A FEW MONTHS after I joined the Society for Creative Anachronism, I attended my first Kingdom-level event. I and my then-lady Keira, with our friends Beth and Deryan, drove from Small Gray Bear about halfway across the Kingdom of Meridies to attend the Meridies Arts and Sciences Faire of A.S. XXI, an event which has remained engraved in my memory ever since.
I have been to bad-weather events, poorly-planned events, poorly-executed events, miserable sites, and disaster-struck events—my home Shire of Smythkepe once hosted a Coronation just ten days after our site's feast hall burned to the ground. But I have never attended an event that went so spectacularly and hilariously wrong as that A&S Faire, over Labor Day weekend of 1986. Normally when telling the tale of a bad event I allow the host group to remain anonymous. But I feel obliged to credit the Barony of Glaedenfeld (Nashville, Tennessee) for this event, because they were in no way whatsoever to blame and in fact rallied splendidly to put on a very enjoyable, if uncomfortable, event.
I repeat: The Barony of Glaedenfeld was in no way at fault for the horrors of which you will soon read. The Society may be an international organization with tens of thousands of members, but it still does not have the clout of The Walt Disney Company.
Yes, Walt Disney. The event was to be held at Montgomery Bell State Park, about 45 miles west of Nashville. Just a few days (or perhaps hours) before the event, Glaedenfeld was told that they were being moved to a different area of the park, as the area they had reserved was being taken over by Touchstone Pictures. (Touchstone is the division Disney created so that they could put sex, violence, and bad language on the screen without ruining their wholesome image. Remember Dragonslayer from 1981? Folks took their kids to see it, thinking, "Warriors, magicians, beautiful maidens, and a dragon; but it's by Disney, so it's okay!" They were treated to partial nudity, considerable violence, a beautiful but dismembered maiden with several large bites missing, and the most realistic and terrifying dragon that has ever yet been put on film. So, Touchstone Pictures.) Touchstone felt that it needed Glaedenfeld's site, exactly that site, for the filming of the soul-stirring and unforgettable epic, Ernest Goes to Camp.
So, Glaedenfeld got moved to another camp, in somewhat worse condition. In fairness, the feast hall and kitchen were in good shape, and the state of Tennessee was making a genuine effort to renovate the remainder of the camp (as we discovered Saturday—more about that later).
We arrived on site late in the evening, a couple of hours after dark. Things seemed normal enough. The hall was well lit and cheerful, with delightful aromas wafting from the kitchen. The troll was helpful, although she seemed a bit distracted. She showed us a surprisingly rough-looking map of the site, pointing out the side road to our particular group of cabins.
A few words of description are in order. One road had led into this camp area; it then forked to either side of the feast hall. The area map showed a teardrop-shaped loop of one-lane road with the hall near the point, and several lesser roads branching off to the outside of the large end, making smaller loops around which the small cabins were arrayed. Picture the main road as a necklace with three or four large teardrop pendants hanging from it, each pendant studded with six or eight cabins. Taking the right-hand fork from the hall, our road would be the first one on the right.
We piled back in the car and set off. On our left, in the center of the main loop, we could dimly see by the lights of the hall what looked like very large but half-built cabins or halls, standing in an open field with a few large trees; we learned more about those on Saturday. To the right, where the branch roads should be, we could see only very dark, very tall forest. We kept going, watching for our road, swinging further and further around to the left, until we saw lights a ways ahead. As we went on we realized the lights were on our left, not right; at last we saw that we had come back to the hall!
We parked again and went back inside. "It's there," the troll assured us. "It's just hard to see." Dubious, we set out into the dark again.
This time, we spotted a faint gap in the trees, black on black. We still didn't see a road, so I stopped the car. Beth's flashlight at last revealed a road that looked like it hadn't been used since Nixon resigned, and which dropped off into darkness at an appalling pitch. Apparently the main road made a loop on top of the very end of a ridge.
We crossed our fingers and turned in. The road was muddy but fairly smooth, and sure enough led to a cluster of cabins. We looped around and found the one assigned to us. From the outside, it looked unused since at least Eisenhower. Not liking the look of the road any better than the look of the cabin, I drove past and then backed the car in, a precaution that paid off Sunday.
