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Sunday, April 13, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Boston: Tales from Freedom's Trail

Northwest Weekend editor

BOSTON — Boston? In February? What was I thinking?

"Oh, brother," I muttered, sitting at my Seattle computer two days before a Feb. 20 flight. "Record 24-hour snowfall at Boston," announced the National Weather Service on the Web: 27.5 inches — "beating the previous record held by the April Fools Day Blizzard of 1997." (They have blizzards in April?)

The Boston Globe online reported snow-whipping winds. Hundreds of flights canceled.

"Oh, dear," I whispered. My colleagues snickered. (It was unbecoming.)

When I'd seen a cheap flight and snagged tickets, my Seattle naiveté momentarily let me forget it was, well, winter in the rest of the country. My daughter, 11, had a week off school, and she'd just studied Colonial America. What a great town to visit together.

Surprise: We dodged the blizzard. It was a wonderful trip, made Norman Rockwell-scenic by the mantle of white.

If you like American history but get riled by summer crowds, go see Boston before the tourists arrive with the tree leaves. Go now and you might even still get snow. Like the couple inches they had just last Monday.

On the Freedom Trail

Four days after the February storm, my daughter and I crunched through sparkling, shin-deep snow in a Boston churchyard under a cloudless blue sky.

In 15 minutes of tromping around the Granary Burying Ground outside the 194-year-old Park Street Church, we found tombstones for Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Paul Revere and the victims of the Boston Massacre.

This was a stop along the Freedom Trail, a self-guided tour of historic sites marked by a line of red paint or bricks along Boston's sidewalks — already cleared of snow, thanks to Yankee efficiency. All those cold stones quickly put us in the mood to consider history and our place in it.

Some of the leaning slate markers, which dated as far back as the 1600s, told sobering tales.

My daughter peered to read elaborate, old-style script on a gravestone for Polly Burk Mackay "who died May 27, 1783, in the 4th year of her age."

"Goodness, the poor little girl lived only during the Revolutionary War and she died just as it was over!" said my daughter, indignant at a life so limited.

The fashion of the day was to decorate gravestones with grisly images of winged skulls, reflecting the Puritan consciousness that life was short and fleeting. An inscription on the marker of Capt. John Decoster, who died Jan. 28, 1773, at age 26, eerily drove home the point:

Stop here my friend and cast an eye

As you are now so once was I.

As I am now so you must be —

Prepare for death and follow me.

A laugh a minute, those Puritans.

'Beacon Bump'

Snow added a Dickens-y look as we wandered Beacon Hill, once home to John Hancock, one of Boston's wealthiest early businessmen, he of the parchment-pigging signature on the Declaration of Independence.

The city's highest hill was named for a rustic alarm signal first placed there in 1634: a tall pole topped by an iron skillet filled with tree pitch. The pitch was to be set ablaze as a call for help from the nearby countryside should the settlement come under attack. Nowadays, the only beacon here is the Massachusetts statehouse's gold dome, visible for miles on our sunny day. It's the building that Oliver Wendell Holmes once called "the hub of the solar system."

Hardly had we climbed a few steps up from Boston Common, the Olmsted-designed park where bundled-up skaters looped around the frozen Frog Pond, than we found ourselves on a downward slope again. This was Beacon Hill, of which we'd heard so much?

"I'm sorry," my Seattle-conditioned daughter said with scorn. "This is not a hill."

Renaming it "Beacon Bump," we wandered residential lanes no wider than a Seattle alley, beneath gas-burning street lamps. Along Joy Street, where snow still buried parked cars to their roofs, the sidewalk fronted directly on the row houses' old wooden doors, their centuries worth of paint mapped with fine cracks like a treasured Rembrandt.

Boston has its tall, modern office buildings, but all over town were these reminders — such as the old Blackstone Block's Green Dragon Tavern, as brimming over with character as any English pub — that there's much more of London here than of L.A.

Doing the right thing

Before we left Seattle, my Massachusetts-born father-in-law had reminisced about eating fish cakes and baked beans at a Boston dining legend called Durgin-Park.

After a stop at Old Corner Book Store, once home of Ticknor and Fields, publisher to Emerson, Longfellow and Hawthorne, followed by a tour of Old South Meeting Hall, the simple Puritan church from whose nosebleed-high pulpit Sam Adams roused his tea-dumping Sons of Liberty, we climbed creaking wooden stairs from Quincy Market to the second-floor dining room of Durgin-Park (pithy motto: "Established Before You Were Born").

A banner out front declared it home to "Yankee Cooking." It's also a proud bastion of no-nonsense service, evidenced as our bespectacled waiter, Felix — who looked like a Marx Brother in a long apron — made like a Red Sox pitcher and flung unfolded linen napkins onto the long table where we sat.

