Monday, April 19, 2010

Death on Patriots' Day

Today is April 19, and it is a very important day in the history of the United States.  Most people around the country remember this date as the anniversary of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, in which 168 people died.  For those of us born and raised in the great town of Concord, Massachusetts, however, April 19 is Patriots' Day, a state holiday commemorating the beginning of the American Revolution with the battle of Lexington and Concord in 1775.

Patriots' Day is part of the fabric of my childhood.  As a young child, one of my earliest vivid memories was of waking in the wee hours of the morning to go to the dawn cannon salute for the American bicentennial.  For us, the bicentennial was in 1975, not 1976.  Every year we went downtown for the Patriots' Day parade.  Reenactors recreated the battles of the day, and still do.  To me, a flag with 13 stars in a circle was completely normal.  I was horrified recently to discover that my daughter wasn't quite sure what happened on April 19, and what year it happened.  I haven't lived in Massachusetts for 19 years, but it still doesn't feel quite right to have school on April 19.

Frequent Quarterbacker Abe is an 18th century reenactor who lives in Concord.  He and his family are part of a French regiment in neighboring Sudbury, although of course on April 19 they do not reenact as French because the French had not joined the war yet.  He also happens to be my brother.

This evening, Abe forwarded along a story that certainly jumped out at him and jumped out at me as well.  Early this morning, as the reenactors of the Bedford (Massachusetts) Minutemen marched the five or so miles from Bedford to the Old North Bridge in Concord, 61 year-old Neil Hill collapsed of a heart attack and was pronounced dead at the hospital.  Abe writes,

Can you imagine marching in a parade after experiencing this?  We actually saw the ambulance come through the center of town, although of course we didn't know that's why it was coming.
Oddly, my first reaction to this death was that it somehow desecrated the Patriots' Day celebration.  My gut reaction was, "People aren't supposed to die on Patriots' Day."  On the face of it, this actually makes no sense at all.  Of course people die on Patriots' Day.  First of all, people die every day.  Second, this celebration commemorates a battle.  The notion that people aren't supposed to die on a day dedicated to a war is a little silly.  At the same time, I think my feeling is understandable.  Patriots' Day is part of my childhood, and, like many things from our childhoods, I have idealized it.  In the perfect celebration of my youth -- or my imagination -- people didn't die.

Abe's reaction is also understandable, and really another side of the same coin. If you are an 18th century reenactor in Massachusetts, today is the biggest day of the year. Presumably, you do reenactments because they are fun and interesting, and today is more fun and more interesting than many. For someone to die on April 19 adds a dose of real life to an otherwise joyous and highly symbolic occasion. Somehow having a parade doesn't seem right. At the same time, however, the parade goes on in part out of a realization that while years from now people may still remember who died today, their significance will more likely lie in their life than their death. I hope that day comes sooner rather than later for the Bedford Minutemen and the family of Neil Hill.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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