Live Steam and Living History

By Mark N. Lardas

A celebration of American military valor and a ride on a historic steam train provides Texas Scouts with an unforgettable Armed Forces Day experience.

Scouts talked to soldiers as a steam locomotive chuffed into the station. One paratrooper—101st Airborne Division patch on his shoulder—showed the boys equipment that would be used when the Screaming Eagles jumped into France to liberate it from the Nazis. Other Scouts clustered around military police from the 36th Infantry Division—a Texas National Guard division sent to Italy in 1943.

Europe, 1944? Try East Texas today. It was Armed Forces Day 2003 at the Texas State Railroad Park, in Palestine, Tex. The soldiers were reenactors—experiencing (and showing others) what life was like in history's armies.

The Scouts were from today, two troops combining a living history experience with a ride on a train pulled by a legendary steam locomotive.

Watching soldiers

My youngest son, Benjamin, other Scouts, and three adult leaders of Troop 603, League City, Tex., were among them. Having moved to League City the previous summer from Palestine, I was familiar with the Armed Forces Day event and served as trip leader.

To allow the Scouts to feel more like participants than observers, park operations superintendent Mark Price arranged for us to camp in a meadow near the train depot, between Civil War and World War II reenactor campsites.

Early in the morning we watched the Civil War unit go through rifle drill. The men in the unit finished by firing three volleys of blanks into the air, then conducted the intricate drill of stacking arms.

"Where are you from?" I asked their leader.

"Right here in Palestine," he replied. "We represent an infantry company raised here during the Civil War."

"It's good to see Scouts here," commented another "Confederate," who turned out to be John Stroud of The Colony, Tex., an Eagle Scout and junior assistant Scoutmaster for Troop 226.

The soldiers then introduced one of their company's younger members, Christopher Johnson, a First Class Scout from Troop 424 in Palestine. When the Scouts asked Christopher why he became involved in a hobby that can be time-consuming and strenuous, his reply was simple: "Because it is really fun."

The morning flag raising was conducted by a unit representing a military police company from the Army's 36th Infantry Division, assisted by a pair of World War II sailors (portrayed by visiting staff from the Battleship Texas, which is now a memorial museum permanently anchored about 200 miles to the south in LaPorte, Tex., near Houston). Scouts, sightseers, and reenactors—including a Confederate militia company and a group of German paratroopers—stood at attention.

History: living and reenacting

During the next two hours, the Scouts and other guests visited military equipment displays at the reenactor encampments.

The choices included the First Volunteer Cavalry (the famed Rough Riders, whose second-in-command was future president Theodore Roosevelt) and the Second Volunteer Infantry from the Spanish-American War, and "Buffalo Soldiers" from the 9th and 10th Cavalry and 24th and 25th Infantry—four African-American Army regiments stationed on the western frontier between the end of the Civil War and the end of the 19th century.

Also present were World War II groups, members of the Texas Military Historical Society, one of the largest World War II reenacting organizations in the United States. They came from Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana to participate, representing military units from the United States, Britain, France, and Germany.

Groups tend to focus on either living history or reenacting. And although participants are hobbyists and volunteers, all are serious about accuracy.

Living history groups, such as the Spanish-American War units and the Buffalo Soldiers, demonstrate how certain people in the past lived. Visitors can observe the typical soldier's life—how he slept, ate, and spent his day.

Reenactors focus on historical re-creation of battles. They take the role of individuals who were there or create a fictional character representing a typical person of the day.

They display weapons and equipment used in battle and make a special effort to portray their "impressions"—as they call their military or historical counterparts—as authentically as possible.

How does a potential reenactor decide which "army" to join? Rather than a favorite period in history, some enthusiasts choose a group—which might be American Airborne or German paratroopers—because it is nearby and well established. At the Palestine event, the military police (M.P.'s) came from the Dallas area, while the state capital of Austin provided a unit specializing in the 101st Airborne Division.

Others find a group of like-minded individuals to form a unit reenacting an outfit in which they have a special interest.

And not every group represents an organized government military unit. Some reenactors were dressed as French farmers, members of a Resistance unit during the Nazi occupation of their country in World War II.

Reliving the past

Not surprisingly, the Scouts at first gravitated toward the reenactors. After all, those groups had the coolest equipment—like motorized vehicles and automatic weapons (altered to prevent them from being used with real ammunition).

Their "arsenal" ranged from light arms carried by the different armies during the Second World War up to light machine guns.

Among the military vehicles, a German motorcycle and sidecar—with mounted machine gun—drew more attention than a Vietnam-era U.S. gun jeep or a Navy jeep (brought by staff from the Battleship Texas).

However, the Scouts soon discovered that the living history groups also had much to offer. Many members earn their living doing similar work for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, but their fascination with history leads them to spend many unpaid hours reliving periods in the past.

