Growing up, the Fourth of July always began with a parade. Every year we woke early and shared family breakfast before dropping the car off at my grandparent’s house to walk the block and a half to the beginning of the parade route. We were always some of the first parade-goers to arrive because we wanted to sit on the sidewalk that would have the most shade once the hot Chicago sun peaked over the tops of neighborhood roofs. Sitting in our faded aluminum lawn chairs and sipping bottles of ice water we watched as the street lined itself thick with people.
The hum of the crowd inevitably grew louder and louder, neighbors laughing, children clamoring their way to the edge of the sidewalk, and parade marchers lining in formation for what would signal the beginning of our citywide celebration. Right on the hour, a police car would start rolling slowly down the street followed by a high school marching band from out of town. The drum line beat out the count for the first patriotic number and the majorettes danced with their flags through the street.
There were community floats, churches promoting summer VBS, and old grown men with long gray beards riding on Medinah magic carpet cars. Colorful clowns with painted faces and stilt legs smiled broadly and waved through wobbling strides. Children waited expectantly with old shopping bags for parade marchers to toss candy and swarmed like locust once they did. Would-be politicians shook hands and handed out flags and everyone smiled and laughed and drank in the shared expression of our patriotism.
It is true there was much to enjoy during our city’s yearly parades, but somewhere between the youthful acrobatics and local girls and boys clubs came my favorite moment of all. Quietly, almost reverently a motley band of soldiers marched a flag to the beat of a lone snare drum. They wore their decorated uniforms proudly, feet stepping in perfect time with one another. Every year they passed, my grandfather stood to his feet with tears in his eyes and raised a hand in salute to the heroes who walked by.
My grandfather was a soldier too. He never talked about the war but we all knew it had changed everything for him. Each year as the soldiers marched past I was able to glimpse, if only for a moment, the pride my grandfather had in serving his country and the identity he shared with each passing soldier – an identity that bridged gender and race and years. By this point I would hear the blaring horns of the next marching band playing something like America the Beautiful and my heart would swell with an overwhelming patriotism at the sight of my grandfather the soldier remembering days and honoring comrades I will never know.
Every year that moment moved me in ways I can’t fully explain and over time I became acutely aware of the price my grandfather along with every other American soldier paid on my behalf. I would turn my face just enough to let my own tears of gratitude slip down beneath my sunglasses, careful to keep from speaking until I could be sure the catch was gone from my voice. With their single snare growing increasingly faint with each step, my grandfather would slowly ease himself back into his sun-streaked chair and he and the parade would move on.
My grandfather has been missing from our parade spot for several years now, but I’ve never forgotten the volume he spoke in that special moment. It is because of American soldiers like my grandfather who give life and years and innocence to stand for their families, their country, their freedom, that I get to sit in the shade on the sidewalk a few blocks away from my grandparents house with my own children and celebrate the Fourth of July.
Thank you American soldier. I am proud to remember you today.