Well, not really Agent Orange. In fact, the scream of jets comes from a series of speakers and the Agent Orange is just powdered Tang shot out of the same type of cannons used to fire T-shirts into crowds at sporting events.
The scene is stomach turning, infuriating, and at the same time gaining momentum. Meet the Weekend Warriors, a Vietnam War reenactment group. In barely seven years, the group has gained just as much notoriety as it has popularity.
And the Warriors hope to bring their brand of visceral public displays to Atascadero. If city officials give the OK, the group will play out their gruesome scenes at Pavilion on the Lake. The city’s Events Coordinating Committee narrowly approved a ministerial permit to allow the Weekend Warriors to perform in Atascadero, perhaps as soon as summer when the weather conditions mirror hot Vietnamese jungles. However, City Council members have yet to give final approval.
In Florida, where the group was founded, a local newspaper called the leader Buck Williams “a borderline madman who wants his audience to throw up.”
“A lot of people can’t chew what we’re spitting out,” Williams told New Times. “Most people think reenactment and they think a bunch of old guys with long beards setting up stick tents and playing out old wars. We’re not those guys. This is war reenactment on steroids.”
At the loosely attended Atascadero Events Committee board of directors meeting on March 10, five members voted in favor of the permit, citing the economic benefits from tourists who often flock to such displays and the money the city would draw in permit fees. Atascadero is anticipating a multi-million dollar budget deficit and mass layoffs in the coming fiscal year. Director Frank Sheen abstained from the vote due to his position with Monsanto, one of the manufacturers of defoliating chemicals used during the war.
Three other directors, however, scoffed at the proposal as something that wouldn’t bring any significant economic benefit and would, in fact, tarnish the city’s reputation.
“I simply cannot understand why we would be comfortable depicting and promoting such an ugly time in our nation’s history,” Director Charlie Robins said before casting an emphatic “No” vote.
The Atascadero City Council must give final approval before the event can take place. As of press time a hearing hadn’t been scheduled and city staff were supposedly compiling a report.
Williams said he sees such tactics all the time. Gaining approval for a community event is normally a routine administrative procedure. But when Williams comes to a town, he said, the process always seems “unusually complicated and untimely.”
Regarding Clearwater, Fla., where Williams held his first reenactment, he said it took city officials six months to schedule a public hearing, and only after he hired attorney Victor Hamperson.
“It’s illegal what these officials will do,” Hamperson said in a phone interview with New Times. “They’re suppressing freedom of speech for no other reason than my client’s, Mr. Williams’, displays make them uncomfortable.”
But for Williams, a scrappy 58-year-old, with wild gray whiskers and hardened features, he wouldn’t do what he does if it didn’t offend people.
“That’s what real war does,” he said, clenching his fist in front of him. “There’s nothing pleasant about it. I’m not going to censor myself just because someone thinks I go too far. I want this to kick you in the ass and toss you out in the gutter.”
Shortly after graduating high school, Williams was drafted into the Army and soon found himself weighted down with gear, carrying a rifle through dense jungles. As surly and outspoken as Williams is, he clearly doesn’t like speaking of his time there.
“Yeah, it was tough,” he said, rapping his fingers on a table, eyes gazing off at nothing.
Shortly after his return home, Williams began to spiral. He was soon diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He stopped sleeping for days at a time, he said, and began drinking heavily. For years he was in and out of jail for everything from drunk in public citations to a domestic violence charge with his girlfriend at the time. That was “rock bottom,” he said.
Oddly enough, he later found solace revisiting his time in the war.
“Hell man, I was having nightmares every night so I figured, ‘Well, I guess I can’t run away from this,’” he said.
That’s when he put down the bottle and began contacting old war buddies. Soon, Williams was eating, sleeping, and breathing the war; buying countless books to learn as much as he could about the country he helped “burn to the ground,” he said.
By 2000 Williams had gathered a small group of friends and community actors and began “guerilla performances” at parks and other public places.
“We got some looks,” he said. “And a few times people called the cops on us. They couldn’t kick us out or anything, but we figured we may as well try and go legit.”
Since then Williams and the Weekend Warriors have held roughly 40 performances and performed in more than two dozen cities.
The group locked onto Atascadero when Williams heard about the Atascadero Veterans Memorial and a new proposal to place a scale replica World War II submarine in the Atascadero Lake. Lloyd Reeves recently gained approval from the Parks & Recreation Commission to have a trial run with his replica sub.
“If they’re going to have all this commemorating then I can’t see why they wouldn’t let us conduct a reenactment,” Williams said.
Aside from the difficult bureaucratic path Weekend Warriors will have to traverse in the coming weeks, Atascadero residents are trying to block the performance.
At the March 10 committee meeting, resident Jan Hovey told directors, “These people can go perform anywhere they please, but they are not going to do this in our city.”
She told New Times a citizen-activist group is already forming, Keep Weekend Warriors Out of Atascadero, and she’s so far collected over 100 signatures on a petition she plans to present to city council members.
Asked about the opposition, Williams grinned, “Wait till they see the show.” ∆
Staff Writer Colin Rigley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.@newtimesslo