I have watched many parades over the course of my lifetime, on television and in person, and once as a child rode on my father’s shoulders as we saw the Parkway North High School marching band lead crepe paper and balloon-decorated floats, a humble line of vehicles: a 1967 convertible Corvette Stingray, an antique fire engine, and six flatbed pick-ups, one of which carried retired professional football player Harold Edward “Red” Grange, also nicknamed “The Galloping Ghost.” In St. Louis, Missouri, where I grew up, an event like that brought people out.
My father and I never did much together, but one time, on impulse, we travelled to New York to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, a treacherous 16-hour journey that included a flat tire during a snow storm and a hitchhiker, drunk and car sick in the backseat, who vomited into his hat. But not until a couple of years ago had I ever thought to participate in a parade myself. Doing so felt like going home after a long absence, a connection to a specific time and place in life reestablished.
For weeks I practiced walking on homemade 2 x 4 stilts, tottered about in the relative safety of my backyard, holding onto the limbs of the trees whenever I felt myself lose balance, falling down then picking myself up until walking on them became second nature. I joined online chats with stilt walking enthusiasts and watched YouTube videos to enhance my technique. Simultaneously, I became fascinated by the history. In 1891, for instance, Sylvain Dornon walked from Paris to Moscow on stilts. Whether it is a positive or negative trait I can’t say, but I tend to delve deeply into the things I get interested in, sometimes neglecting mundane tasks I need to take care of, like grocery shopping or the laundry, or, worse, the important people in my life, like my daughter or my now ex-wife, which leads at first to tension and then to conflict.
I strode through Forest Park the Sunday morning before the parade, no one there to judge me at that hour, except, perhaps, the security guard on the golf cart who smoked cigarettes and never said hello. He would have seen a man who, like a giraffe, could touch the limbs of trees. And then a few days later there I was with the other parade participants, the drum corps and the baton twirling squad and troupe of little people on tricycles and unicycles, all of us getting ready in the Shell gas station parking lot–me, a stilt-walking clown who, on our nation’s 240th birthday, waved to bemused spectators lining the sidewalk.
I wish I could better describe the sights and sounds and smells of the parade, but my memories, probably due to the rush of adrenaline, are fragmentary. I do recall, though, an African-American girl in a wheelchair being pushed by — I assume — her older brother, both her legs in casts covered with hundreds of signatures. I saw an elderly woman with braided grey hair down to her waist, a camera hanging from her thin, wrinkled neck. The weight of the camera and big telephoto lens caused her to slouch. I saw a tipsy couple pushing a shopping cart filled with a couple dozen bags of ice.
Looking down upon the parade goers, as I strode beside the marching band, I could not help but think of my own experience as a child and my memory of “Red” Grange. Grange, once a hulking figure on the gridiron, an all-American for the University of Illinois, a Chicago Bear and then a New York Giant, turned, at the moment in which I saw him, into a broken down old man, hand trembling because he had Parkinson’s disease.
“Who is that?” I remember hearing a girl my age ask her mother, because the question had crossed my mind, too. The girl’s mother didn’t know, but said he must be famous, and so the girl looked at Grange for a few seconds, just as I did, and tried to discern what made him special enough to be riding on a parade float on the 4th of July, gave him the benefit of the doubt, albeit briefly, and then, finding nothing she could call remarkable about the man, turned her attention to the ice cream she was eating. To the adults like my father, knowledgeable about football, seeing Grange must have been a thrill. As for me, I didn’t have any context in which I could appreciate him, no way for me to understand what made him a hero.
After the parade, the stilts strapped to the roof of my Jeep, I felt euphoric, because I had accomplished what I had set out to do, but also deflated, because the event hadn’t lived up to my expectations. It wasn’t well attended, and too many spectators seemed indifferent. I didn’t hear much applause, and I caught more people looking at their cellphones than paying attention to what was going on in front of them.
Before heading home, I walked for a while along the grassy shoulder of the two-lane highway which stretched westward, the ground uneven beside the metal guardrail and littered with broken glass, fast food wrappers, styrofoam cups, pieces of wood, and a random assortment of junk that had flown out of the beds of trucks or was cast out of the windows of cars, a dull stretch that traveled 15 miles before connecting to I-75. Nothing notable save the scruffy pines and the corn fields, all of it known to me, all of it unsurprising. I kicked away some dirt with my boot to dislodge a stone and threw it at the metal sign that announced a curve up ahead. High on my stilts, I had felt disguised, visible but also anonymous, as unknowable as the stalks of corn in the field I now passed, and I liked that.
Walking along the highway, the cars rushed past me every now and then: a face appeared then disappeared, a face remembered and then forgotten. I remembered my ex-wife, who would have attended the parade in a show of support for me if we hadn’t split up. Before things fell apart, we had travelled to New Mexico for the hot-air balloon festival in Albuquerque. It had always been her dream to see the wide-open spaces of the American West, to visit the Grand Canyon and especially to experience the desert from the vantage point of a hot-air balloon. The trip was to be a special one, a second honeymoon of sorts, a chance to reconnect and heal our relationship. As we drifted over the desolate landscape, the sound of the wind juxtaposed against the sound of the flame that ignited to fill the balloon with superheated air. The flame appeared above its brass jet like a fantastical, dancing face. When we achieved the desired elevation, the pilot closed the valve and the flame disappeared.
I moved away from the Midwest last summer, and I haven’t seen a parade since. Now I find myself living in a South Florida high rise overlooking palm trees, white beaches, and the ocean, and it’s like living atop a giant stilt. This building, called Coronado, is 50 stories tall, and I rent an apartment on the 49th floor, one shy of the penthouse. I am used to it now, but when I first moved in I felt both excited and exceptional, as I could look out from my balcony and see not only the entire city of Miami, but also the sea stretching to the horizon, uninterrupted, save for the Windward Islands thousands of miles away, all the way to Africa. It’s a crumbling ruin of a building, but I feel safe here, despite the elevators constantly out of order, the carpet in the hallways stained and dated, the remodeling work stalled due to lack of funds. The owners, saddled with debt and assessments, complain bitterly, unable to sell their places for the prices they paid for them. I, however, feel some relief knowing that when my lease is up in November I can move out.