Yankee doodle debacle


Walter Stewart January 1 1976

Yankee doodle debacle


Walter Stewart January 1 1976

Yankee doodle debacle


Walter Stewart

The township of Hopewell, New Jersey, is in something of a funk. It is here, on the sloping banks of the Delaware river, that George Washington and his troops crossed on December 26, 1776, to sneak up on and defeat the rascally British at Trenton. A plaque at the site calls it “the turning point of the Revolution.” And it is here, during 1976, that several hundred thousand Americans, with their wives, husbands, kids, dogs and other encumbrances, will come to pay reverence to Washington’s feat and celebrate the bicentennial of the United States.

There wasn’t much here when Washington came, and there isn’t much here now— a small park, with plaque, two flagpoles, a number of beer bottles, a few benches, and nearby a museum capable of holding, perhaps, 25 people. Washington crossed the Delaware in a Durham boat, and had rough going through the ice. This year’s visitors will swarm over a 13-foot-wide bridge, and they’ll have rough going too— two cars can barely squeak past each other. When the vans and campers and buses arrive, the conditions that prevailed in 1776 should prevail again. That earlier battle was called “a grand melee, a great, informal battle royal” by historian Christopher Ward.

The township can see it all coming. “People are going around telling Americans to be sure to visit Washington Crossing,” says Herbert Jordan, the township clerk, “but what are they going to do? There’s no place to stay, no place to eat, nothing to see...” For a while, some of the locals were talking about launching a lawsuit against somebody—anybody—to call off the hordes. “But you can’t stop people coming here,” sighs Jordan, “you can only try to discourage them.” The township may need as much as a million dollars to police the area, set up some facilities (such as portable washrooms) and clean up. To date, not a dime has been forthcoming.

It’s shaping up to be that kind of a bicentennial, although appearances are sometimes deceiving. At the ceremonies marking the start of construction for Expo 67, Prime Minister Lester Pearson got tangled up in a curtain, Premier Jean Lesage raised the fleur de lys upside down, and a ceremonial cannon blew a hole in an Expo sign and knocked the commissioner-general off his chair. Pearson and Lesage struggled in tum and in vain with a bulldozer and steamshovel, with which they were supposed to break ground, gave up and went home. The incident led to widespread predictions of doom and disaster for Canada’s upcoming centennial, but they were wrong. So there is hope for the U.S. bicentennial, and yet if ever a national event had disaster written all over it this is that event.

In North Carolina, the state auditor found the bicentennial commission in a state of “acute disorganization”; he also found that a private firm established by a state senator had somehow scooped out royalties of $65,457 from the sale of official medals and souvenirs. In New York state, widely touted events—a five-million-dollar tour of foreign plays, a $ 15-million “arts encampment,” a $1.1-million musical, among others—have been canceled for lack of funds or interest or both. Of $ 14 million pledged for artistic projects in the state, $ 11 million has already gone on construction of the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Undaunted, local groups are using the bicentennial to shill for funds. The executive director of the Queens Council on the Arts told a weekly newspaper, “Starting last May, everything we do is called bicentennial.”

In San Lrancisco, then Mayor Joseph Alioto appointed himself chairman of the bicentennial commission after attempts to raise money for a suitable celebration failed and the entire commission resigned.

When the legislature loosened up to provide some state funds, Governor Jerry Brown promptly vetoed the measure. The Freedom Train, a 25-car traveling display of700 historical items, has created so many complaints (mostly centred on the twodollar admission fee) that it has been renamed “the pain train.” Millions of Americans will be on the move during bicentennial, but they may find many of their favorite visiting places closed for lack of funds. Half the picnic sites in Yellowstone National Park may be closed, and even parts of Philadelphia’s Independence National Historical Park, where it all began, may be shut down for lack of manpower. A guide at the park who complained about all the things that had gone wrong, or were unfinished, was asked what were they doing about it? “Praying,” she said.

And so it goes, from coast to coast— and beyond. A Viking spacecraft scheduled to land on Mars on July 4 ran into prelaunching hitches (a valve stuck open, an electric switch accidentally left on) and it is doubtful that it will arrive on time. The bicentennial is taking on the scent of failure and the stronger scent of sellout. Prodded by official encouragement—“Commercialism is as American as apple pie,” said the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts— Americans have come swarming to the bicentennial trough. It’s become so bad that a countermovement has been launched by the People’s Bicentennial Commission, with its own gimmick—a ride through the streets of Boston by “Paula Revere” to warn folks against business rip-offs. It will remain for some future historian to sum up the celebration objectively, to balance the bizarre, ugly, junky and crooked aspects of the bicentennial with its more positive attributes. In the meantime, and for current consumption, here are a few bicentennial notes.

