HYANNIS, Mass. For New England war re-enactors, Main Street in this town on Cape Cod is something akin to the Pentagon. “The Army-Navy store has everything,” say Tim Frobisher, who makes an annual trip here with his brother Tom to stock up on historically-correct gear for the role-playing he does each weekend as a member of a latter-day Revolutionary War militia unit.
“See you in about an hour,” Tim says as he ducks into the store, leaving his brother Tom standing on the curb along with this reporter, who asks the latter why he’s not going shopping too. “Oh, I am,” he says, as he checks the traffic coming down the one-way street. “But I’m in the market for a different kind of gear.”
Tom crosses the street and enters Retro Metro, a funky memorabilia and tchotchke shop that specializes in 50’s-era furnishings and clothing, where he is greeted by owner Tony Benedetti like a long-lost friend. “Hey stranger, long time, no see!” the merchant says, “I knew you’d be back in time for end-of-the-season mark-downs.”
Tom notices the look of puzzlement on my face, and stops to explain. “I’m a war re-enactor, just like my brother, but I’m a Cold War re-enactor,” he says as he tries on a beret. “It’s a forgotten part of our military history, so I dedicate my weekends to those who died from fatal bongo injuries and overdosing on espresso.”
The “Cold War” was a state of political and military tension that began with the end of World War II and continued until the world’s military powers agreed to start killing each other again. “It was tough,” says Lt. General (ret.) Abe Klosternak. “You’d look over the Berlin Wall and the Russians would stick out their tongues at you,” he says in a voice that betrays lingering chords of frustration. “If you asked for permission to drop an A-bomb on them the bureaucrats would turn you down because it might mean the end of all life on earth, which wasn’t even so great for me at the time because I didn’t have a girlfriend.”
In the United States, the Cold War was accompanied by a shift from an upbeat, optimistic popular culture to one marked by cynical and neurasthenic works in music, literature and the visual arts.
“Suddenly the only approved way to have fun was to be depressed,” says Professor Mark Haddad of SUNY-Batavia. “Girls would dump guys who made them happy, then go stare at Mark Rothko paintings until they had recovered enough to be miserable again.”
Battles between Cold War re-enactors pit “groovy hepcat” rebels against “establishment” types, who fight to keep fluoride out of municipal water supplies as a Communist plot. The winner of mock skirmishes is declared when the rebels persuade a sorority girl to listen to a Mort Sahl album, or the establishment convinces a beatnik to go to law school.
“It’s a great way to get out in the fresh air and pretend to die for your country,” says Tim Frobisher as he emerges from the Army-Navy store with an armful of bayonets, medals and badges that he will use to “spruce up” his uniform, which is modeled on those worn by the Sudbury, Mass., militia. His brother strikes a different tone as he peers down into a shopping bag from Retro Metro filled with a copy of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, a black turtleneck and a Miles Davis album. “I’m not sure that’s such a good idea,” he says to his brother with a note of caution in his voice. “If you’re going to play a corpse, make sure you wear sun block, you can die from skin cancer.”