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A Boy's Town by William Dean Howells

After the regular town drunkards


No aristocratic reserves marred the glory of Fourth of July. My boy was quite a well-grown boy before he noticed that there were ever any clouds in the sky except when it was going to rain. At all other times, especially in summer, it seemed to him that the sky was perfectly blue, from horizon to horizon; and it certainly was so on the Fourth of July. He usually got up pretty early, and began firing off torpedoes and shooting-crackers, just as at Christmas. Everybody in town had been wakened by the salutes fired from the six-pounder on the river-bank, and by the noise of guns and pistols; and right after breakfast you heard that the Butler Guards were out, and you ran up to the court-house yard with the other fellows to see if it was true. It was not true, just yet, perhaps, but it came true during the forenoon, and in the meantime the court-house yard was a scene of festive preparation. There was going to be an oration and a public dinner, and they were already setting the tables under the locust-trees. There may have been some charge for this dinner, but the boys never knew of that, or had any question of the bounty that seemed free as the air of the summer day.

High Street was thronged with people, mostly country-jakes who had come to town with their wagons and buggies for the celebration. The young fellows and their girls were walking along hand in hand, eating gingerbread, and here and there a farmer had already begun his spree, and was whooping up and down the sidewalk unmolested by authority. The boys did not think it at all out of the way for him to be in that state; they took it as they took the preparations for the public dinner, and no sense of the shame and sorrow it meant penetrated their tough ignorance of life. He interested them because, after the regular town drunkards, he was a novelty; but, otherwise, he did not move them. By and by they would see him taken charge of by his friends and more or less brought under control; though if you had the time to follow him up you could see him wanting to fight his friends and trying to get away from them. Whiskey was freely made and sold and drunk in that time and that region; but it must not be imagined that there was no struggle against intemperance. The boys did not know it, but there was a very strenuous fight in the community against the drunkenness that was so frequent; and there were perhaps more people who were wholly abstinent then than there are now. The forces of good and evil were more openly arrayed against each other among people whose passions were strong and still somewhat primitive; and those who touched not, tasted not, handled not, far outnumbered those who looked upon the wine when it was red. The pity for the boys was that they saw the drunkards every day, and the temperance men only now and then; and out of the group of boys who were my boy's friends, many kindly fellows came to know how strong drink could rage, how it could bite like the serpent, and sting like an adder.

But the temperance men made a show on the Fourth of July as well as the drunkards, and the Sons of Temperance walked in the procession with the Masons and the Odd-Fellows. Sometimes they got hold of a whole Fourth, and then there was nothing but a temperance picnic in the Sycamore Grove, which the boys took part in as Sunday-school scholars. It was not gay; there was no good reason why it should leave the boys with the feeling of having been cheated out of their holiday, but it did. A boy's Fourth of July seemed to end about four o'clock, anyhow. After that, he began to feel gloomy, no matter what sort of a time he had. That was the way he felt after almost any holiday.


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