★ The City Council of Charleston, South Carolina, passed an ordinance ordering diapers for carriage horses in the city to keep the place neat during ’76. The carriage owners—there are a lot of them— flatly refused to comply, so a deal was worked out under which drivers would be equipped with two-way radios. When the occasion arose, a man on a motorcycle with a pooper-scooper would be dispatched to clean up. Then the city council repealed both the diaper ordinance and the compromise, and now nobody knows what the horses will do this year.

★ New York City has a “76 Club” which ranks donors to the celebration according to the amount they give, based on the number 76. You can become a Founder by putting up $76,000, a Patriot for $760 to $7,600, a Minuteman or Minutewoman for $76 to $760 and a Fifer for $7.60 to $76. At last count, the project had raised more than $1.1 million.

★In Florida, things are simpler. There, the state bicentennial commission raised $845,000 from the taxes on one extra day of betting at pari-mutuel outlets.

★ For a while, the deputy commissioner of the Bicentennial Administration was a foreign-born lady, and that caused quite a fuss. Maijorie Ward Lynch of Yakima, Washington, has been a naturalized U.S. citizen since 1948, served four terms in the state legislature (where she was described as a “pistol”) and has said publicly that had she been around in 1776 she’d have revolted too. But it wasn’t enough. It says right on her birth certificate that she was born in England, and the Daughters of the American Revolution kicked up such a stink that she has left the bicentenary for a job in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

★The Boy Scouts have established a new merit badge for the occasion. It’s called the American Heritage Badge, and to get it a scout is required to research local and national historic events. Just in time, too—a recent Gallup poll discovered that three out of 10 Americans have no idea what important historical event took place in 1776. Asked about the poll, Bicentennial Administrator John Warner told the Washington Post, “That’s rather curious,” and pointed out that one American in four doesn’t even know who’s President.


★The Bicentennial Administration licenses “official” items and so far has raised more than $800,000. But the word “bicentennial” cannot be copyrighted, so the junk floodgates are wide open. Among the “official” items are belts, book covers, buttons, calendars, cards, china, coins, decals, dish sets, embroidery, flags, furniture, games, jewelry, license plates, maps, needlecraft kits, records, toy trains and tricorne hats. Prices vary. Americans can buy a postcard that plays America the Beautiful for 60 cents (the wholesale price is 30 cents: “High profits,” says the literature, “priced to sell easily at a high profit margin”), or you can buy a 6,500-pound sundial, with plaque, for $11,800.

★Nobody knows how many unofficial items there are, but among them are mounted copies of a letter from George to Martha Washington, and one from her to him, for $9,500, a liquor decanter in the shape of the Liberty Bell that plays The Star Spangled Banner, for $ 18 and up, a bicentennial Bible at various prices which contains an American eagle medallion, and a Spirit of 76 casket (again available at various prices) decorated in red, white and blue and lined with flags. The Jacwill Casket Company of Knightstown, Indiana, has sold more than 300 of the caskets. There are also, free, “original inflation fighter coupons” from neighborhood merchants, advising consumers to “Get into the spirit of ’76” by buying cake mixes, soap and soup for 10 cents off.

★ The state of South Dakota launched jts celebration last fall by training elite, fivemember Special Weapons and Tactics squads at Pierre, SD. There is expected to be an upsurge in violence during 1976.

★ A scrap has broken out in Sumner, Missouri, which revels in the title, “Wild goose capital of the world.” The town put up a 40-foot-high fibreglass Canada goose, called Maxie, and pried $2,000 out of the state bicentennial commission for the job. Mrs. Carolyn Levy of Kansas City, who wanted funds for a local history project and was turned down, was mad. She said she thought educational programs were more important than a goose.

★ The U.S. commerce department has transferred $15.8 million to the Bicentennial Administration for job-creating projects, and the money is going for 114 projects around the country, from construction to totem pole carving and day-care work.

★ The churches are getting into the spirit with projects ranging from an Issues Forum, aimed at provoking debate on leading issues of the day, to publishing ventures aimed at tying histories of local congregations into the bicentennial and selling the results for, as one publisher put it, “unique fund-raising power.”

