A Dozen Days Later

When I first heard about the explosions at the Boston Marathon, I scoured the internet till I found a live feed and called my wife.  “What!? WHAT?!”  We were both horrified.  “This was part of the reason we moved to rural Tennessee,” she reminded me, “to escape awful things like this.”  We had moved to Sewanee only a few months after 9/11.  Monitoring the scattershot information coming out of Boston that afternoon, it was hard to think much about the wisdom of the move.  It was hard to think of anything, really, except fear.


Late that Monday night, my sister reached me.  She’s a nurse at Mass General, not in the ER, but she knows a lot of people who work there. “They were all set up for dehydration, hypothermia, the sort of things marathon runners suffer from,” she told me. “They spent the day removing  ball bearings and re-attaching legs instead.” She began to cry. “It was so bloody.” If she hadn’t been scheduled to work, she probably would have been downtown at the finish line, as she had done in years past.


As an eighth-grader, I recall, the first place in downtown I really began to explore on my own was Copley Square. My friend John and I would meet at the Public Library and go on walkabout for hours in the building, marveling at the intricacies of the McKim-Mead-White architecture, and then go off into surrounding areas.  John was from South Boston, and I was from West Roxbury–we knew each other from school.  At the end of the day, we would return to the corner of Boylston and Dartmouth to catch the different trains home.  This corner is where the finish line of the Marathon was set up each April.


Like everybody elese in Boston in the 70s, I loathed the Yankees, and would vigorously chant “Reggie sucks” when they played the Sox at Fenway. Much as I hated New York as a boy, though, it came nowhere near the detestation I felt for the Canadiens. When the Bruins were playing in Montreal, there was a different national anthem and nobody spoke English. Most of the fun in watching sports in those days was having clearly-defined enemies.


On Marathon Day, there’s nobody to hate.  Wherever you stand to watch the runners, there is a crowd of happy people cheering on everyone who comes by.  Some wear shirts with the names of local colleges on them, and you yell out the name of the school. Others wear their names and, even if you have no idea who Jerry is, at the top of your lungs you yell out, Go Jerry!  On one occasion, I have had the honor of seeing Dick Hoyt pass by, pushing his son Rick in a wheelchair. Rick, who was born with cerebral palsy, told his father that when he pushed him quickly in his chair, he didn’t feel handicapped, and so at the age of 37, Dick took up marathoning.


At Boston College, where I used to teach before coming to Sewanee, we used to get an awful lot of the month of April off.  Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Monday usually fell in April, and were all official university holidays. BC was also closed on Patriots’ Day, as was most of the city, because that was the day of the Marathon, and the course went right alongside campus.

Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-Five:
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

So writes Longfellow. My entire life I have been struck by the irony that, while Paul Revere had gone out of the city to spread the alarm to every Middlesex village and farm, the Boston Marathon actually reversed the direction of the ride. That is, the runners were making their way into the city, the way the redcoats had done in ’75.


My brother has been a janitor for the Boston Police Department for over twenty-five years.  He works at headquarters, downtown.  Throughout the week, he told me, “there were cops from everywhere down there, state troopers, FBI, military, the place was a zoo. Pizza boxes all over the place.”  The door closest to the dumpster out back had been locked, and all traffic in and out routed through the front entrance. “By the time I have one bag filled up and dumped, there’s another one that needs to go out.”  On Friday, like everyone else in town, he sheltered in place, and  was glad to hear from his boss that he wouldn’t be docked a sick day for the lock-down. Still, he worried about the state of headquarters when he got back. “It’s gonna be a mess.”


After the bombings, the lights were dimmed at Bell Centre in Montreal in commemoration of the victims, and at Yankee Stadium, they played “Sweet Caroline.” On The Daily Show, John Stewart noted of the competition between New York and Boston, It is in situations like this that we realize that it is clearly a sibling rivalry. We are your brothers and sisters in these types of events.”  All of this was moving, to my mind.


The legend goes that, after the Greek victory at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, the runner Pheidippides ran 26 miles to Athens to announce the victory, and then died.  This is not the story that Herodotus tells.  According to the Histories, Pheidippides was sent by the Athenians to Sparta, 140 miles away, to request aid from their sister city against the invading Persians. He made it in three days. For religious reasons, the Spartans had to delay sending help, so the Athenians faced the Persians, and beat them, on their own.


