During much of my childhood and on into my adolescence, BOSTON was- to me- the ever-elusive 'Promised Land'... though my 'oasis' was ever my maternal grandparents' modest Cape Codder in Hamden, Connecticut just outside of the City of New Haven in which I had been born.
"Grandpa and Grandma's" was the place where, while I was growing up, I could refresh and regroup-- where I could simply always be myself: in fact, Grandpa and Grandma's truly felt like home precisely because it once was 'Home' (where both my Mom and I lived while she was 'between husbands' and, thus, I was also 'between Dads' from a little over a year old through age 6) and a visit back there from, first, Staten Island and, later, Northern New Jersey was, therefore, a most anticipated event every few months.
Often (though not nearly often enough), I would even be allowed to travel by train up to Connecticut during a week's vacation from school or during the summer on the Murray Hill, one of the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad's remaining "clocker"s (as trains departing their initial depot at the top of an hour were called), this one leaving New York City's Grand Central Terminal at precisely 8 in the morning: it would arrive at 9:37 AM in New Haven's Union Station (where my maternal grandfather, by then foreman of the second [afternoon into evening] shift at a nearby firearms manufacturing plant [thus, his work hours allowed him to so meet up with me there on a weekday mid-morning], would pick me up).
To keep me occupied on the hour and a half-plus rail journey (that is: when I would, eventually, tire of watching the scene passing by outside the coach window), a complete New Haven Railroad timetable would be procured for me (from the famous information kiosk with the multi-faced clock atop it right in the center of Grand Central's Main Concourse) by the adult who had, that morning, brought me to Grand Central (almost always my [step]Dad, a banker himself on his way to work in Manhattan).
Inside this staple-bound "brochure style" multi-page timetable was a map of the entire New Haven Railroad system of the mid-1960s, a rail system then still struggling to survive but (unknown to me as a child) ultimately doomed to become absorbed into a large, amorphous something known as 'Penn Central' (as 1968 turned into 1969 one New Year's): I was very much into maps but it was the train schedules themselves that most intrigued me, especially when I was able to decipher them enough to discern that, even after I would be disembarking at New Haven, the Murray Hill itself would go on to a place called Boston- itself filled with stations with names such as "Route 128" and "Back Bay"- before ending its journey at the city's South Station at 12:30 PM.
Just what was this "Back Bay"? It sounded, to the ears of a 7 or 8-year old, positively nautical! Sailors of yore might well have dreamed of traveling to the Spice Islands or South Sea island paradises such as Fiji or Tahiti or even navigating their way to the Antipodes... but *I* wanted to, someday, "sail" to this 'Back Bay'.
'Grandma' herself originally hailed from North Central Massachusetts and- although born into a Finnish community (she did not even begin to speak English regularly until she entered public school at the age of 7)- certainly had the accent to prove it (indeed, I might well have been forgiven if I had thought it perfectly acceptable to have learned to spell my first name, instead, as 'Ritch-huhd' [;-)]) and, thus, there were trips, during my early childhood, to her own relatives in ye olde Commonwealth (albethey vague in my mind today, barely half-remembered)- always by bus or car, though: never the train (sigh)! I would therefore, often enough, watch television originating from the self-styled 'Hub of the Universe' with my Massachusetts cousins (years later, while attending college in Boston, many of my fellow students who were locals [and who knew me only as 'some guy in the dorm from Jersey'] would be surprised that I actually so well knew of Rex Trailer, Sgt. Billy and 'Boomtown' [while they, in turn, knew nothing about Officer Joe Bolton or Captain Jack McCarthy, Sandy Becker or Chuck McCann, all of whom dominated Kids' Programming back home in the Metro New York area back in the 1960s])...
