Read an Excerpt
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 fire I saw shoot out of his rifle. It flashed 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 conflagration, 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 rifle, 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 affected 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-first 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.
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 flat 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.
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 rifle 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 fighting 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 finally 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 Cliff, 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 fight 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 difference: 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 shufled 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 floor until I’m finished sweeping,” Matt said. The room had retained the afternoon heat well. It was at least fifteen 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 fired up the field 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 floor.
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 off. 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 affection. 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 flew 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 floor, 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 floor, a dozen to a room, or they sleep in the dirt outside, shirtless in the heat. They fight 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 figure shined a flashlight 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, rifles—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, filling in the craters they’d dug for shelter. Steam from the field kitchen wafted into the air in thick plumes.
I snifled 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 filling 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 first 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 fifty 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 figure 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 fifteen 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 Sergeant Schultz helmet said. I turned to see a squad car pull up, siren and lights off. The rancher had dialed 911.
The car stopped in front of the schoolhouse, grille to grille with the pickup, headlights beaming bright. A bald man in a beige sheri?’s jacket got out. A gold star was pinned to his chest. He started chewing the fat with one of the Nazis, but I couldn’t hear what they were saying. They chatted for a while as if what had happened was a minor infraction—like riding a bike on the sidewalk or something—and it looked like things were getting resolved. It looked like the reenactment would continue. Then in the distance we all heard a low rumble. It sounded like one of those apocalyptic rattletraps from Mad Max. Loud, really loud and quickly getting really louder. The men immediately recognized what it was. Their looks of horror telegraphed their disbelief. It was the Russians. They were launching a surprise attack. Nobody had told them there was a time-out on the field.
Like lightning, two Russian BA-64s, 4 x 4 light armored vehicles, charged over a small hill, pedal to the metal. Rat-a-tat-tat! Rat-a-tattat! Before anyone had a chance to flag them down, they were opening fire on the slack-jawed krauts. Bursts of flames spit out of narrow slits, like a motorized four-wheeled dragon. Rat-a-tat-tat! Rat-a-tat-tat! The concussion was deafening, the trail of dust so great that it nearly obscured the vehicle behind it, which was firing as well. Rat-a-tat-tat! Rat-a-tat-tat! The driver of the first vehicle never saw the flailing Germans; he just spent all his rounds and tore o? into the darkness of the high desert.
A crowd of panicked Germans ran toward the second vehicle, waving their arms, whistling and yelling, “Stop! Stop! Stop firing! Cut it! Knock it o?!” But vehicle number two kept speeding ahead, spitting three- foot flames, until finally it ground to a halt when it almost ran over a desperate reenactor. The dark sky had lit up with flashing blue and red lights. It was the cop. He’d turned his patrol lights on and his eyes were bugging out of his head.
“That scared the shit out of me,” he said, his hand inside the squad car, reaching for who knows what. “And I don’t carry blanks.”
Once the dust had settled and everyone’s hearts resumed their normal rhythm, the cop turned back to the Nazi he’d been talking to.
“Did they have M4s in World War I?” he asked, referencing the type of gun on the BA-64s.
The Nazi looked at him in disbelief and then somewhat incredulously replied, “World War II.”
I didn’t stick around long enough to see how things ended. The truck with Texas tags arrived at the designated corner and I hopped in its bed with half a dozen reenactment vets who couldn’t take how hard- core the Drive on Stalingrad really was. I braced myself as we sped away, hunching over to avoid the arctic wind that was blowing over the roof. I prayed that none of the remaining Nazis would shoot us shirkers in the back, like we’d been warned. But no “bullets” ever came.
The mood in the truck was grim. A heavyset guy who was sitting with his back up against the cab muttered, “I was looking forward to this for five months . . . made sure everything was authentic . . . for this?” Nobody bothered to respond.
All this came about because of something that had happened three months earlier on a hot July Sunday. On that day, Wendy and I went to Old Fort MacArthur Days (OFMD), a fund-raiser and reenactment timeline event at a former army installation, twenty-five miles south of Los Angeles. For a ten-dollar entry fee, visitors could traverse the fort’s sun-baked hillside and chat with the members of seventy-five different reenactment groups. Lots were there. Romans, Vikings, Civil War soldiers and many more from the past two thousand years of Western civilization were camping out on the grounds in period tents. Dressed in historical clothing, they demonstrated how people used to live and flight; they eschewed showers and refrigerators, slept on the ground and cooked over campéres. All together they formed what OFMD’s organizer Lou Lopez called the “largest multicultural living history event west of the Mississippi.” As Lopez told me, “Any group reenacting any time period can encamp on the grounds of the old fort. So long as they’re authentic.”
I spoke with him just outside the Delaware Light Infantry encampment. Behind us a blacksmith dressed in a long, soot- stained apron was pouring boiling hot lead into a cast and demonstrating how Revolutionary War–era musket balls were made. “If someone wants to portray a caveman and he can speak authentically, I’ll dig him a cave right there,” Lopez said, pointing to a hillside where some medieval knights were admiring a Napoleonic re-enactor’s steed. Lopez, a Hispanic Wallace Shawn minus the lisp, wasn’t just the event’s organizer, he was a participant, dressed as a Rough Rider from the Spanish-American War: suspenders, denim shirt, Teddy Roosevelt hat and all. The only indication that he hadn’t just traveled through time to talk with me was the pair of glasses he wore that darkened whenever he stood in the sun.
That day Wendy and I talked to dozens of re-enactors: barber-surgeons and antebellum ladies, territorial marshals, even pirates. I found it fascinating to learn about history in a three-dimensional, interactive way. To ask questions of people who loved a time period so much they felt compelled to dress like one of its inhabitants.
While I didn’t know much about history, I’d recently started to take an interest in it. In fact, one day not long before OFMD, Wendy asked me what subject I’d major in if I could go back to college. To my surprise, I blurted out, “History,” even though I didn’t own any history books and never watched the History Channel.
