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Image Source: Andrea Westbye http://www.flickr.com/photos/andrea_w/

Blink and you’ll miss it. But if you do blink, the parade turns around and comes back for a reverse lap of triumph. Just don’t blink and miss that.

Sure, there are small-town parades on the 4th every year. But none of them are the Whitefield, Maine July 4th Parade, held every year on the birth date of this great country and also on the birth date of my brother Eric.

Whitefield, Maine, sits on the Sheepscot River in Lincoln County. It’s about halfway between Wiscasset and Gardiner, so it’s mostly lumped in as a Capitol area town, since Augusta is only about fifteen miles away by Rt. 17. It is small (population 2,273 as of the 2000 census), with a surprisingly mixed population of farmers and artisans. The town was named after British evangelist George Whitefield, who apparently never ventured anywhere close to his own town. Whitefield was settled in 1770 and officially incorporated in 1809.

The sculptor Roger Majorowicz created a magnificent installation in a field along the Sheepscot, featuring his interpretation of Don Quixote astride Rocinante. This collection has greeted motorists entering Whitefield on Rt. 194 out of Wiscasset for as long as I can remember.

Whitefield is small enough to be serviced by the fire departments of Jefferson, Coopers Mills and King’s Mills, and naturally all have a major fire truck presence in the July 4th Parade.

Here is the 10,000’ overview of the parade: 10:00 Sharp (the sign doesn’t lie!) fire trucks with sirens on 11, livestock, antique cars, random protest float, patriotic floats, antique tractors. Turn around and repeat.

From each float you will be pelted with bags of Swee-tarts, Pixy Stix and Werther’s Originals, and you risk losing a finger by A. foot or B. tire in the stampede to grab as much candy as humanly possible. This is if you are still upright after hours of heatstroke, CO2 inhalation, hearing loss and claustrophobia, of course.

And then it’s time for games, shopping and eats! Bean bag toss, pig scramble, pies, hot dogs, home-made paintings, History of Whitefield books alongside old Jackie Collins masterpieces alongside Loverboy cassettes, town gossip and innuendo…brother, walk a block and the world is yours!

Eric usually loads up on post-breakfast/pre-lunch dogs, and then we head home. His day has always been a bacchanal of friends and family, presents, grilling and general American merriment. The day goes on, and is ultimately taken over by sparklers and fireworks on TV.

It is an occasion on the calendar second only to Christmas over our years. His day is our day in the sense that most of America embraces it, of course. But the fact that it’s really HIS day only makes it OUR day that much more. Just don’t blink: the day only comes around once a year.

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Photo Source: John Burns

Lum De Lum De Lai-ai CLAP! CLAP!
Lum De Lum De Lai-ai CLAP! CLCLAPAP!

“Okay, cut it!” John Cummings yanked the needle off the record with a piercing squeal of scratched rubber and rage. “You Miracles ain’t exactly delivering miracles with those hand claps. What’s the matter with you all?”

It was four hours before the start of the New Clinton High School Spring Thing Talent Show, and Smokin’ John and The Clintoneers were not on the same page. John, senior and group leader, couldn’t believe that his four sophomore and junior cohorts were messing up hand claps. On a lip-synch performance. He sat down on George Kraig’s couch, pulled out a Marlboro and stomped out the match in the shag carpet.

George, as John knew he would, flew into a nervous hissy fit at this, screaming, as John knew he would, “You can’t smoke in here! My parents will be home in two and a half hours!”

John mouthed the old routine along with George before lowering the boom.

“First of all, your parents ain’t gonna notice smoke cloud number one, the way they suck ‘em down. Second of all, your mom wouldn’t be able to smell her own ass burning over that cheap-ass five and dime perfume she douses herself with. Third of all, SHUT UP AND GET THOSE HAND CLAPS DOWN!”

John got up, put the needle back on the record, and the Clintoneers sweat through their last hacks at dancing like Smokey’s Miracles to “Mickey’s Monkey” before the show.

They had been getting their moves down for a few weeks. John, George, B.J. Lemay, Mike Rogers and Clint Conway all loved old rock ‘n roll, and they could be found every Saturday afternoon at 4:00 watching American Bandstand and taking notes. They worshiped the Philadelphia sound of Gamble and Huff, Billy Paul, Teddy Pendergrass and the OJays, and the Motown sound of Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Smokey & The Miracles. They were white teenagers with greasy, long rock ‘n roll hair, but they wanted to be Negro and dress sharp.

