It's 4:30 a.m., but the lights are on inside St. Brigid's Parish Hall on the town green in Lexington.
We're there to get tickets from a friend, Larry Logan, a past captain of the Lexington Minute Men reenactment group, that will allow us to stand at the front of the crowd on the green later that morning. Inside, patriots in waistcoats and tricorn hats mingle with women and girls in white mop caps and long dresses, and take up friendly chats over doughnuts and coffee with "redcoats," reenactors dressed in the finest 18th-century British military regalia.
When we find Larry sitting on the stage at the far end of the hall, we discover he's been up all night, having already participated in another event commemorating Paul Revere's ride from Boston. His daughter Larissa, also in costume, sits nearby. She'll come to his aid later that morning when he plays the part of one of the fallen patriots at the conflict on the green.
At dawn, hundreds of these participants will help Lexington produce its annual commemoration of the first armed conflict on the first day of America's Revolutionary War - April 19, 1775.
In Massachusetts, the closest Monday to that date each year is designated as Patriots Day, a state holiday. The annual Boston Marathon, the 26-mile road race from Hopkinton to Boston, usually dominates the news of the day, showing off the city's international pedigree.
But the retelling of the story of April 19 draws loyal crowds in the thousands, too. Those who commemorate the day argue its meaning goes far beyond mere pageantry, that it has much to teach us about how the America of today came to be and what it stands for.
Through the establishment of the Minute Man National Historical Park (www.nps.gov/mima), which runs along the Battle Road from Lexington to Concord, and the efforts of towns and historical groups in the area, a wealth of historic sites now are being maintained and interpreted to help visitors understand these seminal events of the American Revolution.
Although most of this exploration can take place at any time of year, the Patriots Day activities are a special treat. My wife and I had risen at 3:30 a.m. to drive to Lexington, a suburb a dozen miles northwest of Boston.
Ringing the open expanse of the Lexington Green (about a city block in size) this morning is a crowd in the thousands. In places, they are a dozen or more people deep. Some have brought ladders for a better view or are perched on rooftops or looking out from the second-story windows of the colonial-era buildings that surround the green.
A little before 6 a.m., as dawn breaks, a lone rider on horseback gallops up to announce that the "regulars" are marching out from Boston. (Paul Revere doesn't say "The British are coming," since the colonists are British subjects themselves. And he never makes it to his final destination, Concord, as many imagine because of the literary license Henry Wadsworth Longfellow took in his famous poem. Revere was stopped by a British patrol in Lincoln, but another rider he met along the way, Dr. Samuel Prescott, did manage to warn Concord.)
The peal of bells and a drum beat call minutemen (citizen soldiers ready to muster "at a minute's notice") to the green. After a few minutes, snare drums can be heard in the distance. Soon row upon row of red-coated soldiers can be seen. In the front are British Grenadiers, especially fearsome-looking with their tall bearskin hats that make them seem like giants and their muskets tipped with deadly bayonets for close-in fighting.
They have been on the march for hours from Boston, assigned to search for and destroy military supplies that spies have told them the colonists have been storing in Concord, two towns to the west.
Exactly what happened on Lexington green that morning is the subject of some heated debate and likely will never be known. Though animosity had been building between the colonists and occupying British troops, neither side thought it was about to begin a war that morning.
Tradition says that the commander of the minutemen, Capt. John Parker, told his men, "Stand your ground! Don't fire until fired upon! But if they mean to have war, let it begin here!"
But no contemporary accounts confirm this. In sworn testimony later, Parker recalled, "I immediately ordered our militia to disperse and not to fire."
Someone did fire, however, and to this day that person's identity is unknown. Was it an edgy redcoat or minuteman? Some claim the shot could have come from one of the surrounding buildings.
Yet whatever the reenactment may lack in ultimate historical accuracy, it makes up for with great drama. The redcoats fire a volley of muskets. Some colonists fall, some run, others fire back. The air fills with sulphurous smoke as the minutemen are chased from the green.
Women and children come to tend their "dead" and "wounded" (eight colonials were killed and nine wounded in the skirmish; the British regulars suffered no casualties).
After the redcoats regroup, they give three "huzzahs" for King George III and march off toward Concord (pronounced "conquered"). The crowd boos the victorious villains, but applauds their convincing performances (the redcoat reenactors are nearly all local citizens).
