July 4th at the farm

By David Kessler

I've often joked that all my good traits come from Vermont.  I was referring to "the farm" that figures so prominently in my mind.  I've thought of writing down a couple of its stories, but have never succeeded in getting very far.  This evening, I recalled a July 4th from my time up there and managed to write it down.  Let's see, these events took place in either '78 or '79, so you'll forgive any overly rosy glow that has developed around them; call it "Saint Memoria's Fire".

In this Installment: July 4th at the Farm (or, the Old Gray Cannon).

The farm in Vermont where I spent so many summers and an autumn or two is a piece of my personal mythology.  It was begun as an alternative school by Dick and Anne Bliss, a university professor and his wife, who decided to educate their mentally retarded older son themselves, after various specialty schools refused to.  Over the years it grew as a school, and developed a summer program, but only the American Camping Association called it a camp.  As "East Hill Farm & School", it had earned that status and license, but we all knew it simply as "the farm".  If we wanted to differentiate it any further, it was "East Hill".  If we had called it a camp within Dick's hearing, we would probably have gotten a lecture on the difference, including the credo, "If the animals don't eat, you don't eat!"

Those summers were exercises in working, playing, and living in close quarters with others.  In learning all the skills needed to maintain a farm, in singing, swimming, and in a hundred other things that comprised - I realize now - Dick & Anne's idea of what makes good citizens.  I was there from age 12, with shorter visits earlier than that when my sister and then when my brother attended, so they had me during good years for instilling these lessons.

Among the morning chores performed every day was raising the American flag.  This duty took two people - if one were able to manage it without letting the flag touch the ground, then the second would play music on recorder to mark the event.  Evening chores included lowering and folding the flag, and storing it in the Main House until the next morning.

Next to the flagpole was a solid wooden cannon, complete with wheeled base or carriage, and fashioned to look like the canons you see in Civil War pictures.  There may be some long and grand story behind this cannon, but as far as most of us knew it had no purpose other than to make the setting of the flag pole look more like a postage stamp.  The cannon was only ever used once each year, on July 4th.

I remember July 3rd of my first year at the farm. Johnny - Dick & Anne's younger son, told a few of us that we needed to get ready for the ceremonies that would happen the next day.  We would be a sort of honor guard, so the first thing we needed to do was to each make a rifle that we could shoulder as we marched along.  We didn't all have a good idea of what a rifle looked like, but we learned quickly from those who did, and an afternoon in the woodshop was enough for us each to finish them up.  I remember Hugh Phear (we called him "Wings") used a strip of leather as a trigger guard.  This was far easier than whittling out a curved piece of wood that would fit flush to the gunstock, and pretty soon we all had leather trigger guards.

The next morning after breakfast, our "honor guard" had more assigned duties.  In place of the usual morning activities of haying, making bread, working in the woodshop, etc., we were sent up the north road to weed and generally straighten up the old graveyard there.  Someone had mowed what parts of it they could the day before, but around and in between the old stones was our job.

After lunch was the usual hour of rest (an institution I have come to respect and appreciate more with the passage of time), and then everyone gathered for the ceremonies.  We assembled in front of the main house, and then walked over to the flagpole.

The cannon had been given a new coat of paint for the occasion (the wheels were red, and the barrel was gray with a red stripe near the business end.  I think the carriage was black), and two people picked up the hitch end of the carriage and wheeled it into the road.  The four of us on honor guard took up positions in front of the cannon in our formation (okay, it was just a square, but there at the head of the procession it seemed like a formation), and we all marched up the road to the graveyard.

Once the cannon was in place we stood at attention, and Dick gave a short speech on the meaning of the day and on why we were commemorating it there in a graveyard.  At the end of the speech, Johnny called out the commands for a salute.

      "Ready."  We all lifted our rifles to chest level.
      "Aim."  We pointed our rifles up and away, and sighted down the barrels, placing a finger on the 8d nail inside our leather trigger guards.
      "Fire!"  We all pulled the triggers and heard a loud BANG!!

I love the way that the brain looks so hard for cause and effect relationships between events.  A little imagination is all that's needed to connect any 2 things that happen in sequence, no matter how unrelated, no matter how firmly we know that they are in fact, separate.  This is how we get the rituals that batters go through before walking up to home plate; it's why we laugh a little when we flip a light switch and an instant later the doorbell rings; and it's why I clearly remember that my rifle fired a real shot when I pulled the trigger and Will Ameden hit a piece of tin with a hammer in the woods behind us.

We followed our drill sergeant's commands and fired off a few more rounds.  Then Dick said a few more words, we re-formed into a procession, and marched back down the road to the farm.

I don't recall what else (if anything) was done to commemorate the day, or what happened to the four rifles.  We didn't perform this ceremony every year, but the graveyard was always taken care of and the paint on the cannon was usually touched up a bit.  It was a small event compared to everything else that we did up there, but I've always remembered it, in part because we had to leave the farm to do it.

We worked and wandered all over the 370 or so acres of the farm during our time there, but we rarely if ever left it until our season there was done.  This also was part of the Bliss' plan; create a complete world and respect its borders while it was underway (a rule kept to the degree that visits from parents were heavily discouraged).

On July 4th our world and its duties was enlarged enough to encompass the graveyard up the road.  Not a bad lesson in citizenship, and the only use I've ever had for a wooden cannon.

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