Patriots’ Day

My favorite memory of Patriots’ Day – and I think of this every April – was of 1975, going to Lexington with my parents and siblings to see President Ford speak as part of the kick-off to the celebration of our country’s bicentennial.

I was 20 years old and I remember so much of that day, so vividly: listening to the traffic reports on the radio before we left the house; coordinating by phone – land line – with my aunt in Bedford about parking at her house so she could then drive us as close to Lexington Green as we could get; knowing we would have to walk all the way back to her house when the event was over as there were no cellphones in those days on which to say, “Okay, come and get us;” approaching the exit on Route 128 and finding the traffic wasn’t that bad – apparently predictions of a massive tie-up scaring people off and causing them to stay home; my Dad saying – as he turned toward Lexington rather than Bedford, “Let’s see how close we can get;” parking the car right near The Green and walking over to it; listening to the brand new all-news station, WEEI, airing the live events that took place first over in Concord; waiting for the President and the other dignitaries to arrive; watching the motorcade move slowly down the street, people cheering the President; watching and listening to his speech and the other speeches and ceremony; asking my Dad, “Which way will he leave to get back to Hanscom Field?” and watching him point across the way to the street on the other side and saying, “Over there;” running with the entire family across the open grass, leaving the crowd behind and lining up along the road my father had pointed to; watching the motorcade VERY slowly come down that street, President Ford standing in the open roof, smiling and waving; my little brother – who had just turned 13 – reaching out to touch the President’s limo; the Secret Service agent’s arm coming down hard on my brother’s arm, bashing it aside as the agent walked alongside the President’s car; the surprise and pain in my brother’s voice as he yelled, “OOOuucchhh,” as he quickly pulled his arm close to his body and held it with his other hand (he bragged about that incident for days!)….. So vivid these memories are in the mind’s eye, 38 years later.

A couple of years earlier, the family had attended the Boston Marathon. It was my first Marathon in person. My father thought we’d never get close to the start or the finish lines so he picked three spots along the route where he thought we could park close enough, get to watch the runners for a while and have time to get to the next spot and find parking and watch the runners again. It worked! It was so exciting. We had only the newspapers and radio updates to follow the race in those days. There was no wall to wall radio coverage or any live TV coverage back then. To see it as it happened after only being able to imagine it based on previous years’ newspaper photos was really something!

In 1974, the year before the Bicentennial festivities began, I was a freshman at Emerson College. I lived at home in the suburbs and don’t recall why I was in Boston on Patriots’ Day as there were no classes on a holiday. But as 2:00 p.m. approached, I got the crazy idea of going over to the Prudential Center, which was where the Marathon ended at that time, to watch the lead runners come in. I walked right up to the finish line about ten minutes before the runners were expected and stood there and applauded the winner and the early finishers. I was surprised – there was no crowd whatsoever. Hundreds, yes. Tens of thousands, no. This was just before marathoning became a huge and popular sport, before live TV coverage gave the locals a yearning to be there in person, before the Bicentennial made Boston the nation’s hottest tourism destination for years to come.

Three years later, I was living in Boston, a senior at Emerson and working at WEEI. On Patriots’ Day my shift started at 3:00. WEEI was in the Prudential Tower and I knew it would take me forever to walk from my studio apartment at the foot of Beacon Hill over to the Pru as, by now, the Marathon had become a mega-event and the crowd would be enormous. I had some kind of strategy as to where to enter the building so I could get around the race and inside and over to the ground floor elevators. My vivid memory from that day is getting stuck in the revolving door leading to the elevators. The crowd was so dense that the door couldn’t move. There I was in my compartment of the revolving door with someone else in there behind me such that my face was pushed up against the glass and my eyes were looking into another face which was pushed up against the other side of the glass – the face of Jerome Drayton of Canada, the man who just a few minutes earlier had won the Boston Marathon. Laurel wreath on his head, a towel wrapped around his shoulders, a look of confusion on his face – the same look I’m sure was on my face too until I thought, “Holy shit!” and smiled at him and at the absurdity of it all. Then someone’s push moved the door loose and I made my way to the elevator for the 44th floor to report for work and he to the elevator to the basement where a bowl of beef stew awaited him as his reward.

