By James Brabenec, Fort SillOctober 18, 2012
FORT SILL, Okla. -- A thick layer of cloud cover hid contrails and other evidence of the modern world as Fort Sill again returned to its roots -- 1869-70 -- during Frontier Army Days, Oct. 13 and 14 at the Old Post Quadrangle.
Hundreds of junior high and elementary school children received a first-hand glimpse of life on the prairie for cavalry, infantry and artillery Soldiers.
Under the watchful eyes of teachers and parents, 85 students from Bishop Public School in Lawton, acquainted themselves with a time when the finer things of life, such as homemade soap or a wool dress, were much simpler.
"Anytime they can experience history live it's something children don't often get," said Donna Cook, a Bishop fifth and sixth grade math and science teacher. "Every year it feels like a whole different experience, the historical interpreters say something new that brings history to life for me, too."
Standing outside the barracks built by Buffalo Soldiers, Wallace Moore "held class" in the garb of an 1870s cavalry first sergeant. The burly enlisted man said his family history extended back to the Old West when his great, great grandfather was a slave to Creek Indians.
Moore said God blessed him with a talent to tell stories, something he's done since he was a child. "Imagine if you will" he began ... telling a story of a battle fought by black Soldiers and American Indians.
"As long as the stories I tell are historically correct, I do my best to disguise history in a cloak of entertainment," he said. "I'm not just telling school children a story, I'm giving them a history lecture."
Continuing, Wallace spoke to a quiet group of students gathered close and focused on the long ago lives of men he resurrected through his story. Pausing now and then, he responded to questions appreciating the depth and understanding junior high school students revealed through their hard questions.
"Most of these students are studying American history during the western expansion, so they are the right age for me to relate to and teach," he said. "I enjoy this time with them immensely."
Nearby several horses stood tethered to a rope as other cavalry Soldiers acquainted students with a horse Soldier's gear all carefully packed and available while he rides. The cavalry performed the important task of scouting out lands around post serving as the post commander's eyes. Sgt. T.E. Mayo, 4th U.S. Cavalry, the only Oklahoma-based cavalry re-enactment unit, shared his wisdom of Oklahoma history. He said the intelligent questions students asked was the best feedback re-enactors can receive.
Although many stations arrayed about the OPQ focused on soldiering tasks, other re-enactors showed students some support functions that happened right there at camp.
Sarah Dumas, from the Oklahoma History Society, showed students how people did common household tasks. Whether making soap out of pig fat and lye, pressing clothes with a 8-pound iron or taking advantage of Oklahoma's fall breezes to dry clothes, these duties took up quite a bit of time for women and their children. Stooping to authentic washboards and tubs, students put learning to practice as they wet clothing and scrubbed it over the washboards. No gentle washing instructions were required, because 19th century clothing was created from cotton, linen or wool.
Once clean and dry, students watched as re-enactors used fire-heated irons, so named because of the type of metal they were forged from, to turn a wrinkled tunic into something acceptable to wear and be seen in.
Another re-enactor, Jacob Harris, Oklahoma History Society director of education, served as the camp's surgeon and dentist. Students cringed, groaned and laughed nervously as he told them about inconsequential maladies of the current world that 150 years ago could seriously incapacitate or kill a person. Although many of the students were likely squeamish when learning of Jacob's methods, none hesitated to raise a hand and volunteer to become his next patient. He then told them of a particular ailment, such as a toothache and his diagnosis.
"That's not good," he deadpanned, though his method reached far beyond drawing a few laughs.
"I always say that's not good usually by second time the students key in on it, and the third time they have it. I like to do some things that help with repetition, because when you're developing a memory even little pieces like that, help them remember more information," said Jacobs.
Holding a heavy looking instrument aloft for all to see, the good doctor first showed the students what a frontier dentist would use to pull an infected tooth. Then, standing over the patient, he told them how the dentist would hold a patient down so he could wrap the instrument around the hurting tooth, apply pressure and yank it out.
At the back fringes of those gathered, an Army Combat Uniform-clad Soldier stood. Sgt. 1st Class Curtis Yeager, Headquarters Detachment, Fires Center of Excellence, came out to spend some time with his son, Scott. He said he gained a new appreciation for what Soldiers endured back then as compared to what today's Soldiers experience.
"I can't imagine getting a tooth pulled by that tool, not without medicine," he said. "I don't think I could deal with that."
Jacobs showed the students the rest of the tools of his trade he used as a Victorian-era surgeon. That doctor along with an assistant took care of everybody on post 800 to 1,000 Soldiers and officers, and their wives, of which he said might include 20-25 women. Medical care options were extremely limited with drives to a big town taking weeks or months to reach. Jacobs said, "Little Rock" and asked the students where the town was located. He received a unison response, "Arkansas;" Shreveport didn't yet appear to be on the students' radar as none said Louisiana. But, San Antonio received a loud, "TEXAS!"
Looming less than 100 yards away, a 6-pounder Napoleon, a field artillery piece used in the Civil War and into the 1870s rested on its carriage between thunderous blasts.
Cpl. Harry Shappell spoke for the Army Field Artillery Museum Gun Detachment and told students about the different projectiles the gun fired and the gun crew's duties.
Placing a charge bag into the muzzle of the gun, Gordon Blaker then used a rammer to shove the bag tight against the bottom of the barrel. A short time later the gunner yelled "fire!" and a loader pulled the lanyard sparking and igniting the charge that belched out the gun's muzzle in a spray of flame and smoke.
All about the quadrangle young and old alike admired the historic field piece as again announced then, now and for the future it is the "King of Battle."