Growing up in Northeast Philadelphia, John Godzieba hated history. Too boring, he thought, too many dates to remember.
But in 1992, when he was in his early 30s, Godzieba and his wife took a trip to Colonial Williamsburg. And there, immersed in the history of the early years of America, he began to fall in love with the past.
That was the start of a 19-year odyssey that has taken Godzieba on Revolutionary War reenactments up and down the East Coast. On Sunday, the journey will, weather-permitting, put him on the Delaware River, playing Gen. George Washington in the 59th annual reenactment of the famed Christmas-night river crossing of 1776.
"It's really an amazing feeling," said Godzieba, 52, who will be portraying Washington for the third year - a role that is a change from his day job as a lieutenant with the Bristol Township Police Department.
Godzieba said it was hard not to get a thrill when he takes to the river in Colonial garb: about 7,000 people turn out along both sides to watch the crossing, which commemorates what many historians consider a turning point in the war, when Washington and his 2,400 Continental troops crossed the Delaware and then routed British-allied Hessian troops during the Battle of Trenton.
Two years ago, Godzieba almost didn't get the chance to do the reenactment, because budgetary problems forced the closing of the park to visitors.
"I was pretty devastated," said Godzieba, who had finally won the starring role after two unsuccessful auditions and 16 years working his way up from private to officer as a reenactor with the Fifth Pennsylvania Regiment.
The budget problems, however, gave rise to a new volunteer group, Friends of Washington Crossing Park, which now runs the park in partnership with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. And the Friends group, with Godzieba as president, is raising money to fund the day-to-day operations and help pay for educational exhibits for a new visitors center set to open in August.
There's a constant need to raise money, he said, "just to keep the park running."
Godzieba said he had learned a lot about the man who became the nation's first president.
"He was a dignified person," Godzieba said. "You never read anything about him having a nasty temper or treating people poorly."
On Christmas, Godzieba will put on his military uniform and reddish-brown wig, give a brief address to his "troops," and then set off for the riverbank, where he hopes he will find a cooperative river for the crossing. "That's every Washington's concern - will we get across," said Godzieba, who said the replica cargo boats were the "tractor-trailers of their time."
Godzieba will return to the Upper Makefield Township park again at first light on New Year's Eve morning to take part in a reenactment of the Battle of Trenton.
Washington's victory at Trenton invigorated the struggling Continental Army, set the stage for more battlefield wins, and solidified Washington's role as a leader.
Godzieba got involved as a reenactor when, shortly after his 1992 trip to Williamsburg, he noticed an ad seeking volunteers for a Revolutionary War reenactment group, the Fifth Pennsylvania Regiment. He went to a meeting and liked what he saw.
"I was hooked," he said.
Since then, he has been a faithful reenactor, visiting historic battle sites to provide a modern-day recreation of what happened during significant Revolutionary War battles - the Battle of Germantown, the Battle of Whitemarsh, the Battle of Monmouth.
"As a reenactor, we get to see historic sites in a different way. You literally get to go into places that the public doesn't get to go," said Godzieba, who recalled camping out on the front lawn of Washington's estate, Mount Vernon.
He especially enjoys educational events planned at the park for schoolchildren.
"When you're away from the classroom," out walking around the park, getting a tour by a volunteer in an authentic costume of the era, he said, "it brings it closer to home."