Genesis of a July 4 float

Wednesday July 4, 2012


Call me Ishmael. That’s the name of the guy who supposedly narrated "Moby-Dick," the novel written by Herman Melville at Ar rowhead farm in Pittsfield. Melville owned the property, which abutted the farm where he worked as a boy -- now where the Country Club of Pittsfield is located.

When I retired in 1984, I was invited to join the Berkshire Historical Society, headquartered at Arrowhead. I was named to head a committee to provide a float for Pittsfield’s annual Fourth of July parade. I gave it some thought, and bought at a lumber yard a bundle of 1x2 inch slats, chicken wire and a variety of nuts, bolts and washers. In my backyard in Lee, I fashioned the wood, hardware and chicken wire into the framework of a three-decker birthday cake because the Historical Society was observing an anniversary.

I thought of putting some candles on the cake using purple-painted stovepipe. But decided not. In my attic, I found my Navy seabag still containing the uniforms I’d worn as a skinny sailor boy. The uniforms no longer fit as I’d become Uncle Bigbutt. Using a razor blade, I removed the stitching from the trousers, and sewed them back together using the sewing machine skills I’d developed making clothes from mail order kits. While I was at it, I exaggerated the bell bottom cuffs. Purpose of bell bottoms was to make it easier to shed your trousers if you fell overboard.

If you squeezed bellbottoms into tight cylinders and tied knots in them, then flicked the pants over your head back to front to fill them with air, you could create water wings that would keep you afloat until your mates or the sharks got you. You could fight sharks off by scratching at their eyes.

On a Navy blouse, I had the words printed: "Melville on the Beach." A neighbor who was an official at a Lee Paper Mill also had connections at Kimberly Clark Corp. I asked him if he could provide me with a case of Kleenex tissues. He did. With the aid of my committee, I stuffed the tissue into the chicken wire to complete my cake.

I borrowed an antique Ford pickup from a friend to carry the float, and recruited my two daughters to wear antique dresses I borrowed from the Historical Society. I asked my younger daughter, Jean, to drive the truck, and her older sister, Mary Anne, to march with me out front. I’d taught all my kids to handle a stick shift, which is what the Ford truck had.

On July 4 we joined the parade elements on East Housatonic Street to await the start of the parade in rainy Pittsfield. It was apparent that our float would bring up the end of the parade. Somebody gotta be hind end. When we reached Park Square the television cameras were gone along with the Eagle photographer. So there was no one to take our picture.

The parade that year, because of construction on North Street, went up First Street. So, Mary Anne and I may be the only people in creation who have danced the length of First Street -- in the rain. We mostly did waltzes, tangos and foxtrots.

Most of the spectators had left too. But those who still lined the sidewalks seemed to appreciate our presentation. Among them was Mark Miller, my former boss at The Berk shire Eagle, who came out and shook my hand. Bless him. The parade ended at the Wahconah ballpark parking lot. Back in the early days of the parade, the firemen used to have a carnival there.

We had to ditch the float. I had the key to the former Eagle garage, which had moved from Eagle Street to its current location at the end of West Street. We drove the truck home, leaving the float in the unlocked garage, from which it disappeared. Maybe somebody stole it. Not all Pittsfield’s delinquent elements are known for their smarts, which is a good thing.

Frank V. McCarthy is a former managing editor for the Berkshire Eagle.


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