Ruth Bass: Patriot's Day - when the desire for freedom began to stir

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RICHMOND — How to get rid of clutter must rank close to No. 1 in supermarket magazine articles, if you don't count weight loss and who is getting divorced from whom. Apparently, none of the proffered solutions works, because the following month, someone is giving you a new way to pull yourself together.

One of the basic rules when sorting out clutter is that, after you pick up an item, you file it, recycle it, toss it in the wastebasket or use it for kindling. You are forbidden to put it down again.

Writers rank as the royalty of clutterbugs. We have lots of stuff. But a problem often interferes with disposal of clippings, photos, souvenirs, books and copies of The Atlantic: Is the object in the hands clutter, history or reference material? Deciding isn't easy.

But the other day, thinking about how Monday is the actual Patriot's Day — a Massachusetts day, if there ever was one — a piece of clutter turned up at the right time. It's a clipping about minutemen, those members of a not particularly well-regulated militia who surprised the British at Lexington and Concord in 1775. The holiday is now observed on Mondays, so we celebrate three days before the real anniversary of the predawn preparations.

My husband wrote the article, focusing on the two minutemen statues that commemorate the colonists' success on April 19. One stands in Concord, the work of Daniel Chester French, whose summer home in Stockbridge is one of the treasures of the Berkshires. The other stands in Lexington, created by Henry Hudson Kitson, a Berkshire sculptor from Tyringham, where his Gingerbread House still stands.

The reason for the piece in The Eagle in 1980 was that Milton had to apologize for calling the Kitson sculpture "The Minuteman." As he explains, only French's man with a gun gets that title. Kitson's 7-foot statue (also compelling) is a minuteman. He was, after all, English.

Happening upon that tale that day last week was not finding clutter. It was serendipity — a new approach to a Patriot's Day column.

At French's studio at Chesterwood, visitors are absorbed in models for his most famous work, the "Seated Lincoln" for the Lincoln Memorial, but the museum also has small statuettes of "The Minuteman." The dashing figure by the famous bridge in Concord was created when French was only 21, his first statue. By the time the work was finished, he was 24 and had presented the world with a proper memorial to the day when our freedom began, a day not celebrated much beyond New England. It's also when spring is supposed to launch with warm air, motorcycles swarming, kids biking, the Boston Marathon and a Red Sox home game.

Two hundred and forty-three years ago, leisure was not on the agenda. The British were supposed to creep out of Boston and march to Concord and Lexington to confiscate colonial military supplies because the colonists were getting too feisty. But the secret leaked out — leaks can be a good thing, especially when they save us — and the news spread from town to town, not merely with the famous men on horseback, but also with an odd combination of bells, drums, alarm guns, bonfires and a trumpet, a system designed to let militias know they must get up and out. The story is that the Brits were still unloading their boats in Cambridge while towns prepared 25 miles away.

That's just one of many stories. They aren't clutter, but probably they're not all history, either. Still, the not-so-well-regulated militia faced off the well-dressed redcoats on a bridge, abandoned the old way of war and fired on the British from behind stone walls. When the British retreated, the farmers went home to milk the cows.

One of the neatest stories on the internet says that a bunch of hunters in what became Kentucky were so excited about the battle in Massachusetts that they named their campsite Lexington, a name that stuck when the area produced a city.

This day in history was a big deal, the beginning of us and the U.S. But the encounters were fairly minor, the casualties few. Confusion still remains about which side and in which place the first shot was fired, but the fires of revolution were kindled. So, we have a holiday. Now, to throw away that clipping? Or not.

Ruth Bass is author of three historical novels. Her website is www.ruthbass.com.


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