The American Revolution is taken quite seriously in my home town of Springfield, New Jersey. The high school, town hall and fire department buildings are all classic red-brick Colonial architecture with tall, imposing white clock towers. The high school itself is named after Jonathan Dayton, youngest signer of the Declaration of Independence and a decorated Revolutionary War hero. Only decades later did Dayton try to get Ohio to secede from the young nation and, with Aaron Burr, was arrested for treason — although as our yearbook noted, never convicted.
The Revolutionary War battle you don’t know. Every few decades on the large green in front of the school, the town — in full Revolutionary regalia of wigs, uniforms, muskets and marching band— re-enacts the 1780 Battle of Springfield. The Battle, which lasted several bloody days, was the last major northern engagement in the war, prompted by a British attempt to trap General Washington’s troops at Morristown, New Jersey. The British and Hessians attacked through Staten Island and got as far as Springfield, where the colonists fiercely and heroically resisted. The reenactment is touted as an educational experience so people can feel what it was authentically like to be a solider and citizen at the time. Everything from the meat and beans cooked over the fire to the exhausting, sweaty work shlepping a cannon for miles. People come from all over to simply watch or be a participating solider in the Continental or British Armies. It’s like briefly having our own Williamsburg or Amish Country, though the only place for tourists to stay are pitched tents or the one motel along the highway better remembered for a cocaine bust back in the 80s.
Choosing sides. I can totally understand a war fetishist wanting to playact as a well-trained British or even a hired Hessian soldier, but some folks actually choose to be Loyalists — Americans who sided with the Crown. Who would raise their hand to be just a passive traitor? Can you imagine volunteering to play the role of a Mubarak supporter in the future re-enactment of the Egyptian revolution? You’d be tarred and feathered, although maybe that’s what appeals to some fetishists. Or colonial nudists.
Give ’em Watts! The high point of the reenactment is when whoever plays The Reverend Caldwell of the First Presbyterian Church gets to bellow the legendary Springfield battle cry: “Now Boys, Give ‘em Watts!” The story goes that in the first days of battle, The Rev. Caldwell’s wife Hannah was shot and killed through a window, and the Reverend joined the local Colonial regiment in response. In the heat of the next battle, under attack again, the colonists were desperately running out of wadding for their muskets to load bullets. Caldwell ducked into the First Presbyterian Church and came out with as many hymnals as he could carry and ran amongst the troops encouraging them to tear out the sheets. Since most of the psalms were by Isaac Watts, he hollered an encouraging, “Now boys, give ‘em Watts!” In response, the crowd always gives a massive cheer, and for a few moments all Springfielders are connected to a glorious and storied past — even if a fair number of us in a town at least one-third Jewish admittedly trace our roots more directly to a shtetl in Prussia than to the Mayflower and Pastor Caldwell.
Caldwell’s resourcefulness was eventually overcome by the English and Hessians, and Springfield was plundered and burned with the Americans retreating to Morristown. One vivid reminder of the failed defense is The Cannonball House — a home with a cannonball literally stuck in the outside wall of the dining room. It was the ultimate school class trip until we were old enough to go to New York City for the Statue of Liberty and saw what a real monument looked like. Still, even if technically it’s a battle we lost, both the Cannonball House and the statue outside the First Presbyterian Church are symbols of resilience. Americans like that.
Modern day Springfield. Despite its pivotal role in the founding of our country, nowadays Springfield is better known, however, for other boastful trappings: The World’s Largest Autoland (you may have seen the commercials); the Wine Library (you may have seen the podcasts); and the exclusive Baltusrol Golf Club, where every ten years they play the US Open. There are two rival bagel stores next store to each other and three synagogues, plus a handful of churches. No movie theatre, though, so bored teenagers have to go to Summit or Westfield or play video games and do drugs in their basements.