The cabin was only about eight or ten feet from front to back, but while we stepped down to its porch from my car, the back of the cabin was five feet off the ground. It clung to the side of the hill like a scene from "Li'l Abner". We looked it over, decided that if it did break loose there were too many trees downhill for it to roll more than halfway over, and began to unload. With at least four of us bashing around in the dark, we still heard animals rustling through the brush behind (or beneath) the cabin.
I can't remember the assorted repairs we made to the cabin just that night, but I was very glad that I had brought a toolbox. We hammered down sprung boards and tightened hinges. The door closed with only a spring, so, thinking of all those animal rustlings, we rigged a door latch using a nail I pulled out of the back wall (nothing fell down). We used broken tree limbs to prop up the shutters so that a breeze could blow through the screens—in the morning I noticed that I had gone wading knee-deep in poison ivy for that. There was an electric light, but it didn't work until Beth fixed it too.
A bath house sat in the center of the cluster of cabins. We checked it out, discovering that the showers worked, but that all of them were in one open room, with no door or even curtain. Anyone showering stood in full view of anyone at the front door or the sinks, and you practically had to walk through the shower room to reach the toilets. We found a broom handle, draped it with a large piece of cloth for a curtain, made a sign with "Lords" on one side and "Ladies" on the other, and declared the showers open for business, single-sex occupation only.
Then we walked back up to the hall for a most delicious soup kitchen. An incident on the way deserves retelling, even though it is unrelated to mice (or anything else). My lady and I had at some point acquired a length of heavy black broadcloth in 70-inch width, and had made her a tremendous floor-length half-circle cloak with full hood. Keira wore it at every opportunity, even in warm weather. She wore it this night as we staggered up the hill onto the main loop.
Coming toward us was a slow-moving car. We assumed it was another event guest looking for his invisible road, but in fact it was a park ranger in a state cruiser. Keira and I moved to opposite sides of the road, I to the inside verge, she to the outside. When the ranger was just a few yards from us, Keira, who had been looking down to avoid the glare of his headlights, lifted her blonde head and caught his lights on her face.
Mind, it was a dark night. As we reconstructed it, he had not even seen her in her dead-black hooded cloak until she raised her head; then she must have seemed to materialize out of the darkness as a white-blonde specter of death coming toward him.
He almost ran me down avoiding her.
As I said, the soup kitchen was delicious. It was while we ate that we learned the tale of how a well-kept and modern campsite turned into a dump with a good hall, courtesy of The Walt Disney Company, although I don't believe we learned the name of the movie until Sunday. We joked with some of the Glaedenfeld workers about the invisible roads and dilapidated cabins, then we walked back out the loop and down the slope to bed.
Our cabin was a narrow rectangle, no more than eight or ten feet deep and perhaps fifteen long. As a living room it might have seemed adequate; as living quarters for eight it would have been a bit cramped. By now Lord Dmitri of Small Gray Bear had shown up, so there were five of us.
The one door stood in the center of one long wall, which I will call (with no basis other than instinct) the north wall. Directly opposite was a double closet or wardrobe, built out into the room from the center of the south wall. In each corner stood a set of bunk beds, turned parallel to the long walls. I had the lower bunk in the northeast corner, just to the right of the door. As we turned out the light (there was some trick to this, again due to the condition of the cabin, but I can't remember the details) I laid my glasses on the window ledge and closed my eyes to sleep.
The rustling noises around the cabin had died back a bit; now as we settled in the natives once more became restless. I ignored the rustlings and scratchings and cracklings with calm serenity, secure in the knowledge that I had jury-rigged a possum- and coon-proof latch for the door. Instead I listened to the warm wind in the trees, the whisperings of drying late-summer leaves, the patterings of tiny feet—
I sat up a little. Patter patter patter patter. Tiny feet were scurrying across the floor of the cabin, unmistakeably inside rather than out. And not just sprinting from place to place, stopping to listen or sniff in between; no, these little feet were running a marathon, non-stop around the cabin!
I have lived in the country now and again, and I knew the sound of those feet. There was a mouse in the cabin. Mice don't frighten me, but I have the kind of hearing that turns a quiet drip from a faucet at the other end of the house into a steady torment of ringing splashes. Once I noticed the pattering, I couldn't ignore it.
