I think it’s safe to say that it’s unique, or at least unusual, among July 4th celebrations. It’s one parade among many, perhaps thousands, on Independence Day. This one is less formulaic, more freewheeling. At only 20 years old, the memories of it intermingle as streams of water do when they join.
Take, for instance, the story of its origin. One version would have it that the first parade came into being spontaneously when two cars got stuck behind Farmer Ralph’s tractor and manure spreader. Ralph had gone to spread the load on a field some distance from the farmstead. Our roads are sort of narrow: two cars can pass, but the bushes on the roadside will brush the mirrors. You get in the tractor with the radio going, bouncing rhythmically up and down as you drive, and you get in the zone. It’s easy to forget that you’re not going as fast as some people want to go, or even that someone or two someones might catch up and want to pass. And so you wind as the road winds on your way to do your work, thinking about how to get the hay in between the July thundershowers and whether the shoats you bought at the sale last week are gaining weight as they should, and the kids, and the warm embrace of your wife. Someone in one of the cars recognized the moment for what it was: a celebration of our nation’s glorious history and accomplishments. Two cars and a manure spreader (make of that what you will). A tradition was born. Next year, a hot rod, a bicycle with red, white and blue crepe paper woven through its spokes , a John Deere “A” tractor with a flag on it, and two cars (one with a cannon on the roof) spontaneously lined up down by the lake entrance.
One of the fun things about this little part of Pennsylvania is that our roads go around in loops. Before there were road signs and GPS and spoilers like that, people would get back in here and go around for hours, trying to get through the mountain the back way or back out to the main highway, either. The park might only be ten miles from you as the crow flies but fifty miles by road. Stop and ask directions, you’re likely to be greeted with a pensive look, maybe a seemingly blank stare, a shake of the head and a sincere “No. This is Pennsylvania. You can’t get there from here.” Confusing in those days, yes. But it makes for a great parade route. I digress.
There is another tale, some might call it a legend, concerning the parade’s origins. The editor of The Courier, that paragon of yellow journalism (motto: if we don’t have the facts, we’ll make some up), lived back here in the corner at the farm with the stone fence. One July fourth, he challenged some friends, allegedly saying “Let’s get on our four-wheelers and go house to house and see how many beers we can get.” So in this version, the first parade was a beer run (or perhaps more accurately, crawl).
There are certain facts that do indeed serve to corroborate (not corroborated cardboard, either) this version. In the early years, the parade remained untamed. The fire department tanker would wantonly drench parade-goers. Likewise, the parade-goers kept their garden hoses at the ready, just in case someone in the parade looked hot. Vodka Jello shots were freely available. Purveyors of fine alcoholic beverages (mostly Bud Light) continued to drive against the grain of the parade, offering libation to anyone in need of such.
But as is too often the case when too much fun is being had, the fun police showed up and quashed the whole thing. It is unclear whether the firehose or the alcohol was to blame, but Mary Jane took a tumble off the back of the hay wagon serving as parade float for the day. She incurred a closed head brain injury or some medical thing like that. And while she’s fine today, the fact that the ambulance had to be called resulted in a visit from the state police who, in their sternest, you-don’t-mess-with-Texas manner were about to haul the whole bunch of us lawless reprobates in for drublic punkenness and being generally, well, lawless and reprobate, even though none of us knew what any of that meant.
Fortunately for all of us, the judge got wind of these goings on. He was one of the parade organizers, and not afraid of a little fun. Unbeknownst to us, he was also practiced in Jedi mind tricks (or maybe it was more like police whispering). He managed to explain that these were not the paraders they (the staties) were after and while the staties were compliant, they used their own mind tricks and whispering to make it clear that things needed to change. The whole thing was like a subsonic growling match between dogs over a food dish. Nobody went to jail, and without any further words, the place of alcohol in the celebration was suddenly quietly minimized.
While it could be argued that the inhibition-lowering function of alcohol was responsible for some amount of the, um, creativity displayed in the parade floats, we all rose to the occasion and continued the nascent slightly wacky tradition. As mentioned with Mary Jane’s incident, hay wagons served as a popular (you might say) platform for floats. So when the Fish & Boat Commission drained the lake because they said the dam was leaking and that was unsafe, one popular motif was the kiddie pool with a fisherman or some other version of a lake-user sitting beside it. On the side of the wagon was a banner to the effect of “Save Colyer Lake.”
