Friday, July 4, 2008

Step Up!

Going 4th in Victory on Independence Day with We Make History means walking and talking... and walking the talk.

From the journal of Private Christopher of the Continental Line

Stockings -- check.

Linen shirt -- check.

Waistcoat -- check.

Wooden Canteen -- leaks. All that sealing wax melted in the trip from Tucson.

Regimental coat -- check.

Tricorn -- check.

Cartridge box -- check.

Haversack -- stocked.

Hidden Gatorade bottle -- check.

Breeches -- working on it. My calves are growing or the linen is shrinking. It's 7:45, fifteen minutes before mustering time and I'm fighting the Battle of the Bottom Button on the left leg of my breeches. I just moved that button to avoid this. I suppose I could just leave it loose, but I'm not that kind of a soldier. His Excellency wouldn't tolerate any substandard dress and I won't either.

My Queen Mother re-enters the hotel room and finds me hunched over my leg.

"Could you help me with this?"

She has it buttoned up in less than a minute, and hopefully I won't cut off my circulation through myriad blocks of marching. We rush to the formation point, running behind. I jump out of the station wagon, whip my French musket from the gun sack, fumble it, and watch it drop to the ground in the much-maligned tradition.

Flagstaff's Independence Day Parade ranks as the largest in the state and one of my most exhilarating times of the year, portraying a soldier of George Washington's Army. I am under his command, accompanied by our 1st Sergeant and dutiful flag-bearer, followed by the sharply drilled Confederates of the 1st Virginia Volunteer Infantry and surrounded by the ladies and the children handing out fliers in hopes of enticing some new recruits. We can use some more Revolutionary War soldiers.

We form up for a group photo before arranging ourselves into parade formation. The musket wants to knock off my hat as I shoulder the weapon. Maybe I can adjust the corners --

"Quit playing with your hat," our 1st Sergeant orders, kindly but firmly.

Cameras click off and I can only hope that silver barrel looked flattering.

"Shoulder arms!" the Sergeant commands. "With the lock out," he adds when he finds it facing the wrong way, to my muted embarrassment. No detail shall escape his eagle eye. And as the only Continental infantryman besides our flag-bearer, those eyes will be planted squarely on my back.

So my challenge is obvious: stay in formation, flanking the colors, and stay soldierly fer cryin' out loud. Last year I cut loose with my displays of patriotic mirth, working the crowd but losing proper cadence with my fellow patriot soldiers. The impression I envision is akin to Archibald Willard's "Spirit of '76" minus the fife and drums.

"Forward, march!"

Left... left... left, right, left. Eyes forward. Musket shouldered. Lock out. Lined up with the colors.

We encounter spectators almost immediately, dressed in a patchwork of red, white and blue. I notice a few sparkles from glittered hats. Flag t-shirts are en vogue. Kids are up front, sitting in parents' laps. General Washington elicits responses. A few wave. A few clap. A few cheer. I spot a few characters: children from karate classes in their standard-issue white outfits, a few people wearing Viking hats. Indiana Jones is weaving up and down the sides. Indiana Jones? American Hero, we can argue.

But a disturbing absence sinks in. This crowd doesn't have enough juice. Maybe 9am is still too early. Walking past them, it's getting harder for me to restrain the urge to crank up their patriotic fervor. Mere waves are not enough, so I finally capitulate to habit.

"HUZZAH!" I cry, lifting my tricorn to the crowds. I don't care if I have to wear the "Insubordinate" sign later. I'm going to get these people into the spirit.

To the right and left I look, scouring the crowd for cameras and making sure people are getting the desired shot.


My Mother and Father have staked out their spot. She's got the Nikon. He's got the Sony. And both of them should get the money shot.

We make frequent stops as vehicles make turns and participants in front of us pause. The recruits of the 1st Virgina show off their drill, turning to face one side of spectators and going through a few routines from the manual of arms before marching on.


"Huzzah!" a lady to the side responds. "That's the right word!" she replies to a girl with her. "When somebody says 'Huzzah!' you're supposed to respond 'Huzzah!" I'm not taking you to the Renaissance Festival!"

His Excellency wants us looking good as we approach the first reviewing stand. He commands me to fix my bayonet. It slips on with hesitation, but it's there to glisten in the morning sun and intimidate any redcoats. It rattles as I march.

My fellow patriots are picking up on the need to stoke fervor. "A cheer for General Washington!" the Sergeant commands, drawing out more applause and cheers from his side of the street. Our flag-bearer calls out the occasional Huzzah, but they leave the boisterous call-and-response duties to our commander and myself.

"Huzzah to the people on the top row!" I call to the crowd lining the balcony of one of Flagstaff's historic hotels, the people with the best vantage point in town. As is custom, the men of the 1st Virginia pause and drill for them, saluting them with another display of precision.

