Apart­ness

The Iowa Review - - NEWS - Ash­ley daw­son

The pomp and re­galia of Napoleonic-era armies were my pas­sions as a boy in South Africa. When I was four years old, my mother’s brother, my dear un­cle Jim, gave me a stack of books about Napoleonic-era sol­diers. Each page of these books fea­tured a soldier stand­ing proudly up­right or against some sort of weapon—a mus­ket, sabre, or cannon. The names of reg­i­ments rang in my head: the Cold­stream Guards. The Royal Reg­i­ment of Fusiliers. The Royal Scots Dra­goon Guards. The Blues and Roy­als. The chas­seurs and tirailleurs of Napoleon’s Grande Ar­mée. I spent hours fan­ta­siz­ing about their splen­did bat­tle­dress. The stovepipe shakos of the light in­fantry, with their bright red pom­poms and brass reg­i­men­tal badges. Glam­orous hus­sar cav­alry units wear­ing tight, golden bro­cade–cov­ered dol­man jack­ets and loose hang­ing pelisses. The high bearskin caps of the gre­nadiers. Big-boned cuirassiers with glo­ri­ous, fluffy horse­hair hel­mets, like Tro­jan war­riors. The bright red tu­nics, cas­cad­ing white ostrich feather hel­mets, and shiny black jack­boots of the Life­guards. These var­i­ous uni­forms gave life to a rich ar­ray of strut­ting, pea­cock mas­culin­i­ties. Men with big, fuzzy han­dle­bar mus­taches and long, Gal­lic-braided blond beards. They mes­mer­ized me. I dreamed of dress­ing up in such gor­geous drag. Since there was no tele­vi­sion in South Africa when I was small, these im­ages were some of the first I saw of a time out­side the present. Of places where men wore clothes in­fin­itely more flam­boy­ant than the khaki shorts and but­ton-down shirts fa­vored al­most uni­ver­sally by my dad and most of my teach­ers. Oh, how I longed to wear such ex­or­bi­tant cos­tumes, to be daz­zlingly ar­rayed like a dra­goon, to be a beau­ti­ful Life­guard. My un­cle surely did not in­tend to stim­u­late fan­tasies of os­trich­feath­ered adorn­ment when he gave me those books. They were part of a con­tin­uum of war cul­ture in which I and other young white South African boys were steeped. As I grew older, I was in­ducted into the strate­gic fan­tasies of this mil­i­tary imag­i­nary: I grad­u­ally ac­cu­mu­lated a siz­able col­lec­tion of one-inch-high plas­tic fig­urines of Napoleonic-era mil­i­tary forces. These toy sol­diers were but­ter­scotch yel­low and came in full reg­i­men­tal at­tire. Caval­ry­men were ac­com­pa­nied by plas­tic horses, fusiliers by lead can­nons, in­fantry­men by pricky plas­tic bay­o­nets. I lay alone for hours on the wooden floor of my bed­room lin­ing these armies

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