A surprise visitor
I was in my shop, J.S. Mosby Antiques & Artifacts, on an early evening in mid-September. It was after hours but not yet fully dark, and I was unpacking inventory from the previous weekend's Civil War show. The shop's floor and display cases were littered with book and magazine racks, plastic tubs, and gun cases as I placed items back in their appropriate places.
I thought I saw movement in the front window and glanced up to see a form receding from the glass. My impression was that of a white-haired guy wearing a ball cap. Apparently the person hadn't seen me, and I realized he must have been looking at the window displays of antiques and relics.
Ordinarily I'd have extended an offer to open up after-hours for an interested customer, but with boxes and cases in disarray at the moment, I was disinclined to do so.
I returned to my task and saw the same man peering in the next window, which had projectiles, artillery ordnance, and cannon tools. This time I vaguely recognized his face --- not as someone I knew personally but as someone whose image was well known to me. There was a familiarity to it. I thought perhaps he was a regular customer I hadn't seen in a while.
Our eyes met and he nodded to me solemnly through the glass. I realized I would have to at least unlock the door and explain why I couldn't let him come in and browse.
As we approached the front door from opposite sides, I gazed through the glass into his face and got the oddest sensation. I did know this man, though we had never met. His face was as familiar to me as my own. It was a face in photos in books and magazines I'd seen all my life.
I greeted him, and his handshake was firm and dry. His smile was modest and his attitude polite.
"Hello, sir," he said in a refined Virginia accent, "I see you're closed but I couldn't help but admire your wares. It seems you have some fine artifacts from the war." He said war like "whah" --- the r at the end genteelly faded out into nothing.
He was wearing a full but nearly trimmed white beard, with white hair showing below the edge of his cap. His eyes were blue, and he exuded warmth, serenity, breeding, and just a touch of weariness all at the same time.
Despite his age, his posture was erect and his manner was forthright. His bearing and manner made it obvious he'd been a military man. His clothing was undistinguished: faded jeans, long-sleeved shirt, and boots.
As he peered into my eyes, I realized with a shock I was shaking hands with Robert E. Lee.
I don't usually profess any affinity for the paranormal or otherworldly events, but I couldn't stop staring at this remarkable fellow. I knew the visitor wasn't a ghost, even though I almost expected to hear Rod Serling's "Twilight Zone" voice uttering that chilling narration, "You are traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind…"
I explained that I was unpacking from a recent trade show but he was more than welcome to come inside and look around.
He thanked me and explained that he had stopped in Orange for the evening en route to a speaking engagement the following day. He had noticed my shop and thought he'd take a look since my lights were on.
As for the speaking engagement: He said he portrayed Robert E. Lee at various functions. That explained much.
He was hesitant to interrupt me and asked if he could look around as I continued my unpacking chores. Quite the opposite happened: I interrupted him, peppering him with questions about his portrayal of Lee. It emerged that has been representing Lee since 1999 at such prestigious venues as the Smithsonian Institution, the Museum of the Confederacy, the United States Army War College, and numerous National Park Service battlefield parks. He also made regular appearances at various reenactments and other living history events.
As I inferred from his accent, David Palmer is a native Virginian from the Shenandoah Valley. His speech, demeanor, posture and attitude bespoke a Virginia gentleman from a previous era. Yet none of it was an affectation --- it was genuine. Palmer is a living historian and actor, but he wasn't "doing" Lee that evening. He was just David Palmer, who happens to look and act like Lee whether wearing a Confederate uniform or not.
Further discourse revealed that he had attended J.E.B. Stuart primary, Stonewall Jackson Elementary, and Robert E. Lee High School. As a child he was "consumed with history" and was enormously proud of his direct ancestors from Augusta County, who fought in the 52nd Virginia Infantry and the 14th Virginia Cavalry. His wife's ancestor rode with Company C, 2nd Virginia Cavalry. Later, Dave followed family military tradition and enlisted in the Marine Corps.
When his friend and farrier Chuck Hillsman invited him to a reenactment many years ago, Dave discovered another hobby. And it was a perfect fit, right down to the fact that Dave was already an experienced horseman.
Even before he developed a first-person Lee impression, people asked him at events to pose with them in photos so they show that they'd been with Marse Robert. Soon he was avidly studying the American icon and devising how best to represent and honor him.
I could have talked to him for hours that night, but he had to be on his way. After he left, I realized that throughout our entire conversation he comported himself exactly as I would have expected Lee to have done. There was no boasting, no coarse language, no airs, no unseemingly jocularity, or other characteristics alien to Lee's personality as we have learned it to have been. I'd spent an hour with a man of intelligence, experience, and gentility, a man I felt I'd known and admired since my childhood.
It's just not every day Gen. Robert E. Lee drops by. I sure hope he comes back one day.
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