Boston families eating Boston food packed the place. The sound of clinking dishes and hollered lunch orders mixed with a steamy atmosphere of frying fish and boiling potatoes.

I ordered a Sam Adams, the local beer, earning a sidelong glance of respect as Felix wielded his pencil stub. "Draft or bottle?" he asked in clipped syllables.

"Draft," I replied without thought. He gave an approving nod. It was somehow the right answer in this town where there is a right way and a wrong way of doing most everything.

And to eat? What else: fish cakes.

Felix didn't miss a beat. "Then ya have to get baked beans and mash. No choice." (Mashed potatoes, he meant.)

I looked up quickly. "Just kidding," he said with a half grin.

But as I ordered cooked carrots on the side, my rushed explanation that I "wasn't really a bean eater" didn't dispel the disapproval that hung in the air as thickly as the smell of cod.

(I only recognized the depth of my blunder weeks later when I saw Durgin-Park chef Tommy Ryan quoted as calling it "inconceivable" to eat his fish cakes without baked beans: "The sweetness of the beans is a nice complement to the fish cakes, which we make good and salty.")

The hockey pucks of fried fish were good (and salty). But before I finished, I had a crisis of conscience. I confided to Felix, "I can't come to Boston and not try the baked beans."

A man of renewed faith doesn't dawdle; a bowl of beans in a cloud of molasses sweetness materialized at my elbow faster than Siegfried could levitate Roy.

When Felix cleared our dishes, I told him, "Only my mother-in-law baked better beans. And she was from Massachusetts."

All the sites to see

Some bits of Boston history are better preserved than others. Not-so-well saved is the site of the Boston Massacre, the 1770 melee in which British soldiers fired into a crowd that was throwing snowballs and calling rude names at the end of a winter of discontent. We dodged Dodges and parried with Plymouths to cross the National Historic Traffic Island that marks the spot.

Continuing on the Freedom Trail, we poked noses into the lovely Faneuil Hall, circa 1742, then passed the hideous concrete monolith that is Boston City Hall, circa 1968 ("brutalist modern," an architecture Web site classifies it; what was Boston thinking?).

Weaving through the vegetable stalls of the Haymarket, we navigated a pedestrian labyrinth through the Big Dig freeway project and finally emerged in the heart of old Boston: the North End. This was the original town. Now it's the Italian section. A spaghetti tangle of streets is crowded with ristoranti and deli shops offering crusty bread and giant olives. It's as close to Italy as you can get on this side of the Atlantic, a colleague had clued me.

It's also where to find Paul Revere's house, the city's oldest standing building.

Built in 1680 and owned by Revere from 1770 to 1800, the simple house gave us a good idea of what life was like back then. A cavernous fireplace fronted tiny ovens where they baked apple pie and eel pie (appetites do change). We saw an elegantly simple three-legged creamer and other items from Revere's silver shop.

Something we didn't know before: Revere's father was Apollos Rivoire, a Huguenot, one of the French Protestants who came to America seeking religious freedom. His son was actually a "junior," with an Anglicized version of the same name.

"Apollos Rivoire might have chosen to change the family name because there was a lot of bias against Catholics in Boston then, and with a French name it was assumed you were Catholic," docent Edward Gault told us.

We also learned Paul Revere had 16 children. Apparently he wasn't always out riding around the countryside at night.

Countering the cold

The winter light was waning by the time we wandered in and out of the perfectly preserved Old North Church, where lanterns hung in the steeple the night Revere made his famous ride to alert cohorts that British troops were on the move against the Yankee rebels.

We ended our walk in another ancient cemetery, Copp's Hill Burial Ground, as the sky dimmed. Deserted, it was a bleak place of black gravestones in deep white snow. Among those buried there: Cotton Mather, the Puritan minister whose treatise on witchcraft had fueled the witch-hunt hysteria in nearby Salem. Beyond his family tomb near the bottom of the hill, ice floes from the Charles River turned the inner harbor to slurry. No human warmth to thaw it.

We shivered, down deep.

"Shall we go get some really good Italian food?" I asked my daughter. From a guidebook, she had chosen our nearby dinner destination, Antico Forno, a cafe noted for its wood-fired oven blazing behind the counter.

"Sounds good!" she said, so we went and gorged ourselves on Neapolitan pizza and smoky wood-baked lasagna, which Papa washed down with a nice pinot grigio.

On a winter's eve in old Boston, it was the right thing to do. Hey, life is short. Remember Capt. Decoster.

Brian J. Cantwell: 206-748-5724 or bcantwell@seattletimes.com

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