The Charles River is a big deal for me during our sojourns in Cambridge, Mass. It snakes all the way back to my boyhood, when I was a seventh grader banging clappers on the sides of ancient wooden boats as a coxswain for Belmont Hill School. I eventually grew too big to haul around without working an oar, and by graduation from high school I had earned my first and only Varsity letter as bowman in the third boat. In college, I did some rowing from the Weld Boathouse in singles, but there were many other distractions in those years of political turmoil and all-consuming romances. Now I’ve returned to the river as a member of the Cambridge Boat Club, a five-minute walk along the banks of the river from our home here. My first outing this trip took place two days ago on a sunny Friday morning with calm water and perfect rowing conditions. I took out a club training shell, an Alden Star single, and moved smoothly upstream toward the old Watertown arsenal, which was a tumbling-down historic shell when I was a boy and now is a sprawling mall.
Rowing turns out to be terrific aerobic exercise, of course, and I was surprised to see how mild a pace brought me to my target heart rate of 130. But the real payoff is being on the water again, on a river that conveys so much personal history and memory. On one cold spring day at Belmont Hill, the boat I was coxing nearly sank. It was a leaky old four named the Williams, and on a day of wind and rough water it took on more than its usual allotment of polluted river water. By the time I guided it back to the boathouse, the riggers were too close to the water to clear the dock. I remember shivering in the cold and wetness, and I remember being scared. But I also remember a gathering pride in the incident, and I wondered how long I would remember it. Answer: 47 years, and counting.
As we were arriving in Cambridge last week, my niece, Fran Betlyon, was headed west, young woman. She is a stunning singer/songwriter, and she’s headed to L.A. to see what she can do about it. She is chronicling her journey in a well-written blog titled La Vie en Rose. This morning in the kitchen I read her post describing strong emotions as she began her 3,000-mile drive to the Golden State. Here’s an excerpt:
I’m going to miss Boston/Cambridge a lot. I love the trees there. They seem to speak in the wind. And I also feel like they have seen so much and that nothing fazes them. I have walked around Cambridge so many times in a funk and felt completely comforted by the rustle of their branches in the wind. Amen!
I know what Fran means about the trees, especially the old Sycamores along Memorial Drive that were the saved by resident and student activists in 1964. “Save the Sycamores” was just one of the rallying cries from that era, and the payoff still stands. The trees line the busy parkway with their dappled, smooth bark and extravagant reach of thick branches. The oldness of Cambridge has its drawbacks, and I’ve come to cherish the West’s freedom from some of the staid old ways, but I share Fran’s sense that the old trees, along with the old buildings and more than three centuries of a certain college that was founded here–they all give me a sense of rootedness when I’m in Cambridge. There’s a sense that, yes, this age is full of crisis and anxiety, but that similar periods and far worse have been survived, and have in fact led to unimagined advances in the human project.
When I headed West, young man, I enjoyed how people in Wyoming referred to places like Boston as “Back East” the place where most everyone came from. Here in Cambridge, the usual term for places like Wyoming and Colorado is “Out West.” My mother, who makes Thoreau look like a world traveler, is highly suspicious of anything “west of Framingham.” But she and my father must have passed along some traveling genes, because much of the family is crisscrossing the country, headed East or West. We all know and love the sampler in the kitchen that used to hang in my mother’s mother’s kitchen in Sudbury, Mass. “Of all the roads both east and west, the one that leads to home is best,” it reads. Sometimes the road is a river that just keeps on flowing.