We were just kids from New Mexico who had successfully raised the princely sum of $20,000 to bring our entire high school marching band to the elite Rose Parade on New Year’s Day.
So many years ago, and yet I still remember placing chilled fingers on my alto saxophone as dawn broke. I remember the sight and smell of a million fragrant flowers. I remember praying that I didn’t play a wrong note, or turn left when every other black-hatted, white-spatted kid turned right.
And I remember how my parents laughed for years at our near fame. The national TV cameras (from all three stations!) turned our way, announced our small-town band’s approach — then broke suddenly for an orange juice commercial that ended after we had long passed by.
Didn’t matter. I loved marching in that parade. I loved the applause, a rarity for a kid who didn’t play sports.
I’ve loved parades since, happy to shift from participant to spectator. The silliness and sweetness and simplicity of them. The communal nature. The fact that for an hour or two, if you tried, you could shut out the noise of a complicated world.
And nobody needs a good parade more than occupants of the uber-complicated world we inhabit now.
But I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.
“I’ve been doing these for 40 years, and every year I ask the Chamber, ‘What in the hell brings this many people here?’ ” said Bill Klennert, 67, president of the Hill City (Minn.) Area Chamber of Commerce. The town’s resident stilt walker organizes its July 4th parade.
Then he answers.
“It’s the one time you don’t have to think,” he said. “It’s so loud you can’t hear your cell.” (Note to readers: This is a good thing.)
“There’s no pressure. I can just sit here and be myself.”
Hill City, population 600 and located about 160 miles north of the Twin Cities, has held a July 4th parade every year since 1903, drawing up to 8,000 people along four town blocks.
Klennert lines up the 75 or so floats and groups, from old cars to the doo-wopping Whitesidewalls. Clowns make sure kids stay a safe distance away from motors while getting their fill of Tootsie Rolls.
There are annual surprises, too.
“This year, a guy called me who wants to put in trick horses that talk to the kids,” Klennert said. “I couldn’t sign him up fast enough.”
One group he can’t seem to entice is a high school marching band, and don’t think my heart wasn’t fluttering at that comment before I came to my senses.
This year’s theme is a fitting “Celebrations.”
“You’re supposed to come and have a good time,” Klennert said.
‘Sit back and relax’
Steve Flicek is organizer of Kolacky (pronounced Ko-latch-kee) Days in Montgomery, Minn. The festival celebrates its 81st year on July 26.
The Montgomery Messenger highlighted the very first Kolacky (a Czech sweet roll) Grand Day Parade in charming fashion, noting that the parade “will be remembered as one of the most ambitious and successful efforts in this line in the history of this part of the state.”
But, in predicable Minnesota fashion, no float would dare call itself the showiest.
“It would be at once unfair and unethical to select any special floats or particular mention,” deemed the Messenger, “but it may be said that the combined result was decidedly impressive.”
The town of 3,000 draws up to 15,000 paradegoers every July, featuring high school bands and Shriners packed into tiny red cars, and politicians “being respectful,” Flicek said, the latter alone a reason to show up.
“People get away from life for a while,” he said. “Parents can take their kids to something that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, and they can sit back and relax.”
Flicek, who has organized the parade for 28 years, cherishes the community aspect. The annual event often is the only time he runs into old friends, he said.
“A lot of kids come back to see their high school friends, too,” he added. “It’s nice and clean in this day and age when things are always on the edge.”
‘Enchanting and magical’
There’s even science behind the magic of a good parade.
Clay Routledge has written volumes about nostalgia, and if parades and nostalgia don’t go together, nothing does.
“I think of childhood, Christmas parades, parades on television,” said Routledge, associate professor of psychology at North Dakota State University.
“There’s something larger than life about it, enchanting and magical. Candy, floats. As an adult, it’s exciting to feel pride in a community.”
From Minneapolis to Montgomery, Hanover to Hopkins, Richfield to Robbinsdale, you have countless opportunities to channel that feeling.
So, please, pick one parade to attend before summer’s over. Pack plenty of water. Wear sunscreen and a hat.
And share those Tootsie Rolls with your kids.