Of course there never were 76 trombones. It was a small-town production. But none of this took away from the thrill I felt as I went running off the front porch as a kid, to go see the July 4th parade.
In the 1950s, Seneca Falls, NY, with its 10,000 people, was still feeling the post-war blue-collar boom. We lived on Mumford Street, short and tree-lined, where our backyard, like those of our neighbors, dropped down to a branch of the Erie Canal. Across the water, we could look right up the main street, Fall Street, beyond the many-gabled Episcopal church at the water’s edge. As the parade started across Fall Street Bridge, headed our way, I started running. My leather-strap sandals slapped the slate sidewalk slabs. Tree roots had lifted up some of them, but I had memorized their uneven terrain. This was, after all, where I had learned to roller skate.
Under the maple trees I went. If I had any cares, I left them behind, as I covered the half block up to Bayard Street, and waited for the parade to come.
I’m not sure if I was always alone, but that’s the only way I remember it. After my grandfather died when I was about eight, we moved into the Mumford Street house with my maternal grandmother. At some point, a few years after that, I must have been deemed trustworthy enough to parade watch on my own. I’m an only child, and let’s face it, not everyone loves a parade. I guess my parents and grandmother preferred to stay home.
The parade thundered past me, headed down Bayard Street, toward the cemetery less than a half-mile away, where on a more solemn occasion a month before, the Gettysburg Address was read at the conclusion of the Memorial Day parade.
But on July 4th, there was independence to celebrate, and it was all jubilation as the Mynderse Academy band — from our town’s public high school — marched by, the majorettes tossing their batons in the air, the drum major pumping a mace to set the rhythm, the horns swinging back and forth in time, bass drums vibrating, snare drums rattling. I didn’t want to miss a note, so I would follow along, not in the street at the end of the parade as some did, but staying on the sidewalk. It would be presumptuous of me to follow in the footsteps of such power.
Sometimes a high school band from a neighboring town would join in, and one band would play while the other took a break. The silent band marched to the rhythm of a lone drum. The stripes down the sides of the band’s uniform pants moved together, drawing triangles to the resting beat. This had an impact on me, too — this shift, in just a few steps, from joy to what felt like mourning.
Veterans from the local VFW were always in the parade, too, their heads held high, their war memories still fresh. The predictable police car would have lights flashing, and new and antique fire trucks could be counted on, along with someone showing off their convertible.
All that was fun. But I was there for the music.
I’m not sure where my love of music comes from. There wasn’t much of it in our house. No one in the family — even the greater family — played an instrument, and I never learned to play, either. I suspect that my parents picked up an early signal of my interest, though, because they gave me a portable 45rpm turntable when I was five or six. Maybe it was Roy Rogers singing “Home on the Range” as the song, impossibly, came forth from a small disc twirling around under an arm and a needle.
When I was older, and able to sit still long enough, my parents took me to see local productions of Broadway musicals. We saw a traveling group perform “South Pacific” under a tent, and we saw “Oliver!” in a nearby city theater. Here was a way to do music that was even better than a parade. There were more songs, and unlike marches, there was romance, heartbreak, longing, fake palm trees, and period costumes. I didn’t just sit still. I hardly moved a muscle.
This past Sunday, just a few minutes’ walk down the road here near Carnac, we were sat still to our lawn chairs for an impromptu backyard performance. It was a small family gathering to celebrate the 50th wedding anniversary of one of Isabelle’s sisters and our brother-in-law. Accompanied by a 16-year-old playing the trumpet, six other grandchildren, from middle-school age to college graduate, sang a song spiced with comments that gave their grandparents a gentle roasting. It was a backyard musical, under blue skies, with the summer sun lazily making its way toward the horizon. The air was fresh and chilly, blowing in from the northeast — that characteristic, relentless Brittany wind. But the simple joy on the young faces had me thinking of those days when I was first treated to live music, and what it felt like to watch the parade go by.
And so I say, Happy 4th!
* Seventy-six Trombones was written by Meredith Willson for the 1957 musical play, The Music Man
Photo: I was probably dressed for Easter Sunday, and a little too young to go watch the parade by myself.
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