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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Jefferson Barracks

So, just a heads-up: this post is pretty long, and it's not strictly within my usual theme. I wrote it during my last semester of school, and it's the only thing with a 'J' I could think of using for the challenge. Sorry! Hope you like it anyway :)

If you look up Jefferson Barracks online, you will find it listed under many headings. Military Post, National Cemetery, County Park. Constructed in October 1826, the Barracks was both a training center and Hospital complex during the Civil War, and it served as a major gathering site for troops and supplies until World War Two. Stretching two miles along the west bank of the Mississippi, it covers almost 2,000 acres of rolling wooded hills on the outskirts of St. Louis City.
Make a right at the intersection of Kingston Drive and South Broadway, and you’ll drive past a little grey stone gatehouse and short, matching stone walls at the corner of Grant and Gregg as you enter the park. It’s hard to believe they actually existed when the Post was in use; they’re too pretty, too clean, too ornamental to have provided any real defense. But to the uninitiated, it must seem as if you’re driving into history itself.
This is the only concession they’ve made to the past, however. Throughout most of the Barracks—the parts open to the public at least—it’s out with the old and in with the new. New trees, new roads, new buildings. There are shaded bike paths, covered picnic tables, baseball fields and volleyball nets. Every once in a while you might spot an older-looking building, but most of these are inaccessible, and few, if any, are actual remnants of the once-important Civil War base.
Every year, though, in Spring, Jefferson Barracks hosts reenactments of famous battles of both the Civil War and World War Two, and the last weekend of April is World War Two Weekend. Hundreds of reenactors come from all over the country in authentic WWII gear representing US, British, Russian, Canadian, German, and Italian Forces. Some arrive with authentic working tanks, trucks, half-tracks and jeeps, driving through the park like emissaries of history itself. From Friday to Sunday afternoon, there are both Allied and Axis campgrounds set up with period correct displays. Green, Brown, and Orange canvas tents flutter in the breeze, surrounding small campfires. There is the constant ringing of hammer on metal as stakes are driven into the ground, securing the tents, and booming gunfire from weapons and tanks.
Many reenactors actually live the experience, sleeping and eating in camp—period-appropriate food and drink only in camp, of course—for the whole weekend. There are weapons and equipment demonstrations, the sale and trade of gear among collectors and reenactors, and, of course, the battles. None of the reenactors, vendors, or other personnel are paid for their part in the event, and there is no admission cost for any of the 20,000 plus attendees.
My dad got into WWII reenactment in 1998, when I was about eight years old, through a friend of his at work. He was British Airborne, a paratrooper. He started off with a gun and some gear, borrowing everything else he might need from friends. Ever since, our basement has slowly accumulated period gear and weapons, framed newspaper clippings already yellowed and fragile with age, and books about WWII planes, ships, battles and weapons. Descending those stairs almost feels like time travel; even the furniture down there looks old. And every Spring, we’d loot the basement of its relics and head to Jefferson Barracks for WWII Weekend.
Friday was set-up day. It was always my least favorite part of the weekend: the part that involved actual work. Those old tents aren’t really any harder to set up than modern ones—in fact, the whole set-up is much more intuitively designed--no instructions required. But the thick, musty canvas, though much warmer at night, was also much heavier than today’s flimsy nylon or polythene, and by the time we were old enough to camp out with him—I might have been about twelve, my sister nine—we were not quite old enough to be patient with the process.
It took an hour or two to set up camp, maybe longer, depending on how cooperative my sister and I wanted to be. In addition to the tent we each had canvas cots to sleep on, some of them with men’s names printed in faded ink, and dark spreading stains I never worked up the courage to ask about. We also had small green-painted foot lockers in which we stored our clothes, shoes, food, non-period contraband like Gameboys and CD players, and a space heater for the cooler nights. For light, we had a couple of old oil-lanterns, one painted red, one a dark forest green.
One of my favorite items was a heavy old cooler, made of some thick green-painted metal, where we kept cream and black cherry sodas in glass bottles. These were the only drink we could have outside the tent, since they looked old enough to be period appropriate, at least from a distance. We never kept soda at the house, except for holidays, but for this one weekend in April we ran around on a caffeine high, spying on the ‘Germans,’ flashing fake Morse code to each other through the trees with old, heavy metal flashlights which had red, blue, and white lenses you could change out.
My dad says it’s changed now, but our campsite was always at the end of Gark, right before it turns South and becomes Bagby Road. We had an area all roped off, as if dividing past and present was as easy as that. As a kid, I always took so much pride in the fact that I was allowed to pass that boundary at a whim, to pass in and out of history like a ghost. I remember every once in a while lifting the rope to my shoulder, standing with a foot on either side of the line, defying the constraints of time. It was a powerful thing at an age where most children feel frustratingly powerless, and I loved WWII Weekend much more than I’d ever have admitted because of it.
