Travel: Living the history of Angel Island

They tried to stay in character. Really, they did. The knuckleheaded private, cap bill turned up goofily and khaki uniform wrinkled and untucked, slunk around the guard house chastened and ashamed. The ramrod-straight sergeant, pleats razor-sharp, medals gleaming in the morning light and tie in a viselike Windsor knot, blustered and barked with ominous intent.

“I’m here,” Jesse Nathan, the private, lamented to visitors in an aw-shucks tone, “because it’s jail and they’re putting me to work out front. … Because, uh, because I was drunk!”

“And what are you doing just standing there,” interposed Sgt. Mike Gilmore. “You –”

Gilmore’s fierce facade started to crack, a smile pushing up the right side of his mustache. He was just about to bust out laughing, you could tell.

“Eating my bread and water,” Nathan said, gnawing on crust and widening his eyes to the visitors witnessing this exchange.

“I suggest you get back to work, you know, it’s a privilege to –”

This where Gilmore lost it. Both men dissolved into laughter.

“… a privilege to work.”

They had to turn away from each other. At that point, they broke character – and acting’s so-called fourth wall – and addressed the visitors, filling them in on the history of Angel Island’s Fort McDowell as a military port of embarkation for troops readying for battle in the Pacific during World War II, explaining what daily life was like for fighting men preparing to shove off or reorienting to stateside life after a tour of duty, telling about the role WACs ( Women’s Army Corps) played and how Italian prisoners of war housed there became allies.

Lots of explanation, little theatrics.

Sure, the officers and enlisted men, the WAC nurses and motor-pool secretaries dressed the part in either the original uniforms of the period or painstakingly re-created, historically accurate reproductions.

But their role was not to role-play. Angel Island’s World War II event, held over the Fourth of July weekend, was an example of a “living history” demonstration, not a re-enactment. The goal is to educate more than entertain – though, being dressed up and all, a few docents couldn’t help but segue into improv routines.

No one dies on the battlefield, no script needs to be memorized, no narrative to follow, nobody’s channeling their inner Meryl Streep to hog the limelight.

Still, when docents from the state park or the California Volunteer Living History Association take over parts of the island for living history days – there’s a World War I event today and a Spanish-American War presentation on Sept. 20 – they don period-appropriate attire to get into the spirit of the thing, augment their vast knowledge of the island’s role during wartime and maybe keep people’s attention in these distracting times.

Plus, well, it’s fun to play dress-up.

“This is an original skirt from 1943, what they actually wore,” said Meghann Spesert, of Woodland, portraying a WAC working in Fort McDowell’s well-preserved chapel. “My shirt is from 1944. It came from someone’s attic. The person who donated it said, ‘I’d rather have my grandma’s stuff be on you teaching people than being stuck in our attic.’ We wear the clothes, but we don’t re-enact. A lot of the time, people are so distracted by the fanfare of the re-enactments – like, what a cool battle – that they aren’t paying attention to the history part of it.”

Not that the living history participants have anything against the historical re-enactors, who forge into faux battle, replete with explosions and blood and guts, in wars ranging from the Civil War to Vietnam. They say such theatrics have their place. In fact, many of the living history docents have doubled as re-enactors, though they can be a little sheepish admitting to it.

“While I enjoy that re-enacting,” said Todd Sampson of Sacramento, one of the leaders of the California Volunteer Living History Association, “I really wanted more of the discussion, in the third person, like we’re talking now, so I can explain it more. ... I really wanted to be able to give the educational aspect without all the cowboys and Indians aspect, the shoot-’em-up, bang-bang stuff.

“This is living history: imparting knowledge, answering questions, showing how things could have been. To me, both types of things have their positive attributes. I learned a lot doing Civil War re-enacting. It’s great. But I think it’s too much minutiae for the general public. You have to assess your audience when you meet somebody and gauge their level of interest. With living history, we have more flexibility.”

Gilmore, who portrayed the sergeant cussing out the drunken private, said he turned to the tamer living history events after years of being a Civil War re-enactment participant. He’s a retired Army staff sergeant, age 46, who said he deals with post-traumatic stress syndrome after he was hit by a roadside IED in Iraq in 2005. In the 1990s, he participated in Civil War battles and liked the idea of getting into a soldier’s role, sleeping on hay and dealing with enemy attacks.

