From "You're Up, You're Down, You're Up."
The Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown, MA was erected in 1843 to commemorate the June 17, 1775 Revolutionary War battle that made the Colonists think they actually had a chance to defeat the British, despite sustaining nearly three times the amount of losses and casualties. The Monument is an obelisk, with a beveled, triangular topping. It stands 221 feet tall, with 294 stairs leading to a tight lookout point at the top, where compact, Plexiglas windows, which look like narrowed eyes from afar, provide vantage points in four directions. From its base, on what is actually Breed’s Hill—as no battle was ever fought on Bunker Hill—one can see perhaps the finest view of Boston in all of the area. There is the harbor, Old North Church with its redoubtable steeple from where Paul Revere was flashed his lantern-coded signal, the Boston Garden, the skyline, with the Charles River floating through the locks near the Zakim Bridge, creating an estuary in the pooling waters around the Charlestown Naval Yard where the still-commissioned—just in case—USS Constitution docks. Turning around, one catches a large eyeful of the spider-like trestles of the Tobin Bridge, where Red Sox fans were once said to gather in queue to take their final leaps after the latest collapse—before a new epoch dawned in Old New England—with the Mystic River, which was once the source of so much fascination for the local Wampanoag tribe, its current sufficiently influenced by the moon to suggest enchantment by cornsilk beams of light, flowing beneath the green undergirding and circling around the backs of these glacial hills, packed like small muffins in a biscuit tin, knitting up with the Charles in a joint endeavor to instruct the harbor that freshwater has value, too, before becoming clotted with salt and rendered oceanic. Tide giving way to larger tide; as is the way of oceans, as is the way of life. So far as patriotic obelisks go, the Bunker Hill Monument is about half the height of its more famous Washington D.C.-based cousin. It was made from granite brought via what was called the Granite Railway, a line built expressly for the purpose of moving large amounts of rock from quarries in places like Quincy and Rockport to the north, the final portion of that granitic journey from inside the earth’s breast to this drumlin in Charlestown completed by barge across the strange stew that was Boston Harbor long before anyone gave any thought to cleaning it up.
My relationship with the Bunker Hill Monument was first of the drive-by nature. We lived in Mansfield, which people don’t know, really, outside of a concert venue there were you could have seen anyone from the Beach Boys to the Smiths to Oasis over the years—and because it’s adjacent to Foxborough, where the Patriots play, a town made famous by Messrs. Brady and Belichick, and by whose village green there stands a movie house where I first made the acquaintance of E.T. and Indiana Jones.
My mother’s best friend lived in some town beyond Boston, which was some thirty or forty miles from where we lived. As we rode for a visit on a Friday night, after my father had come home from work, there were two things I liked to look out for.
One was the drive-in theater just north of Braintree, where I had the uncanny, reoccurring luck of seeing a portion from Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back play out as we approached, craning my neck as we zipped by to confirm that, yes, events unfolded on this super-sized screen just as they did on regular-sized ones, with Luke swinging safely away with Leia, or Han, poor fellow, becoming encased in Carbonite. Han Solo always looked bigger than the rest, for some reason, on this particular platform. Maybe he had more close-ups. Maybe the drive-in better revealed what transpired in the heart of a director.
I would mull this matter as it became time for me to look again out into the night at something that would be a touch harder to spot, lacking any cinematic bells and whistles and screen that seemed to be forty feet in height. Sometimes I would miss it, but not usually. I had no idea why it was so important to me to see this structure. I was a nature buff, certainly a reading buff—Jack London and Three Investigators mysteries and books about old horror stars like Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff were my jam, as they say—and somewhat of a history buff, in that each Fourth of July I reread Robert Lawson’s Ben and Me and sometimes watched 1957’s Johnny Tremain on the Disney Channel. But my interest in history stemmed from its placement in fiction, not necessarily because it was historical. That sounds like a twee distinction, but you understand my point. I liked enacted narrative, not post-battle analysis of what went wrong and what went right and what subsequent decisions would be made that would inform the next battle that would inform the outcome of the war.
But as we rolled over the Atlantic on a bridge that does not exist anymore, I absolutely had to descry the Bunker Hill Monument. I had to see it, I had to look at and hold the view to the last possible fraction of the last possible second—once I strained my neck—and I had to let my parents know, lest they miss it. One time my mother, surprising me, piped up and said that Mr. McKinley would know a lot about the Monument. I should talk to him. He was a neighbor of ours; his son, Ryan, being my best friend, when it wasn’t Ryan’s neighbor, a kid named Matt who was related to Jimmie Foxx, the home run titan—only slightly less accomplished than Babe Ruth—which amazed all of us, especially in the summers, when it was baseball time.
“He’s a veteran, you know.”
Of course I knew that Mr. McKinley was a veteran; not of the Revolutionary War—he wasn’t a cast member of Time Tunnel, which I had started watching in repeats after school, once Casper had finished doing his thing—but rather Vietnam, which you couldn’t ask him about. Everybody knew that. So I asked nobody, nor would I ask myself why I cared so much about this structure about which I knew essentially nothing. But it seemed like I would, at some point. It only mattered to me that I spotted it on the way out. On the way back, there was less urgency in the matter, as if a mission had been accomplished already, and it was now time for me, weary in the backseat, lying down in this age before strict insistence to “buckle up,” to croon a bit of Christopher Cross’s “Sailing,” which for some reason I thought my parents enjoyed—though there could have been little truth in that—and which also put me to sleep, a truth of which I am certain. Next stop, my bed, my brain cloudy as to how I got there.
As for Mr. Monument, I would see him again on our next visit to my mom’s best friend. And then, decades later, after he had left my thoughts, largely, and we had not seen each other for quite a time, I would need him to assist me, as a daily function of my life, in remaining propped up on a different battle field. I did not know that he had insides that you could be inside of. Nor that I would be in them often.