A REAL FOURTH OF JULY
It was Eddie who kept the tradition going. Every year, the Elk’s club would build a float for the 4th of July– not quite the kind of thing you would see in the Rose Bowl parade, but it was our best effort. The first rule was that the grand master was not allowed to wear his Elk antler hat during construction. Eldon sat on it one year and aggravated a hemorrhoid and was out for a week. We had to find a substitute electrician who would work for free.
The second rule was there was no talking about politics or war. God didn’t care about either and neither should we. Besides, Ike was long gone, so what was the use? And after the year we did a recreation of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, we added a “no blood” rule. Parents were calling in the middle of the night, asking us to explain to their children that it wasn’t real. It’s a soft generation if you ask me.
Then there was the matter of the room temperature. We started in January and Ted’s fruit warehouse was where all the construction took place. It was Wisconsin cold outside and colder than a fishmonger’s hands inside. Three sweaters was the limit. If any one of the boys reached for another sweater, Ted had to raise the temperature. It smelled like rotting peaches and apples in there and, as a matter of pride, none of us wanted to be the first to put on another sweater, so the temp stayed at 52 degrees, which was cold enough to make your hands stiff tying crepe flowers and assembling a candy catapult or Betsy Ross’ bosom stars. After one kid took a hard tack in the eye we scaled back the catapult but the candy poured out behind the chopped up Ford the float was built on and kids were getting run over by the fishing dingy on wheels behind us. So we came up with these spinning stars on Betsy Ross. That’s why we needed a real electrician because the motors had to be regulated. There’s a fine line between Betsy being patriotic and looking like a stripper.
So every Tuesday we worked on the float. The wives would come over and bring us coffee and sandwiches, at least the ones that were still alive. They all thought the boobs with spinning stars was inappropriate until Ted explained that Betsy was patriotic and when she heard "God Bless America" she got so excited her breasts became engorged and tossed out candy in a kind of maternal way. And that was that.
We added a Statue of Liberty and it was taking some time to keep the arm up. It kept dropping suddenly like a judge’s gavel and we were afraid the torch would stove some kid’s head in, or worse, the mayor in front of us. Eddie wanted real fire, so there was the propane tank and its hoses to be dealt with. That fell to me since I had a refrigerator repair shop and knew something about hoses.
The whole ordeal took us right up to the third of July, the night before the big event. And that’s when it happened. Eddie had decided that the old Ford needed a new muffler because it would pop during the breaks between songs and it would sound like the 1812 overture was about to begin. Eddie was a perfectionist. But when he was dragging the heavy acetylene torch over, he suddenly grabbed his chest like he had pulled a muscle. He sat down on the floor staring up at Betsy Ross and I swear one of the stars rotated just a bit. Then Eddie whispered: Well God bless America. And he died. We all knew what to do next. We were war veterans and patriots. Eddie deserved the best we could give him.
I was up first and walked out the door. I drove my pickup truck to the shop and loaded a refrigerator into the bed after taking off the door. Then I drove to the Gas and Go and loaded the whole thing up with ice.
By the time I got back, the boys had Eddie in his dress blues and had tied his arm in a salute so it would stay that way when rigor mortis set in. We rolled him in pallet wrap nice and tight like a museum mummy and forklifted him into the fridge full of ice. Ted turned down the temperature and we all went home for the night. The sky was full of stars that hung like promises of a perfect day coming.
The parade started at 10am sharp. Usually we were there at 8am, showing off a little– you know, the new do-dads and gewgaws and different colors, talking about how far tootsie rolls would carry when flung from a rotating star. We always included Tootsie Rolls as a remembrance of the battle of Chosin when Marines used them to patch bullet holes in gas tanks so they could maneuver instead of being boxed in. It’s something most people don’t think about when they chew a Tootsie Roll. But we’ll never forget.
We had to stall. So we sent Ted to talk to the Parade Master and tell him we were having mechanical problems and would he please let us be last this year. He agreed. There’s nothing fishy about a serious talk with a man in an elk antler hat. So we waited in the warehouse.
At 9:45, we unwrapped Eddie and gave him our best salute. Then we stood him up with a line hooked on the forklift. We were all being so careful to guide him onto the float that nobody noticed his jaw fall open. He stood perfectly stiff while we tightened the belt around his waist and then around the safety rack he usually held on to with one hand. Beautiful, I said. Oh no, said Ted. Look at his mouth. He looks like a wide mouth bass. The clock was ticking. I haven’t had that many good ideas in my life, but I think this one was brilliant. I climbed up next to Eddie and tightened his hat strap so tight his dentures clapped together.
Ted threw open the warehouse door and we rumbled down the back alley and onto Main Street past the parade volunteers in yellow vests who waved and cheered. One saluted. I was driving a bit too fast and Eddie was bouncing like a mannequin so Ted told me to slow down. I did. We slid right into the last position and I turned on the radio. Speakers in the headlights blasted "God Bless America." Betsy’s bosoms began spinning. Candy was flying everywhere. Nobody noticed that Eddie didn’t move a muscle. He was bolt upright with his right hand perfectly stiff against his forehead. I wish he could have been there to see it.
It was so hot that I took off my sweater. Ted did the same. Everybody was cheering, same as every year. It’s the highlight of your life to be center stage, to know somehow you are inspiring a new generation to not wet their pants and learn a skill. We fought for all the bedwetters so their mothers could say: there goes a real man. Stand up straight like that.
By the time we got to the end of the parade it was getting kind of hot and I worried the rigor mortis would wear off before we could get back to the warehouse. Maria’s cream puff float kept stalling out in front of us. I think Maria was having trouble with the clutch. I looked back and Eddie started to teeter, like he was getting weak in the knees. He’s starting to thaw, I said to Ted.
At the last bit of the route there was a 21-gun salute for the last float. Soon as that volley was heard everybody would run into the street and scramble down to the park to get a closer look at the floats and maybe pinch some more candy. Better keep going straight and cut through the cemetery, Ted said. I nodded.
The old veterans hoisted their guns to their shoulders. FIRE!
Everybody jumped just a bit, like they do every year. Then we heard a kid screaming: THEY SHOT EDDIE! LOOK! THEY SHOT EDDIE!
I turned around and Eddie had thawed and was bent at the waist, his head nearly touching his knees. I couldn’t think of anything to do but gas it straight through the cemetery. The townsfolk panicked, then started running after us. I turned a corner and drove over the lawn until the old Ford with Betsy Ross and her spinning stars skidded to a stop right in front of the Veterans' Memorial. I crawled onto the float and unbelted Eddie. His weight knocked me onto my back. Ted came to my rescue and the two of us were able to wrestle Eddie to the ground and lay him out in front of the memorial. We just stood at attention and let the people come. They stood quietly, hands over their hearts. Lady Liberty’s torch burned brightly. A coronet player from the high school marching band arrived and played taps. Nobody noticed there were no bullet holes in Eddie.
It was the best 4th of July ever, the only one where nobody really died
Stephen Wunderli is a writer living in Utah. He has published children's books with Henry Holt and most recently short stories with The Kalahari Review and Grubb Street Literary Magazine.