By Matthew Dicks / Illustrated by Sean Wang
When I was 16 years old, I marched in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade as a member of my high school band. I pounded on my bass drum as we made our way down a frigid Sixth Avenue while mobs of people lined the streets and enormous balloons danced overhead.
I remember being excited and cold that day. Mostly cold. I also had to pee for much of the parade, and given that it was New York City, peeing was not really an option.
Mostly I was cold and had to pee. But the balloons were amazing.
When I was 17 years old, I marched in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on New Year’s Day. We stood alongside enormous floats made entirely of flowers. A small earthquake shook the bridge beneath us while we waited to begin marching. Californians laughed as we New Englanders trembled in fear. Two teenage girls sitting on a curb remarked that I looked a lot like Tom Cruise. I’ve clung to those words for the past three decades. I loved those girls despite their obvious visual impairment. I still love them.
These were big parades. Possibly the most notable and famous parades in the entire world, and I was fortunate enough to march in both. My high school marching band also paraded down Main Streets in both Disneyland and Disney World.
I also marched in many hometown parades throughout my childhood, first as a Cub Scout and later as a flutist and drummer. Too many hometown parades, if I’m being honest. Once you march down Main Street a few times, it gets pretty old.
Years later, I would stand on a sidewalk in Willimantic, Conn., watching the world-famous Boom Box Parade march by. This tradition began in 1986 when local residents learned that there would be no parade that year because the high school had no marching band. In lieu of live music, the local radio station was convinced to broadcast two hours of marching band music on the Fourth of July. Residents then obtained a parade permit, dressed in red, white, and blue, and carried boom box radios with them.
More than 30 years later, this parade has grown into a hilarious and unorthodox spectacle featuring trucks that spray water from hoses onto paradegoers, fire-breathers and fire-eaters, and a little girl campaigning for the presidency in 2048.
But the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, the Rose Bowl, and even the Boom Box Parade pale in comparison to the parade I’ve witnessed for the past five years on the Fourth of July.
On that most patriotic of days, my family and I travel to Monterey, Mass., home of my in-laws, for their Fourth of July hometown parade and celebration. It’s fantastic. The best parade in the country, in my humble opinion.
The parade itself lasts about nine seconds. It’s about 47 feet long. It consists of a single high school band that marches two blocks to the center of town, where it stops and faces a church. Moments later, the band members erupt into the Star-Spangled Banner, reading the music off those small, portable music stands attached to horns, clarinets, and drums.
(I hate those little music stands. When I was marching, we didn’t read music. We memorized our music. Committed it to our hearts and minds. And don’t you think for a minute that I sound like an old man lamenting the good old days. Those stupid, little music stands existed in my day, but no self-respecting marching band would’ve been caught dead with them.)
When the band is finished playing, a couple of local officials tap on the microphone of an aging, failing sound system and attempt to stir the gathering of folks with some unprepared, stumbling sentences. Last year. the sound system failed completely, forcing officials to shout their uninspiring remarks to all who would listen. Thankfully, the town’s center is tiny. It consists of a post office, a library, the church, and a general store, which is inexplicably closed, seemingly, every Fourth of July.
After those few remarks, the band turns and marches up the hill. Fire trucks pass by. Maybe a Boy Scout troop or two. An ambulance or a police car. Candy is sometimes tossed. Small Americans flags are handed out. Children laugh.
A few years ago, the drag queen son of the town cop drove through in a convertible. People cheered. It might’ve been the most exciting thing that had happened to Monterey in years.
Paradegoers follow the trucks up the hill to the firehouse, where firefighters are standing by to give away free hot dogs and soda to all who arrive. An ice cream truck is parked alongside the firehouse, waiting to give free ice cream to anyone willing to wait in line.
Hot dogs, soda, and ice cream are amazing foods in their own right. Some of the best ever created. But when they are free and attached to a parade and patriotism, they are elevated to new heights.
Monterey residents and the occasional interloper like myself sit on the lawn and eat. We aggressively ignore our children. Face painters and balloon artists sometimes offer their wares free of charge. One year, my son arrived back at our blanket with what was supposed to be a balloon sword but was so phallic in nature (not to mention flesh colored) that I was sure the balloon artist had made it on purpose. Who makes penis-colored balloons?
It’s all over in less than an hour. Parade. Hot dog. Ice cream. Penis balloon. Then we turn and head home, feeling like we’ve had a real adventure. A day filled with memories to last a lifetime, and photographs that we will treasure forever.
All in the span of about 60 minutes.
The Fourth of July parade in Monterey, Mass. is a reminder that not everything has to be a “thing.” It’s also a perfect reminder that there is nothing better on a summer day than a free hot dog and a couple of small children waving tiny American flags as a band marches by.