A pirate and his wench sing Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum as they stumble past a 12-tent Roman encampment. Inside, centurions chitchat in Latin and polish their shields. Yards away is a Wild West mining town, complete with Bank (recently robbed), Saloon, and Surgery, easily identified by the amputated limbs piled outside.
Every July, people come to the Fort MacArthur Museum grounds to dress up as sorry, to be historical characters from all eras. Youve got bearded Celts, antebellum belles, GI Joes and Friar Tucks. Pitched battles rage all around, and cannons are let off every hour or so. Its a bit like Bill and Teds Excellent Adventure, except its in San Pedro. The only thing missing is Abe Lincoln (apparently there were three last year, but they got in a cat fight about who had the best costume). As my guide Owen told me, This place makes Burning Man look tame.
Most days, Owen, 39, is in fashion (hes a stylist). But today hes in Nam. This is my dark secret, he confides, sporting a bullet belt, green face paint and an SLR (self-loading rifle). Hes had a thing about Vietnam since watching Apocalypse Now and seeing the Clash wear tiger-striped pants. Im a trendy guy. I have a Mohawk, he says. But you live in L.A. and do your stupid job and talk shit all day sometimes you need a little escapism, right?
He tries to show us round, but ends up getting in a fight with a bunch of marauding pirates. Pirate women are gun-toting, hard wenches, he informs me. You have to call them wenches, otherwise they get upset, he adds.
A couple of gladiators are engaging in some serious swordplay nearby. It feels like weve just stepped into Pompeii. Look at those masks and baby oil. Thats kinky, yells Owen, who is Irish. That is West Hollywood right there.
I approach one of the gladiators, whos wearing solid silver head protection and an impressive farmers tan. Your helmet looks heavy, I say. Does it hurt your head? No, he says, explaining that theres very good padding inside. Hes a religious-studies professor.
One of his friends is wearing some serious Roman regalia. Are you a centurion? I ask. Nope, hes an optio. Has been for 17 years. Optios are second in command to centurions. He hopes one day to be promoted. At least Im not a gladiator, he whispers.
According to Owen, many re-enactors believe themselves to be the reincarnations of the historical characters they play. Ive talked to these guys for years and years, and many of them say, I feel like I was there, he says.
Take Rik Fox, for instance.
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Rik once played bass in the 80s heavy metal band WASP. Now hes a winged hussar, a swashbuckling Polish warrior from the 17th century. Rik (a.k.a. Rotmistrz Pan Ryszard Sulima Suligowski) has the full gear cavalry saber, lance, long wooden shield, metal armor, and a pair of huge feathered angel wings on his back (for a while, it was the in thing for hussars to wear angel wings as they rode into battle.)
Rik first became involved in the re-enactment scene after leaving the music biz in the 1990s. He started out at the Renaissance fairs before delving more deeply into his Polish ancestry and finding out about the noble hussars. He becomes emotional when asked to describe the first time he saw a real hussars suit of armor. I realized I was home, he says, tears rolling down his cheeks.
Since that moment, Rik has harbored two dreams. First, he wanted to meet the late Pope John Paul II in his winged armor and receive the papal blessing. I believe he would have opened the door for me to do what I wanted to do with this group, he says, pointing to his fellow winged hussars, all four of them, one of which is his fiancée.
Its too late for that but his second dream could yet happen. I want Hollywood to make a movie about the winged hussars, he says, adding that he would very much like a role in the movie. Just imagine if I walked into a production meeting with Ridley Scott and Jerry Bruckheimer, wearing the wings. Their jaws would drop, dont you think?