Out of Many, One
Since its inception in 1890, The Rose Parade has always been about boastfully showcasing the amazing lack of weather in Southern California — Pasadena precisely, where roses bloom year-round, opening themselves to the world, even on chilly mornings. But on this particular morning, the 2019 Rose Parade will showcase a different kind of blossom: John Strube. The man who pilots Harmony Through Union, the commemorative Transcontinental Railroad float entry from the Chinese American Heritage Foundation, is about to bloom into a hero.
Chugging down the parade route on Orange Grove Boulevard, the float’s chassis and accompanying trailer are impressive: measuring in at over 90 feet — the longest entry in the 2019 parade— the elegant float brings to life the iconic photograph of the two locomotives which met at Promontory Point, Utah, 150 years ago — inarguably one of the most transformative accomplishments in American history — the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. And now, as it makes its way from the Timing Line at the start of the 2019 Rose Parade, that float is on fire.
On Orange Grove Boulevard at Green Street, at around 9:45am on January 1st, as Harmony Through Union makes its way in front of international media, with millions of viewers watching, hidden behind a small densely decorated access door, sitting beneath 45,000 pounds (or 22.5 tons) of steel, John Strube’s scarf is burning.
He unfurls the scarf, throws open the hatch, crawls backwards, with his left arm and hand serving as a strut on the street, while his right hand holds on to the Union Pacific Building America sign suspended above. This position provides him leverage to push himself out and onto the ground. Streamers have just launched into the blue Pasadena skies and are tangled around the stunning and humongous heads of the Southern Wind Lion Dance troupe, who perform alongside the float. Tournament officials pick up the long shimmering strands from the street.
Few know at this point what is happening, as the driver’s hatch is on the opposite side of most of the media’s cameras. Standing on the deck above are float riders — Miss Chinatown, Catherine Liang, the First Princess, Joyce Lam, and their escort, Macklin Lee, the son of the founders of the Chinese American Heritage Foundation, Wilson and Esther Lee. A camera angle from Funny or Die’s coverage captures tongues of fire lashing up around the tracks on the deck, just below the towering animated arm which holds the maul that appears to hammer the symbolic Golden Spike. In total, there are 26 riders, many of them descendants of the original Transcontinental Railroad workers. Most of them are clueless that they are about to be evacuated from a dangerous situation.
Some of the riders are railroad workers themselves, including 82-year old Pat Egan, who has been on the job as a railroad man for sixty years. He’s already diagnosing the problem, wondering if the brake line has an issue. Perched in the cab of UP №119, James Guerin, a Union Pacific engineer, responds to rail worker descendant, Kimberly Quarles, when she asks him if there’s a fire: “I think so,” he says.
Robert Johnson Sr., also a descendant and former railroad worker, realizes there’s too much smoke — and it’s not coming from the locomotive’s smokestack. He leans to his son and softly says, “Fire.”
On the other side of the train, Amelia Kwan, daughter of Utah State Representation, Karen Kwan, whispers, “Fire,” to her riding partner, Matteo Ornelas. Alex Eng, Bank of America executive and great-grandson of Charlie Kee Ng, a Central Pacific Railroad worker, senses there’s too much smoke coming from the wrong direction — below him. There’s a wee bit of worry now on the deck of the float from these veterans, but most of the riders continue to wave and smile to the cheering crowd.
Without hesitation, Strube rebounds from the street, now on his knees, and re-opens the hatch. He shuts down the float and reaches into the fiery compartment to retrieve a fire extinguisher, which he then discharges onto the flames. Less than thirty seconds have ticked away — and there is no visible fire anymore. In the telegraph hut at the front of the float, observer, Cary Westcott, jumps into action and gets the nearby float riders to evacuate for safety. The float blocks a portion of the street. And the scene swirls with first responders from the Tournament of Roses, Fiesta Parade Floats, and the Pasadena Police Department. A team from Fiesta Parade Floats, along with Becky from the pyrotechnic crew that just launched the multi-colored streamers, joins in the effort to ensure the small fire is thoroughly extinguished by unloading another canister into the compartment.
