The call came from my editor, Tommie Fitch. His voice carried across the rows of desks like a foghorn. He was a cigar-chompin’ bushy-eyebrowed curmurgdeon. He was a newspaper man’s newspaper man and probably born about eighty years too late. Despite his cantankerous disposition, I learned more from him than I can ever thank him for and I credit the old goose for launching my career.
Me? I’m New York Times cub reporter Ephraim Williams. I know. Don’t get me started. I didn’t choose the name. Okay? And, for the record, it’s pronounced EEF-RAM. But, my brother Joey couldn’t say it properly, so he called me “Effy.” And, damn if that didn’t stick. But, then my contemporaries (nee crumbbums) at The Times started calling me “Iffy, as in “Iffy he gets his facts straight, he might turn out to be a decent hack.” Damn if that didn’t stick, too.
So, I’m sittin’ at my desk on July 2nd thumbing through old issues of magazines like Hot Rod, Girls and Corpses, Stained Glass and “Y’all, the magazine of southern people. Yes. I’m weird. But I needed inspiration for something clever to write about. Then Fitch bellows. I hustle over to his desk. He wants me to write a feature he can run on the Fourth. “Something ‘patriotic’,” he says. Then he hands me a note. “Run out to Billerica, Mass will you…”
“Billa-what?” I said.
“Google it. Find it. Get there and interview this guy…” He checks his note. “Thomas Ditson.”
“Is he a serial killer,” I said, hoping this might turn into a real criminal thriller.
He looks up at me. His eyebrows wrangling like loose worms above his sheep-dog eyes. He slides his never-smoked cigar from the left corner of his mouth to the right and chomps. “Now, what the hell would be patriotic about a serial killer, Iffy?”
I shrug my shoulders. I’m a dumb cub reporter. What the hell do I know. “I dunno,” I say.
Fitch gives me his patented low growl. “The guy claims to be Yankee Doodle.” The eyebrows raise and wiggle, as if in some sort of conspiratorial salute.
I step back wishing I had found a cool story angle in Girls and Corpses. “This guy a nut case, or what?”
Fitch leans on his elbows and nearly slides a big pile of papers off his desk. “Well, now, Iffy, that’s what we don’t know, and that’s what I need you to find out.”
I stare at his scrawls on the note he had just handed me. I’m incredulous.
“Interview the schmo and give me a profile…no more than 800 words by tomorrow. If I like it, I’ll run the piece on the Fourth…with your byline. Questions?”
“Yeah,” I scratched my head. “This legit?”
He waved his big paw at me. “Get outta here.”
As I turned to leave, he called out. “Iffy. Before you go. Check yourself, will you. You got something green there in your teeth.”
# # #
Billerica, Mass is an old industrial town but it could be anywhere in Middle America. It sits along Route 3 about twenty miles north of Boston. Records say it was incorporated in 1655. That’s freakin’ ancient in my book. And, get this. There are villages situated around the town with such original names as East Billerica, North Billerica and South Billerica. It’s a blue-collar-hard-workin’-sports town and is home to a handful of high tech and low tech industries. One of its notable citizens is Tom Glavine, the famous baseball pitcher.
I pull my rental car over and stare at the tiny map on my mobile phone. Then I find it. The residence of the afore-mentioned Thomas Ditson. I park opposite his home. The street, named “Constitution Avenue” is replete with cracked concrete, but is saved by a nice canopy of shade trees that arch over this funky street of proud lawns, shotgun houses, and an eclectic mix of World War II era and modern single-family homes. I stand in front of a natty gray and white bungalow with a white picket fence. The house number says, “1776.” Quaint.
A man answers my knock at the door. He opens it wide and peers out at me. I figure the man to be in his sixties. He’s medium-built, has salt and pepper hair, and is handsome in a rugged sense.
I’m nervous as a plate juggler on the TV show, America’s Got Talent…and I blurt out his name. It comes out all wrong. “Mr. Datson?” You could hear a plate drop.
He cocks his head like a border collie trying to understand the command, fetch my Glock will you, Sparky. Then he says, “You mean, Ditson?”
I apologize. Say it correctly and announce I’m from The Times. “May I come in? I’d like to talk with you.”
“What’s this about?” he says. The door inches closer to being shut.
“Uh, I’ve heard rumors in which you claim to be Yankee Doodle.”
“The Times, you say? You’re sure you’re not with NSA or FBI? You got I.D?”
I shake my head and show him my media credentials.
He glances at my I.D. photo which makes me look like I’m just out of high school. “I hate the Times, but ‘mon in.” He waves me in quickly, but not after an audible grunt, “And, they ain’t rumors, sonny.”
