Where else would a true American wish to spend the Fourth of July but in Hannibal, Mo., home of Huck and Tom and Becky and Injun Joe? Here's what it was like there four years ago.
It was swamp hot. Flags hung limp on their poles. Bodies lay oiled and addled around pools.
Lillian Hermann took on the president of the Chamber of Commerce in the "World's Largest Checker Game" on a bunting-draped stage in Central Park. They played with slices of tree trunk and shuffleboard sticks. I forget who won.
Clarence Schaffer, 84, who has the cigar store on Broadway, went to a safe and retrieved a pouch and pulled out a copy of the death certificate of Injun Joe. Injun Joe was a real-life character, Clarence said. You could ask anybody: He didn't die in that cave. Mark Twain made that part up. The certificate was a little faded, but you could make it out: "Cause of death: ptomaine poisoning: pickled pigs' feet. Contributory: senility."
At the local Dairy Queen they were selling a slurpy drink called "The Tom and Becky." Tasted awful. Cost 70 cents.
A woman sacking groceries at the Steam Boat Bend Shopping Center groused that the crowds were getting bigger every year. "I'll swan," she said, which was the same invective my Ohio grandmother used to use.
At the Mark Twain Dinette (you call in your fried chicken and iced tea orders from nifty little phones on the counter), I found myself seated next to Ryland Capps, town barber. He had been cutting for 40 years and had lately retired. Once, he cut the great J.C. Penney, who was just passing through. Another time he had union man John L. Lewis in the chair. He sighed. "This loafing is hard work."
"You ever read Twain?"
"Yeah, as a kid, but to tell you the truth, I can't remember what any of them were about."
The final heat for 3-year-olds in the Grand Prix of Tricycling was taken by one Shane Hipps, a taciturn racer in rolled bib overalls and a straw hat. The TV crew that had come from Chicago to film the weekend's festivities closed in for an interview.
"Are you glad you won?" demanded a reporter.
"Do you ride your bike a lot?"
Nod. Finger in the mouth. Gaze around for mom and dad.
"Tell me about the race, Shane."
Zip. Cut to black. Abort the interview.
After the fireworks I drove up to Cardiff Hill to look down at the town and the Mississippi. Hannibal slept. The neon strip along Route 36 had winked off. I couldn't see that 2,300-mile ribbon of darkness, but it was down there, I knew, swollen, poetic, rolling timeless to the sea.