Friday, November 10, 2017

Not just a ship

Forty-two years


You’ve heard of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Mighty Fitz was a Great Lakes ore boat and, at more than 700 feet, among the largest of her kind.  Forty-two years ago, in a raging late-autumn storm, she broke in two and found the bottom of Lake Superior, taking 29 men with her. You’ve heard of the Edmund Fitzgerald because Gordon Lightfoot wrote a song about her. But you’ve never heard of my Uncle Bill, because no one ever wrote a song about him.*



Bill was a cop’s cop and a detective sergeant in the Cleveland suburb of Bedford Heights. That Monday he and his partner, James Toth, visited Blonder’s Paint Store with books of mug shots. The store had been robbed five weeks before, and there still was no arrest. Bill was a sweet man, but that kind of thing pissed him off, so he was going to work the case until something broke.

Nobody was in the front of the store, so Bill walked through to the back. Michael Manns was waiting for him, hiding behind a bathroom door, because he was robbing Blonder’s Paint Store again. Manns and his crew had the employees held hostage in the back room. The moment Bill came through the door, Manns put a pistol to Bill’s neck and pulled the trigger, blowing out Bill’s spine and carotid artery. Bill fell flat to the floor, shattering the big glasses he always wore -- except his official photo.

Manns knew exactly whom he was killing when he murdered my uncle. Bill hadn’t wanted to startle store employees, fresh from the prior robbery, who might be jumpy at someone coming through the door unannounced. So he’d called out “Sgt. Prochazka, police department!” as he walked through.

After firing the shot, Manns fled with his accomplices, George Clayton, Dwain Farrow and Duran Harris. Store employees, now having seen the robbers twice, were able to identify them and Clayton, Farrow and Harris were arrested within a day or so by Cleveland police. Manns was on the run for several weeks, until police caught up with him in Detroit.

The funeral procession drew police cars from 49 states, every province of Canada and most of Northern Mexico. Bedford Heights was a small department, but despite all the other lawmen there, the BHPD  wouldn’t let anyone else stand honor guard over the coffin, day and night, until they put it in the ground.

Bill, with his twin brother Bob – also a cop – was the youngest of ten brothers and sisters. He left my Aunt Loretta, a daughter and three sons. Over the days of viewing, I saw the strongest people I knew – the strongest people I thought there could be – reduced to mewling, groveling beasts by their grief. During the service, someone played “Amazing Grace” on the piano. Bill’s youngest boy stood before the coffin and saluted, exactly like John John in Stan Stearns’ iconic photo.

All four men were convicted of aggravated robbery and murder. Our family had people at every day of trial. On the day each man was sentenced to death, all eight of Bill’s surviving siblings, and dozens of cousins, nephews, and nieces stood witness. Not long after that, all of the death sentences were commuted to life in prison when a court ruling banned Ohio’s death penalty. Harris was granted parole and freed in 2003. Corrections officials had failed to inform the family of the parole hearing, so no one was there to oppose his release. Now, as the other men’s hearings periodically arise, someone is always there – led by Bill’s son Robert, a cop in Willowick, Ohio.

However much we love or are loved, however deep our connections to our wives and husbands and children and friends, there is a sense in which we each travel through life aboard a ship with a single passenger. Even shared experiences are felt uniquely, individually. Standing in the same storm, each of us hears the thunder at a slightly different moment, feels the wind from a certain, personal angle. So it was that, drenched in sadness that entire miserable, sleet-soaked funeral week – and although I loved him so much – I did not cry for Bill.

I was too busy making an acquaintance of Hate, whom I hadn’t occasion to meet before then.

Twenty-nine sailors, a good cop and a teen boy’s faith all died that day forty-two years ago, to be buried under steel gray waves, or brown earth, or  black despair. I said I was through with God that day, and for twenty years I made good on that vow, except to make war on Him from time to time. But He wasn’t done with me. So today I can pray for Bill, and for his family – and even for Manns, Clayton, Farrow and Harris.

But that’s another story.



