Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Soldier Who Came to Dinner, Chapter 2



After my young companion’s tent was packed into his own vehicle, he asked me to help him aid the others in packing up their tents, accoutrements and cooking utensils. “It’s a common re-enactor courtesy. Everyone helps everyone else strike the camp,” He explained. After this young man conversed with the leaders of the group and sincerely thanked them for an enjoyable weekend, he told me that we were ready to depart. He opened up his vehicle by thumbing a strange little device he removed from his trouser-pocket, and instructed me to climb in. The vehicle had opened up all by itself! He told me not to touch anything inside the “car”, as it had been sitting in the sun for some time and its interior would be like an oven. Indeed it was. He was able to retract the window-panes into the doors of the “car” and let the hot air leave. After about one minute, it was cool enough to sit comfortably. He then asked me if I was ready. He looked over at me to be sure I was seated correctly in this thing.

He told me to reach up over my shoulder and pull out a cloth band, and pull it down around me. He then fastened it at my left side so one band went across my stomach, the other diagonally across my chest, much like the sling of my cartridge-box. He explained this was to restrain me in the event of an accident. “But sir,” I said, “Is it not better to be thrown clear of a vehicle in the event of an accident?” He told me “Definitely not!” These vehicles travel very, very fast; and to be thrown out usually meant certain death. He described how my skull would shatter against the hard glass shield in front of me, as I would be propelled into it at sixty miles an hour and turn my brain into custard, before I politely asked him to stop. “Just buckle your d------ seat belt and don’t argue with me. I don’t wanna get arrested by the Police. It’s a Federal law. Now hold on, and try not to scream. We have to take the freeway system back to my Aunt’s house. This may be very frightening to you.”

He explained to me as best he could that these “cars” could travel much faster than a locomotive on full steam, and that they did not need rails to guide them, but were free to go anywhere, being under the driver’s full control. We would be travelling on a very hard surface made of a mixture of hardened tar, gutta-percha and rocks, and travel in a “herd” of similar vehicles, all under independent control. Everyone would be going in one direction, but not to the same place. He warned me not to yell or shout at other drivers or make gestures at them, even if they were driving erratically, for this would anger them. They could possibly even pull out a gun and shoot us!! Lord have mercy!! He also told me not to touch anything on the “dashboard” in front of me and to leave the full operation of the vehicle to him. After asking me again if I was going to stay calm, he said we were now ready to go.

I saw him take out a small, shiny key from his pocket, much smaller than a house-key. He inserted this key into a slot on the side of the steering-wheel, and sharply turned it. The entire vehicle shook slightly as it made a roaring sound, like a lion. Then the roar subsided to a droning as of a swarm of bees buzzing, and then this calmed to the low chugging noise the cart made. He told me this meant the engine was at idle. “Now I’m gonna try and take this easy. I’ll accelerate slowly.” I looked down and he shifted a lever into the “D” position. The lever notches were marked “P - N – D – 1 – 2- 3” in that order. D meant “drive.” He then worked a foot-pedal, like that of a sewing-machine; and pressed it slowly towards the floor of the car.

The vehicle began to move forward. Slowly at first, as it moved across the grass field toward a dirt road. He instructed me to hold on as it would get bumpy, and it did. It chattered my teeth as we hit the loose stones. After about a mile of this, we were approaching the main road which would travel through the countryside to the freeway ramp. He turned on to this road, after looking to his left and right to be sure the way was clear. Then we took off. I saw a dial on the board behind his steering-wheel climb up to 35 m-p-h, whatever that was. This was rather pleasurable. It felt like travelling on a steam train. The scenery flew by in a colorful blur. I enjoyed looking out the window-glass at the farms which passed us. So far the land did not look unfamiliar to me. I even noticed some of the same houses and barns were still there. I noticed that telegraph poles were strung along both sides of the road. I asked my driver if this was common.

He said, “Uh, explained simply….yes. Telegraphs are very much in use today. Though not in the form in which you’d recognize them. I want to show you something. Would you like to hear some music? It can be very enjoyable when you’re driving.” I told him I would, very much so.

