We bought a farm in Washington, Arkansas in the 1990s while I was teaching at University of Arkansas Community College in Hope. My wife went to work for Old Washington Historic State Park as assistant curator. We had a couple of horses on the place and I had the joy of regularly riding a quarter-horse or an appaloosa through one of the few towns in Arkansas where that mode of transportation seems natural and even normal.
I didn’t get involved with the State Park activities for awhile, being quite busy at the college, but eventually, after I was elected to the city council of Washington, I mentioned to the park superintendent that I wouldn’t mind getting involved in some of the reenactments. He said, “Dan, I’ll get you so involved you will wish you had never said that to me.” And he did.
The costume people measured me for period clothing and soon provided same, from hat to boots. I did a lot of performances as judge in Arkansas’ first murder trial there in the beautifully restored 1839 courthouse. They changed actors for prosecutors and defense attorneys, sheriffs and criminals but my glum old role as judge remained the same for several years. And the superintendent was right: I did indeed sometimes wish I had never spoken to him about my desire to get involved in the dramas.
Another role I played was that of a garrulous old Confederate soldier, Danny Smith, in the outdoor “Woods Walks” that we performed for various groups at night out near Pioneer Cemetery. The culminating dramatic event in “Woods Walk” was an exchange of coffee and tobacco between my group and approaching Union scouts. Wouldn’t you know it? It was a trap and shooting broke out to the delight of audiences. I had a great death scene, in which my last words were, “Tell Mamma I got the tobaccy.” I liked acting the role of Danny better than the old judge, ticks and chiggers notwithstanding, but actually got tired of both because we did them so often.
So, I thought I was through with drama for awhile when we moved to El Dorado early this century. But that was not the case. At the insistence of my college president there, I was cast in the role of John Hancock in “1776.” Actually, I knew the part fairly well, having acted in the play in 1976 over at Southern Arkansas University. I didn’t enjoy that play very much because everything was so prescribed. The Washington dramas were more or less improvisational, but we had to stick to the script in “1776.” So I was glad when it was over.
In a sense, life itself is an improvisational drama, isn’t it? Our role is to roll with the punches and come up smiling. Some of the old movies such as “Mrs. Miniver” or “Random Harvest” are deeply entertaining because they imitate life as we know it. These cinematic masterpieces capture human resiliency, that widespread trait of remaining cheerful even in the midst of multiple setbacks. The British “stiff upper lip” or the American “don’t let ‘em see you sweat” are manifestations of the quality of our very lives. With apologies to the Bard, life is not a tale told by an idiot, but story borne of always getting up swinging before the end of the count.