*Actually, as it happens, I wrote a song about him -- which amounts to the same thing.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Getting your mind right


Recent events are having the effect that events always have when they are recent: Folks are thinking and talking -- at least for now -- about issues that are ever present, but are most often ignored by most. It's human nature to do this of course. In the words of the fictional Matthew Harrison Brady, we don't  think about things we don't think about. Indeed, this tendency is itself so predictable that investors have name for the phenomenon: Recency Bias. Still, one supposes it's better to think about these matters episodically, or reactively, than not to think about them at all. Here, of course, we think about these issues pretty much all the time.

So with that, I recycle, for the third time, the most read -- and I think probably most important -- column ever to appear here. Because recent events are going to be future events. And the time to decide how you will act -- who you will BE -- when that happens is now.



Some folks like a triad. You will also hear lots of discussion about three-legged stools. Others prefer to slice a pie into four pieces.  Some would rather disassemble the device into components. Whatever your favored metaphor, the simple notion of “self defense” implicates many considerations.


You have to have tools that work, every time, and are suited to you. You have to be able to use those tools effectively, so that means adequate marksmanship and competent, reflexive gun-handling. To achieve those, you have to train, and the training has to be realistic and relevant. Then you have to practice often and effectually – recognizing that training and practice are not the same thing. Your ancillary gear has to be suited to your particular use of it, and as reliable as your primary tools.

But while all of these are necessary, none of them is sufficient. All of these considerations matter, but there is one thing that is lord of them all: Mindset.

Robert's Rule is that "Mindset Matters Most." Fighting mindset determines outcomes. Mindset implicates the largest questions: How do you believe you came to occupy the universe? Mindset invades the smallest of moments: Will you keep fighting for this next second?

Not only will the better mindset prevail “all things being equal,” but the man with the better mindset can prevail over an adversary who is better equipped or trained or both, while a poor mindset renders expertise irrelevant. This is not a new notion. Sun Tzu** said 2500 years ago that every battle is won or lost before it is fought.

Proper mindset drives you toward the satisfaction of all the other necessary elements: You are determined to expend the time and sweat and money to train realistically and practice effectively. You have done the research and trials necessary to know what weapons and gear will work best for you, and you have not stinted on buying the best you can afford.  But mindset stands apart from and above all these other factors.

Proper mindset means that you have decided that you are a human being and that human beings have the right to defend their lives and wellbeing, and the lives and wellbeing of those in their care or charge. You have decided that you concur with the Founders' belief that your right to life is natural and inalienable. You have decided that the image of an armed woman standing over the bleeding body of a would-be rapist is morally superior to the image of a battered woman lying on the ground, watching as her rapist flees.

To have a proper mindset is to be utterly ready for that which you earnestly pray will not occur. Proper mindset means that you can walk away from any insult or offense that does not warrant a fight, no matter the injury to your ego. But proper mindset means that you are ready to fight when it is time to fight, because you have decided you will fight long before the fight. Proper mindset is what spares you the paralysis of “this can’t be happening,” so that you can get into the fight when it will do you the most good. It is proper mindset that will keep you in the fight – when you are afraid or exhausted or shot – until you prevail or die.

Proper mindset means you have thought about what this kind of fight really looks like, even if you have never engaged in or witnessed one. You know that you are willing to do great harm to a determined assailant, to wet your hands with his blood, if that’s what it takes to end his aggression. More than this, you know if you are capable of ending the life of another human being if need be. Proper mindset means that you have examined your heart of hearts with unflinching honesty. If you are a person of faith, proper mindset means you have reconciled these issues with that faith before the moment arises.

Mindset is not magic; it is not an incantation or a prayer or a mantra. It is neither esoteric nor theoretical; it is, instead, the most practical thing there is. Mindset is a set of decisions, considered with greatest care, resolved to a moral certainty and then followed through, come what may. Proper fighting mindset may come easy or hard for you, but the having or lack of it is not a matter of luck or heredity, nor is it the exclusive province of any particular profession. Mindset can be learned.





* Those facts really are very simple and boil down to this -- fewer weapons in the hands of law-abiding citizens equals more crimes committed against them by criminals unconcerned with silly things like gun laws.

