Features

Finally! We got to do the Duck Boat thing

... old history, but a beautiful new look at Boston

from Don Norris



Lorry and I have waited endless years to take a ride on Boston's Duck Boats --
although we have tried to get aboard many times, the price wasn't right, we
couldn't spare the time, or (mostly), the fleet of boats-on-wheels were simply
full -- sold out.

But this time -- while we were attending Lorry's reunion at nearby Simmons
College -- it was the college that offered the ride, and we were just too happy
to spend the fifty bucks (for two) for what turned out to be some two hours of
history plus a delightful cruise on the Charles River. Both of us highly
recommend this ride through the history of Boston and the American Revolution.

Most older people are familiar with the term Duck Boat, for they were invented
just for the army in World War II. They are water-borne land vehicles with lots
of wheels, capable of carrying such as a platoon of Marines -- like forty or
fifty soldiers. In the military version, there was usually a machine-gunner up
front, when the ducks were used for endless invasions from the Atlantic and
Pacific Oceans. Their purpose, of course, was to get the soldiers off the big
transport ships and take them to where the action was -- invading the beaches.

As soon as the Ducks' wheels touched terra-firma, the driver shifted gears and
drove his vehicle right onto the beach, and beyond. Thousands of these vehicles
had been produced for the war effort -- and these same thousands were declared
surplus as soon as the war was over. They were put on the open market -- Boston
(our guide said) bought two. Private enterprise bought others, and hence a new
tourist industry was born.

Hence the City of Boston (and other seacoast cities) suddenly had a fleet of
tourist vehicles, painted red, white, blue or yellow or pink. Besides being
popular tourist vehicles, they are also used for parades -- such as when
the Bruins won the Stanley Cup last year. Our Simmons vehicle was pink.

Ironically, after years of trying to get a ticket during tourist season, our
boat (on June 1) had a mere 15 passengers -- and one very talkative and
knowledgeable guide/driver. Apparently most Simmons grads (the alums for which
the ducks were hired) had been there, done that; we had a practically empty
Duck. Some four of the passengers even got a chance to steer the duck through
the wide waters of the picturesque Charles River. It surely gave us a new view
of Boston. Fabulous!

It seems our driver/guide never stopped talking. We experienced the Battle of
Bunker Hill in which (we learned) the farmer patriots mowed down the storming
Brits -- until they ran out of ammunition. We learned that Boston in colonial
times was almost an island, that the current city is for the most part built on
landfill taken from what had been three hills. Like Back Bay, that ritzy section
just west of Beacon Hill.

At one time, while chugging up the river by MIT, the driver turned the controls
over to a young lady from Simmons. She did an admirable job, and was followed by
my Lorry, who (a 1952 graduate) jumped at the chance to drive a Boston Duck
Boat. And yes, even I steered us around the waters surrounding the Science
Museum. Good fun, and we passenger-drivers were given a sticky-badge to
broadcast that we had driven a Boston Duck Boat.

By the way, those thousands of World War II duck boats -- officially called
DUKWs -- eventually rusted away, yet there was a demand for more -- both from
the military and now civilian markets. A new industry had been born, and the new
Ducks were modified to last longer, to run smoother, and to drive easier. But
driving one through Boston traffic is something else! Our guide/driver did it
with aplomb.

Along our 90-minute tour, we saw such Boston sites as the Public Gardens, the
Boston Common with its Frog Pond, the Massachusetts State House on Beacon Hill,
Louisburg Square, the old and valued Parker House Hotel, Boston's financial
district, Little Italy, the new open Green Space that replaces the old elevated
highway that ran straight through downtown Boston, Faneuil Hall and the Old
State House, the market area. And then we crossed the Charles River to
Charlestown, where we had a brief view of the USS Constitution and some other
war boats, then on to land under the new elevated highway which led us to a well-
worn ramp which in turn dumped us right into the lower Charles River.

At this point our guide shifted into water mode, gunned the engine, and we were
whisked (slowly) up the channel, under the city's heavy trafficked bridges, and
into the inner vista of the Charles River. On the right was Cambridge, MIT and
Harvard, on the left was Boston University and half a dozen other colleges. The
views of the city and the backside of Beacon Hill were glorious; even sailing
under the old but handsome Longfellow Bridge was a wonderful adventure.

Our return trip was back up the same entry ramp, across the river by the old
Boston Garden (now the TD Center), along the river to historic Charles Street,
by the Public Gardens and through Boston's Back Bay, by the beautiful old Boston
Public Library, through Copley Square, and back to our homebase along Huntington
Avenue.

Lorry and I strongly recommend the Boston Duck Boat ride. It is a history lesson
for young and old, a ride through this magnificent city, and provides new views
of one of our country's most treasured and vital places.


September 7, 2012


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