Cannons firing at Pennsic. Photo by Amani.
(March 24 Update: Volunteers who wish to discuss the suggested SMS messaging system and/or help with data entry are invited to join the new Facebook group Pennsic Messaging System Progress.)
Have you gone to Pennsic? Are there sounds and sensations at War that make the experience everything you had hoped for, making indelible memories that stay with you throughout the year until you can return? Have you fought on the field or walked through the merchant’s area and heard the cannons fire in the distance? You might flinch and look up, or you may do nothing at all.
Or, if you are like a rather large portion of the Pennsic population, you may dive for cover, start to sweat, or lose your field of vision as you are transported back to bad places you thought were still somewhere overseas.
For many of us, the cannons are more than just a sound that signifies the start or end of a battle; they trigger an internal battle we have with post-traumatic stress (PTS), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and/or anxiety.
I have heard many talking points while discussing the cannons with people over the past five years or so, ever since I stopped fighting and began watching the battle with the eyes of someone who’d been in it. I had just come off of several deployments, some of which were pretty hairy; others which were scary and anxiety riddled due to my line of work and the bodies I had to confront. I found fighting at Pennsic to be the exact outlet I needed and loved the camaraderie I encountered both on and off the field.
But as I came to know my friends and fellow fighters, I began to notice their tics and twitches, their wild-eyed looks, and the association of those reactions with the cannon fire.
I thought I was the only one who was twitchy before and after the battle, the only one who dropped low when the cannons went off, the only one who would sweat not from the heat but from the excessive beating of my heart.
I found that I would focus on one or two people during a battle and as long as they were nearby at the start of battle, I was good to go. Admittedly, this is not a good strategy for fighting, but it was a game and a way to play the game.
After I was injured and began my off-field fight with a physical handicap that prevented me from ever again taking to the field; I started to really focus on my friends and the environment around us. I started photographing them and the fighting.
That’s when I really saw it: the low, sudden head and shoulder drop, the hunched bodies, the jerkiness and wide glassy eyes when the cannons would fire. I decided to find out if this was a real problem, or something that was minor and affecting only a few fighters on the sidelines of the field.
I want to clarify something first: I don’t have PTSD per se, since that is a non-specific umbrella term for a group of PTS-related conditions. What I have is designated “PTS with distinct triggers,” which sends me back to places or events that initiated the stress response.
(Editor’s Note: The following contains graphic description of real battle experiences.)
My stress issues originated from two events combined with a lot of other bad experiences that solidified the stressors in my psyche. The first event was dealing with mass graves while in Iraq. I was the only one on my team without kids in my family, so I was chosen to evaluate and document the remains of children killed during the al-Anfal campaign by Saddam Hussein. The tiny remains lay two per table, on every table in my pathology lab. Seventy-five percent of our forensic population were children under the age of 13, with an average of 24 bullet wounds per child. If this wasn’t stressful enough, we were shot at constantly and our lab was placed next to the base wall, along a road where IEDs were commonplace.
One day, an IED caught some Marines coming through the gate. After the cloud and debris settled, I found their engine block, along with pieces of the driver, deposited right outside my lab door. I had to process that by convincing myself it was, “Nothing to be upset about, just get back to work”, which I did…18 hours a day, seven days a week, for nearly two and a half years.
The second stressor makes being in large crowds difficult if I cannot see an exit. It’s because on our sister base, Camp Victory, there was a huge PX (imagine a mini-Walmart in the middle of a military base) where we would go to “relax” because it was away from the mass graves we were working on. We’d go to the PX and shop or eat junk food at the several trailer-sized fast food places parked outside the PX. One day while drinking coffee I saw an Iraqi man, who appeared to work in one of the trailers, counting his paces and then talking to someone on a phone. He did this several times and I pointed it out to my friend and one of the base soldiers. I was told to mind my own business. I watched this man for an hour and even got close to hear him pace counting under his breath. I reported him again to no avail. I left and went back to work feeling a little disturbed.
