“Embedded with the Reenactors” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 23)

Longform nonfiction often answers the question: “Why do those people do that?” Embedded with the Reeanactors by Nick Kowalczyk, posted January 8, 2012 at Salon.com, takes a look at the thousands of Americans who dress up in period costume and re-enact old wars. Kowalczyk not only follows a group of men who re-enact the almost-forgotten French and Indian War, but dressed up himself and takes part in the the battle.

French and Indian War Reenactors

Photo by Salon.com

Kowalczyk’s story has a lot of voice; he doesn’t hold back on his bemusement with the whole thing. Unlike some writers who cover an odd topic with detachment, it’s clear that the exercise strikes him as a bit strange:

It’s not every 4th of July you get to be around nearly 3,000 people inhabiting an amalgam of time, and especially in a place as lovely as Fort Niagara State Park. The water in Lake Ontario actually was blue. And the fortification, now known as Old Fort Niagara, has been well-preserved even though it was built by the French in 1726 and took a 19-day pummeling in July 1759, when a few thousand British and Indians out-maneuvered 600 Frenchman sitting pretty in a big castle protected by cannons and stone walls.

But being on the battlefield exactly 250 years later, I couldn’t help but imagine the 348 people who died and the many others who were injured or suffered. When they trembled for their lives could they ever have imagined that a bloodless, G-rated recreation of their deaths eventually would become someone’s hobby?

The events in the story take place in 2009, not long after the election of Barack Obama, and Kowalczyk shows that the reenactors’ minds are in the present as well. Here, he observes some of their mix of history and modern politics:

“Now that the Democrats are in office they’ll fund every useless social program and gut the things that really matter, like the national parks system.”

Someone else said, “This battle here is the reason today we ain’t speaking French.”

And one re-enactor offered this insight: “We’re people with an appreciation for history. We don’t just take The New York Times and go glug-glug-glug.”

Very few, if any, re-enactors recycled their bottles and cans.

The story drops in a lot of dry humor like that, but remains respectful.

Kowalczyk spends much of the story with “Old Hickory,” a 60-year-old man who usually re-enacts as Andrew Jackson, during his fighting days, before he became the seventh American President. Hickory, a regular who goes to 20 or more reenactments a year, becomes the heart of the story, and through him, we get more personal look at a man who dresses and plays war in his free time. It’s clear that reenacting is his passion and his escape; and Kowalczyk leaves to the reader to determine if this seems depressing:

He bought clothes, a musket, and slept in his car at events. Some considered him “a suit” and “a mooch,” given his white-collar job and healthy diet, his constant requests for help and lack of handyman skills, but he paid those criticisms little mind. At events he was approached by the public, asked questions, even photographed. For the first time in his life he felt appreciated, like he had something to offer the world.

“Now when I’m in my street clothes I don’t feel like that’s my identity,” he said when I once asked him, Who are you outside of this?

In that conversation I drew a circle in my notebook and asked him to fill in the elements of his life — family, hobbies, friends, the job he’d quit, whatever — and to shade in the categories that involved reenacting. The exercise perplexed Old Hickory; he pushed my notebook away. “I don’t need to do that,” he said. “Reenacting is the circle. That’s it. There isn’t anything else anymore.”

This is a fine story, an effective mix of humor and good reporting. It’s entertaining, revealing, and, at times, a little sad.

Read Embedded with the Reeanactors →

“The Lost City of Z” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 16)

There are longreads. And then there are long longreads. And then there are epic, holy-f@#king-shit longreads that just leave you blown away.

The Lost City of Z,” by David Grann in the September 19, 2005 issue of The New Yorker fits into that last category.

Percy Fawcett

Photo of explorer Percy Fawcett; source unknown

At just over 20,000 words, “The Lost City of Z” tells a sprawling story than spans more than a century, centered around British explorer Percy Fawcett — a real-world Indiana Jones — who ventured into the Amazon forest in 1925, searching for ruins of the fabled “City of Z,” a prehistoric civilization he believed to be buried somewhere out in the undiscovered jungle.

