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Lucky to Be Beside the Shining Sea


Boothbay Harbor, Maine -- As the Hallowell Community Band began its next-to-last number, the little crowd on the lawn of the Memorial Library sang every word, and never had those words seemed more fitting:

"America, America! God shed his grace on thee, and crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea."

I looked across rooftops and steeples to gently rocking boats beneath a nearly full moon. The evening was cool with the first breath of fall. God's grace seemed abundant; citizens never sang with more relaxed good will and pleasure at being who and where they were.

The band perked things up with "It's a Grand Old Flag." The snare drummer was a lady of advanced years who played with the vim of a teen-ager. The bass drummer beside her was another codger, who laid an equally solid foundation for every number. The average age of the whole band must have been at least 65. Its strong suit was enthusiasm.

This was the night after the crash of the coup in Moscow. By the great circle route that is only about 4,000 miles away, but it could have been on the far side of Pluto; international events were as unremarked in Boothbay as the Hallowell Community Band's performance was in the Kremlin.

But wait -- the evening wasn't over. No town-square concert is complete without an encore, and there is no encore like "Stars and Stripes Forever."

The piccolo players had been waiting all night, perhaps all summer, for this, their big moment. One was a young woman with a thick pigtail, another was a bent old man with frizzy hair, and the third looked almost as frail.

The crowd began clapping along. Under a copper beech at the edge of the lawn, six little girls held hands and danced ring-around-the-rosy to the beat of the band. Then when the piccolo bridge came, the clapping stopped and everyone listened, as if holding their breath.

One more more beat might have exhausted the breath of the players, but they hardly quavered as they braved their way through that last bright trill before the trombones come in. The crowd cheered. Though sitting, the band strutted through the uplifting chorus one final time, and that was that.

I'm sorry Norman Rockwell missed it.

As the sheriff held up traffic for the departing crowd, his car's revolving blue light flicked across smile after smile. Parents, children, townspeople, lobstermen, tourists went away happy.

In a world of confusion and anger, they were happy to be pleased by something so simple and straightforward. Simplicity and straightforwardness, community feeling are what people like about small-town life -- part of our traditional memory even for Americans whose families never shared it.

The people at the band concert were united by more than good will and satisfaction in simple pleasures. They were uniformly lucky to be where they were, in a village cool and friendly instead of a city hot and mean. All of them were lucky to be white, most of them Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Some were lucky to be born on the Maine coast, others lucky to have the money and leisure to join them for a while.

Most of the world thinks of everyone in our country as lucky, just because we are Americans. But millions of Americans cannot think of themselves that way. They see no connection at all between their lives and the postcard towns of New England, the purple mountain majesties of Katherine Lee Bates' anthem, the pride of John Philip Sousa's march.

Some of them are in families newly arrived, not yet speaking English. Some are in families that came long before there was a United States, and live lives as dismal as their ancestors lived in slavery.

As I listened to the Hallowell band, it occurred to me how far away that idyllic evening was not merely from Moscow, but from the reality of life for so many unlucky Americans. I felt almost guilty to be there. I wondered if anyone else from Washington had such thoughts on those cool August nights on the coast of Maine.

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