I stood staring blankly in the middle of the crossroads. From the bottom of the hill, around the bog, and stretching up to the top a vast expanse of canvas tents lay before me. The sun slowly crept up. I pondered my newly illuminated surroundings, mystified for the moment, until I toddled back to the “Port-O-Castles” to vomit.
Pennsic War at Cooper’s Lake Campground, Pennsylvania is singularly the biggest two-week event for the SCA. The Society for Creative Anachronism “The World’s Largest Civilian Army” originated at an outdoor party in Berkley, California in 1966. Members recreate their chosen century in Western Europe, learning the trades such brewing, costuming, cooking, and combat. Since then, it gained an immense following spanning kingdoms worldwide. There are Kings, Queens, Dukes, Duchesses, Barons, Baronesses, and Bards. The anachronism part comes into play because it’s the Middle Ages the way it ought to be, with the modern conveniences of running water and espresso machines, of which my camp Chez d’Argent had two.
If I was going to survive the week, clearly I was going about it wrong. I joked with my first mate MAD two nights before my departure. “I already know what’s going to happen. I’m going to get there and its going to be all ‘Fear and Loathing in the Middle Ages.’ Or something like that. I’ll have a brief freak-out, a little ‘what the hell am I doing here!’ and then I’ll get used to it. Besides, I’m in good hands.” She assured me I’d do fine. After all, we survived a week in New Orleans as pirates together that spring. A few months later I was at it again. If experience led me to believe anything, this new excursion would not be any different. Little did I know how right I actually was.
Of course, alcohol was the reason for my recent entanglement with the SCA. Every Friday night for months I was heavily involved with friends in the Shire of Coppertree, in essentially a brewing guild. There was Lady Edana Aldys Haukyns, the Baron Del Cavallo, Master Kenhelm and others. We called this precious time “Drinking Practice” where we watched our beloved brews of beer and mead develop from emptied and cleaned store bought bottles to our own finely fermented masterpieces. When the time came, I woke up the following Saturday morning with a severe hangover and a pre-registration confirmation for Pennsic. It was a bottling night. My password was something like rumrumrummyrumrum. There was no backing out. I was press-ganged and bound for War.
I rolled into Pennsic a little past 8:00 Friday night and hastily moved to set up camp before darkness fell. I upended the box my tent was in. “Oh no!!” I wailed, all of my grand plans were thoroughly dashed. One very essential thing was missing from that that box. The tent poles. You’d think they’d be there in the box with the rest of it. Where it should be… There I was, sometime in pre-seventeenth century Western Europe with no means of shelter for the entire week. After the initial shock, I went to those who graciously took me into their camp, and offered up a bottle of Pyrat XO rum. “I bring a gift… and some bad news,” I told them my plight as I ceremoniously placed the bottle on their dinner table.
“We will worry about it in the morning,” I was wisely told. After dinner, I made my way up to the merchant pavilion with The Lady Eddie and The Baron. There I sat with tankard of our own apple beer in hand, worrying with my brows knitted tightly together. They told me that I was entirely too sober. Over the course of the evening, I equated “worry about it in the morning” to getting piss drunk and sleeping in my car. I boarded the ship of the pirate encampment of Ravenspittle with no regard for the line. “Are you blind?” The sentry asked and my friend Thorn who marched up after me vouched for my action, “actually she is.” I was night blind and blind drunk. “Oh, in that case, you deserve a shot.” This mysterious shot called the “The Throbbler” was topped off with Everclear. “Oh goody,” I thought tossing one back and cringing.
Shortly after, my dwindling entourage walked me back to my car after much protesting on my part. The night was still young and my enthusiasm far too great to give in. This was nightfall at Pennsic, not everyday could you walk out of your backdoor and into the 1300s. Around the bog, the mist rose in the muggy midnight air. Black trees towered out of the hazy atmosphere. My surroundings wavered in the torchlight and reflected upon the water. All around us people were drumming. Regretfully, calling it a night I crawled into the backseat of my car, lit a cigarette, and changed my mind. There were three more trips to puke in the “Port-O-Castle.” Then I climbed into the front seat of my car. I sat in an upright and secure position and dozed off waiting for the sun to boil me alive inside. Then I’d worry about it in the morning.
Early that afternoon, I stomached my hangover and tagged along on a trip into town. Shopping for Saturday night’s famed dinner at Chez d’Argent. I bought a tent at a discount camping store a 7’x7.’ Shelter for the entire week for cheap. I parked my car in the hills to the north, all gassed up. Out of sight and out of mind. With the appropriate change of clothes, I was free to see what it was like to live as a Scadian.
