For the past decade or so, I've always opted to work on the Fourth of July. I hunker down at the job, where it's quiet and I don't have to worry about a stray bottle rocket streaking into my eye.
The other day someone asked me why I shy away from the Fourth. After all, Southern Oregon throws a pretty good summer party, with Ashland's parade being one of the better small-town rollouts in the country.
It goes back to the summer when I was 10.
I blame my mother. Not entirely, but somewhat entirely.
She was on the board for my Little League baseball program when it came time to decide the theme for the annual Fourth of July parade and fundraiser. Our Little League encouraged as many players as possible to march in the parade, spreading the gospel of kiddie baseball. And each year the league adopted a theme, which then involved costumes. Why we just couldn't trot through the streets of tiny Casey, Ill., in our baseball uniforms, I'll never know.
On this particular year, the parents group, of which my mother was a vocal member, decided that they would dress their children up as clowns and shove them into the streets to pass out candy to a swarm of shrieking, shirtless brats lining the parade route.
That morning, my mother tapped into her artistic side and slathered my face in black and red paint. She then dumped me into an oversized pair of ripped blue jeans that belonged to my uncle. She capped this monstrosity off with a hobo stick with a red bandana pouch tied at the end.
I looked into the mirror and saw that I was the frowny-face hobo clown of the group. This makeover prefigured the surly demeanor I would carry into adulthood, something my mother surely picked up on even at my tender young age.
In truth, there was nothing wrong with dressing a kid up in clown gear. However, it apparently was lost on the parents group that clown-wear on a Midwest Fourth of July was akin to mistreatment.
I showed up at the staging area and joined my clown brethren. From the beginning, we were ostracized by the Shriners, Girl Scouts and other parade denizens. We kept to our sad, clown selves at the far end of the IGA parking lot.
Someone then blew a horn and it was time to file through the streets of our little farm town. I remember Fat Cody, our catcher, huffing it in front of me in a large red afro wig and plastic shoes. Mind you, it was just before noon and already 90 degrees with 90 percent humidity.
Fat Cody made it about half a mile before I noticed he was starting to falter. We were placed directly behind three massive John Deere combines, the heat from their diesel engines wafting back in our painted faces like the breath of some murderous hellhound.
We each carried a sack of candy to be thrown at the furious hordes, seeking their sugary fix at our expense. I remember one shirtless redneck showing a rare kindness by commenting to one of the league coaches that, "It's too hot for this (expletive). Why you got'em in that stuff?" I wanted to embrace this man.
The parade turned from a festive celebration of our nation's independence to the Bataan Death March as my face paint began to melt and streak down my cheeks. It collected at my upper shoulders, creating an oily neck brace that only increased my already dangerous body-heat levels.
At some point, Donnie the Shortstop, who was at my side when the death march started, must have given up and gone off to die in a bush along West Main Street. Fat Cody has long since fallen behind and was assumed dead.
At the staging area they had given us plastic whistles to blow as we marched. By the end of the route, I had given away all my Laffy Taffy and was left with only a yellow whistle, which had become sticky with melted black and red face paint. I'm pretty sure a fly might have landed on it, gotten stuck and died. I hobbled over to some toddler near the end of the route and offered him the whistle. At first his mother beamed and asked the kid to say thanks. But when her eyes caught the awfulness that was the whistle, she stopped in her tracks and just said, "Heeeeeey. OK. Thank you." I sat the whistle on the ground at the kid's feet.
I slogged to the end of the line, having miraculously survived while many members of my team had succumbed to heat and parental hubris. I'll never forget my mother's reaction when I found her at the finish.
"Oh, it didn't stay on," she said, grimacing at my face, which by that point resembled the melting Nazis at the end of "Raiders of the Lost Ark."
We then walked to a spigot in a nearby park so she could wash much of the paint off my upper body before I was allowed to get in the car for the ride home.
Then my old man grilled some burgers, turned some dogs. We watched the fireworks later that night. We never spoke of the death march again.
So every year when my friends ask what I'm doing on the Fourth and I respond that I'm working and they say, "Oh, that sucks" I just shrug.
Fourth of July. I survived one. I won't celebrate another.
Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471 or firstname.lastname@example.org.