Worn Out in the Pursuit of Authenticity

Worn-out boots
My boots held together with gaffers tape

He gave me a challenge I couldn’t ignore: “Well, if you don’t want to write it right….”

And that’s how I started doing Civil War reenacting. Dick Smart, sergeant of the 19th Alabama Infantry (Confederate States of America) reenactors, had invited me to encamp with his unit to learn first-hand about soldiering in the Army of Tennessee.

I demurred. I had never camped overnight in my life. Girl Scout day camp one summer was the most I could boast.

But when Dick issued the challenge, I knew I had to go. And he was right.

19th Alabama Infantry 1990
Sgt. Dick Smart, center, back row, with his hat off, and the 19th Alabama Infantry. This reenacting unit also portrayed the 42nd Indiana Infantry.

Now, I know how infantry defends against a cavalry charge. I know the sound of the military camp waking up in the morning. I know how impossible it is to walk uphill in a hoopskirt with the wind blowing ninety-to-nothing. I’ve learned about the comfort of reaching the ninety-eight percent miserable state, when you have given up trying to stay dry and clean, and the importance of not letting the state of things creep up to one hundred percent miserable, when it’s not fun anymore.

All this I owe to Dick Smart.

Muddy boots
This fuzzy photo shows my boots on the floor of my tent at a reenacting event at Spring Hill, Tennessee. This was my first experience camping. I survived the mud and came to expect it. Never learned to enjoy it, though.

The boots you see in the top photo were among the many I wore out in pursuit of authenticity in my writing. These particular ones literally fell apart within the first hour while I was following the cowboys around at the magnificent Waggoner Ranch, located a couple of hours north of Fort Worth, Texas. I was researching the text for the book Cowboys of the Waggoner Ranch, published in October 2015.

Waggoner Ranch Cowboys
Cowboys branding on the Waggoner Ranch the day my boots called it quits. Photo by Jan Batts.

The pasture is not a place to run around with your socks exposed, so I had them taped up until my interviews were finished. After lunch, on the bench outside the cook shack, I asked cowboy Ricky Rios to cut the boots off my feet because I couldn’t pull the tape off.

He was reluctant to pull out the pocket knife, afraid he’d cut my foot. Cowboys don’t carry dull knives.

The operation drew the interest of the rest of the cowboys, who crowded around to see if I was going to need bandaging afterward. I knew I was in good hands, and Ricky carefully slit the tape so I could pull the boot off. Cowgirl Cassidy “Butch” Chambliss, eleven, thought she could go Ricky one better and pulled the tape off my other boot without the use of a knife.

I put on my other shoes and picked up my boots to take with me. I was the only one there who could appreciate where those boots had taken me and it was a sentimental moment. Rain, snow, mud, dust, and finally the Waggoner Ranch — all in pursuit of the nuances that enable readers to live the story they are reading.

I haven’t thrown my boots away yet. Maybe I won’t. They are proof that I want to write it right.