These friends are on opposite sides, but share a deep love of history
LEXINGTON — Allow me to let you in on a little secret that Paul O’Shaughnessy and Henry Cooke would very much prefer that you keep to yourselves this holiday weekend, as muskets roar and swords flash under an early-morning sky.
They actually like each other. They’re friends.
Occasionally, they’ll swap stories over sips of beer.
But not on Monday.
Not on Patriots Day, when thousands converge on a historic village green here or along a Colonial-era battle road in Concord where disbelief will be suspended, where independence once again will hang in the balance.
Centuries seemingly slip away, fading into the mists of time.
And suddenly O’Shaughnessy is a quartermaster in His Majesty’s 10th Regiment of Foot, a musket repairman for the redcoat army.
Cooke, a Colonial militiaman dressed in a gray frock coat and brown breeches, is ready in a minute to fight for his freedom from behind old stone walls and ancient gnarled trees.
“This is kind of like the Super Bowl of reenacting,’’ said Jim Hollister, historic weapons supervisor at Minute Man National Historical Park here. “You put these people in front of a crowd and they live for this. They’ve been studying their whole lives to talk to you.’’
As upward of 10,000 people gather near the epicenter of the American Revolution this weekend some may try fruitlessly to coax these men back into the 21st century.
Good luck with that.
“There are proclamations on high that someday may be transmitted by near-magical forces much like by the electric currents that Dr. [Benjamin] Franklin speaks of,’’ O’Shaughnessy tells me, firmly in character. “As if a bird arriving by your very hand and into your ear.’’
“I tend to think it may be the devil’s work,’’ replies Cooke.
“It could be the devil’s work,’’ O’Shaughnessy says.
Paul O’Shaughnessy and Henry Cooke are among some 300 reenactors who will make Patriots weekend come alive over the next few days, animating the events whose seminal moments are part of every American school child’s history lesson.
Lanterns in the North Church’s steeple. Paul Revere’s Ride. The North Bridge. The shot heard ’round the world. Seventy-three British and 49 Colonists killed at the dawn of the American Revolution.
“Here were these ordinary people who were galvanized by the events around them and how they responded to it,’’ Cooke told me as we sat in front of the fireplace at Jacob Whittemore’s old house, one of the 11 so-called witness houses that existed in 1775. “The Concord minutemen were standing on a rise of ground looking toward Lexington and seeing the regulars coming on the road with their bayonets glittering in the morning sun. What a stirring and portentous sight that must have been.’’
And as we sat in Whittemore’s old house the other day, O’Shaughnessy and Cooke made it clear that this is not mere play-acting.
These men, both 62, could teach post-doctoral seminars of the events of April 19, 1775.
O’Shaughnessy, who lives in Lexington, is an electrical engineer for a Woburn biotech firm. In high school, he was a tour guide on the Lexington green in the days when the British wore paper hats and well-worn waiters’ vests.
“I have some photos from those days,’’ he said in the baritone voice of a radio announcer he once was. “It’s just incredibly bad.’’
Cooke, born in Weymouth and raised in Randolph, holds two degrees from Tufts University. He has turned his avocation into his livelihood. He owns a business called Historical Costume Services, which makes period clothing.
In high school, a guidance counselor made a suggestion: “You’re interested in history. You ought to join this militia group that’s forming in Randolph and we can add that to your resume when you apply for college.’’
Over the years, the two men — who this weekend will take sharp aim at one another — have helped form the nucleus of passionate people for whom Patriots Day has little to do with morning baseball at Fenway Park or Heartbreak Hill in Newton.
“You just can’t have Patriots Day without them,’’ Hollister told me. “I call them the rock of Patriots Day.’’
And, believe me, they are ready.
O’Shaughnessy will be commanding a contingent of light infantry, sort of the counterpoint to Cooke’s minutemen.
“They were more agile,’’ O’Shaughnessy explained. “They were some of the most energetic of the British soldiers. I will be commanding the rear guard which is dealing with most of the firing, most of the shooting, most of the peppering. A lot of the fighting of the day does not really happen on the road itself. It happens in the fields surrounding on either side.’’
And that’s where he will find his old friend and annual enemy, Henry Cooke, suddenly a militiaman again.
“We will be interpreting our more irregular tactics,’’ he said. “We’ll be skirmishing through the woods and peppering the regulars from the road. We will be doing our best to stay out of the way of the light infantrymen.
“And rumor has it that around the Whittemore House some of the regulars may tire of the fight and may end up falling into our clutches.’’
For more than 40 years they have been reenacting the events that led to the founding of the republic, and certain questions, or commonly held conventions can still rankle them.
For instance: “People say it’s a fight of the British against the Americans,’’ Cooke said. We’re all British. It’s a civil war. We are all fighting to uphold what we believe is British law.’’
For O’Shaughnessy it’s the perception of the British as boobs that drives him crazy. And he swears it has nothing to do with the redcoat uniform he is wearing as we talk.
“They’re robotic automatons who only know how to march down the middle of a road or they don’t have any idea of tactics or how to fight. And they had red uniforms because’’ -- and here sarcasm leaks into his voice — “it hides the blood. All of this is rubbish. The British Army are the bad boys of the day. In the 18th century they have taken on the Spanish, the Irish, the Scots, the Irish, the Scots, the French, the French, the French. Over and over and over again in these wars, and they have by and large come out on top.
“And that’s because they know how to fight. They had good weapons. They had good training. They’re well fed. And they go head-to-head with any army on the planet and they will often win.’’
But not on Monday.
Not when Paul O’Shaughnessy and Henry Cooke retrace the steps of men who marched into history 244 years ago.
The British soldiers marched many miles into battle that day. And the colonists kept up with them.
“It is the real Boston Marathon,’’ Henry Cooke, the Colonial tailor said, his hand steady on his musket, his resolve strong.
Ready once more for freedom’s fight.
Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.