Showing the Colors Down-Island: Reports from Three Main Streets

By C.K. WOLFSON

The day was a reprieve from the lurch and jolt of national news which often blurs patriotic instincts and makes us struggle for balance.

Independence Day: steady, reliable, served up in primary colors, ornamented in blue skies, balloons and family reunions. It is an occasion whose tradition and provenance singularly belong to the United States, to be celebrated collectively, a festive reminder of the precepts and privileges of our democratic system.

And it is best observed on Main street in small towns.

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Edgartown resident Amber Wolfe's children and grandchildren have come from Birmingham, Ala., wearing identical tie-dyed T-shirts made by her daughter in law, Diane Wolfe - a family tradition for the past seven years. "We wouldn't miss it," she says.

Walking along Main street in Vineyard Haven, Donald Alford from Pawley's Island, S.C., his five-year-old daughter Peyton perched on his shoulders, stops to explain that his family is visiting his wife's grandfather, an Island native, retired naval commander Daniel Burgo. "So we look at today as very patriotic," he says, describing the family tradition of reading the Declaration of Independence aloud to each other.

In the down-Island towns, where narrow sidewalks, slow moving cars, window boxes and store front benches support old traditions and soft illusions, visiting strangers dressed in similar T-shirts have random conversations; baby strollers and long, skinny-legged girls with cell phones rule the intersections; dogs wear bandannas with flag designs, and caravans of bicycle riders wave like streamers against the curbs.

This Fourth of July Sunday is a beach day, so intown sidewalks are not crowded. The day feels quietly, not chaotically, festive.

Retired Latin teacher Priscilla Durkin from Melrose, pauses in front of Edgartown Books. Celebrating the Fourth, she says, "keeps alive the vestiges of a former era, the tradition of celebrating our independence, and the high price we've paid to keep our country free." Ms. Durkin, who is visiting her sister, Islander Nancy Orazem, adds, "There's no place I'd rather be than Edgartown for the parade."

Many among the senior population, tykes in tow, have happily exchanged their first names in favor of Granny, Poppa, Nana and the like. The store windows of Alley Cat, Mosher Photo, Etherington Gallery and Bramhall & Dunn in Vineyard Haven; the Army Barracks and Black Dog in Oak Bluffs, and clothing shops in Edgartown herald themes in red, white and blue. Flags are attached to store fronts, sidewalk stanchions and many of the cars which slowly roll past Island movie houses, some draped with patriotic bunting - and all of which have shown Michael Moore's controversial documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, an indictment of the Bush administration.

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Edgartown school eighth graders Ray Ewing and Nick Kiersted are busily selling red, white and blue balloons to raise money for their class trip to Washington, D.C.. They pause to consider their feelings about the holiday. Finally, Ray says, "I'm not especially patriotic because of the war in Iraq, but we do live in a great country." Nick agrees.

Mitch Bobenski and Steve McCormick from Framingham compare recent bass fishing stories as they wait for their lunches under the umbrellas at the picnic tables outside Bob's Pizza in Vineyard Haven. "July Fourth," says Mr. Bobenski, "is the kick-off for summer. Perfect beach weather. Everything's amplified."

Mr. McCormick agrees. "You do feel how lucky you are to be in this country. It's harder to take things for granted."

In Vineyard Haven, a Ford Expedition with Maryland plates appears at the corner of Spring street and turns right, proceeding the wrong way on Main as passersby shout and wave. It's the holiday. People are momentarily forgiving.

Alberta and Sheldon Brown from Maryland observe the scene from the bench in front of Cafe Moxie. "I don't feel extremely patriotic this holiday," Mrs. Brown says thoughtfully. Her husband pulls his U.S. Army Reserve Band identification card from his wallet; he served in the army in 1961. "I'm very disappointed," he says. "I wouldn't want what's going on today to be part of my past." And he repeats, "Very disappointed."

In Oak Bluffs, a group of mopeds going the wrong way down Narragansett slides onto Circuit avenue. It's the holiday; people are momentarily used to it.

In Edgartown, Chilmark seasonal residents Ann Marie and Bob Reardon from New Jersey sit at opposite corners of the bench in front of Dream Weaver, on either side of the damp area someone's dozing German shepherd left behind. The couple recently saw Fahrenheit 9/11, and Mrs. Reardon says she hopes it influences people.

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"I think it's better to face problems rather than hide from them," she says. "I think your feelings about your country are very positive, but that is a different issue from being patriotic." Her husband nods his agreement as she continues, "It's not unpatriotic to challenge the direction your country is going in."

Stephen Connolly and Tasha Rifkin from Jersey City are also enjoying town. "It's a great day," Mr. Connolly says, "a time to celebrate, to appreciate and to recognize what our ancestors have done. It's pretty much a day that has had a tradition that goes on, even in present times."

And looking about, Ms. Rifkin adds: "It's got a great small town feel."