The old Hancock Building on Boston harbour has a spire on top of it that incorporates a light that acts as Boston’s weather vane. Colour codes represent different states of weather… with one exception as told in this old rhyme:
Steady blue, clear view.
Flashing blue, clouds due.
Steady red, rain ahead.
Flashing red, snow instead.
(except during baseball season, when it means the Red Sox game has been called off).
That’s Boston for you. It’s a city that strikes me as endlessly charming due to the meticulous care Bostonians have taken to preserve, catalogue and celebrate their past… but just when you start to think they’re a bunch of stuffy historians, along comes a little twist that reveals their playful side, like the Red Sox worming their way onto the Hancock Building weather vane.
And then there’s that story you hear about the Harvard Bridge, built across the widest point on the winding, very sedate Charles River: apparently, the two big universities, Harvard and MIT both wanted the bridge to be named after themselves. MIT insisted it had first claim, because the bridge actually leads into their campus. The row continued for a few years, before somebody from MIT, while examining the plans for the bridge, found a flaw in the way it was designed. Well, that was that for MITians… they weren’t going to be associated with something that wasn’t perfectly engineered, so Harvard Bridge it was.
Wait for the twist.
When you walk along the bridge, you notice these strange markings on it: “50 Smoots”, “100 Smoots”, “250 Smoots”. It turns out that the official unit of measurement for the Harvard Bridge is Smoots, Smoot being a kid who had the bad luck of being the shortest guy in his batch in his freshman year at MIT. You can probably guess what happened.
In October 1958, Oliver R. Smoot was rolled head over heels across the Harvard Bridge by his fraternity brothers of MIT’s Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity as part of an initiation pledge. One Smoot measures 5’7″. There are markings on the bridge at every 10 Smoots, normally, though there are exceptions: the 70-Smoot mark is omitted in favor of a mark for 69; the 182.2-Smoot mark is accompanied by the words “Halfway to Hell” and an arrow pointing towards MIT. The total length of Harvard Bridge is 364.4 Smoots plus one ear.
I don’t know if that’s Smoot’s ear or someone else’s.
(Interesting asides: Wikipedia also tells me that
This was only the beginning of Smoot’s career in standards and measurement; he later became Chairman of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and President of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).
And did you know
Google Calculator also knows about Smoots. Enter 10 feet in Smoots at Google and the calculator will tell you that 10 feet is 1.79104478 Smoots.
Saurabh and I were in Boston for four days during New Year’s 2006 (wow that’s 4.5 yrs ago!), staying with some rather cool relatives – my sister-in-law’s brother-in-law and his wife, who will for convenience be called Renu and Neeraj. The day we reached there we went out in the evening to watch King Kong, which was a pretty good movie, considering how much it grossed me out. Anyway.
Not even in fantasies had I imagined that Boston would be so… Boston. Everything in Boston is the first or the oldest of its kind. On our first full day there, we toured Harvard, the oldest university in the country, which also has the largest library in the world with thirteen BILLION books. We saw the statue of John Harvard – infamously known as the statue of three lies, because the date that the statue gives as the founding year of Harvard is wrong, because John Harvard was not the founder of the university, and because in real life, the man had an ugly old mug utterly unlike the one on the statue.
See what I mean about the twists?
We had a lot of fun at Harvard. The buildings are beautiful and stately, and the one known as the Memorial Hall is quite something else – and they use it to house, among other things, a canteen for the students.. stained glass windows, Gothic spires and all. Renu, my sister-in-law-in-law-in-law (SILILIL, for short), is an amazing tour guide. She knows all the stories about everything, and regaled us endlessly with little anecdotes about the things we were looking at. All the stories here in this entry are what she told us as we went around the place.
We wandered out of Harvard and towards the train station for our next destination, stopping along the way to admire the buildings and in particular, a sign painted on one of the windows of an old building identifying it as a law firm: Dewey, Cheetham & Howe. (Say it out loud. Yup. It’s a prank, there’s no law firm there.) We took the train to Quincy Market, which is an old, old marketplace just by the Boston Harbour. Now there’s a huge food court there and a whole bunch of souvenir shops. Outside Quincy Market, there’s a big courtyard sort of place with strange markings on the stones that make up the floor of the square. The broken, jagged line marks out the original Boston Harbour line. Everything outside of the line is reclaimed land.
What a great place to play “in the pond, on the bank”.
After a very filling late lunch, we wandered out of Quincy Market to christmas lights blazing on the trees on all six cylinders. It was getting pretty darn cold out, as evidenced by the many little ice sculptures that were beginning to make their appearence in the walkway outside the market.
Flashing red on the Hancock Building was what we mostly caught later that night, New Year’s Eve. It’s quite something to be out in a parade that gets thoroughly snowed on… but brave the cold we did. It wasn’t anything great, as parades go, and one lesson that we’ve come away with is that there’s nothing that matches a parade seen on TV – the fewer people you annoy by elbowing ahead of them in order to see something for once, the better. But the atmosphere was charged, the company was great, and no matter what, we were always in Boston, which meant we kept passing interesting little (and big) landmarks and historical sites along the way as we folowed after the parade.
For one thing, there were some fantastic ice sculptures to feast our eyes on. At Quincy Market earlier in the day, we’d already seen a lot of these but they’re pretty and colourful no matter how many you’ve seen, so we snapped pictures again.
And here’s something that gives you a sense of how everything in Boston is old and venerable… we passed an ice sculpture in the making, one of Hansel and Gretl and the witch standing at her house which, if you remember, was made of cakes and chocolate, and another ice sculpture (call it an ice-banner) announced that today was the thirtieth anniversary of this ice sculpture being made on this spot.
Anyway, that’s where I’m going to leave us and this story – stamping our feet and doing tap dances to keep our toes from freezing up on us as we chatted about this and that, waiting for the fireworks to start. I can’t think of a better way we could have spent New Year’s eve. I can’t think of a place I’d rather visit than Boston right now. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do than listen to all its little stories all day.