So long, Sousa, 'til next year

WHY, I ask myself, am I here this crisp evening as summer gives way to fall, and the musicians' Local 102 is belting out a Sousa march for public consumption? I could be home, listening to an FM broadcast from Tanglewood - infinitely superior in performance and fidelity. The President is speaking tonight on television on some point of national concern. If nothing else, I could be catching up on the backlog of work, both domestic and office, that nags continually at the back of my conscience. But something observed earlier in the day - the crew of the local Electric Department stringing up lines of colored lights around the village green - was irresistible. So I have come, drawn by nostalgia, to find myself both a participant and an observer of this particular piece of community ritual.

Not many of our townspeople have shown up for this performance - mostly senior citizens, sitting on their folding lawn chairs, in neighborly groups, the town van discreetly parked, waiting to take them back home. Several young mothers recline on the grass. Little children roam around in ever-widening circles of exploration; they return from inspecting the trash barrels to throw themselves into their mothers' laps with the warmest of hugs. A three-year-old marches back and forth, military style, keeping step to the music.

Twenty-five years ago, I was one of those mothers, pushing a stroller with a hot, fussy baby and a young lad wobbling on his new bike, complete with training wheels. Then, it was a treat to escape the confines of a small apartment with the excuse of a walk downtown to the band concert, to meet other young mothers for a few moments of conversation, while the children rolled on the grass like puppies and generally disturbed the seniors' enjoyment of the concert. Finally the reward - or was it a bribe - of the ice cream cone, as we started the walk back home, catching fireflies and wishing on falling stars along the way.

Twenty-five years before that, and I was one of the children myself. How clearly I remember summer Friday nights in Midwestern towns of Depression days; band concerts were the social high point of the entire week! Carloads of families, in from the farms, parked around the Square; the honking of their horns applauded each number. A brightly decorated mobile popcorn wagon on the corner of the Square dispensed bags of salty, buttered popcorn for a nickel. Tight clusters of teen-age girls, three or four to a group, promenaded around the Square, checking their reflections in the store windows as they paced their steps to meet up, accidentally, with the promenading boys.

Those adults who escorted us, the generation of my parents, are mostly gone now; and the memory of those nights, half a century ago, bears little correspondence to what I see around me this summer evening, as I view my fellow townspeople turned out for this final concert of the season. Yet there is something here that links us all: the elders folding up their chairs, the mothers with their sleepy, rambunctious young, the teen-agers, bored with the band's too-sedate beat ... something that tugs at my heart and mists my eyes while we all stand for the closing national anthem, straining for those high notes, shivering a bit as the evening air grows chill.

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