"Wait till you come back through here later today," yells a voice behind me in the crowd, obviously a history buff who knows that the regulars suffered heavy casualties on the road back to Boston on that day in 1775.
We head for our car and drive west on Route 2A, the redcoats' line of march to Concord Center. We grab a precious parking spot, and then eagerly down pancakes and sausage at the Lion's Club breakfast at Memorial Hall on the town square, mixing with reenactors from Michigan who'll march in the town parade later in the day.
The action in Concord on Patriots Day centers on the Old North Bridge, a 10-minute walk away. A replica of the wooden bridge across the Concord River provides the focus. A minuteman statue by Daniel Chester French (sculptor of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington) stands on the west bank.
An obelisk on the east bank contains the lines by Concordian Ralph Waldo Emerson, "By the rude bridge that arched the flood/ Their flag to April's breeze unfurled/ Here once the embattled farmers stood/ And fired the shot heard round the world."
It's at this spot that minutemen and militia companies from Concord and surrounding towns turned back a contingent of the red-coated regulars. Seeing smoke rising in the direction of the town center, one young militia officer yelled, "Will you let them burn down the town?" (The burning was actually limited to a few military supplies and a single building.)
Here there was no doubt that it was the regulars who fired first, killing militia Capt. Issac Davis and young Abner Hosmer. In the short skirmish that ensued, lasting perhaps two or three minutes, return fire from the colonials killed three British troops, two of whom are buried near the bridge.
The words of poet James Russell Lowell are inscribed at the site: "They came three thousand miles and died/ To keep the past upon its throne. Unheard, beyond the ocean tide/ Their English mother made her moan."
The reenactors play a military dirge and march in slow time with their musket butts end up to honor the dead.
The British regulars' 16-mile retreat back to Boston was by far the most lethal fighting of the day. Colonial militias from 27 towns had swarmed into the area and attacked the regulars repeatedly. Among the heaviest fighting was that at the "Bloody Angle" in Lincoln near Hartwell Tavern, now within the national park's boundaries. The total casualties of the day: The British regulars suffered 73 killed, 174 wounded, and 26 missing. Colonial minutemen and militias lost nine killed, with 41 wounded and five missing. Though the Declaration of Independence was still more than a year away, the first fighting of the Revolution had begun.
A walk or bike ride along the national park's 5.5 mile Battle Road trail between Lexington and Concord, which wends past fields, forests, and historic buildings, is a great way to see some of the other April 19 sites and a pleasant outdoor activity in good weather. Parking lots along the way make popping in for quick looks also possible.
Not to be missed is the park's free half-hour multimedia exhibition "The Road to Revolution" at the visitor's center in Lexington, which provides a clear, dramatic overview of the day's events. Those wanting to plunge deeper can learn about the significant roles played by native Americans, African-Americans, and women in fighting for the colonial cause.
Looking for still more historical or cultural activities in the Boston area? Also consider:
• Concord's literary history. The homes of Emerson (the 200th anniversary of his birth is May 25, 2003), Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Louisa May Alcott provide insights into the lives of these great American authors and thinkers.
• Taking a walk around Concord's Walden Pond to commune with transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, who wrote of the virtues of individualism, self-awareness, and living in harmony with nature.
• Visiting the Concord Museum, with exhibits on both the Revolutionary and literary history of the town (www.concord museum.org).
• Finding the Bullet Hole House on Monument Street (which still bears evidence of the fighting on April 19).
• Touring the National Heritage Museum in Lexington (www.monh.org).
• Canoeing or kayaking to the Old North Bridge or into a wildlife sanctuary upriver in neighboring Sudbury, Mass. Rentals are available.
In Boston, check out the Freedom Trail (more at www.thefreedomtrail.org), which hits the historical highlights of the city, including the Old North Church, where two lights hung in the steeple told Paul Revere which route the regulars would take to Lexington and Concord. The trail is marked by a red line on the pavement, so walking is by far the best way to explore at your own pace.
• For more information: A concise guide to the events of April 19, and to separating myth from reality, is "Revolutionary Boston, Lexington, and Concord," by Joseph L. Andrews Jr. and contributors (Commonwealth Editions, $14.95).