The Glorious Unsafe Fourth

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After them came George Drum’s band, a semiprofessional outfit that gave concerts in the bandstand Saturday nights. The tuba player always attracted me most. He seemed to have a note for each foot that he played as he put that foot forward—oom-pah, oom-pah—in a pattern that never varied. Under the broiling sun his round face was bathed in sweat, and drops of water ran down his cheeks to drip off the point of his chin.

Someone lit a package of small crackers and tossed it neatly into the tuba. The player seemed to be making too much noise himself to hear the explosions, but when smoke began to filter out through his drooping mustache, he stopped to investigate. The crowd was delighted.

Then came floats covered with bunting and representing various ideas of America triumphant; then the Boy Scouts—I could have marched with them but it was more fun to toss firecrackers at their feet. And then, best of all, a Scotch bagpipe band. There was something wild and primitive about their skirling that appealed to a boy’s ear, something stirring and rousing and appropriate to the Fourth. The bass drummer was an artist, a whole show in himself. He crossed his arms and tossed his sticks in the air and never missed a beat. Of the several things I would have liked to be, that drummer was first.

A line of new cars ended the parade. There was an Apperson “Jack Rabbit,” a Chalmers with a body as big as a whaleboat, a Stanley Steamer quietly hissing, an air-cooled Franklin with its comic-looking hood, and, of course, the plebeian Chevrolet and Maxwell and the indestructible T-model Ford. We knew all these cars by heart and called their names as they passed. Most of them, of course, were touring cars. The swing to sedans was just beginning.

A miscellaneous lot of cars and horse-drawn vehicles followed the parade—high, boxlike milk wagons, ice trucks covered like Conestoga wagons, a baker’s truck with rows of drawers, and open delivery wagons. None of them was streamlined, but they were built to fill the special needs they served, and they had a variety in appearance which, as you look back from an assembly-line age, was homely, familiar, and pleasing. Best of all we liked the ice truck, for there were always shards and slivers of ice when the iceman split up the big cakes with his axe. For these we would run behind the cart, calling, “Give us a piece of ice, mister?”

Best of all impromptu excitements was the runaway which invariably occurred on the Fourth. This time it happened just after the parade had passed—a thunder of hoofs, a volley of shouts, and a crowd of running men. The horse turned a sudden corner, the buggy he was pulling smashed against the granite curb and upset, the traces snapped, and the horse lit out for home. The beauty of his running, free from the load he drew—legs lifted high, mane flying, tail stuck out behind—seemed like the perfect expression of that freedom from restraint that the Fourth meant to a boy.

There was only one dark spot in the day’s program—the Fourth of July oration. This year the speaker was our school principal. As he stood up in the bandstand we knew that once he was wound up he might go on for an hour. Yet it never occurred to us to walk out. He was part of the day’s ritual. Ordinarily, the best we could hope for to break the monotony was a dog fight. But on this Fourth a special blessing occurred. Somehow—it could have been arranged—a dog and cat found themselves together under the bandstand. Between the platform and the ground was a continuous row of slats intended, no doubt, to keep out dogs and cats. However they had got in there, neither of them was able to get out. Their dispute over the territory, coming at the climax of the oration, was well timed. First a growl, then a frantic barking, then the spitting and spluttering of the cat, then a yowl, then a muffled symphony of noises rising to a shriek, then the injured surprise expressed in a plaintive yip, then the whole round repeated again—we got the whole story by ear. By the time someone had found a way to let the cat out, the orator was floundering in the wreck of his overweighted verbal edifice, the audience was snickering, and the band struck up “The Star-Spangled Banner” in an effort to save the sadly deteriorating situation.

After the noonday dinner there was a ball game, but I didn’t go. The afternoon heat settled over us like a thick blanket, leaving us limp and lazy. Now and then a faint breath of air stirred under the trees on the back lawn. We lay around on the grass, tossing a firecracker now and then, resting up for the evening program. Then I persuaded my mother to make us some lemonade, and in honor of the occasion she made it pink. What virtue the color had I do not know, but we assumed that it made an infinitely superior product. The bittersweet flavor clung to the throat; the lumps of ice floating in the glasses made the liquid so cold that we could feel the shock like ice laid at our foreheads when we drank. Then, lying on the soft, cool lawn, we looked up through the rich tangle of leaves, bright green where the sun shone through them and touched with gold at the edges, enjoying the apathy produced by the heat, savoring the delightful prospect of the long, school-free summer that we knew lay ahead of us.