Fourth of July 1978

Written By: Mary O'Brien

This morning I was jolted awake by a howling, wailing sound. It was a high pitched screech like the cry of one-hundred grieving widows yowling for their departed husbands. With my heart pounding, I raced to the window to see what could produce this cacophony at 7:30 in the morning?

Below my window the parking lot of the Southampton Polish Hall next door was filled with a horde of tartan-clad men. I realized they were bagpipe players. The unearthly noises that had awakened me were the result of them tuning their instruments. It took me another moment to wake up enough to realize, “It’s July Fourth. Today is the parade.”

From the front window of my second floor Elm Street apartment in the Hansom House I saw gaily costumed marchers hurrying to find their groups. The noise from the bagpipes was joined by joyful greetings and cries of glee as people found their friends in the quickly expanding crowd. It was my first year in this apartment and I didn’t know that all the surrounding streets and the Southampton train station up the block are a staging area for the parade.

It would also be my first year in the parade. A few weeks ago George, who lived on the third floor, decided that we should enter a Hanson House float. As one of Southampton Village’s most popular bars he thought we needed to have a presence. The bartender, TJ, immediately signed on. My roommate, Alison and I came up with the idea of decorating a pickup truck. Ignoring the fact that none of us had any musical ability, we decided we needed to have a band. Carrie from Apartment One came in with a box of kazoos. “Anyone can play these.” And so the first Hanson House parade float was born.

Last night Carrie, Alison and I had transformed a borrowed Ford into our best guess of what a parade float should look like. We were a bunch of twenty-somethings who had lived in Southampton for years, but none of us had ever marched before. We all worked in restaurants and never had the holiday off. We spent several hours stringing crepe paper streamers along the wood-slatted sides of the pickup and making semi-successful paper roses. TJ and George painted banners for the sides and front of the truck then arranged hay bales in the bed as seats. George told us that there were prizes given for the best entries, but we knew we couldn’t compete with groups that had years of experience. We were in it for the fun. As the night wore on, and a few beers were consumed, the roses looked less and less floral and more just balled up red and white paper. During breaks from decorating we practiced our one tune—Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever. It was the only patriotic song we all knew plus it sounded really good on our instruments.

The morning of the parade was pleasant and the early air promised a warm day. The sky to the west had a threatening, overcast look, but I was too swept up in the atmosphere of excitement to worry. I quickly dressed in the team outfit of red tee shirt and white shorts then rushed to join the others. Since all of us, except TJ, had apartments in the Hansom House all we had to do to be in our appointed place was walk downstairs and pull the truck out of the driveway. Last night’s dampness had wilted some of the crepe paper, but with ten minutes of primping and fluffing we had it looking as good as new.

Marchers were pouring into Railroad Plaza from all the side streets. Little Leaguers in variously colored uniforms rocketed through the crowds searching for friends. The coaches were sorting them by team and struggling to keep the over-revved boys in order.

The station parking lot was filling with gaily decorated convertibles, donated for the day by local dealerships and driven by red, white and blue-dressed Lions and Rotarians. They contrasted with the camouflage-outfitted Vietnam vets who were incongruously towing a Howitzer toward their assigned spot.

Along Pulaski and Pelletreau Streets to the south hundreds of volunteer firemen were lining up with their gleaming red American LaFrance fire engines and antique ladder trucks. Interspersed were high school bands with serious-faced kids sporting hats decorated with feathered plumes. The pipers had found their wind and were playing loudly enough to drive away a flock of banshees. They started to practice Amazing Grace. The school bands began tuning up and soon tubas were giving jarring counterpoints to the bagpipes.

At the stroke of ten a whistle blew and the first marchers moved off. George and TJ threw a cooler of beers and a couple bottles of champagne into the truck bed and hopped up onto the straw bales. We tied our hand painted signs over the sides, proudly proclaiming us to be The Hansom House Marching Kazoo Band. On Rail Road Plaza the truck eased into its slot behind a convertible full of Kiwanis.

We started playing our kazoos, but as we turned the corner heading down North Main Street, past John Duck’s Allison grabbed my arm, “Holy cow! Look at that! Have you ever seen so many balloons?”

“Have you ever seen so many people?” yelled George.

Every bit of curb was taken up by spectators. The crowd was a mass of red, white and blue—shirts, hats, streamers, flags. The street was a kaleidoscopic array of balloons careening in the breeze. Each group cheered and clapped as we passed. “TJ!” “Carrie!” “Bunny!” Friends called out our names, excited to root for someone they knew. As the truck rolled south we played our kazoos at full volume, but it was impossible to be heard over the raucous crowds. I had never expected this applause. It was exhilarating. My face broke into an involuntary smile, so wide that my cheeks began to ache. We were all having trouble keeping the tune going; we were so excited it was all we could do to keep from bursting into laughter.

The parade slowly rolled along, stopping and starting with the flow of marchers. At one pause a Southampton Press photographer asked to take our picture. We hung over the rail above one of our banners and played for the camera. TJ broke out the champagne at Main and Hampton Road right in front of old Town Hall and we toasted each other to the roars of approval from the crowds. Hearing the cheers helped us catch a second wind on the kazoos.

Near Hildreth’s on Main Street a family of children started following us, singing along—Three cheers for the red, white and blue! May it wave as our standard forever. Unlike us they knew the words. As we made the turn past the library onto Jobs Lane they drifted back to their parents. Just then it started to rain. Giant plops of rain hit the pavement and soon the overhanging trees were dripping raindrops down our tee shirts.

All up and down Jobs Lane the balconies of the second floor apartments were festooned with bunting and flags. Every balcony was full of celebrating guests waving tiny American flags, shouting their appreciation down to the marchers. I smelled the delicious scent of grilling hamburgers and corn coming from one party. No one seemed to pay any attention to the rain that slicked down hair and party dresses.

The decorations drooped in the steady drizzle. Laughing at the ruined roses, we took extra crepe paper and slung the spools up and over the truck poles. As we caught them the dye came off on our hands, soon covering our faces and white shorts. By the time the truck slowly drove past the reviewing stand at Monument Square each of us was perfectly coated with patriotic streaks of red and blue. We paused in front of the judges and entertained them with the loudest performance of the day then rolled on. A moment later we came to the end. A policeman directed us to turn right onto Windmill Lane past the empty sidewalks. For us the parade was over.