by Wade Sayer

The afternoon was sunny and cool on the Cape. We found a good place on the side of the road, just down from the reviewing stand, where the marching bands would stop to play, and the teams would doff their hats and salute the Grand Marshall. Fire engines rolled past, polished to a gleaming shine. Flags lined the parade route, swayed from businesses and flat-bed trucks, and many of us waved small flags on wooden sticks.

The high school chorus sang a couple numbers, the orchestra played, and the marching band did some fancy turns for the crowd. Girls twirled batons and colored flags. Open trucks carried Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, Little League and summer hockey teams. Just about any group you could think of was there, riding or marching. At the end of the parade, the minister of the big white church with the tall steeple said a prayer and blessed the veterans who had served their country by fighting or dying overseas. I watched, unmoved. I wondered if those gathered gave much thought to what they were celebrating, winning a revolution, and all of the fighting that would follow to keep our nation free.

The afternoon was a quiet time to rest a little, get the kids calmed down before the picnic and fireworks at the beach. Back at home, I put my feet up and closed my eyes for a while. My mind returned to my childhood, and Fourth of July parades in the town where I grew up. World War Two had ended eight or nine years earlier, and most of the dads got their old uniforms out and marched in the parade. Army, Navy, Marines, Air Corps. We knew of the war not from our fathers—they didn’t speak of it—but from Saturday movies, with the soldiers and Marines slugging it out against the enemy, and we imagined ourselves at war, playing soldier in the fields and forests.

We rode our bikes to the parade with colored crepe paper wound through the spokes and around our handlebars. I always thought it was a great celebration for the kids. The fathers would gather in the school parking lot, and usually had a little nip or two to warm their spirits. The celebration always ended with a benediction by a local minister and the playing of taps, followed by an Army color guard and a twenty-one gun salute for the men who didn’t come home.

Memories flickered to my time in Vietnam, where the Fourth of July was a time to celebrate America, but also to forget a little about Vietnam. I was stationed at an artillery fire-support base. A General visited us that day, so everything was cleaned and shined, in perfect working order. He seemed most interested in how we found targets and relayed locations to the artillery officers. We showed him our radio shed, and told him about our work, and in the afternoon he sponsored a cook-out for us. Steaks on the grill, salad and potatoes, ice cream for dessert, and a few cases of beer. In the evening, as it turned dark, our artillery base started firing the canons, aiming them high in the sky. The star bursts exploded in dazzling streaks of light, like enormous fireworks. The 101st Division had eight or more artillery bases, and soon they were all responding, a celebration in unison. Star bursts blew up across the sky, along the coast, over the mountains, near to Phu Bai and Camp Eagle, spread out for miles and miles from the DMZ to Da Nang.

My kids woke me from my reminiscing. “C’mon Dad.” We were going to meet with friends and their kids at the beach, make a fire, cook some hot dogs and hamburgers, and drink a little beer. We had the car packed and ready, and grabbed chairs and blankets for seats. Everybody pitched in to help. Buffy, our terrier, came along for the fun. We were glad to see the cars lining the street and filling the parking lot. It was starting to get just a little cool. We climbed over the dunes to the shore and found the large group of our friends and neighbors. Most of the other men were veterans, but, like our own fathers, none of us talked about it, even when our children asked.

Someone brought a volleyball net and I played with the other dads and wives, and then we left it to the kids. We made a good fire and set up some cooking grills. Dinner was ready soon, and we all shared what we had. Afterwards we sat around the fire and the adults chatted, while the kids explored the dunes.

As night crept in, people up and down the beach from P-town to the Canal and back up the coast to Duxbury started shooting off fireworks. Loud explosions and cracking, flashing lights arced through the sky. I thought about the artillery bursts in Vietnam, incoming and outgoing. As the explosions overhead grew louder and louder, I sunk within myself.

Buffy sat at my feet, trembling ever so slightly.

My daughter came over to me and took my hand. “You alright, Daddy?”

I gave a long sigh. “Yeah, sure honey.”