At the time, it seemed like one of life’s great injustices.
The Fourth of July parade-participation divide.
If one was a veteran or politician or a beauty-contest winner or a Shriner with a zippy miniature car, or the CEO of a pet-grooming business with several canine customers in tow, the parade was your oyster.
But what about your average guy whose life dream it had been to tootle along the parade route in a banner-and-bunting-bedecked car, giving the assembled onlookers a regal yes-it’s-me-here-in-the-parade wave?
This was the issue that vexed my friend Dean and me on that long-ago Fourth of July of 1976. Newly minted high-school graduates, we thought we were pretty special, though in that pre-self-esteem-movement era, no one else seemed to share our opinion. Perhaps that was because we had graduated without anything notable by way of honors or accomplishments. Unless, that is, you count playing on a basketball team that had gone 0-18.
Yet we still felt we merited a place in the parade. After all, a half-century hence, if any of our classmates proved clever enough to own (or alternatively, to hot-wire) a nice Cadillac convertible, we’d be welcome based on little more than longevity. Why, every year, gleaming Caddies chockablock with ancient (to us, anyway) reunioning Shead Memorial High School alums were cheered as part of the parade.
No Cadillac had we. But Dean did have an old powder-blue Ford clunker, one that sported the dents, dings, rusts, and rattles of outrageous vehicular misfortunes. We scrawled “Shead High Bicentennial Grads” on two “banners” made of construction paper joined together with black electrical tape, and secured them to the side of the car with same.
And then Dean maneuvered our way into the parade lineup, by, if memory serves, taking advantage of the always-keep-a-safe-distance-even-at-5-mile-per-hour driving habits of a much older reunioner.
Truth be told, the reaction wasn’t what we’d hoped for. Yes, some people laughed as we rattled by, waving magisterially. But mostly what greeted us were “tsks” and meant-to-be-overheard commentary of the “there’s simply no need of that” variety. Fortunately, we’d had the presence of mind to bring several bags of A&P candy, and when the opprobrium grew particularly oppressive, we’d toss handfuls to nearby kids.
Later that day, we repaired to Dean’s farm, some 10 miles distant. His father wasn’t in evidence, but his mother was in the kitchen, cooking. She seemed to moonlight as a detective, for her gimlet-eyed insight into teenage hijinks always proved keener than our abilities at camouflage. An example: Seeking permission to stay over for the night, Dean once called his own house and, when she answered, inquired: “Hi Mom, are you home?” In today’s era of highly portable cellular telephones, that might seem like a reasonable conversation starter, but back then, a family’s number invariably rang a bulky house-bound phone, so if one answered, she or he was pretty much ipso facto home.
“Dean, have you been drinking beer?” his mother had demanded, demonstrating yet again her formidable skill at ferreting out the root cause of things.
On this long ago Fourth, she surveyed us from her post by the stove.
“So Dean,” she began, “we heard you were in the parade.”
“Um, yes, Mom.”
“We were soooo proud,” she said, the Saharan dryness of her tone belying the ostensible intent of her words.
And yet, I thought I saw a faint hint of a smile struggling to break free of the stern straitjacket that held her face.