The story follows Fawcett’s expedition, which ventured into unmapped parts of the Amazon, never to return; several efforts by other explorers to find Fawcett, or his evidence of his demise; and finally, the author’s journey to Brazil to re-trace Fawcett’s footsteps. Grann tries to solve the mystery of what happened to the explorer, but also, if the City of Z he sought actually existed. It’s a fascinating history, with adventure and suspense across multiple narratives.

There’s so much to love about this story. First off, there’s the massive body of research packed into this piece. There’s so much here that the story was later expanded into a full length book. But in this initial version in The New Yorker, Grann gives us rich details from Fawcett’s own writings, mixed with beautiful description of what they experienced, like this:

Fawcett’s team stayed in Galvão’s red brick manor for several days, eating and resting. At one point, Galvão later told a reporter, Fawcett removed from his belongings a strange object covered in cloth. He carefully unwrapped it, revealing a ten-inch stone idol with almond-shaped eyes and hieroglyphics carved on its chest. Rider Haggard, Fawcett’s friend, had obtained it from someone in Brazil and given it to Fawcett, who believed that it was a relic of Z.

Then the three Englishmen were on their way again, heading east, toward Bakairí Post, where in 1920 the Brazilian government had set up a garrison—“the last point of civilization,” as the settlers referred to it. Occasionally, the dense forest opened up, revealing the blinding sun and blue-tinged mountains in the distance. The trail became harder, and the men descended steep, mud-slicked gorges and crossed rock-strewn rapids, where they had to check their skin for traces of blood, which might attract piranhas. They also had to remain alert for a pernicious eel-like fish called a candiru, which, as Fawcett once wrote, “seeks to enter the natural orifices of the body, whether human or animal, and once inside cannot be extracted.” Fawcett had seen one specimen that had been removed from a man’s penis. “Many deaths result from this fish, and the agony it can cause is excruciating,” he wrote.

Through the historical records, private notes, and correspondence, the 57-year-old Fawcett comes alive in this story as a very human figure.

The subsequent searches for Fawcett and revelations along the way become equally colorful. The explorers who followed Fawcett often met grim fates and gruesome endings. In the middle of the story, we learn that one of his descendants ominously came into possession of Fawcett’s ring, which had been recovered in 1979 by a filmmaker in Brazil:

Montet-Guerin said that she wanted to show me one more thing. It was a photograph of Fawcett’s gold signet ring, which was engraved with the family motto, “Nec Aspera Terrent”—essentially, “Difficulties Be Damned.” In 1979, an Englishman named Brian Ridout, who was making a wildlife film in Brazil, heard rumors that the ring had turned up at a store in Cuiabá. By the time Ridout tracked down the shop, the proprietor had died. His wife, however, searched through her possessions and emerged with Colonel Fawcett’s ring. Montet-Guerin, who had since put the ring in safekeeping, said, “It’s the last concrete item we have from the expedition.”

Montet-Guerin had been desperate to learn more, she said, and had once showed the ring to a psychic. I asked her if she had learned anything. She looked down at the picture, then up at me. “It had been bathed in blood,” she said.

Hollywood couldn’t write that any better.

But the core of the story is really about Grann’s efforts to try and find the lost city Fawcett was searching for at the time he disappeared. Grann slowly unspools two narratives in parallel: the more we learn about Fawcett’s history, the further along Grann advances in his own adventure. In the present day, he retraces Fawcett’s steps just as he reveals details from the historical part of the story.

Grann experiences the conditions first-hand that unraveled so many previous expeditions. As he treks through the jungle himself, he lives through some of the same fear that others faced:

Occasionally, I slipped in the mud, falling in the water. I yelled out Pinage’s name, but there was no response. Exhausted, I found a grassy knoll that was only a few inches below the waterline, and sat down. My pants filled with water as I listened to the frogs. The sun burned my face and hands, and I wiped muddy water on myself in a vain attempt to cool down.

After half an hour, I stood again and tried to find the correct path. I walked and walked; in one spot, the water rose to my waist, and I lifted the bags above my head. Each time I thought that I had reached the end of the mangrove forest, a new swath opened up before me—large patches of tall, damp reeds clouded with mosquitoes, which ate into me.

