Combat Con’s Poster Child: Chad Light as Don Pedro Menedez de Aviles

What: Combat Con 3
Where: Riviera Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas, NV
When: June 13-15, 2014
How Much: $65 4-Day Fan Admission – $200 4-Day Warrior Admission
Website: combatcon.com

When speaking with Combat Con and ISMAC founder Jared Kirby before Combat Con 2012, he mentioned that science fiction author Neal Stephenson could be considered a poster child for Combat Con. In his own literary career Stephenson brings the world of real life Western Martial Arts which he practices at least weekly into his widely-praised depictions of combat in his works like Snow Crash and The Baroque Cycle. Stephenson hopes to bring more realistic depictions of WMA fighting into the video game world as well and promoted the Kickstarter-funded CLANG at Combat Con. However I believe I may have found a better poster child for Combat Con in the form of Chad Light.

Chad Light re-enactor of Don Pedro Menedez de Aviles at Combat Con with bullwhip around neck in costumeLight, 49, is probably more familiar to St. Augustine’s residents and visitors as Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés. Until a year ago, Light made his living as a re-enactor at the Fountain of Youth Archaeoloical Park. When describing his vocation, Light called himself “an actor who’s a re-enactor or a re-enactor who’s an actor.” What caught my eye when first meeting Light was his sword, which I recognized as a David Baker-forged recreation from its distinctive hilt. Many St. Augustine residents recognize the weapon when Light wears it, having seen another version of it displayed outside the St. Augustine City Hall.

Steel sword showing pommel and intricate flowing hilt designed by David Baker

Chad Light’s Distinctive Reproduction Sword Hilt

A veteran re-enactor of over 30 years, the original 2011 Combat Con was instrumental in changing Light’s re-enactment practices. One of the workshops he attended that year was Jack Dagger’s class on throwing knives and hatchets. Light already had a familiarity and skill in throwing weapons, but had not incorporated them into his role as Don Pedro. That all changed when Light returned to Florida. He began each tour with a silent demonstration, first throwing knives or hatchets into a round of wood and retrieving them. Then he would throw the weapons backhanded as the crowd quieted down. By the time he was throwing hatchets and knives between his legs, he had his audience captivated and spellbound. Using the theatrical and martial skills enhanced by Combat Con 2011, Light went from a full time employee at the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park to a salaried full time employee and was quick to attribute Combat Con as a critical step in his employment elevation.

Light didn’t make as much of Combat Con 2011 as he would have liked owing to an injury sustained while doing a horse stunt at Drake’s Raid in Florida, resulting in a broken collarbone. Nevertheless he attended the inaugural Combat Con and the whip class taught by Anthony De Longis, but wasn’t able to participate fully in the motions. He did buy De Longis’s DVD on whips, watching it over 30 times, and building up his fundamentals. Light had his bull whip when I spoke with him and later attended De Longis’s class that afternoon. He was quite pleased when I caught up with him later explaining that De Longis had corrected a few minor movements and techniques that he hadn’t mastered yet. When I asked De Longis about Light’s improvements, he agreed and praised him as an excellent student.

The Dedication and Background of a Re-Enactor

Re-enactor Chad Light at Combat Con in Las Vegas in Fancy Dress

Light Showing Off Another Side of Don Pedro

Discipline and research are important to Light, a former Army Special Forces officer who served in Panama, Desert Storm/Shield, and Somalia. He doesn’t have a TV or a telephone and only uses a computer for research. As part of their contracts, Light requires the other re-enactors to spend at least three hours a week practicing their swordplay. When questioned about possibly living at the park, Light said that he would if he could. Light is pursuing his doctorate in ethnography, specializing in palaeography. His undergraduate degrees are in psychology and history and he has a Masters in Behavioral Psychology. Yet his studies are much more practical and mundane as well, as Light, like many cosplayers or re-enactors, does much of his own sewing himself. While his external garb was historically accurate, he also doesn’t turn his nose up to machine-sewed undergarments, but pointed out that for many re-enactors this modern compromise would be going too far.

You could say that re-enactment is in Light’s blood. His father is a professor of language at William and Mary and a member of the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association, a black powder weapons group. Light’s mother grew up in Spain and Light lived there as well as a child, when not attending colonial events with a father “who could crack whips”. Light’s father also served as an advisor on the semi-historical films The Last of the Mohicans and The Patriot.

Playing Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and Others

Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés is Light’s main role and he leads the re-enactment troupe the Men of Menedez. Light has respect for Menéndez de Avilés and studiously researches the Spaniard. When asked whether he would have liked Menéndez de Avilés in his own period, Light responded that, “Those around him thought he was charismatic and capable of anything. That would be hard not to like if you were around someone like that when your life was on the line.” Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés was also wise in his own way, writing to the Spanish crown that, “There is gold and silver in Florida, but you can’t dig it. You need to grow it.”

