They had gathered under the moonlight around the Bedouin tent.
A circle of drummers, two dozen or more, were playing in unison, filling the night with the elaborate rhythms of Middle Eastern music. Only a novice, I was in among the experts listening intently to how each drummer improvised his or her own subtle pattern to blend seamless into the whole.
Throughout Cooper’s Lake, there were glimpses of merrymaking around flickering campfires. The sounds of people laughing and singing carried over the countryside. Here and there, Scadians in Medieval garb walked the trails as they made their rounds reuniting with old friends.
Still others had gathered in the merchant area in search of bargains. The place was bustling. As vendors called out sales and haggled over prices, musicians, acrobats and jugglers entertained the crowd. Peace had settled over Pennsic War, but only temporarily. Chivalrous combat would resume the next day on the list field.
For many years, my ideal vacation was to camp out with thousands of fellow members of the Society for Creative Anachronism, a nonprofit education organization devoted to the study of pre-17th century Western culture.
Every summer, Scadians worldwide gather at Cooper’s Lake Campground north of Pittsburgh. There they fight in mass battles, compete in archery and fencing tournaments, learn about the era through classes and showcase their talents in period crafts and the performing arts.
At its peak, this annual convention draws an estimated 12,000 people to a sprawling tent city that can be seen from Interstate 79. With a population roughly equal to London through most of the Middle Ages, Pennsic War has its own post office, food court, bank, daily newspaper, shopping mall of 200-plus vendors and a mass transit system of shuttle buses running circuits through the campground. There is also around-the-clock security and an emergency clinic.
My first introduction to Pennsic was rather stormy. I became involved in the SCA in the mid-1990s when I lived in Elk County and worked for two newspapers. I heard about the “war” and thought it would be an interesting diversion from the daily grind, so I arranged to camp with the Shire of Hornwood, the local SCA chapter out of DuBois.
I had just enough time to check in at registration, unload my gear, park my car and shop for a belt for my tunic when dark clouds rolled in over the horizon. I spent the next hour or so holding down the edge of a pavilion tent making sure that water did not pool in the fabric.
Situated on the high ground, our camp became a refugee center for Scadians displaced by the severe storm. While our cooks broke out the Ramen noodles and loaves of bread, other Shire members went out into the nearby camps and invited people to seek shelter at Hornwood. We made the best of a bad situation and fostered memories to last a lifetime.
Joe Cress is The Sentinel’s history reporter. He can be reached at email@example.com. His column appears Mondays.