A Complicated Spectacle

The local 4th of July celebration in the small town where I live is a fascinating thing. It draws together several competing notions of what being “American” (in the US sense) might mean, putting the tensions among them on display and…celebrating them. There are so many different purposes and ideals at work in the composition (content, ordering) that it’s hard to know quite what to make of it, especially in the context of a community that is in many ways in a kind of transitional place in its life as a small Midwestern town.

It’s colorful, cluttered, and sometimes brilliant, and it’s always worth seeing. [photos below the cut]

The route itself (along the winding length of Lakeshore Drive, with the lake itself to the south and houses to the north) is lined with US flags, flying high in the wind coming in off the water.

The cops clear the route, where people have been lining up for hours


This isn’t like a big city parade, all elegantly staged floats, big drum crews and marching bands, and giant balloons. The floats are handmade, and range in skill and detail from the complex and beautiful to…well, a bunch of dudes in a pickup truck with some hand-scribbled paper stuck to it.
The best float I have ever seen in this parade — a reenactment of the Iwo Jima memorial
There are a few distinct categories of participation in a parade of this sort. Because we are a farming and food-processing community, there is always a large amount of attention given to celebrating agriculture, especially in the form of celebrating the antique tractor as symbol and bearer of identity. Farmalls, Deeres, even the occasional lovingly restored Addis-Chambers, make up a lot of the parade. Sometimes, the agricultural displays are connected to other concerns, marking agriculture and its machinery as inextricably bound up with patriotic representation.
The flags on this tractor include several branches of military service

Patriotism itself takes on a lot of different shapes in the parade. There are always veterans groups (VFW, Vietnam-era vets, the American Legion, assorted other groups of military vets) on the scene, although now the men on many of those old trucks are fewer and fewer than they were as the WWII, Korea, and Vietnam vets start to fall at last to old age. There are also more current memorials; in yesterday’s parade, there was a simple pickup truck with signs on it to memorialize a local soldier who had fallen in Afghanistan.
Fewer every year, but the flags still fly

In addition to military displays, there are also civic displays. Fire trucks are especially popular, both as beautiful pieces of machinery and as representations of the life of a community and the people who serve it. Some of them represent not only towns (and there are, in my local parade, engines from more than one local community) but Kiwanis and Lions  and Rotary groups, civic pride floating in the flags above bright paint and brass and chrome.
The Peterson Lion’s Club, with more flags per square inch than, well, any other engine

There are political displays (the local Republicans and Democrats, promoting their candidates for future elections and reminding everyone of current incumbents), local business displays, and always a lot of cars from the two big auto sales businesses in town (Ford vs. GM! FIGHT!). Because this part of the country is serious about its love for Harley Davidson, there are always motorcycle groups in the parade, and sometimes they cross over with the military displays.
Among the most fascinating and symbolically complicated things about the patriotic presentations of this parade, though, are the various ethnic group marchers. Storm Lake is an interesting place — in a largely Scandinavian and German part of Northwest Iowa, it fields local marchers including the small crew of Czechs with their pun-filled signs, colorful Mexican, El Salvadoran, and Brazilian marchers and dancers, charreria riders,  a local newspaper man with his big Irish flag, the flags of Rwanda and Ghana walking proudly, the brightly dressed Laotian women’s group with their elegant umbrellas, and a crew of Micronesian dancers. The most fascinating single entry of this kind (to me, anyway) is the odd combination of walkers from the UK and Japan, bearing the sign for Heritage, Pride, and Respect. There’s a semiotics dissertation in that sight alone.
“Enemy” and “Ally” as empty categories, all in one image that bears a complicated history.


There are crowd-pleasing entries that manage to combine civic pride, agriculture, ethnic identity, and US patriotism in performances as well, ranging from the high school marching band to the riders on their magnificent dancing horses, running rope tricks and prancing down the asphalt with flags flying.
The dancing horses brought their own band

While this is not a crazy parade, sometimes the homey dignity of the proceedings is broken by oddities. It’s not every day that one sees Jack Sparrow on an antique high-wheeler waving a pretty obviously phallic balloon sword. Why this does not happen every day, I don’t know. It just doesn’t. It does, however, seem to happen a lot in Storm Lake on Independence Day, although it’s not clear what a daft fictional pirate has to do with patriotic displays. Perhaps that’s the point — that there’s nothing quite so American as a fake pirate on a bike.
No, I don’t really know what that last sentence means, either.

This year, all displays aside, I think my favorite thing about the parade happened in the few minutes before, as I watched the cutest little girl (maybe 3 or 4 years old), flowers in her pigtails, trotting up and down in front of us and trying to get the crowd excited for the parade. Her joy was infectious, and when the horses came by and the riders waved to her, she seemed completely happy.
Note: All of the photos in this entry were taken by me (Creative Commons, Attribution-No Derivative works). If you want to see more, check out my Flickr stream.

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About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. Otherwise, I labor to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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