** I will leave it for others to debate the question of whether Sun Tzu actually existed as a single historical figure.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Je ne suis toujours pas Charlie

Of course, I entirely defend the right of these cheese-eating surrender monkeys to publish this cover or, indeed, any damned thing they wish. For those who, eschewing a study of French, have wisely dedicated themselves to learning the language of a relevant world power, it reads: "God Exists! He Drowned All the Neo-Nazis of Texas."
I'm not angry or disappointed because, I confess, my expectations are low. We've already discussed here the lack of moral consistency by the Gauloise-sucking "journalists" at Charlie Hebdo. And let's be honest, the Germans may have invented the word schadenfreude, but nobody does it better than the French. And I know, too, that Nazis are a bit of an uncomfortable subject for the French, given their legacy of well-earned national shame. Gazing upon this cover, they must have to wonder if a timely flood would have somehow stopped them handing over Jewish schoolchildren for annihilation in exchange for the Germans not burning down some museums. (Not that the French didn't then mount a fine resistance. Courageous cafe owners frequently over-charged German officers for espresso.* And many French housewives valiantly gave German soldiers painful venereal diseases in exchange for stockings and cabbages.)

But . . . here's the thing. You would think that if anyone would not want to rob the swastika of all of its meaning, it would be people who lived under the brutal occupation of actual Nazis. Calling all the victims in Houston -- a city that, for one thing, overwhelmingly votes Democrat -- "Nazis" would seem to me to do just that. And it's a glaring example of what's wrong with our own discourse here in recent months.
You see, people who don't believe that the military should enlist transgender service members aren't Nazis. They might be right. They might be wrong. They might be motivated by hate, or fear, or merely a concern for the marginal costs of issuing all those new nametags. But they aren't Nazis -- well at least they aren't Nazis just because they disagree with you about the intersection of gender identity and the armed forces. That guy who favors immigration amnesty for "dreamers?" I guess he might be a socialist, but his stance on that single issue offers you insufficient data to reach any such conclusion. And the small-town florist who doesn't want her great-great-granddaddy's statue ripped out of the courthouse square? It's not likely she's an actual fascist however troublesome you find that bronze fellow on the horse. But when you bandy about a word like "Nazi," even though it has the effect of rendering your opponents less than human -- always handy when you want to douse them with jars of your own urine or peacefully beat them into silence -- it also has the effect of sucking all the meaning from the word. And that's not good for anyone. (I mean, if nothing else, don't the folks who called George W. Bush a Nazi now wish they'd kept that epithet in reserve?)

More than six years ago, I wrote in this space about the Theory of Ubiquitous Polarity.** I wrote then from a place of personal frustration, calling for nuance. These days I see it underlying something far more dangerous. Because if you render every disagreement on any policy and procedure into a definitive identity for the person with whom you disagree, if you view everyone on the other side of anything as being a member of a class of the fundamentally evil, you leave yourself with nothing to do but go to war. That's what you do with actual Nazis. And by the looks of recent events, war is more or less where we're going.


* Thank you Trevanian.

** "A system under which an observer believes that all beliefs must necessarily be aligned in whatever manner the observer himself aligns them."

Thursday, November 10, 2016

EOW: 11-10-75

Forty-one years.


You’ve heard of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Mighty Fitz was a Great Lakes ore boat and, at more than 700 feet, among the largest of her kind. Thirty-five years ago, in a raging late-autumn storm, she broke in two and found the bottom of Lake Superior , taking 29 men with her. You’ve heard of the Edmund Fitzgerald because Gordon Lightfoot wrote a song about her. But you’ve never heard of my Uncle Bill, because no one ever wrote a song about him.*



Bill was a cop’s cop and a detective sergeant in the Cleveland suburb of Bedford Heights. That Monday he and his partner, James Toth, visited Blonder’s Paint Store with books of mug shots. The store had been robbed five weeks before, and there still was no arrest. Bill was a sweet man, but that kind of thing pissed him off, so he was going to work the case until something broke.