He instructed me to open up a compartment right in front of where I was sitting, and remove the small glass cases from this compartment and look at them. I did so. These objects were labeled. One said VOICES OF THE PAST: CAMP CHASE FIFES & DRUMS. Another read HARD ROAD: CAMP SONGS OF THE 2ND SOUTH CAROLINA STRING BAND. Inside was a list of songs. It had my favorite song on it! I opened up the small leaflet to discover the lyrics printed inside. In very, very small print. Holding it up to my face because I could barely read it, I cleared my throat and began to sing loudly and merrily over the sound of the engine. He instantly begged me to stop.

“No! no! You don’t sing the songs, it’s recorded! The music is imprinted on that shiny disc so you can play it.” Play it, eh? Expressing my understanding and apologizing, I tried blowing through the hole. Nothing happened. I held up the disc to my ear. I even shook it. Not a sound!

The boy slapped his face. “No! Not like that. You have to play the disc. You put that shiny disc in the slot there, and the song plays for you. Here, let me do it.” Without taking his eyes off the road, he took the disc out of my hand, with his forefinger through the convenient hole in the center, and gently inserted it by its edge into a slot on the panel between the seats. Some numbers flashed and he pushed a button to “jump” to the proper number. And I was startled as the music began to play! Disembodied voices and banjo notes were coming from behind this panel. I put my ear up to the grille-work on either side of it, to see if the voices were coming from in there. But only air was blowing out of them. I wondered if this was some kind of a pipe-organ which needed air to operate. Curious, I inquired to that effect.

“Uh….no…not really. It uses a beam of light to read these tiny grooves on the disc, and this mechanical brain in the car converts it to music.”

“But where are the voices coming from? It sounds like we have a band in the back seat!” “Um…those grilles on the door are called speakers. They vibrate the air with electrical charges transmitted through cables to create sound that we can hear. There’s another speaker behind you. Don’t worry about it. Just sit back and enjoy the music, please. I need to focus.”

That description was enough to satisfy me, so I gladly obliged and leaned back in the padded seat-cushions, and enjoyed the sweet tunes as if they were drifting over the smoky air around the fire. It actually lulled me to sleep, as I gazed out the window-pane at the country gliding by at the speed of a passenger train.

I awakened perhaps only twenty minutes later as the car went over a bump in the road. “What on earth was that?” I asked. “It’s called a speed bump. It’s to prevent idiots from speeding down these country roads and getting into accidents. There are a lot of deer out here at night. They just stand in the middle of the road like cows on a railroad track, and they won’t budge, and they stare at you with their dumb faces until you run them over. They’ll usually wreck your car.” I shuddered at that thought, and was glad that we weren’t night driving. “I noticed a lot of shiny metal signs with symbols on them, young master. Arrows and numbers, and shapes of animals. What are those for?”

He did his best to explain. “O-K. The numbers are the speed limit. But they could also be the names of the state routes we’re on. MPH means Miles Per Hour. It’s how fast you are going. The arrows indicate turns, curves or lane-changes ahead. The deer shapes of course warn about deer and other animal crossings. If you see a red octagon with STOP on it, you stop. No exceptions. YIELD on a red & white triangle means wait for cars to pass before you go. Also, if we get into town you’ll see colored lights which direct traffic. Red means stop, yellow means proceed carefully and green means go. A lot of people try to go on red lights or keep going as the light goes from green to red, and that’s how accidents happen and people die.”

“Sounds dreadful.”

“Oh, we aren’t even to the freeway yet. The fun hasn’t even started.”

I asked about the dials in front of him. He reached through the steering-wheel and pointed at them. “This one on the left here is the Tachometer. It measures the revolutions per minute—how fast the engine is running. This is the Speedometer. It measures our speed in miles per hour. This smaller one is the fuel, and this one is the engine temperature. Middle is good. Left is off. All the way to the right is bad. That means our engine’s overheating.”

