Thursday, October 21, 2010

I Hear the Screams of the Fire Trucks

As many of my readers are aware, I live in a small town. The town is a bit like a Norman Rockwell painting turned sideways sometimes, but it's not a bad place to live -- a statement I feel reasonably qualified to make, since I've been here for over thirty years. Not much changes, here, and on those occasions when it does, you can expect people to disapprove. "We've always done it this way."

One thing that has never changed in all the years I can remember is the annual Halloween parade. It's kind of a big deal, at least for a certain value of big. The Macy's parade it is not, but there's something oddly appealing about the kitschy flavor of the event. At least, that's what I tell myself.

Escaping the parade is nigh impossible, mainly because the parade route goes past my house. At its worst, it's an annual inconvenience as my husband and I find someplace where we're allowed to park our cars. (Though there was the year that the annual four-county firemen's parade followed the same route, forcing us to change the planned date of our wedding so I wouldn't get trapped in the house, which was slightly more than an inconvenience. But I digress.) My cats would argue and say that they are the ones being truly inconvenienced, because there's no hiding spot in the entire house that will let them escape from the wail of the fire sirens.

And, as anyone with cats already knows, it's all about them.

Last year the parade was canceled. It was later speculated, though never stated, that a number of the participating bands had pulled out, on account of having so many students absent due to the H1N1 virus. Regardless of the reason, there was no Halloween parade in 2009; it was the first time in my own memory that such a thing had happened, and the year felt just a little off-balance as a result. Some of us need those historical benchmarks, you know. So as a result, I decided to watch the parade from the front porch this year.

See, I frequently don't bother, because I can predict what the parade will consist of: an American Legion color guard, three marching bands, the mayor, six floats, two police cars, and nineteen fire trucks. That's it. Since I'm a little old to be scrambling in the street for miniature Tootsie Rolls (which I don't even eat), I usually stay inside with earplugs and my laptop. But I thought this year I'd actually pay attention. And since I live along the parade route, this didn't require any particular effort on my part.

The parade starts at 7:00 every year, so by 5:30, the distribution of blankets had begun. Those who live in the parts of town not passed by the parade have to relocate to the parts which are, of course, and to some, this is Serious Business. So they come early and claim their standing/sitting zones by spreading blankets along the sidewalks, or prop their folding chairs or even picnic table benches in the areas where they want to sit. This is perhaps one of the most tell-tale signs of a small town, because this is actually honored by everyone else. If you put your blanket down on parade night, you have full peace of mind that your blanket will be there when the parade starts. No one will disturb your claim. That is your spot, you called it.

By 6:30, most of the sidewalk had been claimed and some of it was already occupied. Vendors began walking the street, selling balloons and glow-in-the-dark oddities and hot soft pretzels. By 6:45, it was dark and pretty nearly everyone was in position. Front and center all along the street were the kids, ranging in age from just out of the stroller to upwards of sixteen, armed with plastic bags or trick-or-treating sacks. Several of them were already jumping around and screeching, because that's just part of how we celebrate Halloween in these parts.

I went outside and spent two dollars on what was unquestionably the worst hot soft pretzel I've ever eaten in my life; it was neither hot nor soft, and only barely qualified as a pretzel. (Of course, by the time I realized this, the seller had vanished.)

I didn't have much time to lament this oversized hunk of bird food, which is what the pretzel ultimately became, because hey, the parade was starting! I could tell because all my neighbors' houses were suddenly aglow with red, white, and blue, signaling the approach of the fire trucks. The scream of a siren announced the start of the parade, so I ducked back into the house to alert my husband.

First came the honor guard from the American Legion. I have tremendous respect for our nation's veterans, so I always like this part. Three flag-bearers, a drummer, and a rifle-bearer, all grandfathers, marching side by side down the street. Cheers to you, gentlemen! I just wish that the people watching the parade would learn that the proper etiquette is to stand when the American flag is carried past.

