Finding America in Boston

Posted July 12, 2009, at 7:49 p.m.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve watched the Boston Pops’ Fourth of July concert and fireworks on television. Last weekend, I had the opportunity to see both in person.

On our way to Massachusetts, I quipped on Twitter that vacations with children only seem like a good idea in theory. Imagine the typical distress calls from the back seat of the family car: “He touched me,” “He’s on my side,” “I just peed.”

Truly, there is nothing that compares to seeing history come alive for your child. It’s part of the job description that parents endure road trips solely to give their children this experience. Indeed, my sons’ eyes grew wide when we saw the Boston skyline appear.

“Who will be the first one to see Fenway Park?” Dustin said, smiling into the rear-view mirror. I knew he hoped it would be him.

But the boys were an angry mob of three when the same city skyline disappeared behind us. I had made our hotel reservations online and didn’t know we’d be staying several miles outside of the city. Even so, our (long) jaunt to the nearest train station on Saturday was exciting, mostly because we were going to see the Red Sox.

Along the way, we heard a reading of the Declaration of Independence and saw the Freedom Trail. By dinnertime, we were content from a day spent exploring. Our slightly sunburned noses were a small souvenir of the dozens of miles we must have walked.

Perhaps we should have stopped while we were ahead.

Later that evening, we tempted the gods of temper tantrums to take the boys to the Esplanade, where the Pops concert, featuring Neil Diamond, would not begin until 8:30 p.m. and the fireworks at 10:30.

After finding a place among 500,000 other people to spread out our towel and wait, I rocked the boys in my lap and hummed Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” to them. Nearer to show time, the crowd grew larger. Many of the people who found spots beside and behind us were drunk, which was fine, but when their behavior became obnoxious and every other word was punctuated with a profanity, Dustin and I looked at each other and grimaced. A guy with his hat turned backward threatened to beat up the girl in front of us. Our boys didn’t seem to notice. They were still beaming from a day at the ballpark. Nothing could take away from their experience.

Yet, I couldn’t help feeling sad when people to my right mocked patriotic songs by singing them like a child setting potty-humor jokes to the tune of nursery rhymes. This doesn’t happen in military settings. “God Bless America” is much more than a song to service members and their families. I cringed when someone sang “land where my fathers died” while stifling a laugh. Perhaps they don’t actually know someone who has died for this land.

Walking away from the Esplanade, I sadly reconsidered my vision of Fourth of July in America. Maybe it has changed, I thought. Maybe no one cares about parades and Yankee Doodle Dandy. Maybe the holiday has gone the way of so many others, becoming only a reason to get off work and drink.

We spent 45 minutes hailing a cab, but they were already filled with the 500,000 other people trying to get home. It was past midnight and the boys were falling asleep standing up, so we walked into The Lenox, a hotel so grand my 8-year-old son said, “I get the feeling this isn’t a place for kids.” In the middle of the foyer with golden chandeliers, the five of us must have looked like hurricane refugees (a look we know well after 10 years in Florida). Dustin asked a man who ended up being the general manager if he could help us find a cab. The man tried himself with no luck. Then he asked another manager to drive us to our hotel — on the other side of the city, remember — in the general manager’s personal car. We were speechless with gratitude for the unexpected generosity.

The next morning, the boys couldn’t stop talking about, in this order, the baseball game, “the nice man who gave us a ride” and the fireworks. The drunken crowd and disrespectful singing didn’t even make the list. I was glad our night had not ended with a brawl between the backward-hat man and woman at the Esplanade, but with a stranger offering help and hospitality to a family who had nothing but sincere thanks to give in return.

I had looked for our country in 500,000 people waiting for a fireworks display. I found it right where it has always been: among the hardworking and giving people of America.

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. Her new book, “I’m Just Saying …,” is available wherever books are sold. She may be reached at sarah@sarahsmiley.com.

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