To be honest, for nearly all of my thirty-seven years I considered the subject to be boring. I’d always been more interested in “now” and “later” than “back then.” I liked to follow trends and be on the cutting edge, to share the latest YouTube videos and buy the newest music. I liked change and forward progress. In college I studied avant-garde theater and during the eight years I lived in New York City I acted in all sorts of wacky experimental theater pieces. Once I painted my face blue; another time I performed in a show that mostly took place in the dark. I even stood onstage and courted a broomstick while Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes O? You” played in the background.
And yet the older I got, the more fascinating history seemed. I guess because now I have a history myself. After all, with age comes the ability to recognize that, as Mark Twain once said, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” Since graduating from college I’ve lived through two financial crashes, a couple of wars and three presidents. When Wendy and I went to OFMD, America was going through a sort of midlife crisis. The airwaves, cable TV and Internet were grinding out stories of discontent: cries of a “socialist” president, corporate corruption, “Don’t Tread on Me” flags and people donning tricorns and reenacting the Boston Tea Party. Watching all this play out from the sidelines I felt like it wasn’t just in my interest to study history, but my duty as a citizen of the world. To learn about who we are and how we came to be, so I can better understand the place I live.
That said, I’d be lying if I said my interest in history was solely about civic duty or curiosity. It’s also something I’ve needed to surround myself with since moving to L.A. in 2003, something to make me feel grounded, like I’m standing on rock, not sand. I grew up in a 1738 log cabin, whose logs were marked with Roman numerals to determine the order of its construction. My Amish neighbors lived a pre–Industrial Revolution lifestyle. I went to college in Maine at a school that was founded in 1855 and later moved to New York, one of the country’s oldest cities. But, like I said, when I was thirty-one I moved away from all this history to the West Coast so I could pursue an acting career in film and television. Living in the newest of new American cities—a place where 1950 feels ancient—I felt disconnected from my traditional upbringing. I needed to feel rooted in something more substantial than L.A.’s plasticity and geographic sprawl.
Yet despite growing up in an old house, next to anachronistic neighbors, history was the last subject I cared about as a kid. For my high school history teacher, who awarded extra credit to anyone who attended our school’s basketball games, it seemed like it was the last subject he cared about too. He devoted the entire first day of class to teaching us how to park our cars. “Park to escape” was his mantra. He kept saying it until we all promised to back our cars into our parking spots so we could make a hasty exit. “If you get stuck in the parking lot after school it won’t be my fault, class, it will be ass fault.”
And, if my friends are any indication, I’m not unique. We’re the generation raised on MTV and video games, who went to school when the classics were being replaced with computer training. Rather than studying the works of Greek philosophers and learning Latin, we were figuring out how to save documents on floppy disks.
Of course, it’s totally unfair of me to blame my teacher, school system or generation for my flimsy grasp of all things historical. As a kid all I wanted to do was get an A in history class so I could enroll in a good college then land a well-paying job on Wall Street and make a lot of money so I could buy a BMW.
So when I heard about OFMD it seemed like the perfect environment to learn about a subject that I was coming around to. When I got there, however, I realized that another part of the reenacting world appealed to me too: its vibrant, eccentric subculture.
Ever since I’d landed my first professional acting gig at a Renaissance faire when I was twenty-one, I was curious to learn about people who voluntarily spend their weekends dressed in historical clothing. At the faire—no matter how hot or muggy it got—someone always came dressed in armor and chain mail. If I wasn’t getting paid $150 to wear pantaloons and a doublet I wouldn’t have been caught dead on a summer day in that much old clothing. My friends and I snarkily referred to these people as “Ren rats,” and laughed whenever we saw guys dressed in homemade chain mail constructed from beer can tabs. But for every knight bedecked in Budweiser, there were dozens who looked dashing. On any given street in the shire one could see “Elizabethan girls” donning long milkmaid dresses and sword-carrying men sporting finely tailored jackets and hose. Many looked as if they’d just stepped out of a painting. It seemed as though they took re-creating history very seriously. Who were they? I wondered. And why did they dress up? What attracted them to this particular era? What, if anything, did they learn by “inhabiting” a character from the past? These questions stayed with me for sixteen years, and after walking around Fort MacArthur I still didn’t have my answer.
After Wendy and I got back from OFMD, I started to research reenactment groups. To my surprise I learned that there’s no umbrella group, no official organization that unifies all re-enactors. Sniffing around, I came across a few large, sophisticated events that sounded totally fascinating. There was a Viking melee in Maryland, the re-creation of an 1812 sea battle in New York State and even a group of Ukrainian guys who like to reenact Vietnam.
Still, as surprising as it was to discover what was out there, it never occurred to me that people would actually want to bring the most vilifled group in modern history back to life. One lazy Saturday afternoon, however, while lying in bed, laptop propped up on my legs, I thought I’d give it a shot. I started to google “nazi re-enactment,” but only made it as far as “nazi ree” before the search engine yielded three results: “nazi re-enactors,” “nazi re-enactment” and “nazi re-enactment uniforms.” People did want to bring them back to life and they thought nothing of sharing their hobby with the world. I was so shocked, I nearly dropped my computer.
That afternoon I visited nearly a dozen Nazi reenactment sites. Each dedicated to re-creating a specific unit of the Wehrmacht, the armed forces of Nazi Germany: 9th Waffen SS Panzer Division, 11th SS Panzergrenadier Division Nordland and Kampfgruppe Knittel, to name a few. Their sites were designed with gothic lettering and featured photographs of uniformed members flanking tanks, posing with ri? es or caught mid-“combat” carrying one of their “wounded” Bruders o? the “battlefield.” Sometimes I couldn’t tell if the old, grainy black-andwhite photos were real or staged.