but- alas!- television picked up via a tall, VHF aerial located somewhere along the shores of Lake Whalom or Lake Shirley (where my maternal grandfather's niece had a home) was to be the closest I ever got to 'see' Boston while still a kid (although I did actually see Boston during my early teen years-- once-- and only from a distance: during the summer of 1971, I was on a YMCA-sponsored bike hike for teens that took us across the northeastern section of the Commonwealth on our way to the North Shore and then up into southern New Hampshire-- from a hill in one of the suburbs well northwest of Boston one afternoon, one could see the skyline of that city and, with the naked eye, just make out the Prudential Center tower and the nearly completed glass 'box' that was the new John Hancock Tower (all too soon to go through its few years as the infamous 'Plywood Palace' after its glass windows began falling out and crashing to the street below) next to the smaller, needle-like John Hancock Building... so close, but yet so far!)
At least, though, I could usually hear Boston via radio: clear-channel, 50 kilowatt powerhouse WBZ [1030 on the AM dial] easily came in in North Jersey, even on summer evenings (when there is far less darkness than daylight: thus, less overall time for a "skip wave" to bring distant radio stations in): staying up late to listen to talk show host Larry Glick (after Streeter Stuart did the top-of-the-hour news at Midnight) became something of a Friday-into wee hours of Saturday morning "ritual" during my Junior School into High School days (or, nights). It would be through WBZ that I would vicariously share in many of the events that more directly affected Beantown- such as the often bitter 1971 Mayoral contest between Kevin White and Louise Day Hicks or the awful tragedy for First Responders that was the Hotel Vendome Fire of mid-1972 (coincidentally, over the same weekend as the infamous Watergate burglary that would be more of a national story at the time)- even though I happened to be a couple hundred miles away!
The attraction that was Boston was to prove all too much for me in any event: as a result, on a sunny Saturday in the Spring of 1973 (during my Junior year in high school), I made an impromptu day trip by train up to Boston and back (leaving North Jersey very early in the morning and not coming back home until rather late in the evening [my parents had no idea: sleeping over at a friend's house that night was my "cover"])-- I went by train (of course, considering I didn't even have my Driver's License yet) and, although I had to cut back on my originally grandiose plans for the day in Boston (4-plus hours in Beantown had to be cut down to a little less than two because, in an act of abject hubris, I had assumed that trains from New York to Boston still departed from Grand Central-- but they didn't: Amtrak had taken over the run in May 1971 [my last-ever ride to Connecticut on Penn Central's much poorer replacement for the ol' Murray Hill had been some three months earlier] and everything Amtrak now ran out of Penn Station [to which I had to now walk in order to catch a train to Boston leaving NYC some two hours later than the one I had originally wanted to take!]), I did manage to walk through Boston Common, catch my first glimpse- in person- of the gold-domed Massachusetts State House, look down upon Faneuil Hall and up at the Old State House and even take a peek down into the Park Street subway station in order to see what appeared, to me, to be "busses on rails" (the PCC cars of the 'Green Line' trolley, as it turned out) before having to catch the Amtrak out of South Station in order to be back in my Jersey hometown by no later than Midnight...
but I had- FINALLY!- set foot, at least once in my life, in Boston itself! And, by this time, I already knew I wanted to go to college in Boston: indeed, the joy I felt when Boston University accepted my application to it during my Senior year in high school was- and yet remains- quite indescribable.
