History is filled with bad ideas — the Edsel, lobotomies, and leisure suits spring quickly to mind. But the notion of building a Fourth-of-July float that represented all of Buckland Avenue was beyond comprehension.
East Buckland was nouveau riche, upscale and swanky with manicured lawns. West Buckland, beyond Baker Street, was nouveau po’, a nightmarish minefield of lawn jockeys, flamingos, gnomes, and gazing balls all battling for world domination one yard at a time.
In the dog days of ‘65, I was a fifteen-year-old West Bucklander with a summer school project, courtesy of Mr. Willard, my social science teacher. He’d given me an incomplete in Anthropology. We were supposed to observe and document culturally-based behaviors on film. He denounced my documentary “Movie Monsters: Shapeshifters of American Culture” as unadulterated rubbish. He demanded a new “reality” based film or else he’d flunk me. What other phenomenon could possibly have had a greater impact on cultural behavior than monsters of the silver screen? I’d done enough fieldwork sitting in the Danbury Theatre, popcorn in hand, to know. I had no idea what to film until I saw a poster announcing the Fourth of July parade. And then it came to me.
My film would depict the classical East meets West conflict, though any fool knew that the twain was never going to meet on Buckland. But no one listens to fifteen-year-olds, so I decided if I couldn’t stop the madness, by God, I was going to film it. Mr. Willard would get reality. He should have been careful what he wished for.
The neighborhood association decided each street would produce one float that displayed tableaus of the American lifestyle. The East Bucklanders, led by Mr. Willard and his wife Beverly, created a suburban Shangri-La on half the float, with a z-brick wall, petunia beds, folding green chaise lounges, and a charcoal grill. The West Bucklanders’ half, decorated by Butch and Tammy Hadley, oozed a more rustic charm punctuated by hunting rifles, gun racks, and decapitated animal heads.
By 9:00 a.m. on July 4th the float parked at the corner of Buckland and Baker was piled high with Americana. Beverly wore her crisp white tennis dress, accessorizing with a Spalding wooden racket. Mr. Willard climbed aboard in his Dennis the Menace apron carrying hot dogs and buns. Tammy joined the group in her little white shorts and matching silk head-scarf. Tension flared when Mr. Willard and Tammy made eye contact. Beverly bristled; her eyes flashed the words, ‘you white trash hussy!’ It was common knowledge Mr. Willard had been diddling Tammy for years. Beverly did her best to hold her head high and ignore the melodrama. Tammy’s hubby, Butch, sat on the floor of the float next to the gun rack, staring into space. He needed a beer.
The parade began at 10:00 a.m. Butch found the beer and returned to his trance; Mr. Willard grilled hot dogs and tossed them to the crowd. Beverly watched Tammy like a hawk. Tammy was waving to the crowd like a beauty queen, and with a throaty laugh, untied the scarf covering her long dark hair. The scarf wafted in the breeze and wrapped around Mr. Willard’s head. He turned, giving Tammy a playful wink. Tammy responded with an indiscreet squeeze of his ass.
Beverly backhanded her racket across the float, aiming for Tammy’s face, but her stroke fell short and knocked over the grill. Hot embers landed on Mr. Willard’s apron, setting him ablaze. Dennis the Menace’s face melted away leaving behind a grizzly cartoon. Mr. Willard stopped, dropped, and rolled off the float, drawing panicked screams from the crowd. The toppled grill had scattered hot coals across the float; its plastic green turf melted, releasing noxious fumes. Ammunition from the gun racks exploded. Hysterical children flung themselves from the float. Beverly body-slammed Tammy and launched them both airborne. Butch cradled the beer cooler in his arms and hurtled over the blaze to safety.
The unmanned float blazed down the street obliterating everything in its path, eventually rolling to a smoldering stop after ramming into the back of a station wagon.
A charred and shaken Mr. Willard stumbled into the street and scanned the carnage. He froze when he saw me and my camera, realizing we had captured the most embarrassing moments of his life. I can still see him, lurching across the double yellow, a blood-curdling ‘NOOOOO!’ bursting from the depths of his lungs.
That was a wrap. I had the power of the gods in my hands. The scent of an imminent “A” filled my nostrils
That was forty-six years ago. It was also the last time the subdivision asked Buckland to participate in the parade. The Bucklanders of ‘65 have all scattered to the winds. Beverly was committed to Longview Hospital for the criminally insane. It was all very hush hush, something about her attempting to castrate men with her tennis racket. Mr. Willard ran off with Tammy, who then left him to marry a movie producer. They had a daughter who recently starred in the blockbuster porn flick “The Nymphs of Jersey Shores”. After sobering up long enough to realize Tammy had left him, Butch found nirvana by turning his in-ground pool into a giant beer cooler. He had a Porta-Potty installed poolside and, as far as I know, neither he nor his lawn chair has moved since.
Disgraced and alone, Mr. Willard retired from teaching and went to live among the Oompa Loompas or some such tribe. And me? I surrendered the film to him later that night after the parade. But first I made sure I had my “A”. I saw him burning something in his yard around midnight. Coincidence? I think not. It didn’t matter anyway since I’d given him a blank reel. I was young, but I wasn’t stupid.
It’s digitized now. Check it out on YouTube, “Subdivision Smack-Down: A Study in Human Behavior”, with 1,352,417 viewers. My Anthropology students love it.
Mary Ann Back, of Mason, Ohio, was awarded the 2009 short story Bilbo Award by Thomas More College. Her writing has appeared in many publications, including: Eclectic Flash, Short Story America, The Loyalhanna Review, Flash Shot, Earth Joy, and Flash Me.