Last Friday afternoon, pallbearers carried a coffin through the snowy streets of Montpelier, but no one shed any tears. In fact, the two-dozen or so mourners could hardly suppress their smiles. It was only an empty cardboard coffin, after all, and it's hard not to giggle when the person setting the march tempo is beating a bass drum while wearing a handmade bird suit, complete with a foot-tall, long-beaked mask.
The Second Vermont Republic staged this symbolic bit of street theater, a funeral for the first republic of Vermont (1777-1791, RIP). The group, which wants Vermont to secede from the United States, was acknowledging the day Vermont became a state, on March 4, 1791.
Prior to the march, an assembly of reporters, TV cameramen and onlookers gathered at the Langdon Street Cafe. They listened to music from bagpipers and a speech from a man dressed as Ethan Allen. A man calling himself Father O'Matchstick -- wearing a top hat and a washboard around his neck -- delivered a eulogy. After bidding farewell to the plucky independent nation that "kicked the sapbucket" 214 years ago, the padre delivered a benediction: "In the name of the flounder, and of the sunfish and of the holy mackerel..."
As the funeral march wound up the steps of the Statehouse, several cameramen scurried across the snowy lawn to get a shot of the euphonium player, General Allen, and the avian drummer. Not a single reporter covered a similar event last summer that drew hundreds of people, but the 2004 election changed all that; since November, the Vermont secessionistas have been written up in a number of local papers, as well as by the Associated Press, The Nation and Salon. George W. Bush's second term has been good for membership, too -- 60 people have joined in the past four months, bringing membership to 160.
It's hard to put a finger on what's so compelling about this quixotic quest for independence. Second Vermont Republic spokesperson Thomas Naylor insists that his group is dead serious about secession, but in the context of O'Matchstick's blessing, that's hard to swallow. If nothing else, their antics are entertaining.
Jennifer Boccin, a black-clad Goddard College student who followed the procession, said she thinks the movement is exciting partly because it's a little dangerous, because it makes people question the legitimacy of the union. She said it encourages Vermonters to have pride in their state. "There's a stronger sense of place and community here than in other parts of the country," she noted. Which is really just another way of saying, "only in Vermont."