Monday, July 2, 2012

Mama, Look Sharp

In Congress, July 4th...

The Fourth of July has always been special to me. When I was young, growing up in a small town in the southern part of New Jersey in the 1950's, it meant parades and fireworks. I was in the parade once or twice, marching with the cub scouts back in the days when they still had such parades.

For awhile there, the cub scouts used to go off to the roller rink over in Delmar about once a month. I loved going, even though I was never very good at it; my coordination lacked, well, coordination. Once, our roller rink was going to be closed for a private party. So we all piled into the bus and drove over to Delaware to a rink there. I remember how we waited on the bus. It was hot and uncomfortable. I remember the adults conferring up at the front of the bus. And we waited and waited. We never went in. Instead, the bus took us back home. It was many years before I found out what had happened. One of the cub scouts was a kid named Bruce. We were friends from school. The rink's owners had told the adults that we could go into the rink only if Bruce, who was black, stayed on the bus. The man who argued that we either all went in or none of us went in was my father. The rights of Americans, it seemed, didn't apply to all Americans. That new thing called the TV showed the lie, and the 1960's were born.

In the late 60's as I stepped out into the world on my own, the lie being exposed on TV was the Vietnam War. On October 15th, 1969 there was a worldwide Moratorium to End the War. People either stayed home from work or left their jobs to attend massive protests. I went to the one in New York City. It was a Wednesday, matinee day on Broadway, and the cast of several shows spoke at their curtain calls and invited the audience to attend the next rally with them. The cast of "1776" was there; Howard DiSilva, an actor who had once been blacklisted and who played Benjamin Franklin in that show, and I somehow fell into a great conversation about war, our times, and our country.

"1776" was a very different kind of musical. It concerned the creation and signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia. Philly was the big city near my hometown, an hour away. I had, of course, been to the old State House where the events took place. As a kid in the area, you went to such places. I also remember a trip to the old barracks in Trenton. The show was a huge success. At the 1969 Tony Awards, the number used to represent the show was one involving none of the principal performers. In it, a young messenger tells of seeing his two best friends shot and killed at Lexington green. The story is barely remembered and rarely told, but that morning most of the Minutemen had left town to defend the colonist's cache of arms in nearby Concord. When the British reached Lexington, its defenders were largely old men and teenagers.

(Video from YouTube of "Momma, Look Sharp", a song from the stage musical 1776, as performed on tv during the 1976 Tony Award Broadcast, was ordered removed by Google due to a copyright claim from SONY, whose Columbia Pictures company owns the movie, but not the musical itself, nor the Tony Awards. I tried to write Google about this at the address they gave me, but  that address turned out to not exist. Since I do not have the money to hire a lawyer in case of further actions should I repost this, I have removed it. So much for freedoms in a corporate controlled environment. If you wish to follow the wishes of the author of this post and watch this video at this point as intended, it is still available on YouTube at the following link:

Three generations of my family fought in the Revolution as soldiers of the 26th Massachusetts Regiment under Colonel Baldwin. The Regiment was involved in the siege of Boston, and distinguished itself at the battle at Throg's Neck NY where, wildly outnumbered, they managed to hold off the British until General Washington and his troops could escape to White Plains, NY. They were involved in the battle there, and were with Washington when he crossed the Delaware. They would have been billeted at the barracks in Trenton. Of my three family members there, I think it was my great-great-great grandfather Hiram, who was a teenager at the time.

My post on this blog last year told how, during one particular July 4th during my years in New York City, I began to be uncomfortable in crowds. That post has this link, which still works, to the great Jean Shepherd radio broadcast which tells the 4th of July story of Ludlow Kissell and the Dago Bomb That Stuck Back. When you can, take the 42 or so minutes to listen to a master storyteller, please. You'll be glad you did.

The best July 4th celebrations I know are held every year in Boston. I was somewhat skittish about being in large crowds by the time I lived in Boston, but in 1989 I went downtown to the oldest part of town and took a few pictures of the events of the day. It is on July 4th every year that the USS Constitution, anchored in Boston harbor, is taken out into the bay. The yearly trip is required to keep the ships' commission. The ship is better known as "Old Ironsides".

Every year, there is a small parade which winds its way through the old streets, pausing briefly at sites such as the Granary Burial Grounds, which is the final resting place of three signers of the Declaration of Independence (Sam Adams, Robert Treat Paine, and John Hancock), a number of Revolutionary era patriots including Paul Revere, the victims of the Boston Massacre, and Mary "Mother" Goose (yes, really!). The parade stops again at the Old State House. It was there that the Boston Massacre took place, where British troops opened fire on protesting colonists. The pavement there is marked with a circle of granite where the first American to die for the cause of independency, an escaped slave named Crispus Attucks, fell dead.