He leads me out to the back patio that’s covered by one of those rollout awnings. A fetching young woman, who I assume is his daughter, brings us ice tea. She’s wearing tight short shorts and a white shirt tied at the waist. Long red hair falls at her shoulders. And, she smells like jasmine, or strawberry jam, I’m not sure.
In my attempt to be friendly, I blurt, “And, this must be your lovely daughter, Mr. Doodle, er…uh…I mean…Mr. Dat…Ditson.”
She extends a hand. It’s warm as butter on a griddle. She smiles even more warmly. “Hi, I’m Lucy Locket.”
I don’t know what to say and try to find a way to extract my loafer from my mouth. Then it dawns on me. I’m still holding her hand. She pulls hers gently away. “I’ll leave you two to chat. Nice to meet you…uh…Mr…?”
I wipe my sweaty palm on my khaki’s. “Uh, it’s Mister…Iffy…I mean…Williams.”
“Nice to meet you, Williams.” And she disappears into the house.
I look over at Mr. Ditson. He’s staring at me with beady eyes. “For the record, Lucy’s my wife. And, we have two daughters. One’s out shopping at Costco. The other’s on a nuclear sub…somewhere in the Gulf of Aden.”
“Oh,” is all I manage to get out.
“Well, she’s a dandy,” I say and quickly realize the stupidity of that remark.
“That she is.”
He leans back in his chair. “Well, sonny. What can I do you for?”
“Mr. Ditson…sir…when it came to our attention that you claim to be Yankee Doodle we thought there might be a story here, especially with the Fourth of July coming up, you know. So, is this true?” I reach for my notepad and pen, poised to take notes.
He grins. “I’m the real live nephew of my Uncle Sam.”
I chuckle and then stifle it. “C’mon now. You’re pulling my leg.”
“Nope,” He holds his hand up like he’s taking an oath. “I swear to God and all the Angels in the Heavens above, the Good Book, and cross my heart…” He does that in a quick swipe. ..”and hope to die. And, what’s more…I was born on the Fourth of July.”
He leans in toward me and his eyes begin to gleam. “And, here’s the best part. I’ve got me a Yankee Doodle sweetheart –-you just met her, yes, you did–and damned straight, I am a Yankee Doodle boy.” Now he’s grinning broader than the Cheshire Cat and I’m starting to feel like Alice in Wonderland. Maybe this guy is a nut case.
At this point, I figure if I can gently trip him up with some well-placed questions I can confirm he’s ridonkulous and call it a day. “Tell me about your Uncle Sam.”
Ditson sniggers. “Oh, he’s a cracker, that one. Everybody knows Samuel Wilson ‘round here. He’s a meat packer and lives over in Arlington. Mass, that is. He’s had this long-term contract to supply meat for the U.S. Army. That’s why they call him Uncle Sam.”
We’re interrupted when Lucy returns with a tray and two bowls of macaroni and cheese. She smiles at me. “Jeetyet? You must be powerful hungry coming all the way over from New York. I hope you like it. It’s Tommie’s favorite.” She pecks him on the cheek and he pats her on the bottom. She pours more ice tea and leaves.
He shakes his head. “Yes, indeedy. She’s a pissa. A real Yankee Doodle sweetheart.”
I explain to him how macaroni and cheese was my staple diet when I was in college. He nods and pokes a fork my way. “Dig in, sonny.” I’m hungry as a bear and follow his lead.
“Tell me. How’d you become Yankee Doodle?”
“It has to do with my genes…and I don’t mean my Levi’s.” He splits a gut at his own joke. “Get it?”
I chortle…just to humor him. It’s a poor joke but I must admit I’ve used it myself on occasion and usually to the same effect where I’m the only one who appreciates the genius of it. Or genes of it, you might say.
He’s still guffawing in-between forks full of macaroni. He washes it down with ice tea and finally settles down. “My ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, The Spanish-American War, the Pacific Front of World War Two, and I saw me some action in Nam. And, my great grandfather saw action right here in Orleans, Mass in World War One.”
“Yep. One day a German U-boat attacked the town and sunk his tugboat, the Perth Amboy. He was still off the deep end about that until the day he died.
“Anyway, some historian over at the city library discovered all this and decided since I was the last living relative to have seen military action that I should be our honorary town marshal for the Fourth of July parade. Been doing that gig now for the last forty years or so. And, then old Dick Shuckburgh, editor over at The Minuteman, dubbed me Yankee Doodle. Damn if it didn’t stick.”
“I can appreciate that,” I said.
