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. Linden Lane
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Time traveler

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Associate Dean D. Michael Ryan practices history in his spare time. Interview by Cara Feinberg

In Concord, Captain Billy Smith. Photo by Gary Wayne Gilbert

In Concord, Captain Billy Smith. Photo by Gary Wayne Gilbert

What does it take to be a historical interpreter at Minute Man National Historical Park in Concord, Massachusetts?
Well, it takes research, of course, but there's something else. When I do first-person interpretation, I prepare as if I were an athlete. I arrive a half hour before the public, to warm up. By the time the public gets there, I am Captain Billy Smith, the often drunken, nowadays forgotten, only brother of Abigail Adams.

Who else is in your repertoire?
Jonas Bateman, a farmer and minuteman; Dr. John Cuming, a Concord physician and town meeting moderator; Dr. Charles Russell, a Lincoln physician; and Fr. Bernard Flood, a Catholic priest from Concord. From April through November, I also take part in historical reenactments. This past weekend, the 18th-century music group in which I drum and sing, the Jolly Rogues, went to a colonial weekend on a farm up in Newbury—we were entertainers in a military encampment. We stayed in period tents and cooked stews and broths over an open fire.

Wasn't there a nor'easter that weekend?
If you're into it, you don't count on weather one way or the other.

What is the greatest sin a reenactor can commit?
Not handling a weapon properly. Bayonet sticks are common. As a Vietnam veteran, I've been around weapons and I know how important it is to pay attention.

Some of the people who take these reenactments too seriously have never been in the military. You find them on all sides—British, American, Hessian, French. Sometimes, they cause fighting within the units. In fact, I have never been in a unit that didn't have infighting.

Do you use real muskets?
The only thing we don't have is musket balls.

How real does it feel in a battle reenactment?
Even though the public's watching, you're out there on your own with nothing but the smell of the gunpowder, the sweat, the people screaming and falling all around you, and the ground shaking as the cavalry charges down the hill. For those 10 minutes, you're there.

Why do you do it?
I know what it's like in war to feel your chest pounding from fear and excitement—and I don't reenact because I want that experience again. Somewhere in my soul is the historical connection. As a kid, I used to sneak into an old barn behind our house. I'd find old newspapers, pieces of farm equipment. I'd wonder what the place looked like 100 years ago.

In battle, how do you decide who will be a casualty?
We usually decide beforehand—all battles are scripted right down to hand-to-hand combat. But sometimes, if you're tired or you run out of gunpowder, you just drop.

Do onlookers ever jump in?
Once in Quebec, we were doing a battle reenactment on the Plains of Abraham. I was playing a French priest ministering to the dying and wounded on the field when two British soldiers came down the hill. They winked, so I knew they were going to come over and hassle me. One of them took out his musket and pretended to hit me and I spun around and fell in the mud. The crowd started surging and swearing in French. The two soldiers took off.

Are you partial to a particular side?
I've been on all sides: minuteman, militiaman, I've been a French ensign. The only army I haven't served in is the Hessian.

How come?
I don't have the uniform.

 


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