The downbeat sounds. Conversations cease. Musical notes soar, caressing the crowd, obliterating the more mundane music of passing traffic. Park birds trill in accompaniment as the orchestra strikes the opening chords of "The Star Spangled Banner." The audience rises. Standing with hands over hearts, the crowd sings the well-known words. A sense of pride is palpable.
This is a typical scene at many outdoor concert venues on Long Island each summer, and across America itself. For me, it describes the anticipation at the start of one of the many Heckscher Park summer concerts presented by the Huntington Arts Council.
When my family moved from the Bronx to Huntington in the 1950s, I was 17 and had the impression that we were leaving the big city for small-town America. But the sense of community I discovered on Long Island was so heartwarming that my homesickness for the Bronx quickly dissolved, rapidly replaced by the desire to assimilate.
Huntington has long since shed its small-town persona -- with one exception: these summer concerts.
Most evenings, as the last sunlight filters through the tall trees, devoted admirers carefully make their way to chairs they placed earlier in the day on the grass facing the Heckscher bandshell. Musicians on stage tune instruments. Last-minute arrivals place blankets in designated sections on the grass and settle down. Picnic food finished, coolers closed, the audience awaits the director's baton movement to start of the show.
The crowd is usually an eclectic group. Snow-thatched seniors, middle-aged couples, young families, some cradling toddlers in laps while older siblings squirm away to the adjacent playground.
The sky darkens. Stars twinkle their delight. Moonlight sometimes provides just enough illumination -- never intrusive, always intimate -- highlighting rapt expressions of anticipation. Adults sit back, relax -- expectations of enjoyment evident on all faces. Many hum quietly as the orchestra serenades them with melodies learned long ago. Girls flourish neon-colored glow-sticks like batons, imitating the conductor. Boys brandish them like swords, dueling with flitting fireflies. When the orchestra swings into a bouncy tune, these uninhibited youngsters gyrate in sync with the sounds, their lithe bodies silhouetted against the brightness of the bandshell.
It's a diverse group, somehow united in a sense of community and patriotism that is a rare commodity in today's world. Perhaps that's a hopeful sign that this feeling of coming together is still alive and well at a time when it is sorely needed. It is, after all, part of what it means to be an American.
Reader Carol Strub lives in Huntington.