Nobody was in the front of the store, so Bill walked through to the back. Michael Manns was waiting for him, hiding behind a bathroom door, because he was robbing Blonder’s Paint Store again. Manns and his crew had the employees held hostage in the back room. The moment Bill came through the door, Manns put a pistol to Bill’s neck and pulled the trigger, blowing out Bill’s spine and carotid artery. Bill fell flat to the floor, shattering the big glasses he always wore -- except his official photo.

Manns knew exactly whom he was killing when he murdered my uncle. Bill hadn’t wanted to startle store employees fresh from the prior robbery, who might be jumpy at someone coming through the door unannounced. So he’d called out “Sgt. Prochazka, police department!” as he walked through.

After firing the shot, Manns fled with his accomplices, George Clayton, Dwain Farrow and Duran Harris. Store employees, now having seen the robbers twice, were able to identify them and Clayton, Farrow and Harris were arrested within a day or so by Cleveland police. Manns was on the run for several weeks, until police caught up with him in Detroit.

The funeral procession drew police cars from 49 states, every province of Canada and most of Northern Mexico. Bedford Heights was a small department, but despite all the other lawmen there, the BHPD  wouldn’t let anyone else stand honor guard over the coffin, day and night, until they put it in the ground.

Bill, with his twin brother Bob – also a cop – was the youngest of ten brothers and sisters. He left my Aunt Loretta, a daughter and three sons. Over the days of viewing, I saw the strongest people I knew – the strongest people I thought there could be – reduced to mewling, groveling beasts by their grief. During the service, someone played “Amazing Grace” on the piano. Bill’s youngest boy stood before the coffin and saluted, exactly like John John in Stan Stearns’ iconic photo.

All four men were convicted of aggravated robbery and murder. Our family had people at every day of trial. On the day each man was sentenced to death, all eight of Bill’s surviving siblings, and dozens of cousins, nephews, and nieces stood witness. Not long after that, all of the death sentences were commuted to life in prison when a court ruling banned Ohio’s death penalty. Harris was granted parole and freed in 2003. Corrections officials had failed to inform the family of the parole hearing, so no one was there to oppose his release. Now, as the other men’s hearings periodically arise, someone is always there – led by Bill’s son Robert, a cop in Willowick, Ohio.

However much we love or are loved, however deep our connections to our wives and husbands and children and friends, there is a sense in which we each travel through life aboard a ship with a single passenger. Even shared experiences are felt uniquely, individually. Standing in the same storm, each of us hears the thunder at a slightly different moment, feels the wind from a certain, personal angle. So it was that, drenched in sadness that entire miserable, sleet-soaked funeral week – and although I loved him so much – I did not cry for Bill.

I was too busy making an acquaintance of hate, whom I hadn’t occasion to meet before then.

Twenty-nine sailors, a good cop and a teen boy’s faith all died that day thirty-five years ago, to be buried under steel gray waves, or brown earth or  black despair. I said I was through with God that day, and for twenty years I made good on that vow, except to make war on Him from time to time. But He wasn’t done with me. So today I can pray for Bill, and for his family – and even for Manns, Clayton, Farrow and Harris.

But that’s another story.



*Actually, as it happens, I wrote a song about him -- which amounts to the same thing.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Balls and strikes

When I was a boy, “social media” meant mostly baseball gloves and footballs. These were the primary means of our interactions with our peers. We played endless games on our suburban streets, in our connected backyards, in neighborhood parks and even – when local school officials were insufficiently attentive to the locks on their gates – on actual ball fields. If we had enough kids – and at the tail end of the Baby Boom, we often did – we’d play 11-on-11 or 9-on-9 as the season demanded. If too many kids were sick or grounded or on vacation, we engaged in endless personnel adjustments to make the games even. Somebody might be the designated quarterback for both sides. Or the hitting team might provide its own catcher. But there was one position that was never filled: No one was going to waste valuable play time being the referee or the umpire.



