Independence Day is that marvelously homemade celebration of liberty, reflecting the unique values and sensibilities of small town America.
Oh sure, big cities have celebrations, too. But, if you can set aside your political cynicism long enough to experience the kind of heartfelt patriotic pride and genuine optimism, which, against all odds, still runs like a spring-fed stream through the landscape of contemporary American life, I’d recommend spending the Fourth in a small Maine town.
Having grown up in just such a place back in the 1950s and ’60s, my earliest memories of July 4th celebrations conjure up an increasingly hard-to-imagine era when gift shops were few and far between and fishing boats, a massive seafood processing plant, and busy shipyards dominated the local waterfront.
My childhood home still sits on a hill overlooking the harbor. Although these days the view is obscured by more than a half-century’s worth of tree growth, back then, on a clear day, I could see Monhegan Island from my bedroom window.
Despite this enviable bird’s-eye view, we always walked downtown when it was time for the fireworks show to start.
Who could blame us?
There’s just something magical about standing on the town dock at sunset with your siblings, the mailman, a stray dog or two, your first grade teacher and her husband and everybody else packed in tighter than Maine sardines in a can, anxiously anticipating that first whistling contrail rising into the night sky, arcing toward its spectacular “bombs bursting in air” payoff!
Speaking of bombs bursting in air, July 4th remains the one day of the year when you will absolutely be expected to sing all six verses of “America the Beautiful” from memory, including the one with the unlikely reference to feet:
“Oh beautiful for Pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wildernesssssss…”
You gotta love that one. Besides the quirky foot reference, catchy tune, patriotic theme and awesome rhyming, you get a couple of new vocabulary words tossed in at no extra charge.
In my professional life I’ve been privileged to participate in plenty of memorable small town Maine July 4th events.
Have you ever been to Brooks, Maine? Brooks is a tiny Waldo County town with an amazingly big spirit. The year I performed there the whole 4th of July show was staged at the gravel pit and I think all of the 1,000 or so residents showed up.
The big draw was a local long-haul trucker with several million miles in his rear view mirror, giving guided tours of the cab of his brand new 18-wheeler. Before you start snickering, have you ever been inside one of those rigs? It’s a fascinating experience, one you’re not likely to duplicate in New York or L.A.
These days I like to spend July 4th in Washington County. A couple of years ago I performed at Grand Lake Stream with some local acts including my old friend Randy Spencer, the Singing Registered Maine Guide who really got the crowd going with an original tune everybody could relate too, “The Black Fly Blues.”
My wife and I have also watched the Lubec 4th of July parade from our friend Vikki’s front lawn. Lubec is about an hour’s drive from our place in South Princeton and although the actual parade only lasted 15 minutes that year, everybody was having such a good time that when they returned to the starting point they decided to keep going and do the whole circuit one more time.
See what I mean about “homemade”? Naturally, the cheers were even louder the second time around.
Perhaps my favorite Independence Day memory ever is from 1986 when I was Grand Marshal of Eastport’s Annual Callithumpian (look it up yourself, I’m on deadline here) Fourth of July Parade. That year marked the 100th anniversary of the installation of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor. Millions of dollars had been donated by private citizens toward restoration of the iconic landmark in time for her centenary.
Since the project had received a lot of press, I wasn’t surprised to spot a young girl marching along, covered in tin foil, holding aloft a cardboard torch. I was, however, baffled to note that her tin foil costume was almost entirely obscured by an intricate network of plastic soda straws painstakingly scotch-taped together.
The mystery was solved when her mom explained that her daughter had insisted on the elaborate overlay of straws, meant to represent the metal construction staging, an integral part of Miss Liberty for the entire span of this young girl’s life.
Ah, I thought, of course. God bless America!