The second part of my grand assumption came into fruition just as the first part did. It didn’t take me long after the first ordeal to get acclimated to my surroundings. My integration into Chez d’Argent played out as well as could be expected. My willingness to do dish duty helped. Some mornings, I leaned into the sink in the sun at a downward slope scrubbing for three hours. By Thursday, I was debating the convenience of a belt pouch as compared to lugging around a bag. Bloomers were indeed very comfortable. I thought about wearing harem pants on hot days. As for being in good hands, I couldn’t have been with better. With my merchant mates, I had access to the more elite parties on the grounds. An old art school friend attended that particular Pennsic as well. She was also a war virgin. I visited her Viking camp and a group of us wandered down to the clothing optional swimming hole. We passed around many bottles of mead, swam upstream, and floated back down. For an hour or two I fell in love with a naked gypsy man drinking a bottle of lambic. Then I left to wander the grounds on my own. Before I got my bearings back, I managed to loop the lake twice and ended up clear across the Serengeti plain next to the interstate.
Before I arrived, I had been terribly out of shape, spending my days behind a desk and a predilection for Cajun barbecue. I was also dehydrated not nearly drinking as much water as I should have. Dish duty, many treks uphill and down, walking the night frequenting parties and drinking more that humanly thought possible began to take its toll. By Friday afternoon we tried everything to stop my feet from swelling. I had them elevated above my head for hours, bathed in cold water and Epsom salt, and even braved an experiment from The Baron. It was all to no avail. I marched to the infirmary whereupon I received the biggest shock of my entire trip. The medic had one look at the bloated sacks of meat that I came to call my feet and I saw his jaw dropped. His face turned sheet-white. “You have to go to the hospital.” He said after a moment’s stunned pause, “like right now, this is serious. I mean it. I’m not joking.” My heart rate quickened as I looked around at my surroundings. I really should have brought some one with me, I thought anxiously. No one will know if I’m rushed to the hospital this very moment. I don’t want die, that would be too expensive, I thought seated on the gurney as the scared medic ran off to retrieve the ambulance. I was merely expecting drugs, something to relieve the pressure of such retention. Instead, I heard murmurs of Congestive Heart Failure. Luckily, before events took a turn for the worse I had a second opinion. “Congestive Heart Failure?” another cuter and more experienced medic asked me incredulously. “Aren’t you a little too young? How old are you?”
“26,” I said, my voice still wavering. I inhaled and exhaled deeply as he checked my lungs and my rapid heartbeat, for I have not gotten over the shock of my imminent demise.
“Everything sounds fine,” he said after going over my medical history. Pressing his fingers against my stomach and asking if I hurt anywhere. “Are you doing anything you’re not used to? Are you eating differently?”
“Well,” I smiled wryly more than willing to brag about my camping arrangements. “A running joke at our camp is ‘Oh, no filet mignon again.’ We’ve had lamb, jasmine tea smoked duck, salt crusted salmon…”
“Nice” he replied.
“Why do you carry around that walking stick?”
“Because I think it’s stylish and I like to threaten people with it,” I grinned coyly, slowly beginning to recover.
“Well, I say you’re fine. Just drink plenty of water and stay off of your feet as much as you can.”
“So, I don’t have to go to the hospital…” I glared at the oafish looking one who gave me my misdiagnosis. As I started to get off the gurney, it clanged and jumped as I stood up.
“You can if you want to, or if you fall off the gurney.” He laughed.
“No, I think I’m fine, but what about the-” I awkwardly replied adding the word drugs under my breath. Unfortunately, before I could finish my sentence he swiftly moved on to the next patient. A woman who sliced her finger open.
“I almost died today.” On the way back to camp I sat recovering with my formidable pirate mate and vendor Robin St. Graves.
“Would you like some rum?” He answered when I told him my plight. There couldn’t have been a more appropriate response.
That evening, despite my mistaken case of Congestive Heart Failure my pained feet took me back to the Serengeti for The Duchess Isabella of York’s infamous “Lady’s Night Out” party. Shirtless men passed decadent platters of smoked meats, cheeses, vegetables, dips, and chocolates. There was also a massage tent and an obscene amount of mead and rum at our disposal. We chanted, “naked drumming! Naked drumming!” at our entertainment, which had been known to happen at parties in the past. A group us managed to trap a server in the circle we were sitting. He gave us all foot massages. Then he drizzled chocolate on his chest. It was up to us to lick it off.
Purposely marching back to camp, with restored faith in my fellow man, I was suddenly bowled over by a veritable tsunami of rum. Precariously navigating down the hill from hell I gained more momentum than I could manage. Swinging my arms before me madly, I tried to stop myself from falling when tragedy struck. In mid-flail, my hand hit a parked minivan and I felt the silver ring Her Royal Highness Princess of AEthelmearc had so graciously given me fly right off my finger. I stood still three quarters of the way down the hill, sobbed silently, and fumbled for my penlight. Sadly, after a drunken search and recovery I realized my prized ring was lost to the night.