You can decide which ancient story is better. Neither is likely to be true, of course, though the mighty Persian army was in fact defeated by a far smaller force.  If there is a defining moment that sets the West against the East, it would be the Battle of Marathon.  How Pheidippides fits into it is hard to say.


It was a week after the bombings and just a few days after the man-hunt, and I was sitting in the coffee shop on campus, where my friend Katherine came up to me. “I’ve been thinking about you,” she said. “More than about the people I know who live in Boston now.”  We talked about the surreal nature of the events, the explosions and an entire city on lock-down. She grew up here in Sewanee, but spent part of her life in Connecticut, in Newtown, in fact.  The massacre there was only a few months ago. “You might be the only person who will understand this,” she tells me, “but do you feel guilty that you weren’t there?”  Until she’s said it out loud, I hadn’t realized that that was precisely how I felt.


I was in touch with a student on campus from Boston whom I knew to have relatives in Watertown.  “Is everything OK back home?” I e-mailed him, and it was, more or less. He is involved in the Cinema Guild, and thought it might make sense collect money for relief efforts at a special showing of a film that week.  He was thinking of The Departed, which struck me as way too violent to be appropriate. Good Will Hunting came to my mind, but the fact that Ben Affleck and Matt Damon both went to Cambridge Rindge and Latin, where Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had graduated, bothered me, admittedly for no good reason.


A day or so later, I was in the gym, and somebody I don’t know very well asked  if I had any family who’d been affected by the events in Boston. He then went on to use phrases like “mercenaries at the finish line,” “markings on the backpacks don’t match,” “CIA,” “Mossad,” “counter-espionage,” “mainstream media,” “Saudi national was Bin Laden’s son,” and “we’ll never know the real story.” The conversation left me a little rattled.  Interestingly, this guy’s remarks were utterly divorced from contemporary politics. Obama, Bush, nobody was mentioned, no liberal or conservative agenda was blamed. There was a paranoid Illuminati-Protocols of the Elders of Zion-Trilateral Commission aspect to all of it, this idea that there’s a secret cabal at work whose intentions are murky and inscrutable.


In the 90s, I published an article while I was still at Boston College on the topic, broadly, of witchcraft in Greco-Roman culture. It contained the following paragraph: “In a traditional society, figures such as witches and demons are not the problem but rather the solution to the still more disturbing problem of chance. Deaths without any apparent cause can readily be explained in terms of witchcraft. …Where visible causes for specific misfortunes are lacking, hidden agents (whether divine or human) are assumed: witchcraft, which operates outside the parameters of normal life, thus provides the rationale for misfortunes that would be otherwise inexplicable.”


On the day of the bombings, I wanted to know who had done it. I wanted there to be an enemy who was clearly-defined. I thought of the Minutemen at Concord, and of the Athenians at Marathon.  I thought especially of the playwright Aeschylus, who wrote several masterpieces, and had the following lines engraved on his tombstone:

This memorial hides Aeschylus, the Athenian, son of Euphorion
Who died in wheat-bearing Gela.
The precinct of Marathon and the long-haired Mede,
Who knows it well, may tell of his great valor.

I thought about posting that as my status line on Facebook, but worried it might seem racist–after all, who could say if Medes were involved? After the Oklahoma City bombings, various Iranians were held as suspects for no reason at all but paranoia.  In turns out in Boston not to have been Medes but Caucasians, one of the peoples north of Persia, who set off the bombs in Copley Square. One of them did have long hair, as it happened.


Aeschylus was proud to have fought at Marathon, but his greatest works are monuments dedicated to the idea of Justice as opposed to Vengeance. Forty-five years ago this month, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in Tennessee, and Bobby Kennedy quoted Aeschylus to an upset crowd:

My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”  What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another …


Herodotus says that, while Pheidippides was running to Sparta from Athens, he encountered the god Pan.  The Athenians built a temple to Pan after the invasion, to commemorate his help in the ensuing battle, since the god had brought a blind fear upon the Persians–panic, named for the god.  At Marathon, the Athenians won as the Persians undid themselves with irrational fear.

About Uncomely and Broken

I am a classicist in Sewanee, Tennessee.
This entry was posted in Boston, Classics, England, Family, Language & Etymology, Military, Mythology, Poetry, Sewanee, Sports & Games. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Dozen Days Later

  1. Pingback: Regarding “Our F***ing City” | uncomelyandbroken

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