I hadn't been to a parade in years. But the occasion presented itself recently when a visiting German friend asked me to show him some real Americana. He had arrived on the brink of the Fourth of July, and Bangor, Maine, had promised (as it always does) "the best parade yet."
As we stood curbside with the horde of spectators and their flag-waving kids, I was taken by a pungent nostalgia which brought me back to the world of parades I had known as a kid.
As a child growing up in Jersey City, N.J., in the '60s, it often seemed as if the life of the city was planned around the parades it hosted. Only the dead of winter was bereft of these celebrations on the march. Otherwise, someone, somewhere, always seemed to be striking up a band.
If an ethnic group was large enough, one could rest assured that its imprimatur, its crowning glory, was a parade. My part of town was dominated by Poles, Irish, and Italians. I clearly remember the annual Pulaski Day parade, replete with its robust, older Polish gentlemen bearing Polish and American flagstaffs and, in the very forefront, a banner with the image of General Pulaski himself. I took this parade for granted and believed that every town in America, at that exact moment, was having its own Pulaski Day Parade. As an American of Polish descent, I felt the shiver of pride, even at a tender age of 9.
The Italians also had their due in the Columbus Day parade, in which my friends, the Rutiglianos and Briguglios, dutifully marched. Then there was the Thanksgiving Day parade, not as spectacular as the one being staged in New York across the river, but it was ours and we paid it our hearty cheers and respects.
The Irish, not to be outdone by any of this, had not one but two parades to their credit. The Hibernian Society Parade was the lesser of the couplet, and always confusing to us kids who weren't Irish. What I remember best about this parade was its brevity. More of a gesture than a procession, it was a low-key affair, long on flags but short on music and baton twirlers. For us kids it was an opportunity to run down to the corner and gawk.
What we were really saving ourselves for was the Mother of All Parades - the St. Patrick's Day affair. This was such a big event that the schools declared a holiday. If they hadn't, the kids would have been impossible to control, so electric was the atmosphere, so charged our batteries.
Jackson Avenue, Jersey City's erstwhile miracle mile, served as the parade route. St. Paddy's was a day when the entire city of 260,000 souls seemed to compress along the two sides of this thoroughfare. Festooned with Irish and American flags, and crowded with gushing onlookers, it became a conduit fit for welcoming a president. Even though I was a Pulaski Day diehard, I couldn't help being impressed with the verve and hectic pace of the pageant.
The thing that distinguished the St. Patrick's Day Parade from the others was the greater number of freebies. And the soda pop and hot dogs were the least of it. What every kid wanted, no matter what his ethnicity, was one of the small Irish flags on a stick being handed out by smiling Irish women. Mrs. McKenna, bell-shaped in her expansive pleated skirt and apron, was awash in glory as she did her bit for old Erin, cheerfully counseling the squealing children to "Be good, for goodness' sake" as she held the clutch of flags out of reach and dispensed them with aplomb, asking every child in turn, "And what's your name?" The responses always included names such as "McIntyre" or "O'Donnell." When she came to me and my distinctly un-Celtic features, however, she scowled. "What's yer name?"
Without missing a beat I blurted out, "McKlose!" and in the next instant was the proud owner of an ensign of the old sod.
Such was the fever engendered by parades.
As my German friend and I watched Bangor's recent spectacle, I was surprised at how my heart swelled with anticipation to see what next thing would pass on by. A Kiwanis float? A cowboy on horseback? In an age of ever fewer civic venues where neighbors can hobnob with one another (even voting, I am told, will soon be conducted from one's home computer), the parade seems to be holding its own.
Long may it wave.