"He's drilling them hard," our 1st Sergeant observes of his Confederate counterpart.

We round another corner to discover a massive crowd staked out in the generous shade of downtown's tallest building. Their enthusiasm needs little assistance. My feet will need it climbing up the last hill of the march like the British Regulars at Bunker Hill. We pass two more reviewing stands and at least two TV news crews. And at last, the people are pumped up to my satisfaction.

The crowds thin. Our part of the parade is over. A look to the left reveals groups and vehicles still waiting to start the journey. I dig into my haversack for a large, long swig of Gatorade out of the sight of any spectators when a fire engine from the parade rolls by, inhabitants waving.

"Huzzah!" I cry, one last time before returning to the mustering point for some post-parade thoughts, and a Prayer of Thanksgiving for Liberty... from tyranny and from our own sins.

* * *

"Do you want to go back to the room?" my father asks as Mom, Dad and I reassemble at the car.

"I think he wants to go to the tree," Mother interjects.

The short journey to Northern Arizona University's Old Main takes mere minutes. My family is the first to arrive. I waste no time finding the Washington Oak, the tree born of a sprig from the original oak under which General George Washington assumed command of the Continental Army in 1775. It is tall and sturdy, oh so green and beautiful. I stand silently gazing at it as the other We Make History families arrive. My parents encounter the people they've heard so much about, but have barely seen.

I pose for a couple of pictures, hastily wiping away a few tears, an emotional response I still struggle to understand but refuse to suppress.

Our commander asks me to call the group of mingling adults and playful children to order.

"Attention!" I command in my best attempt at a Sergeant's voice. "Gather at the tree!"

"Which tree?" someone snickers.

"If you have to ask..." I say to myself as everyone aligns themselves around the beloved NAU Washington Oak

"Private Francis," our leader says. "Perhaps you'd like to share a few thoughts."

I walk up to the tree again, surveying it and letting my heart spill out of my mouth.

"It's hard for me not to become emotionally involved as I look at this tree," I begin, launching into a discourse of where the tree came from, of how people planted sprigs from the original all over America. I feel the connection to George Washington every time I see it, I say. It's a connection I can't get from books.

"I have to feel it here," I say, pointing to my heart. "Reading history simply doesn't do it for me."

Under Washington's leadership, I remind people, the Continental Army improved disciplined and learned how to win, and they learned to win in a way that would earn them the respect they needed to win independence.

"You may have heard the expression, the Revolution was won by hiding behind rocks and trees. Not true!"

But His Excellency was more than a good soldier, I add. He was a man of honor, penning rules of civility now attributed to him, "a great self-help guide for lack of a better word. He was a great dancer as well. If you want to model yourself around somebody, why not pick Washington? As you look at the tree, think about the man who assumed command under it. Think about the kind of human he was. Think about the leader he was. Think about the kind of leader you can be and the way you can live, because Washington was all of those things. You can be, too."

I silently stroll away from the tree, hoping my words have penetrated a few hearts. Applause tells me I have.

Our commander offers his thoughts next about General Washington, challenging us all to use our imagination and picture Washington taking command of an army with very little organization.

"He had every expectation that the likelihood was that his reputation, not to mention his fortune, would be destroyed, and that was true of all of the Founding Fathers, who pledged their lives, their liberties, their fortunes. They stepped up to the plate, and they didn't go for a bunt. They swung for all they were worth. They put everything on the line."

After all, Britain was both an economic and military superpower. Nobody beat the British, except for that one day at Yorktown when the French bottled up the Royal Navy.

"If you don't believe in Providence, you need to ponder just that one fact."

Now, our commander challenged us, it's our turn to step up for our families and our country. We have to be the leaders, even in reluctance. God's Providence will be there for us if we answer the call to serve.

We close with more prayers of Thanksgiving before dismissing to our cars.

"Why didn't you tell me you were going to make a speech?" Mom asks, noting she only caught a bit of it on video.

"I didn't know I was going to make one... until then."

My entire talk on Washington was unrehearsed, unscripted, and unexpected. But I'd heard the call and stepped up, somehow pulling words and sentiments from the attic of my mind. And it reaffirmed my belief in Providence. I gave thanks to God on the trip back to the hotel to change out of my uniform. I still have much to learn about history, about Washington and the myriad others who wove the fabric of this nation. But after all those prayers for guidance, God just delivered.

"Do you all study history?" a parade watcher asked me, placing a dreary vision of bookworms into my head.

"We live it!" I replied.

And thus, we make it.

More from the happy marchers here.

NEXT: The White Cockade


Piping Girl said...

Loved this post! You've sure been busy on your blog, great work.

Christopher said...

Thank You, dearest Piping Girl! (courtly bow)