It was Forth of July weekend, 2017, and I prepared to travel to Setauket, Long Island – the historic location where the spy ring formed so many centuries ago.
I had been working with Nicholas Dalrymple – a young reenactor who’d been portraying Joseph McCracken since he was but a boy – on historical projects of my own, and it just so happened he had been chosen to portray the great Alexander Hamilton in a full-length feature film called, “One Life to Give.” Before I knew it, because of my proximity to the lad, Michael Tessler, the film’s writer, had invited me to partake in the festivities.
The heat took a heavy toll on me that evening as I left the comforts of New Jersey for the Long Island shores, but my spirits were high. After all, I’d always wanted to be in a live action movie, and the opportunity had presented itself… I wasn’t going to turn it down by any means. It took approximately three hours to get to the farm, the filming location and historic battleground where part of the Battle of Long Island actually took place. But weeks before, historians found a cannonball that dated back to the 18th century. Talk about authenticity…
As I pulled into Setauket, ghostly fifes and drums banged around in my head, as if my soul had recognized the area and had been there before. The sky drew darker and a local radio station blared factoids regarding Washington’s and Jefferson’s love and obsession for ice cream. Then approximately twenty minutes later, I arrived at the mouth of the farm; I took a deep breath, as if preparing to meet the Commander in Chief himself, and climbed the dusty winding road.
Three men greeted me upon arrival – Sam, a privateer reenactor, a glorious young man we called “Nugget,” and Jeff, a makeup artist. We exchanged introductions and salutations, as unwritten plotlines unraveled in our mind’s eyes as to how the rest of the weekend was to play out. Then, Master Tessler greeted me with a strong handshake, bear hug and a big “thank you” for quite literally taking part in history. Shortly after that, those still filming wandered from behind the scenes to join the rest of the cast and crew at home base.
One member of the cast, Laura, portraying a nurse, was the first face I’d recognized, as we’d met unofficially on Instagram, and the second was Nicholas Dalrymple. He sure was hot and sweaty, but his face lit up the moment he saw me. We formally introduced each other, as we’d only met over the phone, and he gave me a big hug. It was comforting to be surrounded by those I knew, even of they were friends from the internet.
I grabbed a quick bite to eat, then had to get kitted up shortly after. Nicholas wasn’t messing around and I was anxiously awaiting to head back to the 18th century. Now, as intricately as a man may have dressed back then, it was no easy feat actually putting the clothes on, and, to a modern man, the process was a bit risqué, especially in such heat, to say the least…
First came the stockings then the shirt. The shirt served as yes, a shirt, but also as a man’s underwear, covering the buttock and genitals. It tucked into the breeches, which came next. Honestly, it’s best to tuck the boys in comfortably, if you know what I’m saying. After you’re snug in your breeches, the cravat was put on next, then your vest. Nick assisted me and with each piece that was placed on my person, the modern world melted away quicker and quicker. Unfortunately, the more dandy-esque vest was too small for me, but what I had on did the trick nicely. I buttoned the buttons on my breaches by the leg openings and popped on the tricorne hat. That was the last piece of clothing that made the transformation complete. Everybody around me was quite impressed and I not only felt like a movie star on location, but also like a true soldier about the fight for liberty.
I then made my way over to some unfamiliar cast and crew members to get acquainted with them, as the rest of the crew prepared to film a scene in George Washington’s tent. Actor David Gianopoulos was there that night, too, playing the Commander in Chief.
The rest of the night consisted of watching Nicholas, Mike, David and other men film said scene, which was pretty wild, and catching up with extras by candlelight. Essentially, it was night number one of a very specific adult summer camp.
Several hours later, the scene finally wrapped and I was off to a local college with Nicholas and his crew. Although the shower had been locked, it was heavenly to have a bed all to myself, running water and air conditioning. What a treat it was and quite the respite that was needed in order to gear up for the following day.
By, let’s say, 10:00AM that next morning, it was time to get back on set. Now, I won’t bore you with the gory details, but here are some of the highlights I found most memorable: 1. Watching the fort come together out of thin air. 2. Listening to the Declaration of Independence being read on Fourth of July weekend. 3. Singing “Drunken Sailor” at the top of my lungs during tavern night.
Now, what I didn’t quite enjoy, however, was sporting a wool overcoat, wool cap and a million pound musket throughout the day on Saturday. Jesus, I must have lost my weight in sweat that day, but I will say, that as a historian, it gave me a much deeper appreciation for what those soldiers and founding fathers went through for many moons ago, fighting or freedom. And hell, I did look pretty authentic so, it wasn’t all that bad.
After tavern night, I was beyond exhausted and my eyes literally were popping out of my skull due to extreme exhaustion. The pup tents were set up by the cars, so I immediately grabbed one and set my belongings inside. I disrobed, peeling off all my historical garb, then changed into lighter sleepwear.
The weather was balmy and sticky, so I got into my sleeping bag and prayed to General Washington that I’d make it through the night. Approximately several hundred ants then decided to hatch under my tent, so I had to battle with God’s beasts for another hour, getting nowhere, of course. Those bastards bit every inch of me, as I threw feet and fists their way just to attempt to get somewhat decent shut eye. Alas, to no avail… I passed out in frustration and deeper exhaustion, while visions of fireworks blurred through my head.
I awoke somewhat unscathed from the battle I was thrust into the night before. I really did have the best intentions of muddling through the day and partaking in the big battle scene, but I just couldn’t take it. I ran to the John almost immediately after waking up, then went back to camp to try to salvage what was left of the morning. Mother Nature had other plans for me, though, and decided to allow a tick to crawl up the back of my leg… I had to scrape the thing off my skin and throw it back into the dirt where it came from.
Needless to say, that was the last straw for this soldier. I gave the garb back to Nicholas, passed out business cards to my connections, hugged Mike, threw my shit into the car without so much as even packing it up neatly and headed for the hills! I’m a city boy who likes creature comforts and was just done.
As I headed back to society, I stopped at a local bagel place and fueled up for the ride home. About ten minutes later, I attacked a plain bagel and cream cheese and had slop running down my cheeks. I yelled lyrics to a familiar reggae song that came in from one of the only stations on the island.
To say I had a revolutionary experience that weekend would be an understatement. I learned what it was like to finally be in a movie, got a newfound appreciation for 18th century history and met some interesting people along the way. I most likely won’t become a reenactor anytime soon, but may wind up being a historical interpreter as a permanent fixture in years to come, teaching passersby about book binding and the printing press.
To those I’d met on set last summer, Huzzah! May “One Life to Give” bring you all great success.