That night I was invited to a cookout for a unit that, after 18 months, was going home. I went to the party and sat down to eat burgers while hearing the stories of all the soldiers who were going home. One was Sergeant Ramos, a grizzled soldier in his mid-thirties who had described a rough deployment but said he had an 18-month-old baby girl at home who had been born after he’d deployed. He had never held her in his hands. He wanted something to take with him to give to her; so without remembering the Iraqi man, I told him about the stuffed teddy bears in the PX. It was 6 p.m. (1800 hours). He finished his burger and drove off to the PX to grab a bear before he had to report to the tarmac at 2000 hours. I received word at 18:30 that the PX had been mortared twice and there were heavy casualties. The PX was fully caved in on the one side… the side where the teddy bears were located. Sgt. Ramos died on impact with his side SAPI plates embedded in his chest wall.
I had sent him there.
To this day, I cannot be in big box stores without seeing the exits or knowing how to get out if something were to happen. Years have passed and I work to recognize what stresses me so I can avoid them. I am much, much, better than I used to be, and typically have no stress responses at all.
Merchanting: A New Perspective of the Problem
About three years ago, I became a merchant and set up shop along the side off the Darkyard encampment, near the North Gate. I was right across from the battlefield and was able to talk to fighters before battle and after, as well as able to see the fighting.
I was surprised at how LOUD the cannons were from where I was located. I dealt with the anxiety and kept note of the battle times, set an alarm on my phone… but somehow there was still cannon fire that I could not anticipate. I would be so stressed and tired at the end of the day that I’d pass out as soon as it was dark.
The following year, I had to determine if it was financially worth coming back, but with my business picking up I realized I couldn’t afford to skip Pennsic. So, I dealt with the cannons a second year.
I asked more and more people if they were bothered by the cannon fire and started hearing stories of people who were not fighters but who either couldn’t come to War (often, or every year) due to the cannons, or couldn’t bring people with them (like children) because of the sound.
I encountered people with service dogs who had to cage them for hours from their anxiety (which would then trap the human in camp with the dog), non-PTS sufferers who developed anxiety from the cannons and only experienced it at Pennsic, and even a gentleman who wore tight earplugs during battles and walked around War deaf in order to avoid the sounds of the blasts!
Pennsic War is one of those places I call “home.” I have been attending for 25 years and have loved every time I have gone. Two of those years I paid just so I could attend for one day before deploying again. I mentioned that I fought for a time, but most of my years were as a photographer and partier, and all-around “troublemaker.” I’m part of a house known as the “Drunks on the Hill” and I am the Instigator of Shenanigans. I have met so many people at War these 25 years and have the most amazing stories for each event.
I can honestly say that for most of my years after the deployments, I just dealt with the cannons and “sucked it up” with alcohol and bold stories. That is why I can say without reservation that I have been there, done that, heard it, and likely said it.
I understand all the reasons why we want the cannons to be at War, and all the reasons we also fear the noise.
But here is my one point, the one that sticks in my head, has led me down the path that I am undertaking, and the point of my story:
Pennsic is a vacation, a game, a home, and for many of us, a livelihood.
In none of those descriptions should a sound negate our enjoyment or our ability to earn a living.
During my third year of merchanting, I was invited to move into a permanent spot directly across from the battlefield along Currie Road. I jumped at the chance to be in such a great spot and gave no thought to the cannons. I figured I’d be further away and therefore, would not hear them as much.
Boy, was I wrong.
The area where I am located is right in line with the cannons and in the direct trajectory of the sound blast, making me the recipient of an incredibly loud BOOM.
I had the best spot for a merchant, but the worst spot for someone with trigger-related stress.
I was grateful to have a neighbor who not only recognized what I was experiencing but also had observed the reaction of his friends and customers to sudden cannon fire. He too had been trying for years to figure out how to resolve the situation within the SCA. I had found an ally.
Pennsic has, on average, 11,000+ people in attendance. So, being a “fix it” person, I decided last year to undertake the discovery of a solution.
Alanus. Photo by Amani.
I began interviewing people so that I would have information to take to the cannoneers. My merchant neighbor Alan (Alanus) worked with me to figure out who we needed to speak to and what assets were available.
Our first try was to drive up to the hill and talk to the cannoneers. It was, for lack of a better term, unsuccessful. When a cannon was fired close to me, with only a short warning, I lost it (I do apologize for my language, gentlemen!). After seeing an example of the problem, the cannoneers volunteered several helpful suggestions.