Because of my family connections to Massachusetts, I already knew- by the time I matriculated at B.U. after Labor Day weekend of 1974- what Patriots Day was (and, being a long-time History buff [going well back into my childhood], I well knew why it was celebrated on and then [after ye olde Commonwealth had decided to emulate the Federal Monday Holiday Act of a then-few years back] close to April 19th each year), even though I was- of course- never able to benefit from a day off school because of it back home [;-)] and I also already knew that Patriots Day also meant something called the Boston Marathon (along with a Boston Red Sox home game at Fenway Park with first pitch shortly after 11 in the morning!)... but I did not come to understand just how closely interconnected Patriots Day and the Marathon (and, for that matter, that 'Sawx' game) were in and around that city until I was first able to experience it all firsthand:
Friday April 18, 1975 into Saturday the 19th happened to be the 200th Anniversary of the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (and, of course, let us not at all forget Messrs. Dawes and Prescott-- not to mention all the many other riders, names largely unremembered or even unknown, who scattered about in all directions from Boston and vicinity that same night into morning in order to spread the word that British Regulars were on the march!) and, at dawn, the Battles of Lexington and Concord which began the shooting portion of the American Revolution/War for American Independence (which had, in fact, already been well underway in the political realm once the General Court [the legislative assembly] of the then-still British Royal Province of Massachusetts Bay had declared itself, in the Fall of 1774, to be the 'Provincial Congress' [thus, a de facto "provisional government"- as we would say today- in contraposition to the de jure Royal Government of General Gage and Thomas Hutchinson in Boston]: this in response to the 'Regulating'/"Intolerable" [depending on one's point of view at the time] Acts concomitant with the closing of the Port of Boston the previous Spring-- in turn, the British Parliament's reaction to the 'Boston Tea Party' of December 1773)...
in the context of a mid-20th Century United States of America long since independent (and, in the interim, become Superpower), this very evening into morning during my Freshman year at Boston U. would, in effect, be something of a "kickoff" to the Nation's Bicentennial to be celebrated the following year.
Thus, come that Friday evening, I went with a couple dorm-mates of mine to the North End in order to see President Gerald Ford (on his way to a ceremony in Old North Church) ride by in the presidential limousine and then managed to find four other dorm-mates foolish enough to accompany me on a 'Midnight Walk' to Lexington and Concord (though we didn't precisely follow Paul Revere's route of two centuries earlier: we simply availed ourselves of the more modern convenience called the Harvard Bridge [all 364.4 smoots and 1 ear of it ;-)] across the River Charles and then followed Mass. Av all the way to Lexington and then beyond)... no, I did not walk back to B.U. thereafter!: instead, I would take my first-ever ride on the Boston & Maine from Concord into Boston's North Station and then the 'Green Line' "T" back into what was now "my" neighborhood of Back Bay (however transiently so).
Monday April 21st that same long weekend was to be my first Patriots Day in Boston, as well as my first direct connection to the Boston Marathon: yet two other of my dorm-mates were running it (unofficially [that is: without registering as a participant in the race- thus, without wearing an authorized number], which one could still do at the time [so long as one did not cross the starting line before all official runners had crossed it first])-- a third dorm-mate drove them (with me in tow) to the start of the race at the green in Hopkinton and, thus, I got (for the only time in my life so far) to witness the start of the race.
Then, the dorm-mate with wheels would drive like mad (using his local knowledge of back roads and the best way to utilize Route 9) so that we could see our dorm's two marathoners pass us by (and, thereby, cheer them on) in places with names like Natick, Wellesley and Newton Centre before making sure we got back to Boston in time to see them arrive at the Finish Line (back then, directly in front of the Prudential Center) at 4 hours-plus into the race.
The Marathon thereafter- and as a result of my first direct connection to/witnessing it in '75- became a part of me no less than any other aspect of Boston I might still carry within me, to this very day, from my college days: though I myself never became a marathoner, I would- over the next three years- make sure to place myself somewhere along the course of the race just west of Kenmore Square so as to be able to cheer on the elite runners (I saw the great Bill Rodgers lead at least two Boston Marathons he would win) before making my own way through the (very!) crowded sidewalks enroute so as to get to- or, at least, near- the Finish Line in order to, thereafter, cheer on those I might know personally from B.U. who happened to also be running the race (whether officially or unofficially) much more slowly than Bill Rodgers himself could.
