Woog's World / I love a parade
Published 7:55 pm, Wednesday, May 25, 2011
Once a year, Westport sheds its sophisticated skin and dons red state duds. For just one day -- not even, a couple of hours, really -- we stop pretending we're Lady Gaga and admit we're Taylor Swift. One morning each May, Westporters join together in a rite that unites us with Georgia peach farmers, Wyoming oil drillers and everyone who believes everything Fox News says.
We have a parade.
That's right. Every Memorial Day thousands of Westporters march, strut, prance, bop, limp or toddle our way through town. Thousands more cheer, wave and aim cameras at them.
If you've ever been part of this tableau -- even in blase Westport, it bears a striking resemblance to the Music Man's romp through River City -- you know what I'm talking about. If you've never risen early the last Monday in May to stand downtown clapping wildly for state troopers, Cub Scouts and a drum-and-bugle corps imported from Beacon Falls, you don't know what you've missed.
The Memorial Day parade is a civic version of seeing your third-grade teacher in the grocery store: Away from her terror-inducing classroom, she's no different from anyone else. Dump a couple of brass bands and a fire engine or two on the Post Road, and Westport throbs with the heartbeat of America just as rhythmically as any flyover village ever does.
Our Memorial Day parade is a pastiche of solemnity and fun, a smorgasbord of ritual and spontaneity. Individual characters may change from year to year, but the cast has varied little from the time my parents took me to my first one here a few decades ago.
The crowd begins to gather before 9. Small clusters of spectators appear on the bridge, at street corners, all the way down Myrtle Avenue. Soon, the gaps have filled in. A solid mass of townsfolk lines the route.
Look around, and see a patchwork of Westport. A gang of old ladies. Young dads hoisting babies on their shoulders. Middle-age couples in folding chairs. Families enjoying traditional brunch at the lucky houses lining the route.
The parade begins, more or less on time. Near the front are heroes: Westport veterans who defended our country against former enemies in long-ago wars. When I was a boy, these men had fought in the Spanish-American War. Today the oldsters are World War II vets. Soon that war, too, will be ancient history. But they are joined by vets from the first Iraq war -- and the current one.
All receive warm applause. We clap for their service. We clap for the longevity of World War II veterans, and for the guilt we feel for not clapping for Vietnam soldiers when they first returned. We clap, this year, because they represent the Navy Seals so recently in the news.
But though this parade ostensibly memorializes war heroes, it's really a hodgepodge of groups, clubs and organizations. For every square-jawed National Guardsmen, we see 10 giggling Girl Scouts. For every serious Army Reservist, we cheer 100 high-spirited Indian Guides, Little Leaguers and League of Women Voters women.
The middle school and Staples bands play the same tune over and over and over and over and over again. But they do it with oomph, and the crowd loves 'em. Interspersed with the bands are favorite standbys, like the Red Cross and Westport police. One spectator always jokes, "Now's the perfect time to rob a bank. All the cops are marching!" Everyone around always chuckles.
The greatest reaction of the day always comes when a grinning 6-year-old, sitting on his proud father's lap, sounds the siren on the fire truck.
There are a few gaps. How people can fall so out of time marching just a couple of miles is one of the great mysteries of paradedom. There also is a false ending or two. Then it's over, for real. You can tell it's finished because people stream to their cars.
But many stay, and head to the ceremony across from Town Hall. There's a stirring rendition of the National Anthem. Crack Staples trumpeters blow "Taps." The first selectman, a couple of clergy members and a guest speaker offer thought-provoking messages.
This year's keynote should be one of the best. Tracy Sugarman was in France on D-Day. He marched here on Memorial Day with a black armband during Vietnam. He served our country in Mississippi, registering black voters during the civil-rights movement. He is a true American, a genuine hero and a Westport treasure.
All too soon, it's over. The wooden dignitaries' platform is dismantled. The flatbed floats return to their contractors, and by noontime Westport is once again the home of $3.75 cupcakes and designer dog food.
Everything is back to normal. But for a couple of hours every year -- a brief blip in the life of this place -- we show ourselves that Westport is really just Anytown, U.S.A.
And we love it.