Whenever the Fourth of July rolls around, I start reminiscing about 1976. It was, of course, the 200th anniversary of our nation’s sovereignty. For the year leading up to it, our collective American consciousness was obsessed with all things Bicentennial.
As the world’s leaders in conspicuous consumption, what better way for Americans to mark such an auspicious occasion than through the manufacture and sale of kitschy knickknacks? Who could forget the homage paid to our founding fathers by the Old Spice company and their Bicentennial Commemorative Coin series? No? These were 6-ounce after-shave decanters, shaped like coins, bearing the likenesses of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Paul Jones. How Jones got the nod, over Samuel Adams, is anybody’s guess.
Kids had Bicentennial lunch boxes, key chains, and playing cards. They decked out their bikes with red, white and blue plastic streamers and metallic star-spangled banana seats. Moms bought decorative Bicentennial plates, tablecloths, glassware, planters, cupcakes, stamps, tampons, Betsy Ross sewing pins, jewelry boxes, towels, Dixie cups, and anything churned out by the Franklin Mint (of which there was plenty). All these wonderful novelties could be paid for with the exciting and new Bicentennial currency. You had your choice of Bicentennial quarters, half-dollars, silver dollars and, everybody’s favorite, the idiotic two-dollar bill.
In addition to all the collectables, there were lots of Bicentennial events. One, in particular, stands apart. It involves a calamitous spectacle, put on by my high school’s most talented performers. The band (of which I was a member), the theater department, and the choir were invited to the state’s capital to present a Revolutionary-themed concert. It was quite an honor and I remember we practiced for weeks. Our singers and actors were dressed in homemade 1776-era getups. The girls wore long calico dresses with bonnets and shawls. The boys wore wool vests, coats and knickers (those American Revolutionaries really bundled up). Since nobody ever pays attention to the band (unless we’re talking Rolling Stones) we were allowed to wear our regular school clothes.
The presentation incorporated Revolutionary music interspersed with narratives, read dramatically by the theater hams students. The thing I remember most about that day was the heat. It was about seven million degrees hotter than the inside of a dragon’s belly. Don’t doubt me.
During our production – between Yankee Doodle and the Battle Hymn of the Republic – one of our actors was dramatizing the skills of a minuteman. He mimed the loading, aiming and firing of his musket. Our drummer, Bobby, was supposed to hit a rim shot at the same time that our actor was “firing” his gun. Bobby executed it perfectly (he was very professional for a 15-year-old). At that precise moment, one of the boys from the choir, overcome by the heat and his Benjamin Franklin costume, keeled over and fell face-first onto the floor. The only thing that saved him from a broken nose was his tri-corner hat and Polyfill beer gut.
The audience erupted with wild applause. They whooped and hooted. What showmanship! Slowly, however, it dawned on them that this was not part of the program, but rather a “situation.” You’d think they’d have been tipped off by the fact that Ben Franklin’s impromptu assassination, by a minuteman, was not historically accurate. Sometimes people just get caught up in the moment, I guess. Or maybe they weren’t history buffs.
Anyway, the worst was yet to come. Teenagers are very susceptible to suggestion, nerves, and, in this case, dragon-belly heat. The sight of that one kid, splayed out on the floor, set off a chain reaction. Other choir members started passing out left and right. Our long-suffering conductor, Mr. Scaine, put down his baton, calmly approached the microphone and announced that there would be a brief intermission (he was every bit as professional as Bobby).
No one was seriously injured, but the remainder of our show was a wounded turkey. By the time the concert resumed, we were all paranoid about another fainting epidemic. We played our instruments tentatively, so as not to jar the more delicate members of our ensemble. Our poor audience looked like anxious captives – they clearly wanted out, but decorum prevented them from leaving. And rather than being performed with the gusto it deserves, our Battle Hymn of the Republic limped to a lackluster finale. After the trauma and embarrassment of the morning, the only thing worth a hallelujah would be the glory of getting back on the bus and returning to school. Thank god nobody had camera phones in 1976.