The Russian sniper had been perched up in a tree, about ten feet off the ground and shrouded by branches. I hadn’t seen him from where I was, 150 feet away, half crouched over in bone-dry reeds. The only indication that he was there, straddling a thick bough, was the burst of fire I saw shoot out of his rifle. It flashed quickly, like a small angry dragon. Because the spark was so vivid, so direct, more yellow than orange, I knew that his weapon had been aimed at me. A few hours earlier I’d been told by the reenactment organizers that if I saw such a pointed conflagration, it meant I’d been “killed.” Now it was time for me to take what one of my fellow combatants called a “dirt nap.” Which I was more than happy to do, because my back was killing me.
After an hour-long break in which I unwisely lounged under a tree within spraying distance of an incontinent stallion, I was back on my feet marching with my fellow soldiers up a long dusty road. But I’d rather have been dead. Dead meant sitting down by the side of the road and chugging water. Dead meant resting my feet and massaging my calf muscles. Dead meant taking a time-out from being a grunt.
It wasn’t the three-mile hike that crippled me and made my back seize up. It was lugging the twenty pounds of military gear: a rifle, C rations, canteen, shovel, parts of a tent, sixty blanks, gas mask canister, mess kit and my rolled-up greatcoat. Had I been to the gym in the last three years it might not have affected me all that badly, but I hadn’t. If I had to be honest, I probably hadn’t walked more than a couple miles in the last three years. I was an out-of-shape, soft twenty-first-century American who’d just traveled back in time, and the thin leather Y-straps that held all my gear in place were digging into my shoulders like a three- year- old who’d never trimmed his nails. I wanted to go back to the future. Now.
A large hybrid military vehicle with wheels in front and caterpillar tracks in back, called a half- track, roared by, kicking up a cloud of dirt that coated my dried lips and stung my eyes. It was late afternoon in early October, the sun directly in front of me and autumn low. I looked down to avert my eyes from it. That’s when I saw the small swastika sewed onto my jacket’s right breast pocket. What am I doing? I wondered. How did I end up here, in the barren plains of Colorado, reenacting the 24th Panzer’s drive on Stalingrad? But deep down I knew the answer. I’d come because I wanted to learn about history.
The plan was for our division of Nazis to spend the night in an abandoned one-room schoolhouse, perched atop a rise in the otherwise flat high-desert terrain. The ninety of us would all take turns sleeping—napping, really— then once we were rejuvenated we’d relieve other squad members who were hunkered down in foxholes and keeping an eye out for the Russians. Once the clock struck 3:00 a. m., the entire 24th Panzer would launch a surprise attack on Stalin’s Red Army. All seventy of them.
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