A glorious, uproarious Fourth

By Phil Crossman | Jul 07, 2017

Fourth of July celebrations out here had, until recently, been sponsored by the Vinalhaven Health Council, because laughter is healthy and the Health Council cares about good health.

That very quality is a big part of what makes the Fourth of July celebration on Vinalhaven such a pleasure. Everyone is laughing. Laughing at all the new jokes the summer people have brought to us; laughing at the ones we saved up for them or laughing because we’re happy to see familiar faces again.

A lot of us are laughing because we don’t know how else to respond to the person who just spoke to us by name and said “Hi, great to see you again,” and whom we’ve never seen before in our life. We laugh at the guy on the float dressed up like a woman and with an exaggerated bust. There’s one every year. This year’s no exception. We laugh because the winner of the Rod & Gun Club raffle is the daughter of the club president or at the interested young men watching the fetching young woman dipped over and over in the Lions Club dunk tank.

We laugh at the Viagra/Prozac combination plate being offered as a special at the Harbor Gawker. One year the laughter started during the afternoon of the third. The Health Council hosted an art auction under a big tent in the parking lot. Phil ‘n’ the Blanks, a Doo Wop quartet of middle-aged local guys, entertained throughout the auction. At one point, feigning disgust at what he judged lackluster bidding, one of them, acting as auctioneer, directed the others to throw a prospective bidder overboard as a lesson to the rest of them.

That worked well, loosening up and considerably amusing those in attendance. They coughed up nearly $3,000 in a fun-filled hour and a half. As soon as the auction was over, the work of setting up the parking lot for the following day’s festivities began. Seasoned hands at this process guide the novices in assembling the 2 x 4 equivalent of an erector set. Each stud has shiplap ends with worn holes into which an assemblage of nails, bent and straightened over the years, are inserted as pegs.

There are summer people who, had they stayed home in, say, Massachusetts, might have availed themselves extraordinary opportunities, but instead are here on Vinalhaven so they can help assemble booths on July 3. Such is the solemnity with which they regard their obligation. And here the laughter, having lingered after the auction, takes up residence among these workers and everyone within earshot and elevates them to a rollicking good state of mind. On this rainless night, with the prospect of a rainless Fourth, people infected with good humor go home, pass it on to family and friends, go to bed, and wake up happy.

Early on the morning of the Fourth, the aforementioned Phil 'n' the Blanks stop by the motel to sing "In that Great Gettin' up Morning" to the couple in Unit 8 who asked for a wakeup call. And so goes the behavior and the banter up and down Main Street as everyone, merchants to begin with, get ready for the big day. The 7 a.m. population of a dozen or so balloons to 30 or 40 around 8 a.m.; many eating at the Islander or heading off down the road to breakfast at the Surfside or Burger Ped.

By 9 o’clock, people are positioning chairs along the parade route for the old folks or they’re trying to squeeze cars into spaces which will afford the seniors a clear view. By now, too, the floats, the fire trucks, the deputy’s patrol car, the marching band, the veterans and clowns and assorted individual participants, are assembling down by the Town Office; forming up. While this is going on, Main Street’s population is swelling very quickly. By 10 a.m., people are lined up four and five deep on both sides of the road.

The parade begins. The Volunteer Fire Department is always the biggest presence in the parade. Historically, they dust off "Old Reuben," the 1888 horse-drawn pumper, but when the department acquired the '59 Chevy/LaFrance pump they stuck it in the parade up ahead of Reuben. Later the '80 Chevy/FMC pump became a parade regular; likewise successive acquisitions. All had their sirens going. From the asthmatic wheeze of the old '59 to the multi-faceted ear-splitting wail of the new truck, the air was filled with this noise, a noise designed to make folks get out of the way.

The town’s ambulance, only the day before sadly occupied with a suicide victim, seemed to be trying to expel that memory with its super-effective alternating staccato, steady blare, reversing whine. Behind the cruiser comes the grand marshal, a person of local accomplishment. A few years ago my grandfather, a grand patriot, suffered a heart attack and died right in the spot he would have chosen, and perhaps did, leading the parade as grand marshal. Then comes the town marching band, its numbers increased as summer musicians dutifully swell the ranks. Fittingly playing the "Washington Post March," the veterans follow in a 1945 three-quarter-ton Dodge Reconnaissance Car loaned by a collector.

Now comes the Fire Department and then the floats. Floats are created around a theme chosen by the Health Council in the spring. This year it’s favorite TV shows and accordingly comes a "M.A.S.H." creation, complete with Klinger cleaning a wound with one hand and clutching a purse with the other, then the Adams Family, Rugrats, Sesame Street and so on. In years past themes have demanded a great deal of thought and floats were truly wondrous things to behold, marvelous creations requiring many days, even weeks, of work. Still, it’s great spectacle and the laughter, in the face of advancing sirens, gives way and then, like peepers in a swamp, surfaces again as they pass.

After the parade passes, and while it gets itself turned around and regroups, a few folks peel off and head for the food concessions so as to be first in line when they begin serving after the parade's return trip. A young lady from the Health Council rushes across the street to a little knot of guys sitting on a van in the motel parking lot. She’s carrying a box of ribbons spelling out "Funniest," "Most Creative," "Prettiest" and a lot of "Honorable Mention"s. “Can you guys be judges? Harry was going to do it, but his wife is in a float trying to be creative, and he thinks she’s the funniest.” So the guys run out to each participant as they pass by and give out the appropriate ribbons. Everyone gets one.

Now the stampede for the food and sale booths, the white elephant table and the raffles, and the Lions Club Dunk Tank, games. Except for two memorable events to follow it’s all over and the cleanup has begun by 2 p.m.

Later in the day, sometimes the day after, depending on the tide, comes the Great American Duck Race. Conceived seven years ago as a fundraiser for the school playground, it has evolved into a much-anticipated and enthusiastically attended highlight of the summer. This year, 350 $5 tickets were purchased, each wagering on a duck with the corresponding number.

At a time convenient to the tide, the 350 ducks are dropped in the millrace on the harbor side as their proprietors watch anxiously from the bridge to encourage them on to the finish line on the other side of the bridge. Judges are assembled on shore to declare the winners, which are plucked out of the water by a canoeist. Prizes of $100, $50 and $25 savings bonds are awarded. This year’s winner was Olivia Michael, the granddaughter of the sponsoring Paper Store, raising more than a few eyebrows about the legitimacy of the whole business and the integrity of the judges.

That evening the band assembles again to present a concert of patriotic music in the bandstand, cleaned up and repaired just in time every year by the Lions Club. It’s a fitting end to a memorable day as Vinalhaven clings, encouraged year after year, to tradition.

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