By Kevin O’Connor
When I first volunteered to help with Vermont’s annual By the People: Brattleboro Goes Fourth Independence Day parade, I knew our citizens committee would have to secure a few tuba players and twirlers.
But a $600 liability insurance policy?
Or an $850 federal nonprofit status number?
Or rules like, “Because of concerns expressed by local environmental and energy-conservation groups, we request all units limit themselves to one vehicle”?
As fellow march organizers throughout New England can attest, before you can strut down a small-town Main Street, you have to clear some big-time hurdles.
Pack a lunch and some lawn chairs this summer and fall and you can snag a front-row seat at a half-dozen local parades straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting.
Southern Vermont hosts Brattleboro’s parade July 4, Dover’s Blueberry Festival Parade July 28 and Bennington’s Battle Day Parade Aug. 19, while Western Massachusetts will hold Pittsfield’s Independence Day Parade July 4, Lee’s Founders Weekend Hometown Parade Sept. 15 and the Northern Berkshire Fall Foliage Parade Sept. 30.
Local marches may not draw Macy’s coast-to-coast television coverage, but they nonetheless can lasso national attention.
Last year’s Brattleboro event saw the stars of the Discovery Channel’s “Road Trip Masters” film the crowd from a 1968 Cadillac DeVille convertible while a Japanese television crew making a documentary about the late Windham County illustrator Tasha Tudor pointed its cameras right back.
Pittsfield, for its part, has seen itself in USA Today: “Once billed as ‘Your Hometown America Parade,’ the Pittsfield Fourth of July Parade dates back to 1824, when the procession consisted of Revolutionary War veterans and politicians riding in horse-drawn carriages,” the paper reported. “Today’s modern parade has floats, balloons and marching bands, but still retains the small-town, patriotic flavor of its roots.”
And North Adams, host of the Northern Berkshire Fall Foliage Festival and Parade for the past 62 years, has garnered the attention of national papers and websites alike. Most recently, Travelchannel.com included the city and festival as the place to stop in Massachusetts in its “New England Fall Foliage Road Trips” listing. The website states, “The artsy town of North Adams alights with fall fever each year during the Fall Foliage Festival in early October, a celebration of the leaves with a parade and family fun.”
But such perennials don’t sprout organically, I’ve learned firsthand. As a journalist, I shun petitions and bumper stickers in the interest of objectivity. Then again, lines blur in a small town. A decade ago, my father showed me a draft letter to the editor seeking parade helpers and asked if I could donate a little writing polish.
“The annual march,” the letter eventually read, “unites our community while showcasing our diverse citizenry, be it children on bikes, foot or floats; civic and church groups; police, firefighters and rescue workers, artists and activists; and veterans and social-service volunteers.”
Soon I was contributing other skills. The Internal Revenue Service, I discovered, required $850 to confirm that we nights-and-weekends volunteers aren’t an international money-making syndicate but instead an officially sanctioned local nonprofit.
Make that an officially sanctioned local nonprofit $850 in the red before we could legally raise a tax-exempt dime.
A liability insurance agent then insisted we couldn’t celebrate Independence Day without a $600 policy with such freedom-restraining prohibitions as “floats can’t be higher than 12 feet so not to snap overhead wires” and “riders can’t throw candy, flags, balloons or other family-friendly items from moving vehicles so not to hit spectators or encourage them to get too close to turning wheels.”
Since Brattleboro has made national news in the past by shedding its clothes and political inhibitions, the committee also stipulates of its participants, “no graphic depictions of sex, nudity, violence or inflammatory statements.”
The only thing more challenging than getting ready is the rollout itself. To register, participants are required to sign the statement, “you and everyone in your unit agree to adhere to all our rules.” But that doesn’t stop many of the arriving marchers from trying to enter at the exit, rearrange the lineup to their liking or, in one extreme case, light a theatrical smoke bomb mid-march.
That’s why you now can read the new rule, “Absolutely no unofficial sirens, flashing lights, smoke, flames, real or simulated explosives or weaponry, related special effects, costumes or conduct that could cause a spectator and/or safety official to believe there’s an emergency.”
Local police, for their part, are ready to recall how they fined the latter offenders nearly $400 and five driver’s license points for failing to obey safety orders.
But that’s the exception. In the end, the rest comes together — the Little Leaguers and nursing home residents and everyone else marching in between. It’s not the initial vision of the naive newcomer who, dreaming of 76 trombones and 10,000 individually affixed gladiola petals, exclaimed at our first organizing meeting: “No more Sousa marches on car stereos or pickups strung with crepe paper!”
Then again, anything can happen. One year, after finally dialing down expectations from Rose Parade heights, I sent a press release to the local paper, only to see it unexpectedly and inexplicably reprinted on the website of a sister publication: the Pasadena Star-News.
See for yourself …
Southern Vermont, for its part, will hold three popular marches:
July 4: Brattleboro’s Independence Day parade, 10 a.m., facebook.com/BrattleboroGoesFourth
July 28: Dover’s Blueberry Festival Parade, 11 a.m., vermontblueberry.com
Aug. 19: Bennington’s Battle Day Parade, 12:30 p.m., betterbennington.org
The Berkshires are set to host three well-known parades this summer and fall:
July 4: Pittsfield’s Independence Day Parade, 10 a.m., pittsfieldparade.com
Sept. 15: Lee’s Founders Weekend Hometown Parade, 10 a.m., leechamber.org/festivals
Sept. 30: Northern Berkshire Fall Foliage Parade, 1 p.m., 1berkshire.com/calendar/fall-foliage-parade/