That title is longer than necessary, at least for anyone familiar with Maxwelton on Whidbey Island. There’s only one major parade, it’s on the fourth of July, has been held for over a hundred years, and merely has to be described as “The Parade” for any of the neighbors to know what you mean. For one day every year, the neighborhood gives up its one street and park to welcome in enough people to fill several small towns. And then, it’s gone, leaving enough snacks to keep the gulls, crows, squirrels, and chipmunks busy and wired for weeks.
The Smithsonian is collecting small town America stories, so maybe Maxwelton doesn’t qualify. Maxwelton was one of the largest towns on the island about a hundred years ago. There was even a regular Chautauqua hosted in a 3,000 seat amphitheater; but the switch from sailboats and steamships that landed on the shore, to cars on ferries at deepwater docks drew attention to other parts of the island. Today, Maxwelton is an interesting slice of American lifestyles: marvelous beachfront homes with gorgeous views on one side of the two-lane road, with farms and funkier homes on the inland side. Thanks to the county park, visitors can still access the beach, enjoy the playground, and maybe even play some baseball. It’s a mix.
The public park is the focus of the parade. There’s where the temporary plywood bandstand sits, just beside the backstop for the ball field. The parade is as ephemeral as the bandstand, pulled together just in time, and swept away to let the neighborhood get back to the business of living and relaxing by the water.
A team of volunteers organizes the event throughout the year, but it is the day of the parade that is obviously organic, casual, energetic, and fun.
Want to be in the parade? Show up. That’s about it. Show up about an hour or two before it starts. Hang out in the appropriate lot (which may have been cropped and mowed by livestock, but more likely by a John Deere). Tell the organizers why you’re there. Get a number. Get in line. Get ready to march, and stop, and march, and stop, and eventually probably get a round of applause as you pass the grandstand. Don’t be surprised if they don’t get your name right. They don’t know who will be there until everyone lines up.
If that sounds too simple, you’re right and wrong.
Obviously, someone is going to spend as much time creating their display as the organizers do raising money, arranging for the permits, and getting a basic idea of how the day will flow. Oh yeah. Someone must be out there getting the outhouses ready. Some of the displays are phenomenal. Super-tall puppets, gardens on bicycles, tiny artistic sheds on wheels, and the inevitable politicians on floats or in convertibles or in antique cars. (I felt like an antique because I’m now older than some of the cars. Ouch.) One display was a mini-parade of paintings of winners of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Those displays make the best photographs, and get the greatest oohs, and ahs; but it is the spontaneous displays I enjoy the most.
Got a family reunion? Get everyone in line, and have fun with it. One family cut six holes in a table cloth, draped that over the heads of a half dozen of them, and marched as a picnic table. Another group had everyone wear oven mitts shaped like crab claws. One year, a group of us bicyclists wore capes quickly made just in time for us to ride (very slowly) and chant “Occupy Your Bike!”. The cutest were, as always, the kids, pets, and kids with pets dressed in red, white, and blue with sparkles and glitter.
As the parade marches by, many in the parade throw candy to or at the folks on the side of the road. Thanks for the thought. Ouch! An appreciated counterpoint was the local school’s garden that passed out fresh peas (or was it beans?).
As stately as a parade can seem, Maxwelton’s is far more relaxed and playful. The people in the street parade know the people beside the street, so there’s lots of authentic waving, hand-shaking, and hugging. Exuberant kids dash out to grab the candy, say hello to friends, and sometimes try to join in while parents pull them back out of the traffic.
The parade starts with a proper honor guard and ends with the inevitable fire truck with lights blazing. After the last vehicle has driven by, they all park in the park, the national anthem is played, and then the games begin.
Within a few hours, the neighborhood will retreat to the seasonally busy level, which seems quiet in comparison. Within a few weeks, the neighborhood will return to its much quieter and less crowded year-round population. The livestock can go back to feeding undisturbed by noise. The scattered remains of candy and fireworks will be swept into the trash, or swept out to the sea by the tides.
Describing the details of every entrant and display would be worthy of a book, but in sad commentary on modern society, there are too many cautions about publicly mentioning the specifics of children doing innocent things, too many controversies if a political opinion feels it wasn’t given equal coverage, and too many opportunities to violate people’s privacy thanks to facial recognition.
Yet, for a few hours, with the help of caring people, a community can spring up, have fun, and carry away memories – whether they happened in a small town, or not.