With the exception of the occasional squabble, our honor system worked a treat. If you stepped out of bounds (that is to say, into Mrs. Scheimann's yard), you stopped where you were. If you missed the tag before Billy Miller made it to the back corner of the Buick, you said so. And if too often you didn't, you were subject to the ultimate sanction: Kids who couldn’t be counted on to call it square – on themselves most of all – found their doorbell stopped ringing, because nobody cared if Mikey could come out to play, if Mikey was a duplicitous sneak.

This notion, that your personal integrity and commitment to fair play were paramount, was inculcated into us at every turn, from our earliest days. You memorized “If” in the fourth grade. They told you George Washington couldn’t tell a lie about his stint as a junior arborist, even at the risk of a licking* – and this when you were young enough that ending up over Dad’s knee was an all too available consequence of your own confessional inclinations. Long before the age of participation trophies, we prized the ones they gave out for sportsmanship.

On the not-so-mean streets of 1960s Cleveland Heights, your rep was as important to you as to any inmate on the prison yard. Simply put, we all wanted to win, but we were taught to revile the idea of winning at any cost, and we did.
  
If nothing else, this grotesque presidential campaign is demonstrating conclusively that this fundamental truth from my boyhood is now passé. It's not the candidates and their legions of professional apparatchiks who demonstrate this. Those sorts have been ever thus, and we would never have let them play with us anyway. Rather, what is worrisome – indeed, what is frightening – are those people whom one respects or even admires who have, more easily than one could have imagined, abandoned all standards, beliefs, and philosophies they once held dear, who have traded their own integrity, all in sacrifice to the singular value of seeing their side win.



They have deemed principles not merely articles to be ignored, but luxuries to be scorned. And if you hold to yours, then, at best you're a fool or a patsy – but more likely you'll be denominated a collaborator.


Their justifications are as they always have been:

"This time is different."

“The circumstances are exigent, extraordinary.”

"Just this much, just this once. . . 

“The stakes are too high. . .

“After the coup, we will promptly restore democracy, reinstate civil liberties and release those whom we have interned.”

Oops. Sorry.

That last one wasn’t from this election. It was from every military coup, by every jumped up dictator since Julius Caesar.

And here’s the thing: It's working. Whichever candidate prevails as the prettiest pig at the fair, this declaration of vice as virtue seems certain to win out. And for those who have embraced this anti-philosophy, there's no going back. To paraphrase Robert Bolt paraphrasing Thomas More, once you let your values slip through your fingers – or, as in this election, once you toss them to the dirt – they cannot be picked up again.**

And like the kid who wouldn't take his out, when the election is over, when your chosen, favored, power-hungry narcissist is measuring the drapes for the Oval Office, you’re going to be faced with what I wish I could claim is one of Robert’s Rules, but which I must fairly attribute to Buackaroo Banzai:
Wherever you go, there you are.



To what exigency will you appeal then, when you find yourself with all the time in the world? What lie will you tell then, when there's only you to hear it?

Who is going to want to play with you then?

[
UPDATED to add, that this is the sort of thing I mean by winning at any costs. And to say that support of tactics like this isn't theoretical. People I respect have told me this or that candidate must be stopped, and so. . . ]




* They did not, of course, tell us that this story, designed to inspire forthright honesty, was utter propaganda.

** What the theatrical More said was:

                     What is an oath then, but words we say to God?
                      Listen, Meg. When a man takes an oath, he's holding his own self
                      in his own hands like water. And if he opens his fingers then,
                      he needn't hope to find himself again. 




Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Le Médecin malgré lui*


(A tragicomedy in one scene.)


            The scene is a doctor's office of another era. A large and well worn oaken desk separates the doctor and his patient. The doctor's chair is high-backed, plush and leather. The patient perches on a plain, straight, armless wooden chair, one leg of which is just slightly shorter than the others causing it to thump as the patient moves in the chair. [Importantly, neither character should ever remark on this, even with a glance or gesture.] Everything in the office speaks of long use and ill attention, except for an enormous, gleaming metal and porcelain cabinet that looms behind the doctor. [Care should be taken to light the cabinet aggressively, so that the effect is of a glowing, sublime and vaguely overwhelming presence.]