He looked off into the distance. “I gotta admit that at first I thought it was all a bunch of hooey over nothing. I thought maybe I was being made fool of, you know, the sketchy town idiot. Hell, who can take a guy serious when he parades up Main Street wearing a tri-cornered hat with a feather in it? Then, one day, some of the fellows over at Legion Hall reminded me of how at least three of our native sons from Billerica died in Nam. That give me a cause to pause, I’ll tell you—give me a whole different outlook. Not for nothing. Anyway, I fought off my ego and now I do it–and proudly–to honor my relatives, and all our sons and daughters who’ve fought for the good old U.S. of A.”
# # #
I drove back to Boston and caught the last flight of the day back to New York. I had decided that Thomas was no crank. He was just an honest American thrust into a role he hadn’t planned on–and accepted what was thrown at him, just like the millions of average joes over the centuries who sacrificed at a terrible cost with their lives so you and I can have the freedom to be creative, make our own decisions, worship where and how we want, invest in our futures, build businesses, start over as immigrants, vote, complain, speak our minds, and breathe the sweet air of liberty–even while parading around in silly tri-cornered hats.
My lunch of macaroni with Thomas Ditson and hearing of his acceptance to be the Grand Marshall Yankee Doodle, reminded me of the historic letter John Adams wrote to his wife after the Declaration of Independence was declared. He said, “I am apt to believe that this day will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore.”
Now whenever I hear the song “Yankee Doodle” or “Yankee Doodle Dandy” I ponder the freedoms we enjoy. Freedoms purchased in blood. And I get goosebumps.
By the way, my story got published under the headline: “Keep it Up Yankee Doodle.”
# # #
Author’s Note: The names used in this story are real.
According to several historical sources, the song Yankee Doodle was originally sung by British military officers to mock the disheveled and seemingly disorganized colonial “Yankees” with whom they served in the French and Indian War. The tune is believed to be from the nursery rhyme Lucy Locket.
One version of the lyrics is attributed to Doctor Richard Shuckburgh, a British Army surgeon. According to one story, Shuckburgh wrote the song after seeing the appearance of Colonial troops under Colonel Thomas Fitch, V, son of Connecticut Governor Thomas Fitch.
Ephraim Williams was a Colonel in the Massachusetts militia and died in the Battle of Lake George. He left his land and property to the founding of a school in Western Massachusetts, now known as Williams College.
Some reports claim the British often marched to a version of the song believed to be about a man named Thomas Ditson, of Billerica, Massachusetts. Ditson was tarred and feathered for attempting to buy a musket in Boston in March 1775, although he later fought at Concord:
For this reason, the town of Billerica claims to be the “home” of Yankee Doodle, and claims that during and after the Revolutionary War Americans embraced the song and made it their own, turning it back on those who had used it to mock them.
Incidentally, the lyrics: “put a feather in his cap and called it macaroni,” was a reference to the Macaroni wig which was in extreme fashion in the 1770s in England. It became contemporary pejorative slang for foppishness. The “Macaronis,” young men who wore fashion to the extreme, were deemed effeminate, and pre-dated the term “dandies.” Thus, the British were insinuating that the colonists were not very masculine. Apparently when Shuckburgh saw colonists wearing feathers in their hats, used the lyrics to make fun of them as though a feather was an insufficient mark of macaroni.
The name, Uncle Sam, is linked to Samuel Wilson, a successful entrepreneur and meat packer from Troy, New York. He supplied beef to the United States Army during the War of 1812. Wilson stamped the barrels with “U.S.” for United States, but soldiers referred to the provisions as “Uncle Sam’s.” A local newspaper ran the story and that’s how Uncle Sam became the official nickname for our federal government.
In September 1961, the U.S. Congress recognized Samuel Wilson as “the progenitor of America’s national symbol of Uncle Sam.” Wilson died at 88 in 1854, and was buried next to his wife, Betsey Mann, in Troy’s Oakwood Cemetery. The town calls itself “The Home of Uncle Sam.”
“The Yankee Doodle Boy,” also known as “(I’m a) Yankee Doodle Dandy” is from the Broadway musical Little Johnny Jones written by George M. Cohan. The play opened at the Liberty Theater on November 7, 1904.
The play follows a fictional American jockey, Johnny Jones (based on the real life jockey Tod Sloan), who rides a horse named Yankee Doodle in the English Derby. Cohan incorporated snippets of several traditional American songs into these lyrics, as he often did with all his music.
Actor James Cagney performed the song in the 1942 film Yankee Doodle Dandy, in which he played Cohan. In 2004, the American Film Institute recognized this version of “Yankee Doodle Boy” on the AFI’s 100 Years…100 Songs list placing it ahead of “Good Morning” from Singin’ in the Rain and behind “Summer Nights” from Grease.
The film won Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Leading Role (James Cagney), Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture and Best Sound, Recording (Nathan Levinson). It was nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Walter Huston), Best Director, Best Film Editing for George Amy, Best Picture and Best Writing, Original Story.