• U.S.

The Nation: The Big 200th Bash

14 minute read

From New York harbor, the tall ships will move up the Hudson River under a cumulus of sail, like a stately apparition from another century. A few hours later, more than 200 million miles away in space, America’s Viking lander will glide through the thin Martian atmosphere and settle on the Red Planet like a gray metal mantis.

Within such brackets of past and future, the United States will celebrate its 200th anniversary this weekend—a culminating moment of raucous blowout compounded of Disneyland pageantry and kitsch, perfervid oratory, sentiment and sentimentality, dissent, 10,000 miles of bunting, phalanxes of politicians and majorettes in a din of John Philip Sousa brass, and tons of fireworks splashing in the dazzled night air.

The Queen of the mother country will appear in Washington, Philadelphia and elsewhere — though not until a couple of days after the main event. The elfin pop singer Elton John will come to a Boston Bicentennial concert tricked out as the Statue of Liberty in silver-sequined robe. Italian Americans in Rome, N.Y., will celebrate with one of history’s biggest spaghetti dinners — 600 Ibs. of pasta and 600 Ibs. of sausage for a crowd of up to 3,000. For 76 consecutive hours, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights will be on display at the National Archives to the hundreds of thousands of visitors converging on the capital.

Abraham Lincoln once said of Fourth of July celebrations that “we go from these meetings in better humor with ourselves, we feel more attached, the one to the other, and more firmly bound to the country we inhabit.” It would have been difficult even a year ago, as the Bicentennial began, to credit the thought. But much has changed.

The nation may be in better shape this July 4 than it has been since at least Nov. 22, 1963. The economy’s recuperation is progressing. An odd and fascinating primary season seems to have demonstrated the health of the political system—and produced a new face or two to engage voters’ imaginations for the future. Watergate is finally interred. Above all, after 13 consecutive years of assassinations, race riots, youth rebellion, Viet Nam, political scandal, presidential collapse, energy crisis and recession, the nation’s mood seems optimistic again. Today’s leading scandal—sex on Capitol Hill—seems comparatively harmless. Louis Tucker, executive director of the New York State Bicentennial Commission, believes that “the Bicentennial is acting as a kind of catharsis. It’s become a way of clearing the American soul in a very positive way.”

The dawn’s early light will first strike the continental U.S. at 4:31 on July 4 at Mars Hill, Me. (pop. 1,875).

The northeastern Maine potato-growing town will celebrate, sedately enough, with a flag-raising ceremony, nationally televised. Farther down the New England coast, perhaps the nation’s longest and oldest July 4 birthday party (every year for 190 years) will take place in Bristol, R.I. During its 13-day celebration, Bristol will have, among other things, a beard-judging contest, a Portuguese song fest and a four-mile-long parade. Newport, R.I., will place a buttonwood Liberty Tree beside one that was planted at the 1876 Centennial in symbolic reply to the retreating British army that cut down every tree on Aquidneck Island during the Revolution.

New England’s most grandiose event will occur on Boston’s mile-long Esplanade facing the Charles River, where Arthur Fiedler will conduct the Boston Pops Orchestra before an expected crowd of 200,000. The climax of the program will be Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. As the piece reaches its resounding finale, five 105-mm. howitzers will bark out about 40 blasts; eight bells in the belfry of the nearby Church of the Advent will peal, and for 23 min utes fireworks will detonate in the sky.

The Boston show (cost: $25,000) is the private contribution of the Armenian immigrant family of Stephen Mugar,-a millionaire businessman. Says his son David Mugar: “We are doing this to show our appreciation to this land of freedom for what it has given us.”

Perhaps none of the Bicentennial spectacles will match the gathering of 225 sailing ships from 30 nations that will collect July 3 in New York harbor.

From there, they will see, hanging from the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the largest national flag ever lofted (see MODERN LIVING).

On the morning of the Fourth, the ships will proceed in a majestic parade up the Hudson River as far as the George Washington Bridge, then head back down the river past Manhattan’s imperious towers. Among them are scheduled to be 16 of the world’s largest windjammers, or tall ships (a phrase John Masefield used in his line “All I ask is a tall ship, and a star to steer her by”).

The tall ships in the convocation had a few problems. There were uncon firmed reports that the Colombian vessel Gloria would retire from the event for what some Colombian diplomats called “serious internal reasons.” Translation: at least six kilos of cocaine were reportedly discovered aboard the ship.

Also among the ships will be the graceful four-masted Chilean barkentine Esmeralda, a naval trainer once known, among other things, as “the National Pride.” It is an ugly detail of the event that, according to a 1974 report from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, in the days following the overthrow of Marxist President Salvador Allende, the Esmeralda was used as a prison and torture chamber for political prisoners held by the new military rulers. The Chilean embassy in Washington denies the charge.

