A Course of Human Events


Early on a Fourth of July morning, hours before holiday festivities kicked into gear, I met a friend and his children as we walked across the grocery store parking lot. He was at the end of their family procession trooping toward the door. We exchanged local pleasantries about the day ahead, pretty mundane stuff, then went about our business.
I saw him again later that day. But this time, I about did backflips to attract his attention from the porch where I was standing. He was marching as a parent in the Little League contingency of our smalltown parade. I bellowed his name over the heads of people lining the street. He turned his head my way then whipped tiny candy baseballs at me. It left me questioning myself.
I’m captivated by parades, but I’m not sure why. I see my friend often. The people I watch go by in a parade are the same people I talk to on the other side of the gas pump or run into at recycling. Yet, pointing and waving at them from the sidewalk as they walk down the middle of the street feels so much more worthy of overjoy than at the grocery store. This is the silliness of parades.
I’ve taken part in parades in a variety of capacities: spectator, participant, news photographer and backstage beverage operations. I’ve come to realize that Ely, Minnesota, puts on a parade that would shame a Disney anniversary. It’s why so many politicians show their faces and name-banners at the doings, glad-handing with the people. The less favorable among them—and they know who they are—walk the centerline of the street rather than run a gauntlet too close to curbside constituents.
During the wee hours of darkness preceding the Fourth of July, spectators begin setting up lawn chairs to claim spots along the parade route. They can trust those chairs will be there when they return. Later, they filter in with dogs in tow and coolers to the side. Behind them on the grounds at the local park, the canoe-portage races and backcountry tent-pitching contests heat up.
Somewhere in the middle, a suspense builds through the morning. Onlookers become preoccupied with their watches and time of day. What’s to come only lasts seconds and those gathered listen more than look. Then instantly, muffled thunder crescendos to a deafening pitch as the flyover fighter jets of the One-Forty-Eighth Fighter Wing rip across the sky. Though their roar is audible moments in advance, they’re in the next town by the time their tails vanish from sight.
Not to be outshined, Ely extends this drama with a flyby of its own. A plucky floatplane brings up the rear, pontoons all a’glimmer, and buzzes the park barely above the treetops as if intent on catching up to the fighter jets.
Flashing lights from the police cruiser lead the military color guard and the parade explodes to life with all-things North. Logging trucks loaded to the top scent the air with the spice of fresh pine. Snowmobile and ATV clubs showcase their customized chariots. Fish houses become floats. Participants in the street shower the crowd with an array of treats: candy, oyster crackers, packaged underwear and power squirts from water guns. Activists of opposing political factions are spaced at safe distances from each other.
The Ely Lawn Chair Drill Team delights spectators with a choreographed salute to backyard furniture. This slick legion of women snap, spin and flip aluminum chairs under arms, over heads and behind backs with the synchronicity of Olympic ice dancers.
The Ely Klown Band overruns the pavement from one gutter to another with an assortment of musicians dressed as clowns happy for a place to play. Their post-high school ages are inconsequential. For my first Ely parade, I wasn’t able to witness their performance. But they came to me. I was behind the scenes bartending a solo shift when the lot of them busted through the door. They came for some quick-lube to make themselves funnier in public. I scrambled up and down the bar serving a couple dozen of these clowns.
Having paid my dues over the years, I finally worked myself into the parade. It resulted in getting cooked inside a rubber chicken suit on a sizzling day. I was the new guy at the radio station and management needed a sap to fill the role of “Chicken Man,” the superhero from the old radio adventure series. Oddly, even in sweltering heat, there was something empowering about it.
Festooned in heroic feathers, I stood with my upper body through the sunroof of an SUV. Every so often, I ducked below the roofline, lifted my beak and gulped water. I’d pop up again, point at little kids and encourage bodybuilder poses. Some kids dashed behind their parents. Others flexed their muscles back at me. For a guy in a chicken suit, I was also reminded that many adults in the crowd had been sucking suds since breakfast. My chicken costume offered protection from debris that came my way like bottle rockets and beer cans. In that heat, I wouldn’t have minded if the cans were full.
Our founding fathers began the Declaration of Independence with the words, “When in the course of human events…” I wonder if events like those in our town are what they had in mind. Their courage and sacrifice were likely focused instead on developing basic democracy. Celebrating with hairbrained whimsy is just one of our indulgent freedoms that transpired later. “Courses of human events” still play out around the world today in countries whose citizens would rather not walk down the middle of their main street being pointed at. I’ll be mindful of that even if I never wear a chicken suit again.


Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
To help us prevent spam, please prove you're human by typing the words you see here.