Did you see America as your neighborhood’s Fourth of July parade marched, rolled and roared by?
That’s what we’re looking for, don’t you think, as we watch and wave from sidewalk and roadside.
The parades of Chesapeake Country were fresh in my mind the afternoon of this July Fourth when my son Nathaniel called from St. Louis to report on the parade in his community, Webster Groves.
So I thought I was reading Nathaniel’s words when my husband passed this report to me on his iPhone the next morning.
No, I realized, as the time frame sank in.
These were the words and thoughts of my husband’s old colleague and later editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, William F. Woo. This parade passed 24 years ago, in 1991. Bill Woo died in 2006. Yet his words — shared on Facebook by his wife Martha Shirk — were timeless.
As I’ve never read a better story about a Fourth of July parade, I share a slightly reduced version of Bill Woo’s with you.
My family waited for the Webster Groves’ parade on the shady southeast corner of Gore and Swon. We had set the lawn chairs out early, and we bought small American flags for 50 cents apiece from a Boy Scout on roller blades.
A few minutes after 10, the motorcycle police drove by with sirens blasting, and shortly thereafter came the fire department aerial truck. Now the parade began in earnest: The VFW and American Legion color guards, the mayor and council members, the noisy string of old fire engines, the finalists for Miss Webster, the children of the Webster Groves Day Care Center.
Then, in white, came a delegation from Right to Life, and after it the Indian Guides, Miss Safe Boating of 1987, Camp Webegee, the high school marching band, the neighborhood drill teams with umbrellas and lawn chairs and the rest: all familiar, everything good natured, the whole parade as exciting and satisfying as fried chicken, potato salad and lemonade.
Afterward, we went across the street for an after-parade buffet. The comfortable old frame house was cool and the porch was crowded with neighbors and the hosts’ friends. I stood on the lawn with a man I know from the neighborhood, the two of us drinking cold beer and watching our children splash down a water slide.
Too bad about the Pro-Life group in the parade, he said. It was out of place.
No, I protested. I was glad they were there, and I was sorry the pro-choice people were not. The Fourth of July belongs to all of us, and it is good to see people in the parade who believe strongly in something.
Pro-choice would have made it even worse, the man said. Controversial issues create tension. They would ruin the parade.
I persisted. America was raised on political controversy and exists because of it. What better day to acknowledge this than the Fourth?
He said: How would you like the Ku Klux Klan marching in the Webster parade?
I had to think about that. Logically, my argument required me to accept the representation of every political, social and economic cause, no matter how unpopular; for all of them have an inalienable right to publicly celebrate liberty. If one cannot march on the Fourth of July, the parade is meaningless for the rest. Yet, did I wish to sit with my family and listen to the jeers, feel the sullen silences and watch angry, demanding people go by?
The parade that we watched depicted an idealized America, showing only a partial reality. Perhaps it was quite enough for the community to have briefly taken innocent, untroubled pleasure in itself. Nonetheless, my friend had disquieted me.
A few years ago, when our son Bennett was at the day care center, I marched in the parade myself, pulling him on a red plastic fire engine. The kids were an adorable lot — wonderful little faces of the future. But what if instead of pulling a beautiful three-year-old on a riding toy, I had been pushing my mother in a wheel chair? What if I and other family members of old men and women with advanced Alzheimer’s disease had marched with our relatives, all silent and crumpled, looking dimly out from withered faces that may be yours and mine someday?
What if the unemployed people of Webster had marched, white collars and blue, reminding those of us with jobs that our brothers and sisters in community lack economic opportunity? What if the gays and lesbians who are our neighbors were there? What if the drop-outs and the illiterates from the schools walked the parade route alongside the cheerleaders and the marching band?
We would still be Webster Groves; we would still be America. But it would be a very different Fourth of July. It would be more honest, but it would be disturbing, and I cannot honestly say that I would look forward to it, year after year, as I do this celebration …
As the fireworks blazed in the distance [that evening], I remembered a far grander display I once witnessed as a reporter from the banks of the Neva River in Leningrad, on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of Communism. The huge crowd then was perfectly controlled, immaculately behaved. No one was out of line or loud.
Now the people of Leningrad have voted to restore the name of St. Petersburg. Communism is dying and the Soviet Union is falling apart with rot. I reflected on that as I watched the people around me, some of them attentive and quiet, others rude and boisterous, all of them having a good time. There was nothing artificial here.
When we got home, the six-year-old was asleep and had to be carried to bed. I put the three-year-old in pajamas and read him a book about a cow and an elephant. Stay with me a little while, he said when it was finished and I turned off the light.
Some neighbors were setting off firecrackers. I thought again about the parade and the question the man had raised. No good answer had come. I thought about that well-mannered display in Leningrad and how much better the Jeeps with noisy teen-agers were; and before I could think of anything more the boy and I were both asleep.
Sandra Olivetti Martin
Editor and publisher; [email protected]