It was 39° when I got up yesterday morning, so I was not sorry that a 7:30 board meeting and a 9:30 meeting with a client would prevent me from walking. The forecast for even colder temperatures last night made me regret (as usual) agreeing (as usual) to serve as a marshal in the City’s Christmas parade, but I figured I’d at least get some walking in.
I forgot how much of the job is just standing around. The parade begins at 7 p.m., but the marshals assemble at 5 for supper (sandwiches and cookies) and instructions. The instructions over the years have ranged from ridiculously specific to absurdly vague, but for the most part they are equally irrelevant to the chaotic situation the marshals will find when they go out to the staging area (sometime between 5:30 and 6, after the traditional visit from Santa Claus on his way to his place on the fire engine that will bring up the rear of the parade) to start dealing with their assigned floats.
Weeks before the parade, the City solicits applications for entrants, both floats and marching units. The total length of the parade is limited by a parade route that recrosses itself—too long and the parade will “eat its tail.” So each organization proposing to enter a float must indicate the total length of the unit. A City employee, with help from a civic organization, then works out the order of the floats, interspersed with marching units, to make up the entire parade. I don’t pretend to understand the principles of this organization, but the end result is that there are numbers painted on the pavement in the staging area that correspond to the numbers assigned to the floats, and each float is supposed to be parked in its designated area.
This would work fine if the floats with lower numbers showed up first. What actually happens is that later-arriving floats have to squeeze in between those that are already there, which is no easy feat, especially for drivers not expert in working with trailers. Last night we had one driver who, finding that his slot was already occupied, proposed to back into a place across the street. After numerous attempts, with the trailer obstinately going the wrong direction, he changed his plan and just drove around the block to head into the parking space. Another float that was supposed to be 60 feet long, upon arrival turned out to be much longer and had to be double-parked beside floats already in position. It didn’t help that the numbers from last year, though supposedly marked using “washable” paint, were still visible through the new ones, nor that, in the interim, angle parking places have been marked on one side of the street, and the police had not cleared parked vehicles from these spaces before the floats started arriving.
For the first time this year, marshals were not given lists of the parade order—just the numbers of the floats we were in charge of. So if someone was looking for a specific float, we had no idea where it might be and had to send them to one of the parade organizers (cruising around in electric golf carts with walkie-talkies). So here we are, standing around in our reflective vests, with our cool flashlights with orangey-pink cones on the end, feeling even more useless than usual, getting colder by the minute, and frequently consulting our watches, only to find out that it is over (or nearly) an hour till start time. About the only official duty I actually managed to perform during this wait time was to ask the drivers of floats with generators whether they had fire extinguishers on board as required (one in fact didn’t and had to send out for one). But I did have an interesting long chat with my partner marshal, whom I had just met for the first time.
Finally the magic hour arrived, and the parade began to move. I was in charge of floats 37–40 (of 58 total), so it took a while for that movement to trickle down to our area. I walked beside a float the length of the parking lot behind the K–1 Center till it made the turn onto Morphy Avenue. At this point everything went into overdrive. The float driver picked up speed to catch up with the float ahead, and those walking with it broke into a run to keep up. I just walked a little (well, a lot) faster, knowing it would have to slow down sometime.
When we reached the Fairhopers Community Park, where the bands were being staged, the middle school band slotted in behind the float I was accompanying. Even before we reached the official starting point of the parade route, the street was lined with spectators, and the tots on the float were showering them with candy and necklaces. (Yes, this was a Christmas parade. We were rather surprised, when we moved to the Gulf Coast, to learn that throws are de rigueur at all parades here, not just the Mardi Gras ones.)
Usually, after the official starting point, the parade hits its stride and proceeds at a fairly uniform pace throughout. In past years I’ve usually been ahead of a float that kept lagging, and I had to keep waving my flashlight to urge it to close the gap. This year, for whatever reason, the procession moved by fits and starts throughout the entire parade route. The middle-schoolers, with minimal marching experience, did not know how to march in place, nor were they able to lengthen their stride to keep up when the float ahead picked up the pace, so the gap between float and band was quite elastic, and it seemed the entire parade this year was rather ragtag.
The crowds this year were perhaps a little light (though it wasn’t really that cold), but the throws were more abundant, I think, than I have ever seen. From the amount of candy in the street, you would never know the economy was in recession, and I found that avoiding stomping on candy and necklaces was even harder than walking between the lines! It didn’t help that the float I was walking behind was filled with preschoolers, who, naturally, didn’t have very strong throwing arms (though I did occasionally, if I walked too fast and got beside the float, got stung by a sharply thrown hard candy). There was one babe of two or three who would dump a whole armload of goodies right beside the float, but even the best of them (including their mothers, who accompanied them) couldn’t seem to get the throws as far as the curb or barricade. The result was that, when the float had passed, the street was filled with youngsters (and many not so young) scrambling for candy and necklaces. It was my stern duty to clear a path for the band, holding up my official flashlight and occasionally saying, “Make way for the band” or “You’re about to be run over by the band!”
As for the band, bless them, they played their little hearts out. It is a common complaint of parade spectators that they never hear the bands play—just the drummers keeping up a beat. To be sure, the drummers didn’t get much of a rest during this parade (though occasionally when we entered a Dead Zone where there were no spectators, the band director would give them a break), but the entire band did play a good bit of the time. They played “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” They played it over and over again. It was the only song they knew. This is not surprising. What is surprising, really, is that they played it as well as they did given that many of the band members had never picked up a musical instrument before August, when school started. The young, attractive female band director (daughter of a longtime band director) had done a terrific job with them, and it was clear that the parents who were serving as marshals, though given to irony about the performance, were also very proud.
On the whole, this was a better parade experience than most. Although I heard “Rudolph” probably at least a dozen times, I’ll take that any day over walking behind folks from the Humane Society, one of them carrying a boom box playing “Who Let the Dogs Out?” over and over and over. And I found that I wasn’t as tired by the time I’d walked home as I was last year (when, I now recall, I vowed that I was never going to do it again). What I had forgotten, though, is that a parade is no substitute for a brisk walk. Although much of the time is spent walking fairly briskly, much more of it is spent ambling or even standing still waiting for a bottleneck somewhere ahead to clear. I’ll probably volunteer again next year, but, if I am honest, I won’t pretend that it takes the place of my daily constitutional.