That presented a slight problem in Maine circa 1974. Buying suits meant a trip to Porteous or Sears in Portland, and there wasn’t much soul available off the rack. George, who was known for the occasional idea that was so oddball it almost made sense, tried to get around this by spray painting his powder blue tux black. It was a good idea in theory, but he almost knocked himself out on Krylon fumes in the unventilated garage, and the suit never fully dried out, thus ruining a tux and several good shirts.

They eventually found a slightly mismatched tux ensemble, but there was still the problem of deciding whether to “play” instruments or not. Clint had a new Fender Precision Bass, and B.J. had a snare drum. But George’s only instrument was a 1956 Silvertone guitar that his dad ordered from the Sears and Roebuck catalog when he was in high school. This was not a brand new Fender or Gibson. The action on the Silvertone was so bad that the strings were several inches off the neck, the neck was bowed, the finish was faded and chipped and, worst of all, one of the pickups dangled out of the body. Sure, it didn’t matter, since they wouldn’t actually be playing. But it stirred quite a fierce debate within the inner circle of the Clintoneers.

John didn’t want anything to do with that mangy guitar. But he also didn’t want to rock the boat too badly, because George’s parents had the best hi-fi of all of them. Knowing that George may walk if he got too hurt now, John stepped away from that argument. The Silvertone was in the show.

They finished their last practice, got dressed and started to pack up. George’s mom had a few of her new records out, and he packed those up along with the Smokey Robinson record. Side One, Track Five. He even put a little note on the record with Scotch tape so the janitor, who was running the record player, would know what to play.

The Clintoneers were scheduled dead last. They sat through bell ringers, cloggers, yodelers and a kid playing the Glockenspiel. As the Glockenspiel act took the stage, George handed the janitor, Mr. Farmer, the record with the note. He nervously blurted out, “Side One, Track Five!”

Mr. Farmer gave George a condescending sneer and said, “Last time we all have to hear your crazy ‘yeah-yeah’ junk music tonight!”

George was already about to vomit from nerves, and this little vote of non-confidence didn’t help much. He grabbed his Silvertone to strap it on, and almost dropped the guitar in the process. John gave George a little smack in the back of the head, and suddenly they were on stage and ready to go.

John mouthed Smokey’s intro, “Alright, is everybody ready?!? Alright, now here we go! Ah-one! Ah-two! Ah-one-two-three-four!” as Principal Torrance introduced them to wild screams. Showtime! Mr. Farmer dropped the needle, and after a second of pause the gym filled up.

With the sounds of The Carpenters.

Side One, Track Five of The Carpenters: “For All We Know.”

The band looked over at Mr. Farmer in shock. He was playing the wrong record! Holy shit!

John had to make up his mind whether he was going to sink or swim. As the sound of Carpenters oboes filled the gym, he looked stage right at Mr. Farmer, and noticed his smirk. Either he knew it was the wrong record and had played it anyway, or he didn’t know and didn’t care. Regardless, they would be dancing to The Carpenters, rather than Smokey Robinson.

He took a glance over at George, to see what how he was handling it. George was visibly terrified, so he didn’t look any different than he would of if Mr. Farmer had played the right record. But now aNOTHER dilemma flashed before John’s eyes: did he really want to ride out his senior year being the pansy boy that sang The Carpenters at the talent show?

SHIT!

The oboes stopped, and the record kept going. John gathered his dignity and tried to channel Dennis Yost from The Classics IV singing “Traces” or Chuck Negron from Three Dog Night singing “Easy To Be Hard”: sensitive, but tough.

Just as he was about to channel his inner Karen Carpenter, John noticed that the house lights were coming up and the gym was emptying out. At that point, he knew it was going to be a train-wreck regardless, so he started mouthing along. Loooooveeeee, look at the two of us….(aHEM, he choked a little bit of embarrassment) straaaangers…in so… he looked back over at Mr. Farmer, who was visibly cackling. After a few seconds John realized he had missed the rest of the verse. Then he looked back over at George.

From the beginning, George was a wreck, but when he realized that he may have accidentally handed over his mom’s Carpenters record along with the Miracles…and maaaybe the note might have slipped off….well, he knew it was going to be a train-wreck regardless. George kind of hated John anyway, so he decided to go with it and ride out the storm under the surface.

Besides, he had his Silvertone to play! After the first verse, as the oboes came back in, George suddenly remembered seeing Jimmy Page playing “Stairway to Heaven” and pointing his Gibson toward the heavens. He suddenly leapt to the front of the stage, yanked his battered old mutt of a guitar toward the sky and started rocking the oboe lines. Laaaaaa (STRUM!) la-la-lah-la-laaaa (Pete Townshend windmill!) la-la-lah-la-laaa (Chuck Berry Duck-walk!) la-la-lah-la-laaaa… Then he looked back over at John.

