In the basement of the old Catholic elementary school in Iowa City, we all lined up with our vendor trays attached by straps across the back of our necks. Ranging in ages from 10 to 13, we were loaded down with homecoming mums. After a quick lecture from Sister Timothy Mary (in those days still clothed in black and white from head to toe), we waited impatiently for the signal. The whistle was blown, the big double doors were thrown open, and down Clinton Street we went, through the mass of people lining the sidewalk, where we hawked flowers to the boisterous parade watchers. I was euphoric. Homecoming floats drifted past in a haze, the University of Iowa band played to the night sky, and people yelled and laughed with abandon. My first parade.
Now, of course, this isn’t your first parade. But you’re wondering how to navigate this year’s parade season. Sure, you know to avoid the drunken leprechaun marching on Saint Patrick’s Day, and maybe even the need to steer clear of all farm tractors so large the driver can’t see the parade watchers, let alone the clowns in the small cars. But what about the rest? Well, it’s your lucky day. Parade 101 is just beginning.
The night before. The night before the big event, the truly eager parade watchers mark their spots. You can place your reservation with lawn chairs, caution tape, tarps and blankets. This is equal opportunity at its best. Squatter rules apply. However, you should probably not leave the family heirloom quilt on someone’s front lawn. And, as tempting as it sounds, your kids should not be left holding down the tarp while you head to Stormy’s.
Preparation for marching. You’re going to be a participant? Great. You have only one job — candy. And lots of it. Do you have enough? There is no such thing as “enough.” Your ability to provide a satisfactory candy experience is of utmost importance. You want to see why?
Yup, that’s Gov. Terry Branstad at Urbandale’s parade on the Fourth of July. OK, he’s been governor on and off for 300 years. He’s gamely walking this two-mile route, waving and talking to folks. But where are all the kids looking? Not at Gov. Branstad. They’re looking for the candy. Do you want this to happen to you? I didn’t think so.
You need a visual of how much to bring? These gentlemen figured it out. Yes, that is preparation.
Moms and kids viewing. Moms and kids make up the bulk of the people watching any parade. Moms, be aware that there may be a few confusing images for your children. Be prepared to be flexible in answering the obvious questions. My favorite mom was at the Pride Parade last year. She was overseeing a group of little kids (yes, their hands outstretched for candy), when this float came rolling past.
I overheard her explain to the smallest boy, who was genuinely puzzled, that, yes, these men were only wearing underwear, but it was because it was just so hot outside. See, moms generally know the right answer.
Humble yourself. It’s one thing to watch a parade from the comfortable anonymity of the crowd. It’s quite another to march in the parade itself. Most walkers generally follow a fairly typical progression. You begin very self-consciously. Why? Because you feel like a fool walking in a parade. It’s not a mystery why most parade marchers disguise themselves as clowns or animals or politicians. So you start out by demurely handing out your candy, then rushing back to the parade vehicle, where you are hoping you will be lost to the crowd. You’re not lost to the crowd. I mean, you’re in the middle of the road with nowhere to hide. And as you’re feeling more and more silly and wondering how you were ever talked into this craziness, suddenly there is an amazing transformation. It starts with you throwing the candy with a bit of a flourish. Next you begin bantering with the kids and their parents. And before you know it, you’re a true parade marcher and start belting out the greatest hits by Aretha Franklin and doing cartwheels down the road. It is stunning to the casual observer. I can’t explain this phenomenon, but it happens every time. Trust me.
Now, by the end of the parade, you’ll just want some shade and a chair. Unfortunately, the end of the parade occurs for most marchers about four blocks from the start. You have another two miles. Sorry.
Secret parade information. I talked to a grizzled veteran of parades, Terry Rich. Yes, the same Terry Rich who runs the Iowa Lottery. His most recent foray into parades was marching with a group called “Old Farts with Carts.” He would be the “D.”
This group breaks into looping, shopping cart configurations that are amazing pieces of choreography reminiscent of the Olympic synchronized swimmers. Astounding, but true.
Rich confided the secret of participating in a parade: “After three years, we finally got it right. We try to look for little kids who don’t have much candy, and we load them up.”
There you have it. Pearls of wisdom. Parade 101. CV
Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: www.joesneighborhood.com.