Monday, July 06, 2009

Reflections on a 4th of July “Day in the Life”

(Photo courtesy of Craig Collins)

A few months ago, my good friend, Mark Sohmer, wrote a hilarious parody of a typical day in the life of The White Rhino. The account I am about to chronicle for you comes eerily close to Mark’s tongue-in-cheek diary and veers perilously close to self-parody, but reflects the actual events, thoughts and feelings that I experienced during a full and memorable 4th of July in Boston and Cambridge.

Having had some wonderful recent opportunities to spend time with family, this 4th of July celebration for me was to be spent with friends. I began the day early by stopping by my office in Kendall Square to catch up on some e-mails before meeting my friends for breakfast down the street at the Residence Inn. The first e-mail I opened was from LT Court Harris in Iraq. In his message, he was musing about how much he would miss celebrating “the 4th” at home in the U.S.:

Al -

Happy Fourth of July! Don't know where in the world you are, but I hope you get to celebrate with family and friends. I've come to realize that although Christmas and Thanksgiving were tough to miss, I think this holiday will be the hardest. There's something about beer, burgers, fireworks, the meaning behind the holiday, and the
Chicago summertime that can't be beat. I trust that you will no doubt celebrate enough for the both of us.

There it was – at the beginning of the holiday – a poignant reminder that the gift of freedom is never free, and men and women in our military continue to pay the bill for the Bill of Rights.

Then I opened an e-mail from my friend, Rasul Damji, whom I would be meeting shortly for breakfast. Rasul had passed along a link to a mesmerizing YouTube video of Morgan Freeman emceeing a dramatic reading of the Declaration of Independence from Independence Hall, offered as part of an article in The Leaders Notebook:

I watched the video and then had to sprint down Broadway in Kendall Square to meet Rasul and his family. During my few moments in transit, I was struck with the poignancy of the fact that my friend, Rasul, had sent me this link to a video about the Declaration of Independence. I am very familiar with Rasul’s remarkable story and pilgrimage to make a home in the land whose birthday we would be celebrating together on this 4th of July. He was born in Tanzania to a family that was part of the Indian Diaspora. Rasul’s grandfather in Tanzania had a close friend - a man by the name of Mohandas K. Gandhi, someone intimately acquainted with the struggle for freedom and autonomy.

As soon as I had greeted Rasul and his three children at the Residence Inn and we had settled around the table to share breakfast, I asked him the question that had been percolating in my mind since I had watched the video from Independence Hall:

“Rasul, as someone who has had to fight hard to become a citizen of the U.S. and make a life for yourself here, what kinds of emotions do you have today as we celebrate our nation’s birthday?”

Rasul’s sons and daughter joined me in listening to Rasul’s response, recounting his days as a student at Boston University and a career path that would eventually lead him to some of the highest echelons of the telecommunications industry, including top leaderships roles at Lucent, AT&T et al.

As we were finishing up our breakfast, I noticed that the woman clearing our table was from Eastern or Central Europe. She had a classic Slavic face. “Do you mind if I ask where you are from?”

“I am from Bosnia.”

“From Sarajevo?”

“Yes,” she answered with a broad smile.

“Kako ste?”

She was pleased and shocked that I was able to greet her in her language. On this 4th of July morning, I had encountered yet another person who values the liberties many of us take for granted, for she had escaped a war-torn land to immigrate to the Land of the Free.

When we finished our breakfast, we still had an hour before the gates would open at Fenway Park – our next destination.

I asked, “How shall we travel – by T or shall we walk?”

Rasul was eager to walk – his children a bit less eager at the prospect.

I decided to have some fun.

“Rahim, go on your iPhone and pull up the GPS and tell us how far we will have to walk.”

In a flash, he was able to proclaim: “It’s only 1.8 miles; let’s do it.”

“Great idea,” I said. “It is a gorgeous day, we will be able to walk through the MIT campus and you can show your brother and sister all the sights of where you may be coming to school in a year. We will cross the Mass. Avenue bridge, have a perfect view of the Boston skyline and the barge that will give us tonight’s fireworks display. And, along the way, we may just meet someone interesting.”

Our peregrinations brought us through the heart of the MIT campus and up Mass Ave. to the bridge. We began to notice that the span of the Mass. Avenue Bridge was marked out in something called “Smoots.”

“Rahim, please go back on your iPhone and Google to find out what a Smoot is.”