Some had special reasons for participating, like Otis Williams, a Buffalo Soldier. He is the descendant of Charles Williams, who served in the 9th Cavalry; and spreading the word about the Buffalo Soldiers is a way of honoring his grandfather.

A group of Scouts gathered around his campsite as Williams talked about the Buffalo Soldiers, showed how they lived in the field, and explained how they helped tame the American frontier.

From his boot, he pulled out a sheath knife to shows the Scouts. "This knife has been passed down to the oldest son in the family," Williams said. "It dates back to when we were slaves. My grandfather told me that Charles Williams carried this knife when he was a Buffalo Soldier in the 19th century. When I put on this uniform, I always carry this knife with it. I would feel naked without it."

Ed Owens—on weekdays a cartoonist for the Dallas Morning News—heads up the Second Volunteer Infantry from the Spanish-American War. The unit is based on an actual Second Volunteer Infantry raised in Dallas during the Spanish-American War.

"After years of reading history I wanted to experience it," he explained. "I 'know' that the Confederates had a terrible time at Vicksburg, but not until I sat in a trench for a day and a half in a wool uniform with nothing to eat but beans, rice, and a little fatty pork did I 'understand.' Reenacting is as close as you are going to get until they perfect time travel."

Holding the event on Armed Forces Day (the third Saturday in May) "is a way of honoring our country's military," said Mark Price. "People come, have fun, and learn something about our soldiers, as well as the contribution railroads made in our wars."

Riding the rails

The Texas State Railroad Park contains two terminals—one in Palestine and one in Rusk, linked by 25 miles of track that wanders through the I. D. Fairchild State Forest. At 11 a.m., we boarded the train for the four-hour round trip.

The train was pulled by Engine 300, a "Pershing" military version of the 2-8-0 Consolidation steam engine that served as a freight hauler around the turn of the last century. Its seven cars dated from the 1920's—four standard passenger cars, an open-air car, a combination passenger and baggage car, and an air-conditioned car.

The trip was the fifth railroad park visit for Troop 483 from Cypress, Tex., said Scoutmaster Todd Gaudin, whose group included 37 Scouts and adults. "Many of my kids have never been on a train and the only ones they ever see are freights," he noted. "This is a great environment and a safe park, and the kids always want to come back."

"This view is beautiful," exclaimed Eric Liebig, an adult leader from Troop 483. "I could ride this train all day."

Great scenery aside, the adults seemed mostly thrilled at being able to travel on a steam-powered train. Somewhat less appreciative, the Scouts seemed most interested in the ability to face their seats forward or backward. And being able to walk from car to car resulted in a constant stream of Scouts toward the snack bar at the rear of the train.

Traveling theater

The train ride also featured small dramas staged by groups of reenactors.

Confederate solders paraded a Yankee "prisoner," warning passengers that he was dangerous. German soldiers clumped down the aisles, demanding "Dokumente, bitte!" After they departed, G.I. paratroopers appeared, asking if anyone had seen any Germans.

It was like a time machine gone haywire—but great fun. Jim Bothworth, an eighth-grade teacher from Houston (and an Eagle Scout), portrayed Italian peddler "Aldo Bonfortuna." "I want to join the fun in a special way, so I put this [costume] together," he explained. As "Aldo," he tried to "sell" food to passengers from a big basket, but was always interrupted by two M.P.'s.

"Hey! We told you no unauthorized civilians aboard!" they would yell before "arresting" Aldo and escorting him to the next car, where the skit would be repeated. But after seeing the hapless Aldo arrested again and again, the Scouts joined in the drama, urging the M.P.'s to release the peddler.

As the train crossed the Neches River, the engineer purged the boiler, creating a hiss of spraying water and steam that startled the Scouts and caused one boy in my troop to ask if the engine had broken down. I reassured him the operation was normal, done to clear sediment.

Mock battle

After lunch at the Rusk Depot and a leisurely return ride, we arrived to see a mock battle getting under way.

"French partisans" were setting "explosives" on the rails.

A German patrol began to chase them, only to be intercepted by a unit of American G.I.'s.

The spectators enjoyed the choreographed 10-minute firefight, especially when the outnumbered Allies emerged triumphant.

After the battle, Scouts talked with the reenactors, who, being both historians and ham actors, enjoyed sharing their knowledge.

"We really enjoy working with Scouts," observed Jim Bothworth. "Especially because they may never have seen history presented this way."

After the general public had departed and we had settled into our campsite, John Cobb, the reenactor coordinator, invited us to share a barbecue dinner at the reenactors' camp. While we ate, the Scouts and reenactors reviewed the day's events.

The Scouts later went to bed knowing that the day had not only been filled with history but had also been a historic occasion to remember.

Freelance writer Mark N. Lardas lives in League City, Tex.

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