There was a guy who drove his log skidder one year, an otherwise white horse painted as a flag, a guy on a recumbent bike. There was social commentary (via float) on the richness of rural life: guns and hunting, motor heads, beer, hard work, family. Because we’re a short distance east of a large university, there was commentary on the absurdity of academia. There’s this odd intermixing of who we used to be (a farming community) and who we’re becoming (a bedroom community for said large university). Usually the fire truck joined the festivities. Several years, there was a Civil War reenactment group. They’d stuff their cannon (mounted on a hay wagon, what else?) with black powder and the proverbial wad (about to be shot) and give us all a loud ba-woom! and a cloud of smoke. There also was always room for a good play on words. Such was the case with the drill team.
Bridgette was a drum major in high school. Batons and such, shiny, high boots with pom-poms you know? She rounded up some young (and not so young) ladies. They all scrounged cordless drills. They took tinker toy bits and chucked them up in the drills. Bridgette showed them how to take a Tinker Toy hub piece and stick little American flags into the holes around the rim of the hub to make a spinny pinwheel. When she hit the drill’s trigger, the flags spun around. The whole bunch of them got dressed up in shiny leotards and marched the parade route, drills in hand, flags spinning. They had the whole thing choreographed to patriotic music, with Bridgette as drum major. They practiced. When she blew her whistle or twirled her baton, the team responded to the cues with classic cheer moves. At one point when the parade came to a standstill (which it did with some frequency), they formed a pyramid. In formation, they whirled their tinker toy flags with a squeeze of their drill’s triggers, dismantled the pyramid, and moved on. Behind Bridgette, two women carried a banner: Colyer Drill Team.
In the early years, when the parade finished the route circuit, we all milled around at the end like there should be something more. The answer was a picnic. In the best patriotic tradition of such things, a committee was formed. Tom B. agreed to take care of the beer (top priority). Tom W. procured memorabilia: hats and t-shirts commemorating the parade and its legacy (at less than 5 years old, the parade already claimed “legacy.”) Tom P., a lawyer, said he’d take on negotiations with the Fish Commission so we could gather at the lake, and get a permit from the township so we could clog up the local roads for a couple of hours. It used to be that you didn’t need a permit to do anything. Those days are gone. When people move here, they want it to be like where they came from. They expect paved, pothole-free roads and then complain when people drive “too fast” (more than twenty miles per hour). They want, as one wag noted, streetlights and sidewalks. They want zoning and rules so they can make their neighbors behave. You could see the effects of their encroachment. Everything had to be organized, I’s dotted and T’s crossed. A little randomness in life is a good thing. On the other hand, some battles are not worth fighting, and organization is not inherently bad. Just so it doesn’t crimp creativity.
Tom P. was successful in his negotiations with the fish folk, so the next year the picnic was held at the boat launch (the lake was still a lake). But the fish guys ordained “no alcohol on the premises,” in direct conflict with the parade’s axiom “beer is good,” and the fish wardens have broader power here than the staties who, as noted above, have their own mind tricks and are not to be trifled with. The upshot, in the best tradition of civil noncompliance, was the covert consumption of the beer. There were cozies and flasks. There was the London Fog with the interior breast pocket suitable for holding the beer. There was the Camelbak with mouth tube (usually for mountain biking, you know) filled with beer. All allowed for discrete consumption. Even at that, though, there were those who were uncomfortable with the necessary deception. So the next year, the whole affair moved across the road like a swarm of honey bees to Braun’s cattail swamp which, in a show of generosity, he had mowed. But it was stubbly and swampy and had prickly dewberries growing down in amongst the stubble. While the site did allow for the consumption of beer, it was deemed unsuitable for other reasons. The search resumed.
Fortunately for us, Jonesey came forward and said we could use his manicured field next year. He lives up at the top of the hill amongst a group whose highest priority in life is maintaining a minimum of five acres of weedless ecological desert known as “lawn.” It is a nice place for a picnic. Its only shortcoming is a complete lack of trees for shade, trees and perfect lawn being largely incompatible. The committee rented a tent for the covered dish food line to compensate for the lack of shade. Several of the rest of us had canopies and tents. Nevin borrowed a bunch of tables from the VFW. Cloyd came up with chairs from the Bretheren church. Now when the parade is over, we all have the chance to share a meal and catch up with our neighbors.
For a couple of years, there was an awards committee, but there were accusations of favoritism (covered in full color by The Courier) and they just laid the whole thing down as not being worth the fuss and aggravation. To raise money for the food tent and beer and ice (life’s true priorities) they cut holes in the top of five gallon spackle buckets that say “Dryvit” on the side and posted signs above the buckets with “Donations” and an arrow pointing down to the bucket. There’s a trash committee, and a set up committee and a tear down committee and a food committee. The parade has “grown up,” some would say. The crazy wild hare-ness has mellowed. It’s still a good time. It’s just more like a block party than a trappers’ roundup.
 It has been documented that we have a statistically significant population of Toms here.