DIE TO LIVE ANOTHER DAY
April 10, 2008
By ROBERT BIESELIN,
Over the next few months, Glenn Valis will die repeatedly from a gunshot wound. He'll lie facedown in grass, peculiarly dressed, involuntarily moving from time to time, but still dead.
About a half hour after dying, he'll stand up, take a few sips of water from a tin canteen, wipe his brow and make sure not to forget his trusty weapon. Almost miraculously, Valis will walk away from the carnage that surrounds him with nary a scratch.
That scene — which Valis will re-create this spring and summer as a member of the Bergen County-based Revolutionary War reenacting group Outwater's Militia — is the essence of once-modern warfare. Or at least its reenactment. You see, there's an art to dying historically. And, once you're dead, there's an art to surviving.
"When you die, you usually just drop. They don't encourage any dramatic scenes," said Valis, who's been with the group for 12 years and has served as its commander for the past six. "I always try to fall in the shade. It's hot in the summer with the sun beating down on you, so it's best to find a nice cool spot to die."
It doesn't sound like a glorious way to spend a Saturday afternoon, but for many in this historic area, reenacting our nation's war for independence from England is a hobby and a lifestyle. While the Civil War remains the subject of most reenactments across the United States, the Revolutionary War captures the interest and hearts of many in this area.
Ironically, Valis, 53, embraced the clothes and customs of the 18th century after interacting with the most modern of tools.
"I ... started doing some research online and thought it would be really neat to do some reenacting," said Valis, who reached out to the modern-day incarnation of Outwater's Militia, a Hackensack-based company of civilians that assumed several military responsibilities — from protecting settlements from British raiders to securing transports and supply shipments.
At the time, the entire area immediately west of Manhattan was a contentious ground where loyalties were split and clashes between Bergen County's Dutch colonists and Manhattan-based British troops were common. The scenario had locals looking toward militias like that of Capt. John Outwater for help, according to Kevin Wright of the Bergen County Historical Society.
For Scott Barone, 44, of Paramus, who serves as a member of the Elizabeth-based Jersey Blues, another group of reenactors, re-creating the Revolution is about paying homage to the region's past.
"I started reading books about the suffering and the sacrifice that these people made," he said. "You read about it in school and see the signs that say 'Washington slept here,' but this really reminds you how important Bergen County and New Jersey were to the war."
Like Outwater's Militia, Barone's group, which replicates a unit of the Continental Army that saw action from Canada to Monmouth, takes part in approximately 10 to 12 events a year and has a modest membership. While some storied Civil War companies can draw as many as 900 members, Outwater's Militia and the Jersey Blues have about 20 and 40, respectively.
On most days, reenactors like Barone and Valis look normal enough. They hold average jobs (Valis is a warehouse associate for a trucking company; Barone is a technical manager for accounting firm KPMG International in Montvale). And outside of work, each has a family and other hobbies (Valis enjoys country-western dancing with his wife; Barone likes woodworking and coaches his twin 6-year-old boys at T-ball).
"We're not that weird," said Barone about his group, "we just dress funny."
Come event time, though, re-enactors "really get into character," said Valis. Is there a man in line at Starbucks wearing handmade breeches, stockings and a waistcoat? Chances are he's a Revolutionary War reenactor. Does he have a replica musket and smell faintly of gunpowder? You'd better hope he's a reenactor.
When it comes down to it, authenticity is key to reenactors. While they no longer use authentic period materials — as the founders of Brigade of the American Revolution did when they started one of the country's first reenactment groups in 1962 — they do their best to make it as real as possible.
"By actually [reenacting battles], you learn why they did certain things, you learn more about the time period, and you also get to educate others at the same time," said Valis.
Now, everywhere Valis goes he's looking for things to incorporate into his weekend life and items to authenticate the contents of his haversack and make his monthly "deaths" as realistic as possible.
Sure, when taken out of context, his appearance and interest may seem a tad silly to some, but Valis said he doesn't mind. He endures the judging glances and curious stares for the same reason that he lies motionless and plays dead under the hot sun at battles every year: In reenacting a soldier's death, he brings the soldier back to life.
"I'm proud of what I do. ... Some of the guys in my unit don't like to dress up until they get to a site because people stare at them, but it doesn't bother me at all," he said. "People wear really funny clothes when they go golfing, and no one gives them a hard time. We're really no different."
Background: Modeled after a militia run by Capt. John Outwater in Hackensack from 1777 to 1783 that protected Dutch colonists from British- and loyalist-led invasions.
Number of current members: 20
Accepting new members: Yes
Web site: outwatersmilitia.com
3rd New Jersey Regiment (aka Jersey Blues)
Background: Formed in 1776 in Elizabethtown, the unit of the Continental Army that this group is modeled after saw action in Canada and upstate New York before taking part in the battles of Short Hills and Monmouth.
Number of current members: 40
Accepting new members: Yes
Web site: jerseyblues.org
Copyright 2008 Bergen Record Corp. All rights reserved.