A distant cousin, who was often more distant still, cheated me on a certain occasion. I was minded to inaugurate a glorious tradition, which called for stepping a flagstaff on our estate, and my kin said, ''Don't buy one! I've a good one I'll give you!''
Since thoughts were in the vicinity of 30 and 35 feet, and a steel staff, I accepted this offer. My kin didn't recall just where he had misplaced this gift, but he thought it was either in the grove behind the roller-skate rink or down by the river, and when he found it he would let me know.
My purpose was to hold a Fourth of July observance that was not predicated on a regional golf tournament, a parade of fire engines, the dedication of a new swimming pool, and the opening of a new fried-chicken takeout and bowling hippodrome. It seemed to me the plausible new direction was otherwise, and for laughs a few sensitive citizens might reasonably get together, sing the anthem, salute the color, and perhaps repledge our lives and our sacred honor.
My kin remembered, and telephoned to say that his gift was ready to go and it was 30 feet long and I could handle it, if careful, on my pickup truck. I found a couple of pieces of red rag for safety purposes, got some string, and set out to accept the welcome gift from my distant kin, who on that day was distant by just 100 miles.
Then I found I had been cheated. The steel pole was 40 feet long, not 30. I got the thing on my pickup all right, using a carrier I had improvised for 30 feet. I thanked my kin, started for home, and became the most menacing hazard on a public way since the 40 armored vans moved the Mona Lisa.
My flagpole, held down where tied, was free to wave both ends up and down in a tempest of terror, and all traffic, hin and zuruck, began climbing trees on the shoulders and median. Truck drivers discreetly stopped and turned on blinkers. I saw a state police cruiser approaching, and the officer turned on his green flasher and then turned it off again. He saw my flagpole and turned off the main highway and went toward Sebago Lake.
My pole was now in the rhythm of the balancing device a high-wire artist likes when walking over Niagara Gorge, and there was nothing I could do save pick up the tune and sing, ''You tell me your dream and I'll tell you mine.''
I got home without incident, parked the pickup, and, after I had supper, I came out and the ends of the poles were still going up and down.
But we did hold the first of many Fourth of July observances that were dignified, patriotic, and entirely suitable. We read the Declaration of Independence and meditated on the self-evident truths.
After the exercises around that flagpole, we picked up the step from our drummer and marched to the shore, where sausage, pancakes, watermelon, and sundries were available in ample supply. That was our way to celebrate, and we told everybody, ''You don't get invited; you just come.'' Our biggest count was just short of 500.
Last year, our Friendship Board of Selectmen asked for a few minutes' time, and after neighbor Raymond Nelson finished the Declaration, it was proposed that our exercises become a community event, sponsored by the town. My good bride and I will just come. No lottery, no raffle, no automobile race, no knitting contest for senior citizens, no pie-eating razzle-dazzle - just Fourth of July, the birthday of a pretty darned good place to be.
Not the slightest thought was given to moving our venerable and experienced flagstaff to accommodate the new locale. Instead, a new flagstaff has been purchased and stepped by the town house, and ours has been retired. I shall continue to keep a flag on it lest we forget, but it will not again be swapped on the Fourth of July for the beautiful 7-by-9 donated years ago by Sen. Margaret Chase Smith after it had flown over the Capitol in Washington. Mrs. Smith wrote, ''I shall try to be with you!''
Some years, but not every, we have Canadian friends who come for a double holiday. July 1 is Canada's Dominion Day, so some years ''Mr. Pearson's Flag'' shares our staff with Old Glory, and we also sing ''O Canada.'' We sound like the crowd at the Montreal Forum when the Boston Bruins are in to open the season.
Our weather has been propitious. There was one year when rain would have wiped us out, but we'd rented a tent. My mother, whose Canadian origin left her with ''The Maple Leaf Forever'' instead of ''O Canada,'' was a century old on that rainy Fourth. Otherwise, a sprinkle maybe, but nothing to dampen the event and the sausage-and-pancake fire by the tide.
Our patriotic sausages are made by Roger Mailhot, a veteran whose father was a charcutier before him, and when Roger learned what his sausages were for, he decided to come and see. So each Fourth of July we've been feeding the finest breakfast sausages made to the man who makes them.
So the old order changes, and this year we'll go ourselves instead of just being on hand. I think I'll take my cannon. I have a 10-gauge saluting gun that speaks bravely when the flag reaches the peak, and I have always selected somebody at random to pull the lanyard and let the world know that the United States of America is having a birthday.
This surprises all, and causes some to trot around in dismay. It also fills the dooryard with black smoke. So I think I'll take my cannon to the town house this time and I'll pull the string myself.