The gym was nearly deserted by the time John reached Mr. Farmer at the record player, ripped the needle off with a piercing squeal of rubber and rage and started walking back toward George. George could see the look of unrestrained rage, and he knew he was done for.

“YOU DIPSHIT!” John yelled. He broke the Carpenters record in half, threw the pieces over George’s head and socked George in the gut. John walked off and George slid into a fetal position on the stage, gasping for the wind that was no longer in his stomach. George, more mortified than he had ever been in his life, waved to the five people left in the gym, and tried to gasp “I’m alright!” But by that point, nobody cared.

The gym was empty, the Clintoneers had disbanded and the rest of a long, awkward semester lay ahead of them. Mr. Farmer walked over to George, still lying prone on the stage, and said, still cackling, “Told you that was the end of your yeah-yeah junk!” and walked away. Eventually George got up, picked up his guitar and called his mom for a ride.

John walked home. Five miles in the cold he didn’t even feel from the heat of his rage. As he made his way along the quiet stretch of suburban 163, a car passed. The driver rolled down the window to throw out a cigarette butt, which hit John on the chest. The car radio was playing The Carpenters.

Band practice was cancelled the next day.

Originally Published 11/11/2011

Photo Source: Marion Post Wolcott

The snow started gently around 10:00 AM and ended gently around 5:00 PM. In between it was a heavy, driving white-out snow, the kind that meant business. I spent the day stoking the fire and listening to reports on the radio. Mother made cider donuts on the stove, and we found a program of Christmas music.

It was fairly quick work to clear the driveway, as our neighbor, Tom Stoddard, came along with his tractor and Walter snow plow. We invited Tom in for supper, but he refused and set off to plow out the rest of the world. Had a quick supper of franks and beans, fed the cattle, then set out for town, as we were out of liquor, lard and stationary. The roads were passable, thanks to Tom, and I had no problems making the short drive.

After getting provisions, I decided to show myself the town. There is something of an evening in a small New England town after a day of snow that stirs me like nothing else. The temperature drops and the night turns bitter cold, the nostrils burn, the moon pops out and the fresh snow twinkles like diamonds against the lights of storefronts, street lamps and automobiles. Passers-by, freshly liberated from the day of imprisonment, carry gay greetings and good tidings, and the world, so troubled by the happenings on the war front, seems as right as it should be again.

I walked along the main street, back and forth, seeing the sights and greatly enjoying the new world. These are the things I keep for myself: the crunch of the fresh snow under my feet, the soft glow of candles and the smell of balsam, the joy of being out and about after such a long day of being snowbound, the muted sound of autos and the feel of peace on earth during these dark days… These are the things I treasure.

I came home, mixed martinis and listened to Bing on the Kraft Music Hall. A perfect New England winters evening after a perfect New England winters day.

Originally Published 10/06/2011

Photo Source: Brian Westbye

Twilight falls, ending the day. Lights come on, supper is served. Stories about the day just over, taillights, car wheels on a gravel road. Coffee and woodsmoke, the blue light of TV hitting the snow outside. Talk of dreams, plans, good books, drinks and pajamas and an extra blanket. Hot cocoa, hot cider. A story in every lit window, a story at every table. The day ends, the twilight wins. Time to come in, relax, say goodbye to the day just over…

Originally Published 08/29/2011

Photo Source: Jessica Beebe

My walks always carry the feel of what was. In this small coastal New England village, it’s not difficult to find vestiges of the past. The bank clock, the Rexall, the brass of the soda fountain, salt water taffy and ice cream parlors and the absence of suburban chain sprawl speak to me, and I am united with my ancestors, blood and spiritual, in more simple times.

I walk the village green and hear Sousa marches. I walk the main street and see the great cars of America’s past cruising by. I walk down to the bay, breathing in the salt air, the flower beds, the freshly mowed grass, and I imagine captains of great schooners and lobstermen making the same walk to their working days. I walk with these ghosts and imagine what their reactions would be to our wireless computers and hi-definition televisions and restaurants and all the ways we are bombarded with choices.

I live in and walk through the present, and I don’t think that a rotary telephone on a three party line is superior to a cellphone, nor an Underwood typewriter superior to a laptop, just because they’re old. Still, times past, uncluttered and uncomplicated, call to me and inspire my walks, my dreams of disconnecting and unplugging and having less to keep up with.

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