Well, technically, this was my fourth post. But it's the one I like to remember as my first. September 15, 2004.
Couple weeks ago we were up at Lake George and took a tour of Fort William Henry, site of some terrific scenes in James Fenimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans and of a real life massacre during the French and Indian War.
The guides at Fort William Henry wear uniforms from the 18th Century but fortunately the fort is not a "living history" museum. The guides may be dressed like British soldiers in 1757, but they don't pretend to be soldiers from 1757. It's not like that annoying place, Plimouth Plantation, where the folks working there go about as if they just got off the Mayflower and the tourists are a bunch of dimwitted time travellers who deliberately get everything wrong about life at the edge of the Massachusetts wilderness in the 1620s. They speak in horrible academically approved approximations of 17th Century accents---which is to say they all sound like they're trying to imitate Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Carribean but don't get the Keith Richards joke. They won't engage with you unless you play along, and when you ask them a question, any question, they become exasperated with your ignorance about their way of life----"First Thanksgiving? I never heard of any festivity called a Thanksgiving? Perhaps you are referring to the Harvest Festival we celebrated with our Indian neighbors?"---and go all Puritan on you, scolding instead of teaching. Which reminds you that it's today's Liberals who are the true decendents of the Puritans not the right wing Christians. Right wing Christian puritans only want you to feel bad about having sex. Liberal puritans seem to want you to feel bad about everything else.
"Tell me that after all this time you still don't know that second hand smoke is dangerous."
"I can't believe you drive an SUV!"
"You actually enjoy The Gilmore Girls?"
"I don't follow sports, to tell you the truth, I have better things to do with my time."
"I'm sorry, but my children aren't allowed to have any sugar."
"We don't use the word 'Indian.' They refer to themselves as the Wampanoag."
The guides at Fort William Henry will sometimes talk as if they were at the fort back in the days of Hawkeye and Chingachgook, but without adopting any specific persona. For instance, while showing how soldiers had to cast their own bullets, our guide said, off handedly, his eye on his mold and the molten metal he was pouring into it, "All the lead for musket balls had to be shipped over from England. That's because the only two working lead mines in North America at the time were up in Canada, and for some reason the French didn't want to sell us bullets. Go figure. We'd give 'em right back to them."
They only get into character with each other, and then only to actually demonstrate something, like how to load and fire a musket or how to skewer an enemy with a bayonet, or, as you'll see below, what not to do with a cannon. They take the teaching part of their jobs seriously, but their acts are comedy routines, and apparently you can't get hired there unless you've got a talent for telling a good story and excellent comic timing. Like this guy. (Thumbnails ahead. Click on 'em to enlarge.)
"If you saw the movie The Patriot, starring Mel Gibson, you saw Mel go through this process of making his own bullets several times. So, now, besides being roguishly handsome, Mel and I have something else in common."
Besides not embarrassing the tourists, this easy going approach to their jobs makes it possible for them to talk about the Fort as it exists around you and help you understand it as a museum. If you ask one of the snooty phony Pilgrims at Plimouth how they built one of the houses there, he'll launch into a long explanation of 17th century carpentry techniques. If you ask a guide at the fort where a cannon came from, he won't bother you with any pretense that he knows about 18th Century ironmongery first hand. He'll tell you, "We scooped it up at auction from a pirate museum in North Carolina the went bankrupt and it's not really the kind of cannons they would have had here." Plus they can talk about the history of the place beyond the date they're pretending to be living in. Ask one of those Pilgrims when the village moved down to the harbor and he'll feign surprise that you'd even think Plymouth might exist as a real fishing village and tourist trap in the 21st century. "Move? Why we've just finished putting the roof on our meeting house!"
If the guides at the Fort had to stay in character they couldn't talk about the most important event that happened there, because they'd be talking about the day most of them died.
And if they had to stay in character they couldn't tell stories about working there, like this one.
Part of the tour is a demonstration of the cannon. There are a few working field pieces up on the battlements, aimed out at the lake and they like to fire one off for your edification and enjoyment.
It makes a bit of a noise.
The floor of the parapet shakes under your feet and car alarms are set off in the parking lot below.
And that's just one cannon loaded with a couple ounces of gunpowder. Back in the day, they used several pounds! And they had thirteen cannons at the fort. Artillerymen got concussions from the noise. They went deaf. They also died a lot from their own cannons blowing up on them.
One evening, some years ago, one of the guides, a college kid at the time, got curious about what that must have been like. So, after the gates had closed and all the tourists had left for the day, he snuck up onto the parapet and loaded one of the cannons with a whole pound of gunpowder.
The shot flipped the cannon over, blew out six windows at a bar up the street and a whole string of streetlights, and was heard by the woman who was manager of the fort at the time and who was eating dinner in Bolton Landing---10 miles up the Lake!
The guide went on, "First thing she thought was, Please God, don't let that be coming from my fort! So she jumped in her car, raced back down here, fired the moron, and I imagine spent most of the night on the phone talking to the good folks at Aflac."
There's a kicker.
That night our 8 year old told this story to his grandparents. And they'd heard it already. Recently. From the moron himself.
Turns out my parents had just met the guy a few nights before, at a party. His experiment occurred 10 years ago. He's in graduate school now, working towards his Ph.d. in American history, and teaching history at a local college.
He's writing his dissertation on British Military techniques during the American Revolution.