On each site’s home page a disclaimer barked—“Achtung!” or “Please Read!” or “Very Important!”—declaring that the groups were “nonpolitical” and that they “do not condone or support any neo-Nazi or race supremacy agenda.” On the 9th Waffen SS Panzer Division site it proclaims that they’re “Fighting to keep history alive!” and that they want to “help educate the public about what America’s enemies looked like and why victory over them was such a monumental achievement.” Underneath the group’s mission statement is a link to its store where one can buy mugs, steins, license plate frames, mousepads, wall clocks, coasters, throw pillows, T-shirts and even thongs with the German cross and other various SS insignia on them.
After sifting through a number of sites I eventually found my way to Driveonstalingrad.com and found this description of its upcoming event:
[The] Drive on Stalingrad is a campaign- style WWII living history event. The event is portraying the first week of September 1942 in southern Russia, west of Stalingrad. The event will cover 12 miles of terrain over three days. There will be thousands of acres of maneuver room for the armored vehicles at the event. Combat involving open steppe, fortifled villages, bunker lines and bridges will make the event a multifaceted living history experience. Everything from processing PW’s to night combat in collective farms make this an event not to be missed!
The attention to detail was astonishing. Rigid uniform and field gear requirements stipulated that no one wear “wide collar greatcoats,” that one’s boots “must have appropriate hobnails” and that “all equipment and uniforms must be either original or high quality reproduction.” If any wannabe participants had any doubts as to what to wear, he was to remember that he was re-creating the “summer of 42.” On one page someone had transcribed the exhaustive rules for how to play a period card game called skat, and on another were listed sixteen different rules of engagement, including:
- There will be no mock executions.
- There will be no shooting of POW’s.
- The Nazi salute is not to be used at any time.
- Remember! Most German soldiers did not speak Russian just as most Russian soldiers did not speak German. Don’t gab! Your [sic] not supposed to understand the other guy!
- Do not clutter up the area where the fighting is taking place . . . there is nothing worse then [sic] 20 guy’s [sic] standing around in the middle of a fire fight shooting the breeze because they are “dead”. Remove yourself if you are wounded and able, Stand up and surrender if directed or lay there dead until the fight passes you.
- Remember! reenact for the guy on the other side of the front line! Give him a good show. He will return the favor I promise!
To further convey the event’s intended grittiness, I followed a link titled “What to Expect,” which led to an archival photo of two soldiers—likely Russian—lying atop a pile of rubble and aiming their rifles at an unseen enemy. (At least I think they were archival photos.) They were so grainy I wasn’t entirely sure when they were taken. After all, it seemed these guys were so determined to be authentic, they may have even staged history to promote the event.
A couple weeks later I e-mailed Randy Beard, the DOS’s German re-enactor coordinator and commander. I mentioned that I was a writer and asked him if I could participate. He was skeptical at first, saying that many people “have an axe to grind and have a problem with, in their perception, grown-ups playing army and wearing swastikas.” I replied, telling him I had “no axe to grind, only curiosity and an open mind.” When he responded shortly thereafter, he told me that the “event is wide open to those who have a sincere interest and a calling for this particular flavor of living history.” He told me I’d be assigned to the “west . . . Erste zug (1st platoon),” and put me in touch with two men, Matt Charapata, the leader of the “Western Gruppe”—re-enactors participating from Western states—and Brian Abela, his assistant.
After I paid a thirty-five-dollar entry fee that helped to pay for a groupwide insurance policy, I was contacted by Matt and Brian. Like the event’s website, they stressed authenticity: no modern glasses frames were allowed; all food had to be wrapped in tinfoil or waxed paper so it looked “period.” As Matt told me, “Nothing kills the atmosphere like a can of Pringles and a bottle of Evian.” I was happy to oblige, but I was worried that keeping it real meant that I couldn’t use my notebook and voice recorder. So I asked Brian for suggestions. “Can you use paper and a clipboard instead of a notebook?” he asked. “And a wooden pencil instead of a pen?” “Yes,” I said. I also agreed to say that I was a Kriegsberichter, a German war correspondent, if someone were to ask me why I was writing. As for my uniform, Matt had extra fatigues—the cost to outfit a German re-enactor can run up to $2,500—and would lend them to me.
During my first phone conversation with Matt, a chatty construction worker from Ventura, California, he seemed intent—almost preoccupied—with convincing me that he was not a real Nazi. “I mean, my grandfather was Jewish and my grandmother was Polish . . . hello-o,” he said. Like Beard, he was also apprehensive about having a writer tag along. Apparently the German magazine Der Spiegel once did a “hatchet job” on the group and they didn’t want any more bad PR. “If you want to join the Aryan Nation, go to Coeur d’Alene,” Matt said, referencing the northern Idaho city where the group has marched. “We have zero tolerance for actual Nazism. Even if you have a tattoo, you’re outta here.” He assured me that his controversial hobby stemmed from his interest in military history. His two stepfathers both served in the military and because “zillions of people” do GI impressions, he decided to go German. In war games someone always has to play the enemy. If I still had any doubts about what to expect, Matt felt compelled to clarify, “We’ll be soldiering, not sieg heiling.”
A week before the event, Brian e-mailed me a three-page PDF of young Nazis photographed from different angles. “[We’re] pretty strict about hair,” he told me. The men in the pictures were unmistakably Third Reich: fresh faced, Aryan and angular, with Hitler- style hair, short on the sides and in the back, but long enough on the top to part.
The night before I flew to Colorado I took the printout to a strip mall salon down the street from my apartment. Sandwiched between a Laundromat and a greasy spoon Italian restaurant, the four- seat establishment advertises seven-dollar haircuts, a selling point that had always kept me away. But when I got Brian’s e-mail, I knew it’d be the perfect place for my new do. After all, I always thought Hitler looked like the victim of a cheap haircut. With any luck one of their sta? could make me look just as awful.
“Really? You vant to look like dees men?” my stylist, Loreta, asked when I showed her the photos. Her black hair was streaked with blond stripes and she spoke with a thick Armenian accent. An episode of the Animal Planet show Bear Attack! blared on a flat-screen mounted to the wall.