“But when I came back from Iraq, I was finished with the Civil War because of the powder smell and all that,” said Gilmore, who lives in Livermore. “Having something go boom behind me, uh, no. … This is a nice escape for me, personally, to come out to the island and talk about the military history of the island, which not many people realize played a big role in the war.”

The living history docents, some of whom work with the state park and some who volunteer through the state association, do more than just dress the part and spout facts and anecdotes.

On Angel Island, they’ve helped restore one building into a visitors center museum, with a restored clerk’s office and a re-creation of the fort’s jail in the basement.

Sampson, who works in engineering, was a prime mover in restoring the clerk’s office just off the visitors center. Not only did he rebuild the ceiling, he painted the walls their original yellow and brought back the original light fixtures. It’s the little things, though, that make the office come alive.

He made a reproduction of a 1943 pin-up calendar he personally owns and hung it next to the skeleton keys on the bulletin board behind his – the corporal’s – desk. He uses an inkwell and blotter to sign requisition orders. His manual typewriter off to the side has day-pass paperwork in the roll, and his desk features three era’s worth of communication devices – a telegraph, used in Civil War times, a hand-cranked phone that connected to a switchboard during the 1930s and a direct-dial model introduced around World War II.

“But you still had to dial up the operator to get long distance,” Sampson said. “But that’s probably minutiae you didn’t need to know.”

Almost apologetic about his knowledge of the era, Sampson needed to be goaded into imparting more. When prompted, he’ll take out a green card that’s his “driver’s license for driving on post.” It’s that kind of verisimilitude that brings such ordinary days on the base to life.

Occasionally, when kids visit Sampson in his “office,” he’ll type up an “incident report,” reproductions from the original and call in a lieutenant to sign it. Kids, he said, sometimes are baffled by the old-timey typewriter.

“I was sitting here typing up a day pass for an individual, and (a boy) walks over – he was about 12 – and says, ‘OK, let me get this straight, so you press one of these keys and the little arm come up and puts a letter on a piece of paper?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘That is really stupid.’ I went, ‘Well, my portable computer can print as I type and it doesn’t require electricity and I can take it anywhere I want.’ He goes, ‘Oh.’ ”

Over at the chapel, where the WACs convened, docent Diane Zingarelli regaled visitors with period-specific items, including the goggles that women working on the ammunition factory line wore, the metal lunch buckets they carried and the wartime posters reprinted on a matte, including Uncle Sam with index finger to lips, saying, “I’m Counting on You! Don’t Discuss Troop Movements.”

“My 94-year-old great-aunt remembers that poster,” said Zingarelli, a 41-year-old dental assistant from Santa Rosa. “My grandparents, that’s their era. The whole Americana thing, I’m sort of obsessed with it. I’ll go out (as a docent) as a WAC, a civil worker, ordinance worker, Today, I’m a nurse. It’s about preserving the history, but it’s also our hobby. I wish it’s what I could be doing for a living. Maybe I could be a WAC dental technician, get a patch for my uniform.”

Back at the jail, Gilmore, the WWII “sergeant” who was a real sergeant during the Iraq War, straightened his authentic uniform, which he bought on eBay, along with World War II medals that coincide with medals he actually earned during his tour of duty (Purple Heart, Meritorious Service).

He was showing visitors the post jail, when he turned a corner and found a private, a callow youth named Paul Steelhammer, slumped on a cot behind bars.

He segued back into character.

“This guy here, this punk,” Gilmore said in his gruffest voice, “he’s young, doesn’t know what he’s doing yet. But we’ll rehab him and have him back out in the field.”

Private (whiny): “I was just pickin’ the CO’s flowers, and an MP came along, and we had a little scrap.”

Sergeant: “You don’t listen. You’re young and dumb. You need to listen.”

Head hung in shame, the private propped both forearms through the bars.

Gilmore winked, breaking character, and said: “It was a soldier’s unwritten duty on his last day in the States to go get drunk on a 24-hour pass. This jail? Basically a drunk tank. See the slanted floors with the (gutters). They’d just hose down the cells.”

Thank goodness there wasn’t a re-enactment of that. Some things are better left to the imagination.