Boston You’re My Home
I was sitting on a couch in Saddam Hussein's Birthday Palace in the City of Tikrit, watching the end of the 2007 World Series on pirated satellite signals, purchased and subsequently wired by a really sketchy thin dude who kept showing me the porn channels. He was Iraqi and spoke broken English. I was not home and had not been in quite some time. While I was in the Palace, it was no longer a palace. Most of its former opulence was gone, ravaged by the war. It was the home for an Iraqi Army Battalion of over 400 men and it was my residence as well, with another 10 Americans from the 101st Airborne Division. My celebration was not under the influence and while subdued in comparison to previous years, baffled this group of indigenous people. I almost started firing my rifle into the sky outside my door, as I had seen the Iraqi people do in response to great national soccer victories. I thought better of it though; ammunition being at a premium on outposts like mine and burning off some rounds could easily disturb the perception of peace outside the walls of my compound.
I was in a small hotel room in the bachelor officers' section of Fort Sill Housing in Lawton Oklahoma when I watched as the Boston Red Sox finally defeated the curse of the "Great Bambino". In 2004 they had also defeated the St. Louis Cardinals in a four game sweep of the World Series after fighting back from three games down against the Yankees to win the American League Championship days before. I was very drunk on beer and whiskey shots, and decided it would be a great idea to run across the quad yelling out the victory results to my neighbors like some modern day Paul Revere. The Military Police did not see much humor in the incident, but they let me return to my room without a fine.
I had been in the United States since 2009 and still, I was not home. I finally returned to Maine in 2012, to my hometown of Brunswick, not one block from the house I grew up in. I had returned, but I was not home. I began treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) at a local veterans' center. I was asked if I felt like I was home by my therapist, and had admitted that I did not. I did not feel a part of anything. I felt isolated from the constant flow of society around me, like a piece of driftwood being pushed by the flowing river around it, not understanding what the water was doing or why, but being completely under its control. As part of my therapy, I had to remember a time when I had been completely comfortable, a situation where I was happy or at ease or even excited. It just had to be positive and not part of combat.
I thought about it for the week before my next meeting with my therapist and remembered several times where these feelings had been generated. Of all the images that I thought about, some were clearer than others. They were images of green walls, blue skies, sausage sandwiches, mobs of cheering fans, and men wearing red, white and blue. Giant men who are called heroes by many, but in my adult years look more fortunate and less hero. They were playing a game on a tan diamond nestled in a green field. This mass of humanity, packed in like sardines, collectively breathing, collectively feeling the game's ups and downs. This would normally turn me into a mess, grappling with my fear of crowds and constantly on guard for an unknown threat. But it is at this very place, the middle of this large group, that I felt something like home. It was as if the green walls and close quarters swaddled me like a babe, and made me feel the love of the mother who packaged me. Fenway Park was the closest thing to home I could feel anymore. With this in mind, I decided to find out why I felt at home in this strange environment.
Opening Day in Fenway had always been a bucket list event for me and this seemed like an opportune time. I had to convince my buddy Paul to go by agreeing to go see the Bruins after leaving Fenway. Being a hockey fan, this was an easy concession to make. We rode the Amtrak Downeaster train service to Boston's North Station. This was a familiar trip for me and it too felt a little like home, as we zipped through the coastal towns that littered the train's route south. These places looked like pictures you would find on postcards, quaint New England towns nestled into the Maine wilderness. The time passed quickly for me as I got lost in the imagery of Old Orchard Beach and the rest of the trip my eyes probed each community we passed. The train was filled to capacity with other Red Sox and Bruins fans, all headed toward the Bostonian's equivalent of Mecca. Paul and I discussed the usual guy topics of boats, golf, sports in general, women, and plans for the bar upon our arrival. There was a buzz in the air as each stop picked up more and more eager fans ready to exorcise the demons of Boston's poor finish in 2012. Excitement packed into the strange canister, gradually building pressure until it erupted at Boston's North Station.
After the train stopped and patrons were wandering the platform I noticed that our train had picked up more fans than I had realized. Each stop added a new group of excited fans draped in the blue, red, white and green. I found myself transformed from being a log floating in a river, into another droplet of water pushing my way with the river. We passed through North Station and made our way to the subway, or "T", as the locals call it. We made a quick pit stop at Faneuil Hall to grab a bite of food before making our way toward the ballpark. A favorite stop of mine is the Blackhorse Tavern, located in the basement of an eatery in the market. Normally I would have stopped to have a pint before heading to Fenway, but with the festivities of opening day starting early and the time approaching noon, we decided to just eat something from one of the many vendors in the main hall. I grabbed a kebab sandwich from a Greek place and Paul picked an egg and bagel sandwich elsewhere. We met up and sat on the front steps of the hall, and watched the light crowds begin to gather and pass by. The juices from my sandwich dripped down my arm and onto the ground. The flavor tasted so much like the ones I got in Iraq, with the exception of the flatbread, which I am beginning to think cannot be made here. I cleaned myself up and we made our way back to the "T".