I could sense that the inner workings of this machine were very complicated, and its means of locomotion were beyond me. I could not see where the steam-pistons were, or where the fire was burning. Most of the sound and vibrations seemed to be emanating from the front of the vehicle, underneath that metal cover. I asked if we could look underneath the cover the next time we stop. “Maybe. There’s no easy way to explain how internal combustion works. This car burns oil, like lamp oil, alright? But it makes it explode inside these cylinders which drives pistons up and down, and gears, belts and flywheels transmit that up and down motion to circular rotation, and to a drive shaft and then to the wheels; then you have hydraulics, and various fluids and the electrical system….actually, nevermind. It’s too d----- complicated.” I sensed it was pointless to inquire further; I surmised that even my driver did not actually grasp fully how his own vehicle worked.

I saw a sign up ahead. ROUTE 40. Overlaid on the outline of the state of Maryland. My driver confirmed my growing suspicion that we were approaching the freeway. He instructed me to tighten my seat-belt and that if I became frightened, there were small handles on the door and the roof of the car I could take hold of and hang on to. He called these the “Holy s---t handles” He pushed a button he explained would lock the windows so I couldn’t open them. Another sign became visible. 40 EAST. With an arrow. He instructed me that this was the “on-ramp.”

“Here we go, pal! Hold on to your hat! Please try not to scream” My fearless driver signaled to turn on to the ramp. I saw what must be the freeway up ahead. It was a blindingly-bright swath of road cut across the land, with glistening cars hurtling by so fast it made my head spin. It looked as if they were traveling suicidally fast. He waited until there was a gap in traffic, then pushed the pedal all the way down. The engine roared like a tiger and off we went, like a race-horse leaping off the starting line!

Our vehicle swerved into traffic as I watched the needle on the gauge climb up to…3200 revolutions per minute! Forty….fifty…..sixty……sixty-five miles an hour! Approaching seventy! Needless to say, I held tightly on to the edges of my seat-cushion and whooped loudly like a Johnny doing the Rebel Yell! At first it was thrilling. The scenery flew by so fast it was all a blur! The metal guard-rails looked like a serpent snaking around the turns. Then my fearless pilot said “Gotta switch lanes so we can exit soon. Also we should get ahead of these slowpokes. HOLD ON!” He started to weave through traffic to get himself into the proper lane. I held on to my hat and screamed, I was truly terrified. When we were passing our speed climbed up to almost eighty miles per hour!

Another car was approaching fast from behind; I saw it in the mirror. It was gaining on us rapidly. This bright yellow car passed us on the wrong side like we were standing still! He must have been doing Ninety! I hollered at the top of my lungs, my heart was pounding with terror. At this point I was in a state of distress and was trying not to convey to my cohort just how scared I was. At this dangerous action of the other vehicle, my driver cursed very loudly. “See what I mean? A---holes everywhere. Nobody knows how to drive. Where’s the G-d d---- Police when you need ‘em?” Another car swerved in front of us, completely cutting across our right-of-way! I had to cover my eyes, dear readers, you must understand how I was in such a fright!! The ground rushing by seemed to be spinning. Our car seemed to be spinning around in circles. I prayed silently for it to stop. I just wanted all of it to be over. This was too fast! I could not control the stream of curses or frantic words that were pouring from my mouth. I was gibbering like a madman. I was begging him to stop or slow down, over and over. “Please slow down. Please. I can’t take this anymore. Please! I must get out. Let me out of here!” I was praying and begging my partner to stop the car.

My driver asked me to look over my shoulder, to check if it was clear to do some more lane-hopping. Our exit ramp was coming up on the right, and we were five lanes over! I reluctantly swiveled around in my seat and craned my neck out the back window. “Nothing behind us? Is there a gap? I gotta hop five lanes! I’m gonna take it one at a time so we don’t get killed. Ready? AM I CLEAR, SOLDIER?” “YES! HURRY!” I yelled back at him. By now, dear readers, I was praying fearfully for my life, and the life of my fearless companion. Every time a car passed by us or we passed one so we could hop over, I howled like a scared hound. I was weeping and wailing like a woman! Tears were streaming down my face! Never before in my life had I felt so much in danger! This was truly terrifying! I wanted nothing more to do with these freeways, ever again for as long as I lived.

