Real Fourth of July

In Point Arena, where small town and big city mix, and become fond memory

The Fourth of Julymemories that I hold most dear are not my own; they are a patchwork of recollections and fictions offered by my great-grandmother, glimpses of dusty roads, fresh-squeezed lemonade "stirred with a spade," slow-ripened watermelon, hard rock candy, and pet crows that talk. If I imagine a child getting excited by the sight of a pitcher of lemonade, the thought of homemade ice cream and exploding bottle rockets seems utterly rapturous; aerial displays comprised of flying tin cans powered by nickel-packs of Lady Fingers and cherry bombs become more marvelous and splendid than any professional exhibition from my own childhood skies, and I am left with the absurd desire to find a small-town Fourth of July to call my very own.

Point Arenais a fishing town located along an isolated stretch of Highway 1. Its closest neighbor is Gualala, population 176, but Point Arena itself boasts a hearty 440 souls. A movie house, a small library, two bars, and several cafes line Main Street, which is actually two lanes of highway that meander through the center of town on the way to Mendocino. During the gold rush, there were 14 sawmills within seven miles of the city limits, and the tiny Arena Cove was considered a significant enough port to warrant a lighthouse.

Point Arena's importance faded with its redwood forests -- flaring up again only briefly during Prohibition when the town became known for its bootleggers -- and the rugged coastline was left to the equally rugged individualists who settled there. On either side of Point Arena you are witness to some of the most beautiful coastal scenery in the world: The ocean is a savage blue, and the sky is infinite; majestic cypress trees, huge callas, wild carrot, and radish flowers accent the wind-blown landscape; imposing crags plunge into the surf and rise like teeth in twisted protrusions of stone. But Point Arena itself has remained relatively fallow. Its buildings aren't quaint, and, as one of the utmost westerly points along the Pacific Ocean, Port Arena is usually cold, windy, and gray.

"We're not cute, here," says Angela Ferrari, who has been living in Point Arena since 1973, even though she still commutes to San Francisco three times a week to work as an emergency-room nurse. "We're really not cute. That's not what we're about."

"You have to understand, this is an outpost town," says Peter "Pedro" Loughran, who moved to Point Arena nine years ago, some time after living in San Francisco had taught him to "loathe everything America stood for." Paradoxically, Loughran now organizes and produces Point Arena's Independence Day celebration, and has done so for the last six years. "Pirates and bootleggers, independent thinkers, people who question authority -- that's who built Point Arena ... So I could really bring my own sense of what independence means to the celebration here."

Residents wearing delightful and ridiculous combinations of red, white, and blue line either side of Main Street (even a few of the town dogs, caught up in the spirit of the thing, have their tails braided with patriotic ribbons) as Neil Diamond's "(They Come to) America" blares through an amplifier parked in front of the Laundromat. Surprisingly, the sun is shining and the sky looks as blue and flawless as a freshly laid heron's egg.

Eight lean, elderly men with snowy hair march down the middle of Main Street with rifles over their shoulders; the first carries an American flag, the last carries a yellow flower poking out of the barrel of his weapon. The crowd applauds mightily, shouting salutations and calling the men by name. Next come the Grand Marshals: Helen and Tony Greco.

"Tony Greco immigrated from Italy in 1930 ..." begins the announcer, but the rest of his life story is drowned out by applause.

A decorated flatbed truck rolls by, filled with spangled Point Arena children chanting, "We want a skate park! We want a skate park!"

For a few minutes, Main Street is allowed to revert back to being Highway 1, and a string of six motorists has no other option than to become parade attractions as they pass through town. A few drivers shrug their shoulders and shake their heads in apology but, for Point Arena, it's part of the fun: Children hurl candy in their open windows, and the announcers take turns rating the RVs.

The parade announcer suggests the ham radio operators hold traffic for a little while as a fleet of extreme skateboarders and street lugers comes flying down the hill. The crowd roars. Several more tourists are allowed to pass through town as the history of our country's birth is deferentially related over the loudspeaker. Phrases like "in a thunderclap of words" and "the long years of despair" float over the wind and coalesce in the reminder that the Bill of Rights was ratified in December of 1791.

A few of the men in the crowd remove their hats. Everyone claps. Between carloads of sightseers, colorful armadas from the local Girl Scouts, fire station, marine rescue, library, humane society, dance studio, Red Cross, and Odd Fellows march by; then, things start to get weird.

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