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IN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL we learned about the "shot heard round the world." In junior high we learned that one-third of the colonists were for the revolution, one-third against it, and the rest (conveniently) undecided. In high school we learned that George Washington wasn't much of a hero. At the Lexington visitors' center, less than a half-hour by car from Cambridge, you learn that if the British had had tear-gas there might have been no revolution.
Lexington is conspicuously proud of its part in American history. The common is studded with plaques and fringed by buildings with historical marker signs on them. Most of the shutters have little Minute-Man cut-outs, and a large restaurant on main street is named after them.
The woman in the visitors' center was eager. She asked us to sign the guest book ("one of you is enough-or the group name") and spread a pamphlet's map out in front of the signer. We all watched while she whipped her pencil past three important houses ("They're closed now, but you can look in the windows."), quickly pointed out other important places, and started flipping through another book. She said that the other book explained everything and cost only a dollar. One of us naively asked why the "three important houses" were important, only to find out that the front of the pamphlet explained that and the pamphlet cost only a quarter.
One side of the visitors' center is dominated by a diorama of the Battle of Lexington. The British are neatly lined up against a retreating group of outnumbered colonials. The text under the display says that the approaching British heard the drum roll the colonials used to summon their men and interpreted it as a call to battle. The ordered the Minute-Men to disperse. Shooting began when they didn't.
A monument on the Lexington Common says the events there began something that didn't end until after it created a revolution.
CONCORD is a bit farther down the road, past vegetable and cider stands and Louisa May Alcott's house.
Concord's Common has a commemorative obelisk. We passed through town to a national park at the site of the old North Bridge. Before you get to the bridge a monument tells you that this was the site of the first armed resistance to the British. Across the bridge a path leads up to an impeccably manicured garden and a visitors' center.
In an "overlook" in the garden there is a stand with a map of the battle area. Pushing a button starts a voice that explains that you cannot see most of the sites because they are in back of you. It also gives you the name of every commander at the battle and tells you where they all went. You are told far too much to understand anything, except the vague idea that farmers were shooting in the fields. (It is difficult to get a sense of the farmers. After all, they were revolutionaries-and the bourgeoisie.)
The park service attendant in the visitors' center is genuinely helpful. He reminds us who fought at Saratoga and what the name of that famous traitor was. He also hawks a slide show (12 minutes every half hour on the half hour).
Halfway through the slide show it becomes obvious that the farmers didn't know what they were getting into and just fought because they were ready to fight. By the time the show is over, however, the hill outside has become just another hill, albeit one with plaques. The farmers have disappeared. All that is left are three graves on the other side of the bridge and a plaque that says something like: "They came three thousand miles and died to keep the past upon its trrone."
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