A few months ago, I posted here about the childhood influences that instilled in me a deep connection to the natural world and a profound sense of place. My passion for history and fondness for role play also dovetailed nicely with childhood experiences of living history museums and the theater, and since I have a great deal of photographic evidence to document these seeds of creativity, a visual retrospective seems in order.
Unlike the households of my childhood contemporaries, where access to television was apparently unlimited, the tube was a minor part of my upbringing and most of what I was exposed to was educational programing and nature specials. There were, admittedly, a couple of years in the mid 70s when we had a very rudimentary cable service - purchased for Watergate coverage, I suspect - and as I was in a Wild West phase, I was allowed to watch F-Troop and The Lone Ranger. Then we moved to where television reception was virtually non-existent and we barely missed it. Ours was a family that read aloud and listened to stories instead of watching programs, and I was enthralled by classic tales of The Black Arrow and Treasure Island. For Hallowe'en I was Davy Crockett, a conquistadore, Zorro.
We also went to museums quite frequently, and New England is blessed with some of the very best natural and living history venues in the country. It saddens me to learn that places like Old Sturbridge Village, Mystic Seaport and Plimoth Plantation report declining attendance and fear becoming irrelevant without adding substantial bells and whistles to attract modern youth. I first went to the New Bedford Whaling Museum when I was five, so while the rest of my classmates in kindergarten were focused on Planet of the Apes action figures and "The Fonz", I was striding an imaginary quarterdeck and hurling harpoons at leviathans.
With Buzzard's Bay as my childhood playground, it is natural that my early fantasies often had a maritime bent. Another major influence was summer theater. Here I am in 1977 after my first exposure to Gilbert and Sullivan at the College Light Opera Company in Falmouth, MA, where my Grandmother had five season tickets. I am a character actor by inclination, and appear at left as "The Monarch of the Sea" and at right as Dick Dead-Eye. The costumes are my own creation, and I have shanghaied my sister for a sailor. Although I did not have the foresight to use a fat sharpie marker on the placard she holds - and thus you cannot read the words "HMS Pinafore" - I clearly had the instincts of an archivist even at this tender age.
After wearing deep grooves in my vinyl D'Oyly Carte "Pinafore" albums, I had the chance to appear in our 8th grade stage production as The Captain. My sister reprised her role as a sailor. I'm afraid I stole the show in classic fashion, not just with my particularly fine way with "the cat" but by ensuring that my uniform was better than even that of Sir Joseph Porter KBG. I found a pair of epaulets in the attic costume drawer at our school and made certain they found their way onto my captain's coat. These were my Civil War reenacting days as well, and if you enlarge these images you will find that about my haughty frame is girt a confederate cavalry saber. "Things are seldom what the seem" also at right, as "Little Buttercup" is also my 8th grade sweetheart.
From "Pinafore" to "Pirates of Penzance" is but a short step, and here I am in 1978 sailing a buccaneer's barque across our lawn. This was a fabulous contraption, with an old iron sewer pipe for a bow chaser and a croquette set providing cannonballs. The anchor is made of Styrofoam - I believe I dissected a cooler I found in our garage - and the snow tires stacked one atop the other made a fine crow's nest. Far from a "three hour tour", however, my freebooting cruise lasted long enough to burn the grass as well as enemy vessels to the waterline and our jolly ship was exiled to dry dock in our garage.
My passion for Civil War history is readily apparent to readers of Walking the Berkshires, and as already noted in the preceding post I organized the neighborhood kids into a New York volunteer infantry company when I was in the 5th grade. We marched and bivouacked all over the 600-odd acres of Millbrook School, and after I had corrected the tendency of my younger recruits to shout "I see a Japanese plane!" when it should have been Jackson's foot cavalry, we were a rather crack unit, all things considered. However, as this photograph illustrates, we were not above a bit of burning and looting when marching through Georgia. My father the headmaster laid in a stock of extremely affordable wine for school entertaining - Almaden, I believe - and the bottles were such marvelous 19th century shapes we made sure to keep a pile of empties on hand as props for the thirsty work of raiding wagon trains or sailing the Spanish Main.
One of these days, I shall have to write about the Battle of Netcong, and the divided loyalties faced in our family when half of us went to a confederate reenactment jamboree at a Wild West Village in western New Jersey, while the other half marched down 5th Avenue alongside Hiroshima survivors with nearly 1,000,000 other no-nukes activists in the biggest peace rally of the 1980s. I leave it to your imagination to decide which event my Mom and I attended, but in my defense I will add that had the schedules not conflicted, I would have gladly participated in both.
In high school I was happiest on stage, and played comic roles in productions of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying", "Guys and Dolls", and "The Sound of Music". I also played the leading man in the unmemorable "Applause", at left, but I got to wear my Zoot Suit. More to my taste and talents was the role of Nicely Nicely Johnson, at right. The clothes are also mine, purchased to circumvent boarding school dress codes by wearing the most hideous combination of fat Barney Miller ties and horrible Herb Tarlick checks. I was compared favorably in this period to a young John Belushi, and less to my liking, to Mickey Dolenz of the Monkees. For some reason I was not particularly successful at dating in high school, and perhaps the clothes have something to do with it.
This was certainly not a problem in college, although my attire was just as dramatic and outlandish. What is hopeless geeky to the in-clique of high school girls can be suddenly darkly appealing when they get to college. Facial hair may have helped, too: I haven't seen my upper lip since I was 20. And who can resist a toga-clad Zeus, hurling lightning bolts at mortals? I am accompanied at left by another deity of that pantheon, Hades, Lord of the Underworld. He appears to be wearing a toga with Snoopy and other Peanuts characters on it, and perhaps a dancing beagle is a mark of the Beast in Greek mythology.
Since my college days, I have been a frequenter of Renaissance faires garbed in doublet and hose, and was married in a top hat and frock coat wearing my grandfather's vest of McNab plaid. I've attended other weddings in African traditional dress and spent blissful years in the Namibian bush clad in safari cloth and a wide brimmed Akubra. My facial hair changes as regularly as my hairline recedes, and I'm as at home in a mountaineer's helmet as in OSHA approved chainsaw gear. The fact that my children are never as happy as when they are in costume feels utterly right to me, and what a costume box they have inherited!