While the older part of town has a lot of cute Cape Cods and leafy Victorians, the majority of Springfield was built after 1950, when the next ring of the suburbs outside New York quickly took shape. The houses along my family’s street behind Baltusrol are a mix of ranches and split-levels, the main differences the fake animals out in front: The Jenkins had flamingo statues and the Grossbergs, ducks. Before I left for college in the roaring 1980s, though, a developer bought up all the nursery land next to the golf course and extended the neighborhood with Tudor-style McMansions, appointed with shiny, brass ornaments and circular driveways which ate up the precious little land on which they were sited. Growing up, I thought this was completely normal nouveau-riche and my street felt like the glamorous cul-de-sac on “Knots Landing.” (When I visit now, it feels more like “Real Housewives of New Jersey.”)
Split-Levels: An architectural primer. Split levels, however, are the real Springfield staple and my personal architectural favorite. Traditional split levels have a front door foyer and then several half-levels among living rooms, kitchens and bedrooms. In my childhood friend Mark’s, you would walk up a handful of stairs to the living room and then up another half-flight to the bedrooms or a half-flight down to the kitchen. Or in a bi-level— a genetic spin-off of the split level— you enter smack in the middle of the house and are forced to make an abrupt choice to go upstairs half a flight to the bedrooms or downstairs to living spaces and back yard. Either type of split-level to me was constant excitement; it felt like you were going somewhere. Not so, according to my friend and feng schui consultant Gwen who says split-levels are bad news. My mother also hated houses with stairs and endlessly touted the advantages of our ranch with all three bedrooms, bathrooms, living room, dining room and kitchen on the same boring floor. Unpacking groceries was easier, she bragged. So was entertaining. Even finding the cat. Most importantly, old age would be easier, especially if anyone broke a hip. Stairs remained a fantasy for me, although I was always ready to be handicapped.
Another terrible story. Perhaps better not advertised is also Springfield’s history as the site of a terrible multiple-count murder in the late 1980s on a Memorial Day weekend. While my family was having Chinese food at our cousins just a few houses away, a newly-graduated Yale student suddenly stabbed and killed his parents, brother, cousin and a guest with a butcher knife. The event made both the evening news and the cover of the New York Post: “Memorial Day Massacre!”
Doh. Better known is Springfield as the fictional home town of “The Simpsons” on television. There’s a Springfield in nearly every state and when the producers created a movie, they invited Springfields all over to compete to host the premiere. 70 did. Despite a valiant effort including a cheesy YouTube video, our Springfield lost to an even smaller and prettier one in Vermont.
What would you have done? It’s nice to be from a place with a story or two. Especially as I get older and more reflective, I think about Springfield. I always dreamed of living in New York City, but I am keenly aware how I was indelibly shaped by from where I have come and the people there — the characters and their character. I wonder which of my neighbors growing up would have joined the Continental Army or stubbornly remained Loyalists. The troublemakers in school clearly would have been revolutionaries, the intellectuals in French and Latin Club as well. I’m not sure of the jocks or the JAPs (Jewish American Princesses) who probably would have had the most to lose. The druggies probably would have defaulted to Loyalist simply due to inertia. So would have old Mrs. Foyerstein, who gave out apples on Halloween. And the low-class Burinkski family on the corner, who had at least seven children, six dogs and a lot of parties. They’d probably side with the Crown as if to make statement the way they parked their beat-up cars on the lawn.
I like to think that I would have fearlessly rallied the youth of Springfield towards new freedom, just as I did as student body president boldly bringing back Fall Festival hall decorating and fighting for senior year exemptions from final exams. Perhaps I’d bring bottled water to the soldiers, and with the help of my friend Suzanne, would have outfit them in lighter outfits. Or I would have been a bike messenger trusted to hand-deliver counteroffensive plans to drive the British back to Elizabeth, away from our synagogue and the nearest Whole Foods. A young, gay Jewish Paul Revere on a Schwinn with a bell.
Though, who knows what any of us would have chosen at the time. History is funny that way, and we are victims of our own times. During that same period, I was a spoiled rich kid myself — wearing designer jeans, driving my parents Audi and among the first to sport a sophisticated long black overcoat to school. I was just getting started in my pretentious snob phase. Maybe I wouldn’t have sided with scrappy idealism and instead with the WASPy tradition of England. Perhaps instead of deterring the British attack with my wits, I would have pointed the British and the Hessians up Morris Pike to Washington’s headquarters and even to the Short Hills Mall — right on the way.
Would I have “given them Watts” or would I have simply given directions?