We climbed into the slightly occupied cars and grabbed a standing position next to the forwardmost doors. As we made our way further into the heart of the city, each stop added more occupants again dressed in red, white, blue and green. Chatter was picking up as we continued to cram in like cattle. It reminded me of the cattle cars that I rode in during basic training, standing room only. Kids with thick Southey accents were discussing how the Sox were being underplayed before the season and how "we're showing em now!" I noticed how close I was standing to all these people and how this would normally drive my PTSD symptoms into overdrive, but in that place and time it all felt quite normal. I felt like I belonged.
Several stops later, we exited with the majority of the passengers at the Fenway Park stop. As we reached the stairwells and turnstiles leading to the exit, the noise increased. Men darted out with thick Boston accents yelling, "Tickets! Buyin'! Sellin'! Who needs 'em?!" I began to wonder if they had legitimate tickets or if they were part of the scams using fake tickets I had heard so much about. I even wondered if mine might be counterfeit as I had purchased them from a third party. I felt like Charlie holding the golden ticket to get into Willie Wonka's factory, but that feeling soon stopped when I looked at the other fans and saw that I was just one of the masses.
As we crested the stairs and made our way out into the bright sunlight, our stream of red, blue, white and green merged with a very large river of humanity rolling rather ominously toward the I-90 overpass on its way to Lansdowne Street. The noise reached a very high intensity and my ability to hear Paul became almost impossible. I didn't care, I was part of the river and we were all going the same way. We passed by men on stilts and street bands playing. Men with hands full of programs and booklets pushed their wares on the river, like rocks peeking through the top of the water as we roared by.
We entered the park and were greeted by living statues of players on pedestals, painted in copper. They were moving as if they were playing in slow motion and people were gathered around watching or taking pictures. The usher that showed us to our seats was smiling as we all were, the same smile a kid gets on his way into the circus. We were seated in the Right Field Box, three rows from the field and just to the fair side of "Pesky Pole". The signatures made in black marker by the many fans who sat near the pole over the years stood out against the bright yellow pole. We had made it to our seats with beers in hand in time to catch the end of batting practice. I watched the fathers take their young boys and girls to the edge of the field to take pictures and try to get autographs. Their smiles were mirroring the other fans as we all packed into the seats for the game.
The Opening Day ceremonies I had watched over the years had all been very spectacular. This year was different as a team favorite, Johnny Pesky, had passed away in the previous year. He had always been at Opening Day and fans would cheer as he waved and, until the last few years of his life, run around rousting the crowd. This year was almost bittersweet. The festivities seemed subdued all around. I conveniently snuck away to the bathroom for the National Anthem. Hearing it reminds me of too many sad ceremonies for fallen comrades and it sends me back to those places and times. These unwelcome images can ruin any day and must be avoided.
The game progressed as most do with its ups and downs. I made friends with the fans around me and by the third inning we were debating the efforts of this player or that. People would cheer for a hit and high five the fan in the next seat. I was home and with friends. Finally, after all the searching, I had found home. It was right there in Red Sox Nation all along. It had always been with me. When I watched those games in remote places, I was still at home.
The game proceeded slowly from a scoring standpoint, and there was no score headed into the bottom of the seventh inning. The Sox had runners on first and second and a sputter in the Red Sox offensive engine. Daniel Nava was approaching the plate and had only been put in the lineup after Jackie Bradley Jr. had begun to struggle. I had been in the center field grandstand several years earlier on a rainy afternoon, when Nava first came to bat in a Red Sox uniform. He hit a grand slam that cold day and the crowd erupted. People who were asking seconds before who he was, instantly knew his name by heart. The kid knew how to make an entrance and Opening Day would be no different. He hit a home run and crushed that shot over "The Green Monster" and crossed Lansdowne Street. The lead was maintained and the Red Sox would win 3-1.