“Yeah, uh, yes,” I stammered. I hadn’t quite figured out my backstory and wasn’t sure how to respond. “It’s for a movie. I’m an actor and I just need it for this weekend. It’s a war movie. I play a soldier.” I was talking way too much and way too fast and she could probably tell by the sweat on my brow that I was totally full of it.
“Yes, yes, yes,” she said, trying to shut me up. “When you done, you come back. I blend.”
She flicked on her clippers and three and a half minutes later I looked like a Nazi. I was nearly bald in the back and on the sides, but on top my hair was still long, and parted diagonally just like the Führer’s. So ist das Leben.
The next afternoon, about half an hour after touching down in Colorado Springs, I was sitting in the living room of Dan Armstrong’s suburban split-level. The wind burned forty-seven-year-old federal employee was designated as my point person and had picked me up at the airport. Across a coffee table topped with candles wrapped in cellophane sat another re-enactor, Vinnie Francischetti. A Scott Bakula look-alike, the fifty-eight- year-old promotional products businessman had driven ten and a half hours from Montana, through a blizzard, to participate in the DOS, and had just woken up from a nap he’d taken in Dan’s den, an area he calls his “military room.”
Ever since I learned that people reenact as Nazis, I wanted to know more about why they do it. So with time to kill before driving to the event site, I asked Dan. The former air force weapons loader told me that most re-enactors are military collectors and military buffs infatuated with tactical warfare. Not surprisingly, most are politically conservative, most own guns and, he estimated, about 40 percent are either active or former military, which may explain why they’re attracted to re-creating WWII’s most sophisticated armed forces. “In general, people who do a German impression don’t do other impressions,” Dan said. Not because they identify with Germany per se but “because German impressions are so expensive.” At the end of WWII most German military uniforms and equipment were destroyed, and this put a premium on their resale value today. But Dan, who’d be dressed as a German at DOS, diversifies, and reenacts on the Allied side as well, where he pretends to be a GI in his grandfather’s unit. He’s even done a Japanese impression.
Still, while both Dan and Vinnie told me they loved the hobby, they also admitted that it was “stupid” because it’s so time- consuming and expensive. Vinnie, who moonlights as an ice hockey referee, uses the side money to buy original gear like a Luftwaffe Leica camera. “I’m not sure it works, but I’ll give it a shot,” he said, pulling it from its battered original leather case and showing it to me.
Soon another re-enactor named Tommy arrived at Dan’s front door. A heavyset former deputy sheri? with a wispy mustache that curled around the corners of his mouth, he limped inside, leaning on a cane to steady himself. Tommy wore a black T-shirt printed with a face that blended Barack Obama’s with Heath Ledger’s Joker. Underneath it was the word “Socialism.”
“I brought you that belt, Vinnie,” he said, placing a thick black leather strap on the coffee table and easing himself into a chair. As I’d soon find out, Tommy recently had to forcibly remove an inmate from his cell and wrestle him to the ground. While he was subduing the inmate, two other officers— weighing a combined 450 pounds— arrived to assist, piled on top of him and crushed his two lower vertebrae. Now he struggled to remain upright—and awake from what I assume were painkillers. His eyes drooped and he spoke in slurred whispers.
Tommy had been reenacting since he was sixteen—for the past twenty-four years—but was sitting out the DOS because of his recent injuries. When he found out that I was a newbie he rolled his eyes and referred to the hobby as “living misery.” When I asked him why, he asked me if I’d ever been in the military.
“No,” I said.
“Have you ever been camping?”
I had to think about that one. “Twice, but once was in my backyard and in the middle of the night I got scared and headed inside.”
He shook his head and laughed.
“I was six!”
Trying to appear somewhat manly, I told him about the second— and last—time I camped, in Peru, on an ecotour. “The mosquitoes were as big as my thumb!” I said. “They ate us alive!” But evidently the misery of moth-sized mosquitoes extracting quart bags of blood couldn’t compete with “living misery.” Tommy just leaned his chin on the cane’s handle and sighed.
Even though it was early October, we’d be reenacting the events of the first week of September 1942, when the Wehrmacht was advancing above and across the steppe toward Stalingrad. We’d be playing the 24th Panzer, an armored tank division. There’d be lots of vehicles: a tank that a Texas re-enactor had mostly built from scratch, a half-track, motorcycles with and without sidecars, jeeps, a radio truck, two large supply trucks and even a couple horses. “Reenactment is usually pretty broad,” Dan said. “But not this. This is a little snapshot in time.”
Once the German forces arrived in Stalingrad, the war’s most intense fighting commenced. “For every German soldier killed,” Dan said, “four to five Russians died.” But even that wasn’t enough for Hitler to defeat Stalin. “Seven or eight Russians needed to die for that to happen. Stalin refused to lose so he just kept throwing people into combat—women, children, men up to the age of fifty-five. It was bloody. Bloody.” Ultimately, after a brutal winter campaign, the Germans surrendered in early February and retreated back to Berlin. Th e defeat marked a turning point for the Third Reich. It was, as Dan told me, “the beginning of the end.”
Toward the end of our conversation, while Vinnie and Dan chatted with one another, Tommy divulged that, despite all the websites’ disclaimers, “some guys like to wear the swastika a little too close to their heart, because they lean a little . . . to the right.” Others gravitate to it because, as Tommy told me, “it fills the emptiness in their life. Their real life sucks. They’re mall ninjas that work as security guards during the week, but on the weekend they get to play ‘General Field Marshall.’ ”
Since Tommy was speaking so candidly I asked him if he knew of any Jewish Nazi reenactors. To my surprise, he did. “One in New Jersey and one in Texas,” he mumbled. Apparently the guy from Texas once wore his Nazi uniform to a restaurant, folded a napkin into the shape of a yarmulke, placed it on his head and started singing “Hava Nagila.” As Tommy put it, “That’s when we said, ‘Okay, no more going out to restaurants dressed as Nazis.’ ” I sat there for a moment and tried to think of a follow-up question, but nothing came to me. I was, for the first time in my life, speechless.
