August 31, 2013

With parade, Newtown reflects 'how we're healing'


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This Aug. 14, 2013, photo shows seven members of the Labor Day Parade Committee in Newtown, Conn. Seated from left are Tom D'Agostino, Robin Buchanan, Beth Caldwell and Dan Cruson. Standing from left are Brian Amey, Ellie Whalen and Stacey Olszewski. Caldwell, the head of the committee, believes they had found the right balance between respectful remembrance of the December shooting and celebration at the annual end-of-the-summer event that comes nearly nine months after shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School left 26 dead, 20 of them children.


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.


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.

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