Light also participates in the re-enactment of the sacking of Ft. Caroline named after the French king Charles IX. Fort Caroline had been settled by the Hugenots, Protestants fleeing France, but they were set upon by their Spanish neighbors in 1565. The French defenders of the fort were mostly massacred as heretics, establishing a bloody reputation for Don Pedro, especially among civilians. This was only furthered by his slaughter of bound Frenchmen who had been captured in their attempt to capture St. Augustine. Towards the native tribes Menéndez de Avilés was more gracious, writing edicts to protect them from Spanish settlers. A favorite of Phillip II, Menéndez de Avilés was made captain-general and governor of Florida. His downfall was curiously on account of some insects, the cochinille beetles, used to make red dyes. When Don Pedro sailed into a port he failed to declare the cochinille beetles and was prosecuted for it, his reputation slightly marred and his hopes of returning to live in Florida dashed. He caught typhus and died in Spain in 1574. Light travels to Spain multiple times a year, and has close ties with Spanish researchers and re-enactors as he conducts further research into the transatlantic leader.

One of Light’s other roles has actually been on-screen. Light is one quarter Native American and played a full-blooded Huron in Michael Mann’s 1992 Last of the Mohicans, serving as an extra. He participated in the field massacre of the English column and can be seen leaving Fort William Henry during its surrender. Additionally he doesn’t confine himself to the 16th Century for re-enactment; Light is part of the Historical Florida Militia American Civil War regiment. Besides re-enacting as Ponce de Leon, Light has also played the role of Navaraiz, a captain of Hernan Cortez’s. The 16th century was a brutal time: Navaraiz had one of his eyes put out by a pike. Light also plays another Don Pedro. Don Pedro Menéndez de Marqués was the nephew of Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and a subsequent governor of Cuba first and then Florida.

St. Augustine’s Attractions

The small town of St. Augustine hosts many re-enactment events with others close by. Light participates each year in the “School of the 16th Century” put on by the tourist development board in February. Re-enactors, primarily men, bring their families to enjoy a vacation on the Atlantic coast with their wives and children. Many children and wives join in the education with the children doing what their 16th century counterparts would have done. Many women participate in the combat-side of things, which is where perhaps the re-enactment ends. In another of Light’s activities, the monthly tercio of St. Augustine, there are at least 30 female college students out of a group of 150 re-enactors, Light estimates.

Drake’s Raid, which is one of the largest re-enactments that Light helps organize, is held annually in the first week of June. It commemorates Sir Francis Drake’s raid of 1586 in which the famed British captain sacked St. Augustine. Drake’s Raid attracts over 3,000 visitors annually. In September there is much pageantry surrounding the re-enactment of Don Pedro’s first landing in St. Augustine, which also draws thousands of spectators and participants. Another attraction is the Castillo de San Marcos, a stonework fort with firing cannon. For Light and others, the Castillo de San Marcos is also a bastion against Florida’s hurricanes. In an emergency Light plans to take shelter there.

Light Can be Seen As Don Pedro in Bruce Merwin’s Youtube Video of the Landing Re-Enactment

The Combat Con Connection

Anthony De Longis’s whips classes and Jack Dagger’s knife-throwing aren’t the only appeal of Combat Con for Light. He also attended Maestro Ramon Martinez’s sword class, pointing to him as the best Spanish sword master in the United States. Both Maestro Jennete Acosta Martinez (the wife of Maestro Ramon Martinez and a maestro in her own right) and John Lennox have come to the St. Augustine area for events, confirming that the world of WMA is indeed a fairly small one.

When Gaming and Re-Enacting Collide

Though Light was quick to point out that he is not a tabletop gamer (and certainly not a video gamer) and has never LARPed, he has played Wizards of the Coast’s cardstock Pirates of the Spanish Main game and got his “ass kicked” by his son. He spoke with pride about how the computer game Sid Meier’s Pirates helped his son with a presentation at school wherein his son drew an accurate map of the Carribean, labeling the chief ports, all learned through playing Pirates. Battle gaming or SCA fighting doesn’t interest Light, though he has had many LARPers join him as re-enactors who decide to “put the foam away and put on heavy metal”. In miniature wargaming oftentimes only the first rank or the first two ranks of a military unit are neccessary to fully detail; in re-enactment it is much the same with more detailed costumes like Light’s going into the first ranks and those with less historically accurate costumes able to fill out the rear ranks.