So, Alan and I took this information to the Mayor of Pennsic to find out ways to proceed. We spoke with him at length over cigarettes (his, not mine), and he agreed that a signal system would be a good method of notification since the usual means of communication like the newspaper, posters, and several different sound-based signal systems had been tried in the past and had not worked. The Mayor told us whom we needed to speak with for next year and told us he was scheduled to be the Deputy Mayor for Martial Activities (which includes the oversight of the logistics for the Gunners) for the battles at Pennsic War 46. This was a great start; we just needed to find the method for notification delivery.
Alan and I spent the rest of Pennsic 45 figuring out ways to warn people of impending cannon fire, what the timing was between a marshal’s call to end the battle, radio time for the Signal Corps to notify the cannoneers, and the time it took to fire the cannons.
Alan and I had several people in our booths who’d come in to shop and instead found themselves taking cover under our tables. The worst was when the cannons fired outside regularly scheduled times. I found myself losing customers either due to my “zoning out” or having full anxiety attacks and having to have an employee take over while I left the booth to de-stress.
I don’t drink much, at least not anymore, but at this War I was downing bottles of wine as fast as I could in order to calm down. That isn’t a solution I was willing to continue or prescribe for anyone else. The situation just strengthened my resolve. I dug in my heels.
Understand this: I don’t want the cannons to go away.
Nor do I want the fun of the cannoneers, the Signals Corps, or the fighters to be subdued.
What I want is a notification system to be put in place so that people like me — my neighbors, the veterans, the handicapped people with service dogs that freak out, the attendees with minor autism, the victims of violent crimes, and the hundreds of others I have encountered — can attend and enjoy Pennsic but with proper notification so that they can brace themselves or prepare for the sounds.
What is intolerable is any discussion that includes the words “If it bothers you that much, just stop coming to Pennsic.”
I started a Facebook thread (on the Pennsic War 45 group) asking for ideas. I wanted to know how far the sound travelled across the site and who was affected by the noise. I will say that for every post on Facebook where I was told “go home,” “if you can’t handle it, don’t play,” or “suck it up,” there were many more that encouraged me to find a solution for the benefit of all who consider Pennsic an important part of their life. I concluded we weren’t going to make everyone happy, and both Alan and I are okay with that.
At the end of Pennsic 45, the bottom line was that a solution would be found, the cannons would continue to signal the beginning and end of battles, and notice would be given to those who need it in order to enjoy Pennsic.
The Proposed Solution: A New Beginning
After Pennsic was over, Alan and I kept in touch and continued to talk with those who would be involved in the notification system. All we were missing was a method of delivering an alert.
I am a member of the military reserves; one day at drill, our communications officer came to me to sign up for our new messaging system. I gave him my email, responded once I received the message from him; then download the app so I could receive instant texts. The messaging service is the same one used by several airlines to message their flight crews with notifications and flight time changes.
After testing the app, I wondered if it would work at Pennsic. I contacted Alan. He downloaded the app, created a test group, and found that we received notifications between five and 10 seconds after they were sent!
The messaging service will alert via the app or text via SMS, so the application does not have to be downloaded by the message recipient for the system to work. We then tested various locations to verify that cellular reception was not a problem. We received both text and online messages, which can be set to produce an audible warning, with a mere few seconds of delay!
Alan wrote step-by-step instructions on how to deploy the system and presented them to the rest of our SCA project team for comment. The system can handle a communications group of several thousand individuals and will require only someone to collect and upload the phone numbers of participants. The notification of impending cannon fire will need to be sent by a Signal Corps member or by a cannoneer a short time before the cannon is fired.
Mind you, when Alan and I were testing this application I was in Virginia and he was in a remote cabin in Washington State. We know the time given to participants in the messaging system will be enough for them to set down their drinks, cage a cannon-sensitive dog, hold a child, go into a quiet place, or do whatever they need to do to prepare.
We need volunteers willing to manually enter phone numbers into laptop database either at registration or at troll.
The system admin will upload data to a dedicated cellphone the weekend before War Week with upload of additional phone numbers daily throughout War Week. We know this will work and we know there is room for improvement, but it’s the start of a solution.
With all the very best intentions for the Society and the greater comfort of the citizens of Pennsic. We remain,
Amani Ahmed Mash’al al-Sabti al-Dulaymi of the Most Glorious Ottoman Empire, owner and proprietor of Silvertree Souq
Alanus of Bunghea, owner and proprietor of Nordic Trader
(For more information or to get involved in the project, email Amani.)