The Same Every Year

Our town, our Thanksgiving, our parade, our standing partly together

Where I live, our downtown closes only one morning in the whole year. Well, I suppose it doesn’t close exactly. We ignore it. Thanksgiving is coming and the parade is about to start.

Around eight o’clock spectators arrive and discover they should have come at seven. And those who came at seven kick themselves for not beating the crowd and coming at six. Lines of people already stand along both sides of the street. Others sit in front of them, their feet comfortably in the gutter, a third of them children.

The eight-comers line up where we can, trying to arrange ourselves by height. Pack in! Pack in! It gets toasty standing together. The most experienced of us know to stand behind someone a half-a-head taller. Nothing warms the nose better than the shoulder of another person.
The parade is two hours from starting. It’s the same every year.

Everyone cheers when the hot chocolate cart rolls around. I don’t know the name of the man who pushes it. I don’t see him any other time. He makes his millions this one morning, spends it elsewhere and vanishes until next Fall. We’re grateful, he’s grateful. It’s a season for traditions, the same every year.

This year while standing and waiting, I looked around at everyone. Usually I stare down the street, as if a bus were late in coming. But last year I looked my neighbors over. I recognized no one, knew nobody, saw none of my actual neighbors, the ones I mend fences with. I stood with my family. Family after family stood with us, talking among themselves, mixing but not mingling, waiting, happiness along each side of the street. Especially at the corners. That’s where the sun comes out from behind the buildings first.

We wait in traffic together most mornings and curse each other out and do not think of each other as neighbors. But this morning, we were patient with each other, stomping to keep our feet warm. If we were in the parade, we would coordinate our stomping but we are not so we step on toes now and then. I think it’s telling that only later, when we are apart, do we feel it. Perhaps it’s the difference between trying to get somewhere and waiting for something to come to us. That bus is always coming but today it was full and we wished to see it full.

Drums sound in the distance — the time is close. So now is good to pick ourselves up and move.
‘Look, look at her eyes,’ I say but no one listens and the woman across the street sticks her neck out. She’s got the look of a person waking up to the prospects of a risky, rebellious life. Eagerly cautious, her smile broadens. It’s now or never. The snare drums are closing in. She whispers to her feet and twenty-two children dash after her across the street toward us as if snipers lay in wait on the rooftops. A family of six follow after a decent pause. A few families later and we start to question that they’re at all related.
‘Why are they all coming here?’ my wife says.
‘Because we’re letting them in,’ I say. ‘Let’s move across the street.’
There’s more parades than just the main on our Thanksgiving Day.

We cheer. The honor guard has arrived. A line of mounted police in dress blues lead the season to us. The thick clop of horse hooves move in a measured and even beat. Pipers in tartan and tams follow sharply. All crisp, all clipped, all disciplined, body and spirit.

And here come the mascots! Teddy Roosevelt’s scrawny body under his fat head warms up at bat, hitting a grounder off Abe Lincoln’s slow knuckleball. George Washington, on third, skips to home and steals it from under his own feet! Roosevelt and Washington thump their chests and the Great Emancipator kicks the ground.

Each of Roosevelt’s eyes are about a foot and a half wide, his teeth are as large as the brick work on the Washington monument and his glasses have enough copper to fit out the plumbing of a small cabin in the Shenandoahs. George’s head has a nose like the tail of a two-seat glider. Abe is a bit taller because of the hat. Each year I expect him to take it off and give us all a fresh side of smoked ham. Cheer on the home team anyway! We cannot all go to Rushmore, so once a year the mountain comes to us.

Freezing ballerinas follow. Middle-school girls in tights and tutus and corsets glitter with the frost that’s overtaken them. They bravely echappe and saute out of a deep mortal fear that gives power to their dance. We will discuss it til April. It’s the same every year.

Dogs pursue them, graduates of a local obedience school. Their handlers have taught them to pirouette too and I suspect only in the minutes after learning they’ll come behind such young talent. The dogs sit and walk on command, sit and walk, pirouette, sit and walk. Ten representatives of ten breeds and the fruit of patient instruction. But we see their noses stray. Now that they’ve found each other, it must be tempting to run off and go it alone together in the great wide world. This is the final test. Animal Control is several yards back. The dogs have a head-start but even a dog has pride. They sense what the day is all about. Patient instruction has its place but only by ego do they stay on the leash. We would step aside for them too.

Flute music deafens. Two dozen Bolivian dancers slap their flowery straw hats on the road, turning circles together behind their music truck. Each dancer wears two boots, each boot wears about forty silver bells. Nine-hundred-and-sixty silver bells jump and clink at every step. Now that’s how you stamp your feet.

Each year I am surprised to see them. In between parades, year to year, I forget about our Bolivian populace. We don’t run in the same circles I suppose. But each year I’m convinced Bolivia is getting closer by inches.
Their dark velvet jackets are intricately embroidered with gold and blue shining thread. The shoulders flare out in pointed wings, swirling with braid. But their faces — that’s what we see — full of passion and love for their culture. They’re the only ones sweating. Even small bells ring by the sweat of the brow.

A lull happens and thank God for it. I’ve seen my breath before me so much I thought I’d never catch it. Campaign volunteers run the crowd, spooling off stickers from a roll as fast as they hope the votes come in. Children take them.

