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Private Lives

I paced in the dark, autumn chill, waiting for the water to boil and keeping an eye on the driveway. A friend of a friend was picking me up. We had never met, and I didn't want to miss an invitation to time travel. The bundled body of my wife proved a serious temptation on my third trip past the bedroom. To be all toasty warm under the covers created a stampede of excuses, but yesterday's argument pushed me toward the kitchen. I made some tea, heated my hands and gave a silent salute to being irrational before letting the steamy peppermint warm my bones.

Our argument still haunted the layers of night, not yet dissolving to blue-gray: "Men never grow up. . . . Living history; don't be silly."

With the sudden scattering of gravel in the drive, I clicked the door shut and bounded off the porch.

Glimpses of my time traveling guide were captured in the high-beam attacks of oncoming traffic. He was dressed normally enough, but I wondered about his sanity. Joseph Lorentsen, a computer operator, claimed membership in the First Florida Infantry, Army of the Confederacy.

Pockets of fog hid the sunrise, but the approaching rays colorized each chamber of mist. This provided a cozy effect for our conversation about the ratio of surrender and imagination needed to make time travel easy.

I listened for clues that might show me whether these guys were some sort of KKK weirdos. What I heard was a dulling data base of facts that drilled holes in my Civil War misconceptions.

Lorentsen took a sharp left turn off the highway onto what could only loosely be called a path. We skidded to a halt in a clearing with many other cars. I stretched in praise of the morning, enjoying my first breath of woodsy air, and Lorentsen appeared from the rear of the Jeep, holding a rifle. A genuine 1866 Enfield, I was told.

He tossed me a satchel of clothes and tore off his own. His familiar gray corporal's uniform hung naturally on him in seconds. He equipped himself with authentic haversack, pouch, powder box and canteen.

Stepping into this Matthew Brady photograph, I fumbled with my borrowed costume. In moments, Civil War images tugged at the fabric of reality.

Maybe it was the early morning light or the aroma of chicory coffee and corn bread, but molecules moved in subtle and different ways. Rows of white canvas tents were held to the ground by a lacy mist that made the camp look like a range of ghostly mountains. While chirping birds sounded reveille, Confederate soldiers in various stages of dress finished breakfast.

After a few minutes of Confederate military procedures, Cpl. Lorentsen repeatedly guided me through the firearm drill.

Set. Load. Prime cap. Click.

Even though I had never held a rifle before, the awkwardness faded quickly. I was issued some black powder cartridges. All were hand-packed without shot to produce realistic sound and smoke effects but no injuries.

We returned to the others just as a thin, bearded lieutenant ordered the 59 men and boys under his command to attention. He sent three skirmishers into the woods. Harley, Sutton and Everly disappeared from view.

"I hope you took your winnings from last night's card game with ya, Harley," someone called after them.

Nervous laughter fell into a thick silence. We waited. Strapping on his saber, the lieutenant soon gave the command to follow.

Suddenly, the crackle of gunfire hung in the haze. Lorentsen grabbed my arm.

"Didn't you hear the command? Load and prime."

POW . . . pow,pow . . . POW!!

The shots stabbed deeper into my ears. Everly and Sutton thrashed out of the woods. Sutton had a flimsy bandage around his arm, smeared in red. The lieutenant spoke with them while checking Sutton's arm, then yelled in the direction of each flank: "Yanks on our right. Move out."

With Lorentsen pushing me through the brush, I followed the others until I tripped at the edge of a clearing. My foot was tangled in Harley's body. I jumped up and filled a hole in our line just as we emerged from the woods.

About 100 yards across the clearing, a wave of blue soldiers moved steadily closer. A figure in the dark line raised a sword and shouted. The glittery rows of bayonets stopped. Another command.

"Back behind the trees!" the lieutenant yelled. "Here comes a . . ."

The booming thunder of the volley disintegrated his words. Clouds of gunpowder rumbled into the still morning. Gray bodies fell and disappeared in the low-lying mist. Adrenaline turned panic into hysteria. I fired and tore my cartridge box to reload. Aiming at their flag bearer, I fired again, and then again into the blanket of bitter smoke.

Harley passed down our line with more powder, caps and encouragement. I doused my throat with his canteen and took a ration of hardtack.

Sometime in the late afternoon, the firing faltered and the last Federal attack faded into the woods. Cheers erupted from the ranks of the First Florida, and we marched, singing, back to camp.

Dinner cooked over crackling fires, and stories spiced the evening conversation.

Soon the clank ceased. Lorentsen started packing, and then I realized how hard it was to climb out of a page of history.

Just a few feet from camp, total darkness embraced us. We moved cautiously toward the embankment, following the flicker of a feeble lantern. Maybe the cars were just something I imagined. But they were still there.

Several Union troops appeared. Conversations and car radios began as instantly as the gunfire and insults a few hours ago. Lorentsen dumped his gear into his Jeep, shouting in mock anger: "I had to die six times today!"

Roaring from one century to another, from hardtack and bacon to radios and rock 'n' roll was almost too much for me. This was some getaway excursion.

As our Jeep plowed through the deep woods in search of the present, I accepted an invitation to attend a battle re-enactment in New Market, Va., in May. We drove down the empty highway in silence under the same stars the ancients saw.

- James Collins, a writer who lives in Pinellas Park, is a published poet and playwright. Private Lives is edited by Mary Jane Park.