THE ending of the Freedom Trail is probably more interesting than the beginning, because it was at the end that we understood why we went in the beginning.
It was there, as the wind blew across Boston Harbor and a lonely concrete playground, that we saw the rusted motorcycles in the water.
First we looked outward, seeking the echoes of Boston's nautical past, the echoes of wharves and whalers, ships in port and those out to sea. But it was the motorcycles--rusty and lurid--just below us in the choppy waters of the Harbor, which captured our gaze.
As much as anything, those motorcycles were the end.
Earlier, two schoolchildren had fought bitterly over the Red Sox as their friends, eating candy and laughing, watched the dispute.
But they had run away from the playground which abuts the Harbor, leaving only the grafitti-spattered concrete that marked the territory as Italian turf--the North End.
Turning, we walked back in the direction of a North End in the time before hastily spray--painted Italian flags adorned cement walls. In the time when there was only one ethnic group in Boston--colonists.
We trod a winding red path in our search for the old North End, the road that makes up the two-and-a-half mile Freedom Trail which wends its way through Boston and Charlestown, retracing the steps of those Great White Males who fought the American Revolution.
We learned of Robert Newman, the trusty church sexton who placed lanterns in the steeple of the Old North Church to warn Paul Revere and others of the impending British invasion. We saw many Harvard presidents--and names of Harvard Houses--imbedded in the bronze plaques and on the gravestones that dot the Freedom Trail. And we saw The Gap, Ann Taylor, Filene's, Steve's Ice Cream, and the hosts of other boutiques and bargain basements which have sprung up in the midst of history in Boston.
It was an afternoon full of kitsch and history, many churches, many graves and lots of blustery October wind. The Freedom Trail gets off to an ignominous start at the Boston Visitor's Information Center, a red line that winds unsure towards the Boston Common and the historical sites to come.
Immediately we were thrust back into memories of our childhood--every step we took seemed to bring us further back, to fall days of Halloween expectation and Thanksgiving pageants. We bought candycorn, priced pumpkins and tried to remember the third line of Longfellow's famous poem, "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere."
History lessons seemed simple as we walked along the Freedom Trail. First there were the Founders, John Winthrop with his vision of Boston as a "shining city upon a hill," the Mathers--Cotton and Increase--with their harsh, unyielding Puritan zeal, Anne Hutchinson, who was banned for her enlightenment.
These first lessons were represented in the graveyards rather than in the buildings or on the streets, for it was not commerce or democracy which the early settlers taught, but persistance. And for the tourists, their tombstones, if nothing else, have endured.
BUT right from the start of the Freedom Trail, it is the legacy of the next generation--the Revolutionary generation--which dominates the carefully orchestrated history lesson. From the Old South Church where the Boston Tea Party was planned to Ben Franklin's house and Breed's Hill battleground, it is the story of the War of Independence which the Freedom Trail tells.
Marching up the Boston Common, tourists arrive--a bit out of breath--at the State House, where the city's hyper-political nature is underscored by a scraggly line of four picketers waving signs to protest Gov. Michael S. Dukakis' record on minorities.
From there, we walk back down the hill into Boston's commercial and historical district. Stopping first at the Granary Burying Ground (billed as the "last resting place of the Patriots"), we wander among Winthrops and Leveretts and other textbook names from the past. Some of the headstones are so thin and old that they have cracked, leaving only fragments of names and dates.
Just around the corner from Boston's first graveyard is Boston's first public school--the site of the original Boston Latin School. "We believe that reason and work are the paths to progress," Ben Franklin tells generations of Bostonians in a mosaic commemorating the Latin School.
What we saw next was progress--at least its annoying side. Between each beacon of the 18th century were scattered too many reminders of the 20th--little wooden carts that served as functional boutiques and cluttered the sidewalks with their yuppie ware. And then on to Quincy Market, a crass commercial excuse for stealing the dollars of more than 15 million tourists every year. History, if there is any there, is confined to a statue, a plaque and perhaps Durgin Park restaurant.
Things get better, though, as we retreat from the blond wood facade of Ann Taylor and stumble on the Haymarket, where fresh fruits and vegetables are sold each Friday and Saturday as part of an open-air Boston tradition dating back to the city's founding. We ogle the eggplants and almost buy sizzling Italian sausage, but restrain ourselves. We reach into the bag of candycorn, resigned.
We walk under the expressway and emerge in the North End, the centerpiece of the trail and the cradle of democracy, as the trail's publicists will tell you. The neighborhood's charm is not lost on us, especially when contrasted with the prepackaged history of Fanueil Hall.
The North End, now Italian but once Irish and Jewish and before that Protestant, is still changing. And somehow that makes the churches and historical houses and graveyards more believable to the jaded tourist eye. People, real people, still live next door to Paul Revere's house--history is not frozen, it surrounds you like the omnipresent Italian food of the neighborhood.
Past the stores--musical instruments, bakeries, cafes--we continue to follow the red line. Somehow, inexplicably, we end up inside another church, the Old North Church. It is showtime again there, with a thoroughly modern Episcopalian minister as the history teacher/fundraiser.
We are ushered into the box-like family pews for what the minister termed a "little five minute talk." He tells us about Robert Newman (the trusty church sexton, remember?) and name drops Queen Elizabeth II and President Ford. After all, Pax Britannia may be dead and the colonies may be dead and the colonies may be free, but Episcopalian ministers still know who's got class. And who's got money. As we leave the church, he reminds us that the parish is funded only by our donations and hands out his business card, telling us to "come again."
The woman in front of us seemed edified, though. "I'm going home and ask Sylvia if she knows who Robert Newman is," she says, apparently undismayed by the technocratic reverend.
It's not a very good ending, but more than anything it was the beginning.
Turning, we see one last bronze plaque commemorating the first woman denied entrance to Harvard Medical School because of her sex, but went on to become the first female doctor in Boston.
Her name was Harriet Kezieh Hunt. I guess grade school history can't teach you everything.