I mentioned WWII reenacting in last week’s column and I feel like I should elaborate a bit, since that isn’t exactly a hobby you gloss over when recapping your weekend on Monday morning at the office.
“What’d you get up to this weekend?”
“Oh you know, mowed the lawn, cleaned the gutters, pretended to shoot some Nazis — the usual.”
WWII reenacting is a weird hobby. Today I struggle with the morality of dressing up like your grandpa and trying to recreate what was without a doubt the most horrific and brutal experience of his life, but as a kid I ate and slept it.
When I was 13 I developed an interest in WWII after watching the HBO miniseries ‘Band of Brothers.’ It started as an excuse to play army in the creek behind my house, but morphed into a full on obsession. I read, researched and collected WWII memorabilia until I stumbled upon WWII reenacting when I was around 17.
It seemed too good to be true. These guys would dress up in full WWII gear and equipment and run around in the woods on the weekend, digging foxholes, eating K rations and shooting blanks at Germans with real WWII era weapons. Hell, I was already doing that by myself in the backyard.
In the dozen or so years since, I’ve traveled all over the country to reenact WWII battles. I’ve met some of my best friends through the hobby, and while my relationship with reenacting has changed in the last several years, I’ll always be thankful I discovered such an interesting and odd pastime.
I still attend a reenactment once in a while, but not as often or with as much vigor as I did in the past. It’s now mostly an excuse to see some friends I’d otherwise not get a chance to spend time with. My loss of ambition has several things to blame, but mostly I miss the vets.
Reenacting is done under the premise of honoring veterans and WWII vets were common visitors at events for most of the time I was a diehard reenactor. I got to know many of them over the course of a decade or so, and my favorite was a local vet named Harold Roy who used to come to an event in Farmington, Minn. every year.
Harold and I hit it off right away because we were both born in Nebraska, although he grew up in Minnesota. Harold was a radio operator in HQ Company, 3rd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division. He parachuted into Normandy and Holland, and fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
I worshipped Harold, and followed him around like puppy at these events. We rolled out the red carpet for him every time he showed up and although he’d never say as much, he loved every minute of it.
He’d sit around the tents with a canteen cup full of coffee and start telling stories, mostly about the women in England before D-Day and his buddies in HQ Company. They were all wonderfully funny — and absolutely foul, which made us laugh even harder.
As he talked, you could see the age fall out of his eyes. He was surrounded by a bunch of young men in the same uniform he’d worn 70 years earlier. They smelled like wet wool and old canvas. The sound of laughter was mixed with zippo lighters sparking Lucky Strikes, canteens knocking against e-tools and jump boots crunching on the gravel. All of a sudden he was 22-years-old again.
Seeing that transformation in his face, and how happy it made him to be able remember the good times of the war instead of the bad, kept me coming back to those events.
Harold died in the spring of 2017. He was the last combat WWII veteran I knew personally. We weren’t incredibly close and only saw each other a couple times a year, but he meant the world to me.
Since then the hobby has lost a bit of its mystique. Some would argue it’s more important now than ever to keep the memory of the Greatest Generation alive. They’re right, but I have a hard time getting excited for a reenacting event when I know my friend Harold won’t be there.