Tuesday, October 1, 2013
Get Me Matt Damon!
Brookline, Massachusetts, physician/militiaman Eliphalet Downer’s exploits during the Revolutionary War could easily be made into an action/adventure summer movie. I see Matt Damon (using his Boston accent) playing the swashbuckling Downer, who makes one brief appearance in my novel, “Crossing the River.”
Downer, turned 31 April 4, 1775, is described by two historical sources as a man that fits the actor’s physical makeup. Francis S. Drake in his History of Roxbury describes Downer as a “skillful surgeon” and a “hard, rough man.” General William Heath in his Memoirs remembered Downer as “an active, energetic man.”
Early in my imagined movie, theater-goers would witness Downer (1744-1806) escaping death three times. The time: mid-afternoon, April 19, 1775. The place: Menotomy (now Arlington), Massachusetts. The circumstance: militiamen from various towns including Brookline fighting scattered redcoats hand-to-hand on the town’s broad plain below the Meeting House as one thousand plus British regulars retreat from Concord to the sanctuary of Bunker and Breeds Hills and the guns of the man-of-war “Somerset,” anchored between Charlestown and Boston.
We see Downer, eager to participate, running past a two-story house. Two soldiers appear at one corner of the building. They see him, hurry after him. Downer turns. One of the soldiers falls, shot from behind by an unseen militiaman. Downer raises his musket, fires. The second redcoat falls, moves his right arm, lies still. Downer hurries off, toward the broad field, where squads of soldiers, separating from the British column, are attacking militiamen arrayed loosely and provocatively in different locations.
Massachusetts Provincial General Heath and Doctor Joseph Warren, on horses, appear fifty yards to Downer’s left. Downer is not aware of their presence. Here is how I narrate the beginning of Downer’s next close encounter with death.
Across the expansive plain below the Menotomy meeting house militiamen by the hundreds had refused to give ground. Having galloped through their groups to inspire valor, Heath, followed by Doctor Joseph Warren, had stopped his horse repeatedly to behold and exhort.
Squads of regulars had repeatedly left the column to drive back their slayers. Riding past his warriors, Heath had shouted, “Fire! Stay your ground! Reload! Fire!”
One encounter had thrilled him. He would learn afterward that the American had been the physician-turned-militiaman, Eliphalet Downer. Five cursing regulars had caught Downer and four compatriots crossing an uncontested section of the plain.
“You, damned rebel! Do you dare face?!” the nearest had challenged.
“I dare face!” Downer had shouted.
Standing forty feet apart, they had hastily fired. Thereafter, they had fought.
Downer had parried his attacker’s bayonet thrusts with the barrel of his musket. One early stab had cut into the fabric of his coat. A goner, Heath had concluded.
Forty heart-throbbing seconds later, Downer prevails, in quick succession striking a blow to the redcoat’s neck and right shoulder with the stock of his musket, seizing the soldier’s weapon, and stabbing the regular with the weapon’s bayonet. We have a close-up of Heath and Warren’s expressions of amazement. Fired upon, the two men ride off. Pan to where the death duel has taken place. The soldier lies motionless. Downer has left.
The scene shifts to the interior of a barn. We see a wounded soldier lying on bloodied, scattered hay. Downer enters the barn to prime the dead redcoat’s confiscated musket, his own weapon broken and discarded. Downer sees the soldier, hesitates. He goes to him.
“I’m a doctor,” Downer whispers. “May I dress your wound?”
The soldier looks at him, rolls suddenly toward his musket, seizes it. “Damn yer!” he rages. “I’ll dress yer wound for yer!” Downer steps back, his musket without ball and powder. The soldier, managing to sit, aims. Powder explodes. The soldier crumples, lies still. A militiaman appears from behind Downer. “A close one, that, eh, Doc?”
The two men stare at each other while the sounds of battle become manifest.
Fade to an indoor scene, Downer’s home in Brookline. We see his wife, and his three sons and one daughter, between the ages of two and eight. Downer is telling them of his experiences and what he has learned of the day’s outcome. He predicts accurately that war with England has begun. He declares his intention to serve the province’s cause as a surgeon tending the wounded and sick.
We experience the fighting (the Battle of Bunker Hill) at the top of Breeds Hill. We see Doctor Warren standing fast. Short of ammunition, the militiamen begin to vacate their position. Warren is one of the last to leave. A British officer calls out to him. Warren, recognizing the man, smiles. He is shot in the face, from another direction. We see then militiamen fleeing across Charlestown Neck. The wounded are being helped by comrades. Many stop. We see Downer moving from location to location tending to the most needy.
We see the date March 17, 1776 on the theater screen. Long lines of soldiers are being loaded on transport boats. The British evacuation of Boston has begun. Downer and his three sons watch from a vantage point on Beacon Hill. A man (played by Ben Affleck) approaches. “Doctor, I be askin’ the need of your service!” the man declares. “You’ve heard, I conjecture, the word ‘privateer’?”
“A ship t’be fitted with several cannon t’prey on British vessels?”
“Just so. We capture their crew, take them and their ship back to Boston, share the profits after we sell the ship’s valuables. A dangerous endeavor, surgeon. I’m the owner of the Yankee, the first privateer, I believe, t’be sailin’ out of Boston. I’ll be needin’ the service of a man such as youself, I hear. A fightin’ man and a damn good doctor. Will y’be joinin’ me?”
The boys look quizzically at their father. “Give me time to think about it,” Downer responds.
Fade to a scene on a long dock. The privateer waits for Downer to come aboard. Downer embraces his children, then his wife. She is crying.
“Mary, we’ve been over this. I must serve my country, as best I can. We must all sacrifice. I promise you I’ll return.”