Next came a high school student, carrying the traditional division sign. The parade is broken into a few divisions, the arrival of each is heralded by a teenager carrying a big cardboard pumpkin on a stick. The pumpkin is labeled with the division number and, usually, the name of a local business which is sponsoring that particular division. I can only assume that the sponsorships are the real purpose of creating these divisions, because otherwise, I don't think the parade is long enough to warrant it.

The mayor came through, riding in the backseat of a vintage convertible and throwing -- you got it -- candy. She was followed by no less than three fire trucks and a fire police car, all of which carried individuals pelting more candy at those watching. From the safety of my porch, I could enjoy the view of the kids bouncing around yelping "Candy, candy," and think to myself that they sure didn't seem like they needed any more sugar.

The high school marching band was next, followed by the cheerleading squad. Both groups were a lot smaller in number than I remembered them being when I was in high school. Behind them was a big truck carrying one of the local Cub Scout packs, as well as a float featuring a scale model of the town's only historical landmark. Then a fire truck.

A different sort of music was soon audible, and I was shortly subjected to my annual case of earworm. One of the two local cable companies always has a van driving in this parade, and they have a perpetual loop of music advertising that more of what I want to see is on their particular brand of cable TV. I'll have that jingle running through my head for the next three days. Thanks a lot.

Next, a fire truck.

After that, a van from the local pharmacy had someone throwing pink foam footballs at the crowd. I retrieved one; the pink was in honor of breast cancer awareness, with the slogan "Let's kick breast cancer into the end zone!" or something to that effect. It was cute. Behind the van was a flatbed truck carrying inflatable vampires in coffins which kept opening and closing. This one puzzled me, because it didn't seem to have anything to do with a local business or organization. As it passed, I finally saw the sign on the side of the flatbed, which advertised -- and I couldn't make this up if I tried -- a company that makes custom floats for parades.

Another fire truck.

Some jazzy, perky music heralded the arrival of the local hobo band. I'm not making that up, either. There's a music group in a local city known as the hobo band. They've existed for about a hundred years, no exaggeration, and they are good musicians. They just have a weird dress code.

Would you believe two more fire trucks? In between those came the candidates. For some reason, area politicians running for state office think it's a brilliant idea to march in our Halloween parade, dashing from one side of the street to the other and back again to shake hands with people. Because nothing tells me more about someone's political ideologies than their participation in a Halloween parade.

Next, the high school's chapter of Students Against Drunk Driving, or Drinking and Drugs, or Destructive Decisions, or whatever it's called nowadays. I've heard too many interpretations of the acronym (many of which I won't repeat in polite company) to know what the real name is anymore.

There was a truck for the town's dance school, followed by one of the Girl Scout troops, and then a van advertising some performance art school which was chased by some star-spangled young women performing acrobatics down the street. Wrapping it up came eight -- count them -- eight fire trucks, with spinning lights and, in the case of two, obnoxious sirens. In case you're wondering about all the fire trucks in such a small town, I should clarify that several of them join us from nearby communities. If there's ever a fire on the night of our Halloween parade, we're in trouble.

The parade ended the way every good parade should: with a giant street sweeper following the last fire truck and cleaning up whatever candy the kids didn't manage to grab. By 8:30, the neighborhood was empty of fire trucks, candy-obsessed youth, and curb-claiming blankets. I had acquired a pink football, six lollipops, a piece of gum, and four packages of mini-pretzels, plus a headache in my eyes from all the fire truck lights.

See you next year.


  1. I liked this one very much. The description you give of the blanket/chair propping in small town America is right on. I live in a small town, and this past Sunday was our parade. I went to the store at 12:30, the parade didn't start until 5:00 and there were already chairs and blankets lining the street. People are CRAZY!!!

  2. I do love your description of all of the small-town pageantry. It sounds very beautiful and warm. xox

  3. Another very good read Laura.. Very descriptive, felt like I was there. [a bit like a blind persons take on it.. If you know what I mean ?].
    You should write 'travellers guide books' about things to see and Life in Pennsylvania, I think you could do an excellent job on that.!
    If you do and it works out... I only take 10% 'Ideas fee'... :P
    Great read all the same yet again.. Keep them coming.
    Tom Chamley.


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