★ Commercial tie-ins are popular everywhere. Coffee Rich has a “bicentennial kit” complete with a copy of the Declaration of Independence (“Coffee Rich started a revolution in good taste”), d-coN insecticide offers six free flag decals (“Get a little history free from d-coN, the people who are helping to free America from bugs”), and a Boston massage parlor is cutting the cost of all its services by 10% for the national birthday.

★ Time capsules are popular, with towns, associations and individuals stashing away artifacts in capsules to be opened in 2076. One San Mateo, California, family is filling its hoard with a box containing fishing lures made in 1942, the diary of a typical U.S. citizen in 1976, and rubble from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

★ Personal bicentennial gestures abound. Thomas Cannon, a postal clerk in Richmond, Virginia, is sending $50 of his own money to each of the 50 states— a $2,500 gift with no strings attached—out of sheer gratitude.

★ Braniff Airlines paid an artist $100,000 to design a special bicentennial plane, and a consumers group promptly launched legal action to keep the $ 100,000 from being added to air fares. Then, when Betty Ford turned up for the official unveiling of the new aircraft, it was upstaged by a National Airlines plane that rolled by with its own 1776 design sketched out by a stewardess. A Braniff official spluttered angrily (and ungrammatically) “How dare them crash our party!”

★ The bicentennial proposal least likely to be acted upon came from former President Richard Nixon. He wanted to work on “a major television presentation to our people ... reminding them that in 1776 we only had spiritual wealth, and look where it took us.”

★ The National Reading Is Fundamental Project hopes to distribute five million books free during 1976.

★ In Philadelphia, site of the Continental Congress, they have a john problem. Thousands of visitors will be wandering through the downtown historical area every day, and they will need facilities. One proposal was simply to dot the area with portable outhouses, but that seemed rather drab, so an Ivyland, Pennsylvania, manufacturer has come up with an ultramodern outhouse complete with turrets, flags for the turrets, and bacteria inside to take care of the waste. His proposal has not yet been accepted, but neither has any other. “I think,” said a park guide recently, “we’re going to turn Washington Square [tomb of the Revolutionary soldier] into one giant john.”

★A Chicago group called Hands Across America wants to form an unbroken chain of Americans holding hands from coast to coast on July 4. The line would begin in Boston and run west and south through New York, Washington, Pittsburgh. Chicago, St. Louis and Tulsa on its way to Los Angeles. New Mexico presents a problem. The plan calls for 525,000 patriots to link up across that state, which is more than half the population. As that seems impossible, the proposal is to import several thousand Texans, who would go home again after the ceremony.

★The National Football League is sponsoring a $25,000 essay contest on “The NFL’S Role in American History.” Students (the contest and $10,000 first prize are restricted to 14-18-year-olds)may wish to use the story about Red Grange’s encounter with Calvin Coolidge. “Mr. President.” said an aide, “I want you to meet Red Grange, he’s with the Chicago Bears.” Coolidge replied. “Glad to meet you. I’ve always liked animal acts.”


★ An enterprising shirtmaker has come up with the complete bicentennial T-shirt. It shows two men holding hands on one side and two women ditto on the other.

★ Greyhound has introduced a special seven-day Ameripass that will take patriots anywhere they can get to in seven days for $76, and the airlines are offering special rates to Boston, Philadelphia, Washington and New York. New York was actually a Loyalist city (Americans would say “Tory”) throughout the revolutionary war. Asked how the city planned to treat that fact, a New York tourist official replied: “By ignoring it.”

★ The Netherlands Flower Bulb Institute has packaged a bicentennial flower garden; it consists of red, white and blue bulbs from tulips, daffodils and hyacinths.

★ There are bicentennial games (Skirmish, based on the war, Jurisprudence, based on the constitution, and many others), puzzles, toys and dozens of books, from Who’s That Stepping On Plymouth Rock? to The Compleat American Housewife; 1776.

★The Our Gang Restaurant in Beachwood, Ohio, has created the bicentennial hamburger, with the red, white and blue motif supplied by tomato, blue cheese and sour cream. There are also bicentennial drinks, ice cream, bicentennial ham (from Williamsburg, Va„ at $2.85 a pound) cookies, candy, jam, cigars, booze and cheese trays in appropriate packaging.

★Con men are cashing in. Uncovered to date have been (1) racketeers who advertised “Own your own business ... at the historically right price of $ 1,776,” and then absconded with the funds, (2) a reducing firm that promised “lose 17.76 pounds in two weeks,” (3) a group that sold cruises aboard the ss United States, which has been in mothballs since 1969 and (4) another group that promised a series of Miss Bicentennial contests, collected entry fees and then decamped without even paying the phone bill. Robert Williams, executive secretary of the New York chapter of the Sons of the Revolution, said—in quite another context—“There’s nothing wrong with making a buck. Free enterprise is the thing that has made this country go zowee.”