The snare drums snap ever closer. But first, here’s a little house. Red shingles, brown brick, bright windows and rosy curtains. And pipes erupting from the turf around it, sticking like severed limbs in the walls and horns in the blood-red shingles. A sign on the chimney reads: Even the nicest homes can get ugly inside. Even plumbers need to advertise. If that sounds like your home, I would tell you who to call but I was too entranced to get the number. I’ll try better next year.

Two dozen Bolivian dancers slap their flowery hats on the road. In the past I’ve suspected them of cutting back in line but now I know these are two dozen and nine-hundred-and-sixty-seven more and no less sweat.

Kids riding a hay wagon for the local library toss foam balls at us. Nothing reminds a person of the necessity to read like the desire to go outside and see if you can knock last year’s foam ball out of the tree with this year’s foam ball. It never works. You should see some of the trees around here. It’s the same every year.

Sixteen girl scout troops straggle by, gleefully throwing fistfuls of candy over our heads. I think of it whenever I am stuck at a railroad crossing.

The deep boom of bass drums and the blares of various brass now seize us with the snare drum. Most of us. When I look up from gathering shattered butterscotch, to my dismay, the marching band has passed.

Two dozen Bolivian dancers slap their flowery hats on the road.

More little girls flip and roll along. Two try to carry one on their shoulders. The ambulance on display behind might be the best placed vehicle of the parade, ready to pounce on them and the slightest concussion. The smallest girl is thrown straight up — new shivers pass along us watching — and her team catches her. We can see her terror. As ambassadors of their gymnast club, they are eager to risk all they are to show all they have become.

The balloon that comes after — an astronaut—endears unexpectedly. We hold our breath, enthralled. The last time an astronaut did that to us, he had returned from the moon and was a fifth the size. This one lies its entire 30 ft body down, lowering its shadow on us like an omen of eclipse, and clears the traffic lights in the intersection to much cheering. Kowtowing to the obstacles in its path reminds us this is a road we travel daily though it may seem closed today. We must be flexible with the barriers hung before us. Which we will hopefully remember when we get back later to our cars.

Two dozen Bolivian dancers slap their flowery hats on the road.

Here is another float: a grove of palm trees wave in friendship surrounded by turf. Their little faces smile and their noses run. The molded sand does not stir in the fierce North wind. The surf — blue streamers — spills over the edge of the truck, rolling and whipping at us but remaining out of the way of the wheels. The Sanitation Department has outdone itself. It may spend time trashing all else but this moment was not wasted, building paradise on the back of a tractor.

Dancing penguins come in homage to the waste-nots. We can hardly see the stitching where the coxcombs were. The tails try to lift against the glue holding them down but fail. Black vests cover the wings well and the foam additions between the toes adequately hide what were once chicken feet.

Two dozen Bolivian dancers slap their flowery hats on the road!

Boy scouts now troop by, sashed and badged. The most experienced plod the trail, blithe smiles on their faces. They have the laziest waves. They know this is just a portage between slower streams of childhood, less exciting the fourth time out. The younger ones wander along bewildered in a fantasy life: everyone is looking at me. I think I see people I know. I have been there. The older ones guide them to their duty: take the candy from the bag and throw it until the bag is done. Then march.

Unenlisted children scramble forward from the curb, partly pushed. Adults like candy too. My fingers are stepped on by a pair of purple boots. It was only an accident. I was getting that sucker for the child but then I needed something to make my fingers feel better. She had enough candy anyway.

Four rats pursue the scouts with swords. A courageous nutcracker leaps to confront the vermin. Anxious girls in high-waisted, long-skirted dresses flutter around on tiptoes. The procession stops. Something up ahead has gone wrong. Run you dogs! Be free Rushmore! The city is yours! The rats have nowhere to flee to. The hero has nowhere to chase them. They circle again and again. And once more. The rats huddle in a conspiratorial ball. The hero struts confidently, hugging himself. The girls huddle too, ready to swoon. It has turned colder in just these few minutes.

One rat, wearing a crown, looks up ahead of them and then ducks again. Perhaps the astronaut attempted an ascent. We’ll never know. The bonds of this earth are surly indeed.

We can see the end from here. Many elves wait up the street at the light, a snow covered chimney peaking over their heads. A laugh comes our way, deep and jolly and distant. We who have gathered together are divided on either side of the intersection: those who know Santa Claus is real and we who hold out hope.

The rat king finds his courage. He springs out at the brave nutcracker. They close in on each other, closer and closer. Closer and closer. Their sword points edge together, nearly touching, and the scouts file ahead. Rats, girls and hero all scurry away.

As the elves reach us, our disappointed groans are just dying off. They stand outside a candy house whose doors are locked. Their sleeves and collars are trimmed with fur that wouldn’t benefit a squirrel. They know they’re only a prelude for the true delight sitting behind in his sleigh. Still they wave and smile. They have waved and smiled at scores of people by now and still they shiver for a hint of joy long coming. The joy is here. We wave and smile back. If the spirit of one of us fails, we all fail.

The sleigh passes but we wait together before leaving. Two dozen Bolivian dancers slap their flowery hats on the road. Something in the clink of a thousand bells speaks to me. Bolivia is really no closer. Nor are the neighbors I may never see again, depending on the corner and where the sun comes out. But the road between is shorter than I think. It’s the same every year.

Title photo by DT Kelly

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