After the sun dropped behind Pikes Peak it was time for us to head to the site. Vinnie and I hopped into his well-traveled Dodge Caravan. All the seats had been removed to make room for an old mattress that he caught catnaps on during his long drive from Montana. We followed Dan’s Acura east into the darkness and the Colorado plains.
Most of what I knew about Nazis came from Hollywood and old film reels, images of Hitler sieg heiling, red swastika armbands, intense fist banging, crazed speeches, white supremacy and genocide. But I wanted to know why. What happened to turn so many Germans into monsters? So I broached the subject with Vinnie. “What exactly is a Nazi anyway?”
“Someone who’s a member of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party.” He spoke quickly—perhaps a leftover from his New Jersey upbringing—and with a curious cadence of flat Montana blended in with the grufiness. I was just about to say that I wasn’t looking for an explanation of the abbreviation, when he added, “You know, like Obama. Someone who wants the government to run everything.”
It struck me that I was in the middle of one of those blue state/red state culture clashes I’d seen play out on TV. In one corner was me, the NPR-listening, New York Times–reading, foreign film-watching, progressive urbanite, friend to gays, Jews, people of color and artists; and in the other corner was Vinnie, talk radio–listening, rural conservative, gun-toting, don’t trust the government as far as you can throw ’em guy. All those years spent traveling abroad to experience foreign cultures, I thought, when all I had to do was fly to Colorado.
After I got my footing, I asked Vinnie if, by the government running everything he meant the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP.
“Yeah. We would have been much better o? if we let those companies fail. It would have been hard, but they would have emerged stronger. I guarantee it.”
I gingerly offered up that it was the Bush administration that created TARP, all the while keeping in mind the loaded gun he told me he keeps in the glove compartment.
“Yeah, but Obama passed legislation through and wouldn’t let anybody read it,” he said with a conspiratorial growl. If I was more on the ball at the time I would have suggested that the military, fire and police benefit from taxpayer dollars too, but a heated political debate at the start of a two-day weapontastic mancation probably wasn’t a very good idea.
After driving for over an hour on a dark two-lane road, Dan ground to a halt at a rural intersection. For a moment he paused as if he was double-checking that this nondescript country road was the right one. Then the Acura’s wheels turned to the right and his high beams revealed a dark dirt road. We followed close behind and as we turned, I saw a small, arrow-shaped sign stuck in the ground that read, “DOS.”
The plains stretched from here to the Mississippi River, nearly a thousand miles away, and from what I could see in the bright moonlight, it didn’t look like much got in their way. On the horizon, small, distant lights—probably from farmhouses—twinkled. It was the perfect place to stargaze, the kind of sky where you can see the Milky Way, the kind of sky that always makes me feel infinitesimally small and the differences between Vinnie and me seem utterly ridiculous.
After about five miles of dust and dirt, we saw the flicker of a bonfire on the horizon. Soon we pulled into a makeshift campground where about thirty cars were parked along a barbed wire fence. “Base camp,” Vinnie growled. A handful of tents—some “general purpose” big, some individually small—had been erected along the road. We got out and walked across uneven ranchland toward the fire. It was very cold and I was severely underdressed in my jeans and Windbreaker. Perhaps that’s why, even though we didn’t have to be dressed in our uniforms until 9:00 the next morning, a dozen men were already wearing their ankle- length greatcoats, Feldmutze (field hats) and head scarves, and warming themselves by the conflagration.
A few guys huddled around a steaming field kitchen, where a cook dressed in a white smock poured coffee into their tin cups. I shoved my hands in my pockets to stay warm, but my knees shook uncontrollably. After a bit I struck up a conversation with a Nazi who looked like Matt Damon, circa Saving Private Ryan. Before long I mentioned that I grew up next to an Amish farm. “Okay, see if you can tell the di? erence between these,” he said and then proceeded to deliver two sentences, one in “old” German and one in modern German. They sounded completely different to me—that was the point—and in the dark, with only the campére illuminating his face, Nazi hairdo, swastika and greatcoat—and the guttural vowels spilling forth from his mouth—I felt uneasy, like I’d been transported to, well, just west of Stalingrad in September 1942. It was the first “period rush” I’d experienced—what re-enactors define as a “you were there” moment—and the event hadn’t even begun.
The sounds produced from the noses, mouths and asses of ninety snoring, farting men make for a layered, atonal polyphonic symphony—a ninety-part motet, perhaps?—but as an audience member, wrapped tightly inside a sleeping bag, I found their marathon performance unbearable. I listened to it all night from inside the tent I shared with a dozen other re-enactors—from its minimalist beginnings to its full crescendo and climax at around 4:30 a.m. when the bass, tenor and baritone voices all combined to create a deafening chorus.
“Reveille.” Somebody stuck his head in our tent at daybreak and gave me a completely unnecessary wake-up call. I gathered myself and emerged from the tent bleary-eyed and nearly stepped on a mound of cow dung. I stopped the first guy I saw—dressed head to toe in army green—and asked where I could find a Porta-Potty. He looked at me like I was nuts and said, “Dig a hole.”
Men were huddled in groups just like the night before, drinking coffee and trying to stay warm. The sun was low and blinding and in every direction I looked the land was flat and treeless. I heard a bird chirp but couldn’t see it. I wondered if it was the plover I’d read about that attracted birdwatchers to the area. Near the road was a small hand- painted sign, hidden in the dark when we pulled in, that read, Achtung! Feindeinsicht u. Beschuss [sic]. Enemies in Sight and Shooting.
I signed in at a registration desk near the turn-in and was handed a small manila envelope by a teenage girl dressed in civvies. “Don’t open it until you’re killed,” she said.
“Okay,” I replied.
