Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Ring Around Boston

June 13-15

We have both been to Boston lots of times, but missed interesting sights at its periphery, so we are doing a whirlwind tour around the edges of Boston, beginning in Quincy, home of the Presidential Adams family. The National Park Service now owns three homes where the Adams family resided in Quincy, and we hopped on their trolley that takes visitors to tour them all. Our second President, John Adams, grew up in a very modest farmhouse with just three rooms downstairs, including his father's shoe making shop, and two bedrooms upstairs. When he grew up, he moved in to a modest house next door to his dad's, and that is where John Quincy Adams, our sixth President, was born.

Fluent in French, at age ten John Quincy accompanied his foreign minister father to France and acted as his interpreter. By the age of fourteen, John Quincy was interpreting for a Russian Czar, and as an adult, he could speak and read thirteen languages (although he was not a terribly social person).

John's wife Abigail accompanied him on his foreign minister assignments to Europe, and after living in luxurious foreign embassies, she couldn't bear the thought of coming back to her small house on the family farm, so while they were overseas they asked friends to buy them a house they vaguely remembered. Unfortunately, the house turned out to be smaller than they thought, and its last owner was a Tory who was run out of town, so it had been left vacant for a while and was in disrepair when they moved in. They made a lot of renovations, first just to make it habitable, then to make it suitable for Presidential entertaining. Even with its additions and renovations, Peacefield was not large or showy. Its rooms were small and spare in their decorative detail—not at all comparable to Mount Vernon or Monticello. The most impressive part of the house was the stone library constructed to hold John Quincy's 14,000 books. He never got to see it—he specified in his will that he wanted it built to protect his books and papers, just as Presidential Libraries administered by the National Archives do today.

Which brings us to our next activity—visiting the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, an awesome architectural statement by I.M. Pei on the U. Mass Boston Campus. What stands out about this museum for us is how much it uses televisions to tell its stories, perhaps because Kennedy was the first President to truly understand the power of the medium and to use it in a highly telegenic fashion (as did Jackie). The Nixon/Kennedy debates, which Kennedy pressured Nixon into doing, were the first televised Presidential candidate debates, and Kennedy did the first live televised news conferences—averaging one every sixteen days of his Presidency.

It was interesting to see that, like John Quincy Adams, JFK accompanied his foreign ambassador father on his missions, in Kennedy's case acting as his father's secretary. We were reminded how many positions President Kennedy handed to family members once he became President, and how well his patronage seemed to work out—those Kennedys and Shrivers sure are hard-working do-gooders.

We spent an evening in Hull, a gritty beach town on a long sandbar that reaches from the south shore toward Boston Harbor. We stayed at the Nantasket Beach Hotel, in a spacious room with a balcony and a view of the ocean, a Jacuzzi tub and a fireplace, all for just $89, with a coupon. We could hardly believe our good fortune. It was only when we finally went to bed and found that the mattress sagged like a hammock, dumping us both into a pit in the middle, that we realized that the single most important non-optional part of the room was a big problem. Fortunately, there were two beds, so after clearing all our suitcases and reference materials off the second bed, and making a wall of pillows along the side next to the air conditioner to shield him from the cold breeze, Dick moved over there, where it was slightly less saggy, albeit more drafty.

Our next evening was spent far less eventfully and far more pleasantly at the Henry Derby House, a Bed and Breakfast Inn in Salem, known best for its 1692 witch trials. Salem also enjoyed a brief period as a busy port city--Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote most of The Scarlet Letter while working in the port's Customs House.

We couldn't help ourselves—we had to go to the city's most popular Witch Museum (and there are quite a few to choose from). The "Museum" consisted of a twenty minute show in a darkened room, featuring dramatic narration and grisly sound effects describing how a group of impressionable young girls became hysterical, thought they were possessed by the devil, and began accusing others in the town of being witches. The town got caught up in the hysteria, nineteen people were hanged, one was crushed with stones, and many more were imprisoned under horrible conditions. As the story was told, life size dioramas depicting the events were dramatically lit, and there were plenty of moans of possession and screams of agony. The scenes were reminiscent of the dioramas at the Latex Wax Museum last week, except the figures here looked like they were made using papier mache.

After the show in the dark, we were released to a large exhibit gallery where a docent led us as a group through the exhibits, and made sure we got the following messages. Witches in early civilizations were wise women who knew how to use natural medicine. The Christian Church demonized them to take away their power, because it threatened the male-dominated church. Witches are in the world today and they look just like you and me. The Supreme Court recognized their Wiccan religion in 1985, so they deserve freedom of religion as much as anyone else. The final message was an equation: Fear + trigger = scapegoat. Beneath this equation were the witch elements: fear of the devil + doctor who couldn't diagnose illness = witch trials. These were followed by several more historic situations that fit the equation—fear of war leading to Japanese Americans being scapegoated and put in internment camps, McCarthy playing on fear of communism to get people blacklisted, fear of the AIDS epidemic leading to scapegoating gay people.

Although we agreed with most of what was said there, we were still amazed at the liberal agenda of the museum, and we could tell that we are becoming real Southerners, because we winced at the religious angle—this Museum really badmouthed Christians and scoffed at their belief in the Devil. How far the pendulum has swung in Salem--from demonizing witches, to defending their honor (and making a lot of money off them).

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