Remembering This Horrific Event, Five Years Later
Patriot's Day, A Memoir
The parrot tulips popped open their buds open that morning. Their riot of color mocked the clouds overhead, gathering together in damp gray wetness. It was mid-April in the late eighties. At that time I lived in Newton Centre with my ten-year-old son Grischa, struggling with me to get out of the house so he could join his circle of friends gathering for the annual Boston marathon, and my four-year old son, who shrunk behind me, already anticipating, with trepidation, the possible pops and snaps the gathering marathon crowd might produce.
My neighbor, Karen, opened my back door and her voice resounded through our Tudor house, “I have enough lemonade for your boys, and for Jenny. Just pack some food. Could you throw in a sandwich for my daughter? She likes the way you make chicken salad with the crunch of water chestnuts.”
Each year I watched the race’s start in Hopkinton. I marveled at how long it took to clear all the runners out of the tiny town where this race began. The population there swelled by thousands as many ordinary people rose to the challenge of a 26 mile run. Fifteen minutes after the front-runners skipped past the starting line, people armed with a sweat rag and a bottle of water continued to stream out onto the pavement to begin this test of their own endurance.
Patriot’s Day became my favorite day of the year, the ten years we lived in Massachusetts. Boston took its role in the march toward independence from Britain very seriously. Where would the United States be without Paul Revere’s ride out to Lexington and Concord, the showdown on the North Bridge, and the ensuing battles on the road back towards the ammunition Boston’s Minutemen, nameless heroes fought to protect? Boson area schools taught Longfellow’s poem seriously, and Patriot’s Day, falling on the Monday closest to April 14 when Revers made his famous ride became a holiday. Schools took that entire week off to mark its importance.
Patriot’s Day began with reenactments of, first Revere’s ride, and then the battles in Concord, then Lexington. These, historically completed by ten a.m., began Patriot’s Day. Then at ten the action turned to Hopkinton, a small town fortunately located 26.2 miles west of Copley Square. The Boston Marathon kicked off with a great deal of pomp, conveniently televised. Runners sped toward the center of Back Bay, and all eyes fell on their odyssey, again, thanks to television. Marathon action died down conveniently be 2 p.m. when the Boston Red Socks began their game in Fenway Park, a short walk from Copley Square.
Our first year in Boston, when we lived in Watertown and Grischa was four, we took in several of the reenactments just a few miles up the road. Grischa was then at the stage when any stick could become a gun, and he loved the action in Lexington, then Arlington. The men involved, each dressed in full costume, took on the roles of each of the participants in that first battle, and like a choreographed ballet, shot at the costumed British, and the appropriate players dropped dead at the right spot.
Then we moved to Newton Center, and found ourselves three blocks from the marathon route. Beacon Street, winding from Hopkinton, was marked year round with the miles runners had completed.
All our neighbors gathered down the street for the Marathon. We adults lugged beach chairs down the hill to watch the athletes dash by. Children carried empty water jugs and hundreds of small paper cups for the thirsty runners. This seemed to me to be a time and place where we did not have to wear red, white and blue to prove how fortunate we felt to be Americans. The day’s history, and how it had played out on the land under our very feet, spoke for itself.
We were at mile 22, just past the dreaded Heart Break Hill. This infamous mile-long stretch of the route came after runners had completed over first twenty miles of the course, and had to dig deep to find the stamina to get up the incline. Many frontrunners saw the race get beyond them on this hill. Others, who ran just to say they had done the 26 miles, had to stop here. It was just too much. The runners who would flow past us had just conquered that monster, for this year, and frequently sipped water our children handed out in celebration.
As we approached the area, we could see Beacon Street had been closed down. Crowds of people hummed with anticipation. Newsmen with their trucks equipped with all kinds of broadcast machinery dotted the street. Small children wove through the feet of adults as they played chase games, trying to allay their boredom. Some people shared facts of the race so far. Bill Rodgers was in the lead as they had scrambled past Wellesley College. We all speculated about whether this local guy, who won so many Boston Marathons would win again this win again this year. Joan Benoit, another local favorite, seems to be holding off her female competitors on the women’s side.
As we heard from news sources the runners were beginning to clamber up Heartbreak Hill, eager children skipped out onto the pavement to see if they could catch a glimpse of the frontrunners. My older son lined up with his friends around a watering station. They would compete to see who served a gulp of water to which front-runner, remembering the numbers pinned to their shirts, so they could see if their drinker placed in the first three or four, when they heard results later.
The year before Grischa had his cup of water knocked out of his hand by a racer from Australia who finished in the top five. He had felt so disappointed. This year he had to hold that cup tighter.
Doron wanted to serve water, too, but his older brother mockingly stated, you are just too small. Nobody will want your water.
Then we heard the sirens. The camera car with its men, their lenses focussed on the leader, slid into view. The racers were coming! My heart thumped proudly.
Almost as quickly as they arrived the front-leaders scampered past us. That much closer to Copley Square, they seemed to run a bit quicker. Several minutes later another car pulled into view. All of us took up the rhythmic chant, “Joanie, Joanie.” The crowd favorite led the women.
Runners flowed past us, and eventually wheel chairs joined the mix of competitors. Grischa and his friends had long since lost interest in the race.
Now it was time for Doron. He grabbed a cup of water, and stumbled out onto the pavement. The first two cups of water he dropped before he could even proffer them up to a thirsty competitor. Then a man in blue shorts, sweat coursing down his face, grabbed Doron’s cup, and thanked Doron as he rested a moment before gamely limping on. Doron’s eyes shone as bright as the sun that pushed away the dark gray clouds.
We always stayed until the last few runners trickled by, offering each a cheer, and a cup of water, not wanting this day to end. We recognized some runners who ran every year. One favorite was a middle-aged man who pushed his son, a young man with cerebral palsy, in a wheelchair. We looked for him about an hour after the frontrunners had passed. It was these runners, ordinary people who wanted to see how it felt to run 26 miles in one day that we parents related to. As we watched these people struggle by, we cheered them on, hoping that our encouragement would help them over the final few miles of the race. It felt like the race belonged to these common people, so similar to the patriots who became Minutemen over 200 years before. Names and status were forgotten as they fulfilled a common purpose.
About three or four hours after the race began, well over two hours after the front-runners had completed the course, we trudged back up our own slope, back to watch the marathon results on the television. As I passed my tulips, I thanked them for their burst of smiley color.
Twenty-five years, or so, have passed since those idyllic, innocent days when my children were young. This year, 2013, this race was sullied by two young brothers, their gap in ages so similar to my own sons, detonated two bombs near the finish line of this marathon. I believe their whole act to be incredibly horrific. For me, the fact they chose to detonate these bombs as the common men were about to celebrate their own victories, their own conquering of 26 miles, including a hill that came at an inopportune place within the race, makes this act even more evil than had they tried to kill and maim the winners of the Boston Marathon. And I muse, did tulip poppies smile this year, on Tuesday?
"With all the beauty surrounding me here above the Verde Valley, how could I not create more beauty?"