The doctor is a tall and slender man in his mid-fifties, his close-cropped, once brown hair gone grayish with the strain and aggravation of years spent telling patients exactly what is good for them and not being universally heeded. He wears a dark suit, and a white lab coat with an American flag lapel pin slightly askew.

The patient is a woman of indeterminate middle age. Her smart business suit, tame hairdo and (if the director wishes) cliched horn-rimmed spectacles, along with her upright posture, vocabulary and close attention to the doctor all suggest a person of intelligence, education and judgment  . . . but all tinged with a wisp of real worry.


Doc:     Well Ms. Jones, you are terribly, terribly ill.

Jones:   Oh my goodness, what’s wrong with me. Is it cancer? Lupus? The Zika virus?



D:        Now, now, none of that. Naming your disease is not going to change how sick you are, Ms. Jones. Certainly you can see that.

J:          But don’t you need to diagnose my disease to treat it? Isn't its etiology important, crucial even, in fashioning an efficacious treatment?

D:        Well now! Look who's spent some time on Web MD. Who’s the doctor here, hmm? I know exactly what you need. Yes indeed.

::Swivels his chair to the large cabinet behind him and swings opens the doors to reveal shelves sagging with hundreds of bottles of blue pills::

::Swivels back and hands a large bottles to Mrs. Jones::

D:        Now take three pills five times a day. Do your best to combat the nausea, hair loss, cramping, drowsiness, insomnia, spasms, temporary blindness, light sensitivity, deafness, tinnitus, speaking in tongues, chills, night sweats, flaking skin, oily skin, loss of hearing, loss of libido, loss of memory, constipation and explosive diarrhea that are certain to accompany the treatment. Do be sure to report any other side effects, as I really cannot anticipate what those might be and I sort of like to keep track.

Alrighty then, you can go now. See you in 90 days.

::He looks down at his papers::

J:          What are these, Doctor?

D:        ::Looking up, surprised and slightly peeved to see Ms. Jones has kept her seat::

            Now, missy, that seems obvious. They are blue pills. These are what I give my all my patients any time any of them gets sick.

J:         The same pill? No matter what caused their cancer or  . . .

D:       ::interrupting with a raised hand::

             Hey there! We'll have none of that!

J:         I'm sorry. I mean to say, whatever caused their . . . er. . . .sickness . . . .

            ::The doctor smiles and lowers his hand:: 

           . . . .whatever it might be called – they all get the same pill?

D.        Oh yes, of course the same pill.

           ::He comes to his feet then leans across the desk. His voice becomes oratorical::

            I believe very strongly in these pills, Ms. Jones. I am deeply committed to these pills. I want these pills to be a part of my legacy.

J:         Are they effica. . . um . . . will they work? Will I get well?

D:        ::He sits::

            I haven’t the slightest idea. Whether they "work," as you call it, whether you get "well" – these are not the point. The point is that I’m the doctor and I want people – well, not people, exactly, but my patients –  to take these blue pills.

J:          Why? 

D:         ::Exasperation growing::

             Now you are a silly little thing aren’t you.

::He stands again, reaches across and deliberately pats her head::

Why dear, it is simply common sense to take these pills. Common sense. You’re not objecting to common sense are you?

J:         Well, I’m not sure that  . . .

D:        ::He sits with a thump of finality::

             Hush now, child. After all, who’s in charge here, eh? I’m the doctor. You’re the patient. Yes, you’re terribly sick and you lack common sense. But never fear, I have something to help with your lack of common sense as well.

J:          Let me guess. . . .

::Doctor swivles precisely back to cabinet for another bottle of blue pills.::

D:        Now I really haven’t any more time for your questions today, young lady.

           You scoot now.

J:         OK

             ::She takes the two large bottles of pills and rises to leave.::

D:         ::Just as the patient reaches the door. . . :: Wait! Wait one second!

J:           Yes, Doctor?

D:          You forgot the bill.



