Walking the streets of Bristol this week is an exercise in Old Home Week. In the taverns, markets and at the concerts at Independence Park, the historic town is a welter of hugs and handshakes as people who haven’t seen each other in years greet and talk about the old times.
This week is the high social season for Bristol. The hydrangeas are in bloom, the red, white and blue stripe has been freshly painted on Hope Street and the peach and plum sunsets explode over the harbor.
The handsome colonials and Greek Revivals are dressed in their July vestments of Old Glory and more red, white and blue bunting that the World Series. Sailboats bob on harbor moorings.
This week marks the 228th Bristol 4th parade, the nation’s oldest celebration of Thomas Jefferson’s American scripture, the Declaration of Independence. Bristol, which was sacked by the British during the Revolutionary War, celebrates July 4th like nowhere else.
Honoring this holiday is a national tradition that is grasped more tightly in Bristol than anywhere – a timeless mix of patriotism and provincialism.
The parade is the culmination of a year’s work by the town’s all-volunteer Bristol Fourth Committee, which runs everything from raffles to beauty pageants and a dinner and ball to raise the money needed to stage the parade and the surrounding events.
Through wars, depressions and family milestones, Bristol’s Fourth rituals endure. Listen to writer Mary Cantwell, who in her book `American Girl’ tells of coming of age in Bristol during the Depression and World War II.
``Early in the morning when the sky is still grey we can hear the dull boom of the Fourth of July cannon,’’ writes Cantwell. ``Get, get up, my mother pleads…get up, get up…its time to get out the old blankets and folding chairs and spread them over’’ the thin strip of grass in front of their Hope Street house to claim the prime viewing spot ``before the people from out of town come and park their carcasses right in front of you.’’
The canon thunders still at 6 a.m. sharp, and the spectators vy still for viewing venues. And the town still doesn’t allow anyone to camp overnight or set out chairs and blankets before 5 a.m.
``One learns about history early in Bristol, simply by looking around,’’ said Cantwell.
Once again this week, the traditions of a Bristol 4th will be celebrated. The military veterans in their too tight uniforms will march down Hope Street followed by a stream of drum and bugle corps, floats, waving politicians and preening beauty queens. Family picnics and buffets will spill over with salad, little necks, chourico, chowder, burgers, hot dogs and steaming lobsters.
And we will once again honor our nation’s independence with the enduring Rhode Island epiphany: On July 4, there was Bristol, there is Bristol. And as long as the American Republic celebrates its birth, there will always be Bristol.