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Last week the streets of Boston were as hot as streets in the South. The dreaded thermal inversion must have swallowed the entire East Coast.That's why it seemed a good idea to duck into the shade of the church that was just a few feet from where we stood. We were following the Freedom Trail, the three-mile downtown path that traces Boston's role in the American Revolution. Across the street from us, behind a flower peddler's profusion of bouquets, stood the ancient Old South Meeting House, now a museum dedicated to the events in the Massachusetts Bay Colony that led up to independence.

My sandaled feet burned; a half-day's hike was beginning to wear on me. But inside, instead of a cool respite we found the heat of challenge. That building and the events that took place within it required that we shift our imaginations into gear.

Old South Meeting House was more than a place of worship 220 years ago; it was the largest place in colonial Boston where the growing ranks of colonists could assemble. When town meetings overflowed nearby Faneuil Hall, they adjourned to Old South, where citizens vented their fury over the Stamp Act and Boston Massacre. There they steeped in the anger that led to the Boston Tea Party. It was Old South's walls that echoed the voices of Samuel Adams and John Hancock. Listening to tapes of re-created speeches, I was caught up in their anger and indignation. Samuel Adams emerged as a fiery rebel leading his fellow citizens down the path of . . . what? Did he know where?

Suddenly, after a lifetime of admiration for these rebels, I realized how right it would have seemed to remain loyal to the Crown. I surprised myself by wondering whether I would have been a rebel or a Tory.

A strange question? Not really. We identify strongly with those colonists, but we also lean heavily on tradition. Listening to the fervor stirred up in that meeting house, it was easy to see that it might have transformed ordinary, peaceloving neighbors into British loyalists. Adams, indeed, must have seemed an agitator and a troublemaker.

Walking around Boston, I became intrigued, too, with the distance between that city and Philadelphia - figuratively as well as geographically. How that spark of rebellion in Old South Meeting House was forged into the genius of the Constitution is another story altogether.

Nevertheless, none of it would have happened without the defiance that built up in that bustling peninsula town. With the encouragement of Paul Revere, tradespeople joined the ranks of scholars and merchants and formed a new breed of citizen whom we now call patriots.

It's become our family's practice to visit historic sites when we travel. It's the way we get to know a city or a region - how it started, whose ideas shaped it and how it developed since then. We feel as if we understand its people a little better when we leave.

Last week we finished our exploration with a brief stroll down the broad, tree-lined country lane that led British soldiers from Lexington to Concord and that fateful meeting on the banks of the Concord River. In my mind, Ralph Waldo Emerson's words wouldn't quit:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,

Their flag to April's breeze unfurled;

Here once the embattled farmers stood,

And fired the shot heard round the world.

Would we, without the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, have been patriots back then? Walking down that lane, I wanted to think so.

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