Unfortunately, with age came a loss of childlike wonder and a new awareness of personal hygiene; by the time I turned fifteen, I refused to do anything that would prevent me from taking a shower every morning. I actually began to care about all the dirt and bugs in the tent and, most horrifically for me, the bathroom. I remember walking into the little bathhouse across the street, and backing right back out again. There were spiders everywhere. Big ones. The sticky webs spread across every stall. They hung from the ceiling. It looked like the place hadn’t been cleaned since it was built. I figured that it was time to quit camping when you’d rather squat outside than use the toilet. No amount of cream soda, even in neat glass bottles, could make up for that.
So I packed away Jefferson Barracks and WWII Weekend with other fond childhood memories and left it behind for, I thought, ever. Despite the odds, however, I did eventually develop a relationship with the second part of the Barracks.
My husband joined the National Guard the year before we were married, and when he had finished his training, he was stationed at Jefferson Barracks. I hadn’t even known until then that that park of the Barracks existed, let alone that the Barracks was still in use by the military. But now my husband travels there once a month for duty. I’ve only been inside myself a couple times, but it still fascinates me, though in a different way than the park and recreation area did years ago.
Make a right at Telegraph and Sherman Avenue, and you’ll travel about a mile past subdivisions full of cute little houses, and an assisted living center for veterans, before you get to the base itself. There are no concessions to history here. No pretty, clean stone walls. It’s surrounded instead by tall chain-link fences with rolled barbed wire at the top, and the little guardhouse is a sturdy, light red brick. Up to the guardhouse, at least, there is a bit of decoration; a small crescent shaped garden with a few dark red bushes and a light stone sundial, grey to match the stone walls around the park. To the left there’s a cute little fighter jet of some sort, polished and painted in splotchy green and brown camo. On the nose, white script reads “Rose’s Gang” above a painted red mouth full of sharp white teeth.
Inside, a row of matching red brick office buildings, many of which are no longer in use, stand in front of the rest of the base like pawns on a chess set. I’ve only been inside two of the buildings. One was new, a pretty red brick to match the rest, with three sets of double glass doors, and columns supporting a balcony above. Inside, it’s all clean white linoleum and paint, stark but modern. Solid, evenly spaced doors line the halls, portals to some office or another, with little signs outside on the walls to label the function of each.
We attended a military ball there last Fall. It was a lot less interesting than it sounded at first; there were a lot of inside jokes and little games that only the officers would have understood, but it was expected that everyone play along. Each place at the long white draped tables was set with a list of rules, and for the longest time we couldn’t figure out whether they were serious or not; there were more than twenty of them, some reasonable and some just plain confusing, and there was no heading on the page to explain that it was a game.
There were a lot of long speeches, and the food was, well, military. If you’ve never had military food, imagine your grade school cafeteria. It was a strange contrast to see people in sparkly ball gowns and tuxes eating off Styrofoam plates.
My husband and I ended up sneaking out early. He was required to stay for the whole thing, but neither of us is particularly social. We tried the front doors, at first, but I didn’t think I could pull off being ‘sick;’ I’ve never been a great actress. So we went out back, with the excuse that we needed a cigarette—neither of us smokes—then we slunk around the side of the building, through the shadows, and ran, backs hunched, through the parking lot to the car. On the way home, we stopped at Borders, and the funny looks we got browsing Sci-Fi in formal wear were much more fun than the ball itself.
The other building I’ve been in matches the rest from the outside, the same nice red brick, but inside it’s all dark wood. The creaky hardwood floors are scuffed and worn, and the walls are covered in old photographs of soldiers who have served at the Barracks at one point or another. This building was where we went to get my military ID, so I’d be allowed on base without having my husband with me. We were led through a dark hall of old wooden doors with tarnished handles to a room with a couple of desks and some old computers which, despite being ancient, seemed comical surrounded by the even more ancient wooden walls.
I remember having to run back and forth from this room to the car, gathering different forms of ID or paperwork, hoping we had everything we needed, because it was a Monday and I had class in Kirksville that afternoon, three hours away. We had our bags packed and thrown in the car, and our cat was frantic for being left alone, though it was nice and cool outside, so every time I opened the door to dig through my bags I had to fight to keep her inside.
We left with my new pink ID after a couple hours’ frantic back and forth. My picture made me look high on some substance or another, and I was too late for class, but as I had at WWII Weekend as a child, I felt included in something larger than myself. Back then, Jefferson Barracks was a gateway to the past; now, through my husband’s service, it’s a connection to my country.
I can’t say I have a very strong relationship with the Barracks’ final aspect. My grandfather is buried in Jefferson Barracks’ National Cemetery, but so are hundreds of thousands of other peoples’ grandfathers. I’ve only visited his grave once in my life, but it is a beautiful place. Row upon row of matching, evenly spaced white headstones stretch for miles across gently rolling hills, the fields dotted here and there with tall, shady oaks. In some places, the headstones reach up to the backyards of houses, like pale, silent ghosts forever on guard against some unseen foe.
Over time, places change, as do our perceptions of them, and the function they serve for us; so it’s been for me with Jefferson Barracks.  I don’t know what the future may hold, but I won’t be surprised if, years from now, this last part of the Barracks’ becomes as dear to me as the rest.

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