Based on Rahim’s on-the-fly research, we learned that during an iconic period in MIT history, a student project/prank led a group of undergraduates to take one of their classmates, a young man by the name of Smoot, and turn him into a unit of measure. They laid him out on the bridge, and measured the length of the span using his body as a yard stick - or rather – a “Smoot stick.” Young Smoot stood a Dustin Pedroia-esque 5’ 7.” So, a Smoot measures 5.58333 feet. By the time we completed our Smoot research, we had gained the Boston end of the bridge, and turned onto Beacon Street and headed to fabled Kenmore Square. We were joined by other members of Red Sox Nation who likewise were responding to the gravitational pull of Fenway Park and making their way towards Lansdowne Street and the Green Monster.

At Kenmore Square, we had a long wait for the “WALK” light. I noticed a young gentleman in a Red Sox cap. Caught up in the spirit of the moment, I yelled to him,

"Go Sox!"


“I said, ‘Go Sox’!”

“Oh, I am not from around here. I am from Cincinnati.”

"What brings you to Boston wearing a Red Sox cap?”

“I was just drafted by the Red Sox, and I am here trying to figure out if I should sign with them or accept the scholarship to play in college.”

“When do you need to decide?”

“By mid-August.”

“Here is my card. As a life-long Red Sox fan, I think I represent Red Sox Nation pretty well. Will you promise me that before you make up your mind, you will give me a call and let me have the opportunity to tell you – from the vantage point of the Red Sox fan base – what it means to play baseball in this town?”

“Yes, sir.”

As Luke headed off in the direction of the players’ entrance, I turned to the Damji family, who had been listening in on the conversation.

“Remember I told you at the hotel that we would probably meet someone interesting?”

Before entering Fenway Park through Gate A, we stopped at the cart of my favorite peanut vendor. The same family has been selling freshly roasted peanuts in this location on Yawkey Way since the Park opened in 1912. A word to the wise: the peanuts sold here are much better and much fresher and cheaper than those sold inside the park. On your next visit to Fenway, stop by and tell them that The White Rhino sent you!

Although Rasul and his family live in New Jersey in the heart of Yankee Country, he is a diehard Red Sox fan, and he is raising his kids in the same way. His years of study at BU made him a Red Sox fan for life. Each summer, he brings his children to Boston for at least one Red Sox game, and I usually join them for the experience.

We saw an exciting game, but one which the Red Sox ultimately lost in the 11th inning to the Seattle Mariners. After the game, we separated – the Damjis headed for a dinner engagement in Harvard Square, and I set a course towards Beacon Hill to meet my friends, John Campbell and his wife, Susan Bird. John and Susan are the Founders of a remarkable new organization that I have mentioned previously in The White Rhino Report: MyVetwork combines features of LinkedIn and Facebook to create an on-line community for military veterans, their families and those who want to be of support to them. I have been pleased to play a small role in connecting them with individuals in my network who are helping them to grow MyVetwork into a nation-wide movement. John and Susan, based in the NYC area, were in Boston for the long weekend to visit family and friends and fireworks. Over a delicious dinner at the Beacon Hill Bistro, John and Susan filled me in on some exciting developments in the growth of MyVetwork.

As we chatted about the work being done by a group of energetic young officers and veterans, we talked about my friend and protégé, LT Rajiv Srinivasan. Rajiv and his unit from Ft. Lewis Washington are only days away from deploying to Afghanistan.

So, during dinner, we spontaneously decided to call Rajiv to wish him a “Happy 4th. The immanence of his upcoming deployment served as another reminder on this holiday that the 4th of July is about much more than fireworks and burgers.

It is getting late and I am running out of steam, so I will “cut to the Chase”! John and Susan invited me and the Damji family to join them on the roof of the Beacon Street building where they were staying to watch the fireworks from a fantastic vantage point overlooking the Esplanade. We could hear the Boston Pops and Neil Diamond, and had a ringside seat for the gorgeous fireworks display. I felt like a kid again. The owner of several Boston restaurants was with us on the roof, and had ordered in some goodies form one of his restaurants that he shared with the rest of the crew, so it was a special evening “up on the roof.”

What a day – one of reflection, celebration, fellowship, fun, friendship – and lots of sobering reminders of how blessed we are to live in the comforting shadow of those who so many years ago put their names on the parchment and put their lives on the line.

God bless America!



Jared said...

You've lived here for how long, and you didn't know what a "Smoot" was? Shame. :)

Eric said...

Dear White Rhino- Just reading this note for the first time on 7/3/2016, and it's as fresh and timeless as it must have been when originally written. Thoroughly enjoyable. Thanks for thinking, feeling, writing, sharing. As a fan, Eric