Pantheon

Farbs, Fire-Ants and Catfish Whiskers: A Deep South Diary by Tony Horwitz

EARLY SUMMER '98

FRIDAY: Flying from Virginia to Mississippi

The woman at the airline counter scrunches her brow and stares hard at Robert Lee Hodge. "You're checking a what?"

"Antique firearm," Rob says again, hoisting his musket onto the baggage scale. "It's an 1842 smoothbore, the kind a lot of soldiers used at the start of the Civil War."

"Is it loaded?"

"No m'am, not til I go into battle."

Robert Lee Hodge, ready for battle at Raymond Robert Lee Hodge, the hardcore Civil War reenactor who stares from the cover of Confederates in the Attic, is flying with me to Mississippi for the first major battle of the season. "I feel like a farb, flying there instead of marching," he says, settling into a middle seat on the 737. The passenger beside him moves tight against the window. Rob's Civil War jacket hasn't been washed since last year's hard campaigns. "Gunpowder, bacon grease, coffee grounds," Rob says, sniffing his sleeve. "Mostly, though, it's hardcore B.O."

"What's with the hair?" I ask him. Rob's long black ringlets are shimmery and moist.

"Just gel," he confides. "In the War, soldiers were naturally greasy so they didn't have to do this."

As the plane lifts off over the Blue Ridge, I close my eyes and let the past two months unspool like a blurry film against the back of my eyelids. Mostly it's the odd moments from my book tour that keep replaying. Like the radio interviewer who calls my book "Confederates in the Closet: Unfinished Dispatches from the Civil War." Or the North Carolina call-in show that bills itself as "the voice of the right-wing conspiracy." Or the Georgia woman who asks through gritted teeth that I sign a book for her ex-husband, leaving me to wonder if she's giving it to him because she hates my writing.

Weirdest, though, is the West Coast, where the Civil War and its legacy seem as remote as the Ice Age. I ask a young woman in San Francisco whether a northern California audience will even know what a Civil War reenactment is.

"Probably not," she replies. "But I do have some friends who reenact Led Zeppelin's 1972 tour."

Air guitars and trashed hotel bars? Sounds funky--almost as funky as Rob Hodge's reeking jacket, which jars me back to consciousness. I open my eyes to find Rob with his jacket draped in his lap. He's taken out a "housewife," the Civil War term for a sewing kit. Deftly lubricating the thread with a brown lump of wax, Rob starts sewing calico flaps to the inside of the jacket.

"I need some extra pockets for my snuff box, match safe, pipe and tobacco plug," he explains.

Though Rob normally plays Confederate, this weekend he'll join a group of Union hardcores, called the Mudsills. So he's left his rebel duds behind and packed a blue ensemble instead. "This is a standard flannel sack coat," he says of the garment he's sewing. "It's plain and fits loosely, like a sack." Rob's also brought along a more formal "shell jacket" made of satinette and fitted with epaulets. "It's short and hugs your waist," Rob says. "Much more flattering, at least on slim men like me."

As so often before, I'm struck by the contradiction at the core of Civil War reenacting. On the surface it's a hyper-macho hobby, focused on guns and battle. But the longer I hang out with hardcores like Rob, the more they remind me of supermodels, chatting endlessly about their jackets and shoes and hair and how many pounds they've lost since the last event.

The plane touches down in Jackson, and we step out into the legendary heat and humidity of a summer day in Mississippi. William Styron described the experience best: "A small mean death itself, as if one were being smothered to extinction in a damp woolen overcoat." Flies immediately begin buzzing around Rob's fetid jacket. By the time we rent a car, we're both drenched with perspiration.

"Feels good to be working up a sweat again," Rob says as we pull up beside the battleground at Raymond, where North and South fought during the run-up to the siege of Vicksburg. I'm scheduled to meet an ABC television crew filming some rebels, while Rob heads off to join the Mudsills. I ask about his ambitions for the weekend.

"I hope to see some good-looking Feds and shoot a lot of fat Confederate farbs." He stoops over to lace up his brogans. "But the real goal is good memories to take home. The past is better than the present, even if it's just the recent past."

"What do you mean?"

"The present is just a split second. The past lasts forever. You can keep going back to it." With that, Rob hoists the Mexican War musket onto his shoulder, slaps my arm saying "Later, farb," and slopes off into the Mississippi woods.