It was from the balcony of the Old State House that the Declaration of Independence was first read to the people of the United states. It is read aloud there every year on the 4th. Being asked to do so used to be one of the greatest of honors in Boston.

The parade ends at Faneuil Hall, now better known as the Boston Market. The hall is upstairs; many a debate and meeting held there laid the groundwork for the Revolution. When I lived in Boston, every year on the 4th of July a topic of current public interest would be presented and debated there.
The old Boston and Quincy markets are now a tourist attraction. It was the first such historical place redeveloped by the Rouse Corporation, a creator of indoor shopping malls.

Back at the Old State House, there was a special ceremony that July 4th of 1989. A reproduction of the Liberty Statue that had been in Tiananmen Square in China that June was brought in. It was in Tiananmen Square that a large scale people's protest demanding freedoms was put down by massacring the protesters. I moved closer to get a better look. There standing on the spot where the Boston Massacre had taken place, was Ray Flynn, the mayor of Boston, and Shen Tong, one of the student leaders of the Tiananmen protests.

Mr. Shen had managed to escape the massacre and evaded the manhunt for his arrest. He simply boarded a plane out of China. No one stopped him. He was a hero. He was in his last days of being a teenager at the time.

Brattleboro used to have wonderful 4th of July parades. A friend and I used to drive out from Boston to attend them. Some years back, a local group whose mission was to shut down the local "Yankee" nuclear plant, was told it could no longer participate in the parade; marchers were no longer to protest anything at all, they were only allowed to celebrate our freedoms, thank you very much. The parade was largely financed by the nuclear power plant. People began to stay away. And although in subsequent years the protests were allowed to resume, the parade never really regained its footing nor did it ever regain the crowds that used to attend.

After the Columbia/TriStar office in which I worked in Boston was closed, I moved here. I was in my later 40's and worked three low wage jobs to pay the basic bills. I eventually ended up working for a co-operative organic food wholesaler. After a number of good years, the company went public and was bought (a behind the scenes deal) and I was out of work again. It was a year later before I found work as a clerk in a video store. By the following year, I was managing the store and ordering all the retail goods for both of the stores belonging to the owner. I eventually took over all of the owners work, ordering all of the rental titles for both stores. I worked about 15 hours a day and averaged about two days off a month. After a full year of such work, the owner took me out to lunch. He proceeded to tell me everything he thought I had been doing wrong for the last year. I asked when I was going to get the raise he had promised me over 6 months before. A few days later, he gave me work to do that meant I had to be in the store on the Fourth of July, which was to be my first day off in over a month. I was exhausted and dispirited. The job had taken over my life, most of my friends had fallen away as I no longer had time for them, and had offended some of them unintentionally and unknowingly. My health had suffered, I injured my knee and exacerbated the arthritis there, my skin condition started, and my weight ballooned. That July the 4th, I quit. That decision probably saved my health and mind. But it ruined me financially and spiritually. I could not find work. It was 2008 and the Great Recession had begun.

Now, a few months shy of 62 and early retirement, I usually end up working my low wage job on July the 4th. With reduced hours, standard now for two and a half years, I can barely afford rent and food. The date no longer gives me much of a thrill. That dream is gone. I work with a number of teenagers. I look at them, and realize that they live in a world that is so different from mine, at least the one in my head. America is no longer a moral force in the world. We no longer work for the common good. They either accept, or don't care, or don't feel there is anything they can do that we are now a country that tortures prisoners and marches off to preventative wars. That corporations own and cheapen everything that isn't reserved for the economic ruling class. That extraordinary amounts of money are spent in attempts to purchase the Presidency to the benefit of competing business interests. That unions are said to have almost destroyed the well being of our economy. They think it is right to give up liberty in order to preserve it. Their popular culture is as manufactured and crass as their music and the news they get from television, much of the internet, and the costly remaining newspapers. Their media and their television doesn't expose the lie, it is the lie. They spend their work breaks texting local friends or playing games on their cell phones. They have been fattened on processed chemicals instead of real whole foods, which are only for the well off now. I think about the social progress of the last few years, anti-bullying, obtaining basic rights for gay people, the first steps to getting healthcare for everyone. And it seems to me that these are battles largely being waged by the last remnants of the generations who came of age in the the tumult of the 1960's and 70's. I search the faces around me, but I see few who might become heroes of liberty. July the Fourth is now a day to work, get drunk, set off illegal fireworks, go shopping, and barbecue ever more expensive foodstuffs. The battles in which three generations of my forefathers fought are longer remembered. The ideals and progress built up in this country for the everyday citizen are being forgotten; they are becoming passe. I wonder if our teens would risk their lives for liberty? I look around me, and the only thought I have is, Momma, look sharp.

My best wishes for the Fourth to all those who remember, and still care.


Austan said...

Amen, brother. The America we knew is no more. RIP liberty and justice for all, if it ever existed.

Anonymous said...

Our ancestors would be rolling in their graves.