Except for token ceremonial exercises at Concord Bridge, the observance of Patriots' Day on April 19 has dwindled into the equally ceremonial planting of New England green peas, and the firing of the shot heard 'round the world to start the Boston Marathon.
This shot, now heard mostly in some place named Hopkinton, Mass., will come just before noon on April 17 this year and set some 350,000 runners off on a canter into Boston, where Paul Revere set out a-horseback to alert a sleeping countryside and start the American Revolution. I do not jest about that struggle; I merely say that ambiguity rode with dashing Paul, and since that time history has been awkwardly askew.
The Boston Marathon is today the biggest thing we have for patriotic embrace, and yet last year it was at quarter to 8 that our TV set gave us one word about the marathon. I ask, timidly, what has happened to the American people, and to television?
Please consider: The foundation of our American Republic was not laid explicitly by a bunch of boorish cow-keepers who were roused from bucolic indifference to face the finest-trained army in the world. Not by a hound-dog mile! The ready militia of our Colonies had been training for some time under capable officers. It was the militia that wrote into our upcoming Constitution that the right to keep and bear arms should never be abrogated in this land, and it had uniforms, supplies, wallop, and respect.
When old Billie Goff of New Boston, up in Maine, indignant at British management, took his musket and walked down to Massachusetts to "help out," he arrived at Concord just as the fun began. The alert had been given, and our soldiers - not farmers now - turned out and took well-rehearsed formations of defense.
Now Billie Goff appeared, footsore from his hike, and he fell to the ground in a posture of seclusion. When the firing began, he began firing, too. An officer of the Concord militia saw Billie, and as Billie was an utter stranger and dusty from the road, he called to him, "What's your name, and what company are you with?"
Billie made reply, "I ain't with no company, I'm Bill Goff from Maine, and I'm fighting alone!" Historically, this was true, but history continues to tell us our army was a bunch of drowsy farmers roused by a joker silversmith early in the morning, too soon to milk the cow.
Today, all official runners get certificates of participation, which are forever treasured in family archives to prove somebody ran in the Boston Marathon. No king, prince, or potentate ever awarded so glorious an honor. When TV shows the start of the Marathon these days, little has changed from the movie-house newsreel days. All the runners are shown as they burst forth, a surge of humanity incredibly eager. The winner used to gain only a laurel wreath and a beef stew if he could leg it to the Boston Athletic Club. Now the winner gets a salary in baseball money.
There is, meantime, a theatrical reenactment of the shot heard 'round the world (it's extra-special this year, the 225th anniversary). There's also a Red Sox baseball game at Fenway Park, traditionally ending so fans can walk overtown to see the Marathon finish. Now and then the Sox win.
Other than this, Patriot's Day is limited to planting a row of green peas. In the afternoon of April 19, you ask somebody you bump into, "Did you get your peas in?" Peas planted on Patriot's Day in New England will, if the season be average, produce "filled out," ready green peas for the Fourth of July.
Possibly it might be said that summer folks who live in New Jersey and never heard of the Concord Bridge strife will make special trips up to Ogunquit and Spurwink just to plant their peas. This gives Mainers the chance to ask, "Well, look who's here! You down for the summuh?" Planting peas is thus our first day of seasonal citizens, and - if the ice is out - the beginning of our trout season. Yes, you find angle worms as you till for peas.
So it truthfully is, and while we run the Marathon, the Red Sox have an early game, we plant the peas, we try for trout, and the Republic is memorialized. The rest of the United States doesn't know much about any of this.
In the early days of patriotism, we had a ceremonial task on the Fourth of July that was much more important than touching off a skyrocket. Presuming the spring had been propitious, we needed a salmon to go with the holiday green peas.
We, here in Maine, knew that the true salmon is an ocean-run Salar returning each season to spawn in fresh water, the aboriginal forebear of our handsome landlocked salmon of Sebago Lake. It was thus a treat and a privilege to take a well-trained Warden's Worry and step to the shore, or to use a canoe. We'd land a salmon to go with our peas, and Old Glory was hanging high on her halyard, free as the Land of the Pilgrims' Pride, and secure in our custody.
Split and broiled on a hardwood encouragement, assisted by new green peas well-buttered, and perhaps with a hot cream-of-tartar biscuit, our Down Maine salmon made things mean something.
The only place in the United States today where you can catch a true Fourth of July salmon is here in Maine.
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