I met Matt Charapata by a long trailer hitched behind a black Hummer. He was about my age, bald, and had a big nose and was running on fumes. Like me, he hadn’t slept well, and he was flitting about making sure everybody in the Western Gruppe had supplies. He handed me my full German kit: low boots, wool pants with suspenders, a wool tunic, a steel helmet and an A-frame—essentially a backpack without its shell—fitted with hooks and leather Y-straps to secure all my supplies. He also gave me a K98 rifle. It was solid wood and steel and a lot heavier than it looked, like a fat lead pipe.
After changing into my rather uncomfortably large uniform—I felt like a Nazi Beetle Bailey—I got into a conversation with three teenage Nazi re-enactors. Brent, Harrison and Cli? were all students, aged seventeen to nineteen, who helped make up the 12th SS as part of the California Historical Group, a four-hundred-plus- member organization dedicated to, as its website proclaims, “remembering and paying tribute to the combat soldier of WWII.” “Dude, I rock the SS for public events,” a ruddy-cheeked Cli? told me when I first met him. Th ey were loading their A-frames with cans of food that had been wrapped in period- style labels. Reenacting Nazis, they told me, isn’t just something they do at hard-core private tacticals like this one; they also show up in uniform at air shows and timeline events.
Cli? had skipped school for the DOS and was the first seventeen-year-old I’ve met who admitted that he gets “really emotional about history.” When not dressing up as a Nazi, he hosts old movie nights at the historic Grenada Theater in Ontario, California. During our conversation, he got so ramped up about the past that he frequently bobbed up and down in excitement. “I’m just passionate about rad shit that happened,” he told me. “I mean, World War II was epic. The repercussions are still so fresh. Japan can’t have a standing military, Israel was created, the United Nations was founded . . .”
Cli?’s friend Harrison, a lanky red-haired freshman at Arizona State, tucked a gingham scarf underneath the collar of his tunic and told me he started reenacting after playing the video game Medal of Honor, Allied Assault. One day, while battling against an anonymous online opponent, the stranger on the other end of his headset asked him if he reenacted. He hadn’t, but soon he would. Now he maintains two MySpace pages, one for his “modern life” and one for his hobby.
All three young men felt that reenacting was the best way to learn about the past. “History in a book is black and white,” Cli? said. “When you come out here, though . . . it takes you back. This is what really happened and you’re scared as hell. It’s suspenseful. You get lost in it. It’s like a weird vacation where you get to fill in all the blanks. Re-enactors are the only ones who give a damn about history.”
Harrison agreed. “I like to look through the eyes of one soldier,” he said. “To sit in a foxhole and keep talking to another soldier so I don’t freeze my ass off. It’s great to get away from my PlayStation.”
“Just because you were a soldier in the Wehrmacht didn’t mean that you believed everything Hitler stood for,” Brent said. “People were people. Not all of them were politically motivated. The Russians were brutal too, but you never hear about that.” It’s true I had never heard of that, but I would later, when I read Antony Beevor’s book, Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege. In it, he includes numerous anecdotes that paint Stalin for the monster he was. One involved injured Soviet POWs, who, upon being released by the Germans, “were sent straight to the Gulag . . . following Stalin’s order that anyone who had fallen into enemy hands was a traitor. Stalin even disowned his own son, Yakov.”
All three guys described themselves as conservative. Each told me that the more they learned about the past, the less they trusted the government because all governments in World War II were guilty of war crimes and propaganda, not just the Germans. When I referenced the staged Jessica Lynch rescue and Pat Tillman friendly-? re cover-up, Brent nodded his head vigorously and referred to these incidents in Iraq and Afghanistan as “same shit, different toilet.”
On the one hand, I admired these kids. They were half my age and knew far more about history than I did. Before I started working on this book I’m embarrassed to admit that I’d never even heard of Stalingrad. But another part of me wondered if they were aware that, by spending their weekends “rocking the SS,” they were—intentionally or not— romanticizing a group that wanted to exterminate entire groups of people.
When I broached this with them Cli? told me his friends think Nazi reenacting is “badass,” but that adults, specifically those who “grew up in the sixties” still have a problem with it. “My grandmother hates Germans,” he said. But his experience has been different. Once when he was waiting tables, Cli? overheard an elderly man speaking German. Turned out he was a former Nazi. “He was a really nice guy. When you meet people, they don’t resemble the stereotype,” he said. “It helps to separate the soldier from the war.”
It’s hard to believe, but at their age I once considered hanging a swastika flag in my college dorm room—not because I was a socialist or an anti-Semite, but because I too thought it looked “badass” and didn’t know any better. I grew up in a town that was nearly 100 percent white, mostly Protestant, and of the 1,500 or so students in my high school, I think only one was Jewish. During my freshman year of college, while pursuing a girl, I noticed that a black classmate of ours was being sexually aggressive toward her at a party.
“They’re all like that,” I said.
“Oh, my God,” she said. “You’re such a racist!”
“What are you talking about?” I was stunned and offended. I couldn’t understand what I said that was so horrible. “If you think that’s racist, you should come to my hometown and hear what some people say.”
I thought of my own youthful ignorance while talking with other guys at base camp. I wondered if any of them had considered that some people might be offended by their hobby. I wondered if they kept their hobby a secret from some friends. I also noticed that what I considered to be the most significant event of World War II, the Holocaust, was a mere blip on the screen to many of the re-enactors. Whenever I brought it up to people, they acknowledged that it was “not such a good thing,” but to them it was only a small part of a larger, deadlier war. A war in which nearly 70 million people died, including the 6 million who perished in the Holocaust.
“Wake up, [genocide] happens,” Brent said, citing the ethnic “cleansing” that happened in WWII, as well as more recently in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. “Sherman said, ‘War is hell.’ The worse it is, the faster it’s over. Horror produces results. Fear produces results.” With such tough talk I thought I might have three future commanders of our armed forces on hand, but none wanted to serve. As Harrison put it, “My parents said, ‘We’ve spent too much money on you for you to get killed.’”