I won’t spoil anything else here, but suffice it to say: this is an amazing piece of nonfiction: part history, part detective story, part adventure. I’m in awe of the work and research that went into this story. Excellent storytelling and writing bring it all together. Despite this being the longest story I’ve read so far this month, I’d have happily read more.

Read The Lost City of Z” →

“Atari Teenage Riot: The Inside Story Of Pong and the Video Game Industry’s Big Bang” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day Six)

When I was ten, my brother and I would get up early on Saturdays, swipe the quarters off our dressers, and wait outside Zip’z, a local ice cream / “make you your own sundae” shop so we could be the first inside to play Asteroids. As a Gen X child of the ’80s, my formative years were deeply shaped by the dawn of the videogame era. Aside from the Six-Million-Dollar Man and Bo Derek, few things obsessed me more than Pong, Space Invaders, and Asteroids.

So naturally, I was drawn to the recent longform feature on the birth of Pong, the first popular video game you could play at pizza places and restaurants. Atari Teenage Riot: The Inside Story Of Pong and the Video Game Industry’s Big Bang by Chris Stokel-walker looks at the people behind the came and how it launched the home video game industry, which is now bigger and more profitable than the movie business.

Animated Pong Graphic

Art by Buzzfeed

[Just as an aside, let me take my writer hat off for a second and put on my designer hat: this story, as posted on Buzzfeed, has a wild and entertaining layout packed with animated graphics and retro-styled artwork (sample above), so be sure to check it out there rather than on any aggregator or reader-friendly tool like Instapaper or Pocket. The design really enhances the story and evokes the goofy, campy vibe of early Atari era.]

The story draws from interviews with the key players at Atari to build a straightforward chronological history of the birth of the first mass-market video game. He explores the roots of the industry in the 1960’s, how the creators came together, how game was built, the competition they faced, and how the business grew. Chris Stokel-walker infuses the story with a authentic sense of reverence, treating the story of Pong as if he were tracing the steps of Civil War figures. It opens with a focus on building that used to be Andy Capp’s Tavern, the first bar to have Pong available for customers.

He doesn’t lose focus of the characters in the narrative, which help make the history feel more vivid that it would be if it focused more on the technology:

In spite of the cramped Ampex office, Bushnell and Dabney became close when Bushnell asked Dabney to learn the Japanese board game Go so he would have a playing partner. “We’d only play at lunch,” Bushnell says — the idea of goofing off during the day was anathema to him. The duo graduated from a cheap and flimsy board to one handcrafted from a $6 offcut.

“I carved the board out of an inch-and-a-half-thick board and put a Videofile logo on the other side so it could hang on the wall,” Dabney recalls. When the two played, the board sat on top of a trash can, a coincidental foreshadowing of the future: The original Pong prototype in Andy Capp’s would sit squat on top of a barrel, people huddled around it.

Go was useful in another way as the two young men left Ampex to eventually launch their video game venture: When the local authorities told Bushnell and Dabney that a roofing contractor had already claimed the nerd-friendly sobriquet Sygyzy, they used a term from Go that was equivalent to chess’s “check” for their newly incorporated company: . Anglicized, that spells Atari.

After Bushnell and Dabney left Ampex, many of their colleagues thought they were crazy. “I felt kind of sorry for Nolan and Ted,” says engineer Al Alcorn, who would shortly join them. “They were quitting a good career at Ampex to go off and do this strange thing. That was the conventional wisdom: Where did these guys go wrong?”

The story also has great anecdotes about the unexpected addictive popularity of Pong, which, in retrospect, seems quaint and naive:

Within a few days, Bill Gattis, who ran the bar, was on the phone to Atari. “The machine had stopped working; I was told to go fix it,” Alcorn explains. ”I stopped over on my way home from work, and much to my surprise, the coin box was overflowing, gushing with quarters.”

“It’s weird,” Gattis told Alcorn as he counted the impressive bounty. “I’ve got guys at my doorstep at 10 a.m. when the place opens. They’re not drunks. They come in, play the Pong game, and don’t buy any beer.” Alcorn listened, and swapped out the milk jug for something a little bigger — a bread pan.

