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 Bill Bernbeck
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Walkabout Journal

 Let Freedom Ring

It was the 4th of July in Boston, Massachusetts. Bernie and I have looked forward to experiencing the celebration of America’s Independence Day in this place where it all started. We would attend the Boston Pops Concert and Fireworks Spectacular.

At 10:30AM we used our new Charlie Cards to board an inbound subway train at the Alewife T-station. A smooth ride later, we disembarked at Charles Street and were on our way along the Esplanade to the Hatch Memorial Bandstand and oval. It was easy enough to find if you followed the people carrying lawn chairs, coolers, umbrellas, and other picnic paraphernalia. The show would start sometime after 8PM that evening, but it was obvious that many people would be in place well ahead of that.

The concert is free to the public, first come first served. The number of people allowed in the oval is limited. We were probably among the last to be wrist banded for entry, and we were there before noon. The wristbands allowed us to leave and re-enter throughout the day. Liquor is prohibited in the park and oval, but revelers still flocked in anyway. All bags and containers had to pass a security inspection before entering.

We were definitely latecomers. Tents and canopies of all shapes and colors were set up all over the oval. We heard that people actually camped overnight to get prime spots for the concert. The crowd spilled out of the oval and spread along the riverbanks. Sound towers were set up along the Esplanade as well as in other parts of downtown Boston and Cambridge. The concert would be simulcast to reach as large an audience as possible. The best views of the fireworks would be right along the river.

The day was clear, sunny, and warm. A refreshing breeze came off the Charles and perfectly moderated the temperature. We had a lot of rain during the past week, but today would be perfect.

With our wristbands secured, we left the Esplanade and drifted into downtown Boston. We found a nice place to enjoy lunch while the televisions broadcast a Red Sox game from Fenway Park. Then we strolled along the Commons and Public Gardens. I managed to grab a nap under a shade tree as I watched swan boats glide along the lagoon. We strolled along Commonwealth Ave, found our way to Copley Square, and I enjoyed some sort of coffee drink that had a name like mochacapafrappalattecino. Whatever the name, it was cool and refreshing. Bernie had a coffee, but it was gros ventre (I may have misinterpreted that as well.  I think it meant the size of the cup). We made our way back to the oval around 6PM.

If I thought it was crowded before, I had to recalibrate when I saw how much denser the crowd had become.  People and families were frolicking about, waiting the start of the festivities as recorded music broadcast from the sound towers. The Esplanade is three miles long. Looking in both directions, I saw no open areas along the riverbank. The TV announcers estimated the crowd to number a half million. From my microscopic view, I agreed.

 We went back into the oval and found a spot against the back fence. A nice young couple graciously relinquished part of their blanket space so we could fit in next to them. We were about a hundred yards from the band shell, almost front row seating when you consider the scale. The figures on stage looked tiny, smaller than ants. The huge monitor screens on either side of the shell would be our visual reference for whatever was happening on stage. Even those screens looked small.

We munched on a dinner of popped kettle corn and washed it down with a Cuban mojito (a lime rickey with mint). Things got under way sometime after 8PM.

It started appropriately enough with the Star Spangled Banner played by the US Army Herald Trumpets. Trumpet solos stir the spirit, and when presented by a platoon of accomplished musicians the music moves to new heights. The final notes had barely settled as a flyover of F-15 Eagles coursed diagonally overhead and headed up the Charles.

Craig Ferguson MC'd the show, and introduced Neil Diamond as the featured artist along with the Boston Pops orchestra. It has become customary for the Sox fans to sing along with Diamond’s "Sweet Caroline" during the 8th inning of a home game. As he sang the chorus, 

"Sweet Caroline,
Good times never been so good",

a group somewhere in the crowd behind us started chanting "so good...so good...so good" during the interlude. On subsequent choruses, more people would join in on the chant. It finally worked up to a point where everyone was on their feet, chanting and waving and screaming “so good…so good…so good”. Diamond took the cue and kept repeating the chorus. The crowd fervor never diminished. I have no idea how that song works into a baseball game, but what would you expect from a BoSox bystander anyway?

The Pops Orchestra accompanied a 10-year old girl, Oladunni Oladipo, as she beautifully sang the Pledge of Allegiance. That was followed by the 1812 Overture, complete with a real barrage of 105mm artillery from the nearby riverbank. The program moved into a sing-along of patriotic songs - Yankee Doodle, Grand Old Flag, America the Beautiful, Yankee Doodle Dandy, etc. The music finale was Sousa's Stars & Stripes Forever.

Then the fireworks gala started, and went on…and on...and on.  Boom! Ba-boom! Ba-boom-boom-boom! It seemed to go on forever. The concussions were enough to re-pace your heart. You could probably read a newspaper by the light of some bursts.

The show was over by about 10:30PM. We then joined the mass flow of people along Beacon St. toward Charles to get to the train. I was again flabbergasted by the size of that river of people. The streets in the Back Bay district were open only to pedestrian traffic. Charles was open to vehicles, but good luck at getting a car through that mass of humanity. Half a million was now looking to be a very low estimate.

As we flowed along Beacon, I watched a tributary crowd emerge from Berkeley. Leading the flow, a group of young men was merrily singing The Wild Rover in dissonant unison:

I've been a wild rover for many a year,
And I've spent all me money on whiskey and beer,
But now I'm returning with gold in great store,
And I never will play the wild rover no more.
Aye it's no, nay, never (clap clap clap clap)
No, nay, never, no more,
Will I playyyy the wild rover,
No neverrrr, no more

The grammar may have been questionable, but they did clap in unison.

We finally got on an outbound train, jammed into the nearest available car with the rest of the crowd. We passed by several more T-stops in Cambridge, platforms jammed with people waiting for a train. I pitied the poor souls who tried to get off the train at those stops. That half-million estimate was now looking ridiculously low. Did they include the hoards of people on the opposite bank of the Charles? I don’t think so.

The crowd that day was the most culturally diverse assembly I have ever seen, all in a homogeneous display of celebration. I noticed a father with his young son perched on his shoulders, both wearing foam statue of liberty crowns, the boy waving a small American flag. I watched a tiny woman in a sari mouth the words to Yankee Doodle Dandy; a Rasta man, dreadlocks swaying and eyes closed, savoring the smooth rhythm of America the Beautiful; a woman in a Moslem headscarf wearing a Red Sox jersey; a black man with tear-glazed eyes during God Bless America. There they were, interweaved together, “every heart beating true under red, white, and blue”.

For me, the memorable event of the day was Neil Diamond performing his “America”. The enthusiasm of the people amplified the feeling. Everyone was on their feet as those poetic lyrics rang out…

We've been traveling far
Without a home
But not without a star.

Only want to be free
We huddle close
Hang on to a dream.

On the boats and on the planes
They're coming to America
Never looking back again
They're coming to America

 Home, don't it seem so far away
Oh, we're traveling light today
In the eye of the storm.
Home, to a new and a shiny place
Make our bed, and we'll say our grace
Freedom's light burning warm.

 Everywhere around the world
They're coming to America
Every time that flag is unfurled
They're coming to America

Got a dream to take them there
They're coming to America
Got a dream they've come to share
They're coming to America

I try to avoid making political statements. However, this day’s experience inspired me to wish that we all would somehow witness something of the America celebrating that day. America is nobody’s exclusive cultural playground. Before we trumpet our personal ideologies, before we let ourselves speak, or believe, the tabloidal slanders so prevalent today, let’s remember that we are all in this together. It may not be a new idea, but it is an inspiring thought, a simple principle worth remembering.

It was the 4th of July in Boston, and freedom rang loud and clear.

Bill Bernbeck
July 2009

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