I do hope that my faithful readers, ladies especially, have not been too thoroughly disturbed by this description of our wild ride on this suicidal freeway. I reassure my dear readers that compared to this horrifying and life-threatening experience; all my other trials and tribulations, and indeed my humiliations, were relatively slight. The freeways are not for the faint of heart. No, sir!

By some miracle of Divine Providence, we made it over to the other side of the road in one piece. And the exit ramp was right before us. He signaled his intentions to get off the freeway, and began to brake. I was thrown forward by the backward force of the vehicle slowing down. I was grateful for the tight restraint of the seatbelt then, I can assure you! We slowed down to a trot, and began to trundle along the local roads into town.

The town of Sharpsburg was not terribly different from how I imagined. Some of the buildings looked different, but many of the old ones were still there. I noticed particularly how telegraph-poles and lines were everywhere. They wove a dense cobweb over the streets, and these traffic signal lights dangled from them. The lines apparently served many purposes. Everywhere I looked there were people, dressed strangely as before. Perhaps not quite as strange. There were men in suits, coattails which looked quite dapper, but they wore no hats. The ladies were still very inappropriately clad, they wore very little and bared their arms and legs. Even the ladies which were not--should I be so bold as to say--handsome. Many had children in tow in these odd unfolding wheeled contraptions, which they pushed along, and many of those women were rather obviously heavily with child. They made no attempt to cover this up, either. They wore very tight-fitting undergarments that hid no unsightly bulge or blubber, and these aforementioned mothers even wore them, unabashedly displaying their burgeoning waist- and bust-lines. Indeed, they just seemed to enjoy displaying every possible inch of their bodies for all the world to see!

By my own standards of course, this was quite uncivilized. It rather made me nauseous. Some of the ladies, especially the young ones, wore these tight blouses that offered no support that a corset normally would, and some nearly bared the breast! It was appalling. And I was struck by the amount of very rotund and corpulent people that waddled around, mingling with the slender and nice-looking ones. The “bigger folk” were not ashamed to go out in public. And they were dressed no differently. Some of these, ladies being no exception, appeared to be wearing the same size garments as their slender partners, though they seemed about to burst! And they were all wearing dark glasses. Some wore sandals like the people of the Orient, but none were entirely barefoot.

Indeed, I saw humanity of every shape, size and description, of all races. Whites, Negroes,Chinamen, Hispanics…were they all Americans? Short ones, tall ones, the very young, the very old…the thick and thin. And the cars were mingled with horse-drawn carts. I did still see the occasional gentleman walking around in military garb, hoop-skirted female companion in hand. The sheer variety of the vox populi was astounding. I found myself riveted to the window-glass, viewing the world from inside a fishbowl. And those strange fifty-star Union flags were everywhere.

Gradually, the hustle-bustle of town gave way to more quaint surroundings. I was now gazing out the window at what were obviously houses. Some were stately manors from my own era; others were very alien looking. Blocky geometry and abnormally sharp roof angles, and large windows with no shutters. They were painted a rainbow of colors, not the simple balck, white, grey and brown we to which we are accustomed. Flowers lined the walkways and promenades. Young children, still not very appropriately dressed, folicked gaily in these spacious yards. Some propelled these strange two-wheeled contraptions with foot-pedals, driven by gears and chains. I thought them a miracle of gravity; how did they not fall over sideways?

My friend was rolling slowly through this thing he called a “neighborhood.” It seemed like quite a pleasant community in which to live. He appeared to be searching for a specific house-number. “one-eleven, one-fourteen, one-seventeen. There. Well, friend, here we are.” He pulled into a short stretch of road in front of this dwelling which ended abruptly at the edge of the house. He called a “drive-way” which seemed odd because we were stopped in it! To further confuse things, he told me sometimes the freeway we were on was also known as a “parkway.” So they drive in park-ways and park in drive-ways! He instructed me to leave my accoutrements in the car but leave my blue coat on, and try not to act “so weird,” not to ask bizarre questions, be polite and only speak if spoken to. I resolved to do my best not to offend this young boy’s family.


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