I have stood and cheered at the finish line of the Boston Marathon several other times over the years both at the old Prudential Center finish and the newer Copley Square finish. It has always been such a joyous occasion. The rest of the country doesn’t know what the Marathon really is. Yes, the elite runners of the world are there and we love to watch them – their athleticism, their combination of strength, determination and grace. But the heart of the Boston Marathon is the “real people” in the race. The firefighters and teachers and mechanics and office workers…the people we might usually think of as average Joes or Joans. They are and they aren’t. Somehow, in this busy world we live in, they have made the time, the commitment, the sacrifice to push themselves to a point where they can have a day in the sun and be on the same playing field as the best in the world. They are the biggest part of what the Boston Marathon really is. And the second biggest part is the people who turn out to watch and cheer them on…and treat them as the champions that they are. They stay for hours in a marathon of cheerleading. People cheering on a friend, a co-worker, their child, their parent, a brother or sister. Strangers cheering on strangers. This is what sets it apart from every other major athletic event we know. These runners – these every day people, these people with day jobs…or night jobs – inspire the crowd and the crowd, in turn, inspires the runners.

So, it was with all of the above in mind, that I began Patriots’ Day of 2013. No longer a resident of my native state of Massachusetts, I am now retired to the only other state that has always celebrated this holiday, Maine (where we move the apostrophe a bit – Patriot’s Day). Back in April of 1775, when Paul Revere made his famous ride, Maine was a part of Massachusetts.

I got up too early on this Patriot’s Day. While drinking my coffee, I checked the Portland Press Herald’s website for the weather and the tide. Checked a sports site for the starting pitchers of the annual 11 a.m. game at Fenway Park, a traditional start time set to allow fans to walk to the Marathon route, after cheering the professional ballplayers, to cheer the amateur marathoners. And I made my schedule for the day: beach walk, watch the game on TV, find Marathon reports on TV or radio, make chicken soup. And I went out to walk the beach on a gloriously sunny morning. Haven’t been too many of those yet this spring. The computer said it was 39 degrees so I wore my winter coat with a sweatshirt underneath. The computer was wrong and I was way over-dressed. The temperature had to be higher plus all that sun and no wind. I was too hot but low tide was beautiful and it was the beginning of school vacation and there were parents and kids and their dogs enjoying the morning on the beach.

Like I say, I woke up too early so as game time approached I knew I’d be taking a nap around the third inning. So instead of watching it live, I set the DVR to record it and did some stuff around the house. Nap time.

Got up, avoided radio, TV and internet so I wouldn’t know the Red Sox score. This kept me from finding out how the Marathon was going. Oh well, I’ll find out later and see the highlights on the evening news. Took inventory in the kitchen to see that everything was set for the chicken soup which I would make after the game. Got settled in front of the TV and watched the Sox. It was a good game, close. Ryan Dempster – 10 strikeouts! Where is that coming from? Nice. But the closer of the moment blew the save in the ninth and a great day was threatened. But then Pedroia and Napoli came through in the bottom of the ninth and there was a walk-off celebration at home plate. Now to find out who won the Marathon. I was really enjoying my first Patriot’s Day as a retired guy.

I stopped and deleted the game recording and the live TV came up and I heard the end of a Brian Williams question about terrorism and the beginning of the expert’s answer. They were both off-screen. On screen was a picture of a city street strewn with debris. Before I could compute that it was too early for Brian Williams to be on or to take in what they were saying or to notice what the on-screen graphics said, I thought, “That’s Boston!” My heart sank immediately. I forgot about the soup. Like you, I spent the next couple hours, watching and listening and reading and thinking about what a fucked up world this is.

When my wife got home from work, we heated up yesterday’s leftovers (no soup) and watched the evening news and the extended coverage and the latest briefing before we had to shut it off to talk about it and then to rest our brains and our emotions for a bit. Or to at least try.

This morning, like any other day, while drinking my coffee, I checked the Portland Press Herald’s website for the weather and the tide. It was sunny but clouds were coming in. I read some updates on newspaper websites. At 9:00, I turned on today’s all-news station in Boston, WBZ, where I also used to work. I heard Joe Mathieu report the latest. A few new facts, new numbers on the dead and injured. There would be a briefing at 9:30. “I’ll watch that on TV and then go out to walk the beach,” I thought. I figured there’d be other people out there too, at low tide, school vacation week. But I knew it would feel much different than yesterday. My mind went back to a walk on this same beach on the weekend after 9/11 and how abnormally quiet it was. No planes were allowed to fly, no boats on the water, people on the beach but no one talking. Silence…except for the sounds of nature.