As a history of the game, the story is thoroughly and exhaustively reported. The research and homework are evident. My one quibble with the feature is that there’s more telling than showing in the piece. The story’s strengths are the interviews Stokel-walker had with founders Nolan Bushnell and Al Alcorn, but aside from some quick descriptions of their height or age, we don’t really “see” either men or how they live now. We don’t get much sense of their personality. The reader gets only a passing sense of these men and a wealth of their recollections. I can’t really tell from the story whether he met them in person or talked to them over the phone.

One thing I’ve always admired about the work of Malcolm Gladwell is that when he interviews people, he almost always gives the reader a rich sense of what that person and their office or workplace looks like — you feel like you’re in the space with Gladwell and can see each person as a living character in his story. I wish Stokel-walker had done more of that here. The story is close to 5000 words, and he covers a lot of ground in that space, but it would have been great if he could have slowed down a little and provided the reader with more visual details and description. Longer would have been fine. I get the sense that when writing and editing this story, he had to leave a lot of great stuff in his notes. If Stokel-walker releases a book-length version of this story, I’m buying it.

Still, this is a fine story and must-read for interested in the early days of the video game era. Stokel-walker presents a rich history of the birth of an industry.

Read Atari Teenage Riot:The Inside Story Of Pong and the Video Game Industry’s Big Bang →

The Passover Narrative

Growing up half-Catholic, half-Jewish and about 90% agnostic, I didn’t really grow up in a particularly religious home. We celebrated four big holidays — Christmas, Hanukkah, Passover, and Easter — but none of them very seriously. Christmas and Hanukkah were about trees, candles, and presents; Easter was about a basket of candy; Passover was a dinner with a lot of pre-meal reading.

Passover tells stories of how the Jews escaped slavery, struggled, then found their way to Israel. As a kid, I understood this was a good and important story, to be sure, but it wasn’t the most relevant thing in the mind of a pre-teen boy.

For most years since I’ve been an adult, I didn’t observe Passover at all. But last week, my wife and I joined some friends for a Passover seder on our block. Unlike the hagaddah (for the gentiles in the house: that’s the book you read from during the meal) from my childhood, we used a more modern version by someone called the Velveteen Rabbi. Maybe it’s this version of the readings, or maybe it’s me, or maybe it’s all my recent study of narrative and storytelling, but I saw the whole idea of Passover in a new light.

The entire meal is a narrative, with symbolic gestures that go along with the story. You eat horseradish to remember the bitter times. You dip parsley in saltwater to remember the tears of suffering. You eat matzoh to recall that Jews had often had to eat on the move. Like Thanksgiving to Americans, Passover is about taking one night to remember the power of perseverance and appreciate good fortune.

I love this passage about the story of Moses:

God spoke to him from a burning bush, which though it flamed was not consumed. The Voice called him to lead the Hebrew people to freedom. Moses argued with God, pleading inadequacy, but God disagreed. Sometimes our responsibilities choose us

The story is about Moses, but who can’t relate to the idea of taking on challenges we don’t want?

And then there’s this section, which explores the idea of slavery beyond the literal reference of the history of the jews, suggesting that in modern times, we often enslave ourselves:

“Avadim hayinu; ata b’nei chorin. We were slaves, but now we are free.” Is this true? Though we no longer labor under Pharaoh’s overseers, we may still be enslaved—now in subtler ways, harder to eradicate. Do we enslave ourselves to our jobs? To our expectations? To the expectations of others? To our fears?

Tonight we celebrate our liberation from Egypt—in Hebrew, Mitzrayim, literally “the narrow place.” But narrow places exist in more ways than one. Let this holiday make us mindful of internal bondage which, despite outward freedom, keeps us enslaved.

This year, let our celebration of Passover stir us to shake off these chains. Our liberation is in our own hands.

It’s taken me a few decades of experience to have a better idea what the holiday is all about. It’s not just old stories of where our people came from; it’s recognizing history in order to better see the world and our life more clearly. Like a good book or a fine piece of writing, the narrative brings with it multiple meanings and interpretations. Sometimes you just have to look at it with a fresh eye.

Theme: Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.