It was shortly before noon now and warmer. Everyone had rolled up their greatcoats and strapped them to their A-frames. We were summoned around the tank for a prebattle debriefing and “pep talk.” Unlike public events where enemies mingle with one another before fighting—like two football teams shaking hands at midfield— we wouldn’t see any of Stalin’s Red Army until we were officially at war. This was our chance to get psyched about kicking some Commie Arsch.
Our commanding officer, Randy Beard, a slightly chubby Robert Mitchum, stood atop the tank, cigarette in hand, one foot propped up on its turret. He wore a Schirmutze, an officer’s visor cap, and Staub Schutzbrille, dark celluloid dust goggles. It looked like he’d gone swimming in full military regalia, like Michael Phelps in a creepy Halloween costume.
He cleared his throat and shouted, “Can you hear me?” His voice was raspy.
“Jawohl!” the troops replied. Either everybody had done this before, or I’d missed a dress rehearsal.
“Today . . . ,” he said, pausing for dramatic effect, “is history! Surrender to the event! You are Germans in southern Russia. You’re going to get tired, sleep deprived and miserable. When it sucks—and I promise you it will—remember, that’s why you came.”
Beard warned us that danger awaited us—in many forms. The Russians had a “shitload of mortars and grenades,” and there’d be rattlesnakes too. Lots of ’em. He’d seen five in the last day and a half, an unusually large number for early October. “If you hear a rattle,” he warned, “don’t be Steve Irwin.” Then, to drive home the fear, he said, “The only way to make this event more dangerous is to use real bullets.”
Before we were dismissed, Beard’s bald, bespectacled sidekick, the second in command, called the Zweite Zug Lieutenant, or simply Zweite, climbed atop the tank and addressed us. “Seeing as how Deutschland is a Christian country,” he said to widespread laughter, “we’ll have a prayer.” We took o? our helmets and bowed our heads.
The prayer was in German, but I still managed to pick out a few words, like Frau, Gott and Russische Kommunistische.
By the first week of September 1942, Germany and its allies had rolled across the dusty, barren steppes of southern Russia toward Stalingrad, a city of 500,000 people on the banks of the Volga River. Capturing the major industrial center would make it a lot easier for the Germans to penetrate the Caucasian oil fields and it would also be a symbolic victory: Hitler bitch-slapping the city named for his pinko Commie nemesis—the equivalent of the Russkies sacking a place called Hitler Town.
The Luftwaffe had already bombed much of Stalingrad, killing nearly forty thousand people. The Volga was on fire, Germany’s 6th Army had taken 26,500 prisoners and now its tanks were on the outskirts of Stalingrad and “we,” the 24th Panzer, were advancing fast. Okay, so maybe not that fast.
We marched south toward the blinding sun, down a long, sand- colored road. Our squad was split in half, nine of us on the left shoulder, ten of us on the right, evenly spaced out and in perfectly straight lines. I was near the back of the right flank. Matt, who was our squad leader, trailed me to help us maintain our spacing. Every now and then, Randy and the Zweite would trot past us on their horses, followed by two guys in a Zündapp, a German motorcycle with a sidecar.
“We’re live, guys,” Matt reminded us as we trudged forward. “They could be out there.” Unless they were gnomes hiding behind shrubs, however, they weren’t. The only thing I could see was thorny brush, big sky and a snow-capped Pikes Peak some one-hundred-plus miles due west.
The DOS wasn’t the only war to take place in these parts. From 1863 to 1865, when Colorado was still a territory and the Civil War was raging, the U.S. Army forced local Plains Indians from their lands onto reservations. One particularly gruesome incident, known as the Sand Creek Massacre, took place not far from here in 1864, when Col. John M. Chivington commanded seven hundred drunken troops to raid an encampment of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians. They slaughtered 133 people, mostly women and children, and later paraded their body parts through the Denver streets. One can only imagine what the Plains Indians’ ghosts thought as they watched a legion of white guys marching o? to fake-kill each other.
Soon we crested a gentle rise that revealed a valley bisected by the road. On either side cottonwoods provided a welcome burst of greenery. “Must be water down there,” one of the guys said. Our unit broke o? to the right into the low shrub, while the rest of the soldiers continued on down the dusty road. The ranchland’s sandy, fragile terrain had eroded into tiny shelves and crumbled under my feet. Cacti shaped like small prickly cucumbers sprouted from the ground. Snake holes, three inches wide, disappeared underground. Brittlebush and thorns latched onto my woolen pants whenever I brushed by them. All my gear put so much pressure on my back that a sharp pain shot up through my neck.
“Mahk shoo day cahhh see ooo,” Matt said.
“What?” I asked. I’d plugged my ears with wax so I wouldn’t go deaf once we started shooting. Now all I could hear was a mufled, ocean-like echo.
“I said make sure they can’t see you.” There were twenty of us walking along a hillside with no cover whatsoever. Anybody within a mile could see us.
Suddenly we heard gunfire in the distance.
“Evehboduh crowtch dohn!” Matt barked.
“Everybody crouch down!”
I dropped as quickly as I could into a thicket of burrs. I got up and they were everywhere: my hands, the backs of my legs, my butt, my calves, everything seemed to be punctured by the clingy starbursts. I tried to get rid of them, but no matter what I did I only managed to transfer them to other parts of my body. I finally gave up when I heard a rattle. I spun around, but I couldn’t see anything. Images flashed through my head of rattlesnakes leaping out of the shrubbery and sinking their fangs into my neck.
To ward o? any impending strike, I crouched down and started kicking my legs out like a Cossack. As I did this I noticed an army of ants scurrying over the ground. Pressure built up in my bowels. I’d had a lot of nightmares leading up to the event, about how things might go wrong, but I never considered what to do if this happened—if I had to go potty. It would take me at least a minute to get my pants off. To calm my nerves I stood up and walked around. So what if the Russians saw me? This isn’t real! I thought. The bullets are blanks! If I get shot, I’m not actually going to die!