As I exited the ballpark on my way to the Bruins game at TD Garden, I decided that I would not leave this place without returning soon. I had been searching for my home and now I found it. I made the decision to try and get tickets to as many games as I could afford and had time to attend in the coming season. I would watch all the games I could on television if I was not able to get to Fenway. Paul and I pulled over to the side of the mob soon after leaving the gate to change our shirts over to Bruins gear. The transformation was only on the surface though, and I basked in the afterglow of the baseball game all the way home that night.
Patriot's Day in Maine and Massachusetts is a holiday and is marked every year with a Red Sox game at 11 am and the Boston Marathon which goes through the afternoon. It is a day when families embrace spring and remember their patriotic heritage, or simply pick up the debris from winter that is left on the family lawn. I wanted to go to the game this year and also to watch the Marathon afterwards, but lacked the money to do so. Instead I watched the game on NESN with commentary from Jerry Remy and Don Orsillo. Jerry was a Red Sox player for several years and now acted as the older, and potentially, wiser partner of the broadcast team. His voice was high pitched and had a northeast accent that is hard to place. Usually I can tell where someone is from by their accent, but his sounded like a mesh of several areas around Boston. This undoubtedly came from the diversity of these interactions around the ballpark. Don had a deep voice and it would serve as the background noise in my bedroom while I fell asleep countless times in my life. He was a balding man who looked like his head was far too large for his body. His heart and humility made him very endearing to anyone who listened to his broadcast.
Don made the call that electrified Red Sox Nation that day. His loud booming voice accompanied the image of a ball hit by Mike Napoli that drove in two runs. A walk-off double by Napoli won the game in dramatic fashion. I was yelling so loudly in my apartment that I could not hear the call. I could hear him yelling but it was drowned out by my own celebration of the win. The Sox were off to a great start in a year where many expected them to be marginal at best. I had to leave right after the game in order to get to my therapy appointment on time. I thought of canceling it until I realized that I could not afford a trip home to Fenway and decided to go at my normal appointment time. The session was the same as every other for the past year, marginal progress. Going to the ballpark was a big step for me, but relatively speaking, I was still not reintegrating with America. I left the therapist's office and returned home without stopping.
I entered my apartment and dropped my keys and bags at the door. I kicked off my shoes and flipped the television on to see the postgame reports and see what Napoli had to say. The postgame report was not on. Images of the Boston Marathon finish line were flickering but very slowly. The slow motion film showed me the first explosion, sending a plume of white smoke into the sky and a concussive blast through the barriers on the right-hand side of my screen. A man running the race stumbled and fell. Chaos ensued. The bottom of the screen stated the obvious: Explosion at the Boston Marathon Finish Line.
My heart was crushed and I was brought to tears. I watched television on September 11, 2001 as the second plane crashed into the second World Trade Center tower and exploded into a ball of flames. I had joined the Army because of that day, spending the better part of ten years fighting terrorists abroad. I gave every part of myself to help prevent an attack like this from happening again. Many of the same emotions came flooding back to me. I was overloaded. Fighting this had cost me and my fellow veterans so much. To have it happen again now, after I had finally made my way home, was devastating. Everything I went through still had not prevented this assault. Worse yet, I had been working so hard to fight paranoid fear from combat stress, and I had finally overcome it enough to go to a game. The fear was only confirmed by the reality of these new events. I am sure I was not the only veteran who felt this way. It was horrible.
Most of the nation watched as the various agencies spent the next few days investigating and recovering the Boston area. I was riveted. I could not leave my apartment for more than a few minutes for fear of missing something. I had friends in that area, one so close that his house was shot during a firefight with the bombers, and I wanted to know what was happening.
As the week went on, I felt more and more isolated within my country. All the good that came from going to Fenway was wiped out. I felt used by my country for my service, unappreciated for my expertise, and forgotten by my fellow Americans. "Screw em," I thought. "I will move to the woods and drop off the grid!" This tasted like a lie to my tongue though, and it was soon forgotten. I started to focus on the people that I saw in the videos, doing amazing things in the face of danger. I understood this mentality as I almost hopped in my truck and made the 2-hour trip south when I saw it all unfold on my screen. I even secretly hoped the bombers would escape north where I could bring them down, but realized that was just a dream. I just wanted to do what I had always done to feel a part of this country, provide assistance to others. The problem was that no one wanted my help. They wanted donations of money, which I didn't have, but not my help.
