NEWTOWN, Conn. — Ten thousand decisions go into creating a big, boisterous parade. No one knows that better than Robin Buchanan, who for years has juggled the lineup at the Labor Day parade that has jubilantly closed out every Newtown summer for more than five decades.
But never before had this happened: Calls and emails from regulars, folks who always marched, concerned about the most basic decision of all.
“Are you going to have a parade,” they asked her, “this year?”
Meaning: After the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, after the eulogies for 20 first-graders and six educators, amid the drumbeat of news stories across the country and hushed conversations around town, all adding up – still – to incomprehension.
A parade, this year?
On an icy evening back in January, barely a month after the shootings, a small group met with sad hugs to confront that question.
It’s always been a daunting task for the Labor Day Parade Committee to map out the two-hour extravaganza – to arrange the vintage warplane flyovers or get the stagecoach that’s pulled by four matched horses or the ballfield-size American flag, or whatever, to make sure of security and to hash out ways to pay the bills.
But this time, the committee members – two of whom serve out of devotion even though they’re divorced from each other – sat hollow-eyed under the fluorescent lights of a bank conference room. Outside, handmade memorials still fluttered on lampposts. The funerals were still raw memories.
How could you focus on a parade? Who would be the grand marshal, a happy honor normally but surely a heavy burden this time around? What would the theme be? Could it be anything but a memorial? But if so, what kind of parade is that?
“How’s everybody doing?” someone asked. There were tears as they went around the table, answering. It’s a tight group, and this was the first time they’d been together since “the incident.”
Yet they knew that planning a parade is a long process. And they sensed that, somehow, this year it could be one piece of the enormous task facing the shattered town and many beyond it, of finding ways to move forward through grief.
So they got going, staying on the mundane issues of assigning duties and making preliminary decisions.
“I think we’re all kind of nervous about how we proceed,” said Beth Caldwell, the head of the committee, a petite, hard-charging real estate agent by day. Through the months ahead, she would work to maintain a delicate balance – “respectful of what has happened and still offering an avenue of celebration.” Often she’d be the one, when discussions turned somber, who injected a laugh or a cold dose of let’s-keep-moving reality.
“We can say what we want to happen,” she said, assessing the job ahead, “but the parade kind of takes on a life of its own.”
PARADE HAS TRADITION
Newtown’s parade has been a fixture since 4,000 spectators turned out for the first step-off on Sept. 3, 1962. It often falls on a glorious Indian summer day, but even in drizzle, people come out – to see their neighbors march, to catch the veterans’ color guard or the cartwheeling gymnastics team, or just to laugh at parade nonsense, like the grand marshal who once showed up in a gorilla suit and roller-skated the whole route.
Parade mornings start early. At first light, you see cars pulling to the curb all along Main Street, and folks unloading folding chairs and blankets that will line more than a mile of lawns. Having staked out front-row spots, they drive away for a quick breakfast.
Meanwhile, you’ll see a kilted bagpiper or perhaps a couple of Minutemen in full regalia, or maybe even Abe Lincoln in his stovepipe hat, heading north along the sidewalk to join their units. Obliviously, they’ll pass a cheerleader and football player, both also in uniform, hurrying the other way to join theirs.
And blending incongruously with regular traffic, you’ll notice polished Model T’s or finned 1950s Cadillacs with their tops down, Army jeeps and spindly antique farm tractors spouting puffs of black exhaust. They, too, cruise toward their places in line.
Then, with a siren’s whoop and the rattle of snare drums, it starts.
For two hours, the flood of marchers, floats, politicians, clowns, bands and Civil War re-enactors glides past, the latter stopping every once in a while to fire a rifle salute that startles old folks and sets a few babies bawling. There are animals of all kinds, from equestrian units and rescued shelter dogs to alpacas and, sometimes, beribboned cows from a dairy farm on the edge of town.
A couple years ago, volunteers were called to help unfurl and carry “the largest American flag” that stretched across the wide street. Spectators spontaneously joined in, marching along with children dancing in the moving shadow underneath.
Civic groups, businesses and church congregations walk and wave. The schools muster their smiling, shouting herds, including the elementary schools, including, some years, Sandy Hook Elementary.
So this was the parade that marched for five decades, lighting up the town, right up through Labor Day 2012, three months before the world first heard of Newtown.
THE PLANNING STAGES
A foot of snow from a weekend nor’easter covered the ground when the parade committee members got down to business at their second organizational meeting in February.
They went over the items agreed on back in January: Though they’d considered several possible grand marshals – from the police chief to the pastor of St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church, which lost so many children – they’d decided no one person was enough this year. The whole town would marshal this parade, in effect.