The contents of my menial tent exploded. Over the week, no matter what I did to combat the mayhem, what little organization I put forth was ruined in seconds. On my hands and knees tossing things around, I was looking for something but I couldn’t remember what. In my chemise, I laid on my stomach cradled in the half deflated air mattress; face down in a pile of garb. I gurgled once or twice and moaned a little, for it seemed that things had come to a bloated head. Had Pennsic broken me, or was this my reward for loosing The Princess’s ring? I hated the thought and trudged out of the tent. It grew to be my own little circle of hell. With much difficulty, I finished what had to be done and furiously exited delivering a few parting blows to the lightweight material with a nearby stick.
Once I made the arduous journey topside, I became a part of a longstanding tradition among my merchant mates to drink all the alcohol in the camp. Such a scheme would save us from having to transport it back to civilization the next day. If I had known that, I would not have stopped there first on my way to get ice for Chez d’Argent. I made my way back hours later, empty handed and drunkenly spouting Dr. Steel propaganda when my camp mates sent me to my bed. Laying upside down at an incline with my tent systematically sliding down the hill my feet stuck out sorely from the ripped bottom zipper. They grew wet in the drizzling rain. I dreamt I was abducted and experimented upon. The group of us managed to escape. We ran for the nearest pub to hide. The henchman, a boy on a big-wheel was sent to track us down. He pulled out a gun and fired. I awoke with a start as a flash of light and loud crack of thunder tore through the pre-dawn sky. With a certain degree of apprehension, I laid there staring through the screen window at a nearby tree until I realized that lightning would not cause it to fall down flaming onto my tent. As my luck would lead me to believe. I rolled back over and fell asleep, dreaming it was time to tear down camp. Throughout the course of the weekend there had been signs of our eminent departure. Since Friday, surrounding encampments systematically disappeared leaving behind decayed patches of muddy earth and white sun-depleted squares of sparse grass. I was sad to see it all go.
I retrieved my car from the north, which had been sitting neglected for over a week. Apparently, the beast wasn’t too fond of that for the fuse in the whole center panel was blown. Six hours on the road wasn’t bad at all, but without the radio or air conditioning I came to dread the thought. We dismantled Chez d’Argent. Around us Scadians were doing that very thing. Chances were they were almost all hot tired hangover and ready to leave as I was. This wasn’t just pack up your pup tent and leave kind of dismantling, these people were hardcore campers with rebar, pickaxes, ropes, furniture and acres upon acres of canvas. All of which had to be gathered, folded and tucked into trailers. Only to be taken out, dried, put back away to be used again next year.
I said my goodbyes, pulled away and drove up the hill one last time to the Merchant Camp. The second part of their longstanding tradition of drinking all the alcohol in the camp was being hung-over when it came time to pack up. Luckily, they were practically finished by the time I arrived and there was talk of getting some lunch before we headed off. Right before my departure, I finally read the pamphlet guidelines and helpful hints for War Virgins. Ironically, I managed to do just about everything they warned us about on that list.
Ready to relish the air conditioning we crossed the sun-baked pavement and paused in the doorway. The action was unspoken. We looked down at our Pennsic medallions and realized their irrelevancy. We finally put Cooper’s Lake behind us and would not need them again for reentry. With out a word, we pulled them off from around our necks and pocketed them, entering the diner as civilians.
At a deserted gas station in rural Pennsylvania, on a forgotten exit, the Baron’s vehicle was lost to a seized compressor and a melted serpentine belt. It was a situation I was all too familiar with. Of course, The Baron came equipped with AAA, our caravan stayed with him until we heard of the eminent arrival of a tow truck. When Eddie and I parted ways from the rest of the pack and started our journey home, it was nearing six in the evening. With my sights dead set on my bed, I plowed through the tempest at 40 miles an hour. Night blind and crazy from the driving rain, I perilously navigated. My eyes were pried wide open and hands clenched tightly on the wheel. I couldn’t have chosen a worse time to be caught in the throes of a panoramic thunderstorm on the last stretch of my cracked-out journey home. It well around midnight when I got off on my thruway exit and hydroplaned through the construction site. On the other side of the road people were stranded standing beside dead cars on the roadway looking thoroughly confused. Something must have happened shortly before I slid through the water. The highway was limited one lane of traffic, heavily barricaded on each side. A foot of water collected in the middle. Desperate to make it home I passed them without a thought. My radio and the air-conditioning were not the only things malfunctioning, so was the defrost. For the entire nerve-wracking journey my windows were wide open to the soaking rain to stop the windshield from fogging.
An hour later, I stumbled through the door and was greeted exuberantly by a dog that hadn’t seen me in nine days. After a cigarette to calm my overexerted nerves, I ventured up to my bedroom. I was home, dry, safe and utterly exhausted, when I peeled back the covers of my own bed. Of course, none of that mattered for hours later I awoke with a start. I hallucinated my surroundings were bathed in torchlight. My walls were comprised of canvas. Was I sleeping on another half deflated air mattress? I sat up exclaiming, “Who the fuck’s camp am I sleeping in now!”