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Patriots' Day: Two Mornings in April

Patriots’ Day: Two Mornings in April
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It’s their payoff for all the regimental meetings, the hours of drills, and the time and money put into crafting their uniforms. On any other day someone might scoff at the $1,200 someone paid for his musket or the hours he spent hand-sewing a pair of breeches–but not today. Today the reenactors get to take center stage amid the gunsmoke, the shouted orders, and the billowing banners, while the rest of us stand on the sidelines and watch.A person’s connection to history is personal. Some people feel it; others don’t. Later I would talk with Charlie Price, a Lexington Minuteman who works as a park ranger in Concord. “I spend a lot of time at the North Bridge,” he tells me. “People come up to me and ask, ‘So what is there to do around here?’” As he says this, his voice rises, as though he can’t fathom how anyone could be ignorant of the sacredness of the place. Those tourists may as well have asked the same question of a priest in his church.

Reenactments aren’t so much entertainment as they are interventions: They’re an attempt to bridge that divide between those who never stopped caring about history and those who did. Reenactors don’t necessarily want you to join your local militia; they just want you to pay attention, open yourself up to the ghosts in the place, and for at least one day, see the British darting amid the trees again.

On Patriots’ Day you have to wake up awfully early to love your country in Lexington: Diehards stake out their spots along the town green at 3 a.m. If you arrive after 4:45 a.m., the crowd is so thick you can’t see the field from the back. Locals have found a few ways around this. Rooftop seating abounds on the regal homes that line the green. For those less well connected, ladders are a popular choice.

One man rolls a little red wagon, piled high with materials, down the street. He quickly deploys two ladders, then slides a painter’s bench between them. He has a gaggle of small children with him, and he hoists each one like a sack of potatoes onto his perch. Then he climbs up one of the side ladders and leans out, one arm hooked around a rung, looking for all the world like a proud sea captain in his riggings.

I’m astonished by how many people turn out at this god-awful hour. I hear a man joking about it with his buddy: “One year the British win and the next the Americans do. They change it up to keep the tourists happy.” But, of course, they don’t. The players stick to the script, and if you’ve seen it once, well, you’ve seen it. And yet every year the crowds come.

Tradition is part of the appeal, of course, but to a greater extent I think it’s town pride. If you ask anyone anywhere else in the country where the Revolution started, they’ll reply (provided they know), “LexingtonandConcord,” as though it were one place. That doesn’t fly here, and each town claims to be where the Revolution really began.

I ask a very proper-looking woman where she stands on the debate, and she gives a little laugh, then says, “Can you tell time?” The Battle of Lexington did indeed take place before Concord, and the casualties here sparked the conflict that would occur later in the day. Still, Emerson didn’t write “Lexington Hymn”; he opted to place the “shot heard round the world” just outside his family home at the North Bridge. Concord benefited from the fact that we tend to remember history based on the stories people tell about it rather than what actually happened–or, as Sean Kelleher, a Lexington Minuteman, put it, “They had a good publicist 60 years later who wrote a nice poem.”

As the sun begins to rise, a police officer’s walkie-talkie crackles, “Unit 1, British on the march.” The message elicits a small laugh from the crowd. With little fanfare, the Minutemen form up in a line on the green and await their opponent.

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