They’d settled on the theme during a discussion about qualities they wanted to highlight. Committee secretary Dan Cruson, the town historian who takes a long view, noted, “we’re strong” – meaning the town would get through this. And Caldwell, looking up from taking notes on the suggestions, offered her own: “We are Newtown, marching strong.” Adopted.
They talked about fundraising, about the printed book of sponsors and participants, about coping with a crowd that could be bigger than usual. And, as always, they pondered the lineup order.
What about the first responders’ place this year? As they talked that over, someone mentioned the little boy who’d wanted to be a fireman – and whose funeral drew hundreds of firefighters from everywhere, lined up in respect.
After a silence, they moved on: to the reviewing stand MCs, the politicians who’d turn out, the portable restrooms.
“What do we do with the re-enactors shooting guns?” asked Buchanan, committee vice president, posing a question that had been raised by a Civil War group.
“I think they should be able to shoot their guns,” said Andy Cluff, the treasurer, and Caldwell’s ex-husband.
“I really think that’s going to be an issue, the guns,” Caldwell said.
Others joined in, but there was no decision. They’d take it up later.
At nearly 60 square miles, Newtown is spread out, and over time five volunteer fire companies have formed. They typically lead the parade’s five divisions, one by one, each accompanied by a marching band.
In the past, there’s been head-butting between the chiefs and the parade committee about limiting the number of big trucks, about parade judging and other prickly issues.
At the committee’s March meeting, fire company representatives sat with arms crossed. Everyone knew what they’d done in December; Sandy Hook’s firehouse, near the school, was where parents came that day, where they got the news.
“12/14 changed us all,” Caldwell told the chiefs, who had never met with the committee before. “I’m sorry it’s taken so long to get you here.”
The parade planners explained they expected more entries this year and had to think of ways to control the event’s size. Maybe limit each fire company to three pieces of equipment? That idea was batted down quickly, and a chilly discussion followed.
Drop some out-of-town groups, someone suggested gruffly.
“Get rid of the politicians,” Rob Manna, the fire commission chairman, offered – to welcome laughter.
Kym Stendahl, a former parade committee leader, spoke up, beginning, “I have a friend who lost a daughter…”
As she tried to articulate parade-goers’ thoughts on seeing the firefighters this year, her voice caught: “To look these guys in the face and say – no, I can’t say I know what you went through, but – to look you in the face and say, ‘Thank you.'”
The discussion softened. In the midst of talk about costs, including the major outlay, hiring bands, Joe Farrell of the Hawleyville area department broke in.
“We’ll donate $500,” he said. Treasurer Cluff wrote the number down.
“Just not a kazoo band in front of us,” Farrell added, smiling.
“We won’t put the belly dancers in front of you either,” joked committee member Tom D’Agostino, who works at the bank.
There were several proposals for arranging the fire companies – even a plan for them all to form a single, dramatic opening unit, which was agreed on for a while. In the end, they settled on the old one-per-division lead roles.
One more decision: A group of eight people would be chosen – one each from the fire companies, police department, EMS service and search-and-rescue team – to carry a banner saying, “Newtown’s First Responders.”
Unanimous nods this time. “I like it a lot,” one chief said.
After the American flag, it would be the first real unit of a distinctive parade, now taking shape.
DEALING WITH CHAOS
“Crazy stuff going on in the world… I don’t know about you but I’m having a hard time sleeping.”
Caldwell’s bleak email came a day after the Boston Marathon bombing – and a day before April’s planning meeting for the parade. Concerns about security, always a priority, rose a nervous notch (and rose another one a month later after a shooting in New Orleans that left 19 wounded – at a parade).
A police department liaison promised to advise the committee of any perceived threats, and Caldwell noted that the school shootings had given the local police “a direct pipeline with a lot of agencies.”
The group moved on to other, less harrowing business. Parade attractions were firming up: Sikorsky would be sending a helicopter. Wells Fargo would send its stagecoach.
Buchanan, organizing the lineup, mentioned receiving emails from people identifying themselves as representatives of Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneres, about participating. Already jittery and imagining an even bigger crowd, the committee asked her to “politely decline.” Only later did Buchanan learn the emails were spoofs sent by a friend.
An item of old business demanded attention – and Caldwell brought it up with unusual bluntness.
“There will be no firing of anything” by re-enactors at the parade, she said.
In the discussion, Cluff dissented. Cruson had said previously the re-enactors would go along if asked. Caldwell agreed: “They’ll understand.”
A few days later, she was still thinking about her decision. “I don’t normally step in and say no,” she said.
Many factors went into it, including past complaints and some recent emailed worries, but also a personal experience. “I was at ‘Les Miserables’ in New Haven,” she said, “and really, the gunshots in the musical, that was unsettling to me – and I don’t think people should be subjected to that.”