As the fleet started out from Bermuda’s Hamilton Harbor, Spain’s Juan Sebastian de Elcano and Argentina’s Libertad collided. Several other ships also banged into one another as the skippers fetched for advantage by the starting buoy.

The longest of the tall ships is the 375-ft. Russian bark Kruzenshtern, built in 1926 and, like most of the others, used as a training ship for naval cadets. The oldest is the American barkentine Gazela Primeiro, built in 1883 as a fishing vessel and now owned by the Philadelphia Maritime Museum. While most of the tall ships are being manned by male cadets, the smaller topsail schooner Sir Winston Churchill, owned by England’s Sail Training Association, is carrying 42 female sail trainees. In their massed splendor, the ships suggest another Masefield image: “They mark our passage as a race of men,/ Earth will not see such ships as those again.”

TIME Correspondent David Wood sailed on a recent four-day training cruise aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Academy’s 295-ft., 1,800-ton bark Eagle; he experienced some of the exhilaration that is drawing the crowds to the ships’ parade. Wood remembered Richard Henry Dana Jr.’s line in Two Years Before the Mast: “There is a witchery in the sea, its songs and stories, and in the mere sight of a ship.” He also learned, as Dana did, that “it is all work and hardship after all.” Wood described a typical scene aboard the training bark:

” ‘Red’ Shannon, the short, freckled bosun, cups his hands around his mouth and bellows, ‘All hands on deck! Sail stations!’ His words echo across the deserted, fog-wet decks of the Eagle, and men come scrambling up ladders and out of doorways. Dozens pull themselves up into the rigging, swarming 150 ft. above the deck to loosen the tightly furled sails. ‘Loose the foreroyal!’ cries Shannon. ‘Loose the main royal! Man the fore t’gallants’l sheets and halyard there! Look alive, deck!’ The sails begin to drop like curtains at a play’s end. Now the men on deck haul furiously on the sheets to trim sails to the wind. A dozen men grab the hemp lines, thick as a man’s wrist, brace their feet on the deck, and haul hand over hand, faces purple with the frantic effort. ‘Heave! Heave! Heave!’ they shout, as the sail is winched home. Now the wind is picking up, and the ship is beginning to heel over slightly as the sails billow and fill.”

A good deal of archaic expertise is involved. As one Coast Guard cadet said, “You’re up in the rigging in a storm, the sail’s flapping in your face, it’s pitch dark, and somebody yells to clear the foreroyal buntlines. You can’t go look it up in your sailing manual.”

Not everything aboard the ship is archaic: on windless days, the steel-hulled Eagle, built in 1936, vibrates with the hum of her 728-h.p. diesel engine. Power winches, not able-bodied seamen, crank the windlass to hoist anchor. In the communications shack, the latest electronic gear helps plot the ship’s position. On the foremast, a slowly rotating radar scanner keeps an electronic eye on the sea.

The flotilla promises to be one of the great spectator events of the century. As many as 5 million visitors are expected to jam the riverbanks on the New York and New Jersey sides. More than 16,000 bleacher seats set up at a landfill off southern Manhattan are selling for $25 apiece. In lower Manhattan, Wall Street brokerage firms with offices in the upper stories are staying open to give employees, friends and customers a look. The Coast Guard worries that thousands of small boats will jam the river and harbor. “We expect all kinds of incidents—collisions, capsizings, drownings,” said the local Coast Guard commandant. “It’s got to happen, with that many boats in the water.”

Philadelphia, birthplace of the Declaration of Independence, plans its longest July 4 parade yet—five hours. Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip will present a six-ton Bicentennial Bell as a gift from the British. Yet there has been a certain ironic sourness in Philadelphia’s celebration. The expected hordes of visitors have not appeared, possibly because they feared, incorrectly, that all the hotels would be full. Moreover, dissident groups have promised July 4 demonstrations. Mayor Frank Rizzo has tried to get Washington to dispatch 15,000 federal troops to keep order against, as he says, “a bunch of radicals, leftists [who] intend to come here in the thousands from all over the country to disrupt.” The Justice Department, after studying the threat, refused Rizzo’s request. One major group planning protests is the July 4th Coalition, made up of disparate organizations, including Puerto Rican nationalists, gay activists, American Indians, feminists and black radicals.

Washington’s celebrations will go on for a week. On July 1, President Ford will speak at dedication ceremonies of the Smithsonian Institution’s new National Air and Space Museum, where planes and spaceships are suspended from the ceiling like toys. The Fourth of July fireworks will be the most dazzling ever. Instead of the customary two tons set off on the Washington Monument grounds, 33% tons will be detonated at four places around the Washington Monument, Tidal Basin and Lincoln Memorial. The display costs $200,000 and is being put together by Etablissements Ruggieri, the same French firm that concocted a display seen by Thomas Jefferson in Paris in 1786.

