cannon and waited. The sky hung off-white over the quiet assemblage as if everything were happening on the inside of a grimy athletic sock. Nothing moved. No cars, no wheels on gravel and salt. Just police lights and that low caliber camera crew snooping around like cats in a fish cannery. The digital clock at the Community Bank read 1:37 p.m. The same bank with marble floors and hushed voices where Jim would wait with his mother in line for an hour to cash a check. Next door, Cam’s Pizza was doing decent business. Their side door opened and a gaggle of younger people in T-shirts and loose coats shuffled toward the sidewalk with nothing better to do. Jim spotted Augie, fitting right in with those sloven jackals who eschew sidewalks to prowl down the middle of the streets, picking at the remains of the city.
“Do you, Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Forsyth,” Clancy bellowed across the intersection, “of the First Infantry Regiment, duly surrender and concede to forfeiture, rendering your arms in the name of our sovereign, King George the 3rdof England!” Damn, he was laying it on thick this year. All eyes were on Jim. As the ranking officer of the remaining detachment, it was his responsibility to play it out. The history. It’s not the same word when you have to remember it all and do it yourself.
Jim sheathed his sword and stepped into the street with solemn intention. His Hessians crunched salt granules underfoot until he reached a point between the shiny cannon and the battle line of Redcoats. Clancy’s black fur plume looked like one of the Beatles as he made his way through the red ranks. “For your bravery,” he resonated, “and intrepid resilience in the face of insurmountable odds and overwhelming force. I grant thee thy life spared as an example to all brave men, wherever…” Clancy was just riffing JFK at this point. “Wherever they may live, on the beaches, on the landing grounds—” And now Churchill, “—in the fields and in the streets. Do you Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Forsyth hereby surrender to our sovereign?” Clancy was clearly harping on the brevet distinction; though awarded for gallantry, it conferred no additional authority. Camera guy jockeyed at Jim’s feet crouching for an angle looking up at the imposing Highlander. His windbreaker said TIFF Technical Staffwhatever that was.
Jim’s great grandfather, Jack O’Connor, had been a bootlegger and legitimate businessman whose magazine and cigar shop stood here on the corner behind him. The Busy Corner it was called. President Roosevelt once bought an O’Connor cigar on his way back from Ottawa. Bobby Kennedy gave a speech only yards away in 1968. Today, Jim’s nephew picked up something off the ground wrapped in aluminum foil and continued eating it in front of a pizza joint, his foul and deviant companions having moved on.
Jim turned to Clancy and just stood there looking at him. Clancy cleared his throat.
“I am offering you clemency and showing mercy to an erstwhile enemy,” Clancy said, losing patience. He stepped closer to Jim, trying a conspiratorial tack. “You trying to make a meal out of a morsel here today, Jim? Step aside and let the cannon go.” The Redcoats approached slowly, curious. There was Spinnaker, the outspoken editor of The Prescott Daily, Charlie Man, the historian from Kemptville and others whose faces came into view. They began to form a semicircle around Jim, Clancy, the brass (actually, bronze) four pounder.
“Come on Jim. We got Sackets Harbor this year. You know that.” Charlie said.
“Jim, are you okay?” Spinnaker was showing some real empathy, as Canadians are wont to do, even in an ego-infused standoff such at this. But Clancy had had enough:
“Seize the contraband weaponry!” he yelled with finality. “Pillage the town for all value and sundr—”
“--BACK the hell up, Canucks!” said Gary Peters, finally getting to his post, like some drunken deus ex machina. His frock coat unbuttoned, grey hair wild and greasy, he held a half full Labatt’s Blue in one hand and the cannon’s ramrod with the other, iron hook facing Clancy. “Call off your dogs, Clancy. We’re done with yer fancy war here.” Patrolman Nick Rhodes moved decisively across the intersection striding toward them like he was back in Afghanistan or Iraq whichever it was, most likely both. Clancy dropped out of character.
“Is this really happening, gentlemen?” he said. The camera guy whipped his lens around like he was trying to watch it all through an empty paper towel tube.
“Is everything alright here, fellas?” Nick said, taking situational control with a jocular opener. The rest of the Rifles moved up and filled in the other half circle behind him.