* Obligatory apologies to Jean-Baptiste Poquelin.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Battle Road

As the rising sun pierced the billowing gun smoke that April morning 241 years ago, I suspect the British regulars were thinking something along the lines of “Well, that’s for them.” The truth is that the “Shot Heard Round the World” echoed over an inauspicious field abandoned by a beaten militia in full flight. The only would-be rebels who remained on the Green did so because they were dead or dying.




So British Colonel Francis Smith might well have thought that, with one lot of traitors shown conclusively who was master, well begun was half done and the day portended well for King George III. It must have been with more than a little confidence that Smith turned his troops down the road toward Concord, where Tories and spies had reported the nascent rebellion had a large cache of weapons.

But neither Smith nor his executive officer, Major John Pitcairn – much less King George – had heard American Captain John Parker addressing his militiamen just before dawn. The rebels had waited through the night to see if the British foray into the countryside was just another reconnoiter in force, or something more sinister. Paul Revere and his fellow riders assured them the regulars were on their way intent on disarming the budding rebellion.  As the British entered the green, the militiamen assembled from Buckman Tavern and elsewhere to face them. Parker reminded them that while their foremost purpose was to merely demonstrate their resolve, more than that might well be demanded of them. 

“Stand your ground and do not fire unless fired upon,” Parker ordered. “But if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.”*

Faced off across a space no larger than a football field, Parker and Pitcairn each commanded their respective forces not to fire. Pitcairn had every reason to expect to be obeyed; British regulars did as they were ordered and Pitcairn’s force of elite light infantry were some of the best troops of the best professional army in the world. Parker, commanding farmers, merchants – and a slave named Prince Estabrook – likewise expected to be obeyed, if for no other reason than because his men had families close at hand, some watching from just off the field.  Greek governmental theories, philosophical abstractions and offenses such as the Intolerable Acts may have driven rabble-rousers like Sam Adams and his Sons of Liberty. But for the militiamen on Lexington Green, their homes and farms and livelihoods were all too tangible realities, all too close at hand.

So no one was meant to fire a shot, but as it as has time and again throughout the years, the shot nevertheless was fired** and then everyone on the field let loose. It was over in minutes and the outcome, with many rebels killed or wounded, and only one of his own men hurt, couldn't have surprised Pitcairn, who couldn't have had much doubt about how the rest of the day would go.

But it was only dawn. And he hadn't heard Parker.

Pitcairn couldn't have understood at that moment that he hadn't just been a part of a police action or some noisy civil disturbance. Because he hadn't heard Parker, because he didn't know who these Patriots really were, Pitcairn didn't know then that he’d really been a participant in the first skirmish of a remorseless war. But he was soon to learn.


By the end of that very day, after the desperate running fight down the Battle Road, as the blood ran from the North Bridge to stain the Concord River, Pitcairn could not help but to have had a better understanding of what war with real Americans would mean: All told the rebels had lost 88 men killed and wounded. The butcher’s bill for the most feared and powerful military force in the world was nearly twice that, at 147. By the very next morning – without the aid of Facebook or a single cell phone –  15,000 men of what would eventually*** become a victorious Continental Army were outside of Boston.  

This nation was born of blood and smoke and outrage and an abiding sense that "Enough is enough, damn it." It was born when a secure and prosperous people finally decided that their liberties were more dear to them than their comforts. I am convinced that Americans -- or, at the very least, enough Americans -- still fear blood and smoke less, and love liberty more, than they love their comfort. I believe that Americans still know their way to the Battle Road. I believe this, I confess, in part because I must believe it, or else despair.

[This is a repost from the original, slightly revised.]




* Indeed, many of the militiamen may not have heard Parker, either. Her suffered from tuberculosis and had trouble mustering enough breath to speak.

**Theories vary wildly about who fired first. The best evidence, I think, suggests that it was one of the spectators, townsmen arrayed around the green, but not under Parker’s command.

*** "Eventually" in spades. In the eight years, four months and 15 days from that day to the Treaty of Paris, there would be some 150,000 casualties, suffered overwhelmingly by the Americans and their families, fighting on their own doorsteps.