Not this year.
The May and June parade meetings – the latter held on the bank patio on a balmy night – covered lots of ground, but raising funds was prominent. With lists of all local businesses, committee members divided up contacts.
“I’ll do the banks,” offered Ellie Whalen, retired from a Wall Street career. She always brought cookies or brownies to the meetings, and her generosity became a gag.
Once, someone asked what companies receive in return for a certain level of sponsorship, and the answer came back: website mentions, grandstand space …
“And a drink at Ellie’s,” added committee member Stacey Olszewski, an artist also helping organize the local arts festival.
Through the summer, while some of the parade volunteers pressed businesses for donations or ads, others worked on logistics, and Buchanan rejuggled the growing lineup.
“You can’t have the alpacas near the dogs, and no flatbeds ahead of a nursery school, ’cause they’ll be breathing diesel,” she explained. “And nobody wants to go last. It rotates.”
An organized, open woman whom Caldwell called “a workhorse,” Buchanan marched in the parade as a girl and joined the committee after retiring from 30 years as a psychiatric social worker, often caring for the criminally insane. Her husband, Robert, drives one of the tiny Shriners minicars that are always a hit.
“Today, I’m trying to get three bands,” she said in an interview in July. “Calypso, oompah and, uh, Dixieland.”
She laughed. But her voice changed when she listed others whose presence in the parade showed “how we’re healing.”
A float with the slogan “We Choose Love” is coming from Stratford, hometown of one of the teachers killed. Created by a school there, it’s covered with flowers and butterflies, in tribute to the victims. Everything’s made of multi-colored duct tape, including thousands of leaves. “We bought every roll of green duct tape in Connecticut,” said Eileen Ferrigno of the Barnum Festival, which helped organize volunteers.
Therapy dogs that appeared in town after the shootings to give comfort will march.
So will the Marching Cobras, an award-winning drum line from New York that approached Buchanan, saying, “We’d never heard of Newtown until December.”
The 11th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, Company A, the Civil War group, will march again – but with black armbands and with rifles pointed downward, a gesture of mourning, noted Cruson, whose son, Benjamin, is part of the unit. “They had decided independently that they shouldn’t be firing,” he said.
And as the months passed, even those closest to the tragedy began to think about joining the parade.
Sandy Hook Elementary School – though temporarily moved to a nearby town, its old building awaiting demolition and reconstruction – will be there. Its float will have a large globe and thank-you signs – for support sent from around the world. “It’s baby steps back to whatever kind of normalcy we can get to,” said PTA president Stephanie Burns. “And for the kids, it’ll be … a parade.”
St. Rose Church will march, with a symbolic Tree of Life on its float. Trinity Episcopal Church’s entry will feature “Ben’s Lighthouse,” the charity named for Ben Wheeler, one of the first-graders, and a favorite thing of his. Other groups honoring individual victims will take part.
In July, the Avielle Foundation, named for 6-year-old Avielle Richman, said yes.
“Robin Buchanan sent me a message on Facebook and said, ‘Would you consider this?'” said Avielle’s mother, Jennifer Hensel.
“It just felt right immediately,” she said, then paused. “Grief has its own process,” she went on. “And each family will have to do what’s best for them.”
She and her husband, Jeremy Richman, both scientists, will walk the long parade route behind a banner for the foundation, which supports research into the brain pathologies behind violence. It also promotes community outreach, so that isolated, vulnerable individuals, like the Sandy Hook shooter, are not ignored.
“I feel that a way for us to heal is to pull into the community,” Hensel said.
So they’ll march, thinking of their daughter, her husband said. “Avielle loved parades.”
“I THINK WE ARE GOING TO BE OK”
In August, the planners met twice more, tying up dozens of loose ends. Even the weather: “Put in a good word,” Caldwell implored the clergy who agreed to judge the parade.
Looking back, she thought the committee had found the right balance between respectful remembrance and celebration.
“There’s going to be a lot of bittersweet moments,” she acknowledged.
She was thinking of the memorial floats. “It’s coming face-to-face with these things that allows us to move forward,” she said. “But how can you not smile when those crazy Shriner cars come down the road? I’m sure there’ll be tears, and I’m sure there’ll be a lot of smiles.”
Buchanan, looking back, recalled the worried question, “Are you going to have a parade, this year?”
Now, the answer was clear. Her lineup finally set – and, this year, bigger than ever before – she visualized the scene at the ambulance garage where participants crowd in on Labor Day morning, just before the start. Beauty queens and flag-bearers, clowns and Cub Scouts, buglers, jugglers and barking dogs. And Main Street lined to see Newtown marching again.
She took a breath.
“I think we’re going to be OK.”