In the background over this isolated tableau, the float’s performer, Blythe Schulte, who is standing with Major General William Chen (Ret.) on the other side of the front train, sings, “Let’s get together/Let’s work together/Out of many one…so our souls can be saved.” The irony is missed by the onlookers as amplification of the song stops because Strube has shut down the float, which is starting to slowly roll backward. Because the float is without a driver now, it effortlessly jack knifes to a stop near the Tournament’s Jumbotron screen.
Broadcasters have switched their coverage from the float’s message to the other newsworthy element of the story. Indeed, by the time the media talks about the fire on the float, it is already extinguished.
With their swift action, John Strube and Cary Westcott save the float and the people on it from imminent harm. Years of training for a potential event like this pays off gloriously, as no one is injured.
In addition to float driving, John Strube is also a locomotive engineer for Union Pacific Railroad, one of the float’s sponsors — in fact, UP is the railroad company from the East that built the Transcontinental Railroad from Council Bluffs, Iowa, across the Missouri River from Omaha, Nebraska, toward Promontory Summit, north of the Great Salt Lake in Utah Territory, the meeting point for joining the Central Pacific Railroad from the West. Harmony Through Union is fortunate to have so many real rail workers on board during the crisis. The dismounted riders safely congregate in front of the bleachers while safety teams inspect the float, following the fire.
In the melee, two floats are blocked from passing, but the nimble Gold Rush Fire Brigade puts smiles on faces as the Native Sons of the Golden West’s horse-drawn rig rolls by Harmony Through Union. A couple of iron horses overshadowed by the real Magilla. Touché! Nothing anachronistic about it, either. That outfit is right out of the 1860s. A great double-edged showstopper. Will Ferrell, playing his part as Cord Hosenbeck on Funny or Die’s coverage, delights in the obvious humor associated with the Gold Rush Fire Brigade’s passage: “Are they gonna try to put the fire out?!”
The float riders and lion dancers calmly watch their float get hitched. After cautiously maneuvering around marching bands that circuitously serpentine past the disabled float, the massive Jan’s Towing truck couples to the tow bar — and the riders eventually re-board to the roar of the rooting crowd. Everyone’s harnessed back in their platforms. The animation continues, as does the steam-effect. There’s no longer a driver on board, and the sound system no longer works. The tow truck gears to drive as the Rose Parade announcer proclaims, “The Chinese American Heritage Foundation!”
Tournament officials, nervous from the delay, instruct the driver to head-along. The riders, unfazed by the disruption, start their smearing-cream-cheese waves. Despite all the hullabaloo and media attention so far, the float hasn’t yet made its way to the impressive turn onto Colorado Boulevard, where there’s a preponderance of media from around the world.
About 300 yards of the parade’s five-and-a-half-mile route has been traversed before the float stops again, this time due to a broken tow bar. The float hasn’t made its way past the Norton Simon Museum on Colorado Boulevard. Spectators, having waited for the float to chug its way down Orange Grove, and having already watched the Wells Fargo Grand Finale with singer, Anne-Marie, assume the parade is over and descend from their grandstand seats.
Tow truck driver, Steve Coffee, from Jan’s Towing, expertly blocks the float so it doesn’t become a runaway on the only hill along the parade route. He then insists another tow truck be brought in from behind to be hooked-up to a safety chain.
John Strube stands with float directors, Cheryl Ann Wong and Debora Wong, debriefing about what happened earlier; he is animated, with the adrenaline from that moment still running through him. Without a driver, without waving riders, without an animated spike and maul, without steam from the locomotive’s smokestack, and without its theme song, Out of Many, One, the float awaits the streets to clear so it can finish the parade on its own time.