Just then, nature caught my attention as I drank my coffee and looked out my kitchen window. Joe’s voice faded into the background as I watched the neighbor’s cat burrowing under my fence at what he thinks is his secret spot. I smiled. It was only then that I noticed that a cardinal was singing, a sound that has only returned to the neighborhood in the last couple weeks as spring has arrived. Some thought about how the sounds of nature are soothing at terrible times like this crossed my mind…but it was too deep a thought to focus on right now. Instead, I walked into the living room where my own cat was sleeping in his favorite spot atop the back of the couch. I wanted to pet him but I didn’t want to startle him from his sleep. So I spoke to him very softly. He didn’t open his eyes but he began to purr quietly. Now I could pet him and as I did, he opened one eye a bit. Another pet, a few more soft words…and he went back to sleep. It was good to have something to smile about for a few moments.

I watched the briefing at 9:30…for a little while. Until it appeared that no new facts would be announced. People need to hear from their local leaders – governor, mayor, police commissioner – at times like this. Even if they have no news. We need to hear them reassure us and we need to see that they are working on it. No matter what we think of them politically and no matter that we already know that they are working on it and no matter that the little bits of information they do give are only of real importance to the people in the immediate area – which streets are closed, etc. And in this case, we need to hear the FBI guy even though we know he isn’t going to say anything about anything. Still, he’s Da Man and we need him to speak to us. We really do. Even the person laughing and cursing at me as they read this and cursing the entire concept I’m referring to needs it…if you didn’t, you wouldn’t be watching those briefings, you asshole. (Sorry folks, had to give ’em a ‘right back at ya.’) What we don’t need is the parade of other officials – both elected and appointed – to come on and say, if I may paraphrase, “I have nothing of value to add but I wanted to make sure I got my face on TV.” So, that’s the point at which I shut it off. Sorry Senator.

The temperature said 46 – was it right this time? Clouds were coming in though so I put on the winter coat but no sweatshirt – I’m not falling for that two days in a row. As I walked toward the beach, I knew I was wrong again. I did need that extra layer today, the wind was powerful and blowing right off the water. The beach was quiet, not as many people as yesterday’s nicer day but more than usual for a Tuesday morning. But it was the sounds of nature that took over as the people were too sad to be talking and laughing like yesterday.

I stood there, staring at the ocean, rather than walking. And thinking about the new and vivid and terrible memories I now have of Patriots’ Day. And recalling Joe Mathieu’s lead at 9:00, “The Boston Marathon, changed forever.” When I heard it I cringed…because I knew he was right. And now I was thinking about that and how yesterday’s events changed it all for me – and everyone else, forever. And how vivid my happy memories of 1975 and 1977 and the other years are…because I was there. And how vivid the awful memories will always be for those who were there in 2013. And how none of us will ever be able to think about Patriots’ Day or the Boston Marathon again without thinking about yesterday’s tragedy.

Lives were changed yesterday. Some directly and horribly. A parent takes their child to a fun event, an exciting day for a kid, but the child never comes home. A person starts a happy day, a day they have looked forward to, and ends that day in a hospital, maimed for life. And the changes that are not as serious but still so sad… Families and volunteers and organizers prepare for a great day in a great city, a tradition that their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents observed before them, and it is ruined…forever.

Is it really forever? It is forever as we who are here today know it. But I know the day will come when those of us who can remember the way it used to be will die off. And after that, if I can cop a line from another writer who called both Boston and Portland home, there will be a time when “hardly a man is now alive who remembers this famous day and year” and its tragic events.

All one can do is hope that future generations learn from this history and find some way to avoid repeating it. Maybe somewhere along the way to those times, we as a people, will figure out how to make the world a better place and the streets of our cities and towns a safe place to gather to observe and celebrate our traditions.

In the meantime, what can one person do? All we can do is keep on going. Keep on going and spread your love. Spoil your kids, spoil all those close to you today or tomorrow or this weekend. We all need a lift right now and we are dependant on each other to provide it. Make the world a better place in the little ways that are within your control. Do something nice for everybody you love. Then do something nice for those you see often but just barely know. Make somebody’s day a little brighter than it would have been had you not acted.

And then do something to comfort yourself.

Me? I’m going to finally make that chicken soup.

Hang in there everybody

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