In Bartow, Fla., as is the custom, the townspeople will hold a birthday party for Charlie Smith, who on the Fourth will celebrate what he believes will be his 134th birthday. Smith, who arrived in New Orleans on a slave ship in 1854, is acknowledged by the Social Security Administration to be the oldest living American. The only man in town who remembers the Centennial, Smith will serve as honorary grand marshal for Bartow’s Bicentennial parade.

In Atlanta, more than half a million people are expected to watch the Fourth of July parade. In New Orleans’ Superdome the night of July 3, performers like Jazzman Al Hirt and Country Fiddler Doug Kershaw will provide five hours of entertainment.

So it will go across the nation. In St. Louis, the celebration under, around and through the city’s Gateway Arch will last four hours and include an air show with a wing walker and a five-man free-fall parachute jump. At Chicago Stadium, the Immigration and Naturalization Service will swear in 1,776 new citizens. In the Miami Beach Convention Hall, 7,000 new citizens will be naturalized.

For months, Southern California has been advertising its July 4 “All Nations, All Peoples” Los Angeles County Bicentennial parade as the longest in the nation. When the parade leaves Los Angeles en route to the Pacific Ocean, it will stretch for 10.8 miles. But the sidewalk excitement will be absent in Beverly Hills and Santa Monica, which will not provide police escorts. Once it reaches the Beverly Hills city limits, the parade must disband. On the other side of town new marching units will form and hike to the edge of Santa Monica. There the parade will fizzle, two miles short of its goal at the ocean.

Fireworks, bands and picnics are predictable. The Bicentennial has also aroused inventive imaginations. Some time ago, Chicago Attorney Marvin Rosenblum dreamed up “hands across America,” a grand scheme to link the nation from coast to coast with a human chain to symbolize American unity. The plan would require at least 5 million people grasping hands, so Rosenblum has lowered his expectations. Now there will be only bits and pieces of the human chain—about ten miles’ worth on Chicago’s South Side, for example.

Time capsules are as popular now as they were on July 4, 1876. In Seward, Neb., a discount hardware store owner named Harold Davisson last year interred a 1975 Chevrolet in a crypt of concrete and steel. This year he is adding a blue Kawasaki motorcycle. Also in the vault are a Teflon frying pan, a bolt of polyester fabric, a zipper, a pair of bikini panties and a man’s aquamarine leisure suit.

Another Bicentennial enterprise: the horse-drawn wagon trains that have embarked from various sections of the country and will rendezvous July 3 at Valley Forge (see following story).

Up in Alaska, at least ten different parties of mountain climbers are trying to reach the summit of Mount McKinley, the tallest peak in North America, by July 4. These Bicentennial climbs will put 800 to 1,000 people near the top at one time. One of the parties plans to try to raise President Ford by radio once it has reached the crest.

Many Americans, of course, find it difficult to summon up such energetic enthusiasm for the grand, excessive project. Blacks, for example, have remained on the margins of Bicentennial celebrations. But they have launched some notable projects. The National Urban League has distributed a series of booklets called Black Perspectives on the Bicentennial—covering black economic progress, the black press, education and politics. Two weeks ago, the Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum opened in Philadelphia, 1½ blocks away from Independence Hall. It houses the most extensive collection of black American documents and artifacts yet assembled in the U.S.

In the South, blacks have been involved in other ways. In Evergreen, Ala. (pop. 5,700), the Rev. H.K. Matthews, pastor of three small A.M.E. Zion churches in the piney backwoods, will observe the Fourth by leading a parade and gospel show to protest surviving rural Alabama bigotry. In Wilmington, N.C., over the weekend, there will be a four-day “Black Freedom Festival” of picnics, “gospelramas,” sports events, concerts and workshops.

Charles Rangel, a black Congressman from New York, remarked last week: “If the Bicentennial is some kind of self-congratulatory celebration, it is frivolous and meaningless to the black community. It should be a cause to blacks to bring to light just how far America needs to go to achieve equality under the Constitution. If the Bicentennial can be seen as a rededication to full equality, then it would be relevant to blacks.”

It may be that by next week the dominant emotion about the Bicentennial will be one of immense relief that it is finally over—most of it, anyway. Still, for all the blare and schlock—the “Collector’s Item” Bicentennial beer cans one brewery put out, the Frisbee tourneys, the air of Styrofoam patriotism —the birthday party promises to include much genuine excitement, significance and dedication. It may be a sign of renewed national health. From all the advance signs, and despite ample predictions of boredom, it should also be fun.

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