Every community has a fabric, tightly or loosely knit. When you grow up in a community, you are inculcated from birth in the ways of your tribe. You are bequeathed an accent, a set of teams to root for, a menu of values, perhaps a political or religious persuasion (to be accepted or rebelled against), rituals, holidays that are official or less so, that are general or local. Often, if the upbringing went well enough, a person becomes a defender of the community and a preservationist of the fabric. The Boston/Massachusetts/New England fabric has been taut—and then taught—since April 19, 1775, which is a date more important to members of the tribe than July 4, 1776, or even the fourth Thursday in November or December 25 (non-secular, and therefore not all-inclusive for members of the tribe, as Christmas is).
When I was a kid in the late 1950s and early ’60s, Patriots Day meant the parade in Concord and then a scoot into Boston to watch the finish of the marathon, where a few skinny men from the neighboring towns or from places like England did the impossible thing and finished a 26-mile run. Then we were taken for sundaes at Baileys just off the Common, the marshmallow and hot fudge toppings spilling into the pewter catchbasins. Kevin and I would nap on the back couch of the Mercury on the ride home, as Dad drove out Route 2. We were being introduced to traditions, and we enjoyed them from the first—who doesn’t like a parade, or ice cream? But what the traditions meant, more deeply, did seep in over time. Yes, the Minutemen from Acton in the parade always seemed as if they had been guzzling from their buckskin flasks before setting off, but this was about the Revolutionary War, the founding of our country. All that. And it had happened here.
I’m not sure if I was in high school still or a college kid in New Hampshire when the morning Red Sox game, Bill Lee often taking it on the chin (we presumed because he wanted to get to the Eliot Lounge by lunchtime), became part of the day’s progression. We from Massachusetts would explain Patriots Day to our classmates, who bought in, and we would roadtrip to Boston, with a cookout at my family’s place afterwards on our drive back north. Later still, one year, I was staying with my parents and woke early enough to drive out to Lexington before dawn to watch the reenactment of Paul Revere arriving, and then the Shot Heard Round the World. Subsequently over to Concord, for the first felled Redcoat at the Rude Bridge that Arched the Flood. Our parents had taken us to those places many times, and I could almost recite the words etched by a diamond ring in the glass of a windowpane of the Old Manse.
Later still than that, I left Boston/Massachusetts/New England in order to pursue a career in New York City. I became a fiercer than ever delegate of the old tribe. (I hated the Yankees with a proper vengeance; I was at all seven games of the 2004 ALCS.) One or another year in the 1980s, I found myself in some semblance of shape and began to think about a thing I really wanted to do. I increased my mileage. On the eve of the marathon, I called my sister in Massachusetts and asked if she could pick me up at Logan the next morning and drive me out to Hopkinton. She said sure, and then: Why? In any event, I ran as a bandit and on a drizzly day finished in 3:52:40; 3:59.40 on the official clock (I had started, as bandits agreeably should, at the very back of the pack and it took me seven minutes precisely to reach the start line). Back then, 3:59.40 meant crucial seconds ahead of 4:00.00. Now, forever in my mind: Ten minutes ahead of 4:09.
I was at the office the other day when I heard that something had happened up in Boston. I called my sister to make sure she and her friends were okay. She was fine. I started monitoring the news.
The criminals have sought to tear the fabric. But the fabric is very tightly knit. They can never erase the aftershocks of that gunshot on the green in Lexington, the nation it led to, the democracy that proved worth preserving, the freedom that led to parades where the Minutemen from Acton could be a bit woozy and sundaes at Baileys would be as avidly waited for as 10 a.m. Thanksgiving football between Chelmsford and Billerica or the Christmas lights on the monastery in Hudson.
Patriots Day was our tribal holiday. I think that, 20 years hence, with this awful, despicable act part of its long history, it still will be. I know there are some kids up there, where we come from, wondering what it all means. They will figure it out, and when they do, and Patriots Day is set right again, they will be proud of the community from which they hail. Patriots Day isn’t about violence, a bomb or even a gunshot. It’s about freedom.
(MORE: A Marathon Finisher Remembers How It All Sank In)
Robert Sullivan, Managing Editor of LIFE Books, is the author of a forthcoming memoir, A Child’s Christmas In New England