I decided to flip my television to the Red Sox game. The Sox were in Cleveland for a matchup against the Indians and former manager, Terry Francona. The Indians, and most of Major League baseball, held wonderful ceremonies to honor those affected in the Boston attack. The pre-game ceremonies reminded me of the ones after 9/11 and I was pleased to see they were taking place so soon afterwards. It displayed the resiliency I have come to respect from the world. "Boston Strong" and "617" were displayed around the United States that night. Even the arch rival Yankees would display their solidarity with Boston on their billboards. They would be one of many teams to play "Sweet Caroline", a Boston Red Sox tradition, in their ballparks. Images were flowing across my screen that showed America, standing with Boston, united with my home.
I started looking for tickets to the next series in Fenway that was starting the Friday after the bombings. I wanted to be there to at least show support for the healing process, and hopefully heal a little bit myself. I found tickets behind home plate to the Sunday afternoon game against the Royals. I watched the manhunt and lockdown of Boston that Friday, as did most of the nation. I was worried the game would be cancelled on Sunday, but was thankful to hear it would only be the Friday night game that would be missed. I was excited to go home, but also worried. Recognizing that things would never be the same, I was concerned things in Boston would never be as good as before. The idea that I would no longer be able to go to Fenway and watch my beloved Red Sox without having a PTSD moment broke my heart.
The Red Sox started the Saturday afternoon game with one of the most touching presentations for Fenway Park. I watched the game at my apartment and got choked up, mirroring the emotions in the ballpark. The red letters on the white background of the team's jerseys carried the name of the beloved city instead of the normal Red Sox. The jerseys would later be auctioned and the proceeds donated to help the victims. Fans held signs with an emblem that was worn on the players' chests and the Green Monster. It was a circular, blue field with the Red Sox logo and "Strong" written in white letters.
I believe there is perfect timing even in tragedy. On that day, David "Big Papi" Ortiz returned to the team for the first time since the start of the season. Papi is the soul of Boston's lineup and represents the tough image of the city so perfectly; it seemed like a god had intervened to make his return coincide with that day. "This is our fucking city!" he declared, sending the Fenway faithful into frenzy. I let out a yell that sent my dog running. I felt electrified, just as the crowd at home did. While I was feeling better about the game on Sunday, I still had my doubts about how long this feeling would last for the Nation.
In the bottom of the eighth inning, Kansas City was leading 2-1. Runners were on first and second base with Daniel Nava coming up to bat. While Nava had sealed his place in my heart already, in Red Sox lore not everybody felt the same. Kelvin Herrera was pitching and tried to slip a change up through the strike zone, when Nava crushed the ball. Fenway came to its feet on contact, as I did in my little apartment. I heard Don Orsillo declare, "Boston, this is for you!" as the ball cleared the right field fence. Nava was mobbed as he made his way to the dugout and another chapter in Red Sox history had been etched. It was perfect timing; we all needed it. The Sox would go on to win that day 4-3.
I drove to the game on Sunday as rail service had only recently been returned and areas of the city were still shut down. I figured it would be easier for me to drive straight to the park and pay a little extra. The traffic got heavier as I approached the Tobin Bridge heading south, just as it always had. As I made my way through the heart of the city and down Storrow Drive, I watched the people in the parks. I was happy to see so many people out like any other spring afternoon in New England; runners, families playing, and people sailing. The activity continued until I reached the parking lot and found myself next to a familiar stream of fans draped in blue, white, and red. I felt like a droplet again and decided to join the rest of them in this stream. We made our way through side streets until our stream merged with a large river of fans, rolling toward Yawkey Way. Another person sitting like a rock against the flow of our river was passing out signs to display at the game with the "Boston Strong" logo.
Security was a little tighter than before the attacks as I was patted down before approaching the turnstiles. The man who checked my ticket had a warm smile and a pleasant laugh as he told me to enjoy the game. Everyone was on Yawkey Way; the fans, men on stilts, the band, and NESN. It felt like a family reunion, a whole bunch of people you don't know and yet hold a strong bond with. I stood in awe for a moment, faces smiling, people being courteous if not downright nice to each other. I made my way to a beer vendor and then to the sausage stand. The sweet Italian sausage sandwich and Budweiser beer never tasted so good. It was cold and I bought a new team jacket at the team store. Everyone was smiling and happy. The coat and crowd warmed my body and heart.
I made my way to my seat without any of the normal incidents that would make me edgy—things like people bumping into me or stepping on my foot. People were relaxed and in no particular rush. There was no hostility in the mood of the crowd. The ushers who were near my seat were jovial and greeted me with a sincere welcome, as if we were old friends. The opening ceremonies continued to honor first responders for acts of bravery during the attack. A feeling of somber resiliency enveloped the ballpark as fans, some in tears, cheered for the local heroes. The crowd collectively said ugh at the announced game time temperature of 49 degrees. It was a cold day in Fenway and I was sitting in the shade, only making me more of a popsicle. I stayed for the National Anthem; my watery eyes did not look out of place for a change. While it was cold, the embrace of the crowd kept me warm. The crowd started to quietly sing with the beginning of the anthem. By the time the performer reached the last verse, the crowd had almost drowned out her voice. Everyone was singing, feeling, and erupting with unified emotion that lifted our hearts at the end of the song.
