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Climbing Heartbreak Hill

Climbing Heartbreak Hill

By William Rivers Pitt
17 April 2013

The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimeters
and the diameter of its effective range about seven meters,
with four dead and eleven wounded.
And around these, in a larger circle
of pain and time, two hospitals are scattered
and one graveyard. But the young woman
who was buried in the city she came from,
at a distance of more than a hundred kilometers,
enlarges the circle considerably,
and the solitary man mourning her death
at the distant shores of a country far across the sea
includes the entire world in the circle.
And I won't even mention the crying of orphans
that reaches up to the throne of God and
beyond, making a circle with no end and no God.

- Yehuda Amichai, "The Diameter of the Bomb"

When you're in a car, or taking a leisurely stroll, it hardly seems menacing at all. Less than half a mile long and rising only 88 feet, it does not even merit mention from a geological point of view. Hell, 364 days of the year, it's barely there, just a long lump on Commonwealth Avenue in the city of Newton, Massachusetts...but on one special day, a day like no other around here, that half-mile becomes an eater of souls, elongated agony, a place of definitions.

Beginning at the 20th mile of the Boston Marathon, Heartbreak Hill is where the glycogen in your muscles finally runs out, and there is you and the wall and the pain. If you reach the summit - if - you are greeted by the roaring cheers of Boston College students and thousands of other spectators. In the distance shines the top of the Prudential Tower, visible for the first time all day, and the sight of it carries the hard-won knowledge that you're almost at the end.

That's where I grew up, right at the top of Heartbreak Hill, and every Patriot's Day was a celebration of the newly arrived springtime, the community cheering on the runners, and of course, the people running the race. My favorite part every year is when Team Hoyt crests the Hill to the adulation of all. Rick Hoyt was born with cerebral palsy. In 1977, his father Dick pushed young Rick in a wheelchair while competing in a race, and Rick told him, "Dad, when I'm running, it feels like I'm not handicapped." Well, that was that; at 37 years of age, Dick Hoyt began race training by pushing a bag of cement in a wheelchair, and Team Hoyt was born. The father and son have run in 30 Boston Marathons and over a thousand endurance events. Just before this year's marathon, a beautiful bronze statue of the pair was unveiled in Boston.

The statue is wonderful, but for me, the emotions that come year after year watching Rick and Dick Hoyt defeat Heartbreak Hill on their way to Copley Square are something that can neither be quantified nor explained. It is the whole thing at once, all of it, and you are always larger in spirit for having seen it. Everyone weeps, and smiles, and cheers them as they pass, and it is only one small accent in the symphony of joy that is and has been Boston's best day for the last 117 years.

Rick and Dick Hoyt did not finish the marathon on Monday. They were stopped by race officials a mile from the finish line, along with thousands of other runners, when a pair of bombs left by a coward kicked the city in the heart. Somewhere in the bedlam, Dick Hoyt lost his wheelchair. A mile away, people had lost their legs and their lives as Boylston Street became a bloodbath filled with screams and sirens. In the blink of an eye, Boston became a member of a terrible fellowship that includes Belfast, Baghdad, London, Madrid, Tokyo, Oklahoma City, New York and many other places large and small. The price of admission: the cold, hard, awful, furious, terrified, empty feeling that comes when it has happened to you.

I know dozens of people who were within a mile of the explosions. One friend was waiting with her two young sons for her husband to finish the race, was between the bombs when they went off, and sought shelter inside a storefront as bedlam broke loose on the street. Another friend was 20 feet away from one of the bombs, and saw what was all over the sidewalk as the smoke billowed around him. You see, everyone goes into the city on Marathon Day, to eat and drink and meet friends and cheer on the runners and maybe take in the annual early ballgame if they manage to score a ticket. Those not enjoying the day are working in packed bars and restaurants. Everyone I know was there, and now everyone I know will have a very personal story to tell about where they were when the day we look forward to all year long became the stuff of nightmares.

Fred Rogers, the iconic children's television personality, once said, "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'" This was Boston on Monday, too. Not just the police and medical professionals who were on the scene, whose instantaneous reaction absolutely and without doubt saved lives, but regular citizens as well, average people who suddenly found themselves in a war zone and ran toward the sound and the smoke to do what they could. They used lanyards and their own belts to place tourniquets on the wounded, and their actions also saved lives.

A number of the runners who were allowed to cross the finish line after the explosions, before officials shut it all down, did not stop running until they got to a hospital so they could donate blood. The Boston Red Cross was flooded with so many donors that they had to turn people away, eventually releasing a public statement letting everyone know they had more than enough. The exact same thing happened here after the attacks of September 11th, when the city rose up to reach out to our big brother down the road.

This is Boston. Like our brothers and sisters in this grim fellowship, we are made of sterner stuff. Whoever did this has already failed. They have murdered, and they have maimed, and they have utterly and completely failed. There will be a reckoning for those who thought it meet to shatter a crowd of families with bombs packed with nails and ball bearings, and may God help them, because no one else will. They have failed, because this is Boston, where we run to the sound and the smoke to help each other.

I do not know who did it, or why, but I do know this. One year from now, when the new spring sunlight shines down upon Boston's best day, we will be in the streets to cheer the runners and remember the lost. We will never forget, but we will not cower or crouch. We will be there with family and friends to celebrate the place and the time and the event that is uniquely and completely ours. It will not be taken from us by anyone, ever. This is Boston. If you want to find us this time next year, we will all be with Rick and Dick Hoyt, climbing Heartbreak Hill together.


William Rivers Pitt is a Truthout editor and columnist. He is also a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of three books: "War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know," "The Greatest Sedition Is Silence" and "House of Ill Repute: Reflections on War, Lies, and America's Ravaged Reputation." He lives and works in Boston.

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