In that few hours that morning into afternoon, I had already well learned- as well as experienced- all that Patriots Day, the Marathon, that early Red Sox game at Fenway, etc. implied beyond the simple notion of athletic contests purposely scheduled for a local holiday commemorating that 'Shot Heard Round the World' itself fired besides Ralph Waldo Emerson's "rude bridge that arched the flood": it marked the end of a New England winter-- Spring was truly in the air (or, if not [that is: even if the mid-April air yet maintained at least a hint of winter's dying chill], at the very least the promise that Spring was just right around the corner) and the festive atmosphere that the day itself- and its associated athletic contests- produced in and around Boston was largely in response to this most happy notion.
The last Boston Marathon I witnessed in person was that of 1978, during my Senior year at Boston U. (and please allow here a personal note [which the reader of this piece will, likely, not at all understand], if I might: "What's a Casciato? What's it to you?"), for- although I have certainly been back in Boston many, many times since- I have not been able to at all get up there during Patriots Day weekend in all these years and decades since. But, whenever practicable, I have made sure to follow the race 'live'- that is, if I could:
when I still lived in Queens throughout the 1980s, I could- during the day- pull in WBZ's ground wave (thanks largely to Long Island Sound and the high conductivity of its salt water) and listen to Gary LaPierre's anchor that radio station's "wire to wire" coverage of the Marathon and, once I was back in North Jersey (and, in addition, had Cable) come the early 1990s, I would- often as not- watch the entire race 'live' on television. In each case (whether listening on the radio or watching on TV), I was merely hearkening back to those days before I had ever managed to first set foot in Boston and could, thereby, only feel a connection to that city via those particular media... through the annual tradition that was the Boston Marathon, I had truly come "full circle"!
Thus, the horrific events of this past Monday hit me quite hard, well beyond the feelings I would otherwise have had, as an American, about them in any event. Indeed, something that was still very much a rather important part of my own experience- my personal "history", as it were- has been seriously damaged by those twin bombings. In addition, it could easily be seen that the flags of so many nations that had been placed in front of those who were so savagely cut down in the first explosion on Monday were not "to April's breeze unfurled" so much as they reflected the artificial 'breeze' so created by such a singularly evil act.
I confess that, upon first learning of these bombings, I immediately thought of the Boston Marathon of 20 years before: it was Monday April 19, 1993 and- while that race was still being run- an insert into the lower right corner of the TV screen was showing what was happening, simultaneously, at the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco, Texas. This, in turn, led to my thinking about the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City two years to the day thereafter and then, right after that, 9/11 (for I had actually walked, on the morning after September 11, 2001, along the very sidewalk on which these Boston Marathon Bombings would be perpetrated a dozen and a half years later).
None of those fleeting thoughts of mine, of course, mean anything as to the actual identity of the person or persons responsible for these bombings or their so sick motivation, whatever it might turn out to be... but, though fleeting, those thoughts were, indeed, there as my mind processes the news coming from the TV this past Monday.
Beyond these, however, is my wondering whether or not Patriots Day- and its concomitant Marathon- can ever again be what it once was or, for that matter, what it once seemed to be in fallible human memory.
Yes, I freely admit to (now that I am past my mid-50s) at least occasionally lapsing into what I tend to call "Old Man Talk": about how the skies were bluer, the girls were prettier, even the birds sang much more sweetly- once upon a time, during those ever ill-defined 'Good Old Days'; in my own retrospect, the Patriots Days of my college years seem warmer and sunnier, in any event, than they could possibly be of late, let alone that which they might actually have even been (for I can now go onto the Internet and, rather easily, look up just what the weather- temperature and sky conditions- actually were in Boston during any of those years and I will surely find at least some of my own memories wanting in that regard).
Thus, it might be far better for me to ask that what Patriots Day has- in recent years- been to those living today- especially those younger (indeed, much younger) than myself- may, somehow, continue to be so in future: I certainly hope and pray that it will be...
yet now, as I type this less than a week after what Patriots Day and its Marathon always once was was itself so badly shattered by these bombings, I (sad as it might be to now say) still am left to wonder whether it can ever be so again.