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July 06, 2005

How did you celebrate?

We went to Santa Barbara for the Independence Day parade, for a slice of old-fashioned patriotism. The highlight of the parade for the wife had to have been the WW2 reenactors, featuring a bunch of GIs and their vehicles. Five jeeps, all at least 60 years old, a deuce-and-a-half truck, a smaller, less behemoth transport, and an M-8 Greyhound armored car rounded out the convoy.

The wife thought the guy driving this jeep was a spectacular example of Geekus Historicus Americanus, i.e., her reenacting husband.

The crowd really seemed to enjoy our segment of the parade, and it gave me chills to see the occasional WW2 vet standing at attention as we passed by, the eighteen-year-old GIs marching at the head of the parade recalling the young faces of fallen comrades summoned from long-suppressed memories. The teen-agers have the exuberance of youth, much as their counterparts did during those dark, exciting days sixty-odd years ago, and their grins are blinding as they wave to the crowd, running up to cheering kids and exchanging high-fives before re-shouldering their bazookas, slinging rifles and machine guns to resume their march down State Street.

The whole point of reenacting is to experience the past in a physical way, and to honor those who came before. Sitting in the sun, waiting for the parade to begin, wool uniform slightly itchy on my skin, I fell into the hurry-up-and-wait routine I remember from my military service.

After the parade, we begin an impromptu parade of our own, heading for the coastal route. Cars honk and bums stand and wave. A derelict, unmoored from our reality, sees these apparitions from our military heritage and calls to us, "God bless you guys, man!" We smile and wave, accepting the praise in trust for those who earned it and never lived to enjoy their parade.

Children run to the edge of the road and cheer, and the GIs riding on the back of the armored car call out to them. We arrive at the pier and drive through the parking lot, bypassing stupefied parking attendants, until we finally halt, our vehicles clogging the narrow lane between restaurants and curio shops.

Curious tourists crowd 'round, peppering us with questions.

"Is that a real gun?"


"What kind?"

"A 1942 Winchester-made M1 Garand."

"How 'bout that one?"

"It's a Thompson."

"Can I touch it?"


A waiter comes out and speaks with the Lieutenant, says the restaurant's owner wants to give us lunch, on the house; how many meals do we need? The lieutenant does a quick headcount: 18 will do.

Soon, we're wolfing down burgers and fries, a few of the men enjoying beers donated by another merchant. Some cops come by and say hello, paying no attention to the rifles, pistols and machine guns scattered 'round. What would seem threatening in different circumstances seems ordinary and harmless -- no that's not right -- seems unthreatening in the hands of smiling American GIs.

Later, a harbor patrol officer comes by, complaining about the crowds and the blocked road. He asks me who's in charge, and I point to the lieutenant, enjoying the anonymity of being a jeep driver with no responsibility for anything more than my jeep.

I feel like a younger version of myself, the noncom enjoying watching the young guys acting the fool and the officers sweating the details, and I realize the transformation is complete. For at least a few hours, I am a Citizen Soldier.

Soon I'm back at the muster point, hitching my 1945 Willys to my SUV. I merge onto the 101 and turn on the radio, hesitate, then switch it off. I drive back to Ventura, listening to the hum of tires on concrete, thinking of Independence Day and the soldiers who served and serve still.

This has been perhaps the most meaningful Fourth of July I've had since leaving the military.

Uncle Bernie, Semper Fi, Mac!

Technical note: the pictures were taken by the wife with a Canon A80 digital camera, except for the last shot, snapped by me with a 1938 Kodak Retina-II.

Posted by Mike Lief at 08:33 AM