From the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli

Before you get to wondering, I did not go to Mexico or Libya. I went to Boston. I spent time on the vessel that fought in the Barbary Coast war and was on standby for the Mexican war – both of which are referenced in the famous US Marines hymn. That’s right, I was aboard one of the first ships of the US Navy: Old Ironsides, a.k.a. the USS Constitution. She is the oldest commissioned vessel afloat in the world.

Before this visit, I’d only to been in Boston for an hour at most. I’d always been met by someone and then driven somewhere else, like Marblehead or New Hampshire. This time I got to stay in town and see some of the history of the city, and of the United States. I saw a few sights, but the first place I went was the Naval shipyard at Charlestown. The USS Constitution, aside from being historically important, is also a very beautiful vessel in first class condition. She’s a tall warship with big sails, with a slightly defiant cast to her proud design. If you can’t already tell, I love boats.

The USS Constitution was one of the first six ships commissioned by the newly formed US Navy, launched in 1797. This traditional sailing gunship went all over the world, including the shores of Tripoli, to defend US shipping interests. She got into all kinds of trouble but came out strong, as seen during the war of 1812 when she earned the nickname of “Old Ironsides”. The enemy on the French ship Guerriere was firing at her, and the cannonballs seemed to bounce off her strong hull. The sailors said with pride that her sides seemed to be made of cast iron, and the name stuck. The ship went through hard times over the years, and the navy eventually changed over to steam and later diesel and nuclear powered vessels. The public’s sentimental attachment for this heroic vessel is probably all that saved her from being scrapped as were the other five ships commissioned with her. When she was originally built, an average ship’s working life was only 10-15 years, after all. By the early 1900s, she was still in one piece, but had big storage buildings constructed on her decks, hiding her masts, and she’d fallen into general disrepair. Finally, after much bandying about by the US government, private investors and charitable organizations, the Elks Lodge appealed to the people through films at public schools and through newspaper advertisements and painting sales in an effort to raise the funds necessary for repair. The school children of America and their families sent in enough pennies and nickels from all over the United States to fund over half the restoration of the Constitution. Technically, they sent enough for the initial estimate of repairs, but as the work went on, it took more money – sort of like my house. The US government decided to chip in the difference. It took a few years and a lot of ingenuity, but the ship was returned to her former glory and then in 1931 towed to ports all over the US so that the people could see what their money had done. She did not sail under her own power again until her 200th anniversary in 1997. But just last month (!) during the bicentennial observances of the War of 1812, for the second time in 131 years, she sailed through the Boston Harbor on 19 August 2012, the anniversary of her defeat of the Guerriere. She was docked when I was there, but what a privilege to tour such a handsome part of our country’s history.

Near the Constitution was another ship, a Navy destroyer named the USS Cassin Young, in dry dock. It was available for tour as well, and it was interesting to see all the guns, the torpedoes, the tiny medical station and the radio rooms. My grandfather served on a big carrier in World War II. His ship was much larger, but I imagine his radio room wasn’t much bigger than this one. Space is always at a premium in the Navy, even on a floating airport. Visiting the destroyer was totally different than the Constitution, but I liked it that the prow of this ship was also rather wicked looking.

From there, I went down a little of the Freedom walk of Boston. It’s a marked brick path that takes you through the heart of old Boston past important historical sights. All you have to do to take the tour is follow the double band of red bricks through town. Conveniently, it starts (or ends) at the Naval yard. On the way out of the shipyard, I saw a few grand old houses with widow’s walks. A widow’s walk is a square platform on top of the roof, with railings, where ladies used to walk and watch for their husband’s ships to come in. Now, the English part of my family was in the United States when we were still a colony. My grandmother tells me they came over in 1646. Our ancestor served as a high ranking officer in the revolutionary war, and as a prosperous man, his home had a widow’s walk. During the time when the English were heavily taxing tea, he informed his wife that under no circumstances would there ever be tea served under his roof. In those days, tea was such a luxury that ladies made the tea themselves (not the servants) and it would have been a bit of a come-down for a middle or upper class woman not to have tea in her home for her guests. One day when the officer was out, his wife, a society lady, decided she was not going to sacrifice her tea party. In the spirit of the women in my family, she had the party up on the widow’s walk, on top of the roof, technically obeying the letter of her husband’s decree but not obeying it at the same time. I thought of her as I headed along those brick paths that maybe she herself had walked.

I went past the church where Paul Revere received his two-lantern signal (“One if by land, two if by sea”) that allowed him to muster all the revolutionary commanders to meet the British troops. I went through the park and saw Paul’s statue too. On arriving into the old downtown, I was suddenly tired. I found myself stymied by a huge crowd of people. Where had they all come from? And why were they lining up in front of various bakeries and restaurants at 4:30 in the afternoon? What was going on? Then the answer became clear: they were all food tourists. After getting a cab and heading back to my hotel, I noticed the fleet of tour buses that had dropped them all off. I tried to go get some Boston cream pie at the Fairmont hotel (reputed to be one of the best places in town for it). Unfortunately the restaurant was being renovated and wasn’t scheduled to reopen until the next week. So much for that plan. Instead, I enjoyed the square and looked at the Trinity Church, then went back to the hotel. The next day, it was back on the road and on up to Maine.

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