More than one way to do a small town parade

by Kristin on July 5, 2007

in Small town in the midwest

What do the National Rifle Association, Chicago Cubs fans, and the Green Party have in common? A place in the lineup of the Champaign-Urbana Fourth of July parade.

They each have their fans lining the parade route, too, as do the gay and lesbian group and the Cub Scouts packs and the United Church of Christ softball team. In this small town, the July 4 parade is a wildly drawn exercise in contrast.

Celebrating our great nation is not at the top of my list of things to do right now. Jason and I, however, managed to do some reverse engineering of this holiday, coming to the conclusion that we could feel good about celebrating our nation’s independence. It is, after all, what this holiday is supposed to be about.

So we told the girls the story of the Declaration of Independence and the great characters involved in the first Independence Day. By the end, we actually felt a small surge of something like hope or excitement in our veins. We went along with the girls’ enthusiasm for the holiday (any holiday, really), and their ideas to dress all in red, white and blue, and to make patriotic streamer sticks and barrettes. To make the whole thing more palatable for the grownups, we invited Ellen and Gabriel and Dorie and Elie, with kids in tow, over for a pre-parade brunch. (A few mimosas never hurt.)

As our troop—a grand total of 13 of us—paraded its way down Oregon Street toward the actual parade, I confided in Ellen that I would probably never go to the parade if we couldn’t walk to it from our house. Putting people into the car and driving somewhere and trying to park just wouldn’t be worth it. She agreed, pointing out how we’ll be stuck going to this parade for the next ten years. First the kids are young enough to actually be entranced, then they start to see people they know in the parade, and get all excited about that aspect. Eventually, they’re in it themselves, playing the clarinet, doing taekwondo, or singing with the theater group. Sigh.

Each of the four or so times I’ve been to this particular parade, I’m simultaneously entranced and bored by the spectacle (or lack thereof). On the whole, it’s really nothing to get excited about. A handful of high school marching bands, fire trucks from surrounding townships I’ve never heard of, some veterans from various wars, some politicians, and a few scout troops.

But there are a few expected and unexpected parade entries that never fail to amuse or even thrill me in small but deep-seeded ways. For amusement: The Knights of Columbus driving around in their funny little cars, wearing crazy hats and ridiculous long earrings. What is that about? What otherwise unmet need is satisfied for these men through this bizarre ritual?

I also love the Champaign librarians, who walk in the parade with book carts, periodically doing actual drills as called out by a drill sergeant with a whistle. It’s a bookcart drill team, which never ceases to amuse me in concept or execution. The Chicago Cubs fans are pretty funny, too, with their collection of self-deprecating signs like “The Cubs: Keeping us humble since 1905.”

What gives me chills are the groups who pepper the otherwise bland, expected fare: You get a couple of tractors followed by AWARE, the Anti-War Anti-Racism Effort (why not throw all your anti’s into one pot?). They played on this year’s parade theme, “America Salutes Free Enterprise,” with the counter “The Cost of America’s Salute to Free Enterprise,” and “Justice, not Just Us.”

Then you have your typical old man parade Grand Marshall and Miss Champaign County sitting on the backs of convertibles, followed by amazingly large contingents from the Green Party, and Gay and Lesbian family rights groups. Nothing gets a rise out of people like a political party that doesn’t use a red, white and blue color scheme…except male couples holding hands and pushing baby strollers (especially when they directly follow the Champaign County Republicans).

For us, it’s a thrill to be able to clap and cheer wildly for the far left groups, as the retired farm couple sitting next to us in their lawn chairs applaud for the 90-year-old woman on the NRA float firing off her ancient rifle. It’s good for all of us to be reminded that we can’t just preach to the choir.

I look at our kids, taking it all in. I wonder, as I often do, what they’re thinking and how they’re processing it all. I know what I’m thinking: how glad I am that this parade is exactly one-half the kind of July 4 celebration I grew up with in my small hometown, with the other half being something entirely more progressive. If this isn’t a good taste of America—and ultimately what we’re supposed to celebrating—I don’t know what is.

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