★ Small towns are taking advantage of the occasion to put themselves in order. One town in Montana hopes to have dial phones by July 4. Acushnet, Massachusetts, is restoring all public schools more than a century old. Soudan, Minnesota, is getting rid of abandoned cars. Fountain, Colorado, has a mosquito control program and, according to the Rocky Mountain News, a town near Denver is using its bicentennial money to clean up the local lovers’ lane.

★A couple from Lake Forest, Illinois, will jog 2,957 miles from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco to the White House bearing a special Bible for President Ford. On the way they may encounter wagons from the Pilgrimage to Pennsylvania wagon train, one real train, numberless trucks, cars and bicycle riders (in what’s called the Bikecentennial) heading the same way. Going westward will be five carloads of model-plane enthusiasts who hope to get into the Guinness Book Of Records by flying a toy plane from Kitty Hawk, NC, across the country.

★ Civil rights leaders have their own project in mind: “Let’s Find Out Who Really Killed Martin Luther King Jr.”

★There are, to date, 250 movies and 100 TV shows saluting the bicentennial, along with 100 dance projects, 50 classical music projects, 35 operas and 175 general music projects, all of which have drawn $27.4 million from the National Endowment for the Arts. One man received $20,000 to study broadsides and ballads of the revolutionary period, but reports that most of the lyrics are unprintable.

★Americans can make their own Liberty Bell with a plastic kit from Tucson, Arizona, which comes with the plastic already cracked. Actually, the Liberty Bell got its name in the 1830s, as a symbol of the fight for emancipation of slaves, but public relations has overcome history, and it is now the ultimate revolutionary symbol. They can also knit a Betsy Ross Afghan flag ($14.95 for the “official” kit, eight dollars for the spurious one), redecorate their shower stalls with patriotic tiles at $15 a tile, or start their own gun collection with replicas of famous American guns, including a silver copy of the Thompson submachine gun wielded by that lover of liberty, John Dillinger.

★ How about a Bennington flag from a macaroni company ($5.99—Bennington was an important battle), or six pewter statues of American founding fathers, “a full four-in. tall,” only $450 each from Gulf Oil? Act fast, Gulf is only selling 9,900 copies of each statue, for a gross of $4,455,000. How about an American eagle from the Franklin mint ($850), or porcelain models of soldiers of the 13 colonies from Royal Doulton ($9,750 the set), Wedgwood plates ($375 each), four-ply tires ($17.76 each) or a chess set with Paul Revere and Betsy Ross as the king and queen on one side, with Indians as pawns, and King George III and Queen Charlotte on the other, with tea chests as pawns ($18,000)?

BINET, the master computer in Washington, lists 18,000 projects and 15,000 events planned for celebration (an event is tied to a date, a project is not) in 7,000 official bicentennial communities across the United States. Sometimes the connection between an event or project and the anniversary is hard to follow (except that approved events tend to draw grants). What, for example, is the revolutionary content of the Starved Rock Kennel Club Dog Show, the Cocoa Beach water-skiing regatta or the Hawaiian railway demonstration, all listed as bicentennial events? Anyway, many of the listed items will not come off, for lack of funding, despite the $40 million budgeted to date by the Bicentennial Administration. Among the survivors, hopefully, will be a Johnny Cake bake-off in Jamestown, Rhode Island, a Crawfish festival in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, a Republican of Texas Chile Championship in San Marcos, Tex., and a brass-bed and bring-your-ownraft race in Fort Wayne, Ind. It would be nice to think that a debate scheduled for Williamsburg, Va., to consider anew the decision to break away from the Crown, might go the other way this time. A number of historical reenactments and events are being held twice, just to make sure. The Boston Tea Party, the Battles of Bunker Hill and Concord, and a Benjamin Franklin Kite Fly were all held once in 1975 and will be held again in 1976. But there will be only one international BB gun championship, and only one buffalo-chip throwing contest to commemorate the solemn occasion.

One of the earliest attempts to celebrate the birthday of Canada’s founding came in 1877, when “Professor” George Grimley hired himself and his 50-foot balloon to the St. George’s Society of Ottawa for a ceremonial ascent. The balloon quickly rose to 12,000 feet, then got caught in a crosswind and dumped in a nearby swamp. Grimley survived and so did Canada. The United States will undoubtedly survive its celebration, too.'ÿ