“You can’t come here and win every goddam year,” Gary slurred. “It’s history sure—but it’s not fucking natural.”Gary wobbled a bit, now using the ramrod to stabilize himself. “Even the Goddam Viet Cong let us take an LZ back once in a while... and our dead, right?” He took a long swig. Maybe it was re-traumatization after all the fake battles, but Gary would occasionally drop anecdotes or atrocities as if everyone was there with him in the Ia Drang, Hue, Saigon or his drug addled years on a golf course in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. No one objected.
“Jim if you have any legitimate command, you need to do something about this,” said Clancy, sounding now like a generous older brother. Gary assumed a low crawl and began to illustrate his own vivid re-enactment murmuring “Danger close boys, call it in. Charlie’s in the wire.” He reached the cannon and wrapped himself around it, legs and all. “They’re not taking it.” Gary said, grunting as he cradled the brass in his arms. Nick moved toward Gary as if to attempt to pry him off. “Get the fuck away from me, they’re not taking it!” And there everyone stood, watching Gary clench the cannon in the center of a circle of early 19thcentury soldiers, under a blinking red traffic light. Nick tried to pry him loose again. Gary wasn’t budging.
“Thank you, Nick,” Jim said with timorous resolve, “but we aren’t finished here today. This cannon isn’t going anywhere.” Jim turned to the Canadians who were pretending to be British. “For you Canadians pretending to be British, we will not surrender this cannon today. This piece of artillery, though only a symbol,” said Jim with newfound eloquence, “is an Armstrong variant with a cast iron caisson most likely patterned after a demi-bore used on your schooners and frigates intent on impressing Americans into servitude aboard British vessels. That’s what started this war. Not Major Benjamin Forsyth and his Rifle Company nor Lieutenant Colonel George MacDonnell and his Regiment of British imperial aggressors.” The Black Watch Highlanders, perhaps growing aware of their bare legs, appeared restless. Jim gathered steam: “The Americans for their part created another front for the French who’d helped us in our War of Independence, paying one debt and defining our boundaries. You want history? That’s all it is, a history of politics by other means in a forgotten place with forgotten people, with little remaining strategic and commercial value.”
Jim’s nephew scrunched up his tin foil and stuffed his hands into his parka pockets trying to hear his uncle and look cool at the same time.
“At some point enough is enough,” Jim said, disarmed and open. “We’re tired of losing, so go home, you’ll not get what you came for this day.” And with that, Gary slipped off the cannon to the ground and lay gazing up at the sky, smiling. The Canadians, perhaps unable to suppress their good manners any longer, began straggling away one after the other down State Street toward the community center muttering to themselves. They looked suddenly ridiculous passing a row of ATMs. Clancy was one of the last to go, shaking his head. His film crew was shooting him from behind as he walked away.
The gaggle of Canadians was almost all the way down to the community center. A few cars creeped through the intersection gawking and impatient. Gary grunted as Darin and Nick helped him back to his feet. Gary put a hand on Jim’s shoulder, more to steady himself than anything else, looked at Jim with intention and said, “you’re a good man, Jim Rivington.”
Jim nodded, flush with something like victory. He then surveyed the rest of his men still arrayed around the brass cannon. We few, but we happy few, he thought to himself, brimming with pride.
Sean spoke first. “Do you guys have any idea how heavy this thing is?”
“Jim.” Sherman weighed in, concerned. “Now we have to drag it around.”
“For a year,” Sean said.
“It’s got wheels,” said Darin.
As he and the squad sought grip and purchase to pull the cannon out of the intersection, Jim made a point to remember he should get his Hessians resoled before Ticonderoga.
Mark Valley is an actor, writer, and director. His short story “The Battle of Ogdensburg” springs from his experience as a war re-enactor in his hometown. A veteran himself, Mark graduated from West Point and served in Europe and the Gulf War. Mark recently wrote and directed the award-winning web series ZBURG. His short story “Fortune’s Gym” is published in the Angel City Review. In addition to acting and writing for television and film, Mark is currently an MFA candidate for creative writing at Antioch Santa Barbara, CA. More information at markvalley.com