Every year on Patriot's Day, April 19, the swan boats migrate out of winter storage in a warehouse down to the Boston Public Gardens opposite the Common. At this time, and during the rest of the summer, the city's harried mothers bring their offspring over to the garden pond for a ride, a look at the ducks and swans, and a chance to throw peanuts at the pigeons.
Except for a white carved swan that shields its driver (called its"skipper"), a swan boat is fairly awkward as small-craft go, resembling a barge of floating park benches. There are big brassrails curving over bow and stern used to pull a landing boat to the dock and a jaunty litle American flag out in front. When I approached this peculiar fleet, one of the waiting skippers stood nearby examining the foot-pedal, apparatus.
"You move these boats just like bicyles, don't you?" "Yes," he said, "You know these things move on the same principle as a swan--smooth, gliding, graceful. It's the paddles underneath. Some people say we ought to put motors on them, but it wouldn't be the same--vibration you know. The boats are out here every day, weather permitting, until the last Sunday of September ... Lovely weather for swans and all that. Of course, we wouldn't keep them out in a northeaster' or a hurricane. They've never tipped over or sunk, thank God.
"You'd be surprised at the famous people who ride these boats--show business stars, Red Sox players. Richard Byrd--the Admiral, you know--after he had come back from sailing all around the Antartic and the South Pole, what did he do? He rode the boats with his grand daughter every Sunday. Shirley Temple too, when she was a little girl. We don't keep a guest book or anything like that, but there have been quite a few big names."
One of the pond ducks was splashing near an empty boat. "Want to see something interesting?" (He stepped over the seats and pointed to a small wooden box in the rear) "See that--eleven duck eggs! That's the mother over there--they're mallards. We put some excelsior in this box after she laid the first egg and now she's laid ten more. They take thirty days to hatch and if you come back here then you can see duck chicks right on the boat."
I thanked him, bought a ticket and the traditional bag of peanuts, and stepped onto a boat. As we peddled along slowly, the ducks dabbled for peanuts, pigeons fluttered and landed on our brass rail, and grackles cawed and clucked on the ponds little island. On the boat itself, two children lost their pinwheels and a third hit a nearby pigeon's flank with a well-aimed peanut. The ride was as the skipper had said, though, smooth, gliding, and graceful--just like a swan.