Poignant and perfect, the Southern Wind Lion Dance troupe doesn’t miss a beat: even without the soundtrack to the float or their traditional ceremonial drum, the troupe makes their own music with their hands and perform impromptu in front of the assembled float riders, who are awaiting their Sprinter vans. It’s as though the lions are giving their own tribute to these railroad descendants and their ancestors. People flood the streets and witness the genuine joyous dance of the lions. The parade is beautiful!
Disappointment is palpable for everyone involved. But for Wilson and Esther Lee, who talked about this project for five years, its completion and its message resounds, despite the float nearly ending the parade prematurely. For the scores of volunteers and workers who toiled to recreate the historic moment 150 years ago, there’s obvious disillusionment. But the grace and dignity factors are huge: the float ends up being the talk of the parade — and its message of bringing all people together to work toward one common goal — resonates through the news of the fire.
The float has achieved its own glory by erupting in front of the very grandstand that supporters from the Chinese American community gathered to watch a tribute to minority railroad workers who are now receiving some long overdue recognition in constructing the most important rail line in America. Despite the incident, commentators are turning to their notes to make sure the float’s theme gets its time. And boy does it: for days, follow-up stories bring further international attention to the float — and each time its name is spoken, Harmony Through Union brings a sense of accomplishment to all those involved.
Coverage on television turns to the presence of Harmony Through Union at Victory Park, where floats sit on exhibition for the public to get up close and see the majesty of each entry. A quick scan through the throngs flocking to the park reveals that most of the commotion surrounds the locomotives — people are checking out the float that caught fire and marveling at its elegance.
Doug Marsh, designer for PANGEA, the company that provided creative development and marketing services for the project, tidies up the float and dresses up some damage so that it can be enjoyed in all its glory. A mangled Harmony Through Union sign, wrecked from the tow, is removed, along with some of the streamers that are draped over signage. Overall, the float looks like it did in the morning. There is hardly a trace that anything unusual happened. The tow truck, however, hitched to the front of the float, is the most obvious giveaway.
Families pose in front of Harmony Through Union. People, young and old, are swarming around getting all views of the float. Photos from every dynamic angle are snapped. Some stretch up to get that perfect perspective, while others crouch down and aim upward to show off the stature of the float.
A young boy asks his father, “Why are the two locomotives facing each other?” The brilliant design, by float designer, Mike Abboud, compels onlookers to ask this question. The dad responds, “Well, that’s how our country got united after the Civil War,” he tells his son. “You know, the Transcontinental Railroad — made us officially the ‘United’ States.” He goes on to discuss how this was the vision of President Lincoln to help bring the country together. Mission accomplished, 150 years later.
History has a way of writing and righting itself. That of the 14,000 Chinese railroad workers, many of whom sacrificed their lives to build the Transcontinental Railroad, none were in the famous photograph taken by Andrew J. Russell: the float corrected that by having descendants of railroad workers from all backgrounds — Irish, Germans, Blacks, Mexicans, LDS, and, of course, Chinese — ride on the float as it paraded before the world. From its inception, the goal of the float was to be inclusive and shine a light on the great feat accomplished by a diverse community of workers, who came together to complete one of the most revolutionizing projects in American history, cutting coast-to-coast travel time from six months to one week, prompting pop-up towns along the route, while providing opportunities to waves of immigrants as part of the Manifest Destiny doctrine.
History repeated itself in a float barn in Irwindale, California. The tedious building of Harmony Through Union was accomplished with a dedicated and diverse mix of hundreds of volunteers — all of them Americans. In its own way, the float is itself an agent of transformation — for telling the story that history books often ignore.
When the fire broke out and John Strube bloomed into a hero, he didn’t realize that he wasn’t just saving a float and its riders, he was preserving our nation’s motto: e pluribus unum (Out of many, one). Strube was the one, out of the many, who put out the fire. And anyone who witnessed or saw video later of the massive number of people from all walks of life come together to quell the calamity and bring the float and its riders to safety know very well of the collective greatness attained on New Year’s Day 2019.
See more images of the Harmony Through Union float and read all about the float riders by clicking here.