The parade is about to begin. A homemade collection costumes, an assortment of neighbors without a single bassoon or drum majorette, is assembling behind the town's single fire truck.
One by one, the kids on bikes, the man driving a tractor, the truck carrying the lone float, all fall into place. Eventually, they move out.
There are no uniforms in this small-town Fourth of July parade. There is, indeed, no uniformity, beyond good spirits. There is, instead a subtle pride in individuality, even eccentricity. The children all seem to carry some specialness that marks them like a name tag.
To me this day, the scene in front of us appears distinctly American, not for its firecracker festivity, but for its sense of human uniqueness. It feels right to witness a Fourth of July celebrated with a ragtag parade of persons. It feels American the way that the May Day parade with all its massiveness feels Russian.
The scene is an illustration of a country founded on the bizarre idea that the individual actually matters.
My vision was affected, I'm sure, by reading "The White Hotel" on the days before this holiday. D. M. Thomas has written an extraordinary, risky novel based on the most famous of Sigmund Freud's patients, Frau Anna G. Anyone who has taken psychology has read of her hysteria and his "cure."
Thomas recreates a lush landscape of her psyche, through dreams and symbolism, analysis and life. He explores Frau Anna and Freud, her hysteria and his analysis, her disease and his science.
In a sense, Frau Anna and Freud both came out of the same society. Psychiatry itself is a science of individualism. It lavishes attention on the interior of a human life. The first healing message of psychiatry is that the individual is important. It is no wonder that psychiatry has found such a hospitable home in democracies and such a hostile one in totalitarian countries.
In "The White Hotel," the author writes about the creation of a life with its human connections across 20 years. One woman is analyzed: one psyche is restored at least in part by the ministrations of Freud.
By the middle of the novel, this life has acquired enormous value to the reader. And the ending, even if we are prepared, comes as a shock.
The real Frau Anna -- the object of all this attention, the subject of our fascination -- was executed by the Nazis with a quarter of a million other human beings at Babi Yar.
This moment describes the brutal confrontation of the two cultures of the world. The one nurturing individuality, paying heed to the extraordinary, nourishing the singular. The other destroying by the millions.
The novel's impression hovers over me while this tiny parade rambles up the road. I look around at the mothers who worry over their children's potential, psyches, report cards. I look at the collection of adults, each carrying a history as unique as Frau Anna's.
The backdrop of this Americana is the other culture: the culture of missiles, the culture of bombs that would make Babi Yar look like nothing more than a Gunfight at the OK Corral.
I find myself worrying about holocausts -- nuclear holocausts -- more than at any time since my 1950s childhood. I look from one set of world leaders to another and see men competing with toys of annihilation, building high stockpiles of destruction. One more block here or there and it will all fall down.
I remember one passage near the end of "The White Hotel." After the first day of the massacres at Babi Yar, Thomas writes: "The soul of man is a far country, which cannot be approached or explored. Most of the dead were poor and illiterate. But every single one of them had dreamed dreams, seen visions and had amazing experiences, even the babes in the arms. . . . If a Sigmund Freud had been listening and taking notes from the time of Adam, he would still not fully have explored even a single group, even a single person."
What I wonder as I walk home is how those who cherish lives, one by one, can civilize the other culture that can murder by the millions.