I saw young Cli? facedown in a scrub bush blooming yellow wildflowers and hurried over to him. After a moment I posed the only question I could think of: “Have you ever seen the movie The Hurt Locker?” He shook his head.
Our other units had lured the Russians into a copse of cottonwoods. Now Matt ordered us to circle in from the rear and surround them.
What had been distant gunfire was now close and growing in intensity, machine gun rat-a-tat-tats overlapping with tank booms.
When we finally got to the battle, our tank was lobbing grenades packed with baby powder into a cluster of trees. When each landed, a plume of white smoke mushroomed into the air. We walked through tall, brittle grass, staying low to avoid detection. A couple hundred feet away in the tall trees, shadowy figures darted to and fro, opening fire on one another. It was hard to tell who was who, so I kept my rifle on safety. I didn’t want to kill one of my own men. The rest of my squad fired at anything that moved, all while advancing cautiously through the grass.
“Shay wish yo shad!” Matt yelled at me.
“What?” I asked, cupping my hand against my ear.
“Stay with your squad!” he yelled.
The soldiers advancing en masse through the bone-dry reeds made for such a good picture that I pulled out my camera and snapped a photo. While I was doing that, they advanced without me.
I tried to catch up with them, ignoring orders and standing up to quicken my pace, but only managed a couple steps when I saw it: a flash of fire discharging out of the barrel of a rifle, ten feet up in a tree, 150 feet away. It had been aimed at me. I’d been shot before I ever got a round off.
As per orders, I pulled out the tiny manila envelope from my pocket and opened it up. I unfolded a piece of paper that was tucked inside, as slim as a Chinese fortune. It read:
KIA! THOUGHT YOU WERE DREAMING, BUT CHOKED ON YOUR BLOOD, NOW GO TO SLEEP.
That’s gross, I thought.
I raised my rifle over my head and walked out of the grass toward the “medic,” a civilian girl who was sitting on the tail of a pickup truck at a nearby crossroads. Her feet dangled a few inches above the ground and she wore an orange hunting vest, jeans and sneakers. She took the envelope from me, slipped another piece of paper into it—the description of my next death—stapled it and gave it back to me. “Thanks,” I said. “War is hell.” She half nodded.
I filled up my canteen with water from a large plastic jug and sat on the ground, unhooking all my gear. Soon dozens of other dead soldiers congregated at the crossroads and played armchair quarterback, recounting how many Russians they killed and how they ultimately met their demise. At one point a German soldier led about twenty Russian POWs to the intersection—including the only two women re-enactors I’d see at the event. They’d all placed their hands on their heads and were pouting. The guard pointed his rifle at them and yelled in German for a bit, but it didn’t have the intended effect. Mostly the Russians looked at him with get-over-yourself eye rolls. Authenticity has its limits. It’s perfectly fine to re-create some parts of history, they seemed to be saying, but push it too far and you cross the line into Creepyville.
I’d traveled to Colorado to learn about what happened at the Battle of Stalingrad, a six-and-a-half-month siege that Antony Beevor calls “perhaps the most important battle in history.” But since I reached the event site I hadn’t heard anybody talk about it. Nobody talked about the 1 million soldiers and civilians who died, or how it was one of history’s most gruesome battles, where frostbitten soldiers would unwrap their bandaged hands and feet only to watch their fingers and toes “stay behind.” No one talked about how significant the German loss was, and how it was the beginning of the end for the Wehrmacht. From their surrender in the brutal cold of February 1943, they’d make a long, slow retreat back to Berlin, where, ultimately, on April 30, 1945, Hitler would blow his brains out.
Instead, on a lunch break held on the banks of the nearby stream, the re-enactors mostly traded tales about military suppliers they ordered gear from. “Cheap-ass bastards only have stu? with one stitch,” said one. I learned they call people like him a “stitch Nazi,” someone who’s so particular about the construction of his uniform that he’ll literally count how many stitches are used. Apparently reproduction uniforms constructed with two stitches on the seams are better made and more “authentic.”
It seemed like spending the weekend in a time machine was what really made them happy: to eat tuna out of cans that had been wrapped in white paper, to stab a tube of salami with a knife and bite into it, to tell stories they’d read about Napoleon. And yet as I sat under a tree resting my eyes, turning my face toward the warming sun, I couldn’t help noticing a few glaring anachronisms: the Nazi eating a bagel, the repeated quoting of Platoon. But nothing, not a word about Stalingrad.
Later that night, after I hitched a ride with the Texans, the pickup truck pulled into base camp. I hopped out, scooted over to Vinnie’s van and grabbed a spare key that he’d placed atop one of his tires. “Just in case you get back before I do,” he’d growled. After climbing inside, I blasted the heat and lay atop his old mattress. After only nine hours of war, I was a civilian again. And I couldn’t have been happier.
The next morning, I sat in the van’s driver seat and considered a herd of cattle who’d strolled over to a barbed wire fence. I was happy to be back in the real world, listening to a baseball game on the radio and munching on a PowerBar. At one point, I took out a book I was reading, Tony Horwitz’s A Voyage Long and Strange. I read a sentence or two then slipped it back in my bag, because nothing was longer or stranger than what I’d just been through.
I stayed dressed in my uniform until early that afternoon. Before I took it off, I dug around inside my pockets and found the manila envelope stapled shut, with my fate sealed inside. I opened it up and pulled out the slip. It read,
KIA! FIRST A THUMP, THEN YOU FELT THAT YOU WERE DROWNING, THEN GONE.
That’s gross, I thought.
I could feel something else in the envelope so I pulled it out too. It was my registration card. I flipped it over and read what was on the back, the “DOS Ten Commandments.” One was so important it garnered two spots, numbers 1 and 10. It said, “Stay with your squad.”