Battling the Heat or Another Exciting Way to Die

Thomas Fasulo, Pvt.
37th Iowa Volunteer Infantry

Oftimes, while participating in our hobby of running around in wool on a hot day, we forget that about 50% of the human body is composed of water. So, if you are smart, you will drink eight eight-ounce glasses of water per day.

According to one study, Americans drink an average of 4.6 eight-ounce glasses of water a day, but many of us counter the positive effects of this by drinking five servings or more of caffeinated or alcoholic beverages which dehydrate the body. Caffeine and alcohol cause a person to urinate more, resulting in a net loss of water.

People who drink three or fewer glasses of water per day are more likely to suffer symptoms like grogginess upon waking and dry skin. Those who drink a lot of water receive certain benefits, like regular digestion and the prevention of headaches. I would like to point out this last to reenactors who drink too much around the campfire with their pards and then do not understand why they have hangovers in the morning. Many skip breakfast because they do not feel well, and then fail to understand they feel miserable and cannot keep up with others on the field. If you must drink alcohol, then drink a lot of water with it. [Let me pass on a secret here. Just before a battle I open a small can of pineapple. I drink the juice and eat the fruit. Besides being refreshing the fruit gives me an energy boost and provides potassium.]

When the Confederate and Union armies were being rushed up the road to Gettysburg, a lot of soldiers fell out. Many of them never got up again. [I wonder why they do not show this in the movies?] Heat stress and stroke can kill even young men and women - and they were used to marching in the heat! Most of us are not.

I would like to pass on some tips I was taught in the Marine Corps, based on my experiences in Viet Nam, Okinawa and the Mojave Desert in California.

  1. Drink a lot of water. All you can get your hands on. Hydrate!

  2. Avoid alcohol in the field. Alcohol dehydrates you. Whether on the field or not, at an event or at home or work, if you have a headache, drink water, a lot of it. Chances are excellent that a lack of water is what is causing that headache. Remember, your body cells take energy [food, water, minerals] across a cell membrane. When that membrane is moist the molecules easily move across, when that membrane is drier your cells have difficulty replenishing the nutrients it needs.

  3. Reduce your consumption of sugary drinks in the field. Drinks sweetened above a certain level actually reduce the rate of water absorption by your body. As a retired member of the University of Florida faculty, I can appreciate the licensing fees that the university collects from the sale of GatorAid. But Dr. Michael Cade, the inventor of that drink, had a different formula than the GatorAid of today. Remember, the old commercial for Tang? It stated: "We guarantee that your kids will like Tang better than orange juice." Know why? Tang's first ingredient was sugar. Checked the label on GatorAid lately? You might be spending a lot of money for sugared water. There are other sports drinks out there. Read their labels. I buy my sports drinks at a health food store. The sweetness is supplied by peach and grape juices. Only drink heavily sweetened drinks and colas after you have cooled off. Avoid the heavily sweetened lemonade available from the sutler or at the fort cook shack. Drink water with just lemon juice added - some "fresh lemonade" drink sutlers will do this for you if you ask them - it is a much better refresher as lemons have a lot of potassium and other necessary minerals. See, there was a good reason Stonewall Jackson was always sucking on lemons!

  4. Forget the movies... saving the water in your canteen is not macho. In the desert, we were told that it is better to have the water in your body, then in your canteen. For example, assume that the total amount of water in your body is equal to 10 quarts. Studies show that if you lose 0.5 quart, then it takes about the same amount to raise your water level back to 10 quarts. But if you lose more than 10% of your body fluid, then it takes more than 10% to get it back up. [Remember the cell membrane in #2?] A 1.5 quart loss might take 2 or more quarts to get you back to 10. Plus, when you have lost 10% or so of your body water, you experience a greatly reduced ability to recognize heat stress symptoms and make intelligent decisions regarding your health. Keep an eye on your pards and let them know when they appear overheated. And if one of them tells you to sit down, drink and rest, listen to him. He can see your face, you cannot. If you decide not to follow his advice, they will write "Macho Man" on your tombstone. [Speaking of the movies... Why is it that they throw their canteens away when they are empty? Did they think the next desert water hole would provide a variety of canteen styles to chose from?]

    Also, you cannot chug water to make up for not drinking it all day. Your stomach and intestine can only absorb about one quart of water per hour. So drink steadily!

  5. While those woolen jackets may be hot, they keep the sweat next to your body. Don't strip off anything while you are running around. I once spent a day in the Mojave one summer without a t-shirt under my utility shirt - because it was cooler. Later that afternoon I spent three hours on a cot in sickbay while they treated me for heat stoke and pumped 300 ccs of fluid back into me. I was told I got there just in time. Others did not. We lost several men that summer. Cool down before completely removing sweat-soaked clothing. Unbuttoning your jacket at these times allows the air to cool off your body if you are overheated, without excessively dehydrating you.

    Obviously, the Mojave is a very low humidity area, but many of our Florida events take place in the winter months when the humidity is also low. Just because you are at the Battle of Olustee in February doesn't mean that you should not drink a lot of water. Ever notice how much you urinate during the winter? This is because your body uses water to produce heat. You should be drinking just as much, if not more, water in the winter as you do in the summer. During cool days you do not lose most body water from sweat but from other bodily functions.

  6. Pick a shady spot to die. In 1993, the 130th anniversary of Gettysburg reenactment was my very first event, and the heat was extreme. As we chased the Union troops across a plowed field on the first day, the heat reflected back up off the dirt. We then moved into a tree-covered stream and I felt the temperature drop 10 or 15 degrees. Suddenly I noticed men dropping by the dozens. "Why are they dying," I thought. Halfway across the next sun-baked field, this newbie realized why, but it was too late to run back and die in the stream.

  7. Drink a lot of water. All you can get your hands on. Hydrate! (See #1.)

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