But I couldn't quite understand it, either. I've never heard a mouse behave as this one was. It was running around and around the perimeter of the cabin, circling widdershins along the base of the walls. Under my bed, across the door, under the beds at the other end, behind the closet, under the bed across from me and back under mine. Yes, behind the closet. As I said, it was built flush against the back wall projecting out into the room, but this mouse was somehow passing behind it at a dead run. I would hear his little footsteps crossing the far end of the cabin, then he would start down the back wall. Patter patter pitter pitter pitter patter patter as he passed behind the closet and reemerged.
And he kept on going, lap after lap. This mouse wasn't running a marathon, he was running the Daytona 500! Patter patter patter patter. I heard him going under my bunk several times, but the cabin was pitch black and I never saw him at all. Finally, I pulled my glasses and my flashlight down from the window ledge. By ear and by memory I lined up the flashlight, still unlit, on the space under the bunks in the diagonally opposite corner of the cabin, and waited for the mouse to cross that space, my thumb on the switch.
Patter patter CLICK!
Total silence. I had aimed the light perfectly. Just as the pattering reached the far corner, I had hit the switch—and there was nothing there. I flicked the light back and forth across the floor—no mouse. What the hell? Had I been lying there for an hour or more imagining the noise? Did we have a murine poltergeist? Or a mouse that could teleport? I turned the light back off before I woke any of my cabin-mates.
Click! patter patter patter patter.
Eventually the weather came to my rescue; a gentle rain began falling in the night, just enough to cover the sound of Runaway Ralph down below, and at last I fell asleep. In the morning I woke feeling pretty good, but still ready for about another eleven hours of sleep. When I got up, the first thing I did was to take a close look at the closet. It did indeed, as I recalled, sit flush against the back wall. A mouse could probably have squeezed behind it—mice can go through amazingly small holes—but not at a dead run! "Did anyone else hear the mouse last night?" I asked.
Nobody had heard it, so I recounted my adventures with the flashlight. Everyone was amused but not concerned. I don't think any of them took seriously my claim that the mouse had somehow run through the closet without slowing down, but I know what I heard. (My best theory is still a poltergeist.)
We dressed and clambered up the even-muddier hill for breakfast. In the hall, a man sat at the table nearest the kitchen. A cast covered his leg, and a pair of crutches leaned against the table beside him. His garb, elegant but sturdy, spoke of years in the SCA. Although the morning was only pleasantly cool, he was huddled close into himself. He clung to a mug of black coffee with both hands, staring into it as if it were his last dubious link with an almost-forgotten sanity. He did not look well rested.
I wish now I had given more attention to the concentration with which he regarded his coffee.
With a cheerfulness that makes me wonder in retrospect if "I am not a morning person!" should be a valid defense in murder trials, I said to him, "You don't look like you slept well. Was there a mouse in your cabin too?" I was proud of my racetrack mouse, and wanted to get as much, well, mileage from the tale as possible.
He raised haunted eyes from his mug. "A mouse," he said woodenly.
"Yes," I faltered. "We had a mouse in our cabin last night, running round and round. It kept me awake for an hour or so."
"A mouse," he repeated, his voice hollow. "You had a mouse." He lowered his eyes to his mug again, and his grip tightened. "You had one mouse. We—had—mice."
By now I was sincerely unhappy that I had spoken. "A lot of mice?"
"They were everywhere," he said. "They climbed in bed with us." Beside me, Keira sucked in air. She's a country girl, neither squeamish nor nervous, but if a mouse had joined her in bed last night the whole camp would have known.
"They chewed on my cast," he went on heavily. My jaw dropped. "They chewed holes in all of our luggage. Our genuine leather luggage." He paused as my group hissed in sympathy. "They ate all the fur trim off my wife's garb." He took a slow drink from his coffee, his hands trembling slightly. "They chewed through the bottle and ate all my pain medication."
I pictured stoned mice floating three or four feet off the floor, going, "Wowwweee!" I told myself, Giggle now, and this man will kill you.
"My wife has the car down at the cabin," he said. "She's packing up everything we have left. As soon as she gets back here, we—are—going—home."
What can you say? We edged away from him carefully, and took our own breakfast to a far, far table.