I was seated next to one of the entrances that brought fans into the seating area. This was an area of high traffic for fans in-between innings, and an area for the staff to stand and watch the game while the ball was in play. I watched the game as I always do at Fenway. By the third inning I was debating with a man and his son the reasoning for sending Jackie Bradley Jr. to the minor leagues. Their thick Boston accents were strong and reflected the culture of our home. We would collectively cheer at a hit, or boo at a bad call from the umpire. We were "Boston's 10th Man". I discussed a close call with the usher that would have been a triple play, a real rarity I have yet to see. He told me a story about seeing two triple plays, and how he would never forget them. We were all there together, sharing the game and a part of ourselves.
A promotional event was scheduled for the fifth inning by a local civic group. I cannot remember who they were or what they were trying to achieve. The announcer told the crowd to "high five" their neighbors in a show of community. I do remember the faces and smiles that greeted me and "high fived" me. Some would just walk by and smile and extend their hands, while others would wade into the crowd and exuberantly embrace their fellow fans. It felt good. It felt like we were all a part of something so much larger than ourselves. There was a double header that day and a mother sitting behind me with her children had waited until that moment to tell her kids she had gotten tickets for the night game too. Their excitement was contagious and made me want to get tickets to the game as well.
In the middle of the seventh inning, we all sang Take Me Out to the Ball Game. It felt like I was singing with old friends and I smiled wider than I had in a very long time. I swayed in rhythm with the rest of the fans in my section. Fathers had arms around the shoulders of their sons and everyone was singing and looking at each other. We were there together, singing our favorite childhood tune. The shade that had once covered me and only part of the grass behind home plate had extended almost to the base of the pitcher's mound. Fenway's unofficial sundial told us how close the game was to ending.
The Sox were losing 4-2 heading into the bottom of the eighth inning. The crowd grew louder as the first and second base runners got on base and it looked like the team would finally score after being shut out the previous 6 innings. The rally ended when Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia grounded out to close the inning. The Fenway faithful let out an aww as the bat barely made contact with the ball and slowly made its way through the infield.
As always in Fenway Park, the end of the eighth inning means the beginning of Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline". The verses are posted on the billboard for even the neophyte Bostonian or random fan from a visiting team to join the crowd in their chorus. I sang as my eyes scanned the crowd, my extended family of sorts. We were all feeling, "SO GOOD! SO GOOD! SO GOOD!" I did not want to leave and my heart sank slightly as I realized there was one inning left to play.
The game ended unceremoniously. The Sox lost 4-2 and the stadium was cleared quickly to get ready for the evening match. I did not linger, but instead joined the crowd making its way out of the ballpark. The lake of fans, sitting in Fenway just minutes before, now burst out into the streets like the ballpark had sprung several leaks. I made my way back down the streets I had followed to enter the stadium. I trickled to the edge of the group and made my way into my truck. The isolation inside almost made me want to jump out, leaving everything in Maine behind, and just stay there in Boston, but I could not.
As I drove back to Maine, I reflected on how I had begun this journey with the Red Sox. It is easy to say I am a fan, but this was so much more. The game is great and I watch every one with as much enthusiasm as anyone else. I started this path because I had not felt at home since returning from Iraq. I found my home again during the home opener a few weeks before. I had seen the effects of the bombings on the Boston Marathon and thought that Fenway and baseball itself would never feel the same for me. What I found was something unexpected.
I found the City of Boston proudly determined to continue its way of life. The people were all hurting like I was and they had sought refuge in Fenway. They had come to watch the game, engage with their community, and to heal. I had come to watch, reconnect with my community and to heal. While we were all damaged a little in one way or another, we were all looking toward the game of baseball for support. Baseball is a game that reflects the realities of life. The tempo of the game and life is slow, with brief spurts of significant activity. Success is limited and gained only through determination. The best hitter in the history of baseball only had a .400 batting average. That means he got out 60 percent of the time. Timing is critical in almost every aspect of the game. Watching the game helps bring me perspective on life. The healing nature of baseball and of Red Sox Nation is powerful. We long to be there. Boston you're my home.