Soundings : How proudly we wave
Roy Gundersen is a neighbor and a veteran of the Edgartown Fire Department, and one of my favorite stories is his account of the kitchen fire that interrupted the parade one Fourth of July some years ago. A frantic woman calls 911 and, a few minutes later, here comes the truck, and firemen loping across the lawn in full clown regalia. Hey, when your town is served by volunteer firefighters, you're grateful for whoever drops what they were doing and shows up.
That's the way it is with the Fourth of July on the Vineyard - it's both serious and silly, a celebration so deeply embedded in the rhythms of our year that it doesn't feel like an interruption at all.
There'll be both pomp and clowning around tomorrow afternoon when the parade winds through the streets of our shire town. Old Glory, of course, will be waving everywhere, and the marching veterans will remind us of sacrifices made by Islanders -still being made - in the name of freedom. Also marching, or perhaps careening is a better word, will be the campers of Camp Jabberwocky, warriors of a different sort who transcend their limitations every day, and whose progress carries a wave of wonder and joy the length of the parade route.
It's a wonderful ritual, though with more fun than you might ordinarily associate with the word. And here on the Vineyard, it's refreshingly light on the love-it-or-leave-it brand of patriotism that made it hard for me to get swept up in the spirit of the Fourth back in my growing-up years. My parents, in the 1960s, marched in Chicago against the war in Vietnam, and I remember my dad resenting the fact that somehow the American flag had become the exclusive symbol, not of his attempts to correct the course of the nation he loved, but of the war's supporters.
The guess here is that the war we're engaged in now will cast only a minuscule shadow over this weekend's celebration - Americans may be dying half a world away, but back home, we're being encouraged to spend our tax stimulus checks tout suite. But in fact our Vineyard celebration isn't so much about national issues. It's a day when we express our love for this nation by celebrating the uniqueness and diversity of our little corner of it.
There is, in fact, a lot to love about the way we celebrate the Fourth of July on Martha's Vineyard. The beauty of the Island's natural setting, for starters, lends a healthy perspective to our efforts at festivity. Friday night's fireworks may be spectacular, or not, depending on their visibility through the evening fog. But nothing made by human hands is likely to trump the beauty of Wasque's sweep, or that first opening view of the North Shore at Menemsha Hills, or a tree filled with cedar waxwings at Pecoy Point.
There's something, also, to be said for the perspective offered by this Island vantage-point we enjoy, seven miles off the coast of that place to which the mechanic refers when he announces that the family car needs a part, and "we'll have to send to America for that."
Another perspective-builder is the way the Fourth of July has to take its place in this season of parties that began a few weeks ago with the Taste of the Vineyard and continues with another celebration on almost every page of the calendar - from next Tuesday's Tisbury Street Fair to the Feast of the Holy Ghost, the Possible Dreams Auction, the Agricultural Fair. And everyone knows the best fireworks of summer are saved for the end of August in Oak Bluffs.
We've been rehearsing on Mondays since April, about a hundred of us, as the Island Community Chorus prepares for our July 5 concert at the Tabernacle. Like the parade of the day before, the program is a variety show: We'll sing pop tunes, opera and spirituals, songs in English, Italian and French. Patriotic fare, too - including a setting of the Emma Lazarus poem that's carved into the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. In her poem, Lazarus gives the statue these lines:
"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
In rehearsal, these lines have a way of sneaking up on you. Something in the way they speak to the promise of America, I think, can make it hard to sing them through without a catch in your throat.
I've just read Time Magazine's cover piece about quite a different national monument - the new fence our government is building, at a cost of $1 million per mile, along our border with Mexico. If someone dedicates a poem to that enterprise, I sincerely doubt we'll be singing it in the Tabernacle any time soon.