In small Midwestern towns there is a ritual that comes every fall. Sometimes it happens earlier in the first days of the school year; sometimes a bit later. But it comes around at some point when the summer has waned and the leaves are just beginning to turn color or they are already past their prime and starting to fall. The smaller the town, it seems, the bigger a deal the ritual is.
Homecoming is the holy of holies of the football season. Even if your town’s high school has not had a winning season in living memory. The town’s alumni come back, some from far away and from graduating classes long, long ago. There are parties and balls all over town; cookouts and the formal high school coronation ball. Class reunions and some of the local bars set up beer gardens. In the town I live in there is even a special ball for the people who did not graduate from our high school, so they will not feel left out.
The big event is the game itself, of course. For it is the entire reason for all the hoopla in the first place. But there is another event that is looked forward to by everyone, even if they are not planning on watching the local team get beaten again. That event is the Homecoming parade, of course.
The town goes all out for the event. The storefronts are decorated with various colorful exhortations to the football team to go out and win. They do this every year even though nobody can remember the team ever having actually taken any of the advice. There is a whirl of activity as floats are built and decorated. Every, single grade in the school system has its own float. So do many local businesses. Signs go up all over town providing further exhortations to the team. None of that advice has ever been listened to, either, but the signs are colorful and plentiful nonetheless.
As the time for the parade approaches on the big day, people begin arriving at the town square. A few people here and there plant their lawn chairs to stake out the best spots. Then a trickle more arrives, likewise staking their claims. Soon there are a lot of lawn chairs and the ranks of people swell. Many of the older people in town have already arrived, for they do love their parade and they are pretty picky about where they watch it from. The crowd grows until it is shoulder to shoulder, and then continues to increase as more come in behind them.
It is a beautiful fall day; a lucky year. Sunny and mild with enough of a breeze so it does not get too hot standing in the sun; it is just about perfect. People wait patiently and the noise level grows. Children play and run, old friends chat and laugh. Some people haven’t seen one another in years but pick up conversations where they left off all those years ago. It is Homecoming, after all. Then suddenly there is the sound of wailing sirens. The parade is starting young children rush to the front of the crowd to sit at the curbs between their parents legs or clamber onto a father’s shoulders.
The county Sheriff leads off with his car all flashing lights and blaring siren; an earsplitting opening to the parade. The city police follow and see if they can cause hearing loss as well. Then the local American Legion post color guard marches up with the colors. And every single person on the square rises to their feet and presses their hand over their heart (veterans salute instead) as the national anthem is played.
Then marching band after marching band passes in review. The floats, beautiful in their amateurish enthusiasm carrying scads of school children, reunion classes, local politicians, local political hopefuls and just about anyone who wants to ride on one of them. Waves and smiles are exchanged; candy is thrown out to small children. Halfway through the parade the announcer’s microphone dies and we have to guess or strain or eyes to see who is on the floats as they pass.
Then it is all over. The crowd disperses talking with one another, waving goodbye to friends and acquaintances. For all the crush of people it does not take long for the crowd to disperse. After all the work and bustle and anticipation, the event is over in an hour or so. But that is the beauty of Homecoming and the annual parade. It happens every year. And we will do this all again.
© 2006, Gaius