FIRE UP THE GRILL, slap a dog on for me, keep the kids up late for the fireworks. It's the Fourth, and ev'ry heart beats true 'neath the red, white and blue. Except you'd be hard-pressed to find a kid who knows the words to that song, or to "America the Beautiful," or to any of those patriotic tunes.
But we all love a parade, and despite our vaunted cynicism and our Most Important City in the Galaxy airs, we stand in the heat and wave our little flags just like folks out in the heartland. We even have the biggest Fourth of July parade of all, the National Independence Day Parade, the one along Constitution Avenue.
Except that the big march isn't even on TV anymore, not since Channel 20 dropped it last year. And when the parade's chief organizer, Pat Wolverton, sent out letters asking 150 local businesses to help pay for the show, she got, um, let's see here, exactly zero dollars.
"We've tried valiantly," Wolverton says. "Nobody will contribute. None. Zilch. I called America Online -- you know how they've done this year -- and they won't even return my calls. Maybe they don't think it's good exposure for them." (An AOL spokesman says that's about right; the company prefers technology-related giving.) Two hundred thousand people come out to watch the parade, but companies would rather spend their dollars hooking their images to corrupted college athletics, the obscenity of pro sports or the latest Hollywood drivel.
The last time the National Park Service sought bids from companies that might be willing to put on the parade, there was precisely one, from Wolverton's Diversified Events, a partnership with a Phoenix firm that recruits the bands and other parade entertainment.
With no TV coverage and no corporate money -- forget about federal dollars, there isn't a one for the parade -- the companies that stage the show say they barely break even on the event. (They make their money on the travel arrangements for the marching bands.) "I think there's just far more patriotism in the rest of the country than there is within the Beltway," says John Wiscombe, president of Music Celebrations International, the Phoenix partner in the parade consortium. "What goes on in D.C. isn't representative of America."
Talk to the folks who are coming here to march for us and you might start believing Wiscombe. These people love this parade something fierce. There's John Shaw from up in Frostburg, who runs the float-making company his father started. They've been working for months on six floats, including one of the Big Bad Wolf and the Three Little Pigs, and one that's a 40-foot-long rendition of a 1934 Packard. "For us to come in to Washington on the Fourth is about as Fourth of July as you can get," Shaw says. "It gives us a real feeling."
And here's James Lindroth, who is bringing his 100-piece Brandon High School Marching Eagle Band up from just outside Tampa. His kids have been working nonstop since November to raise the money to be in the parade -- selling flowers, sandwiches, wrapping paper, raising $60,000, and still each band member has to pay $480 for the trip. But they'll get to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns, and they'll play a concert at the Lincoln Memorial, and they got a proclamation from the governor. "When we were accepted, the kids just about had a heart attack," Lindroth says. "This is just below the Macy's Thanksgiving and the Pasadena Rose Bowl parade. This is big."
The kids come from all over to march and play and sing, and they ask their teachers to take them to Air and Space, and to the Vietnam Wall, and to the Holocaust Museum, and they still ooh and aah, even if they don't know the words to America's songs.
The organizers of the parade think these kids gain something from their Washington trip that we who live here have long since lost -- a sense of wonder, an ability to see this city's marble temples for something far grander than storage units for bureaucrats.
But I don't think we need to be lectured to by these folks. Because while we may not sit home watching a big hooha of a parade on TV, a whole lot of us are out on the Fourth at events that the rest of the country would hardly believe exist here.
We're out on the streets of Takoma Park, and Barcroft in Arlington, and Morningside in Suitland, and the Palisades in the District, having our own small-town Fourths, with flags and dogs and old fire engines and fife and drum corps, with old T-birds chauffeuring local politicians we've never heard of and beauty queens we're pleased to snicker about.
We've got our own little parades on our own Fourth of July, and none of us had to bake cookies for a year to get here and none of us had to compete with 200 bands to be selected. And maybe we're thinking about our freedoms, and maybe we're thinking about popping a cold one and taking a nap. But we don't need to go to Iowa or New Hampshire to know what we have, or to know that we like it just fine.
Marc Fisher's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.