The Bristol 4th of July Parade

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I hate parades; but I loved the Bristol 4th of July Parade; and today I returned to that event for the first time in 23 years … kinda.

Before you get all wrapped around the axle on this hatred of parades thing, give me a minute to explain first.  Hate’s a strong word, one that I don’t use often; but I do hate hate hate parades.  I won’t judge you if you like them; but you have to understand that its the beast of the event that sucks out of my brain.  Think of it like meeting someone who works at a slaughterhouse, and you find out they don’t like sausage.  Nearly every parade I attended, I did so as a marching member — either in a marching band, or in a drum corps.  For those of you who never were a part of the activity, its hard to picture a parade being anything different for us; but it’s a whole different world in all the wrong ways.  Even in the most advanced drum corps I marched in, we trained to march in short movements, changing directions, stretching, pulling, and running for a program that ran for 15 minutes tops.  Parades were a straight line, with no variation, constant heat of the uniform, and letting your brain phase for well over an hour.  I mean, the shoes I wore were hard leather and rubber and nails (who makes shoes with nails in the ’90s?  drum corp shoe makers do) designed for the sole purpose of reflecting my gotdam face when you polished it right — not for actually putting on your feet and marching for 10 miles.  I still have scars from the wounds grown in one of my first parades back in 1985 when my old band director Tom Cook had to drag me to the side to show me how marching actually worked; scars that still festered nearly a decade later when socks soaked with blood had to be peeled off on a hot July.

That’s why I hate parades.

But not Bristol.

Bristol, Rhode Island is a small town of 20,000 people rested up on the East side of Narragansett Bay (the big mass of water that splits the state in half) whose main industry is has it always been – ship building.  The old colonial downtown is as postcard worthy as any little town you can find, almost to the point that you wonder when the next ice cream social frequented by kids playing with sticks & hoops.  What takes it all to another level is the Independence Day celebration.

Bristol is home to the oldest continuous Independence Day celebration in America.  Officially, records show there has been a parade to celebrate July 4th every year since 1785; but some historical records show that a celebration took place every year dating back to 1777 (or the 1st anniversary of the Independence).  Many of the traditions of the parade, including naming a chief marshal, reciting ‘patriotic exercises’ by notables, and having a visiting ship moored near the city, goes back to the early 1800s.  They name having world class drum corps as a tradition as well, which is exactly how I came to find this place.

They call Bristol the “Most Patriotic City in the Country” for this parade, and boy do you ever get it.  Nearly everyone is wearing red, white, blue, or a variation there of.  None of it, for what it’s worth, feels tacky or ironic.  People are showing their country’s color in a modest pride of the celebration of the day.  I wandered around this morning wearing the most patriotic thing I had – a blue shirt with a Captain America shield on it – and more than few pointed out they liked the look.  Everyone you pass says a “Happy 4th” or “Happy Independence Day” almost the same way you hear greetings around the Christmas season.  The parade route has a red-white-blue stripe marking it down the center year round.  That sleepy little 20,000 people grows to well over 200,000 annually for this even.

What I remembered from when I marched was how smart they were as parade followers.  We performed Sousa’s Stars & Stripes forever, the most patriotic of marches.  You never played the whole parade, our chops weren’t made for that.  Heading down the street, our drumline would rattle off a cadence to keep us in step meanwhile watchers would call out for us to play.  Then came that moment – the drum cadence would end, and the crowd buzzed knowing that music was coming.  Then a roll-off started, and the crowd got up knowing something was about to start.  Horns up, and they were already cheering.  Unmistakable opening notes of Stars & Stripes, and the crowd erupted .. and I mean ERUPTED.  They seemed rowdy, but genuinely rowdy for what we were doing.  They clapped, they jumped, the sang.  They were truly wrapped up in that moment.

Honestly, if that was it, I would probably still not like that parade.  But Bristol holds such meaningful memories that outlast time.  I did the parade there twice, both years with The Cadets (then “of Bergen County”).  Back in those days, the 4th was a grueling period to be in a drum corps.  Drum corps got paid to do parades, and on a weekend like this where parades could be going off at any number of small towns, it would be common to get in a couple or three (back in the Colts, they would sometimes split the corps up so they can knock off five or six).  You were running into the mid-season championships filled with critical competitions broken up by long rehearsal days.  Knowing the nature of the parade period, they sometimes gave us some time off, but when you are in a small town like Bristol – it’s not like you can do much more than laundry.  Yet walking around those streets this morning, I was reminded with how rich those days in Bristol were.  Some of it surely anyone can figure out:

  • We stayed in a school downtown just off of the parade route, and could intermix with the locals.  Many looked to us like celebrities, recognizing that we could be anywhere, but our corps chose Bristol.
  • There was an old convenience store just down the street.  While we visited it, someone told me I had to try this ice cream.  It came in Pints, just big enough to finish yourself, and the best was this one that had chunks of cookie dough in it.  The brand was tiny, but was named after two guys … Ben and Jerry.
  • I bought a Green Camo Bonnie Hat at an Army/Navy store because everyone in the our contra line in ’92 were buying them – complete with an Airborne pin to match the flight show we were performing that year.  That hat became all that I wore the next two summers, and most of the winter too.  Because:
  • There is a grassy area next to the water where we did marching practice – and Dan Rider dawning his own Bonnie Hat became “The Terminator”  … a legend in our group.  More to the point, in a summer where we were fighting to just survive, our line made a simple commitment, and we decided from that point on “We Weren’t Going To Suck Anymore”.
  • I remember in the next summer, when we were just playing some warm-ups, and a group from another corps came up and wanted a picture of us.  It was the first time I had groupies … surprisingly, not the last.
  • I remember in 1993 that about 20 of us wandered down to a park, sat around, and got really honest with each other.  With that corps, the rehearsal mentality seemed to segregate the different sections.  The group that sat in the park in Bristol strived to understand, some of them having been with the group for years and were learning things about each other that moment.  While we didn’t intend it, those who hung out in that park that night left it with an intention of approaching the rest of the year with a supportive, unified direction.  We bonded as a full corps like I hadn’t seen in a year and a half until that moment.  The rest of the year was different.  A month and a half later, we as one unit, were named World Champions.

I can go on … on and on and on.   Bristol was a magical place for me, and I maybe spent a total of 40 hours there back in the day.  Not only that, it is such a beautiful place to just … be.

So I arrived at 8AM this morning, over two hours before the start of the parade, and the streets and parks were already filled with parade goers.  As I walked around those streets this morning, watched the people, felt the building patriotism, I was pulled back to those great days.  I remember what it was like to march those streets, meet those people, hear those cheers, dream those dreams.

I left Bristol by 10AM, still a half hour before the parade stepped off.  I probably should have stuck around and watched the show march by.

But … I still hate parades.

One thought on “The Bristol 4th of July Parade

  1. dianaschnuth

    The Bluecoats had a free evening in Bristol in my “rook-out” year in 1997. That was the evening I realized I had made no new friends by mid-season, as all my old Northern Aurora buds had paired off with others, and I had literally no one to hang out with. I spent the evening at the school alone, as I recall, since the rule was that no one goes out without a buddy.

    I don’t have fond memories of Bristol. I do remember that the weather was beautiful, though.

    I’m going to have to go spelunking through my handwritten journals to jog my memory…

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