(Copyright 2010 by Gary Spina)
My old memory may be a tad faulty as I sit here remembering the 4th of Julys of my boyhood. I grew up in Bogota, New Jersey, back in the 1940s and ’50s when you could still hunt and trap in Bergen County. At least the cops who waved to us from their cruisers never stopped us as we walked the streets to the Teaneck swamps with our shotguns in the crook of our arms.
I was all of ten years old hunting rabbits, and the swamps would later to be known as the vast “Meadowlands” or the “wetlands.” It wasn’t until the early 1960s when Interstate 80 first ran through our patch of swamp, and soon – all too quickly – that part of our youth was filled in and built over.
Bogota was a “borough,” so small we had to share our Memorial Day Parade and our 4th of July Parade with neighboring Ridgefield Park which was a “village” – the distinctions having something to do with the Mayor and Council form of governments, I’m not sure. The village would help bulk out our Memorial Day Parade with their people and organizations, and we would reciprocate with our people and organizations in their 4th of July Parade:
The Police Departments always led the parade because they had to be the first of the emergency services back on regular duty, the police officers marching in their eight-point hats and Sam Brown holster belts and shoulder straps, the police cars all black, all stick-shift Fords with no heaters and no AM-radios because back then heaters and radios were optional equipment. There were flags everywhere with red and white stripes and 48 stars in a royal blue sky, and as the parade marched by in joyous cadence, the trumpets, the drums, the sirens, the air-horns on the big fire trucks all reverberated inside your chest.
There was the Volunteer Fire Department with their old American LaFrance fire trucks, the Volunteer Ambulance Corps with their converted Cadillacs, the High School Marching Band playing John Philip Sousa marches, the Kiwanis Club, the Little League teams in uniform, the Auxiliary Police, the Boy Scouts in their olive green and khaki tan, the Cub Scouts in their blue and yellow, the Girl Scouts in green with their bare legs in the sunlight, and the Brownies in brown with their little brown caps, the Sea Scouts, the Civil Air Patrol, the Color Guard mounted on beautiful, horses – dark chestnuts, sorrels, and bays, a brown and white piebald, and a spirited, towering black stallion, the Mayor and the Councilmen all marching on foot behind the horses (whose idea was that?), the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars – men who came back from war and built their own meeting halls with their own hands, the America Legion and VFW Women’s auxiliary, the Dog Catcher in his pickup truck with its cap and barred window, the Republican Club followed by the Democratic Club – and people either applauded or they didn’t, but no one booed.
There were the Knights of Columbus and the Free Masons, the Elk and Moose clubs. There were the grade school bands playing the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine anthems, brass and fifes, flutes, xylophones and drums, the North-East Civic Association, the open convertible cars shiny and clean each with a smiling, waving teenage girl in a pretty gown and her hair done up and a banner hanging along the side of the car styling Miss Bogota or Miss Ridgefield Park, and other open convertibles with Bogota’s or Ridgefield Park’s eldest seniors – cars riding old men who were veterans of the first World War – and one car with a very old man who seemed within himself, somehow detached, in a high collared old Army uniform from a previous era and a banner along the side of the car with his name and rank and the words: “Spanish-American War Veteran.”
The parade marched and drove along Palisade Avenue and turned down Main Street and over the Main Street Bridge over the railroad tracks – the bridge which was later renamed for one of the two boys who sat on the curbside of the bridge watching – two of the little borough’s finest boys, young men who later died in battle in Vietnam. And Ridgefield Park, too, lost their boys in the war and etched their names on other bridges and on granite slabs and marble plaques, and other cold and lifeless memorials. But back then Vietnam was yet in the unknown future – and the boys sitting there watching, and all the children on the sidelines were happy and laughing and shouting and pumping their fists up and down to the drivers as the sirens and horns passed by.
Other boys rode on bicycles with red, white, and blue crepe paper woven through the spokes of their wheels and clothespins holding playing cards against the spokes that made their bicycles sound like motorcycles as they came alongside and darted in and out of the parade.
There were flags held high, and John Philip Sousa was alive again, and martial music was everywhere, and I was just a boy, and as each flag went by I stood with my hand over my heart, my chest swelling with emotion, and holding back the tears — proud and happy without being able to put it all into words, but somehow knowing what it all meant.
Kids were different back then, and maybe the difference was our parents and our schools and the histories they taught us. I was a poor boy, but I had dreams, and I had a fire in my belly – and this was America.
Maybe it was the old West Shore Railroad that ran through town and the whistle of the lumbering freight trains in the night that fed a boy’s wanderlust – a wanderlust that later took me across continents and hemispheres – from the rice paddies and mountain woodlands and “no-man’s-land” of the far Orient; to Alaska and trekking on the frozen surface of the Arctic Ocean; to the back streets of South American seaports; to basking on the sands of glorious South Pacific island beaches.
But the whole wide world never brought me more happiness, nor nourished my dreams as did those boyhood parades in that little New Jersey borough with the colors flying high, back then when the flags all had 48 stars in a royal blue sky.