Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Sacred Cod

Don't take your environment for granted.

I once worked in a building where every day I could see Dealey Plaza and the building forever known to history as the Texas School Book Depository. Most days, I drove through the infamous JFK assassination site on the way to work. Pretty much around the clock, people were milling about the small site, looking at the "grassy knoll," searching for meaning and answers.

History has always been interesting to me. And it comes in so many forms... not just historical events, but in locales, architecture, works of art. Americans don't always seem to understand this; if a building is really old, often some person or entity will deem it junk and want to destroy it. As Joni Mitchell said, "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot."

As a sports fan, I've always hated to see sports structures torn down. Each of them have memories. Here in Boston, Fenway Park is more than 100 years old... it opened within a week of the Titanic sinking. Detroit's Briggs Stadium, better known as Tiger Stadium, opened at the same time. It's long been torn down. I saw my first baseball games there. I think it's sad that it's been torn down.

But they've torn down Yankee Stadium. Texas Stadium. The Boston Garden. Olympia. In each case, the reason was to make more money from new structures. In Montreal, the Forum building has been converted to movie theaters and small stores.

Meanwhile in Rome, the Colosseum stands.

History is everywhere. We should appreciate it more.

Thirty years ago, as I was just beginning my so-called career, my mom gave me a book that I really should re-read. "Blue Highways" by William Least Heat Moon details a three-month cross-country journey the author took along the nation's forgotten, non-Interstate roads.

An exchange from the book has stayed with me. The author is asked, "Where you coming from?" His response: "Where I've been."


Our history makes us. Every step we have taken has brought us to the precise spot we are today. That makes it relevant and that makes it important.

M had a business event at Suffolk University. Everything here is accessible (eventually at least) via public transportation, but since I often have time and want to learn the layout of this erratically-laid out town, I drove her there.

The drive itself was fascinating... if you like history, downtown Boston is overrun with it. Suffolk is literally across the street from the state's seat of government, the Massachusetts State House.

Actually, it's the "new" State House, because it replaced the old one... in 1798. It's in the Beacon Hill neighborhood, on land once owned by John Hancock (yes, THAT John Hancock).

To get to Suffolk from where we are, you go down Storrow to Charles Street. Charles is in the heart of old Boston, and as thrilling as it is to go down it, the side streets that go left up Beacon Hill are even more fascinating. When the weather warms, I will wander them excitedly. They are impossibly narrow and tight. At the end of this stretch, you turn left onto Beacon at the westernmost corner of Boston Common, the nation's oldest city park, dating from 1634. The Common's illustrious history includes serving as a camp for British soldiers prior to the American Revolution, and the site of public hangings.

Beacon Street (see drawing circa 1850) forms a border for the Commons going uphill toward the State House, the large, domed structure at the top of the rendering. Charles runs along the water's edge. A lot of what is river in that drawing is now landfill.

It's magnificent. Imagine the people who have walked this street.

Right as you get across from the State House is a sign that made the middle-schooler in me laugh: It reads "General Hooker Entrance." I'm not the only one so inclined; there are numerous photos of these markings on Google. The jokes about political opportunism are just too easy.

The State House itself, nestled so snugly in this neighborhood, has a brilliant gold leaf dome, visible for miles as you head downtown on Storrow Drive. A few years after being built, the once-wood dome was once covered in copper. Paul Revere's company did that.

(See what I mean about the history in this place?)


You can drive completely around the State House, and peer into some of its windows. It made me a little sad in this Era of Crazy that I thought that despite sentry stations located around its perimeter, the building seems vulnerable to attack. In at least one way, the terrorists bin Laden and McVeigh won: our public buildings have become targets. I'd be more comfortable if they limited vehicular access to the building.

After seeing it, I wanted to learn more. You can tour the building and I will. Especially after learning about the Sacred Cod.


The Sacred Cod is referenced in wikipedia's entry about the Massachusetts State House. The Sacred Cod has an entire entry of its own.

Obviously, the fishing industry is and has always been crucial to the Bay State economy. So much so, it seems, that at some point in the mid-18th century, a carved representation of the cod was placed in a position of note at the old State House.

By the time the "new" State House was erected in 1798, the "Sacred Cod" was an accepted totem. The painted carving weighs 80 pounds and is just under 5 feet long. It hangs in a place of honor in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

And apparently, this isn't the only exalted fish in the State House: The state Senate chamber has a chandelier adorned with a brass casting of another sea beast. This one is called the Holy Mackerel.

The Sacred Cod of Massachusetts has been the target of collegiate thefts twice; once apparently just for kicks, and once as a protest statement. But it's now remained safely hung in this hall of government for more than 45 years. The thefts were classified as "cod-nappings."

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