Right after breakfast people began setting out their entries for the Faire. Keira had brought some jewelry to enter, and other members of Small Gray Bear had brought their own entries. We were carefully arranging them on a cloth-draped table when outside the hall arose a piercing shriek that could have come from no mortal throat. My Irish persona froze stiff. The banshee! I thought in panic. Then, At nine o'clock in the morning?
Remember those half-built cabins behind the feast hall? Remember how I said we learned more about them on Saturday? What we learned now was that construction on those new cabins was running behind schedule, so that the crews were working overtime on the weekends. For the rest of the day, the Meridies A&S Faire was set to an accompaniment of screaming Skilsaw and pounding hammer.
Not that we didn't enjoy ourselves. The entries were excellent, as beautifully crafted as I have seen, in metal and leather and cloth and paint. The early-hours rain had long since cleared, and the day was clear and gorgeous. I took a class on Middle English, trying to properly read Chaucer aloud, stumbling over the letters we don't say any more (did you know sweet was once a two-syllable word?) and puzzling over words and phrasings so outdated that Shakespeare by comparison sounds like Hunter Thompson. And Royal Court included one of the most unusual presentations I've ever seen: HRM Orlando was given an official certificate (mundanely genuine) that a star in the heavens now bore his name.
As the afternoon passed, the hall stewards began asking people to gather up their entries so the hall could be arranged for feast. I had drifted into a little ell at one end of the hall, where I was watching a lady paint scrolls with excruciating care. As the stewards approached us, all of us, more or less together, lifted our noses and said, "Do you smell that?" A rich musky aroma, nothing to do with food, was rising through the floor of the hall. A family of skunks had built a nest around the foundations of the fireplace.
The hall stewards and the autocrat eventually decided there was nothing they could safely do to remove the skunks, so the first item of hall setup was to open all the windows.
Our Small Gray Bear group captured a table at the back end of the hall, next to the fireplace. We noticed some really nice feast gear on the table next to us, in the little ell, but we paid it no mind until the Sovereigns sat down to it. TRM Orlando and Micheila had decided the winners of the Faire would be best honored by having the head table for themselves, so They had taken a table off in the corner—right beside us. I never had such good service at a feast. The head table was served first, then Their Majesties, then Small Gray Bear.
The food was magnificent. According to my old flyer, the feastocrat was a Grand Chef of Meridies, THLady Freyja the Falconer. I don't in fact recall her name, but I've never forgotten her food. I particularly remember a variety of meats including one large chunk of very tender pork, some delightful anise cookies, and a bowl being carried from table to table by a humorous fellow who offered its contents as, "Froot soop? Froot soop?" Nobody at our table went hungry that evening.
That night went a bit more peacefully in our cabin. The next day, however, must have been a terrible disappointment to Glaedenfeld. Although the Faire was supposed to run until Monday morning, most of the guests left Sunday, skipping many of the classes and the Sunday night feast. We did a leisurely job of packing and loading and left by about Sunday noon. I wish I could remember if the fellow from the cabin next to ours left that morning or not. I can't recall whether it rained again Saturday night or was still muddy from Friday night, but the steep little road down to our cabin was just solid enough that it didn't flow. I had backed my little front-wheel drive Subaru onto a small level area, so I was able to get a good start and run hell for leather straight up the hill, but the fellow next to us was stuck fast, pointing the wrong way. I'd like to be able to say that we rounded up a gang of people to help push his car out, but, doggone it, I really can't remember! Surely we wouldn't have just gone off and left him stuck there? Would we?
We stopped at the hall to say lengthy goodbyes to our hosts and various friends. To our astonishment, before noon someone was already on site selling t-shirts with "Meridies A&S Faire" on one side and a picture of a skunk on the other. We didn't buy any, but several other people did.
I was told later that feast Sunday was every bit as good as feast Saturday; I know the quantities served had to have been generous, with the majority of guests already departed. Throughout the long weekend Glaedenfeld put out a heroic effort with a terrible site, and I've always remembered them kindly for it.
Is there a moral to this tale? For host groups, it might be: "You can throw a great event on a wretched site." For autocrats, it might be: "The event you give is never the event you planned." For travelers, it might be: "Always pack for a rough site."
But I really think the moral might be: "When a Man fights a Mouse, sometimes you bet on the Mouse."