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A Quarter's Worth of History

Anders Hove

A few months back I penned a little-noted column on the subject of the new, 50-state commemorative quarters which will be minted by the U.S. Treasury and placed in actual circulation starting around the millennium. I pointed out that the proposal, which comes from the Republican side of the aisle, falls right into line with the rest of the quarter's history, which has been both controversial and generally lacking in numismatic merit.

This week, tidbits of newspaper chit-chat have swayed me toward the multi-mint faction. Chief among the gossip was a comment from former-Governor William Weld, who has proposed the Massachusetts version of the "qwahtah" portray a wild turkey.

A wild turkey? My jaw dropped to the floor: I never believed the mascot of The Tech's C-league softball team would rate a national currency. Indeed, two bits would be far more than any of the team's players are worth in the Major League draft.

Okay, perhaps I didn't jump to any conclusions about what Weld meant when he suggested the wild turkey theme. He was referring to the bird consumed at many Thanksgivings feasts over the years, a completely staid and appropriate historical reference.

More seriously, as a guest here, I find this state - sorry, Commonwealth - something of an oddity. Here is a state steeped in history of revolution, occupation, war, and democracy. Here is a city, a small metropolis even, clinging to a few rocky outcrops and drumlins in a hostile clime. Yet do its residents evince a great love and recollection of their history, a remarkable ability to put up with weather, or the refinement of metropolitan aristocracy?

I myself hail from Missoula, Montana - a city of around 60,000, and the third largest population center in a state the size of all New England plus New York. When I landed on the platform at South Station, fresh from a three-day rail journey across the country, I fashioned myself a hero of some Horatio Alger book, a country boy gone to the Big City to make my way in the world.

Now, after four years across the river from the Hub of the Universe, followed by two in dowdy Somerville (a Spoke of the Universe?), I'm beginning to see Boston as something more of a small town than anywhere else I've ever been. Hearing the term "Beantown" still strikes me as both incongruous and ironic. Yet the small town atmosphere is undeniable.

The stylized story of Boston's cultural history might go like this: Boston's middle class merchant families gave rise to a local aristocracy, the Brahmin, in the mid-1800s. Mass immigration eventually swamped the state with new arrivals, who planted tenement-filled boroughs everywhere they went. Then aristocratic politics gave way to the political machine, organized crime, and the like. The intelligentsia fled first to Cambridge, then to Newton, and finally to New York. What's left is an academic stump, surrounded by weed-choked boroughs left over from the machines.

It's no surprise that when people talk about history in Boston or Massachusetts, they're often talking about contemporary history: Mayor Curley, Southie and forced busing, or the razing of the West End. Think of eminent Bostonians and you'll as likely come up with names like Tip O'Neill, Whitey Bulger and Ted Williams, as Hancock, Longfellow, Dana, or Kennedy.

Perhaps that's one reason people liked Bill Weld so much. He was a tie to something most people in the state have never known, in the sense that he was a caricature of the soft-spoken Brahmin intellectual of the previous century. It's not surprising to hear him evoke the pilgrims and their turkeys, since that's probably what a lot of people see in him.

Perhaps a more appropriate subject for the state's quarter art would be a Curley, McCormick, or O'Neill. But as an advocate of historical awareness, I say bring on the wild turkey quarters - the more the merrier. Massachusetts may be a small-town kind of place, but the rest of the country doesn't need to know the state has lost touch with its historical roots.