On Lexington and Newtown and beyond.
Did you ever have a summer job as a teen that shaped the rest of your life in some way? The summers after my sophomore and junior years in high school, I worked as a ‘volunteer, licensed tour guide’ on the Lexington Green, as in the battles of Lexington and Concord that began the American Revolutionary War on the morning of April 19, 1775. ‘Volunteer, licensed’ meant that I could show up whenever I wanted to at the Green in the center of town, and didn’t get paid except by tipping. It was a great way to learn personal initiative.
I’d get up off the park bench and pitch my services to tourists who would wander onto the Green, telling them the story of how the 77 Minutemen gathered in the pre-dawn hours after Paul Revere had rode through on his midnight ride to sound the alarm that 700 British Regulars, the most feared and trained army on Earth, were marching out from Boston. The British were marching to seize a cache of weapons held by Minutemen in Concord, and if possible halfway en route in Lexington, to arrest Samuel Adams and John Hancock, two of the few men who were thinking ‘revolution’ in 1775 – Adams as a forward-thinking firebrand and Hancock as a less bright but very wealthy importer who would benefit greatly if tax structures were set to his order. The British got neither Hancock nor Adams when they passed through Lexington at dawn, but faced 77 Minutemen standing in a rough line. A shot went off from an unknown source, a skirmish broke out, and 8 Minutemen were killed, 9 wounded. The unscathed British marched on to Concord, where they faced, paraphrasing Emerson, the embattled farmers who fired the shot heard ’round the world and sent them scurrying back to Boston.
The person in charge of handing out licenses to us guides was a tiny little man named Larry Whipple. He passed away some years ago but was an absolutely formative presence in my life, however little time we spent together. He was the guy in town who knew absolutely everything about Lexington’s history – as far as I could tell, that was his job! He could tell you, for instance, not only all the Colonial history, but also how all the Colonists’ farm plots (Lexington was straight country in 1775, Concord even more so) were subdivided over the years into the houses and businesses that created the town we knew in the early 1990s. Larry Whipple instilled a love of history in me as a practical, ongoing, relevant matter. He answered my questions and showed me where in the town library to look for further information. It mattered to him that we tour guides, while a bunch of jackass teenagers, knew enough to rep the town he cared so much about. It was also a silent lesson that we tour guides had a stake in it, too, since at the end of our tours, we’d pass our tricorn hat around and collect tips from the tourists.
It was a great summer job, telling the story of April 19th, 1775 – I learned that history was as alive as you made it, that it paid to be mannerly in approaching people, and of course, that being able to size up a good tipper from across the Green was the difference between a good day and a bad one. By sharing that story to so many tourists and conversing about it with them, I also learned a genuine appreciation for America, for Patriotism, and for the values on which our nation was founded. One of those was the right to bear arms. You could make a case for the battles of Lexington and Concord being an intellectual foundation for the Second Amendment – this was, after all, an arms grab by the military. Yet this was also the era when if things went horribly wrong, armies stood upright in parallel rows fifty feet apart and fired into each other with muskets that took a well-trained soldier two minutes to reload and whose accuracy gave rise to the phrase ‘couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn.’ The technology that would allow for such easy, industrial carnage by a civilian as is possible today via semi-automatic weapons was as alien a concept in the 1700s as a flying machine you rode in. More than three times as many children were killed this past Friday by one person with one weapon than by 700 out-of-control British in the first battle of the American Revolutionary War firing the most technologically advanced weapon of the era.
The occupying army of today is not the British, it’s the gun lobby that has so thoroughly terrorized Americans with sociopathic rationales, tautologies, and moral gymnastics. Its extreme wing has left reasonable hunters and personal protection gun owners voiceless. It’s scary to converse with a ‘gun enthusiast’ as they parrot garbage beginning ‘if guns are outlawed…’ especially since everyone knows that one side of the conversation has a gun and one doesn’t. Implicit in discussions of individual gun ownership that may go too far, there is always the conversation-stopper that the gun owner would be willing to die or to kill in order to retain their guns. Ultimately, until real change occurs on a government level to rein our cultural gun fanaticism back to reason, reasonable citizens, and that includes reasonable gun owners, need to address among ourselves that the bringing of tools of pure industrial-level carnage into our communities and our neighborhoods is sociopathic behavior with no redeeming social value. Obviously, it’s scary for the gun-free public to bring up the issue from an acknowledged position of fear, but that’s simply the point. Gun violence won’t end, but we must try to bring it down.
Tucked behind a church off the Lexington Green is the Old Burying Ground, where there are tombstones dating back to 1690 and where many witnesses to the battle of 1775 are buried. It’s an eerie, beautiful place where time stands still and the New England seasons are crisp and vivid. I liked to take tourists there if they weren’t in a hurry. One of the more haunting of the Colonial-era graves is the long grave of the six young children of the Childs family, who all appear to have died from an unspecified cause in about a six-week period. The graves of their parents are right behind it – they lived for years after. It’s hard to imagine the pain of that family at the death of their children, but too many parents across the United States know it all too well, due in large part to the perversion of a moment in history in that birthplace of American liberty.